Embracing complexity means working with inherent uncertainty rather than trying to engineer it out. The act of doing so can help leaders discover and exploit new opportunities.
The Magic Roundabout in England (pictured) is an example of how complexity was embraced to design one of the most effective traffic management systems in the country.
The roundabout has five outside roundabouts going clockwise (the right way in the UK), while the middle roundabout goes anti-clockwise. There are very few guide for navigating it beyond a few lines on the road: there are no traffic lights and no road-side signs. So why does it work?
A roundabout was originally sketched out to meet the demands of a very busy intersection: junctions leading to motorways, the centre of a nearby town, a hospital, football ground, and even a route to protect a grade 2 listed building. Yet, rather than settling on one configuration the designers embraced complexity to create a design that’s successfully been in use for over 40 years now.
When the roundabout was first opened to traffic its lines were not permanently marked out. Police officers were stationed at each mini-roundabout to observe how drivers navigated it. As patterns of driver activity emerged adjustments were made to support those that were beneficial (that kept traffic flowing) while negative pattens (creating bottlenecks) were dampened.
The result was a design that works with how people drive safely, rather than trying to impose safety through rules. The design - by the novelty factor and an absence of conventional markings - forces drivers to slow down and become more aware other surroundings: they give way to cars already on the roundabout, keep inside the lines on the road and avoid collisions.
The roundabout puts the emphasis on safe and effective decision-making on the drivers rather than distant designers. What this produces is ‘emergent behaviour’ - people responding to what’s really happening as opposed to having their action planned well in advance.
The result is that the roundabout sees very few accidents, (as cars go very slow) and no traffic jams, even in rush hour (as there are multiple ways to navigate it, which people learn as they become experienced driving through it) the entire system is more effective for everyone.
For those - like me - who live in cities with horrendous traffic problems, caused by the type of centrally-planned traffic management ‘solutions’ parodied in the picture of the art installation below - the attraction of embracing complexity for discovering new options, rather than trying to design it away for the sake of centrally-planned order, becomes obvious.
Complexity isn’t something we need to fear, ‘cut through’ or destroy in order to manage. Complexity is simple - the challenge comes from our poor understanding of it.
Take this very short video (best watched with sound). The incredible coordination, movement and responsiveness of this group doesn’t come from following complicated rules proscribed by centralised management but by following of a simple set of heuristics:
Managing complexity requires a new mind-set.
In complex systems patterns of behaviour emerge through interactions between people and surroundings that can rapidly escalate if they find reinforcement. This is why a peaceful crowd can turn into a hateful mob in seconds. These shifts are also often difficult to predict beforehand.
Fortunately the reverse is also true. Crowds can also be 'wiser' than any person within it. This phenomenon was proven 100 years ago at a farmer's market in England and has been used since by Nobel peace prize winners to help the poor. Simple constraints make it work, but the phenomenon is consistent.
The 'wisdom of crowds' matters because all of us - regardless of who we are - are subject to mental biases that distort the information we take in. For example, count the number of F’s in the following text:
“Finished files are the result of years of scientific study combined with the experience of years.”Three?
Actually there are six F's here. This isn't a brain failure - there are evolutionary reasons why we don't see everything - it's cognitive bias and highlights the importance of taking many perspectives before acting.
For managing complex systems requires learning how to spot weak signals of emerging trends as early as you can. If you detect positive signals early enough you can amplify those and ride that wave ahead of your rivals. While negative signals can be quickly disrupted before they become threats that overwhelm you.
Tapping the wisdom of crowds may be the smartest decision leaders can make today
Faced with uncertainty leaders, especially ones far away in head offices, respond with increased control: alignment is sought, standards are mandated, discretionary spending slashed, and variation from pre-planned budget must be explained. The result - too often - is an organisation in the periphery that is more brittle and clumsy; unable to respond as fast as rivals to emerging opportunities, harming its capacity to survive and thrive in challenging times.
Despite having 21st century tools, management mindsets are stuck in the 20th century. Economies of scale and scope, effectiveness through efficiency, and survival of the fittest dominate. But even a cursory glance at any ecosystem (a natural or manmade one - like an economy) shows that it’s not the fittest that prosper but the ones best able to adapt to local conditions. This explains why giant tortoises have prospered for millions of years (an ability to adapt to a changing environment - not because they are a master race) or why Nokia and RIM didn’t, despite being market leaders.
Centralised decision-making - the 'head office head lock' - makes succeeding on the front line harder
For a century management thinking has been shaped by the metaphor of ‘the organisation as machine’ with the fastest and most efficient best placed to succeed. Aspirational targets are imposed, performance tolerances (KPIs) established, processes re-engineered for optimisation, and the people (the cogs) aligned. But when driving a speed boat in a storm the sea usually wins. Reaching safe harbour requires a ship for all seasons, but this would be a major feat of engineering - and prohibitively expensive in this climate. Yet there is a natural, cheaper alternative.
An organisation, like any organic group (e.g. a bee hive, a human brain, a stock market, the global economy) is a complex adaptive system (CAS). This means it has an inbuilt capacity to adapt intelligently to change at high speed (think about brain functionality, or sudden shifts in stock prices in response to good/bad news). It’s change management without the coercion and resistance.
A CAS is best understood in three parts (see the picture above):
The major insight here is that increased organisational variation (loosely-coupled alignment) improves the range of locally appropriate options leaders can select from to respond to unpredictable circumstances
Like human consciousness, each organisation has it’s own higher system (it’s culture, or health) that enables it to rapidly and appropriately respond to local circumstances. And just as attempts to re-engineer a brain would destroy its consciousness, head office attempts to engineer local organisational capacity from afar risks retarding local capability to better adapt to local circumstances than rivals - something needed now more than ever.
It’s time to stop engineering organisations and start cultivating them instead.
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