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Surviving And Thriving

Everyday we willingly accept that our world is totally unpredictable:

following hours of professional analysis the results of sporting events constantly surprise us, sudden slumps in the economy catch out the canniest investors and only those blessed with hindsight saw it coming - afterwards, the weather can make a mockery of even the most powerful and sophisticated computers used for forecasting, people power can suddenly erupt and leaderless forces can pull down the Berlin Wall or topple presidents.

If we accept this uncertainty in our broader lives and indeed in many cases we relish it, then why do we wish to treat our work lives so differently?

Why do we spend so much effort on our business plans when we know that in previous years unexpected events ensured that the plan was never delivered in the way it was written?

Why do our best attempts at rules and processes etc get in the way of the best workers doing a good job and still they don't enable the worst workers to get it right?

Why do our organisational charts rarely match the real hierarchy in the place and why are our job descriptions out of date so quickly?

Cause and Effect
The answer is simple. For many years scientist saw the universe as a linear place. One where simple rules of cause and effect are applied. They viewed the universe as a big machine and thought that if they took the machine apart and understood the parts, then they would understand the whole. The world of business took the same view and saw organisations as machines, believing that if you took the parts and made each work better, then the whole would work better. Scientists believed the universe could be controlled and similarly managers believed that organisations could be controlled.

Complex Universe
Scientists have moved on and they now accept that the universe is a complex, uncertain and unpredictable place and they have developed a concept known as complex adaptive systems which explains the phenomena they are looking at.

This theory can be demonstrated by what happens when a set of traffic lights at a busy junction ceased to function. At first there is a lot of hesitancy but gradually a pattern emerges which the motorists recognise and they all start to cross a few at a time in each direction and very often what emerges is more effective than the normal pattern. This continues very well until the traffic wardens arrive and start to direct the traffic and the queues build and are worse than normal.

Complex Adaptive Systems
In a complex adaptive system there are the agents, which are the components of the system, such as the ants, food and predators in an ant colony or the molecules in a weather system. In our case they are the motorists at the traffic lights. These agents interact with each other in a wide variety and largely unpredictable way but regularities appear and form patterns which feed back into the system and influence what happens but without controlling the system. This is what happens at our traffic lights the motorists intuitively start to form a pattern which then informs the behaviour of the following motorists. This pattern will change as the circumstances change, in our case the traffic flows and is certainly very different from the pattern imposed by the traffic warden. The system is clearly quite complex as there are no set rules but more importantly it is adaptive in that the pattern changes as the circumstances change - hence a Complex Adaptive System.

Most of the things around us are complex adaptive systems - the weather, environment, our immune systems, our bodies, brains, the economy, neighbourhoods, governments, sporting events and, most important, the organisations in which we work.

Not A Management Process
It is important to realize at this point that Complex Adaptive Systems are NOT a management process, like Total Quality Management or Business Process Re-engineering which require the use of consultants and big change programmes. Complex Adaptive Systems are a concept which provides us with a fresh way of looking at our organisations. Our organisations are a Complex Adaptive System whether we want them to be or not and viewing them as one will open up new insights and opportunities which can lead us to making changes which will have beneficial effects on our bottom line - however we measure it. They are about gaining options and choices.

So what are the properties of Complex Adaptive Systems and how can they help our business? I would like to explore just 3 of them to illustrate some of the benefits of thinking this way:

Emergence: As our organisation goes about its normal functions patterns will begin to emerge - about our customers, suppliers and staff. Spotting these patterns early will give us an advantage in terms of meeting our customers' changing needs faster than our competitors. Strategy should emerge, rather than being imposed from the top down. We should let strategy emerge from what the people in our systems are saying and doing, then feeding back the patterns we are observing and seeing what others think. This speeds up the process and gets ownership and understanding of the strategy.

Co-evolution: All systems exist within an environment which includes many other systems. The system which is our organisation sits within the bigger systems, such as our sector and our local economy. These systems are constantly changing and for our system to maintain best fit with its environment it must keep changing too. But as it changes to fit the environment it changes the environment because it is part of that environment. Therefore all systems need to keep co-evolving with their environments. For our organisation to survive and more importantly to thrive it needs to keep doing two things. Changing to meet the changes in the environment (such as meeting changing customer needs and new regulations) and sometimes it needs to change the environment to suit its needs (such as creating demand or lobbying government). The danger of having too set a planning process is that our attentions can then be on delivering the plan rather than on changing to meet the changes in the environment.

Self Organising: As we saw from the traffic light example Complex Adaptive Systems are self-organising and left to themselves they come up with not only the most suitable organisation but one that also keeps changing as the environment changes. Most traditional management practices are based on old style linear thinking and are aimed at controlling the workforce. They prevent our organisation from self organising and making us less likely to spot emerging patterns or to evolve with our environments.

All sectors are having to reduce their time to market whether they are offering services or products. The quicker we can identify new opportunities and deliver them to customers the better our chances of survival. But if the speed to market has to get quicker then the chains of decision making must get shorter. Ultimately those at the edge of organisations, the people dealing directly with customers, suppliers and other key stakeholders, will need to be the ones making the decisions, with the centre just being responsible for supplying resources. This will mean that either we fully (and I do mean fully) empower the people working at the edge, or that we move the decision makers currently at the centre to the edge, or preferably do both. But whatever we do we must remove from our organisation all those controls which are making us conform to some predetermined pattern rather than enabling us to respond flexibly to our environment.

We live and work in a time of extraordinary change we need to ride that change and make it work for us rather than forever battling to keep up. The concept of complex adaptive systems enables us to harness this change and to make us more competitive in our chosen workplace. It does not require us to do anything but it does enable us to see things differently and act differently. More importantly it enables us to better survive and thrive

Written by Peter Fryer for Between Business

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