5 comments on “Systems, Complexity, and Staff Realities

  1. I don’t like the Cynefin picture, because it leaves out human perception. Situations are not intrinsically chaotic or simple: they are perceived as chaotic or simple.

    For instance, your “simplistic” assessment of the Response manager, shows that the situation is indeed simple. There’s only one sensible option for her to take.

    On the other hand, if you read analyses of the same management systems you deem “simple” by the authors in Lean Manufacturing or Theory of Constraints, you’ll find that these “simple” systems are in fact chaotic. (And most people trapped in corporations will tell you that there’s chaos, even in the centre of a big city.)

    So simple or chaotic depends wholly on who is doing the analysis, and how.

    I do understand your point about the misfit between corporate systems and post-disaster or other development contexts. This is usually just poor delegation. In contrast, Nordstrom, a big US department store, has an Employee Handbook the entire contents of which are as follows:

    “Welcome to Nordstrom

    “We’re glad to have you with our Company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.

    “Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.

    “Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.”

    Trying to frame all this grounded, earthy, sensible management stuff in terms of “complexity science” just makes the day that change can happen that much farther away… because it makes the problems and solutions seem unnecessarily abstract and (dare I say it) complicated.

    • Thanks for your response David- I found it really interesting and good food for thought. What I perhaps find most interesting is that despite the fact that you don’t agree with the framework of the argument, you reach the same conclusion that I would support- basically, give the front-end staff resources, autonomy and principles, and trust them to work the rest out based on their own experience, judgement and personality. So long as you have the right staff (ie. in Nordstrom’s case, staff who understand how to implement outstanding customer service), don’t bog them down with systems. It’s a great example you provide.

      Interesting assertion too that a context’s complexity changes with perception. I’ll have to do some more thinking/reading on that one, evidently. While I admit that the relief manager example I gave was simplistic for the purpose of illustrating the narrative, the reality is that our relief manager is in fact facing dozens- sometimes hundreds- of these decisions every day, with imperfect knowledge, unknowable implications, and constantly shifting stakes, values, and stakeholders. I don’t think there is any perception that would argue that her context is Simple, however much we might simplify it for the purpose of explanation.

      Likewise, while I (as a blogger) might take some liberties classifying systems as one context or another, the Cynefin literature actually provides much more empirical and repeatable guidelines around what is Simple, Complex, Chaotic and so-forth, removing a good deal of (although not all) the subjectivity and perception from the mix.

      Ultimately, the idea behind this topic (and hopefully others to come) isn’t so much to obfuscate a very clear narrative/goal (like the one you outlined courtesy of Nordstrom) with a whole load of difficult procedure. It’s more to try and shake people out of their traditional ways of thinking, recognize that systems we use aren’t appropriate to context, and offer them one particular way of looking at the world which I hope will get them to try something different. The request for people to provide stories of their own experience of having to work around inconvenient systems is exactly to try and overcome some of the risks of an abstract argument. Your comment has been a helpful addition to that process, so I thank you.



  2. Just for the record it doesn’t leave out human perception. You might want to read up on its social construction using narrative from the organisations own history and perception of its possible futures. Its also more than possible for one group of people to see something as complicated while for others its simple. That said, while perception is a part of this, it is also the case that some systems are inherently complex. Grounding something in an organisations own perception falls into the earthy and practical category.

    Refusing to recognise that complex systems are inherently different from complicated ones will put off for ever the day that change can happen

  3. I’m intrigued by your analysis and application of Cynefin to relief organizations. The tensions between the organizational cost and burdens imposed on the work and the measurement and reporting required to show progress are quite real. The objective of fairness is a difficult one to fulfill, and I suspect the work required is a major cause of the high cost and great inefficiencies of governments and related organizations. Impartiality is found only through retrospective coherence, which is an indicator, per Dave Snowden’s writings, that the system is operating in the chaotic domain.

    I wonder whether viewing this operational framework through an organizational lens is the best unit of analysis. An organization is certainly a complex or chaotic system, but it also is a social network. And further, the organization embedded in its environment is a social network. The two social networks co-evolve, leading to emergence as the operational governor. We can assess the networks with SNA, and if we are very careful we might be able to separate the internal perceptions from the external ones. However, these are probably only localized and transient phenomena; at best we have captured a metastable state and not the true nature of the situation.

    We might be able to search for a better picture by considering how social networks “work”. A functional social network (think community of practice) will manage individual member’s behaviors. The network self-polices itself quickly and effectively. In comparison, a dysfunctional social network will amplify bad behaviors, forming clans to enforce discipline and encouraging groupthink and other biases in information handling. I believe we tend to lump the behavior and knowledge aspects of social network activity into “culture” as a shortcut for pattern matching purposes. This makes it hard to assess whether we are looking at a functional or dysfunctional group. Also, because we are dealing with cultural patterns (e.g. stereotypes), we in turn have a hard time pinning down the drift of the two cultures, the organization’s and environment’s, that occurs over time.

    On top of all this we have as Dave suggests the social construction of meaning. Sensemaking is subject to stereotypes and to privilege and it takes a very deliberate opening up or reaching out for diversity in order to make sense of changing perceptions. I wonder if this reflects a unique mode of sensemaking in the complex/chaotic domains.

    I wonder how your diagnosis and outcomes might be different if you were to search for results through a lens of the social network vice the organization.

  4. Pingback: Translating Complexity into Manageable Action « Engaging Internationally

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