Complexity and Control

Jordan Greenhall recently used an interesting metaphor for why we have ended up with hierarchical organisations and leaders who operate from control-based structures in order to manage complexity.

 

I’ll quote it in fully here because I doubt I could express it any better:

“Imagine a boat. We are going to row that boat, starting with but one paddle. If you’ve ever learned to canoe, you know that this isn’t simple. There is an art to it. You have to hold the paddle correctly, you have to learn how to put it into the water, how to stroke, how to return. The difference between doing it well and doing it poorly is significant. But, with a little practice, almost everyone can get at least reasonably capable of rowing their canoe.

This is a “management of complexity” problem. The relationship between oar, water, boat and person is complex. All of these systems are feeding back on each other in subtle and hard to predict ways. But the “control capacity” of a standard-issue human is up to the task. The human body, adapted to things like walking upright on two legs and throwing rocks has enough control capacity to manage this level of complexity.

Now add another oar. Generally, even someone experienced with a single paddle takes a little while to get it figured out. In particular, you have to learn how to simplify the problem by constraining some of the degrees of freedom of the paddles. Perhaps you fix the oars to the boat so that they can only traverse a single path. Certainly, you are going to have to make sure that you are paddling both oars in the same rhythm. By getting the oars into “coherence,” you can get the complexity of the problem inside your control capacity.

Coherence is one of the most important concepts in the management of complexity. When you take two systems (two paddles) and synchronize them, you radically simplify the complexity of the overall system. By getting two paddles into coherence, you are able to turn two paddles that you can’t manage into one big paddle that you can manage.

Now add another person to the mix. Side by side — each with one oar. This kicks the complexity up a lot. We are now dealing not only with two oars, we are dealing with two different control structures. And, of course, the only way to get things moving is for the control structures to get into coherence. Fortunately, humans are pretty good at this too. Like dancers or musicians playing together, we have a lot of bandwidth for small group synchrony. Getting into flow together takes some doing, but with a little practice we can manage this complexity.

Now add another ten people into the boat. This is a real problem. The complexity of this overall system exceeds the natural control capacity of “group flow”. Try as you might, it is darn near impossible for a group of twelve people to “self organize” into an effective rowing team.

Unless you put someone in charge.

Add someone to the front of the boat whose job is nothing but synchronizing the whole team (“stroke!”) and reduce everyone else’s job to responding to the signal coming from that leader (“stroke!”) and suddenly the system comes back into control. In effect, you’ve replaced thirteen individuals with one “group of people” and one “leader” in a control hierarchy. This is a radical simplification. As the Greeks and Romans of old discovered, it scales. As long as the people rowing the boat stay inside their box and focus only on doing their job, and as long as the coxswain says in a simple rhythm, you can stack dozens of rowers and get the job done.

Notice what happens here. In particular, notice what has to happen up and down the control hierarchy. The bandwidth (the amount of signal) going up and down the hierarchy has to be extremely simple. (“Stroke!”) Imagine if the rowers had to paddle and converse about where the boat should go. It couldn’t be done. Imagine if the coxswain had to try and control two boats simultaneously. Except in the very rare circumstance that the two boats could be consistently and precisely coherent, it couldn’t be done.”

What struck me immediately was that once there are multiple boats all trying to coordinate then the complexity increases and the various forms of control cease to be as effective. Any number of historic sea battles spring to mind.

Likewise the excellent recent movie Eye In the Sky starring Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman. It can be interpreted in terms of the tension between the technical, practical and moral dimensions and the dynamics of power and personality as the situation unfolds in complex and unpredictable ways.

Capacities for Leaders

What fascinates me at the moment is the question of what capacities leaders might need to “find their way about” in situations that are still “in motion” or where they face difficulties or disquiets that are of a more practical and moral nature. The kind of situations that can be contrasted with those simply arise from technical problems that can be solved with accurate problem definition, sufficient information and good decision-making.

What might be the characteristics of “culturally mature” leaders who are capable of operating in emerging, unfinished situations and circumstances in which no-one knows their way about?

An interesting starting point can be found in the work of Charles Johnston who has developed a Cultural Maturity Model. With some colleagues he has articulated some characteristics of culturally mature leadership. Over the next few weeks I’ll consider these suggestions and explore the connections to other stuff I’ve been reading and thinking about. I’ll start here:

“The ability to utilize multiple intelligences. If you wish to successfully address systemic questions, you must be able to access all of yourself as a system. You must draw on your whole self — your body, your imagination, your feelings, and your spirit, as well as your intellect — to effectively understand and effectively lead.”

Perhaps I would change this to refer to multiple “perspectives” or “orientations”. The significance of being able to “access all of yourself”, however, for our ongoing capacity to learn, not just “from” experience, but “within” experiences and situations cannot be underestimated.

In my view the ability to integrate of “1st person” awareness and inquiry with other more familiar forms, is one of the things that will set leaders of the future apart. This, along with the courage to be openly unknowing and vulnerable will be what will galvanise and inspire, especially when we do it intentionally and collectively. We must be able to increasingly draw on multiple perspectives to “read” situations. Perspectives that are familiar and ingrained along with those we are still discovering and learning our way into.

To bring “all of oursleves” to the table we must work on our skills and develop practices and heuristics for reading situations and circumstances in terms of:

Our bodily responses

Our relationships and power dynamics and how we express them in our shared language

Our learned capacities and capabilities

Our goals and purposes and the strategies we adopt to achieve them

Our willingness and capacity to doubt and re-define what we have previous taken for granted

Our capacity for personal, group, organisational/institutional and societal transformation

Our ongoing commitment and willingness to not take ourselves and/or the prevailing view too seriously and to actively seek further de-definition and transformation

In this we will be moving beyond binary “either/or” and complementary “both/and” thinking into something that is both “dialogic” and “polyphonic”.


Practice

In the next week or so perhaps you could try an exercise in intentionally applying some or all of these perspectives (particularly any you typically don’t adopt) to a situation you are in by asking some of these questions.

What physical sensation(s) do I experience when I’m in this situation? Where do I feel the situation in my body? What emotions does the situation arouse in me?

Who else is involved in the situation? Imagine the situation is in the centre of the room: What is everyone’s position and stance in relation to the situation? Who has power? What kind? How do they use that power?

What expertise and capacity do I/we have to deal with this situation? What might our expertise/knowledge gaps be? What capacities could/should we develop?

What is my/our sense of what this situation calling for? What does our current thinking suggest we should be trying to achieve here? What other possibilities are there?

After you have done this ask yourself:

What are my anticipations, feelings, intuitions and educated guesses about what will happen next in this situation?

Then as the situation plays out monitor your anticipations, noticing in particular when what happens isn’t quite in sync with what you anticipated.

What do you learn from this noticing?