Dave Snowden of the Cynefin Centre recently said that the relationship between a terrorist and the state, a tax-payer and the tax authority and an employee and the organisation are very similar: they are all complex, a-symmetric relationships and a simplistic traditionalist approach usually gets the opposite effect than what was intended. Peter Senge refers to a simplistic “events� and “trends� focus in stead of a more complex “systemic� focus when trying to understand the drivers behind specific organisational dilemmas. Graeme Codrington calls it a mechanistic, Newtonian, industrial-age approach to try and solve complex, quantum, connection-economy type problems.
I am not as clever as any of the above authors but there is something in my stomach that goes bitter the moment I sense it: this over-simplification of organisational dynamics. Yes, of course we need some lenses through which to observe a complex phenomenon, and of course a framework helps us to understand a complex reality, but the lense will never be the picture and the framework will never be reality. Over the past hundred years we became masters of analysis and dissecting. We became experts in measuring and perfectly articulating and formulating almost every aspect of organisational life. Almost. Because there is always that tiny little something that doesn’t perfectly fit into the model. And in trying to define and research and understand that little something, we discovered that we knew a lot less than we thought we knew. We realised that groups of people assembled in organisations and society are far more complex than our neat theories and hypotheses could ever be able to capture, explain and predict. The problem is that a hundred years in organisational thinking is quite a long time – especially when so much development and writing took place in the past hundred years. It means that our entire business language and thinking was formed during this past hundred years. Only to find out that our mechanistic ways of thinking and speaking cannot provide all the answers. We need a new approach to trying to understand how people, groups, organisations and societies work. We need to think differently about the frameworks we all hold so dear. We need new language through which to convey our thoughts about organisational dynamics. Language that respects the fact that we cannot measure and box every minute detail of everything. Language that allows for the unexpected. Language that embraces complexity.
This article does not aim to convince you that organisations (especially the people-component) are complex. I assume you know this by now. And by complex I mean that it is impossible to draw clear cause-and-effect relationships before the event. For example, “If we do this, then this will happen. In order to get this outcome, we need to do this and this and this.� Of course in a complex system it is easy to look backwards and say: “This happened because of this and this.� But looking forward we should be very careful when making causal statements and assumptions.
The purpose of this article is to show how off-target we can be when we apply overly-simplistic language and methods to complex organisational issues. It is almost just as ridiculous as using mass, velocity and momentum frameworks when trying to understand quantum physics; or to fire a thousand missiles when the terrorist you are after might be living around the corner. I structure the remainder of this article around seven very familiar examples of “we-know-it-all�-language that is often inaptly used in a complex world. Normally when I hear statements like these (in the contexts as I describe them below), I either switch off or I try to debate the issue. The problem with debating in this case, however, is that my opponents have the certitude of logical, linear arguments with great statistics to back them up while I grapple to find language to describe the unknown, the fall-out, the mystery.

1. “He is a type-6 boomer, no wonder he acts like he does.�

His Enneagram type is 6. He is 55 years old. What more could you expect of him? A perfect example of a framework that became reality. I am not saying that it’s wrong to try and understand yourself better by using different profiling methods – especially if your purpose is to develop yourself. It becomes problematic though when you use psychological and sociological profiles to succinctly package messages, conclusions and judgments about people. People are more complex than any profiling instrument, ancient or modern, will ever be able to reflect. Let’s say the person in the example is called Laurence. If you are Laurence’s manager and you manage him exactly like the textbook prescribes managing a type-6 boomer, you will fail because we are talking about a unique individual here; a person with whom you need to establish a unique relationship, worthy of more respect than being talked and thought about in the language of categorization and false certainties.

2. “She is an EFTJ. She won’t fit in this job.�

Just another example of what I described above. She is NOT an EFTJ. She is Sarah. And if she completes your questionnaire next week she might fall into a different category.

3. “This is our latest coaching workbook. Now any person can coach anyone else in your organisation by carefully following these 20 easy steps.�

One secret for consultant success is to find something that worked a couple of times, package it and sell it to get critical mass, and then blame the client for not meticulously following the recipe when they don’t get the desired results. The (sad) truth, however, is that this is not normally done with predetermined mal-intent. People seriously believe that something like coaching best practice exists. And they also believe that if this best practice can be bottled and sold, many organisations and people will reap the benefits. This is simply not true. Each and every coaching relationship is wonderfully unique. The way my relationship with my coach grows into something valuable, special and uplifting, can never determine the path your relationship with your coach needs to take. Again the language of absolute certainty that stifles, hampers and disregards the mystery and complexity in something as potentially valuable as coaching. When thinking about coaching in your organisation, rather think about training and developing coaches than buying a packaged process.

4. “Our team building package is called ‘The Conqueror’. We take all teams through this same process and we guarantee astonishing results.�

The more structured and packaged the team building programme, the less value for the team. Why? Your team is unique and it operates in a unique organisational context with unique challenges and opportunities. Although through many studies and analyses, various models for team development were designed, one can never apply any model across the board. The most horrible approach to team building of all is of course the adventure weekend where we are all divided into teams according to our MBTI-boxes and then we compete against each other for prizes and have a bon-fire at the end. Just like coaching, team building cannot be packaged. In fact, it is because of all the flashy team packages that many organisations are inherently sceptical of team building, and rightly so. Assisting a team in its development requires a facilitator or a team leader with a deep-lying respect and appreciation for the complexities at play in the team. It requires a language with a lot more questions than answers.

5. “After listening to your needs, we are confident that our “Winning mindset� programme will be your best option for now.�

What a coincidence! We have a motivational training package that exactly fits your needs! Even more coincidental is the fact that this same training programme also perfectly matches the needs of several other companies… There are three elements in the quoted statement that bothers me. Firstly, we pretend to be needs-driven by at least asking you what you need. So you try to find words to describe your requirements and we jot down everything you say, helping you out every now and then by guiding you to what you actually need. Then, secondly, we, the experts, go away to our chambers to confidently work on the solution that will sort out all your problems. Only to find out that, thirdly, we actually already have a product that will sort you out! What a pleasure. Now we only need to wrap it in the language of your expressed needs so that you can comfortably buy it. Again the (sad) irony is that consultants actually really start to believe themselves after a while. The language of certainty sells. The language of answers convinces. Not only because consultants choose it as an easy way out, but also because their clients force them to talk in answers, packages, profiles and booklets.

6. “On a scale of 1–4, please indicate your experience of trust in the organisation.�

We often try (with the best intentions) to determine what the actual climate in an organisation is. The problem is that we’ll never get the true picture by articulating our enquiry as shown in this example. Let’s assume for the purpose of the argument that in this case the questionnaire is done anonymous to exclude factors like the fear to tell the truth or the desire to score brownie-points with management. Firstly, trust is a complex concept. I might trust my team members but I know that we don’t trust the sales team. I also trust the organisation’s competency in one product area but not in another. I trust that management are inherently good people but I don’t trust their ethics in an organisational context specifically when it comes to landing new contracts. How do I reduce all of this to a single score on the 4-point scale? Secondly, let’s say on average the score for trust is a 2. What does it mean? Does it mean we all feel we can’t trust each other? Does it mean we don’t trust the sales team? Of course this question in this same questionnaire could be broken down into several items that all ask about different kinds of trust in order to fine-tune the feedback one will get. The problem is that trust is contextual. And for each different context there will be a different experience of trust. It is almost impossible to cover all the possibilities in a questionnaire like this without needing a week per employee to complete it. I like the alternative that the Cynefin Centre presents. Rather than asking direct questions around abstractions to be answered in the code of 1 – 4, they gather stories which give rich streams of information that is context-specific. Replacing the precise language of the 4-point scale with the complex language of narrative.

7. “We will increase morale and motivation in the plant by implementing our new pay-for-performance system.�

Yes, there are still people who believe this. After all the studies which proved that rewards, like punishment, only have a short-term impact, managers are still lured towards this fallacy. Why? Because it is simple, it makes sense and it is a lot easier to throw incentive schemes at employee motivation than it is to change some of the leadership culture in the organisation that might actually be causing people to be demoralised. The fact is that people are not machines. Behaviourist models of motivation (read: manipulation) are known for breaking down motivation and performance in the long run. Again we need to turn away from the over-simplistic quick-fixes and embrace the fullness of the complexity of worker motivation. “If-then� language shifts our motivation from the internal to the external. It disregards the inherent motivation. It manipulates and degrades.
In a complex, fast-changing world where words like “relationship�, “emotion� and “ambiguity� are rapidly gaining importance in how we perceive, articulate and approach business, we need to constantly guard against falling back on the safety of “profiles�, “best-practice� and “recipes� when grappling to find solutions for our day-to-day organisational dilemmas.

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