Creating Messy Coherence

Photo Goh Rhy Yan Unsplash

While researching these posts, I encountered a whole host of new thinking about the changes needed to make group relations and systems psychodynamic work relevant in today’s fluid, virtual, and entangled world. Some of my previous posts also created interesting conversations on platforms like LinkedIn. All of this has sent my thinking in new directions, so I am changing tack a bit. Instead of doing more in-depth exploration on a single lens, I want to reflect instead on how we can spend time in the liminal and messy space between the various lenses and perhaps from there find adjacent possibilities.

Coherent heterogeneity (or messy coherence)

Complexity is messy. This messiness was one of the first things I had to learn to embrace when I started working in this field (fortunately, it came quite naturally to me!). While management science has been advocating efficiency, alignment, and homogeneity for the last several decades, we value coherent heterogeneity (a concept I was introduced to by Dave Snowden) and requisite inefficiency in complexity. These are key to the resilience of any complex system — and therefore any human system.

When things are messy and ambiguous, rigid categories and being sure about our “rightness” aren’t helpful. Instead, we need to find new ways of making sense of the mess. Cynefin, a sense-making framework that I have worked with for the last few decades, has taught me the value of Bounded Applicability — a colloquial term for this might be “horses for courses”. It means that methods and perspectives are not context-free, i.e., they are not universally applicable, but they are useful within boundaries. Therefore, instead of arguing about what is right or wrong, we try to determine the contexts in which something is useful and where that utility starts breaking down.

So in that spirit, I’ll explore not only BART but various other organising principles and lenses. I will not attempt a synthesis of these, but rather leave it open to explore the liminal, messy space between them.

A side note: this post is messy and may feel like complete information overload … I have tried my best to keep it short, but alas … there were just too many exciting ideas to explore!

On scaffolds …

Ann Pendleton-Jullian writes:

“A framework is a structure designed to support or enclose something, or an abstract setup for solutions to several related problems. It is a complete structure, usually permanent, and gives form to that which it supports, or encloses, or solves. A scaffold, however, is a temporary structure that supports something to emerge on its own terms, it influences as it supports and is designed to ‘scaffold’ and steer emergence in today’s complex environments.”

Instead of viewing these ideas and perspectives as frameworks, let us instead hold them lightly and use them as temporary scaffolds so that new understandings can emerge.

On context …

It has become abundantly clear that many of the organisational structures we have inherited from the past are inadequate for providing the adaptability and fluidity we need to thrive in today’s disruptive and complex contexts. Words like “networked organisation,” boundaryless organisations etc., abound in consulting literature, but this is mostly still window dressing. Fundamentally the image we hold in our minds is ordered and predictable with clearly defined boundaries, authority structures, roles, and tasks — we have simply flattened the hierarchies and renamed roles. To re-imagine organisations and societies, we need to transform our “systems-in-the-mind,” i.e., the metaphors and images we use to make meaning of what an organisation or institution is and how we related to them.

I believe complexity, ecology & natural sciences, and other disciplines like architecture and design offer metaphors and theories that can completely transform how we conceptualise human systems; however, we cannot lose sight of the humans in those systems. While the field of OD, may have been over-focused on behavioural change and individuals’ development, we cannot have the pendulum swing too far the other way and focus on structural, environmental, and technical aspects and forget about the individual completely. In complex systems, the system constrains the agents, but at the same time the agents are interacting in ways that change the system i.e. agents and system (and the broader environment) are co-evolving. In a comment on LinkedIn, Simon Western stated:

“Authorising the self in fluid networks is indeed important, but this reduces the systemic/network to the individual role which becomes part of the problem- i.e. we again look at the individual rather than the network-system. The radical work is to see how power (incl unconscious) works in these networks. How the individual/team/collective are constrained and/or empowered by cultural-systemic forces: it is our relation to the organisation, to the social, to the technology, to our environment that informs how power works in the ecosystem. The individual can only self-authorise in relation to the conditions they find themselves. The rhetoric of many ‘progressive organisation’ is to encourage employees to self-authorise, be empowered, be innovative etc while the reality is often a cultural force policed by peer and self-surveillance (small brother) that demands conformity to the norm.”

So with that as a foundation, let’s dive into the exploration. Several of the frames include an aspect of Boundaries, so I thought I’d spend some time there first.

On Boundaries

When we consider boundaries from a complex systems perspective, it becomes clear that this is more tricky than we may have thought. (For those unfamiliar with complexity, this post might be useful.)

Paul Cilliers writes (excuse the long quote, but it all seemed pertinent!):

“Boundaries are simultaneously a function of the activity of the system itself and a product of the strategy of description involved. In other words, we frame the system by describing it in a certain way (for a certain reason), but we are constrained in where the frame can be drawn. The boundary of the system is therefore neither purely a function of our description, nor is it a purely natural thing. We can never be sure that we have “found” or “defined” it clearly …

… Our understanding of boundaries can be given a little more content by considering the following two issues. The first concerns the “nature” of boundaries: we often fall into the trap of thinking of a boundary as something that separates one thing from another. We should rather think of a boundary as something that constitutes that which is bounded. This shift will help us to see the boundary as something enabling rather than as confining.

To quote Seleny: All social systems, and thus all living systems, create, maintain, and degrade their own boundaries. These boundaries do not separate but intimately connect the system with its environment. They do not have to be just physical or topological, but are primarily functional, behavioural, and communicational. They are not “perimeters” but functional constitutive components of a given system.

As an example of this logic, think of the eardrum. It forms the boundary between the inner and the outer ear, but at the same time, it exists in order to let the sound waves through. As a matter of fact, if it was not there, the sound waves would not be able to get through at all!

If the boundary is seen as an interface participating in constituting the system, we will be more concerned with the margins of the system, and perhaps less with what appears to be central .

A second boundary issue concerns the “place” of the boundary. The propensity we have towards visual metaphors inclines us to think in spatial terms. A system is therefore often visualised as something contiguous in space. This tendency is reinforced by the prevalence of biological examples of complex systems. We think of systems in an “organistic” way. Social systems are obviously not limited in the same way. Parts of the system may exist in totally different spatial locations. The connections between different components could be seen as virtual, and therefore the system itself may exist in a virtual space. This much should be self-evident to most inhabitants of the global village, but there are two important implications to draw from this. The first is that non-contiguous sub-systems could be part of many different systems simultaneously. This would mean that different systems interpenetrate each other, that they share internal organs. How does one talk of the boundary of the system under these conditions? A second implication of letting go of a spatial understanding of boundaries would be that in a critically organised system, we are never far away from the boundary. If the components of the system are richly interconnected, there will always be a short route from any component to the “outside” of the system.

There is thus no safe “inside” of the system, the boundary is folded in, or perhaps, the system consists of boundaries only. Everything is always interacting and interfacing with others and with the environment; the notions of “inside” and” “outside” are never simple or uncontested.”

So, while it is clear that defining boundaries in complex human systems is itself a complex endeavour. That doesn’t mean that they are not important, especially when it comes to wellbeing and containing anxiety in human systems.

Something I have observed with interest is the seeming paradoxical patterns many experienced while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. While in lockdown, much anxiety is provoked by being caught in the liminal space of completely disintegrating work/life boundaries and overly rigid limits imposed from the outside. In South Africa, we have alcohol bans (and for several months tobacco bans as well), curfews, closed beaches, and many other rigid governing constraints we have to comply with. And within these rigid constraints that force many of us to stay home, we are faced with endless back-to-back virtual meetings, while some of us need to manage children who are also stuck at home plus general household duties. While many rebel against the rigidly imposed constraints, those same people long for the boundaries and transitional rituals that helped them to transition between identities and roles, work and life.

There are similar tensions at play in organisations seeking to find new ways to structure to enable greater adaptability. Boundaryless organisations are held by many as an ideal and hierarchies have been demonised by many. Yet our attempts to do away with these structures, e.g., by adopting ideas like Holocracy, often create unintended effects that make things worse. I believe this is often because we ignore or misunderstand not only the complexity but also the unconscious dynamics that undermine these efforts.

With that in mind, here are some of the perspectives I find interesting. I am sure there are many others, but these ones are most salient for me right now. I will not attempt to integrate or contrast them. For now, I think it would be useful to have them all in one place. In the interest of brevity, I will not elaborate too much on the definitions. Please read the referenced articles for more details.

From Group Relations literature:

  1. BART

Boundaries: Boundaries create the container for group work. Examples are Time (annual reporting cycles, project deadlines, meeting start and end times, agenda time slots, working hours) and Territory (office allocations, e.g., the corner office, office location, special executive floors or rooms, tables occupied by different affinity groups in office canteens.)

Authority: The right to act or do work. Authority can be formal or delegated or personal (how an individual takes up their formal authority).

Role: “The concept of role enables us to see where the person and system meet. We can think about the “person-in-context” and the interrelations between the two from this vantage point. It renders the impact of the organization on the individual visible, in terms of the experience of fulfilling a particular part, and it renders the impact of the individual on the larger organization visible in terms of how individuals “take up” their roles and, in turn, enact the set of systemic forces that are expressed through the role.

Since the concept of role creates a window into organizational life where the individual and system intersect, role allows us to think carefully about how the individual, at both conscious and unconscious levels, inter-links with the system and the demands and expectations for performance it imposes. Formal roles delegated to individual carry authority to work on certain tasks in certain ways, although there may be a discrepancy between the stated authority and what authority, in fact, accompanies a delegation. Symbolic meanings, informal tasks, covertly authorized work, etc., are also attached to roles and, in turn, affect the texture of collaboration, competence, and meaningful contribution.” (Krantz & Maltz)

Task: the reason for being of the group or system. What we are coming together to do. Most organisations face multiple tasks, many of them dynamic and competing for priority.

(For more on BART, read Green & Molenkamp)

1a. CIBART — Cilliers & Koortsen expanded BART to CIBART to help teams work through their conflict dynamics.

They added:

Conflict — “a very natural and human condition, serving as the driving force or dynamo for the team’s performance, creativity, innovation and coping with change and transformation. Conflict refers to the split between differences, and can manifest intra-personally (in the individual between ideas and feelings), interpersonally (the experience of differences between two or more team members), intra group (between factions or subgroups), and intergroup (between one team / department and others in the larger al system).”

Identity — “Identity refers to characteristics that make the team, its members, their task, climate, and culture different and unique from other teams.”

2. Hirschhorn & Gilmore — similar to BART, references Authority and Task, but adds Political and Identity boundaries.

In their HBR article — The New Boundaries of the “Boundaryless” Company, (Hirshhorn & Gilmore) describe a set of psychological boundaries that managers need to pay attention to when the traditional boundaries of hierarchy, function, and geography disappear. I find it useful how they describe these boundaries as describing necessary tensions:

Authority: Who is in charge of what? Tensions — How to lead but remain open to criticism; How to follow but still challenge superiors

Task: Who does what? Tensions — How to depend on others you don’t control. How to specialise yet understand other people’s jobs.

Political: What’s in it for us? Tensions — How to defend one’s interests without undermining the organisation. How to differentiate between win-win and win-lose situations.

Identity: Who is and isn’t “us”? Tensions — How to feel pride without devaluing others. How to remain loyal without undermining outsiders.

3. Hirschhorn — Beyond BART

In a later paper, Beyond BART, Hirschhorn presents an alternative to BART, specifically for use in what he calls Developmental Projects (in contrast to Regular Work Organisations where he felt BART still applied). I cannot do this work justice in such a short piece. In short, I’ll make a crude distinction between routine and predictable work environments and continually evolving creative work. (This paper is well worth a read)

He suggest the following shifts when dealing with Developmental projects:

Boundaries — Edges

Authority — Deadlines — Deadlines in knowledge work create the psychological spaces for moments of truth. The deadline is a moment when the participants must “put up or shut up.” Often authority figures impose deadlines but in this case the group created its own self-imposed deadlines.

Roles/Structure — Scaffolding — a structure that is temporary and designed to accomplish a particular task rather than one based on fixed roles.

Roles/Obligations — Promises — Knowledge workers are in Philip Boxer’s terms “self-employed employees.” This means that they are not so much obligated by virtue of their roles to do some useful piece of work, but rather they create their own obligations by promising others to do some work. This process can create commitment but may also create uncertainty and become a source of potential conflict.

Task — Boundary objects — “a shared object, either abstract or concrete, that allows people from different disciplines and with different talents to share in a communal image of the boundary object’s properties. As the definition suggests however, people also experience the boundary object differentially. For example, a computer analyst will look at the computer model of the molecule as an object of calculation produced by an algorithm, while biochemists will see the computer model as a plausible account of how a molecule works in vivo. The boundary object in this sense creates a commonly experienced field of apprehension, while also promoting an effective “division of insight.” The result is that people with different talents and proclivities can work together toward a shared goal.”

4. NIPI (Western & McDonnell, 2018)

In 2017, during a Group Relations Conference (GRC) hosted by IGROW and directed by Simon Western, they experimented with using NIPI instead of BART as the guiding ethos for the conference’s design. They were motivated by the need to create more coherence between the GRC context and the emerging Networked Society.

N — Networks

“Focusing on Networks helps us work with the reality that boundaries today are more fluid, porous and plural. By switching attention to networks — we begin to see new dimensions and new possibilities- our challenge is to become aware of digital networks, virtual networks, face to face networks, environmental webs of life, power networks, emotional networks, cognitive networks, conscious and unconscious and seen and unseen networks.”

I — Identity

“In these new networks our identities — individual and collective- are also more fluid and unstable. This releases huge opportunities and also huge anxieties that can lead to projected fear on the other- hence the turn to nationalistic politics in many countries. New freedoms, new connections, new understandings of ourselves, new co-creating of identities are transforming how we think about self and other. How do we influence change in networks? Identifying nodal points of power, creating clusters, connecting with people- through distributed and autonomist leadership.”

P — Power

“In a network power is everywhere (Foucault), not just at the top or centre. Power is not a bad thing to fight against- power just is power. Power is in discourses, language, and knowledge — we control others and are controlled through subtle power we hardly notice. There are nodal points of power within networks- and this is liberating- as small changes can lead to big changes.”

I — Influence

“Top-down control gives way to lateral relations transforming where power lies, how decisions are made and disrupting many fantasies that control remains only in hierarchical pyramids. The powerful today are those who can influence networks- Facebook and Google, for example are extreme examples, but also there are examples in new social movements and micro-examples in every and every aspect of society.”

Now, from a couple of ideas from other fields.

  1. Dave Snowden’s ABIDE (currently in the process of being updated to reflect his latest thinking on constraints). ABIDE describes “things we can manage in complex systems).

Attractors are things that attract and enable coherence — think about an attractor as something we all gather around: a fire, a song, a strong purpose, a centre, a meal. Attractors bring us into coherence. (Chris Corrigan)

Boundaries (constraints that contain or connect)

Identity

Dissent (or Difference)

Environment (or Exchanges)

(the last two were adapted to Difference and Exchanges by Chris Corrigan and I am tempted to change Exchanges to Flows as I believe that complex systems are fundamentally flow systems. The primary task of a system can be framed as the value that needs to flow through the system; power flows; even identity can be seen as flowing through time and space. I will save this for later when I explore the notion of flow in more detail.)

2. Change triangle 3.0 (Ann Pendleton-Jullian & John Seely-Brown)

The Change Triangle 3.0 is described as a scaffold for ecosystems of change.

“An ecosystem of conditions for change is built around five elements, all integrated and contributing simultaneously.”

- The Vision of change — it is external to the triangle and represents the motivating context for the triangle.

Then there are 3 forces operating on the triangle namely:

- An overarching Metanarrative that serves as orientation and translates the vision into narrative terms that resonate with the values and culture of the context, organisation, or system one wants to shape.

- Micronarratives — stories constructed from lived experiences. Shared micro-narratives serve to construct identity, to recalibrate and evolve identity of a social group.

- Mechanisms — things that do work — they are things that create the means through which an effect is produced or a purpose is accomplished. They can be simple or complex.

And finally

- The Network of connectivity of the whole system — the medium at the interior of the triangle that facilitates exchanges between the three forces in service of the vision.

As a scaffold, the Change Triangle 3.0 can be used to read and understand existing contexts, including change already in the system. It can then be used to introduce new elements that provisionally support, catalyse, and shape the emergence of change.

In conclusion …

There are so many interesting and potentially useful ideas to explore here. And I think more will emerge when I move on to the other fields I want to explore like architecture (which I already started including here with the work of Ann Pendleton-Jullian), Constraints based sports coaching (and the work of Bronfenbrenner on Ecological Systems Theory) and others.

For now, what piques my interest are the golden threads I see emerging, and in particular how it could apply when thinking about new organisational structures:

  • Scaffolding — as organisational structures need to become more fluid in response to contexts in flux, temporary structures that scaffold emergence make more sense than formally designed permanent structures. A key question here is how to create these scaffolds in ways that are able to contain the anxiety inherent in this fluid kind of work?
  • Constraints and how they are used to contain, connect and create holding spaces for emergence.
  • Identity — collective & individual and the liminal in-between.
  • Networks & Edges—the focus on networks and the networked society links to ideas like network weaving (Valdis Krebbs) and the notion of boundary spanning. It also links to the work of Mary Uhl-Bien on adaptability, organisational ambidexterity and creating adaptive space.
  • Metaphors from the natural world. For example the symbiotic relationship between mycorrhizae (fungi) and tree roots (as a metaphor for informal networks and formal structures). This post by Dave Snowden elaborates some ideas and Valids Krebbs asks:

Mycorrhizal networks work to connect the unconnected in places we don’t imagine there are many connections. Mycorrhizae makes forests and other plant ecosystems vibrant. A recent NYT article, “The Social Life of Forests” explains how mycorrhizal networks connect trees in a forest and provide pathways for the sharing of nutrients and even messages amongst trees in a network neighborhood. It is fascinating how mycorrhizae play the role of intermediary in the forest. What is analogous to mycorrhizae in human networks?

Another example would be Rhizomatic structures as a metaphor for resilient human systems and new forms of leadership.

Referencing Simon Western, Philip Boxer writes “… the network society we live and work in presents us with increasing connectivity that pushes not towards identifying authority vertically in roles, but towards addressing horizontal rhizome-like power, power that is everywhere and yet cannot be pinned down. Simon’s conclusion was that, at best, we can find quilting points that can anchor our relation to these networks for long enough to enable us to make good-enough sense and to act — until the next gap appears.”

Ann Pendleton-Jullian writes: “Rapid change causes disturbance. Resilience, as a means to absorb and assimilate disturbance so as to strengthen the system upon which the disturbance acts, is one of the defining concepts of our era of rapid change. To find a really good model of resilience, I turn to environmental systems, and one of the most resilient systems I can think of are rhizomic structures.

Any point of the rhizome may be connected to any other point. They inter-twine, over-twine, scatter, and spread. As a rootstock and not a conventional root, when broken at any point, they begin again.

Because the roots are horizontal, because they can reproduce in any direction from any spot, and because they connect into each other, rhizomic systems function as a single organism. They defy any classification as individual entities. Instead, as distributed plant systems, they are populations — multiplicities.”

I end off with a key question, inspired by Ann:

“How do we foster resilience in a problem space which consists of many diverse(shifting) frames? Finding linkages between frames and, where obvious linkages don’t exist, catalyzing them by looking at them through different critical lenses.”

References:

Cilliers, F. & Koortsen, P. (2005). Working with conflict in teams — The CIBART model. HR Future, pp 52–53

Cilliers, P. (2001). Boundaries, Hierarchies, and Networks in Complex Systems. International Journal of Innovation Management, Vol. 5, №2 pp. 135–147 © Imperial College Press.

Green, S.G & Molenkamp, R.J. (2005). The BART System of Group and Organisational Analysis

Hirschhorn, L. (2017). Beyond BART (boundaries, authority, role, and task): Creative work and the Developmental Project.

Krantz, J. (2013). Approaching 21st Century organisations.

Krantz, J. & Maltz, M. A Framework for Consulting to Organizational Role

Pendleton-Jullian, Ann, M. & Seely-Brown, J. (2018). Design Unbound — Designing for emergence in a white water world. Volume 2. Ecologies of Change. MIT Press.

Pendleton-Jullian, Ann M. (2010). Four (+1) studios.

Western, S. & McDonnell, B (2017). Re-imagining Group Relations Conferences in Turbulent Times (working paper in progress)

Enabling Responsive Organisations http://www.morebeyond.co.za/blog/