Our theories are based on models and metaphors that condition crucially the image we have of the world; the metaphors we choose to represent organizations are no exception – they, too, induce us to partial, at times imprecise, conceptions. Classic economic theory and modern managerial culture depict organizations like machines, levers, mechanisms or cogs which respond to stimuli in a certain way producing a predictable, measurable result. When the fathers of economic science shaped the first management models, the irresistible charm of the machine dominated Western imagination. Since then, the organization has been a mechanical tool that, if well designed, provides rationality and precision to the behaviour of disordered human beings.
However, the mechanical metaphor is not the only one suitable for describing the operation of organizations; in actual fact, it’s not even the best. This interpretation, fruit of enlightened optimism, insists on separating the organization from the people it consists of, thought from action, and the project from the process, attributing human beings with behaviour that, at the end of the day, is predictable.
The model that produced the economic fortune of the last century doesn’t adapt well to the speed of change and the complexity of relations of contemporary organisations. To offer a better response to the turbulent scenario of our daily experience and thus clarify the current dynamics of value generation, we should prefer more structured metaphors and take advantage of the recent conquests of the science of complexity and systemic thought.
Abandon a deterministic model to imagine businesses as organisms, complex systems or flows is, however, complicated because it implies the abandon, or at least the rethinking, of three illusions which are dedicated to a good part of managerial work – control, order and forecasting.
In a complex system, a linear, unambiguous relation cannot be traced between a cause and an effect, a simple, fast and elegant scheme that has no confirmation in the reality where we gain experience. Around the middle of the 18th century, the philosopher David Hume already suggested to be cautious with the principle of causality, which seems intuitively clear but often leads us to exchange a simple succession for a consequence. We’re in a rush, we want to forecast, indicate a cause to act on it and so control the future but we forget that the reality is made of a subtle, infinite network of complex interactions. To continue to generate value, contemporary business organisations can no longer ignore that the interactions within them are multiple and dynamic, both the cause and effect of each other and generate an unpredictable future that escapes control. We have to realise that every time two human beings come into contact, the actions of the first have an effect on those of the second which, in turn, have an effect on those of the first and so on, in a circle of reciprocal adaptation, most often virtuous but always difficult to interpret.
Another condition to take into account is the lack of a privileged observation point on the organization and its dynamics. The complexity imposes the co-belonging of project and performance – if every action triggers an unpredictable multiplicity of consequences and feedback, it is only in the daily experience that we can recognise the signals that show us the adequacy of the route to follow. Faced with the intricate, changing panorama, we can no longer position ourselves on protected high ground to study the battlefield and construct a detailed, effective strategy from there because there is too much information to process and its validity is too short.
To think of businesses as complex systems and obtain advantage from the structured network of relations making it up, we have to have new models and new managerial tools that enable us to set up an organization whose success does not consist of balance but innovation where learning is by trying and not extrapolating historical data, where the execution is always accompanied by exploration and the strategies are devised by everyone.
Accepting a complex system that cannot be controlled deterministically means giving up a linear decision-making process to be equipped by an alternative ability to orient activity towards the objectives to follow. We need to learn to renew our reference points continually, interpreting the flow of information that the organisation exchanges internally and with the environment to reach the target in a scenario in transformation.
In some cases, the dynamics of complexity make traditional management tools obsolete and the resulting strategy random. Hierarchical structures and decision-making processes that do not take account of the complex of relations animating the whole system are now ineffective and often remain in the background of work managed “in view”. Without these guides, there’s the risk of feeling disoriented, new managerial skills and new organisational tools are required to bring a basis back to strategic decisions.
Faced with unknown land, an orientation tool is needed that enables recognition of the scenario we live in and planning of a route to organize the journey that will lead us to our objectives. A map, able to depict a complex environment of relations and interactions. We cannot use an objective, static portrayal to represent the dynamics of a complex organization; we need a metaphoric map, able to communicate a concept with immediacy and, at the same time, keep a space for interpretation open; a managerial tool that favours the appropriation of organizational messages and the construction of a shared path.
Complexity certainly makes the cartographer’s task more difficult but not having a privileged observation point doesn’t mean not having exploration tools. On the contrary, recognising the complexity of your organisation means also understanding the potential contribution that each person can make to the strategy giving indications useful for its definition. The fact that each hub of the network has the power to act on the whole system opens a spectrum of new opportunities for development, unknown to traditional organisations. By taking advantage of the intelligence of its personnel, the organisation can transform each of them into a detector of useful indications to correct the route. This more structured view of the organisation thus outlines the opportunity for continuous learning.
Managerial maturity and widespread responsibility are needed to enable this process of development and adaptation and an organisational tool able to do two things at the same time is required – offer everyone the elements to interpret and make sense of their work and, at the same time, collect the indications that every person has to provide with respect to the relations they oversee. An organisational compass that translates the strategies commonly found in a bulleted list in a roadmap that shows the route and offers a space for discussion to share sudden changes and corrections to the route.
Organizations can’t rely on a standard system of cardinal points, organizational theories or benchmarks for orientation in complexity; they have to construct their map on their own, clarifying the objectives, sharing the information and valorising the collective ingenuity of their staff. Transforming strategy into a map means taking responsibility for the complexity of the relations to recognise the flows that generate value and offer people an opportunity for exploration and experimentation. If, on one hand, complexity makes forecasts difficult, on the other it offers new, invaluable opportunities for development, provided that it is able to valorise the discussion and exchange between colleagues.