Did you ever think about the relationship between the magnificent fractal patterns like that in the graphic to the right and IT organization design? One of my early posts alluded to the climb from Level 1 to Level 2 Business-IT Maturity as “bringing order to the chaos” while the Level 2 to Level 3 journey is about living with complexity, decentralizing control and empowering the community of IT stakeholders.
This is a difficult concept for many of us to get our heads around, especially IT professionals whose lives depend upon driving out ambiguity, bringing order to chaos, and bringing processes “into control.” Back in 1992 I read Margaret Wheatley’s remarkable book, Leadership and the New Science. It was intriguing to me at the time, though hard to translate into action. I was leading research into both IT effectiveness and organizational change and transformation, and I knew that much of the conventional wisdom about organizations and transformation did not seem to apply, or was, at best, of limited value.
I followed up my reading of her book by participating in a multi-day workshop led by Meg Wheatley in Toronto. The experience was personally transformational. It gave me a new lens through which to see the world of organizational change, and a new set of tools and approaches for working with my clients. At the time I was working with a large State agency, and persuaded the visionary CIO to let me try some of the techniques I had learned in an IT leadership workshop. Although scary, the results were spectacular, and my fear of taking a client through an unpredictable process so that a new, natural order can emerge was replaced by a trust in people’s ability to find a new order in chaos, and to simplify and clarify by letting people drown in an apparently overwhelming sea of data.
In the ensuing 15 years or so, I have seen complexity increase for IT leaders, and experienced time and time again the need to step back and rethink the natures of chaos and order, and what it means to “be in control.” I’ve mostly used this as a workshop technique and consulting intervention. But, especially with the advent of Web 2.0 and social networking, I’m increasingly using the principles of Complex Adaptive Systems to inform my IT organization design work.
For me, some of the key insights that come out of the chaos/complexity disciplines include:
- Complex systems display non-linearity – output is not proportional to input.
- Variety, randomness, paradox, information, and interconnection inherent in complex systems are sources of creativity.
- Complex systems display emergent order – organization is a natural, spontaneous act; systems have a capacity to self-organize.
Ralph D. Stacey, in The Chaos Frontier captured this last insight beautifully when he defined Self-organization as, “A process in which the components of a system in effect spontaneously communicate with each other and abruptly cooperate in coordinated and concerted common behavior.”
So what does all this mean to an IT leader and the journey towards 2017? We will explore that in subsequent posts, taking each of the insights above and looking at the implications for IT.