Leading into the Future XIb: Holding the Center While Innovating and Opening Boundaries
Systems that produce complexity consist of diverse rule-following entities whose behaviors are interdependent. . . . I find it helpful to think of complex systems as “large” in Walt Whitman’s sense of containing contradictions. They tend to be robust and at the same time capable of producing large events. They can attain equilibria, both fixed points and simple patterns, as well as produce long random sequences. (Page, 2011, pg. 17)
There is one thing we have learned in recent years with regard to the viability of organizations that has almost become an axiom: if there is extensive variability (disturbance) within the environment in which an organization operates, then there must also be extensive variability (diversity) inside the organization. Page identifies this axiom as the Law of Requisite Variety:
. . . the greater the diversity of possible responses, the more disturbances a system can absorb. For each type of disturbance, the system must contain some counteracting response. . . . The law of requisite variety provides an insight into well-functioning complex systems. The diversity of potential responses must be sufficient to handle the diversity of disturbances. If disturbances become more diverse, then so must the possible responses. If not the system won’t hold together. (Page, 2011, p. 204, 211)
What are the ways these insights can be applied to strategies that enable the center to hold? In order to promote organizational innovation, a leader must value variability within the organization. Variability, in turn, challenges the center of an organization. Variability requires that the leaders and other members of the organization tolerate increased ambiguity, effectively manage conflict, and provide safe settings in which alternative ideas can be explored. Therefore, leaders must identify strategies (training, setting of norms, creating supportive settings) that enable members of their organization live with ambiguity, work with conflict and provide safe places for idea exploration.
Breaking the Set
One of the major challenges in retaining the center of an organization is that of challenging basic assumption and frames of reference while also reaffirming the fundamental intentions of the organization and its programs. Children do this through sometime remarkable—it is called “play.” They can pretend and try out something without violating the rules and norms of the “real” world. We find that same thing occurring among dogs who are playfully fighting with one another, and among many young mammals who are enacting courtship rituals prior to actually seeking out a mate (which is not unlike the traditional square dances in North America that allowed young men and women to “court” one another in a safe and playful round of dances.).