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Leading complex organizations



A business reporter for the BBC recently posted a story that caught my eye. It was titled, Why businesses may need to start hiring biologists. (Click here to to watch the video). It attracted my attention because my initial training was as a biologist, and I had always thought that my background gave me many advantages and ways of understanding organizations, teams and people that I have come to work with. On the other hand I have not encountered many biologists in the business world except in organizations focused on the environment or perhaps healthcare.

At the heart of the matter is the notion that it can be be useful to view organizations and businesses as if they were complex adaptive systems, similar to those that we find in nature – from the Murray Darling Basin to a termite mound or our gut flora that we can make more sense of what we experience in businesses.  The understandings from complexity science and viewing organizations as complex adaptive systems (CAS) allow us to lead and manage in more effective ways. The figure below presents in summary the key approaches that will allow us to influence and ‘dance’ with our organizations, rather than attempt (futilely) to control them.

Figure: Leadership from a Complex Adaptive System perspective

Leadership of CAS


Vision as a conversation in process

Foster deep conversations continually and extensively about what the organization is about, its role in the world and where it is heading. Foster through these conversations a strong sense of unity of purpose.

Strong fluid connections and relationships

Focus on building strong relationships with people inside and outside the organization. Breakdown silos between groups – “the most effective way to change a linear structure and engage in non-linear processes is to attend to the non-linear world of relationships” (Regine & Lewin).

Being accessible, listening and being attuned to your people is part of building strong relationships. Foster changing and evolving, fluid forms of connection as fits the need and purpose

Embrace and foster diversity in all forms

Foster and seek out a diversity of ideas, views and approaches, backgrounds, perspectives and people

Values driven decisions and behaviors

Values are what are sometimes referred to as the ‘attractors’ in the system. An explicit set of shared priorities that are lived by all is important to the healthy functioning of the organizational system. These values then need to translated into social contracts that spell out the behaviors to be promoted and those to be avoided

Experimentation and learning

Encourage risk-taking and experimentation. But experimentation for its own sake is an indulgence. Workplaces should be places to experiment, make mistakes, reflect and learn!

Creative tension

Surfacing and dealing with the causes of tension in organizations, sparks creativity, and fosters flexibility and adaptation. Avoiding tensions and keeping things comfortable or safe is the pathway to organizational torpor.

Simple rules of engagement

In complex systems it is better to have a few simple rules for how people and parts of the system related rather than many that complicate

Feedback processes

Nurture strong feedback loops and the flow of information through the system, both short cycle and long cycle.

Jill Tideman

4 Responses to “Leading complex organizations”
  1. Ruth Berghan

    A beautifully written article Jill. Interesting, clear and succinct.

    • Jill Tideman

      Thank you Ruth. I am glad it hit the mark for you!

  2. Jeff Stitt

    Nice. I love the ‘vision as a conversation in process’. So much more dynamic than the framed values set on the wall. What’s your take on the tension between ‘take more risk’ and the (sometimes) overzealous thrust for ‘zero harm’?

    • Jill Tideman

      Jeff, thank you for your comments. Underlying your question to me is an assumption that in terms of approaches to safety in the workplace that there is a tension between taking risks and zero harm. It is probably more helpful to look at these polarities as part of the complexity that is getting great safety performance. To achieve this it requires both attention to clear procedures and practices to manage risk (bottom-left hand corner aspects) as well as engagement of hearts and minds of the people (middle ground aspects). If you wish to view it as a tension then engaging with these approaches may lead to more creative solutions emerging. Regards, Jill

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