posted 1 Feb 2000 in Volume 3 Issue 5
Review: The Soul at Work: Unleashing the Power of Complexity Science for
This month Charles Sieloff reviews The Soul at Work by Roger Lewin and Birute Regine
Publisher: Orion Business Books, 1999, pp 394
Is complexity science just the latest management fad or will it have real staying power? The authors of this new book argue that most management theories are little more than techniques for managing in a certain way. Complexity science, on the other hand, is based on a rapidly growing body of knowledge about how complex adaptive systems work in many different environments, of which the business enterprise is simply one example. The insights that come out of complexity science are, therefore, more firmly grounded in scientific theory and more universally applicable than what typically passes for consulting wisdom.
Complexity science is not just about chaos theory. Complex adaptive systems can move through three different states in response to internal or external circumstances. A static state may be appropriate and sustainable when the system operates within a stable, predictable environment. A chaotic state may emerge when old patterns are broken and the environment changes in rapid and unpredictable ways. A system may also exist in a 'zone of creative adaptability' (called 'the edge of chaos' by others), in which there is a continuous need to adapt to change in innovative ways. Complexity science helps us understand and deal with all three states, but it owes its current popularity and relevance to the fact that many companies were originally designed to operate in a static state, but are being pushed out of that comfortable state by forces beyond their control.
The key change has been the rapid emergence of the 'connected economy'. Connectedness fundamentally changes the economic landscape by dramatically increasing the flow of information and the number of relationships that must be dealt with. Changes propagate more quickly and more widely through a densely connected environment, creating an unprecedented level of volatility and unpredictability. When confronted with such challenges, many business leaders try to reestablish stability and predictability by tightening organizational controls, imposing top-down direction, and demanding detailed plans and measures. Unfortunately, these instinctive responses are exactly the wrong way for a complex adaptive system to respond to change.
Instead, leaders must start by giving up the notion that they can really control the way a complex organization responds to crisis. Their role becomes one of nurturing an environment in which information flows freely, relationships can be built on trust, and people at every level of the organization can take immediate action based on their detailed knowledge of local conditions. Although such ideas are not new, the authors hope that complexity science will make them more palatable to hard-nosed managers who must somehow act against their instincts. 'For the first time there is a science of fundamental organisational dynamics that gives a foundation for a human-oriented management practice.'
To bolster their case, more than half the book is devoted to a series of case studies. These practical examples show that many leaders follow the principles suggested by complexity science either by accident or by intuition, only later discovering that their approach has a legitimate theoretical basis. Even when the theory comes after the practice, it helps managers understand why certain things seem to work and gives them the confidence to continue their unorthodox ways. '(Y)ou no longer have to defend being 'soft', because now you know why it works, not just that it does work.'
Although the book does not directly address knowledge management issues, there are a number of implications that clearly emerge from both the theory and the practice of complexity science. Complex adaptive systems thrive in an environment of open information flows and short feedback loops. From a knowledge management perspective, it is much more important to nurture social networks and encourage organisational connectivity than it is to capture static knowledge in repositories. It is also crucial to establish both internal and external relationships built on trust, so that knowledge can be shared quickly and easily. A number of examples also highlight the importance of designing or creating physical spaces that create opportunities for spontaneity and interaction and help break down established organisational patterns.
In spite of the theoretical underpinnings of complexity science, many business leaders will find it hard to follow the advice of this book. Ultimately, it is still a leap a faith to believe that only by giving up the desire to control can a leader effectively influence the way the organisation responds to disruptive change. The rational manager will be frustrated by the fact that complex adaptive systems do not respond in predictable ways to linear cause and effect analysis. And yet, leadership does play a critical role because 'unlike ecosystems, human systems have intent and foresight. Humans have more than instinct: they have conscious choices and deliberate actions, which influence the system's evolution.' Think of your organisation not as a natural ecosystem, but as a garden that needs constant attention and cultivation in order to create the conditions needed for a successful harvest.
Charles Sieloff is Research Affiliate at the Institute for the Future (Menlo Park, California). He can be contacted at:email@example.com