Complex Systems and Change Management – Guest Post

Complex Systems and Change Management – A guest post by Philip Southwell

I used to think that I could drive change like Michael Schumacher used to drive a Ferrari. If I drove with consummate skill I would take the corners smoothly, overtake competitors and win the drivers’ championship. How wrong was I.

This approach led to frustration. Why wouldn’t people do what I wanted? Why couldn’t people see that the change I was advocating would further the aims of the organisation?

My frustration came because I didn’t realise one simple fact: Continue reading

Chase the Cool

I’ve had this saying going for a few months now, where I tell my friends that they need to ‘Chase the Cool’. The concept has had some incubation, and now I think I’m at the point I can walk people through behind my new ethos, my new compass, on what I should and should not aspire to do, or be. I hope you like it and find it useful.

To help illustrate the point I’ll use a real life story. It’s easy to find many stories that match, but for this example, we’ll pick the story of the PS22 Primary School Chorus in Staten Island, New York. Know of it?

Here’s a sample:

PS22 Chorus performing ‘Walking on a dream’ by Empire of the Sun.

The origins of the PS22 Chorus are very humble. It started with the music teacher, Mr Breinberg thinking, wouldn’t it be cool to engage the kids via music? Wouldn’t it be cool to record the kids singing covers of modern songs, songs that probably aren’t normally sung in schools?

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Dancing with Systems – Donella Meadows

The late Donella Meadows wrote an interesting article titled ‘Dancing with Systems’ that provides a fourteen recommendations on how to approach the change of complex systems.

Newtonian thinking says by breaking down a system into smaller parts, and then understanding them, we will understand the system as a whole. Thinking about it in this way assumes that the system is certain, predictable, obeys known rules and laws, and has linear causation.

The problem is however, that most systems we deal with as managers do not meet these assumptions. Some examples are the workplace culture, company performance, or even an individual’s performance. All are complex systems that cannot be controlled by Newtonian thinking. Our toolkit to understand and deal with this needs another approach.

This is where complex systems theory can help. Complex systems are said to contain uncertainty, unpredictability, non-linear causation and emergent behaviour.

The core idea being that complex systems cannot be properly understood in the Newtonian way we are so used to thinking in. This is where ‘Dancing with Systems’ comes in.

Meadows states that “We exaggerate our own ability to change the world”, and that “the idea of making a complex system do just what you want it to do can be achieved only temporarily, at best”.

You can’t understand, predict and control a complex system.

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