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Leadership, Innovation and Complexity Science

Posted by Steve Waddell in Leadership on December 28, 2010

Leadership in multi-stakeholder networks must deal with complexity.  This contrasts with complicated where there are many moving parts such as with getting a person on the moon, but the moving parts are for the most part controllable and predictable.  With complexity, prediction is very difficult.  Typically it is associated with social systems like networks.  Complexity well handled, however, can produce unique innovation that is critical to getting many issues "unstuck".  This is the topic of a recent book Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership by Benyamin Lichtenstein, Jeffrey Goldstein and James Hazy.  Benyamin gives an introduction to his thinking in this excerpt from Mass High Tech journal.

Complexity science sees leadership as an influence process that arises through every interaction across the organization: When any two people interact, they influence each other in unique ways, and thus they each generate leadership for the other. In this sense, leadership emerges in the space between people as they interact. In many such interactions, which are happening all the time in every corner of the organization, novelty emerges and is enacted in unique and surprising ways. This means that the true catalysts of innovation are the web of relationships — in the nexus of interactions — that connect members to each other and to others in the environment.

This view is very different from traditional views of leadership, which see innovation and change as emanating from an executive or manager. In contrast, complexity science shows how this focus on “heroic” and charismatic leaders can result in a lack of innovation in modern organizations. Instead, the new strategy reframes leader and leadership as referring primarily to events rather than to people.
Through a series of interactions over time, leadership events alter the underlying framework of engagement. They change the rules by which individuals interact, influencing the ends to be achieved, such as where a work group is headed, as well as the means by which it gets there. These changes generate a more engaged ecology, which leads to higher levels of innovation.

The term generative leadership highlights how the process of innovation is not led by any one individual but emerges through an unfolding series of events at every level of the organization. Generative leadership focuses on the mutual influence that occurs within every exchange. Accordingly, rather than concentrating on how a supervisor expresses influence over an employee, generative leadership sees them both as expressing leadership. Moreover, generative leadership refers to capturing the benefits of this mutual interplay as a generative process — it spawns new opportunities that increase the organization’s potential for novelty, flexibility and growth.

Complexity science research has explained how these mutual interactions between agents (i.e., individual actors in the ecology) give rise to innovation. Specifically, it is the differences between agents — their diversity of expertise, perspectives, organizational experience, social background, heritage and so on — which generates innovation within their interaction, for difference leads to unanticipated and novel outcomes. By implementing the tools of generative leadership, high-tech companies can increase innovation without increasing budgets — a powerful strategy during these challenging times.

 

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