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?
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.
With Myron Rogers, I’ve been exploring a set of characteristics of living systems that I’ve found helpful. They have guided me in making sense of the circumstances I find myself in and in designing approaches whereby people can work with a living system rather than in spite of it. What emerges is what we call ‘The Big Five’ characteristics;
Complex problems may not have solutions. You can maybe make them better or worse, but they remain unresolved and stubbornly recalcitrant. So we add another expert solution and before we know it we are entangled in a mesh of treaties, agreements, standards, protocols and laws that all build upon each other to simply create more and more unintended consequences, forever distant in time and space. Expert solutions cannot resolve complex problems. they can make them better, they can also store up problems for years to come.
To ask how we become aware of what is happening in a living system is to enquire into the consciousness of that system. The system’s capacity to take intentional action is linked to its level of consciousness. Or to put it simply it is linked to what it knows about itself. Cognition is therefore a critical characteristic of a living system and forms one of our ‘Big Five’ characteristics.
The knowledge and know-how about how to make the change work are retained in the network that created them, not in the technical solution that arises. You cannot roll-out a network. It is like picking up a jigsaw to move it to another table. Some clusters might stick together but mostly it breaks up, falls apart and you may even lose important pieces in the carpet!
Our identity is inevitably shaped by our history. The changes we have been through to arrive where we are now determine our form in the world. They also determine how we make sense of our environment and react to new situations. This self referencing behaviour is one of our ‘Big Five’ and is entirely consistent with a view of organisations as living things.