Friday, March 02, 2007

Complexity Theory for regular folks- pt 1

The subtitle for this post should probably be: And why should i care anyway??

Authors Brenda Zimmerman, Frances Westley and Michael Quinn Patton give a compelling and highly readable answer in their new book, "Getting to Maybe" (Random House Canada, 2006). The other really cool thing about this book is that two of its authors are Canadian. Woohoo!

The short answer to why care about complexity: because it's how the world works and perhaps more importantly to many of us--it's how little old us can change the world--from where we are--NOW.

I have been working away in my brain on a blog post about working on the edge. And the edge i have been working on is all about complexity. It is the rub i find everyday in my conversations with leaders of organizations, with other consultants and with my friends and neighbours. Most of us have been taught skills and conditioning to help us thrive in a complicated world. Those skills are all about organizing, managing, and controlling. We are increasingly frustrated when these skills don't produce the results we are looking for.

In my work and in my life i am constantly communicating that the world has changed. We now live in the midst of complexity. And that calls for a very different skill set. A skill set that is often at odds with the way we have worked and lived in the past.

Over the next little while i want to share with you some of the skills, competencies, and mindsets (and reactions to them) that i am seeing emerge. I will also share the insights i am gathering from reading , "Getting to Maybe". And i will try to make the science behind complexity theory accessible to those of you for whom the words strange attractor, iteration, fractal, and scalar are seldom found in your recreational reading.

To begin, the number one reaction i see when folks start to explore working in ways that meet the demands of complexity is fear. This fear can manifest as resistance, hostility, anger, disbelief, mistrust. I believe that the fear has two main sources: certainty and grief.

What do I mean by certainty? When we make decisions, we like to feel that we have based them on an adequate amount of data that we can trust. When working with complexity, we often have to make decisions before we have that perfect data--in order to benefit from emerging trends and patterns. This can feel very uncomfortable--like leaping from a ledge without knowing what is below you. Even if the jump is a relatively short one, we all want to know that we are going to be okay--and that is something we can't know until we've landed. Some skills to cultivate: comfort with risk, ability to function with paradox, flow, letting go, intuition, pattern seeking, trust.

What do i mean by grief? In the past few months i have had the chance to learn a lot about grief--especially about grief as it is experienced by children. And of course, we are all children. What i have learned is that change, ALL and ANY change evokes the grief response. Think about that. In all change there is a loss--even if there is also a gain. Now consider the pace of change in the past 30 years. Birgitt Williams says, "there is always grief in the room". What does grief look like? Resistance, denial, anger, depression. When folks begin to understand that clarity is no longer possible (replaced by more relative qualities like discernment) and that paradox, risk, and flow are the new names of the game-most of us are looking at a truckload of loss. Some skills to cultivate: compassion, openness, letting go, resting down, faith in others and self.

So what are the new skills, attitudes and competencies for living in a complex world? For starters, as Westley et al state, "Getting to maybe has almost nothing to do with certainty and everything to do with serendipity, conviction, risk taking, and faith." Not very popular words in the offices of the world.

I hope together we can explore more of these new ways of thinking, living, working--being--over the coming weeks and perhaps generate a great resource for us all.

In the next post i will take a look at some of the jargon of complexity. Strange attractors, and scalar invariance. And why would you care? Because attractors are the tipping points of the system and scalar invariance helps you spot patterns at the micro level that can promote change at the macro level. Can't wait, can you ;)

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