When collaboration isn’t the best option

Andrea writes: Last fall, I saw Vivien Twyord speak, promoting her book The Power of Co about the preconditions for collaboration. Vivien is a seasoned collaboration facilitator, who works to solve large, seemingly unsolvable projects like local communities and electrical companies deciding where to put unwanted towers. She has used her vast experience to bridge years of distrust and paralyzing inertia and make collaborative decisions.
The first and most powerful thing Vivien taught me is that collaboration can sometimes cause more problems than it solves. Her key take-away lesson for me was that you need to understand the difference between a simple problem, a complicated situation, and a deeply complex issue. Making the right initial diagnosis can make all the difference.

A simple problem has few factors and the outcome is predictable. Cause leads directly to effect, and the answer is knowable. Example, your car needs gas to run. If you run out of gas, your gas gauge will light up. The solution doesn’t require a collaborative intervention to find the solution.

A complicated situation has many factors but the solution is still predictable. Cause leads directly to effect and the answer is still knowable. A noise in your car that you describe to your mechanic, but aren’t sure where it’s coming from, is more complicated than a gas gauge on Empty. Still, talking to an expert – in this case a good mechanic — would be a much more efficient use of time than initiating a collaborative conversation on potential solutions.

A complex issue: The solution or outcomes are not known. For example, changing the behaviour patterns of car users and encouraging a bike lane in a divided community has a number of complex issues, environmental, safety, distrust, misinformation, cultural convention etc. An expert might be able to suggest potential solutions and therefore contribute to a good outcome but a simple answer to a complex problem is bound to create unintended reactions and responses.

Complex systems have interdependent agents. Removing one piece or inserting another will not fix the problem or create a sustainable solution. A complex lens allows us to see a system with underlying connections and values that can both nullify big changes (see Senge “the harder you push, the harder the system pushes back”) or have a large response to small changes (see the power of butterfly wings flapping).

In her talk Vivien stressed the point over and over: Do not collaborate if your problem is simple or even complicated – it will frustrate and exhaust you and your system. What’s worse it will build distrust and undermine the faith or willingness to collaborate when necessary. Even if the problem is complex, if you think the problem is simple, i.e. you are pretty sure you know the right answer before you start, then collaboration will be a frustrating, drawn out experience and harmful to the project.

If your problem seems intractable, unknowable, and maybe even unfixable, you need to look up Vivien and learn the Power of Co.

Another view of simple, complicated, & complex is the Cynefin model, an interesting framework developed by Dave Snowden, which also includes a 4th possibility the Chaotic. Go there if you dare!

Jazz vs Orchestra: A question of control?

Andrea asks: Is it control that best defines the difference between leader as Symphony conductor or Leader of a Jazz Quartet? Or is it something else? Let us know your thoughts.

When a jazz leader sits down to count in his band: 1, 2…. 1, 2, 3, 4 he or she doesn’t really know what is going to happen. Once he counts in and then sits back among his band members, he has faith that he has talented musicians and that they will produce a quality show. Unlike a classical orchestra or a pop musical group, each performance of a jazz standard is a unique and emergent creation. The Orchestra Conductor, standing at a pedestal with a baton, is unquestionably the in-the-moment leader. He stands at the front, everyone watches him, the hierarchies are clear, the lines of decision-making are coherent, and the goal is replicable and precise.
The Jazz Leader, sitting with his musicians, sets the stage for the performance, but then becomes a contributor. There is much agreement that happens before the performance can start – the song, the key, the tempo, the feel or type of jazz, and a huge nod to tradition and history – yet the performance is improvised and new each time.
When thinking of complex adaptive systems, there are many aspects of Jazz that are fascinating and created fresh in the moment – including leading with less control but full responsibility, following while leading, listening with presence, and living with ambiguity.
Think of this — the Jazz leader and the Classical conductor have many different skills. The Classical conductor is an exquisite example of a great hierarchical leader. There are times in our organizations that we require replicable and precise results, and need a leader who has been accorded the control and unquestioning followership similar to an orchestra conductor. But there are also times when there are several agents all with something new to say, when listening and building on each other generates necessary innovation and creativity, and where the leader needs to set the necessary agreements and then get out of the way of the music.
Leadership is emergent. Different scenarios require different behaviours from both leaders and followers. It’s important to be both aware of the situational requirements of leadership and followership, to be able to move smoothly between those two roles, and flexible enough to be able to change course as the situation requires.

Andrea’s YogaClass: BOTH Soft AND Strong

During my first yoga class, I sat on the floor with my borrowed mat in my baggy sweat pants watching a 65 year old man balancing on his head. My friend, a type A person, who had brought me to her studio – leaned over and said, without hint of apology: “this is probably a pretty advanced class.” I nodded. Then a moment later, she leaned over again, and casually said: “this is a two hour class.” I laughed out loud into the quiet meditation of a pre-yoga studio. She looked back at me as if to say: “is that a problem?”

I powered through the class, proudly complying with all of the complicated and new instruction. It wasn’t till years later, when I had been practicing for a while that I realized that I was rigid, muscling through by gritting, over compensating for muscles that weren’t strong enough to hold me up. I was weak in my rigidity.

Yoga is constantly teaching you to balance effort with ease, to build strength so you can soften. …… so you can develop the muscles, the endurance and the flexibility to give you awareness and choice.
The stronger I got, the softer I could be. Complexity, like my yoga practice, marries seemingly opposite or paradoxical ideas. It leaves behind an “either/or” thinking and necessitates a “both/and” thinking — soft/strong, effort/ease, focused/unfocused.

As we explore ways that a complexity lens can help open the world, as individuals and as teams and organizations, we hopefully will embrace BOTH knowing and learning AND not knowing or constant curiosity.

What are the polarities – or apparent opposites – that seem contradictory but need to be reconciled — that come up in your life? What have you had to see as Both/And to help you move forward in your thinking, reconciling, learning?

Bev’s Early Experiences with Complexity

I wish I’d kept a diary of my love affair with complexity.

I can’t honestly remember when I was first exposed to it in some formal way. It was probably 10 years ago and I do remember that it blew me away. I remember having a powerful feeling that I had uncovered something important, something that would begin to tie a lot of loose ends together, something that would help me understand a lot of things that didn’t seem to fit anywhere, if that makes any sense.

A Theory of Everything

I remember too, many years before that, reading a short and powerful essay that was called A Theory of Everything. It wasn’t a scientific paper about physics and the universe, and I don’t even remember what it was, but I do remember it having an impact on me, and I remember keeping it for a long time. I wish I could find that essay because it started me thinking about complexity, even though I didn’t have any vocabulary or mental models to relate to at that time.

Today I think about complexity and complex systems a lot.

I see them everywhere, in nature when I walk in the forest or on the beach, and when I tend my gardens, and track the weather forecast. I see them in the fluctuations in our investment funds as they adapt to global events (right now its Russia and it’s potential invasion of the unstable Ukraine). I see them in the relationships among the members of my big family, and my large professional networks. I see them in the emergence of characteristics in my 7 grandchildren and how those characteristics reflect perfectly the ways of their parents and how they are brought up (does anyone use that expression anymore??), always intertwined with the very different characteristics they each were born with.

As a health professional in a complex network of systems, I see leaders who have begun to adapt to the complexities, ambiguities and paradoxes that are now the norm in health care. It is ever more apparent that the emerging field of complexity science offers important strategies for leading in chaotic, complex healthcare environments.

An important question is: Are we adapting our ways of thinking and being and doing quickly enough and are we finding ways and means to talk to each other (do we even have the vocabulary?!) about what we are seeing and thinking and proposing? Sometimes I think yes, we are and sometimes NOT!

Andrea’s Complexity MOOC at Santa Fe

I have always been interested in chaos and complexity, and how they might be applied to human systems. After wading knee-deep into conversations about complexity I realized I didn’t really understand the science, the math, the physics or the computer science models that were the basis of complexity and chaos theory so I enrolled in a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) at the Sante Fe Institute taught by the remarkable and charming Melanie Mitchell.

After several months and many high school math flashbacks, I came away with useful definitions and a starting point to our discussions of complexity.

Complex Systems are large networks of simple, interacting elements which, following simple rules, produce emergent, collective, complex behaviour.

Some clarifications:
Interacting elements: Agents or people in a system which are interconnected, interdependent, and have unpredictable effects on each other.

Following Simple Rules: Simple rules provide the blueprint for any pattern that is produced from a complex system.

A good example of Simple Rules that govern a large number of agents is flocking behavior. Flocking behaviour has no central control and is instead governed by three simple rules:
1. Separation – Avoid crowding your neighbors
2. Alignment – Steer towards the average heading of neighbours
3. Cohesion – Steer towards the average position of neighbours

Emergent behaviour is defined as behaviour that appears not to involve any central coordination. Emergence can be defined as novel patterns arising in a system that are not the result of one agent or the sum of parts.

From this initial definition, I started to think of complexity as a worldview in which to see systems. Moving directly from a math equation or a scientific model to a model of human behaviour can be fraught and contentious, but by thinking of models as lenses, we start to see scalable patterns.

Other topics arising from my personal study and the Santa Fe connection are: non-linear, dynamic, periodic attractors, sensitive dependence on initial conditions, patterns through iterations, networks and hubs, fractals, scaling. We are excited about these characteristics of complex systems and will tackle them in the future.

LIving and Leading in a VUCA World

It was clear last November at the Drucker Forum on Complexity in Vienna that the majority of participants agreed that we are living in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous time in history. It was the first time I had heard the term VUCA but it quickly resonated with me in terms of the speed, uncertainty, dynamical, and sometimes ambiguous, nature of life today.

So What is a VUCA world

The notion of VUCA was introduced by the U.S. Army War College to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, multilateral world that reportedly first began to emerge during the Cold War. The notion of VUCA was heightened by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and solidified by the financial crisis of 2008, both of which seemed to come out of nowhere and seriously affect so many people’s lives so significantly and so quickly.

Is VUCA the new normal?

The term was subsequently adopted by strategy experts and business leaders to describe the chaotic, turbulent and rapidly changing business environment that has become the “new normal.” In the late 1980s Peter Vaill talked of “permanent white water” as the way things were evolving. This was very new thinking at the time, it resonated and the term became commonplace. Vaill described permanent whitewater as “conditions that are full of surprises” … or “the continual occurrence of problems that are not supposed to happen.” At the same time, changes were occurring in other areas as well, including massive technological changes in many fields, (note the rise of Apple and its very innovative and compelling products) and the rapid and invasive explosion in the use of the Internet, and especially social media and platforms like Facebook.

In broader spheres other happenings were and are having a big impact: Population continues to rise and surpass the 7B mark (2014), climate change and global warming are becoming more and more of a threat, natural disasters are on the rise, disrupting lives, economies, and wreaking havoc for many years following (New Orleans, Haiti, Japan, Philippines). Added to this VUCA, news is now reported globally in nanoseconds on multiple platforms.

Leading and prospering in a VUCA world

All this volatile change and unpredictability is having a huge impact on leadership and problem solving. Agility, adaptability, flexibility, resilience, rapid decision-making (often without all the information) are now required skills if organizations are to succeed in a VUCA world. Einstein’s belief that “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” is the reality. But how do we quickly learn to think differently and test out new problem-solving methods and tools?


Andrea SwansonAndrea Swanson is an organizational development practitioner. She is focused on helping teams and leaders understand complexity and build new awareness, possibilities and better ways of being and working together. Her undergraduate degree in Psychology gave her a good foundation in human behaviour, and a Master’s in Organizational Development from Concordia University solidified her knowledge of complex human systems. She is a certified professional coach.

Serendipity was at play when we met at a book-signing event in the fall of last year and happened to sit together. Once we started talking, we realized we were both captured by the desire to better understand the many facets of complexity and complex adaptive systems theory, and how they can offer insights into our dynamic professional, organizational and personal experiences. We are both curious people by nature and easily seduced by the excitement of discovery of new ideas and approaches, and different ways that metaphors and mental models can help us understand the changing world around us. Like many of our readers, Andrea and I like to make sense of the world using both scientific and artistic lenses; we appreciate the connections between these two traditions, and will strive to bring the two together wherever we can.

This blog will serve as a platform to share what we’ve learned about complexity. It is our intention to explore and learn with you, how a complexity lens can help us make sense of the dynamic and fast-paced world around us. A complexity lens introduces us to the complex adaptive systems found everywhere in nature, and the more we discover, it seems they are everywhere in the human world as well. A complexity lens provides a useful metaphor for opening us to the lessons nature can teach us. Above all, we want this blog to be useful, in an immediate sense, for both our personal and professional lives, as well as challenging to our existing ways of thinking.

We welcome your comments directly related to the content.