Complexity unraveled: complex change agents’ stories

What is in common amongst a Danish prison, the London Business School, and the world’s largest refugee camp for internally displace people? In complexity unravlled: the power of collaboration in successful change leadership they are presented as a rich array of big change challenges. The book is the product of The Change Leaders, the alumni network of Consulting and Coaching for Change, an unusual executive management joint MA program of Said Business School of Oxford and Hautes Etudes Commericales School of Management in Paris.

The book presents experiences and insights of senior reflective practitioners of the network in seven individually authored chapters. They are a skillful interweaving of practitioners’ work presented through frameworks and tools they have taken from the program and applied to their practice, as well as approaches developed in their practice. These include positive deviance, the Kitchen Table Conversation methodology, Gareth Morgan’s work, the five colors model of de Caluwe and Vermack, Clay Christensen on innovation, and Stacey’s rethinking of management approaches.

In broad terms the authors and clearly the program itself come from a socio-technical systems perspective that emphasizes the interaction between people and complex work environments. This approach is associated with Tavistock Institute, John Rawlings, Eric Trist and Fred Emery (all influenced by Kurt Lewin of action research fame) who in the 1950s and ‘60s pioneered development of group and organizational behavior. The authors apply current knowledge about complex change grounded in systems thinking, that they often contrast to traditional mechanical and linear approaches such as with critical reference to Kotter’s eight steps model of change. There are some common themes that the chapters reflect, suggesting some key elements in addressing complex change:

  • Emergent, rather than planned, action. The case in the world’s largest refugee camp describes an activist initially approaching his work with a planned model to move from A to Z.   When he couldn’t even get into the camp, he learned to take an opportunistic position based on learning from the refugees about their priorities, moving from A to B, rescanning opportunities, then moving to C. Another case emphasizes the need to “seize the right moments”.
  • Adaptive leadership. Operating in a complex change environment requires holding oneself open to discovery about one’s own assumptions and options previously not contemplated. This also infers courage and a willingness to try new things, and expose oneself to the possibility of “failure” – and support others and persevere oneself though it. In one case, outside consultants explain how they admitted not having all the answers. Conscious Change Agency is the term one chapter gives to the needed leadership type.
  • Learning and dialogue: The Kitchen Table Conversation methodology is presented as an easy way for people to engage each other in generative dialogue, somewhat reminiscent of World Café.
  • Inspirational energy: The case challenges are in many ways daunting. There is a theme of tapping into positive visions and directions to support coherence and persistence across many hurdles and through many moments when what to do is not clear.
  • Mutual respect: This is essential to creating the types of exchanges and collaborative action that is necessary to address complex challenges. A particularly impressive example is given with creating as a core goal the quality of mutual respect between prisoners and staff in a Danish prison.
  • Invention and experimentation: The authors deal with cases where solutions are “not known”, and require developing. This includes on the one hand invention of processes – there is a great description of how one author changed from using well-ordered documents to simple pieces of cardboard on the wall of her department’s main meeting room – a way to make the system “visible”. In ways, some of the cases sounded almost like informal change labs.
  • Bottom-up action: Traditional hierarchical approaches will not work; rather, solutions arise out of enabling environments for people to co-develop and emerge solutions. There is, however, a nice description of “local” as being the environment around you, rather than a geographic perspective. This means the “top” must also be engaged from its own “local” perspective. To support bottom-up action in hierarchical environments can involve difficult approaches. One case explains how they had to provoke people to speak.

I am left inspired by the book’s illustration of how the frameworks, methods/tools and theories/strategies often discounted as being “academic” can help guide real action. The gulf between knowledge development and its application by non-academics is still much too large, and this book is part of the much needed bridge.

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