This postmodern age of complexity calls for managers who can think differently and are energized by uncertainty and change.
“When our case is new, we must think anew.”
To say that we live in a world of complexity is to state the obvious, but to state how best to function in it is not so obvious. This is particularly true when it comes to management.
The modern age from which we have recently emerged may be best symbolized by the automobile as its metaphor. It was the world of engines, assembly lines, scientific management, pyramidal organizational charts, command and control, and linear thinking to figure out causes and effects. Like a watch, the whole was always equal to the sum of its parts. No matter how complicated a problem, it could, with enough diligence, be figured out like pieces of a puzzle found and assembled.
Of course, the automobile is still with us, although few of us can fix anything under the hood. But the postmodern age into which we have arrived has a different metaphor. The Internet speaks to the world of networks, nanoseconds, artificial intelligence, hypertext and iPhones, but also to information overload, tipping points, cyber-terrorism and emergence. Information technology has supercharged our lives, with dramatic effects: the microchip has replaced more than six million jobs; robotics will replace even more. Any work that can be done by machines will be done by machines, aka robots.
Technology and demographics are the primary drivers of complexity. At one time, nations could be protected from the evil deeds and bad decisions made in foreign lands. But 9/11 exploded that myth of security. Today, there are no safe harbors; no one is protected. This is the postmodern world of complexity and emergence: precipitous change, uncertainty and turbulence, at a level never known before in the history of humanity. It’s felt in every area of life.
In the domain of work, employers and employees find themselves adjusting weekly, if not daily. In effect, everyone—the CEO, executives, middle managers and team leaders—is surfing the waves of change while simultaneously dancing on the board. This reality creates angst within employees that spills over into the workplace. To deal with this turbulence of rapid and unpredictable change, a new kind of manager—and employee, too—with a different way of thinking, feeling and acting is required.
“A great deal more can be known than can be proven.”
—Richard Feynman, Noble Laureate, Physics
For our purposes, postmodernism has little to do with art and French philosophers. It’s true that they use the term, but that’s more for branding purposes, justifying revolts or advocating countercultural lifestyles. Postmodernism, however, does refer to a new way of perceiving and understanding today’s social, economic and political environment. And it may well be true that artists picked up on it before the rest of us. In any case, like it or not, the word embraces a world quite different from the one into which we were born, acculturated, educated and first employed.
And what’s exactly different?
Since 1992, when desktop computers started to become the command centers of business and industry, socioeconomic and political life has become increasingly complex and uncertain. Emergence is the term that describes that phenomenon.
It’s the key concept at play for today’s manager. It speaks to complex systems. And complex systems are fundamentally human systems: geopolitical, economic, environmental, health, educational, etc. Above all, it requires managers who have the skills and knowledge to manage the human factor at work, their talent force and the ability to work with others to identify and solve emergent problems.
“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”
—Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke
Emergence: No One Planned It
Emergence is the concept used to capture the sudden and surprising events, circumstances and shifts arising from a myriad of interactions and interdependencies among agents. “Agents” or “actors” is a shorthand for individuals, groups, associations, organizations, nations, systems or a combination of any or all of them.
In essence, emergence is all that stuff, usually unpleasant, that seems to happen in business that no one ever planned for because no one ever thought about it. Yet after it happens, “I should have seen it coming” is the typical response.
Looking backwards, everyone is a clairvoyant. But it’s precisely because these events can’t be foretold that they are called emergent. They are the products of multiple interdependent, interactive and highly connected agents. The more popular explanation given for this kind of change is to attribute it to the global economy. The Great Recession is the most recent example. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put it back together again; yet we quickly revert to simple cause-and-effect explanations. “It was those greedy guys on Wall Street who did it.”
But complexity implies that there are more forces at work than simple causes and effects. In other words, the parts produce a whole greater than their sum. And this is what today’s managers must first grasp before taking any course of action. One must be very careful not to confuse the symptom of the problem with its cause—and there is never one cause or chain of causes. Instead, there are multiple interdependencies among adapting human agents, continually creating new landscapes or circumstances to which a business must adapt. And the beat goes on. That’s complexity, and managing it isn’t easy.
In the old days, problems were approached like puzzles; just find the missing piece. Everyone was trained in that rational, linear way of analysis. It worked well and still does when executing a solution to a problem. But it’s not fruitful when it comes to formulating what the true nature of a problem is in the business environment of emergence.
This has led to a trans-discipline science called complexity. It tries to take account of the myriad interacting agents, variables if you wish, to not only figure out why what happened, happened, but also to anticipate future events through computer simulations. One of the features of this science is non-linear thinking, which has great application for managers dancing on the waves of unpredictable change. So how’s that work?
“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend
59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”
A Way of Thinking, Feeling and Acting
Business is being data-driven these days; or so it is said. But there are differences between data and information, knowledge and wisdom. Data must be compiled into information, information formulated into knowledge, and knowledge must be used wisely. In other words, it’s how we interpret and use data that’s critical.
Dealing with emergent problems is like weather forecasting. It’s a mixture of art and science, nonlinear and linear thinking. No one wants their accountants engaging in nonlinear thinking when it comes to the balance sheet, but in the market economy characterized by complexity and emergence—where novel changes occur daily—intuition, imagination, creativity and inductive thinking is called for. And waiting to get all the data needed for certainty before taking action could well put you out of action.
Managers with ambidextrous thinking who can formulate problems and design solutions are what’s needed—ones who can move from right-brain, intuitive and subjective thinking to left-brain, logical and objective thinking. Obtaining the right understanding of a problem is the first step toward a solution, but getting the right handle on a problem and taking action to solve the problem are distinct mental activities. Problem solutions are very detailed, planned, logical and rational, with clear objectives. Yet no matter how brilliant or well-planned, it will fail miserably if the problem to be solved was poorly conceived. And herein lies the Achilles heel of every strategic plan.
Peter Drucker long ago summed this up nicely: “Doing the right things right.” But knowing what the right thing is, well, there’s the rub.
“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Releasing Talent of the Talent Force
Emergence, i.e. novel situations, occurs at every level of an organization, from the CEO to the janitor, and that warrants employees who can be fleet of foot in thought, word and deed. This demands astute managers who can develop astute employees who can become energized, rather than overwhelmed, by uncertainty. In the turbulence that pervades current business and industry, a talent force that’s treated robotically is squandered talent.
What makes things complex is that human systems are composed of adaptive actors, and the result is that the whole will always be greater than the sum of its parts. Yet it’s a two-edged sword. Human organizations, like its members, can adjust to almost anything, but not necessarily in the most productive ways.
In a clock, parts don’t adapt. One can leave them on the table and come back another day. Try doing that in a human system, and disaster awaits. One must always keep in mind that an actor in complex systems controls almost nothing, but influences almost everything.
Today’s world of business poses unique challenges for managers. First, no one can see everything, never mind know everything. Managers are therefore dependent upon the eyes and minds of their employees, suppliers, customers and many other stakeholders to fully grasp the problems before them. To achieve their organizational mission, managers must know how to effectively relate or partner with all parties.
Second, however the problem is formulated, a solution must be implemented. Ancient military wisdom says that no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. The foot soldier on the ground has to call upon his own wits to carry out the mission. The same applies to businesses. If we want our employees to be responsive to the changing conditions on the front lines, they must be enabled to engage in creative solutions for the good of the organization. The ultimate—and most difficult—task of management is to know how to release the talent of its talent force so it fulfills the organizational mission and achieves its vision.
Third, diversity is no longer simply about race and gender, but it has everything to do with different ideas and views of reality. To get the big picture, many eyes are needed. And to design effective solutions, many creative minds are likewise needed.
Finally, in today’s world, the only thing we can really expect is the unexpected. And in business, this requires a new kind of manager and employee to suit. Let’s call them the postmoderns. iBi
John F. Gilligan, Ph.D, is a clinical psychologist and CEO and president of the Human Service Center.