The difficulty of complex thought is that it must face messes … interconnectedness among phe- nomena, fogginess, uncertainty, contradiction. (Edgar Morin, On Complexity, 2008: 6)
I have written before about the need to embrace messyness. Specifically to shift from seeking alignment and neat categories to messy coherence (or coherent heterogeneity, a term I was introduced to by Dave Snowden, coined by Herbert Spencer in the late 1800’s). While most intuitively understand the need to embrace messiness, how to achieve it practically remains elusive. We are emerging from a time where alignment and efficiency were pursued like the holy grail. The shift towards embracing messiness and diversity seems almost impossible, especially to leaders and managers who equate competence with control. Yet, I encounter similar questions in almost every conversation: how do we distribute decision-making and authority? How do we build strong coherent cultures AND nurture diversity and adaptation? How do we maintain momentum when we are not able to plan and set clear goals? How do we organise and structure ourselves in ways that enable adaptation? There is no recipe for achieving this, however I think a possible key to finding our way lies in understanding how to enable coherence.
Embracing messy coherence requires us to let go of long-held assumptions of a world where stability, certainty and predictability are the norm. In this world, we were taught to use linear, deterministic management methods and tools and also that alignment to shared goals and values is key to success. The COVID19 pandemic and climate change, among others, have made us realize that we do indeed inhabit a complex and entangled world, one that is unpredictable. Like a deer in the headlights, we easily become paralyzed when dealing with uncertainty, which is the last thing we can afford. It is now necessary, for a post-pandemic world, to move forward rather than reverting back to the previous practices that failed us during these recent events.
In Abraham Lincoln’s words, we need to “think anew and act anew.”
The field of complexity, called by some the science of uncertainty, offers us a new lens or worldview when viewing social systems. When we shift from seeing human systems as machines and individuals as controllable and predictable cogs, to viewing them as complex adaptive systems through the lens of complexity science, new possibilities become evident.
In the past, we have relied on ordered systems due to them being predictable and controllable. These closed systems are easily managed through planning, goal setting, measuring, and feedback mechanisms that control the system’s outcomes. Closed systems operate using causal relationships (i.e., control the system’s outcome or ideal future state, B, by altering its input, A). I call this A to B thinking. And it is one of the primary reasons for the focus on alignment I described earlier.
This kind of linear, deterministic thinking has long been taught in management programs. Today, however, decision-makers are increasingly finding themselves in entirely uncharted and dynamic territories, what Ann Pendleton-Jullian aptly calls a white-water world. There are no road maps leading us to where we are going today. Alignment in this world creates a focus that is too narrow, we need to create coherent explore spaces with broader horizons and more diverse options.
So how do we do this?
Before we dive into that, I need to define some foundational terms and ideas that I believe are critical and form the basis for the framework I will later describe.
Constraints: limits AND enablers
“…it is important to realise that the notion of a constraint is not a negative one. It is not something which merely limits possibilities, constraints are also enabling. By eliminating certain possibilities, others are introduced.” (Cilliers, 2001)
While most people view constraints as being primarily restrictive, it is important to understand constraints can also be enabling i.e. they create opportunity for action, and may even need to be understood in multiple senses at the same time.
Humans have learned to create order through constraints. For example, without a demarcated playing field, defined team roles, and rules that govern the game, we would not have team sports like rugby or hockey. Without traffic conventions which shape how we drive as well as our expectations of other drivers, there would be chaos on our roads. Therefore, constraints don’t only remove or limit options but also create or enable order and new possibilities.
Invitations to act through ‘affordances:”
To better understand options and possibilities, I need to introduce the concept of an affordance.
“Affordances are invitations to act within an environment; however, they are not properties of the environment per se, but rather a property of the Environment-Agent-System”
Lee, Bootsma, Frost, Land, Regan and Gray, 2009. EAS.
In the right context, many surfaces might afford us the possibility of being seated. Chairs, logs, low walls … all invite the action of sitting. They also have the potential to shape not only individual action, but also social interactions. Arranging chairs in a row affords different social interactions compared to arranging chairs in a circle. If I want a group to interact and engage in a more lively or intimate way, I can invite their participation by changing how I design or constrain the environment. I don’t have to tell them to act in a certain way, the environment invites or affords that behaviour. This is important, because if we don’t carefully consider the environment we put employees in, the inherent constraints of the environment may create a disabling one. For example, while organizations may try to create collaborative work environments, the inhibiting constraints introduced by performance management systems, predetermined targets and incentives prevent collaboration from occurring organically. It becomes a synthetic form of collaboration, made up.
Affordances and constraints play a key role in innovation and adaptation. Constraints create affordances or opportunities for action. Therefore, perceiving affordances in dynamic environments is key to innovation. Think for example of a gap that opens up on a rugby or hockey field and the ability to judge whether it affords the action of running through it or not. Or recognising different or new affordances in the same environment i.e. the ability to repurpose an object or space. We experienced this recently when the resource constraints created by the COVID19 pandemic created the conditions for this kind of innovation (e.g., the repurposing of dive masks into respirators).
Boundaries & containment: A safe environment for exploration
Boundaries also function as constraints. Knowing where the boundaries are can help people to feel safe to explore, make decisions and embrace change. Unbounded spaces can feel overwhelming, confusing, and unsafe. If we don’t know where our boundaries are, we don’t know when we cross them. So very often we choose to play it safe and just do what we are told. Similarly, over-constrained environments can stifle creativity and engagement. To foster cultures able to explore and adapt, we need to create environments that have adequate and appropriate constraints in place.
Now that we have explained some of the core concepts, let’s bring it all together.
WaysFinding in complexity
While working with clients who are struggling with the questions I listed at the beginning, I have been exploring how to enable these safely bounded search or exploration spaces where an interplay of different constraints enable local autonomy and diversity, while maintaining overall strategic or identity coherence.
In this exploration, I have been inspired by various artists, jazz musicians, sports teams, and ancient mariners. I have also borrowed from a number of theorists/philosophers (Dave Snowden, Paul Cilliers, Alicia Juarrero, Mary Uhl-Bien, & Ann Pendleton-Jullian). Concepts such as constraints-based approaches to coaching and affordance theories were also borrowed from ecological psychology (see Gibson, Bronfenbrenner & Ingold).
I have been working to synthesise my thinking into a framework that I have been calling a Waysfinder (wayS plural). At its heart, it enables a process of continuous orientation or ongoing situational assessment and sense-making of where we are, who we are, and where we fit in the current environment. In addition to figuring out our current location(s) (see position A in the picture) we also seek to identify potentialities from position A by asking the question, What is possible from here?
Knowing that our current position is dynamic it becomes necessary to continuously orient ourselves to determine a potential movement to the next possible state. This possible state is perceived and not definitive, it must be understood that the possible state that is being seeked is not necessarily the end result. There are too many conditions and constraints that are ever-changing for any one person to predict the end result. In fact, an end result is rarely achieved, and we have to question the stability and resilience of any outcome.
The Waysfinder provides a scaffold that enables new thinking and practice, not a series of linear steps. It is made up of a combination of various types of constraints and wayfinding practices that collectively create a coherent adaptive space or search field.
For now, I am visualising a cone (affectionately known by some of my clients as Sonja’s pie-slice :)), and imagine the visualisation (and name) may evolve over time.
Rather than plumb the depths of the underlying theory, I will keep my explanation at an appropriate level for this brief introduction.
We start with a situational assessment, determining where we are and who we are in a particular moment in time in relation to our environment. I.e. we start by figuring out where A is at this point and time, and what is possible from there. Situational assessment is a key starting point, as we see A as dynamic, i.e. we don’t assume our current position is static. In navigation terms we need to be able to get a “fix” on our current position. In complex situations that are in flux, it is dangerous to assume that our current context is known. Also key to note here is that in organisations or institutions, the various parts e.g. business units or departments, may not all be in exactly the same place.
Once we’ve oriented ourselves, we can determine what movement is possible (next steps) from where we are, i.e. find “adjacent possibilities”.
Before we start exploring, we need to define the boundaries of our search space.
- Setting direction (intention that constrains & frames).
Instead of setting a goal or destination (B), we set a direction (or heading). We are not looking to define a specific goal or outcome, rather it is a statement of intent or purpose. While we may not think of intent or direction as a constraint, we need to acknowledge that we exclude some options when choosing a heading (i.e., deciding to head South means that going North is no longer an option or going over the mountain means not going around it). While we choose a heading based on the most promising possibilities, we must realize that our final ‘temporal’ destination may be some alternative of that perceived destination (one of many alternative possibilities). This is where intent comes into play, it is intended but not expected.
Without clear directional constraints, people can become paralysed by having too many options. On the other hand, if the constraint is too restrictive, there may be limited or single options and we are less likely to be capable of adapting to environmental conditions even if we desired to. It is therefore important that our statement of intent is specific enough to provide direction and aid in decision-making, but not so specific that it allows too few degrees of freedom for exploration and diversity of perspective (this is what tends to happen when we pursue alignment).
He rangi tā Matawhāiti, he rangi tā Matahwānui
The person with a narrow vision sees a narrow horizon; the person with a wide vision sees a wide horizon.
2. Functional limits — demarcating the search space
When we know our starting position and the direction we want to go in, we need to respect boundaries which demarcate or structure a coherent search space where we can explore a variety of opportunities for action. If we do not respect such boundaries we risk losing coherence and becoming fragmented. One might think of these boundaries as being safety guardrails.
We need to consider four types constraints.
a. Extrinsic Functional Limits. There are constraints that we have little control over; they are givens. We have to work within them or choose a different context. These constraints can be imposed by an external agent or can be a feature of the environment. Examples include laws and regulations (e.g. tax laws), geographical limits like borders or mountain ranges. They can also be imposed by society e.g. taboos or biases (as social licenses).
b. Intrinsic functional limits. These are also imposed by factors beyond our control but are internal and related to capabilities or other intrinsic factors. For example an athlete is limited by the range of motion of the joints in his body — a typical knee can only bend in one direction.
As an example, COVID19 have led to the imposition of many rigid, and hopefully temporary limits. Most of us aren’t allowed to travel, and many are confined to our homes. In many countries businesses which don’t offer essential products and/or services have been forced to stop trading. For some of us, co-morbidities limit our movement even more. In the short term we can do nothing about these constraints, but we can find new ways to operate within them.
In short: Some things may not be possible for us now i.e. we may need to recognise that we simply CAN’T go there.
Something to keep in mind is that perception matters. One person can treat a limited budget as a hard constraint, something that inhibits any momentum; whereas someone else could treat that same constraint as enabling i.e. something that stimulates creative thinking. It is worth doing critical assessment to question assumptions around some of the identified limits.
c. Coherence / Identity boundaries — (constraints that permit). These are constraints which reflect our priorities and values: How, where and why do we want to “show up”? Where do we choose not to go even though we could? The key here is to let people know what is permitted in this context; how do they know they belong? Sometimes this boundary is expressed by values or working agreements. This is a critical boundary. Along with the intent or direction, it enables both coherence AND diversity i.e. if we are heading in the same direction and are attuned to the same constraints, we can move at different speeds, explore different options and even look and sound different, but still belong to the same organisation.
These differ from the intrinsic and extrinsic functional limits in that often we choose these boundaries for ourselves i.e. we could go there but we choose not to. Such boundaries are more permeable and flexible than the limits we described.
d. Scope of agency or degrees of freedom — represented by the depth of the cone. Some parts of the system, by nature of their function or context, will have more freedom to explore than others. For example R&D or marketing may have much more freedom than say Risk & Compliance. Even highly regulated environments need to embrace an adaptive stance however. These units are also within the cone, heading in the same direction between the same guardrails, but the depth of their option field is much more limited.
3. Enabling conditions and co-ordination
Once the space or cone is established: we need to determine what we could do within that space to create the conditions for emergence and productive exploration. We could think of these as nutrients, scaffolds, or handrails we can use as we explore.
“A leader’s role is to intentionally create the conditions that push the system towards thriving and away from extinction during the evolving journey.” — Jennifer Garvey-Berger
Some of the things we can consider here are …
- Enabling co-ordination through shared organising principles or flow heuristics — sometimes called simple rules, these are constraints that enable flow and coordination. While exploring different parts of the option field, we need communication and information flow to make sure we don’t become disconnected and siloed. How do we prioritise? How far do we explore before abandoning our efforts? What are the rhythms and cadences we follow? How do we stay in touch to coordinate, cross-pollinate ideas and learn from each other? Without clear guidelines for interaction, we risk becoming ineffective and fragmented. It is key to note the difference between guiding principles or heuristics that leave room for some autonomy and adaptation over rigid operating principles that don’t.
- Enabling and maintaining requisite diversity (of perspective). If everyone sees the world in similar ways, our exploration will often not be broad enough. We need productive tension and difference to catalyse creativity.
- Ensuring requisite inefficiency or slack … a culture where everyone works 18 hour days, and the focus is solely on efficiency will not be able to learn, explore and adapt. As my friend Doug rightly says, you don’t drive through a game park at 120km/h as you do on the freeway.
- Nurturing adequate connectivity and a thriving social network. Trust and knowledge flows more easily through informal networks in the organisation than formal hierarchies.
- Enabling flow — not only of tangible resources like cash and information but also intangible flows of value, authority, energy, ideas.
- Cultivating curiosity and the ability to see and make use of affordances.
- Distributing decision-making and authority to enable responsiveness
Many of these are again different types of constraints e.g. some constraints connect people or things to each other e.g. networks are made up of constraints that connect. Flow is enabled (or blocked) by constraints; think about water that can be channelled or dammed. Slack is created by constraints that govern how we work. Creativity and curiosity can be catalysed by enabling constraints — think for example of the creativity that comes from a limited number of ingredients in a MasterChef Mystery Box or a half-empty fridge.
4. Feedback … finally and critically, we need adequate feedback mechanisms in place. Externally, we need to continuously monitor our environment to determine if our heading and boundaries are still relevant to the context and if we need to adjust. Inside the cone, we need to know if we are still coherent with the set direction, and we need early warning if we are approaching a functional limit. We also need to measure our own progress and understand what others are doing and how we can co-ordinate or leverage our combined efforts.
Key here is ensuring diverse feedback mechanisms — don’t get stuck in an echo chamber or scan too narrowly. Also make sure that you enable the flow of communication and feedback from the edges of your organisation and/or network. Threat and opportunity emerge on the edges, but often we have no mechanism set up to listen to those edge voices.
Using the Waysfinder
When working with a client using this framework, a typical process unfolds as follows:
- Assess current state.
- Determine where constraints are either not in place, too rigid, too permeable or simply inappropriate.
- Design a portfolio of safe-to-try probes to address the gaps.
- Implement and monitor the probes.
- Repeat / iterate.
This framework is recursive in the way that it can be used on multiple levels in an organisation. Different business units may have different frameworks all within the overarching organisational framework.
It has been used in many different contexts including:
- Strategy in uncertainty especially in the context of needing to re-invent or pivot
- Culture — enabling local difference but maintaining a strong & coherent culture
- Agile — enabling fit for context scaling of agility — i.e. enabling the use of different approaches and methods while remaining coherent to an overall intent of becoming more Agile
- Establishing a new company or community
- Leadership & management
- New approaches to compliance & risk
- Some have used it as an individual coaching tool.
I will expand on these applications in a series of blogs where I will invite colleagues who have been applying the framework to contribute their learnings.
This is a work in progress. I have been working on these ideas for several years, and I have held off posting because I kept learning and refining. There are still quite a number of things I am not fully satisfied with, and my hope is that sharing these ideas with more people will help move them forward.
So many people have helped shape my thinking over the years, I can’t possibly name them all. But I do want to extend a special thank you to Prof John Turner, Greg Spencer, Doug Maarschalk, Michael Göthe, Dave Snowden, Angela Lang, Anne Caspari and Hannes Entz and every one else who have provided feedback, used the framework withtheir own clients, and encouraged me to write it up. It is much appreciated!
I have not referenced all of these directly in this piece, but the following sources have contributed to my thinking and form part of a longer write-up I am working on. There are also many ideas that have developed in informal conversations that are too many to mention!)
Arena, M.J., Uhl-Bien, M. (2016). Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting from Human Capital to Social Capital. People + Strategy, Vol 39.
Bejan, Adrian; J. Peder Zane (2012). Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organizations. Doubleday.
Cilliers, Paul (2001). “Boundaries, hierarchies and networks in complex systems” (PDF). International Journal of Innovation Management. 5.02: 135–147.
Craig, C.. Watson, G. (2011). An affordance based approach to decision making in sport.
Edmondson, A.C., Verdin, P.J. (2017). Your Strategy Should Be a Hypothesis You Constantly Adjust. Harvard Business Review (https://hbr.org/2017/11/your-strategy-should-be-a-hypothesis-you-constantly-adjust)
Garvey-Berger, Simple Habits for complex times.
Heifetz, Ronald A., Marty Linsky, and Alexander Grashow. (2009). The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organisation and the World. Harvard Business Press.
Ingold, T. (2018). Back to the future with the theory of affordances. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 8 (1/2): 39–44
Juarrero A. (2002). Dynamics in action: intentional behaviour as a complex system, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Kerr, J. (2013). Legacy. What the All Blacks can teach us about the business of Life.
Lencioni, Patrick. 2012.The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business. Jossey-Bass.
Letiche, H., Lissack, M., Schultz, R. (2011). Coherence in the midst of complexity: advances in social complexity theory. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN-13: 978–023033850
Nicholson, D.J., Dupre, J. (Eds). (2018). Everything flows. Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology. Oxford University Press.
Pendleton-Jullian, A.M., & Seely Brown, J. Design Unbound: Designing for Emergence in a White Water World, Volume 1 & 2, MIT Press, 2018
Poli, R, A. (2013). Note on the Difference Between Complicated and Complex Social Systems,
Renshaw et al (2019). The constraints-led approach: Principles for Sports Coaching and Practice Design. Routledge
Snowden, D. J., & Boone, M. E. (2007). “A leader’s framework for decision making.” Harvard business review, 85(11), 68–78.
Spiller et al (2015) Wayfinding Leadership: Ground-breaking Wisdom for Developing Leaders
Uhl-Bien, M., & Marion, R. (2011). Complexity leadership theory.
A. Bryman, D. Collinson, K. Grint, B. Jackson, & M. Uhl-Bien (Eds.) The Sage Handbook of Leadership (pp. 468–482). London: Sage.
Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007). Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(4), 29–318.
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Herbert Spencer: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spencer/