05/31 – Complexity: Identifying and Releasing Unnecessary Complexity in Next Generation Infrastructure Development

May 2018 / Feature Articles

Bonnitta Roy

Bonnitta Roy

The ability to understand how complexity creeps into infrastructure development processes, enables leaders to identify, anticipate and avoid “solutions” that escalate systemic complexity and thereby increase systemic risk. Systemic risk in infrastructure development has local, regional and global impact that shows up as lack of accountability, skyrocketing costs, political instability, operational fragility, and developmental overshoot. Escalating systemic complexity severely limits our ability to achieve key targets of next generation infrastructure such as sensitivity to regional context and environmental health. Leaders who fall in over their heads fail to attract funding or catalyze political will if they cannot keep up with advancements in technology that fuel the cultural imagination and drive demand toward evermore innovative approaches to infrastructure development. This article examines the root causes of systemic complexity and where and how it can be released to avoid vicious cycles of increasing escalation. We propose a methodological approach that releases systemic complexity in three ways: 1) by refactoring organizational power, 2) by reducing operational path dependencies, and 3) by reformulating mental models to lower levels of abstraction.


Our approach is similar to code refactoring in programming which eliminates unnecessary levels of complexity by examining the underlying logic of the source code in order to remove unwarranted layers of interdependencies, and resolve hidden, dormant or undiscovered vulnerabilities. When applied to organizational or operational contexts, successful refactoring draws on principles such as universal access, transparency, distributed decision making, and open participation. It enables people across multiple domains and scales to make decisions that are responsive to local context and conditions while maintaining alignment with larger and larger strategic wholes. It creates peer networks of cross-functional teams, which are capable of autonomous action in proximate domains, giving a high degree of responsiveness and accountability at the local levels. Cross-functional teams in turn, are linked by operational functionality across the entire network, building both horizontal and vertical depth to the network. In infrastructure development, this means we are refactoring in order to get beyond endlessly building systems within systems within even larger systems, until the “whole system” is too big to know, ownership is progressively monopolized until it is too big to fail, while the system, that is already too big to fix, becomes increasingly vulnerable to local data and fluctuations that are too small to detect.

Releasing complexity is a much different process than reducing complexity. Organizational dynamics are rich and complex, and human relationships are deeply interdependent. Here we are talking about preserving a view of organizations as holistically complex. Think for example of Ptolemy’s system of epicycles employed to explain and predict the relative motions of the planets as observed in the night sky from earth. His system was complex, but Copernicus’ heliocentric view allowed for a simpler, more elegant view. Not only was the new system easier to understand, but it provided us with even more explanatory power. The complexity in the system was released, not reduced.

A Useful Way to Think About Complexity

The above equation is helps us reduce complexity in our organizations, by reminding us where unwarranted complexity comes from, and how it escalates out of control. The three key drivers of complexity are power, path and system. Leaders can be vigilant about keeping these drivers “clean” – operating at the minimum level of complexity required. This means continuously refactoring, cleaning up, simplifying and minimizing

  • power asymmetry between people
  • path dependencies in operational frameworks
  • level of abstraction needed to describe “the system”

These three factors tend to grow in an ad hoc manner as teams respond to everyday ordinary challenges. In the same way software developers had to learn to release complexity in their code in order to improve outcomes and increase the potential of innovation, next generation infrastructure developers must incorporate the principle of vigilance and continuous refactoring as priorities in their design-develop-decide phases, in order keep ahead of the challenges they face. In the following sections, each of these three factors are discussed in detail.

The Power Matrix

We all know how frustrating it is when people “play power politics.” Everyone involved is aware of the tremendous waste of time and energy it is, and how it depletes motivation for and detracts us from work related performance goals. Yet leaders and teams get dragged into power games all the time, creating unnecessary complexity in organizational life. People can reduce levels of engagement in power games by understanding the complex dynamics that are subconsciously operating every time we come together to achieve something.

Why we organize

First, we recognize that we come together to do something that we cannot do, or prefer not to do alone. This is the basic organizing principle of life at all scales – from single cells to ecosystems in the natural world, and with pairs of people (the simplest organization) to organizations, societies and global economies. People, like cells and plants and animals, organize to distribute the energy load of tasks. These tasks arise as needs and wants in individuals, but require individuals to organize in ways that satisfy them. These tasks may be biological, physical, psychological or cognitive. For example, as babies and children we need to organize with our parents for biological needs (and they with us for psychological needs); people need to coordinate their physical bodies to move heavy physical objects; we seek out others to satisfy psychological needs such as friendship, conversation, and sex (which is partly biological, and partly psychological); while in the modern workplace, most of what we organize to do involves cognitive tasks. If you think about it, humans are exceptionally good at organizing to satisfy more and more complex tasks. Unlike any other species, we even organize with physical tools and other animals too to help us take on the energy load of task demands.

Asymmetrical needs, wants and skills

Everyone comes to a task with their own set of needs/wants and skills/resources. Needs and wants are related to the intentional-motivational state of the person, whereas skills and resources correspond to the person’s capacity to act or contribute. Because people are uniquely situated with respect to their needs/wants and skills/resources, when two or more people come together, there is an asymmetry between their own needs/wants and skills/resources and the other(s). This asymmetry between people is experienced by them as power relationships. We can think of many people working together as co-composing a natural power matrix.

People automatically, spontaneously, subconsciously and naturally are always negotiating their relationships between themselves and others within this matrix. This is the basic principle that drives all life and results in the exchange of energies that generates complexity. Without asymmetry, there would be no life, no change. The world would be static, dead, non-existent. Consider the fox and the rabbit—each has their own needs/wants and skills/resources. The eventual outcome of their interaction will emerge from this asymmetric interplay. In the same way, the outcome of people coming together is not predetermined, but plays out depending upon the way that the asymmetry in needs/wants and skills/resources gets negotiated. This is what we might call the “prime directive” in organizational life.

The kind of generative complexity that occurs as a result of this interplay is different than the kinds of escalating complexity that we call “playing politics” in the office. Generative complexity creates new structures which are themselves generative of new emergent capacities. This is called “evolution” and it happens whenever the dynamic interplay is unobstructed. When we go into nature and upset the holistically attuned dynamics by, let’s say, hunting the wolves, the system loses its generative capacity – the Elk overshoot the carrying capacity of the landscape, and themselves decline. The system turns into a degenerative phase. This is true also of organizational life. When we allow people to continually negotiate the interplay of asymmetric needs/wants and skills/resources, then their organization will be generative of novelty and emergent complexity. This kind of complexity is able to continually attune itself to the unique configuration of the power matrix through this everyday, ordinary negotiation.

Leaders disrupt this generative capacity by assigning people fixed power roles in organizational structures. The dynamics turn degenerative, creating all kinds of adaptive pushback and “gaming the system” that we call “office politics.” When we look at organizational life from the view of generative process dynamics, however, we see that the conventional “solutions” to settling power disputes in organizations, inevitably creates escalating complexity. Next generation leaders are to learning how allowing teams to self-organize supports generative outcomes, and avoids escalating unwarranted complexity. Teams become more dynamic and responsive, and outcomes become more innovative and adaptive.

Over time, self-organized teams are capable of extraordinary, high-velocity performance as the continual interplay changes the power matrix from static and coercive command and control relationships, to fluid and creative collaborative and co-creative configurations. Next generation leaders realize the significant value creation that results in creative, innovative teams.

Figure 1

How self-organization happens

Relational values

As we come together, the value-streams that make up our intentional-motivational state – our needs and wants – co-mingle in complex ways. As we “size up” the situation, we “size up” each other. Habit and routine can make most of this process unconscious, but surprising and novel situations remind us that this is what is actually happening in our ordinary everyday interactions. This is just the first part of the process we call “self-organizing.”

In this “sizing up” phase, we are intuitively feeling the asymmetry of our relationship. I might see that you are much stronger than me, and so I will want you to take the heavier side of the load. This is an example of skill asymmetry. Skill asymmetry is usually more straightforward than the asymmetry around our different values. Let’s say I really want to move the couch, but you like it where it is, and besides, you are annoyed about moving it away from the TV. I might need you to help me weed the garden, but you might just need some money. These types of values asymmetries are the “stuff” of complex non-linear dynamics. Their interactions range from chaotic to chaordic to coherent to syntonic. This is all natural and people have intuitive ways to negotiate themselves into coherent patterns of relationship. Our skills and resources change more slowly than our values and desires which shift constantly even in a single day.

Therefore, power relations are constantly being negotiated and renegotiated as automatic micro- processes. Every moment represents a new starting position between people as the pattern of organization continuously shifts in response to subtle changes in relational dynamics.

Autonomous Identities

People will only engage in collective interaction when the processes of negotiating asymmetric needs/wants and skills/resources, reaches a state of relational (that is to say, intentional- motivational) coherence. This is the relational aspect of self-organization which corresponds to the human condition of plurality. Simultaneously each person is also an autonomous individual; and it is psychologically important for us to formulate discrete and stable identities as individuals. Collective action will not begin unless each person finds a specific role-identity that is acceptable to them in the interaction.

When we allow people to self-organize, discrete identities eventually emerge from the processes of negotiating the shifting asymmetry between their skill sets and values. By these everyday ordinary ways of interacting, we fall into our roles. Take for example, when people come over to my farm during a weekend retreat. It is likely that two or three (usually but not always) women will take up being in charge of dinner preparing and cooking, while one or two (usually but not always men) will find the dishes and set the table. In the kitchen, between the women, something fascinating happens. Each one is the sole proprietor of their own kitchen – and I must confess at first to feeling that my kitchen was invaded territory when such confident and autonomous people took to the helm. I have taught myself to release my attachment, and to mingle instead with the guests. Meanwhile in the kitchen, a fascinating dance is happening, and the three “head cooks” are working out team roles. Eventually roles emerge and the women settle into a productive groove.

In other words, roles are the identities we assume in the organized interactions that we enter into in order to distribute the energy load required to fulfill our individual values (needs and wants). In turn, our role-identities define the set of objectives that each must perform in the distributed action. People organize themselves to take up a role as part of their performance-in-action; but their own reasons for doing so are driven by complex value-streams that are in the process of continuous negotiation. The success of the organized performance depends upon each individual fulfilling their role or roles, which in turn depends upon them maintaining sufficient relational stability to reach a threshold of coherence in their complex relational processes.

Figure 2

Team building fails when people are strongly attached to a particular role, or consider only a few role-identities acceptable for themselves.  For example, if in negotiating the price for a home, both the seller and the buyer are attached to the role-identity of “winner”—there is little possibility that they will cooperate during the negotiation process. On the contrary, people who can better endure the liminal periods of negotiation, where role-identities are fluid and emergent, have greater potential to self-organize into performance teams. Leaders and team members can cultivate greater skill in identifying available roles, or even creating new role-identities for themselves opening to more fluid and collaborative participation, and shorter on-boarding times. Next generation leaders will be called upon to interact with a more diverse workforce, a much broader spectrum of professions, cross-functional teams of experts, and authorities representing multiple stakeholders. It is essential, therefore, for these leaders to build capacity in themselves and their teams for more creative expression of their own role-identities.

The challenge in self-organization, is that we are not used to letting go of old identities and shifting in and out of new ones. We are uncomfortable in the phases of transitions, where identities are not yet fixed, or fixed identities are being challenged in the process of negotiation. This is why we are so obsessed with fixed roles and direct-report relationships. Yet they represent past conditions and contexts, while remaining unresponsive to present conditions or future possibilities that might otherwise emerge if we allow for the self-organization to happen.

Playing with roles and experimenting with identities is how we learn, grow, and expand our horizons and how we create new ways of being together. What would childhood be without role playing and the continual shifting and expanding one’s identity well into adulthood? How impoverished culture would become if we were limited to only a few categorical identities. We are beginning to see how to design organizational life to allow for flexible identities and creative roles to emerge. Next generation leaders will face the responsibility to design organizational structures that are sensitive, adaptive and responsive to the ever-shifting matrices of human values. Over time, the people themselves will learn how to “endure” the complex and sometimes painful processes of transitioning from being a group of people attached to their identity-role, to becoming a real team where roles and identities are in creative interplay, outcomes are novel and emergent, and performance is exceptional. In the process, leaders will shift strategic questions from the notion of “what should we do?” to “who are we becoming as a people?”

A Brief History of Management

Following WWII, the US was positioned for exponential growth in manufacturing as it shifted its war-time production capacity over to civilian products such as cars and appliances. After the war, soldiers were recruited into business schools where the role of the manager was reinvented from that of stewardship of an organization’s resources or society’s ethical concerns, to logistics involving people, supplies, facilities and production. Logistical coordination between public, private, and military was a key aspect of winning a modern war, and this new manager became a perfect reflection of his military counterpart, including taking up a fixed role in a hierarchy of power. As corporations grew into larger and larger conglomerates, the managerial positions became further removed from the organization’s core activities, and increasingly geared toward delivering commands from higher-ups and exerting control on others who occupied subordinate roles.

Prior to this, managers were positioned alongside the physical assembly lines or in walled departments where they could oversee their workers; and thus, a chart of managerial positions would correlate to and follow the manufacturing or assembly route. Afterwards, the organizational chart would come to illustrate the direct-report relationships between managerial levels—that now corresponded only to positions of power sustained by disciplinary measures. Now only role dependencies could be traced through the organizational chart, and work routes had to be illustrated elsewhere, such as in Gantt Charts, which had been used almost exclusively by the military.

As modern economies shifted away from manufacturing and toward information and knowledge, the function of management changed again. Work processes were no longer designed in clear linear fashion, as along an assembly line. Rather what needed to be accomplished came in from and flowed out in all directions. There was no longer a way for managers to position themselves along the route of the work itself and they became less associated with front line workers and more associated with a professional managerial pool. Management became a separate “science” with its own tools and techniques for modelling, mapping and measuring. In this new era of professionalism, the function of managers became more and more based on generalized abstractions of people as human systems that could enable them to exert control from a distance.

The modern organization in the information age now had two distinct organizational structures— roles that conformed to power relations, and roles that corresponded to operational tasks. Since managers had the power to set compensation policy, wages and earnings came to depend more on power roles than the talents, skills and value created through operational activities. As a consequence, organizations became biased toward managerial functions such as more complex abstraction, measurement, regulatory control, policy-making, contract writing, etc… and the “race to the top” meant building ever more complexity into the system. These were the functions that managers awarded each other with unprecedented levels of compensation—because it was the kind of work they were good at. Increasingly management schools fed into this process by escalating the complexity of management theory in highly academic contexts.

By the mid 1980’s what managers did at work had become increasingly based on irrealist or idealist notions constructed in the minds of other managers and academicians and fed back into them. People hired from the professional class were less likely to have had any experience with the actual task demands that the people they were supposed to be overseeing were responsible for. Front line workers were caught in the crossfire between playing the game of role and power, and focusing on doing good work. Not surprisingly, as a result of the compensation bias that managers themselves maintained, front line workers steadily improved at gaming the system with the most promising rewards.

Inadvertently a cognitive arms race was born between human resource managers and employees who were getting better and better at strategizing their own roles in the workplace, and the “system” evolved together, escalating complexity. Eventually researchers from Harvard were discovering that managers were “falling in over their heads” and psychologists were studying higher and higher levels of cognitive complexity required to run an organization, even if the task demands of the value creating activities were technically relatively simple. Human resource trainers began teaching double and triple loop learning techniques and managers took workshops designed to move them into 4th and 5th order levels of consciousness—a feat that less than 1% of today’s managers has been able to accomplish.

Rebooting the system

As a result of systemic polarization and escalation of complexity, US companies had become bloated both on the side of management and on the side of labor. In the 1980’s they faced the need for a complete overhaul. Japanese car companies were starting to outcompete US car manufacturers and interest in their team approach to management and lean operational frameworks soared. The Japanese companies continued to innovate production with leaner methods that were designed specifically to eliminate both role and route dependencies in the production process. These methods were inspired by the kinds of teamwork visualization boards that the agile software developers used to speed communication and decision making.

At the same time, innovations in information technology disrupted the need for organizations to hold onto a managerial sector to centralize information everyone in the company depended upon. Although computers had for a long time been available to store and organize information, managers were still called upon to search and retrieve the information people needed to do their work. Decision making processes still followed the same chain of roles up the organizational hierarchy. Yet managers came to occupy roles that functioned less like political power positions, and more like information hubs. The typical organizational chart now primarily traced how information was aggregated into larger strategic wholes which depended on generalized abstractions and increasingly complex systems thinking.

However, it wasn’t long before web browsers became more efficient than people at searching for relevant information, and innovations in user-interface allowed people to retrieve all the information they needed by themselves. With the explosion of technology companies into the service sector, a company could have a complete IT infrastructure installed in a very short time. Managers became obsolete overnight. More significantly, innovations in IT allowed people to track details that were relevant to their local context. This gave front-line teams the ability to make strategic decisions on the spot, without managerial intervention. These decisions proved to be more responsive in environments of rapid change, and gave companies a great advantage in an increasingly global economy. A revolution in organizational life was well underway.

In 2014, Frederick Laloux, a former consultant with the global management consulting company McKinsey, published a book called Reinventing Organizations, in which he described several companies that were working with radically new approaches. These approaches focused on self-organization, team leadership, distributed decision making, transparency, and participation of the whole person beyond their formal organizational roles. Two years later, Deloitte published Global Human Capital Trends which identified organizational redesign as the top priority for corporate leaders, outscoring the perennial issues such as leadership and learning, while workforce management placed last in the list of ten.

Path Dependency – Roles

We use the term “path” to describe the order, sequence, stages and steps in which work is accomplished. Path dependency is composed of two kinds: role dependencies and route dependencies. This article focuses on role dependency, the next article in the series deals with route dependency.

Unlock role dependencies

Role dependencies are created when operational flows are required to pass through specific people and their roles in order for the work to proceed. Traditional organizations design role dependencies into operational flows in order to control costs and assure quality, and as a way to make individual managers accountable through policies that require them to approve, prioritize and “make the final calls.” Agile and lean organizations have proved that when teams are assigned the responsibility for the quality of their work, including costs, value, and ROI, they do a better job at it than when these control requirements are exported to managerial levels. In addition, adding full responsibility of the work at the team level, actually helps build better smarter, and more innovative teams by necessitating deeper engagement through the need to participate in strategic conversations. Engaged teams in turn, become perfectly capable of designing and implementing their own decision-making process which is more likely to be responsive to the context in which they work, more likely to suit their skills and value-set, and more likely to be optimized to the task demands they are responsible for. This releases the organization from a “one-size-fits-all” mentality which leads to unnecessary complexity in some places, and practical “work-arounds” in others.

Allow teams to innovate operational flows

Front line teams who are most familiar with the operational contexts and whose core competencies are more closely matched with the task demands of the operation should be allowed to innovate the operational frameworks for the workflows inside their teams’ location. This includes staging and prioritizing, as well as designing shared facilities and allocating resources and tools. Advanced teams can be given the responsibility to propose budgets and set salaries through collaborative team processes. Experiment and improvisation allows teams to discover key workflow innovations that are otherwise hidden in plain sight from higher-up managers or design and engineering professionals, who do not participate in the ordinary, everyday task demands of front line teams. Periods of work stoppage caused by moving in and out of operational domains, and into departmental, administrative, managerial or legal domains, should be eliminated altogether, by including smart and efficient evaluative procedures as part of the core team operations.

Switch to the notion of locations

Figure 3

Organizations can shift away from using roles altogether by employing the notion of “locations” as fundamental building blocks. A location can be physically occupied by co-located workers, or can be virtually occupied by members connecting via digital technology—or a hybrid of both. A “location” is a single strategic entity, defined by the performance, objectives and values (POV) that capture its core strategic, operational and team orientation, using simple prompts such as

Locations can be thought of as strategic “bets” that attract enough interest and talent that people self-organize to pursue them. The more adequately the POV of a location can be defined and shown to be a “good bet”– the more easily it can be filled with people who have the cross- functional skills and leadership depth that optimize performance in teams. In these locations, people will automatically and naturally self-organize into suitable roles through the natural human processes of negotiating asymmetric needs(wants) and skills(resources) as they navigate the complexities of 21st century work. Once underway, locations co-evolve along with the people who occupy them, through the decisions they make every day as a team, as well as through larger strategic conversations with other teams in other locations. Furthermore, teams in different locations can be allowed to design a governance and set decision-making policies that best fit the context and conditions of their work and responsibilities. In this way, a company’s risk can be mitigated in many different ways, at many different levels, simultaneously – building in what we call strategic depth.

Design locations for strategic depth

Locations are best designed as semi-autonomous entities that enable maximum responsibility and creativity for the teams that occupy them. There are two classes of locations

  • core locations: where teams are responsible for generated new value
  • network locations: where teams are responsible for transacting that value with the customer/society/world

Teams in both classes of locations assume strategic orientations to their work, and are responsible for understanding the strategic relevance of their work as it relates to larger and larger strategic wholes. This way of designing for strategic depth, allows front line workers in core locations to prioritize decision-making by integrating local contexts with larger strategic considerations. As a result, double and triple look learning practices are designed into the structural architecture of the organization.

Building strategic depth also means designing practices which continuously “push strategic responsibility” down to core value locations. This is a process of “operationalizing strategy” that has enormous capacity to reduce organizational complexity and relieve organizational debt. Take for example, how agile organizations have moved the customer closer to, if not in direct contact with the developer team. Just a decade ago, customer relationships were siloed into departmental and managerial pools who then commanded front lines teams to execute on their plans. By placing customers and their needs, in direct contact with core teams that exist to satisfy them, not only do organizations build strategic depth and the resilience that come with it, but also create more powerful incentives for teams to produce high quality products and services. Next generation leaders will understand how to design workplace practices such that strategic needs are sensed, scanned and scoped out in network zones. This can be easily done through interactive practices such as attention mapping.  Afterwards, collaborate teams drawn from both network and core locations, work together to turn strategic opportunities (or “bets”)  into well-defined core locations that will be responsible pursuing and executing them. Newly established locations are them populated by cross-functional teams who go on to create the operational frameworks and workflows that meet required objectives in fulfilling the performance goals of the location.

Focus locations on strategic value

A company’s strategic value is its capacity to self-organize to solve customer problems. Through a variety of value transactions, customers look to organize with companies to distribute the energy load of the task demands associated with their needs and wants. The company’s value to customers, is a result from having organized the talent, skills, resources and capacities for them. Customers represent the transactional resources to satisfy the company’s needs and wants, namely liquidity of cash and resource flows, infrastructure development and profit. In this sense, a company and its customers also self-organize, creating a power-value matrix at a larger strategic level. Brand-loyalty is a way for organizations to vie for a unique value-laden identity with their customers, while customers continuously seek parity with organizational heft through market negotiations that up-scale products and services while driving prices down. At even larger strategic levels, companies compete with each other creating complex asymmetries in the power-value matrices. In an ideal market, prejudiced neither by regulation nor monopolization, production value flows toward needs and wants and transactional value flows toward the skills and resources needed to satisfy them. Disruptive innovation puts more production value into the hands of the customer, essentially eliminating the power-value asymmetry across which transactional value flows, leading to net-zero production margins, a tendency we are seeing today. For example, prior to the internet, people relied on travel agents to book air flights. Afterwards, people still had needs and wants to travel, but technology has raised their skill (resource) level to eliminate the production value of the travel agent.

Likewise, inside the organization, disruptive innovation in workflow design produces strategic value, by decreasing the costs of production. Smart design, aided by technology can greatly reduce the dependencies between role and route, and create simpler, more direct pathways toward getting things done. As long as managers’ roles are coupled with the need to manage for complexity, disruptive innovation inside the workplace will run into a great deal of resistance from managers whose roles would become obsolete. Next generation leaders, therefore, must design career paths for managers based on their ability to build strategic depth and increase strategic value both inside and outside the organizational per se.

Refactor route dependencies

Route dependencies are the way operational tasks are dependent on each other. This includes timing of different phases, modular and physical design dependency, and feedback loops that are part of the workflow design. Above a certain threshold of complexity, whenever companies attempt to design start-to-finish processes, workflow staging becomes insanely demanding, and intensifies risk. Next generation leaders must understand the kinds of risk that escalate during long-term planning stages, as costs and commitment get locked into single-point outcomes. Advances in computer technology and AI deceive us into thinking that a single-point outcome can be “locked in” by sophisticated cybernetic systems. Advances in AI gives computers the power to design intricately controlled cybernetic systems with the help of sensors that operate at hundreds, if not thousands of interdependent nodes along the route. Algorithms designed to track and learn from them call for increasing intricacy, which requires more regulatory mechanisms, which in turn means we need more sensors. This is the reason why cybernetic designs tend to factor exponentially, and cede to the law of requisite variety.

The problem with chasing cybernetic complexity in infrastructure design, is that it assumes by default that smart machines can improve on human performance, without questioning the structures that people are expected to perform against. In other words, we are increasingly designing for what machines are good at and decreasingly for what the human operating system is good at. Too much reliance on cybernetic control—which is fundamentally mechanistic control, however sophisticated the machines become—dulls the human imagination and creates built environments that erode the human spirit. Machines may be getting smarter, but we need to be careful that we are not slowly but surely measuring “smartness” on the basis of what it is to be a machine, rather than on the basis of what it is to be a living, embodied, human being. The conventional workplace tends to miss the latter terms entirely. It is arguably the case, that machines seem to becoming more like humans, because humans are becoming more like machines; and most likely the case that the movement is in both directions. It is also arguably true, that as society becomes more complex in richness and diversity, global elites are more comfortable with cybernetically controlled systems in infrastructure development, because only those systems allow them to maintain the “kind of order” that “their kind of power” needs, i.e. leveraging control from the top derived from strongly asymmetric, fixed power roles.

Today we are beginning to understand that the most powerful problem- solving ‘systems’ are people engaged in authentic participation.

Lean and agile operations are learning to design workflows based on principles that continuously refactor the “problem situation” and keep workflows closer to scales where people can be creative and innovative in workflow design.

By greatly reducing the complexity of the process and focusing on embodied practices of open, authentic communication, agile methods are proving to advance performance around complex task demands. Workflow options are kept open, allowing teams to continuously redesign and reprioritize performance objectives. Agile teams employ simple production practices that constrain the workload and distribute it in rhythms that best suit human needs. Most importantly, they combine iterative practices with rituals that facilitate communication on daily, weekly, bi- weekly and other time periods that correlate communications with larger and larger strategic needs.

In the future, optimizing workflows will be about optimizing the conditions under which people of diverse skills, perspectives, and temperament, can create a coherent work of collective genius. The critical role of technology will be to allow for universal access to communication and information, and methods for deep inquiry and learning on the part of humans. This will allow for complex route dependencies to be de-coupled from single-outcome strategies and allow teams to design for multiple futures — a critical capacity when working with non-linear dynamics in complex systems.

In the future, instead of complex pathways of intricate dependencies engineered in advance, we will see human-centered workflows designed across multiple parallel tracks, each pointing to different sets of possible futures. Each track will be operationally independent, but the teams themselves will be able to remain in a strategically integrated, coherent state, accessing the synergistic advantages of performing as a “team of teams.” As their parallel explorations inform and unfold emergent possibility, their strategic conversations will inform and unfold workflow practices that shape the future for everyone. Eventually, multiple parallel flows converge toward a single future outcome, unforeseen at the start. This single outcome, however, will only be a snapshot — the terminal bud of an iterative cycle in a larger workflow era. Information rapidly diverges, calling for another round of prototyping and developing.

releasing complexity

Figure 4

To Trim the System, Tame the Mind

System Abstraction Levels

The word “system” is used to represent different kinds of conceptual abstractions. To summarize the different meanings, I will use a list of definitions (adapted from Ralph Stacey’s book Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics)

  1. A coherent, systematic whole of thought [like a toolkit]
  2. A hypothesis about the nature of development in which the living being is formed as a “whole” by the interaction of parts, through a process of unfolding potential that was established at
  3. A conceptual abstraction, as in first-order hard systems thinking, general systems theory, cybernetic and dynamics systems where human groupings come to be regarded as systems with internal and external dynamics and
  4. A way of thinking about individual minds in cognitivist terms, as information-processing devices.
  5. A way of thinking about human communication as a system, such as of senders and receivers.
  6. A way about thinking of interrelationships as constituting an organic whole or living system.
  7. A system as a conceptual model in the mind of an observer who occupies a privileged position outside “the system” and is not affected by
  8. An emergent system, in which the many actions of autonomous agents at the lower or local level produce emergent order at the higher or global
  9. A particular kind of process methodology that specifies sequential steps or appropriate actions that observers and decision makers should use to structure the problem situations they face, explore solutions, and make rational choices around future actions. In this case, the process methodology asks people to think of their situation “as if” both the objective and subjective aspects were a system, and to identify it as such in order to “act upon” or “within”
  10. A comprehensive, interlocking set of procedures and actions, often assuming the structure of a bureaucracy or hierarchy: accounting systems, quality assurance systems, legal systems, property systems, health systems and transport

Refactoring our mental models

Much of the nature of organizational challenge we face today is a result of working with unnecessarily high levels of abstraction in our ways of thinking. Releasing complexity means learning how to identify the level of abstraction that is best suited to the task demands in front of us, the decisions needed to be made, and the actions we need to take. In all cases, it is crucial to be able to avoid the confusion of mistaking what the mind is doing – thinking in terms of systems—for real attributes about the world. When we avoid this confusion, we release complexity, because we realize that there are optional ways to inquire into and think about phenomena, which brings about different views of the world. Here we find choices.

We have the choice to look for the simplest, most elegant way to represent the problem situation we are facing. Instead of looking to solve a problem through increasing the level of abstraction in our thinking, we can look for a shift in view which allows us to capture all the complexity of the problem situation in a more elegant, yet simpler way.

We can think of this as refactoring our mental models.

One of the reasons why we tend to move toward higher levels of abstraction when we face complex situation, is that our mental model of how cognition grows is biased toward increasing abstraction and hierarchical complexity. In these mental models, there is very little room for considering the role of intuition, insight, deconstructive critical thinking, imagination, aesthetic or practical judgement, or the ways in which information flows through the active exploration of the embodied person—the ways in which we learn a craft, a sport, how to play an instrument, how to cook, how to relate to others.

The analogy I like to use is to consider the shift in view from the geo-centric system of the planets to the helio-centric view. Ptolemy’s system of systems – epicycles within cycles—was more complex that Copernicus’ helio-centric model planetary movements. Obviously the complexity “in the universe” itself didn’t shift – the planets didn’t suddenly rearrange themselves and their orbits. No, the complexity in Ptolemy’s system-of-systems came from the view on which his thinking was based(biased).

There are some core underlying characteristics of systems thinking that we can identify as a practice of refactoring our mental models toward lower levels of abstraction. These are discussed separately in the following sections.

Are there hidden agendas in your system

We can approach systems thinking in two ways, depending upon our intent. A descriptive approach seeks to construct a systemic explanation of phenomena. Darwin’s motivation was descriptive – to develop a theory that could explain the patterns of change in species through time. Too often, however, people have a hidden agenda when developing a systems approach. Too often we employ a systems approach to reach a preconceived notion, such as to control or regulate the activities, actions, or behaviors of the agents “in the system.” In this second sense we are being implicitly prescriptive – creating systems that are not really meant to explain how things are, but are intended to control how things should be. There is a subtle attempt in this case to substitute an ought for an is. Systems thinking of this kind is a complicated way to hide from view, or remove from the conversation, or protect from critical inquiry, the ethical component in the way the system is construed to be. Take for example, the complex eschatological systems construed by Catholicism. Ostensibly, these were systems about reality, but we now know they were complex arguments to regulate behavior according to Catholic doctrine and as an affirmation of the hierarchical control of the Church.

Do we allow some players to be animated, while de-animating others

All systems thinking is based on thinking of some of the parts as active, animated, responsive agents, and some of the parts as passive, deanimated, objects. In the shift from the geo-centric to the helio-centric view, for example, the earth was animated and the sun was deanimated. We now know today that in reality, the planets and the sun “wobble” around each other, affecting each other through the same laws, equally; All their movements are relative to their mass, and so, because the sun’s mass is so much larger than the planets, the sun’s movement is imperceptible at the level of detail we use in studying planetary movements. Ecological systems thinking has this same core error, when environmental managers think of people acting “on” the environment without thinking of how the environment “acts back.” Management systems thinking makes the same mistake, when modelling human interaction where the manager can “act on” the “human system” and dynamically steer it in a chosen direction.

What is being operationally closed

When we conceptualize patterns as a whole system, the mental model we build must have an implicit way of “operationally closing” the system into a bounded whole that we call “the system.” These boundaries, of course, are imaginary—we construct them in a way that we find useful to the task at hand. We know, for example, that in addition to their own relative movements, the planets and the sun “together” move through the Milky Way Galaxy, and the Galaxies themselves move in relationship to each other. Recently the dynamic flows in Laniakea, our local supercluster, have been mapped and animated by scientists. This is a stunning visualization I find very inspiring and meaningful when thinking about organizational life.

When we take a critical systems approach, we reflect on our choice of operational closure. Are we considering a large enough system? Or perhaps the system we are modeling is too large to be relevant and therefore unsuitable to the task at hand. What kind of causality is implied?

When we consider phenomena “as a system” we implicitly include causal mechanisms in the way we think about “how the system works.” A critical systems approach takes into consideration that there are multiple ways in which we can think about how the system works, and therefore we have a choice which causal mechanism(s) to include, and which to avoid.

A causal mechanism itself is part of a larger, “theory of change” on which our systems thinking is based. There are only a handful of acceptable theories of change, so this makes our analysis easier in this regard. How we think about change “in the system” is the most significant aspect of systems thinking that affects how we will act from this particular view. In the natural sciences, there are four theories of change: construction, development, evolution and emergence. The following table highlights some of the different features associated with different types of causality in systems thinking.

Table 1

What level of abstraction is optimal

As the table below shows, once we have a model, we implicitly have already adopted a theory of change, and assigned causal mechanism to explain how the system works. This becomes problematic when modeling human organization as “systems” since it requires us to choose a theory of causation. This means that when we employ a systems approach to organizational life, we are placing a theory between us and direct participation with the people we interact with.

Table 2

The table allows us to identify the level of abstraction we are using to describe a system. Theories that adopt causal mechanisms are level two (L2) abstractions, and models that show how the system works, based on those causal mechanisms, are level three (L3) abstractions. A theory is created in order for us to create rational conceptual explanations which can help us know in order to act. A theory of load-bearing capacities in steel, for example can help us know how to construct a skyscraper. Once we have a theory of causation we can build a mental or representational model that illustrates the causal relationships between parts of the system. Our model is a way to systematize the processes involved. This in turn leads to a level four (L4) abstraction, in which we identify the internal relationships of the system, a step which creates the notion of an inside and an outside, and as such operationally closes the system. Operational closure, tends to make us think about the system as a “thing” an “entity,” or a living “organism,” – a process that is called reification. Reification gives us the sense of an “enduring entity” and hence, creates the need to introduce additional causal mechanisms that explain how the entity self-regulates and controls its environment such that it endures “as the entity it is” despite changing conditions. Level four systems thinking, therefore is identified by the need for/inclusion of regulatory mechanisms, such as homeostatic and heterostasic mechanisms, and leads to what is known as dynamic systems thinking. Level five (L5) systems thinking is concerned with thinking of the external environment as a system, and by identifying the external relationships between systems, creates a complex system-of-systems view of the world. This is the domain of modern cybernetics, and the new field of EDS (evolutionary developmental systems) thinking. In this view, systems have both internal control mechanisms as well as complex adaptive mechanisms that respond to the larger system in which it is embedded.

A critical systems thinking approach

Each higher-level abstraction builds on and carries with it the implicit and explicit assumptions that the prior level entails, such as which parts are animated and which are not; where and how the system and subsystems are operationally closed; and what type of causal mechanisms are we assigning to the system and subsystems. In addition, each level of abstraction adds new implicit and explicit assumptions along the same lines. For example, in certain cybernetic theories, a theory of formative causation comes into play, in which higher-order systems provide the formative structures in which lower level systems “act.” This creates a situation in which the agents in the lower-level system, act freely (are animated actors) but from the perspective of the higher-level system, they are acted upon, or deanimated. Because it is a common model in organizational systems thinking, we shall return to in the next section when considering thinking about “human systems” in organizational life.

The point in this discussion is not that higher order systems thinking is never helpful, and in some cases higher levels of abstraction are necessary to support strategic conversations in complex situations. The point here, is that understanding what we are doing when we “do systems thinking” enables us to refactor our thinking down to lowers levels of abstraction where choices are often more apparent, and decisions often more actionable. What leaders should not do, is assume that one systems approach is better than an alternative approach simply because it involves higher level abstractions. Furthermore, I would argue, that in most cases where we find it nearly impossible to know before we act, the higher the abstraction we use, the more we obstruct other, more creative, intuitive and innovative approaches to complex situations.

At its best, systems thinking functions as a practical methodology for supporting communicative action. In this case, we acknowledge we are modelling the situation as if it were a system of a particular nature, and that we can choose what level of abstraction is useful for making sense of the situation in order to excavate a set of options, choices and actions.

A critical systems thinking approach examines all the hidden all the hidden assumptions, causal mechanisms, tendencies toward reification, biases toward what is animated and what is deanimated, and where and how we functionally close the system into a frame of inquiry. In other words, a critical systems approach not only seeks to model an “objective situation” but also inquire into the thinking processes that are doing the modelling. This creates a more profitable exploration into the problem situation, because it represents not only the problem “out there” but also reveals the problem as something we are “situated in.” In other words, a critical systems approach can help reveal the view from which we are thinking, and give us some insight into how to switch to a more elegant view.

Where are we when we are thinking about systems

This brings us to a central question that arises when we take up a critical approach to systems thinking: Where are we in relation to the system we are thinking about?

There are three possible perspectives that we can occupy:

  1. The perspective of the privileged observer who is outside the system and who is unaffected by
  2. The perspective of the participant who, immersed within the system, is both affected by and effects the
  3. The perspective of the reflexive- participant who is both inside the system and whose participation in the system is a source of information in studying

The perspective of the privileged observer requires us to make an imaginary leap in which we abstract ourselves from the system in order to observe and operate on it, usually in order to control it. While this perspective is adequate to simple physical and mechanistic systems, even the hard sciences such a physics find this perspective increasingly problematic when studying more complex processes. If we cannot extract ourselves from quantum experiments, how is it even possible to extract ourselves from evolutionary processes, ecological processes, planetary processes, economic processes, or the dynamic communicative processes in organizational life? Each time we realize that we have removed ourselves from the system, we are obligated to create a next higher system that includes the observer. And yet to do so, we need to extract ourselves from this higher order system, too. This inevitably leads to an infinite regress of the subject, and problematizes approaches such as Kegan’s subject-object model of higher orders of consciousness. It also leads to an unwarranted escalation of abstraction and systemic complexification.

However, the perspective of the participant immersed in the system is equally problematic, since it requires a certain level of abstraction for people to communicate their experience of participation. Communicative action, in this sense, is predicated on the ability to extract information from one’s lived subjective experience and share aspects of that experience with others. One way in which we share subjective experience with others, is to create conceptual models that can be shared. According to our table, this is already a level three abstraction.

A Critical Reflexive Attitude

The question that arises is: Is it possible to adopt a different way of thinking when inquiring about human experience?

If we adopt a reflexive attitude, we will see that there is a kind of experience of toggling between imagining ourselves immersed inside the system and stepping out or abstracting ourselves from the system. If we apply a critical systems approach to this, we see that our mental models are already constrained by the implicit abstraction that there is an inside and an outside which problematizes our lived experience. When I then begin to think of what is actually happening in my lived experience, I notice that what is actually happening is the embodied activity of participation. This participation could be with thoughts in my head, with sights, sounds, feelings in my body. This participation could include communicative acts such as speaking and listening. This participation could be focused on manipulating things in my environment such as knitting needles or chain saws. In turn, I can see that other people, animals, even things, participate with me. The molecules that arise in the steam from what I am cooking participate with receptors in my body and effect the feeling tone of my mood. The hammer resists crushing by me hand, and concentrates the force of my blow. The structure of the tree responds to every new action of the saw, which adjusts the way I hold it, the force I use, the way I anticipate how the tree will fall. Reality is plenitude of participation. In the first row of the table L0 represents the reflexive attitude. Being reflexive is not the same as being reflective. Reflecting, which is a much more common activity, means thinking about something that happened in the past, even if it happened in the near past. When we reflect on something, we have to rely on memory, which inherently relies on narrative constructs and mental models to deliver up the memory of something into consciousness. This is inherently a creative act that science has shown to be very unreliable representation of what actually happened. Being reflexive, on the other hand, is being aware of how one is actually experiencing the present moment as it unfolds. It means noticing where our energy wants to go, and where we resist or avoid going. It means being conscious of our bodily postures, and the subtle shifts in our mood. It means being fully involved in the participation, at the mico-cosmic level of the individual, while simultaneously participating with others. It means being able to hold into awareness how one is situated in the experience, and how this situatedness subtle shifts and morphs in response to the participation.

Reflexivity involves the immediacy of self-knowing as a continual revealing of the self that emerges through participation. A reflexive approach is a kind of embodied vigilance which keeps language in check, constantly measuring the conceptual, representational, symbolic and narrative aspects of discourse against the immediacy of the embodied experience and the native context that situates oneself through participation.

  • A reflection on the degree to which the generalized abstraction is relevant to my actual lived experience of the situation

Using heuristics

In the process of sharing one’s own inquiry with others, it is useful to use simple heuristics that augment and support the use of ordinary language in these situations. Heuristics can help us with the necessary and often exasperating task of “semantic mapping” – a process in which we build confidence that words are pointing to, or placeholder for, the same kind of inner subjective experience. A heuristic can help map meaning in such a way that when we use a word to make subtle distinctions in subjective context, we can simply point to the “location” which stands in for that particular subtle context, instead of entering endlessly discursive attempts to secure the meaning in words. The philosopher Gene Gendlin, has long argued that our inner subjective experience is more refined, more precise in expressing subtle distinctions in meaning, and that words, by contrast are already too coarse a category to express these distinctions—a claim that has recently been verified by science.

The illustrations in the first section are examples of heuristics. They are transparently “not real claims” in the sense that no one actually believes themselves to be little triangles, with parts that have to “sync up.” There are no claims to how this happens, no implied causal mechanisms. Rather, they are graphic analogies which help us share inner experience in a way that we realize that much of our experience is common to others, and might even be a deep aspect of human nature. It is not a heuristic that says how people should act, but rather is offered as a way to support an inquiry into how people do act in their ordinary everyday experience. Unlike discursive language, a heuristic does not steer the conversation away from debate and towards agreement. Rather, it helps us be reflexive toward our own inner subjective experience, that correlates to the parts of the illustration that point to them, or function as placeholders so that we can point to them.

Because a heuristic does not imply a causal explanation of how or why, it is not a theory (L2) nor a model (L3) of ordinary lived experience. Therefore it is a level one (L1) abstraction which attempts to help ground language and higher order abstractions in our everyday actual lived experience, and enable us to tie conversations we have at higher orders of abstraction back into our everyday lived experience through reflexive practices

Prospects & Posterity

The Challenge of Leadership

Today’s technology offers entirely new prospects for next generation infrastructure development, but leaders should beware the spell of the “technological imperative.” This is not easy to avoid, as leaders are necessarily immersed in the global finance, trans-national corporate, and national political systems that sustain the spell. With too strong a focus on the power of technology to build bigger, deliver faster, and to scale globally, we risk building a more complex but less rewarding world. Next generation leaders will employ a trans-disciplinary approach which seeks to integrate science, technology, and social policy in innovative ways. Increasingly, however, these innovations revolve around people exploring new ways of collective action and more open, authentic types of participation. In the process, novel insights will help transform outdated mental models of social organization, political engagement, economic wealth, and planetary health.

Next generation leaders must articulate a vision of infrastructure development as the intersection of technological prospect and human prosperity.

This vision must avoid the ideologically-framed discourse that polarizes society today and paralyzes us with unwarranted kinds of complexity. A vision based on human prosperity calls for new kinds of communicative action that are grounded in the actual lived experience of ordinary people everywhere, and can be enacted through broadly distributed means of open participation.

Reimagining Leadership

In this paper I have suggested that leaders can relieve themselves of unnecessary complexity by refactoring path dependencies in their processes and levels of abstraction in their systems modelling. Since the task demands of large scale infrastructure development are inherently complex, leaders need to prioritize this type of refactoring through continuous vigilance and iterative practices. Infrastructure development is also an arena of multi-dimensional players, in continuous negotiation amidst a complex and always-shifting power matrix. In this kind of environment, leaders cannot “go it alone” to resolve such complex dynamics into successful working “wholes.” Rather, next generation leaders must learn how to build capacities that are emergent properties of teams, and learn how to link teams into larger and larger strategic wholes — a skill that Amy Edmondson calls “big teaming.” This means that next generation leaders will also need to reinvent themselves along the way.

Teaming-up to lead

Above a certain threshold of complexity and scale, next generation infrastructure development will require leaders themselves to “team-up” in order to lead on multiple fronts in multiple domains. In order to do so, they will need to hold together a common purpose.

To be successful, the leadership team must be able to integrate the array of values, processes, and practices that will shape cross-functional demands into a functional whole. Key integration points to be considered:

The capacity for next generation leaders to successfully resolve these key integration points, while facing the complex task demands of infrastructure development, will depend upon each leader’s potential and their collective capacity, to team-up and hold onto their common purpose. If we want the next generation of infrastructure developments to support a more prosperous world, we will need to develop potential and collective capacity for exceptional individuals who can team-up to lead them.

About The Author

Bonnitta Roy is founding associate of APP Associates International, a group of professionals and practitioners focused on fostering open participation in organizations. She is founding principle of Alderlore Insight Center, a think-tank where embodied practices and emergent thinking are explored in collective process. She also teaches a masters course in Consciousness Studies and Transpersonal Psychology for The Graduate Institute. She has been an associate editor of Integral Review since 2008.

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