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Five Core Theories – Complexity Theory – Organisation Development

There are five core theories that provide a solid foundation for the work that OD practitioners do.  Good grounding in theory is essential for every OD practitioner.  The better you understand the theory, the better you will understand the complex and intricate nature of the OD process and OD tool kit.

Complexity Theory in Brief

Based on the research of individuals such as Stacey, Wheatley, Black and Morgan complexity theory provides a lens at which both academics and practitioners can analyse and understand the operation of an organisation, and as such, the methods by which an intervention should be structured to deliver the change the organisation is looking for.

Complexity Theory is probably better know in Mathematics, the natural sciences and the development of Algorithms in computer science, however, in the field of OD is concerned with the emergence of order and structure in complex and the apparently chaotic organisational systems.

The Theorist (Stacey 2003, Wheatley 1992, Black 2000 and Morgan 1997) challenged the traditional view that organisations had a ‘business as usual’ change model to a non-linear system which was surrounded by dynamic forms of change.  The unpredictability of change meant that organisational leadership cannot manage change, but instead support their organisation on its change journey, releasing individuals to adapt as the organisation moves towards the ‘edge of chaos’ providing the environment for self-management and the avoidance of liminalities.

In complexity theory the future is unknowable and as such the ability to learn is absolutely critical to ongoing organisation effectiveness, navigating the paradox of the desire for stability with that of the need to flex, adapt and change.  Too much stability will stagnant the organisation and prevent proactive adaptive change, too little and the organisation becomes impossible to manage.

Complexity theory therefore promotes the idea of organisations aas complex adaptive systems which need to respond to the external and internal environment by remaining on the edge of chaos whilst at the same time self-organising and continuously re-inventing the organisational.

Key Points

  1. Change can’t be managed in a complex system
  2. Change must be supported
  3. Leaders must encourage people to learn how to adapt and flex
  4. Open Connection between the different parts of the organisation is essential for self-organisation and embracing diversity of thinking, ideas and approaches
  5. Feedback loops and Information flow is essential to prevent the organisation from falling into chaos.

Applying Complexity Theory in an OD Intervention

  1. Provide the organisation with the tools to operate in instable conditions
  2. Develop Feedback loops in order for the organisation to adapt and create the environment for change
  3. Help individuals navigate the political interaction and build communities of practice to progress self-organisation
  4. Promote diversity of thinking and agility by examining and shifting organisational and personal mental models
  5. Shift the design of the organisation, rejecting hierarchy and control in favour of decentralised, flexible and multifaceted teams
  6. Encourage experimentation, and freedom to create, innovate and self-express to help develop new patterns of operation
  7. Focus on Purpose – Why are we here, rather than What we are doing, which provides the forum for openness to new directions.
  8. Organisation should encourage and promote learning, especially around growth in adaptability, flexibility and change.
  9. Use system-wide collaborative inquiry methods to build connections and encourage diversity of thinking
  10. Provide a stimulus to the organisational system to encourage and influence change