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Why do our organisational charts rarely match the real hierarchy in the place and why are our job descriptions out of date so quickly?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