Uzma Aitqad writes about how organisations are failing, and successful organisations are evolving as learning organisations.

Why Complexity Thinking?

Ensuring sustainability has become the biggest of all challenges that businesses are faced with today.

Companies are dying younger because they’re failing to learn and adapt to the constantly changing demands of the complex, uncertain, volatile and ambiguous business environment. The speed and prevalence of change are such that it can’t be managed in the traditional manner by a suite of few senior leaders. It must become the responsibility of everyone in the organisation to adapt to change.

A smart approach to dealing with this sustainability issue would be to transform your organisation into a learning organisation, where learning takes place instantly rather than in a discontinued fashion. The difference between a “learning organisation” and “organisational learning” can be best understood by the difference between “Becoming” and “Being”.

According to the research published in the HBR a while ago businesses in the US are disappearing faster than ever before. Public companies in the US have a one in three chance of being delisted in the next five years, whether because of bankruptcy, liquidation, M&A and other causes. That’s six times the delisting rate of companies 40 years ago. And the rise in mortality applies regardless of age, size, or sector – the situation is not very different in other parts of the world also.

We’ve seen in the UK itself how once flourishing retail businesses like BHS and Toys RUS have packed up and become history.

How can “complexity thinking” help us build a learning organisation?

If looked at carefully, there is a stark resemblance of business with biological species in important respect; both are known as “Complex Adaptive Systems”. Therefore, the principles that confer robustness in these systems, whether natural or human-made, are directly applicable to businesses.

In complex adaptive systems, local events and interactions among the agents whether ants, trees or people, can cascade and reshape the entire system – a property called emergence. The system’s new structure then influences the individual agents, resulting in further changes to the overall system. Thus, the system continually evolves in hard-to-predict ways through a cycle of local interactions, emergence and feedback.

In nature for example, we see this play out when ants of some species, although individually following simple behavioural rules, collectively create “super colonies” of several hundred million ants covering more than a square kilometre of territory.

In businesses, we see workers and management, through their local actions and interactions shape the overall structure, behaviour and performance of a firm. In both spheres, these emergent outcomes influence individuals and create a new context for their interactions. If we look at team dynamics, the pattern of local interactions, emergence and feedback are vital to the sustainability of the business.

Any example from the practical business world that explains application of complexity thinking?

As part of my MSc research in 2016, I came across this wonderful case study where complexity thinking was applied successfully in the programme run in primary care units in NHS London. The programme was triggered by the need to meet changing health care demands of local communities.

The programme was designed to bring about the change in the performance of public health nurses in an inner-city primary care trust. Two professional groups, “health visitors” and “school nurses” were the focus of attention of this programme and the desire was to modernize the roles of these disciplines with changing health and care demands of the local community.

One of the critical challenges for the leaders of change on this programme was to come to terms with the contradiction in planning for uncertainty and unpredictability. Within this programme, the expected outcomes were not mapped out in advance, rather it was planned that a future, which met the expectations and needs of external stakeholders, practitioners and local people, would emerge through a continuous process of learning, envisioning, clarifying and experimenting. The change leaders didn’t engineer change but rather created the conditions within which the solution emerged, which was more sustainable as it was owned by the people who had to practice it.

The programme challenged everyone actively involved with it. There was widespread liberation of energy and creativity that had previously been stifled by bureaucratic structures and expectations of conformity. This liberation led to a range of new self-organizing patterns of behaviour emerging right across the health care system which were more responsive to local needs – the learning was acquired in a similar fashion as it happens in natures-built complex adaptive systems.

I strongly believe an artful application of complexity thinking would contribute to building a learning organisation which will be long lasting and always evolving as required by the environment it operates in.

Contact Uzma to find out more and how we can help you at [email protected].

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