New complexity

I recently submitted an abstract to the editor of a special issue of a journal, titled “Complexity, Leadership and Change Management”. I wanted to explain the use of organisational constellations for leadership transformation processes, using a specific case that I had been working on with McKinsey & Co.

Interestingly, the response I got from the editor was positive but riddled with question marks and suggestions – basically, I understood that if I wanted to see the paper published, I ought to adhere to some canon of scientists working in this field. Not an untypical situation, I take it. Below is my response to the editor (I decided that I would withdraw my paper). Interesting to me is my own reply on his comment regarding the relationship between BALANCE and COMPLEXITY. The editor wrote:

You mention complex human systems and you mention that the aim of your method is to gain balance in the system. From a modern complexity perspective this is not possible, because the (unaviodable) phenomena of complexity undermines balance and creates and thrives on diversity and conflict.

And I replied:

Regarding the relationship between balance (an important parameter in actual constellation work) and complexity: my answer would be that though complex phenomena frequently exhibit diversity and conflict, there must be balancing moments or periods in any organisation – otherwise, like in the physical situation of “resonance” or “negative feedback escalation”, the system in question breaks apart. Which is neither wanted nor happening in reality all that much. We observe quite the opposite! So one way of putting it would be: whether the system is in a state of balance (metastable equilibrium) or not depends on context in terms of structure (including size of system) and time (which interval are we observing).

One could also use the “complex problems” classification of Dörner (1976) for example – complexity is a continuum whose parameters are, among others: size of problem/system, dynamical properties, intransparency of the situation (time and structure), multiple goals etc. At one end of the continuum, tasks are clearly separated (the whole = sum of parts), at the other end the principle of oversummation holds (whole > sum of parts) and one or all of these parameters assume high values. Successful CM interventions assess where the system/problem resides in the continuum and craft interventions accordingly. Whereby BALANCE would be the ultimate goal, possible achieved by traversing a series of highly disruptive and conflict-ridden situations.

Summarising: that complexity phenomena “undermine balance” and “create and thrive on diversity and conflict” does not, in my view, preclude the existence of states of metastable equilibrium (or transient balance) in the system – quite the opposite, actually. The interesting issue for me is not so much to understand complexity phenomena, but to understand under which conditions complex systems can be stabilised. The method I wanted to present is one that works in practice towads such a goal.

Later, the editor replied to my comments himself:

Interesting thoughts. I see now that I probably was a little too categorical about the balance issue. What I am generally interested in is the paradoxical character of social life, where stability and change happens at the same time as the same process of movement. So yes, I think most of us experience a sense of stability and balance in situations at the same time as we experience that change is happening continously.

I think he put his finger on the point when he identified the situation as riddled by “paradox”. So there!

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