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:

Change is a quality, not an object.

Change is not an object to be driven, but is a quality of any complex self-organising system. The job of the manager is to engage with the complex change that is already taking place. If change is a car then it was already on the track before I got involved.

The job of a manager is more the job of a mechanic than of a driver. A mechanic knows that there are many more factors at play than their individual contribution, and recognises the need to work within these constraints.

The title of Donella Meadow’s 2001 article “Dancing with Systems” sums it all up. Notice what her title is not. It’s not “Dragging Systems Around”. It’s not “Changing Systems”. I’m not saying that systems can’t change – they can and do. But I needed to realise that there were many factors impacting my organisation apart from me. I couldn’t dance with the other players and I needed to learn how.

Engaging with change is like engaging with childbirth – we can’t stop it, but we can unwrap the umbilical cord from around the neck of the baby and assist with a safe delivery.

Philip SouthwellThis is a guest post from Philip Southwell who runs the web design company Zoothink and moonlights as a Maths Teacher by day.

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