A Simpler Way–a brief meditation on organizations as living systems. The book was born from our years long deepening exploration into the implications of living systems theory for social systems. If our organisations are not machines, but alive and subject to the same dynamics as all life, what would be possible? How would we understand what we are seeing and experiencing in institutional life? What would we do if we were working with the dynamics of life, rather than against them?
Here, in the video and transcript) below, John Atkinson in conversation with Stacey Hale at Design4Emergence, discusses Complexity in Systems. Answering questions such as: Any advice on keeping work in a complex ecosystem within manageable boundaries? True or false: “There are no best practices.” How do you put people at ease in a world obsessed with big data? You’re not saying to abandon strategy? Are you talking about designing an attractor? What do you say to a brand new consultant who wants to apply the Big Five of living systems to an organizational problem to create change? How much does it matter that people know that you’re pulling from the principles of biological systems to design organizational change?
We as human beings have a need for control. It’s in our biology and it’s part of our survival. Over millennia of human existence we have developed a plethora of techniques, skills and practices that allow us in subtle and brutal ways to control our environment and ourselves. Yet in seeking to control we loose so much. In assuaging our fears, living the same rules, the same ways, we don’t experience the dance that is our potential.
When we think of our world all too often we think of it, ourselves, and our systems as an ordered thing. We make these maps, in our minds and in the minds of our organisations as places made up of ordered linear, perhaps even hierarchical constructs of straight lines and hard edges. An image we try to understand, but that in no real way reflects the nature of reality.
For reality is far different, it’s dynamic, it shifts, and it’s not straight at all. Much is invisible, and what we see is simply a glimpse of a surface of what may be true. Nature is astounding both in its complexity and in its simplicity. It is one.
Those boundaries we draw or even perhaps feel are in fact just constructs of our mechanical minds in a world craving order from chaos. But what if, Watts asks, those boundaries don’t even exist at all?
‘Reality is a marvellous system of wiggles’. And trying to straighten them out to fit into our need for order simply creates a false map that is no reality at all. (Introduced by Emma Loftus)
I used to think of my body as nothing more than a machine. A series of components that function in predictable and purely mechanical ways to get a job done. To hold me, nourish me and keep me alive. I was floundering around in a body that felt old, with a mind devoid of spark. And then something clicked. ‘What if’? I thought ‘Everything is connected’? It was with a wild leap of faith and not without some imagination that I began developing a picture of myself as a whole physical being. A machine that pulses. But here’s the thing, you and the world we are all in is a system too. And should we treat our world as a mechanistic thing, made up of a series of separate components?
This way of thinking is convenient. It gives us quick fix possibilities; address the faulty component, treat the symptoms and move on. But what if, just like me, everything in this world is connected in minutely, infinitely, unfathomable, impossible ways? All of them beautiful. (By Emma Loftus)
Every time we change our business or political structures, we provoke questions about our identity. Who really are we? What matters to us? How must we now connect? Here John Atkinson explores issues of identity and relationships in the light of the U.K. Brexit vote and the US 4th of July celebrations.
Whenever you try to reduce a complex dilemma to a binary issue you are wrong. The ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ question asked of the British people this week was therefore always incomplete. Politics in its most visible and visceral form tries to resolve issues in this way. The Brexit vote in the UK has brought to the fore tough questions of identity, relationships and information. These are Myron Roger’s dynamics of organising. He reminds us that it is by addressing issues at this level that meaning is made, trust is rebuilt and we take appropriate action. Only then will good policy, structures and protocols be formed. (By John Atkinson)
When we think about operating in systems, doing systems thinking, we seek to find and understand how systems work and how we may work within them. But of course there is another question we need to ask when considering this way of thinking. And that something is why? Why do we need to think in this holistic tangled way in the first place? When for the most, our lives and the organisations, tasks, roles and people within them, function perfectly well in the very lightness of thinking that is simple and linear, A to B thinking. (By Emma Loftus)
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
The way that we have set about delivering this quality has led to an environment where improvements to processes and systems are typically gradual and linear — focusing on reducing waste and variability. Our ability to learn and adapt fast is seriously hampered by this approach. We have not paid enough attention to leveraging the differences we have as human beings — and how we when building on our differences can create much better solutions to our daily work and objectives.
It’s a sad fact that autism is still viewed as a disability. A disorder. That mis-wiring that characterises the neurobiological connections (or often lack there of) in the autist’s brain is at best considered a failing. But what if we look at autism differently? The absolute chaos of normal everyday life that drop-kicks those with autism and sensory disorder into meltdown and withdrawal, is in fact a super-power. This is systems thinking at its absolute beautiful edge, where every detail of the world stands out in excruciating, wondrous detail that can’t be ignored. This response to the unfathomable, the ability to absorb obscurity and sense pattern is not rigidity at all. It’s simply gorgeously mind-blowing. (By Emma Loftus.)
Here are some sound pieces of advice: the more you know about a system, the better you are at predicting its behavior. If you want a large outcome, then put a large amount of effort into the process. For the best execution, plan ahead. These are all powerful strategies – but only if you are dealing with a linear system. For a complex system, this approach spells disaster
A circus is a system of complex, beautiful chaos, but sometimes the chaos becomes messy. It’s easy as someone who cares deeply to want to control the monkeys and control the mess, seeking once more the simplicity of the complex chaos of a perfectly performing circus. (By Emma Loftus.)
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.
The Ecological Systems theory states that human development is influenced by the different types of environmental systems. Formulated by famous psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, this theory helps us understand why we may behave differently when we compare our behavior in the presence of our family and our behavior when we are in school or at work.