Complex Adaptive Systems and the Illusion of Control

Over the last 12 months, we have seen major disruptions to the way organizations function.  Years of refined processes, measures, engagement models, employee training, and a host of other activities were thrown up in the air.  In the very early days of the pandemic, disaster recovery plans designed for a single office or region coming offline fell apart when suddenly all offices came offline.  We instantly had a distributed workforce.  We heard from many Consortium member companies that the first two weeks were chaos, and then with loose guidance and some experimentation, things started to run smoothly.  People adapted to working from home, companies figured out how to get everyone access to needed technologies, staff meetings became a time to connect while dogs or kids interrupted, leaders showed new levels of empathy, and for many in support and services roles, productivity resumed (and in some cases, increased!).  As one leader told me, “Being suddenly distributed was a great equalizer; the corner office was now the exact same office as every employee.  It made us all come together and innovate on some of our fundamental working models.  People are very adaptive when aligned to a mission.”

How did we adapt so quickly to this total disruption?  It is a subject that I am sure will be studied by business majors for years to come, but one interesting perspective is to look at our organizations through the lens of complex adaptive systems. 

Complex Adaptive System: A system in which many independent elements or agents interact, leading to emergent outcomes that are often difficult or  impossible to predict simply by looking at the individual interactions. 

Our organizations are made up of thousands of independent elements and agents: our employees, customers, processes, and tools interact in any number of ways to produce emergent outcomes.  At the Consortium’s November team meeting, Jon Stevens-Hall from BMC presented on the characteristics of complex adaptive systems based on his experience applying this model to ITSM (his Complex Adaptive Systems: a primer for ITSM (i) on Medium is a great place to start).  This presentation inspired a whole new line of thinking about teams in a Services environment.

In support organizations, we often try to control every aspect of the requestor-responder interaction thinking that will lead to better results. We’ve implemented tools and developed processes, workflows, measures, and goals that we believe will reduce variance in our interactions in an effort to improve outcomes. We focus our frontline managers on control instead of coaching and leading.  When we don’t see the results we expect, the first reaction is new measures, new processes, stricter guidelines.  

This is a losing battle!  

If we think instead about our teams as complex adaptive systems, and understand we cannot control every aspect of every interaction, it can help us refocus on the what and the why, and less on the how.  It is impossible to control every interaction.  It is a far better use of our time to be clear on what it is we’re aiming for.

When talking with member companies about the transition to a fully distributed workforce, we haven’t yet come across anyone who has said, “We knew exactly what to tell our teams about how to make this work.”

What we have heard is, “We have a great group of people that really care about each other and our customers, so they adapted and came up with new ways to work”.  The fact that our teams are complex adaptive systems means they are able to deal with disruptions by changing interaction points that lead to new emergent outcomes.  We can enable our teams to do this with less friction if they understand the why (not because we give them new metrics to adhere to).

In our next blog, we will continue to explore complex adaptive systems and to think about how we can leverage a non-linear model to understand and influence the interactions happening in our organizations.

2 thoughts on “Complex Adaptive Systems and the Illusion of Control

  1. Matt, you have covered important aspects on organization to be successful, we should focus on what and why than hovering our eyes on “How”. Individuals cant be treated as Complex Component instead we need to ensure they know what they are doing. WIIFM is what comes into the picture.
    We should envision to work as Hive than an individual component in the network which can further support to achieve the strategic priorities.

    Intangible and Tangible values play an important role here. Intangible is achieved thru empathy be it support communities, customers , peers , leaders and Tangible aspect is what organization take care of by paying the bucks for everyone efforts.

    Thanks, I like reading the article.

  2. Bees dont have any territory or boundary but still they come together and collaborative to prepare the honey. Their aim is to work together and achieve the results.

    Just thought to support by using this analogy..

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