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Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction
Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction

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3.8 Reviewing some implications for systems practice

The following anecdote exemplifies one of the main reasons why I think juggling the B ball is important for systems practice. The story relates to two practitioners who were able to connect with the history of organisational complexity ideas. It describes the process they chose to take in response to a highly specific organisational-development tender document couched in traditional ways:

Our first decision was to challenge the tender document.[…] When asked to present our proposals to the tender panel we ignored the presenter/audience structure in which the room had been arranged by drawing chairs up to the table and conversing with the client group. We began a discussion about the way those present were thinking about organizational and cultural change and emphasized the unknowability of the evolution of a complex organization in a complex environment. Instead of offering workshops or programmes we proposed an emergent, one step at a time contract […] to discover and create opportunities to work with the live issues and tasks that were exercising people formally and informally in the working environment. […] we were subsequently told that the panel's decision to appoint us was unanimous. (Shaw, p. 10, 2002)

When reflecting on this experience Patricia Shaw made the following comments:

We were told by one of the directors, ‘Everyone else made a presentation based on knowing what to do. You were the only ones who spoke openly about not knowing while still being convincing. It was quite a relief’. Our success in interesting the client group in working with us seemed to be based on:

  • (a) Making it legitimate in this situation not to be able to specify outcomes and a plan of action in advance, by so doing we made ‘not knowing’ an intelligent response.

  • (a) Pointing out the contradictions between the messy, emergent nature of our experience of organizational life and the dominant paradigm of how organizations change through the implementation of prior intent.

This approach helped to contain the anxiety of facing the real uncertainties of such a project together. It was an example of contracting for emergent outcomes.

What does this story tell us? It shows that how we think about the world; our theories and models are a result of experience, even if implicit, determine what we do in the world. Our theories predispose us to engage with ‘real world’ situations in particular ways. Unlike the other consultants, Patricia Shaw and her colleague, did not respond to the tender as if it were a problem for which they had the answer. I have experienced Shaw in action, and think she has embodied her conversational theories in her actions.

This approach is potentially able to encompass all of the complexity in the situation. It is also able to bring forth the multiple perspectives through the engagement of all the actors in the situation. They used conversations, interviews and even drama to achieve this. This allows outcomes to emerge from the process rather than being defined in the form of a plan with outcomes specified in advance. Sometimes highly specific plans that are not renegotiated iteratively as the environment changes are called blueprints, and the process called blueprint planning. Shaw and her colleague approached their task as an unfolding process of ‘engaging’ in which all parties were learning or co-constructing new meanings in the situation (Shaw, 2002). Systemic approaches to managing complexity, of which this is an example, are designed to achieve emergent outcomes because they orchestrate a process of learning.

You will, of course, recognise that the behaviour of Shaw and her colleague is not appropriate in all contexts, although I think the approach could be used more. In the case of an engineer responding to some specific request that required precise technical specifications another response may have been appropriate.

Being aware or, becoming aware of our being, I argue, increases the repertoire of possible actions available to a systems practitioner. It is the first step on the journey from being to becoming. Being aware, or not, of the issues I have raised in this section creates the initial starting conditions for engaging with complexity, the subject of the next section.


State the main ways you need to be self-aware as a practitioner. What are the advantages of each awareness, and what are the traps if you do not have each awareness?


The main ways of being an aware practitioner are:

  • (a) by attempting to surface your traditions of understanding (these could also be called mental models; theories in use; frameworks of ideas) so that you can be aware of the choices you make in pursuing your practice;

  • (b) by refining (a), you become epistemologically aware, and able to think and act systemically or systematically;

  • (c) by appreciating the constraints and possibilities of the observer and how this awareness questions the commonly accepted notion of objectivity and replaces it with that of responsibility;

  • (d) by seeking to embody your systems thinking in practice;

  • (e) by adding an ethical dimension to your work, particularly by seeking to

    increase the choices available to stakeholders.

In Table 4, I suggest some of the advantages of each awareness and some of the traps.

Table 4
Way of being awareAdvantagesPotential traps when missing
surface traditionsyou know what theory informs your practice; you can actively choose new theoretical frameworks; allows surfacing and questioning of many hidden assumptionsyou remain unaware of your own prejudices; you have theories that are not suited to the context
epistemologically awareincreases the choices you have as a practitioner; alters your approach from one of discovering or describing systems to constructing or designing systems of interestconflict (including passive aggression) arises when your truth claim (perspective) is asserted over someone else's; collaborative action is more difficult
appreciate observeravoid mistaken reliance on objectivity; enables a richer appreciation of what is involved in human communicationavoid taking responsibility for actions; avoid being ethical
embody systems thinkingyou are more readily able to contextualise your practice, you can adapt it to novel situations; you appreciate the history of the situation in which you are practisingyour actions are confined to the theoretical rather than constituting praxis (combining theory and practice)
incorporate ethicsis an act of being responsible; can increase the choice available to stakeholdersyou take responsibility for others without their agreement

Remember to return to the table you developed for Activity 35 in your Learning Journal and note down any changes in understanding resulting from your study of this section.