Reinvention in a Complex World
Never has it been as critical as it is now for us to reinvent ourselves, for our organisations to recreate themselves and for society to reimagine itself in order to survive, let alone flourish in the future. We need new stories – inside out. Only organisations which reinvent themselves can survive and thrive in the long run, in particular in a backdrop of extreme uncertainty. To reinvent ourselves in the context of complexity, we need to understand complexity in the first place.
Many organisations nowadays struggle with VUCA, and with complexity in particular. Most attempt to meet complexity as if it was simply complicated. Complex is completely different. Our traditional way of applying linear causality does not work when working in complexity!
Some of the key features that we know about complexity are:
- There are no known solutions or answers.
Therefore, the traditional approach of applying past expertise or best practice not only does not work, it is often counterproductive, making matters worse.
- Emergence plays a key role.
Therefore, solutions cannot be planned or mapped out, rather they emerge out of a collective wisdom using constraints, probes and iterations.
- Self-organisation is an important component in enabling emergence.
Yet our habitual reaction is to try to ‘manage’ complexity and control it – this assumes that we already know how to do this, yet because we actually don’t, matters are further aggravated.
One of the leading experts of human-related complexity within organisational environments is Prof Ralph Stacey. He calls for “Reflective Inquiry”, which comprise of deep conversations about a complex issue from a completely empty space of not knowing, i.e. from the premise that any known solutions are viewed as irrelevant or wrong. This requires conversations which put aside anything one may know, emptying one’s tea cup, to quote the famous ‘koan’. For most people this is proving difficult, especially for leaders, consultants and experts.
What recent research of complexity in leadership within organisations further shows is that such conversations should not just take place within teams alone, such as working teams, management teams or executive teams, or even within departments. Rather diversity of perspectives is crucial here, and it is therefore vital that these different perspectives are brought together into the conversations. In an organisation this means bringing together people not only from different parts of the organisation, from the various departments, both horizontally and vertically, but also externally, such as customers, suppliers and other stakeholders.
Because solutions are not known, meeting or conversation agendas cannot be planned in advance, as this completely contradicts the principle of emergence. Nor can the selection of participants be pre-selected in advance, as the very selection pre-supposes known solutions or sources of expertise. Indeed complexity defies everything we know or do in classical management – it requires open ended adaptability rather than transformation (towards a known or desired outcome) – complexity requires adaptability precisely where an outcome cannot be not known or planned.
In our Reinvention programs we address this in our 1-3 day pan-organisational gatherings of people invited to dialogue around ‘reinvention in complexity’ who are drawn to participate because they care. They come without an advanced agenda, just a container where such reflective inquiry in a self-organised and emergent way can happen. This is what Open Space Technology does so well: It is one of the few social technology formats which can meet complexity head on. Organisations can meet complexity with complexity through Open Space, and do so on a regular ongoing basis.
Borrowing from Caterfly’s reinvention SMART model, our approach consists of an Open Space meetup at the outset. This is followed by an experimental Beta-lab cocoon (e.g. 6 months) where various reinvention methods or solutions can be tested out, probed and prototyped. This culminates in another Open Space event where the probes can be evaluated, i.e. rejected, adapted or further developed. Because this is an open-ended adaptability model, rather than a transformation model, the second Open Space event at the same time becomes the starting point of a second Beta-Lab cocoon, and so the same experimental Adaptive Space process starts again, leading to a next Open Space event, and so on – reinvention on a continuous basis. Adaptability is continuous reinvention.
Our role is to facilitate the first Open Space event and thereafter support the Beta-lab cocoon activities. This includes various team reinvention skills activities as well as individual coaching as required. We also train some internal facilitators in facilitation skills, so that the organisation can run this process independently themselves. We also support them facilitating the second OS event, and possibly the third etc, depending how confident they feel, indeed till continuous adaptable reinvention becomes part of the culture. Reinvention, adaptability and complexity all require the regenerative nurturing of conditions that enable emergent learning to flourish.