Science accepts Darwin’s theory of evolution - in nature solutions emerge from trial and error. Religion believes in creation - the world being designed and set forth by an omnipotent force. In devising strategy from on high, imposing best practice top down and maintaining a power distance from ordinary workers are modern business leaders more creationist that scientific in outlook? And what should an organisation run along Darwinian principles look like anyway?
Complexity theory is currently the closest thing we have to a guide for organisations wanting to harness nature's power for surviving and thriving - as observed by Darwin. Emerging out of the natural sciences over the last few decades complexity theory provides leaders a framework in how to unleash the coiled power of their organisations: rejecting the focus on engineering outcomes, best practice dogma, and reducing humans beings - who drive progress through creating and sharing knowledge - to mere resources.
When actors in a system freely interact they create patterns (in the form of narratives) that make sense of what’s happening around them (opportunity and threats) and what can be done about it. A Darwinian leader listens intently for these insights and provides resources to any that are coherent (i.e. ideas that appear to have a good chance of solving a specific challenge). But this is only half the story. The leader will also have to develop feedback loops - free of delay and distortion - to monitor progress regularly (e.g. every few days or weeks) to see whether the ideas have become more coherent or not (i.e. delivering on self-established targets). Those that are receive more support, those that aren’t are starved to death. This is the Darwinian principle - variation and selection - the law of evolution.
Darwinian leadership requires the wisdom of the old man in the Buddhist parable who falls into the Great Yellow River. It rapidly sweeps him downstream in its raging currents, but from a lifetime of experience he knows the river is more powerful and should he fight against it, it will tire him quickly and he'll drown. Instead he concentrates on holding his breath when the current pulls him under to ready himself to jump out when, along its swirling path, it pushes him towards the river bank. Leaders must also recognise the real limits of their power and learn to navigate currents effectively - readying for the real opportunity as it arises.
The natural world, which we are all inextricably part of, despite the earnest refutal of creationists (and increasingly business gurus), can only be harnessed and ridden, not controlled or managed. Its illusionary nature - that such complexity emerges from such simple rules as 'variation and selection' - means we devise creation myths to build meaning where randomness seems to exist. This attribution error is made by many business leaders and middle-managers who, insecure in the belief that the world is actually beyond their control, develop strategies to create the illusion of certainty; structures to perpetuate it; and reduce their biggest assets - knowledge workers - to mere (human) resources to render them easy to control, measure and motivate.
It's time for organisations to recognise the Great River they traverse isn’t subject to their own myth-making, but has a power of its own that can only be navigated by trial and error.
© Narrative Insights (2013--2018)
Part of the global Cognitive Edge & Cynefin Centre network
"It ain't what you don't know that gets you in trouble; it's what you think you know for sure that just ain't so"
(Attributed to Mark Twain)