Managing Complexity: A Systems Approach
Managing Complexity: A Systems Approach

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Managing Complexity: A Systems Approach

5.8 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 organizational complexity ideas. It describes the process they chose to take in response to a highly specific organizational-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, 2002, p. 10)

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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, recognize 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:

  1. 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;

  2. By refining (a), you become epistemologically aware, and able to think and act systemically or systematically;

  3. 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;

  4. By seeking to embody your systems thinking in practice;

  5. By adding an ethical dimension to your work, particularly by seeking to increase the choices available to stakeholders.

In Table SA1, I suggest some of the advantages of each awareness and some of the traps.

Table SA1

Way of being aware Advantages Potential traps when missing
surface traditions you know what theory informs your practice you remain unaware of your own prejudices
you can actively choose new theoretical frameworks you have theories that are not suited to the context
allows surfacing and questioning of many hidden assumptions
epistemologically aware increases the choices you have as a practitioner conflict (including passive aggression) arises when your truth claim (perspective) is asserted over someone else's
alters your approach from one of discovering or describing systems to constructing or designing systems of interest collaborative action is more difficult
appreciate observer avoid mistaken reliance on objectivity avoid taking responsibility for actions
enables a richer appreciation of what is involved in human communication avoid being ethical
embody systems thinking you are more readily able to contextualize your practice, you can adapt it to novel situations your actions are confined to the theoretical rather than constituting praxis (combining theory and practice)
you appreciate the history of the situation in which you are practising
incorporate ethics is an act of being responsible you take responsibilities for others without their agreement
can increase the choices available to stakeholders

Remember to return to the table you developed for Activity 13 in your notebook and note down any changes in understanding resulting from your study of this section.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus