We left off yesterday having looked through Strange Attractors and Chaos. Various bits of media and thoughts have continued to inspire and plague me and, given I have a bit of space, I thought I would return to this topic.
What is been troubling me, as one prone to analogies and metaphors, is the slipperiness of the words. In truth life is complex and days are chaotic – but not in the systems sense. My definition of a chaotic day may differ from yours, will differ from yours, but this cannot be used to define a system in a chaotic state. My office looks chaotic but is actually in a very stable deterministic state – in just offends your sense of order, it has no dynamism. My days are a complex web of meetings, e-mails, ideas and actions – but I’m busy – there is no self-organisation criticality occurring; no emergence of new patterns of behaviour.
This had me searching through the texts for the conditions required to be within a complex adaptive system. Conditions are important here as they are a substitute for a simplistic definition. A relatively straightforward explanation is provided here, here and paraphrased below. A complex adaptive systems needs to be:
· Emergence: some sort of stability develops that allows us to see this as phenomena that are not chaotic.
· Self-organising: there is no external control; patterns of behaviour emerge from within but in an unpredictable way.
· Dynamic: the steady state that emerges is held in place my dynamic interactions (metaphorically the reason you don’t fall off your bicycle)
· Non-linear: as discussed in previous blog more than a+b=c
· Multiple stable sates possible: the state the systems exists in may flip, but the a new stable state will emerge
· Large number of elements: multiple agents and forces
· Reccurancy (feedback): changes feedback to the original agents and can alter starting values (remember the ravens)
· Agents operate locally with neighbours: But are ignorant of whole system. However they are impacted upon by the system and other agents. A bird is not aware of the shape of the flock, but moves in lock-step with it.
· Hard to define boundaries: The flock metaphor works quite well here but can be extended. The flock itself exists within a weather system and with predatory systems.
It is possible to see that my days are not really complex, although the edge is hard to see that is because I don’t turn my phone off, non-linearity (where it exists) is normally linked to the behaviour of humans, though relatively simple models work on a daily basis (I’ll come back to this), I am not ignorant of the whole system (though my knowledge is less than perfect). Admittedly it’s tempting to argue no, no, no it is and that is where we are heading (ironically) as this blog emerges.
There are lots of good texts on this subject and I have found a few free ones here, here and here. What troubles me (I’m looking for debate here – I’m not telling you facts – and I’m likely to change my mind before the end) with these texts is that they appeal to that sense of individualism that, rightly, exists within us. No one likes a hierarchy, especially if they are not near the top. It makes sense to suggest that there is too much distance from top to bottom. It makes sense to suggest that relationships are non-linear or non-deterministic because things don’t seem to go the way we plan. We love the idea of being flexible and working in self-organising networks but these words do not make our system complex they are a metaphorical description of our feelings and beliefs. Especially troubling are phrases such as “what complexity would advice” as if a science is being called into play here that, ironically, allows us to determine optimum organisational structures. Let me just clarify a little bit of underpinning philosophy. I find meetings pointless, most hierarchies too layered and organisation un-responsive – I am not arguing a status quo position, instead I am trying to navigate some path between orthodoxy and the new(ish) exploration of complexity in this context. (And as if to prove an organisational point an email’s just arrived that asks me to write a longer explanation of something, not because content is missing but because a longer document would look better.)
Let’s step back and look at the pressures on organisations. Porter’s 5 Forces is still of use here, as are some of the (tired) people management theories. Porter suggests that firms have pressures on them from new entrants (Google+ v FaceBook), customers, substitutes (public transport instead of car), suppliers and rivals (all in brackets open to debate). Do these pressures work to create a self organising criticality? Well there are forces missing arguably increasing the number of elements. Certainly the pressure of shareholder (or market) expectations is missing but important. Stakeholder pressure is not fully reflected and there is little on the legislation this can bring. I appreciate this is not the purpose of the model, what I am suggesting is it is one of a number of models that attempt to explain organisational survival.
Arguably all of these elements act within a poorly defined boundary, have some non-liner attributes, influence one another without knowledge of the whole and some sort of temporary self-organised equilibrium emerges (around price and market share normally). So far so good. It seems we can suggest that firms may exist with a self-organising criticality (I say ‘may’ – I suspect some firms and industries may be outside of this due to monopoly positions – but that is temporal). Here’s the silver bullet though. Because firms (may) exist in complexity are firms themselves complex systems? Ant colonies exhibit complex behaviour, and an ant’s pattern of behaviour is complex but is an ant (hope my grammar is correct or that will make even less sense)?
Looking back at organisations we see that they are full of people behaving in all sorts of ways within a loose set of rules, sound promising. They interact with each other and, may, have little view of the overall. They lack boundaries – hmmm bit more tenuous. Whilst the market self organises around the firm does the firm self organise internally? Or, perhaps, more importantly what opportunities does this assumption provide for better understanding the firm? One thing that troubles me is large case studies – take Apple. You would expect Apple to be free thinking and based on loose self-organising groups of ‘creatives’ (apologies to L). However, with the exception of a central team Apple is very traditional, controlling and hierarchical. When was the last time you saw a ‘different’ Apple store or campaign?
My considerations are now wandering towards the idea that although companies exist in complex markets the actual structure of organisations themselves does not have to be radically altered to meet this. In truth, the ant lives its complex life but with a very deterministic nervous system. I remain convinced that rigid structures are unhelpful, I believe that silos are destructive and value adding is key, lean systems, less red tape and more effective bureaucracy are the ways to go. But some of the language used around flexibility (remote working), empowerment (responsibility but not authority) and de-layering (reducing costs) are scarily the wrong sort of ‘efficient’ at times? I recall a bank’s share price jumping on the news that a couple of thousand staff were to be made redundant – sounds more like defeat and contraction than growth to me.
This clearly isn’t finished and I have asked more questions than I have answered – sorry. But I am interested in where this debate will go next – and I’ve yet to venture into the fields of new enterprise creation and growth (where I belong) or financial markets (where I bait bulls and bears alike). Over to you maybe?