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

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6.2 Modes of managing systemically

Now I want to describe some of the possibilities I see as being available in the repertoire of an aware systems practitioner able to connect with the history of systems thinking and with the new theories of complexity.

David Robertson, in a presentation to the Society for Research into Higher Education in late 1998 entitled ‘What employers really, really want’ reported that: ‘research on employers in a number of English-speaking countries (an elite survey with senior corporate people) showed the traditional skill set doesn't go far enough if graduates want to be employable internationally’. What's missing, he claimed are ‘complexity skills’. He said, ‘Graduates must understand that the world is not linear … They need the ability to manage ambiguity and connectivity and to be comfortable with provisionality – making decisions when you don't really know what is going to happen, e.g. with ecommerce. They must also be comfortable with emergence’.

An employer's assessment of graduates' skills in the English-speaking countries was: communication skills – okay; disciplinary knowledge – okay; interpersonal skills – okay; leadership – adequate; teamwork – okay; information technology skills – okay; but, understanding of the nature of globalisation, working with cross-cultural sensitivity and sensitivity to different ethical positions were not okay.

It seems there is recognition of the need for individuals with many of the skills I have attributed to the aware systems practitioner. For example Geoff Mulgan (2001) identified seven factors that increased the relevance of systems thinking to policy making and to the functions of government. These were:

  • (a) the ubiquity of information flows, especially within government itself;

  • (b) pressure on social policy to be more holistic;

  • (c) the growing importance of the environment, especially climate change;

  • (d) connectedness of ‘systems’ brings new vulnerabilities;

  • (e) globalisation and the ways in which this integrates previously discrete ‘systems’;

  • (f) need for ability to cope with ambiguity and non-linearity;

  • (g) planning and rational strategy often lead to unintended consequences.

He concludes that ‘Out of all these factors has come a common understanding that we live in a world of complexity, of non-linear phenomena, chaotic processes, a world not easily captured by common sense, a world in which positive feedback can play a hugely important role as well as the more familiar negative feedback that we learn in the first term of economics.’ He also recognises that ‘so far remarkably little use has been made of systems thinking or of the more recent work on complexity’ and that in part this is ‘to do with the huge sunk investment in other disciplines, particularly economics’ (see Chapman 2002).

At the beginning of this section on managing, I wrote of three categories I used to make sense of the brainstormed list of verbs associated with managing. These were ‘getting by’, ‘getting on top of’ and ‘creating the space for’. I interpret ‘getting by’ as managing our being, including our health, humour and emotional state – this is often neglected. ‘Getting on top of’ can have several meanings – the traditional meanings, I would suggest, are to do with control. For me, ‘creating the space for’ is the liberating and encompassing systemic category. Particularly because I associate it with the question: How can I create the space for emergence? I want to address this question in relation to the question of purposefulness and self-organisation.

SAQ 16

Classify the following examples into getting by, getting on top of, and creating space for.

  • (a) Providing the project team freedom to set its own timescale and deliverables for the new project.

  • (b) Using a standard response letter to queries about what the various products can do.

  • (c) Developing a system for spotting invoice errors prior to dispatch to clients.

  • (d) Negotiating an agreed measure of performance with a team and then delegating resources for it to achieve the performance.

  • (e) Introducing and maintaining an active and creative mentoring scheme for all employees.


From my perspective, (a) is an example of creating space for the project team to operate and be creative; (b) is an example of getting on top of because it is a control action that is relatively insensitive to the context but may be efficient against some measures of performance; (c) is another example of effective control action but which seems qualitatively different to the previous example; (d) is an example that could be interpreted in two ways: creating space for or getting on top of. My uncertainty over (d) relates to how power relations were played out in the process of negotiating measures of performance. For some stakeholders this may be experienced as control, for others the opposite. The final example (e) is a case of getting by, based on the terms I used in the text. It is concerned with how staff feel about themselves and their work.

Clearly, these categories only work up to a point. I expect you will see many limitations, but do not focus on these at the expense of comparing and contrasting my answer with your own.