On culture as an emergent property of a complex system

Do we really need to align our organisation around values, beliefs and purpose? This is a core question I am sitting with. It occurs to me that if everyone aligns around these you have surely just destroyed diversity and ensured homogeneity. Your internal systems won’t change or evolve because you’re moving towards a static situation. You’ve got no challenge, no resilience, few perspectives. I was really struck by this, particularly given my work  in corporate strategy and with performance management systems, about which I have written previously. However, it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t be pushing for a common set of values, beliefs and behaviours. What if, instead, we think of culture as an emergent property of a complex dynamic system – an organisation? Let’s briefly unpack this. 

Vision, for me, is a description of a population-level outcome. In my interpretation, developed from Mark Friedman, this is a result of the systems that produce it. A vision of ‘all young people in Hull are healthy’ is a clear outcome statement. Given the systems that interact around young people’s health are complex, you can still make this statement as a desired outcome (aka end result). You’re not defining what it looks like in specific, concrete, measurable terms, as a goal or target. Therefore you have escaped the trap of setting a target in a complex domain. You have instead stated an ambition for change. At which point you can embark on your journey towards a point in time when this outcome statement is true. It provides directionality.

Mission is the purpose of the organisation and its contribution to that vision; this reflects the fact that no one organisation has the solution – working towards the above vision requires a coalition of efforts. We have to work across systems to achieve change, and this requires a range of partners. A crucial challenge is then how to express your vision and mission such that others can recognise the space you are in and you can align efforts. Of course, reaching an agreeable sense of collective purpose is a challenge in and of itself; my work with the ProSocial approach based on Elinor Ostrum’s Core Design Principles is one such (effective) method. 

We know that when we are looking at complex challenges there is no solution to be found, just an approach to be taken. Therefore we avoid talking about ‘solving problems’ and models of change that fix things. Instead we have to use a journey metaphor, knowing that the very act of focusing on the system changes it, and us, in the process. Where is there the possibility for change, where can we act, and what happens next? One of the things Dave Snowden says is worth repeating here: 

“In systems thinking you define the ideal future state and try and close the gap; in complexity you describe the present and see what you can change. You define a direction of travel, not a goal, because if you start on a journey you will discover things you didn’t know you would discover which have high utility. If you have an explicit goal you may miss the very thing you sought to discover.” 

In an organisational context the same is true: how can an organisation evolve on a journey of discovery, not by traditional mechanisms of specification, command and control management, individual performance targets, appraisals… all seeking to align effort with purpose and yet usually failing contact with organisational reality. Any attempt to prescribe the values, behaviours, beliefs etc will equally founder on contact with reality. If instead we see these as emergent properties in complexity our response will be different – we will observe the values as they emerge in the work, the behaviours as people interact, and seek to amplify the ones that are in line with our vision and mission and dampen those that aren’t. A core challenge for leadership is them to ensure that our work and operations is open to those bringing different perspectives and ideas, so that we don’t destroy diversity of thinking and practice and set the organisation on a path towards ossification and collapse. 

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