3 keys to working in a complex system

We are slow learners. We have known for a long time that change cannot be ‘managed’. Most of the change we think about, and that matters, involves complex systems where no individual player or part can orchestrate the shift. These ideas have been around for ages, but the inclination of leaders remains stuck in the mechanistic paradigm of cause and effect. I feel like we should be working together to see progress on some big intractable issues, but instead it seems we are still trying to help each other understand what it’s like to work in a complex system. We are so drawn to idea of leadership as control that we revert to approaches to change that we know in our heads won’t work.

In my experience, there are three things we need to do when seeking transitions within a complex adaptive system:

1. Cultivate a shared understanding of the transition needed. In most cases this is best articulated in terms of outputs, results, or outcomes. It has been well said, “Every system is perfectly designed to produce the results it does.” The only way to change the result is adjust the system as a whole. But until we share a commitment to a common outcome, we will be stuck in pseudo-competition within the system.

2. Focus on the relationship between the parts, not the parts. Each part is already motivated to optimise its contribution. The key to optimised collective impact in the system is the connections between the parts. Old fashioned ideas such as collaboration and coordination for the common good need to be recovered.

3. Adaptive systems are self organising. It follows that the key to seeing sustainable change is to facilitate incentives for the parts to behave in ways that move the system toward the desired state.