Each ‘saw’ the parts but not the whole. This is really important because the elephant is so much more than its parts. Describing the parts gives us no idea about the power and intelligence of such a magnificent beast.
In a similar way, for the last few years, I have been studying four subjects in isolation. These are:
Each is a fascinating subject in its own right and each has provided me with loads of deep insights into how to do business more successfully in a changing world. But my intuition is that I may have been looking at the parts and not seeing the elephant. I may have missed the most important part.
I think I’m getting closer to seeing the ‘elephant’ but it remains frustratingly fuzzy and any insights you have would be very welcome. Before I describe my understanding of the ‘elephant’ I want to briefly describe the four subjects independently.
When you learn to look for them, systems are everywhere. Systems Thinking is about seeing the parts and the whole as well as the relationships between the parts and the whole including whats outside the whole. For example, in the case of the elephant, systems is about seeing the ears, the trunk, the legs, the tail and all the other parts of the elephant as well as the elephant as a whole and the relationship between all the parts and the elephant and the elephant and its environment.
Without understanding Systems, managers are more likely to make decisions that may fix some short-term localised problem, only to find that the problem pops up somewhere else in the organisation or at a later time.
Without understanding Systems, managers are more likely to focus on their silos, ready to do battle for turf and avoid anything that will make them look bad.
But when managers are trained in Systems and have the tools to see the connections and the whole, they are more likely to work together for the benefit of the whole organisation.
The study of Complexity is about how things are organised in relation to each other. Physicists used to see their science as the study of matter; today they are seeing it as the study of how matter is organised and relates to each other. For example, ice, water and steam can all be described as H2O but the properties of each state are very different because of the way oxygen and hydrogen atoms are organised and relate to each other.
What many managers see as a complicated mishmash becomes far more simple when they start to see things in terms of fractals of a complex living system.
Complexity shows that throughout the natural world, organisation is largely bottom up; only man would be arrogant and stupid enough to structure business in such a top down way. Rather than focusing on rigid hierarchical power structure, business enterprises are better conceived of as a web of nested parts all shaped into the same pattern as the whole.
In my opinion the biggest benefit from studying complexity is how complex behaviour emerges from the simplest behaviours at a local level. Examples include: human brains, the Internet, the economy, the ecosystem, many animal behaviours like fish in schools and birds in flocks and humans self manage when trusted to work together.
Comlexity is important to business because, unless managers understand it they undervalue emergence, and nearly everything of value emerges from people following some simple rules. These include: teamwork, communication, trust, customer service and culture.
3. Network Science
Networks are about flows and connections. Networks are important to business because, unless managers understand networks they think they are managing a hierarchy (organisational tree) and act accordingly, whereas they are more likely to be managing a network of relationships, and this is managed in a completely different way. You can control and constrain a hierarchy, but a network can only be influenced, prodded, and guided in the right direction.
Networks can describe how people actually work; such as who they communicate with, who they get information from. This is important to business because the most valuable people are not always at the top of the tree or even known to the management team. Unless managers understand how information really flows in their organisation and how decisions are really made they are likely to undervalue people with critical process and customer knowledge.
In the last 10 years, mainly as a result of computer and communication research, the Laws of Networks have been codified and a whole new science of networks has been developed.
4. Chaos Theory
For the last 30 years Chaos scientists have known there is a “sweet spot” at which all living systems have the ability to self-organise or “emerge” without any top-down control. This sweet spot occurs near what scientists call the “edge of chaos”. This is where the system is delicately poised between one steady state and another steady state.
In nature, these transitions occur often, especially in living systems. The membrane of every living cell is delicately poised between a solid state and a liquid state (on the edge of chaos). This is what makes life so creative; change a single protein molecule and you can produce enormous changes in the function of the cell. Brain activity lies on the edge of chaos. This is why random thoughts pop into your head. This provides brains with their amazing capacity to process information and rapidly adapt to our ever-changing environment.
The membrane of a living cell is a wonderful image to help managers think of their business: just ordered enough to give some sort of form/meaning and open enough to its environment to allow movement (of people, ideas and information) in and out of the organisation and just closed enough to have an identity.
Chaos is important to business because when managers understand Chaos they are less more to allow their organisation to move towards the sweet-spot. Otherwise they are more likely to make their organisation too ordered, too top-down, too controlled, too centralised. The paradox is that over-control leads to less order and less-control leads to more order. When too much order doesn’t work (and it won’t because it can’t) these managers flip to the opposite extreme and the system becomes too disordered and behaves like mob-rule with a great deal of energy wasted fighting turf battles and trying to survive and protect against unruly behaviour. Many managers dance a mad waltz. Round and round they go, flip-flopping from centralisation to decentralisation. It’s a never-ending, soul-destroying, energy-sapping dance; and it’s totally unnecessary.
It's important to understand that the sweet-spot is a law of nature. You don't manage your way towards the sweet spot. Instead, you need to do the opposite — remove restrictions and barriers and trust the system to gravitate to the sweet-spot. Chaos shows why to open your organisation, remove barriers, break down walls, remove silos.
Understanding Chaos is also important because close to chaos small things can lead to major results and certain points in a system have strong leverage points. It’s called the “butterfly affect.” Its like a client of mine said: “big doors swing on small hinges”.
What’s the Elephant?
From the brief description of the four subjects I hope you can see that there are many areas of similarity between them. But the big question for me is am I being blind?: Am I seeing the elephant?
My hunch is that the elephant is about connectedness based on life-force energy and vibrational resonance. By connectedness I mean relationships and belonging.
For years sociologists have known that the need for belonging is one of the deepest of all human needs — maybe as deep is the need for food. It seems that physicists studying systems, complexity, networks and chaos are now saying the same thing.
If my hunch is right then connectedness, relationships, belonging and life-force are much more important than most managers and management theory suggests.
If my hunch is true the key to leadership is:
- To connect to ourselves, so we know deeply who we are and can work more authentically and effectively. This is what I call the world within.
- To connect to each other so that we can work together to achieve more than on our own. This is what I call the world between.
- To connect to the world so that virtuous energy and forces emerge (like love, truth and beauty, relationships, culture, understanding; and trust) and reduce vicious energy and forces (like shame, guilt, and fear). This is what I call the world outside.
Can you help me inch closer to a deeper understanding? I’d be very grateful. Listen to your head and your heart and let me know.
Bruce Holland is the author of the book: Cracking Great Leaders Liberate Human Energy at Work and the supporting Program designed for other consultants who don’t have the skills or time to develop their own intellectual property.