“Nothing pleases people more than to go on thinking what they have always thought, and at the same time imagine that they are thinking something new and daring: it combines the advantage of security and the delight of adventure”.
— Thomas Stearns Eliot.
Hello dear reader,
Welcome to another year of writing, and thanks for belonging to this eclectic assemblage of organisational weirdos, misfits and outliers who are prepared to dedicate the necessary time and energy required to better understand the changing nature of our world, and the role that we can play in influencing that change.
As I hinted at in my final piece from last year, I was a little disillusioned* with what I deemed to be a woeful state of affairs regarding the ways in which a majority of the Australian (and indeed global) corporate sector understands, relates to and tries to enact leadership, strategy, culture and all things organisational transformation. I also highlighted my general distaste for the ongoing rent-seeking, complacency and laziness of the sector to which I belong (the leadership/organisational development/management consulting sector).
And given the state of the world right now, it’s hard not to be disillusioned, right?
Scale things up to the planetary level and we are headed towards multiple catastrophic scenarios resulting from climate change. The evidence is stacking up daily that its impact is no longer on the distant horizon, but has instead arrived uncomfortably on our collective doorsteps. And yet most folk—especially those with the traditional avenues of power, influence and money—continue to do little about it.
In the much-loved cartoon series Footrot Flats, legendary New Zealand cartoonist Murray Ball nailed it in this image:
But here’s the catch: he published this image twenty nine years ago. Twenty nine years ago, and the only thing that has changed is… well, not much, really.
However, I come to you this year with a renewed sense of enthusiasm!* And you have reason to be enthusiastic, too!
And the reason I’m enthusiastic is not just because our kids have started to realise that they too have agency in this world (although their realisation does excite me):
No, it’s more than that.
It’s because it’s folk like us—the weirdos, the misfits and the outliers—know that we can do better: we know that together we have agency to change things for the better.
And so this year, I’ll be writing pieces which are aimed at helping you look, see, and understand, so that you can make sense of the world’s ever-increasing complexity, and then act within that complexity for the greater good**.
Picking up on the theme of landscapes from my last piece, my intent is for you to be able to look and to see and to understand, so that firstly you are able to have agency within landscapes, and ultimately to have agency upon landscapes. Having agency upon landscapes—where landscapes are changed as a result of intent and design—will ultimately be how the world is going to get itself out of its current pickle.
One of the key unlocking mechanisms for my enthusiasm has been email and phone discussion with an architect friend of mine, David Gibson. Based in the town of Denmark, on Western Australia’s beautiful south-coast, Dave co-owns architectural firm PTX Architects with his partner Melanie.
Dave and I have similar interests in surfing, philosophy, coastal and mountain landscapes—and, as it turns out—preventing complacent and lazy small-thinking from further ruining our world. As I am want to do, Dave frequently rails against the limitations of the complicated, deterministic, and reductionist approach that he all too-often finds incorrectly applied to many complex issues in our world today.
A conversation between us about architecture and design and its role in influencing complex adaptive systems was sparked by my piece about organisational landscapes. Dave’s response to it got us talking about the importance of not just things, but the spaces between things—about the connections between things and space, and about the non-material things we can’t see—and how we can not-only apply agency within space to affect change, but we can also apply agency to space to affect change.
To quote Dave directly:
“Architecture is essentially the designing of the spaces we live and breathe in. Architects shape the built environment and people’s interaction with it. Architecture is intrinsically linked to the culture and environment of its place. Good architects (not all are good, but there are many out there) understand this and I would suggest good architecture has a sense of place and a deep connection to the cultural and natural landscape that surrounds it. The way I see it, the importance of architecture has never been greater than in the modern complex world.”
For me, this discussion raised the missing piece in the puzzle for the contemporary approach to organisational transformation. Whereas I had previously sought to deploy for clients frameworks of ‘nudges’—deliberately engineered frameworks of choices based on of the relatively new discipline of behavioural economics (also known as choice architecture)—these frameworks are still a linear mechanism best-suited for the complicated domain, where the expert reigns supreme and knows what the best outcomes are for everyone. The efficacy of a nudge framework in the complex domain is however limited: it allows for binary choice (either A or B), but it does not allow for the potentially multiplicative benefits of serendipity, novelty and emergence.
And so if “architecture is essentially the designing of the spaces we live and breathe in”, what organisational transformation for an increasingly uncertain and complex world needs to be doing right now is designing the spaces in which people are enabled—not constrained—to adapt to and coevolve with the changing world.
In other words, instead of trying to change things, we need to be changing the space in which things happen. It’s the only way that the organisations the world needs right now are gonna survive.
Our ambling discussion eventually led us down a path to the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena and his studio Elemental’s approach to incremental housing, with the Iquique Housing project being a fascinating example of not only designing “the spaces we live and breathe in”, but of also designing the spaces that will be lived in, in the future.
Tasked with rehousing a group of 100 squatter families on a piece of land upon which they had been living for 30 years—but limited by the standard government building subsidy of $7,500 per dwelling—the designers worked within the various constraints (of both the physical and social landscapes) to create something which enabled (rather than constrained) the families. Focussing less on merely the building of a house, and more on the designing of a space—or a context—in which each family would live in into the future, the Iquique Housing project provided the essentials of a dwelling only: the overall external structure, and the kitchen and the bathroom; a half-house, if you will.
Keenly aware of the broad entrepreneurial nature of the squatter community, and aiming to leverage the practical building skills that the squatter community had developed over their 30 year inhabitation of the site, each ‘half house’ provided the basic necessities required for a liveable, inhabitable space. The remaining ‘void’—the unfinished half of the house—was not so much unfinished, as not yet completed. And so in fact it was not a space void of anything, but rather a space rich in possibility. Rather than having a single, predetermined future, it had multiple, possible futures, and it would be up to the inhabitants of the house who would be able design which of those possible futures would emerge.
Effectively, each house was in a liminal state, somewhere in between being not unfinished, but not yet completed.
What this liminal state enabled was for each family to live in their house whilst they built out the remaining portion, and in doing so, complete the house that was in keeping with—or responsive to—the various idiosyncratic and nuanced vagaries that were unique to each family. Thus, Elemental stuck to the core ethos of their profession as architects by designing the spaces within which each family would live, and by designing the spaces in which multiple, possible futures existed.
Of course, what Elemental really did was to reduce the traditional centralisation of the design process, and instead distribute it to all of the relevant agents i.e. the families who would ultimately be the long-term inhabitants of the completed houses—talk about having skin in the game.
The final outcomes were not predetermined by someone who would never actually live in the finished house. In doing so, the process designed for—and indeed enabled—an emergent context, a space within which family life could manifest and evolve. Just as importantly—or perhaps even more importantly—the process distributed agency from a centralised group i.e. the planning authority and the architectural studio to all of the people who ultimately had the most at stake in terms of project outcomes.
Pretty cool, huh?
So what is the opportunity to which I’m referring?
Reconsidering many things associated with the traditional organisational ‘disciplines’ in the above heading, and recognising and understanding organisations as complex adaptive systems—rather than as complicated, engineered, deterministic ones—the opportunity to which I’m referring is to approach organisational transformation by designing the contexts in which things happen, rather than by trying to change the things themselves.
And so what I’m suggesting is that the art—and science—of designing spaces and contexts in which things are enabled to change is the missing link between the meta-context/vision/narrative of thinking globally i.e. at an ecosystem level and the messy and dirty micro-context of acting locally.
However, the current approach of an overwhelming majority of organisational transformation initiatives—whilst adhering to a “think globally and act locally” ideology—is fundamentally misaligned to the ideology’s true intent. Inevitably, the board and the executive ‘create’ the global meta-context/vision/narrative and then identify the desired and corresponding local actions (I’m sure you’re all familiar with examples of executives talking about the need to role-model the appropriate behaviours and values of their vision).
But the problem with this is that the disconnect between the global vision and the realities of life ‘on the streets’* is too great, and so the transformation never works.
Because ‘the streets’ is where its at. In all its messiness and apparent disorder, ‘the streets’* are your building blocks for the dispositions and tendencies and propensities for change—and that’s what evolutionary fitness is about (at least in an organisational sense).
And so again, what I’m talking about is the designing of contexts in which things (at the street level) are enabled—but not ordered—to change. Tiene sentido?
And so to the year ahead! Because as promised, I’m mixing things up a little.
Keeping all of the above in mind, what I’d like to do is identify some themes that are all very-much entangled with the contemporary approach to organisational transformation and which I’d like us to explore together. This is a little at odds with the past, where I’ve written pieces without a specific end-point in mind. Indeed, in this piece of writing from April 2017, I explained my writing process as follows:
“it inevitably stems from a vague thought I’ve been nursing in the murky space between my conscious and the sub-conscious for an extended period of time. As I write, more often than not, I am genuinely surprised with where it leads… which is one of the beautiful traits of emergence. Of course, this approach means that I’m not terribly productive nor efficient according to ‘traditional’ metrics…”
Whilst I was appreciating—and continue to do so—the benefits of an oblique, divergent and non goal-specific angle on things, there can often be a downside to this approach. At its core, this downside relates to a lack of boundaries and constraints. Coming from a theoretical perspective of complexity, we know that a lack of constraints—or at the very least a set of constraints that are insufficiently clear and/or bounded—can lead to too much disparateness and disconnection within a system, and this can in-turn push that system into the realm of chaos (remembering that in a chaotic system, there is an absence of connection between the system’s constituent parts). And this theory plays out in reality, as nobody wants to read a piece disorganised, chaotic writing. Thus, it’s a fine line between chaos at one end of the spectrum and overly-simplistic platitudes at the other.
But more than anything, it’s about knowing the context within which you’re working, and then nailing that particular context.
One of the problems associated with pervasive connectivity across a system is that the parts within that system—and by virtue of this, the system itself—can change both rapidly and radically, meaning that what was true yesterday may longer be true today. What this means is that context is always utterly conditional and contingent—which is why a ‘one size fits all’ approach tends not to work for complex systems. However, not only is context conditional and contingent, but it’s also scalar, meaning that contexts are connected to and nest within broader contexts. Thus, context is utterly conditional and contingent not only upon finely-grained, localised, site-specific realities, but also the coarser-scale of meta-contexts.
And this is important, because an additional part of the problem associated with writing somewhat unbounded and indiscriminately is that every time I did write, I felt compelled to introduce or reintroduce the context in which the writing sat. And so while the context is utterly conditional and contingent, today’s piece of writing serves to provide a meta-context under which the 12 pieces of writing I’ll produce this year nest. Within each of those 12 pieces will be smaller contexts, too, but by writing this meta-context now I will no longer need to remind you of it for each of the below pieces.
And so the themes I intend to address in my writing this year—and the reason/s I think they’re of relevance—are as follows:
culture—because let’s face it—at least in Australia—now that the Haynes Report has been released, and board chairs and CEOs are falling on their swords all over the place, everyone in the Australian organisational space is talking about culture. And therein lies the problem… for the most part, the discussion is missing an understanding of some basic fundamentals about what culture is (it’s an emergent property of a complex social system) and how it evolves over time.
emergence—when an interconnected system comprised of relatively simple parts self-organises and the result is a higher-order, more ‘intelligent’ behaviour, you have emergence. Culture is a great example of emergence, and if you want to understand how organisations can work for the greater good, you gotta understand emergence.
spaces, scales & fractals—much of this piece has touched on the notions of space and scales, but we’ll explore them further, and how they relate to fractals. Although fractals were all the rage in the 1980’s after the Mandelbrot Set became widely-known, not too many folk are aware these days of the importance of fractals in organisational transformation. A fractal is something which is self-similar, and repeats itself at multiple scales. My strong suspicion is that culture is fractal in nature, that Dunbar’s Number reflects this fractality, and that we can work with fractals to guide culture change.
narrative—over the past few years the corporate space has become besieged with consultants selling ‘storytelling’ techniques. The idea is that once an executive team has created their vision/cultural values/purpose, storytelling is the vessel to sell them to the employees. But that approach is actually kinda bogus. It’s important to have an understanding of different types of narratives—especially the narrative of ‘the streets’, or micro-narrative, as they are otherwise known—and be aware that you corrupt or disintermediate micro-narrative at your own risk.
agents & agency—another critical differentiation to understand when working from a systems perspective on organisational transformation is the notion of agents that comprise i.e. are parts of system do not necessarily have agency i.e. the ability to act within that system.
networks—ya gotta understand the basics of networks if you have aspirations to change things in today’s world. It’s a relatively new science of less than three decades (this is why I refer to it as a contemporary science). I should point at here that I’m not talking about networks in the way that they are colloquially understand in the business world (as in you need to build a network of 12 key influencers, it’s not what you but who you know, blah blah blah).
rituals—the role of ritual as a mechanism for maintaining and/or changing a social system is worthy of our attention. In particular I’m curious about the potential of Confucianist ‘as if’ rituals as a means to influence, direct and encourage behavioural and culture change. We’ll look at existing rituals in the business space—such as conferences—and suggest some alternatives that are more in keeping with a complex-systems approach.
resilience—as with many things in our western society, the concept of resilience hasn’t escaped the notion that it purely relates to individual agency and is something that, like happiness, one can attain. Everyone, from our school kids to our corporate leaders are being indoctrinated about the importance of resilience. But what if we recalibrate how we think of resilience? What if we think of resilience at a system level, and instead of treating it as an end-point to be obtained by individual agents, we think of it as an emergent property (or manifestation) of a system.
tension—although it’s something that we all avoid, especially interpersonal tension, understanding how tension floes through complex systems is important. How can we use tension, like the natural world around us does, to our advantage when working on organisational transformation?
distributions—few people care for mathematics and even fewer people care for distributions. But what if some fundamental assumptions about the nature of the world are incorrect from a mathematical underpinning? Many significant issues today—such as global wealth inequality, the massive influence Google and Facebook have on the world, and the absolutely woeful business book The Naked CEO selling 2 million more copies than it should have*—can be explained by different types of distributions.
liminality—we all need to get our heads around this concept, where something is in the midst of change: it’s not what is was, but it’s not yet what it will be, either. As I touched on before, the Iquique Housing project was an example of liminality. Liminality is super-relevant for anyone working on organisational transformation today.
?—gotta leave some space for emergence, right?
Nobody else really seems to be talking about these very important themes at the moment, at least not in Australia—so screw it, I’ll give it a crack. I hope you find it useful to affect change for the greater good**.