By John Atkinson. If we genuinely believe the world to be a complex place, we need to consciously embrace that complexity, not suppress it. Once we do this, we realise we cannot resolve our activity into standardised processes without forever generating unintended consequences to our actions. Recognising the world we live in as a complex environment doesn’t allow us to control it
From John Atkinson. I get repeatedly asked about the difference between working with the ecosystem (or human system) and working with formal organisations. For me this is largely a perceptual difference and yet perception is a critical and deeply influential thing.
From John Atkinson. Cause and effect analysis is quite hard. The connection between our actions and their impact can sometimes be quite obscure. Events will be explained away according to the version of history that is prevalent in the organisation, the stories we always tell. Each organisation has these and they are more than familiar, peopled with heroes who saved us and fools whose decisions nearly wrecked us.
For me, as a systems thinker, I see group function as equivalent to a collective mind, the connections and relationships between people and their environment coming together to create a unique collective consciousness that makes sense of the each situation and from it derive appropriate actions. If you cannot reproduce these connections in a single brain, can you recreate them across a community?
When I started to work with places, asking how their systems work, explicitly, you get something that looks like this, we have all seen them. This is your standard organisational chart. There are all sorts of assumptions about how things work, that are not necessarily helpful, they are limited things.Trying to run them as big organisational charts doesn’t work, it is a very mechanistic way of thinking. It has its roots in the industrial revolution where people sat on the end of a machine and serviced them to get a job done.
Understanding living systems can seem impossible. Working out how all the inter-dependencies and relationships work leads into a morass of aligned and conflicting theories and practices. Trying to make sense of how these could reasonably help in addressing workplace questions becomes even more confusing. Instead of making things better, looking at our worlds as living systems seems to make them ever more complicated and confusing. Where we thought we had certainty, we find ourself faced with differing perspectives and interpretations. Where we thought we had control, it seems to turn into an illusion and our influence appears therefore to fade. Having glimpsed this world we then feel caught between the more convincing reality it describes and the comfort of what we thought we knew. Navigating such a mess can be unsettling.
The world in which we live and work feels increasingly complex. We use phones, branded by Apple but made by a huge variety of different companies based in countries all over the world. Once on them we have the choice of so many things to do, so many ways to link with our world, through cameras, social networks, maps and even talking to people we can see on the far side of the world. There has never been access to so much data to inform the choices we make and yet the big decisions get no easier, perhaps paradoxically even harder to make. To get some things done it requires an interwoven mix of relationships between people, organisations and things to come together and produce the outcome we want. You may argue it was always thus, but the scale of complexity has grown at an ever expanding rate.