Monday, September 9, 2013

Trained for Projects, Not Complexity

In my ongoing journey to understand complexity and its role in our civic infrastructure I find myself reading and enjoying books with titles that are more than a little imposing. Today's example: Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership; Leveraging Nonlinear Science to Create Ecologies of Innovation.

Technical yes, but so far it's been like visiting with a wise friend. Early on the authors capture a vexing reoccurring reality: "A complex system can adapt, whereas a piece of machinery cannot."

Most civic work is at the project level and projects resemble "machinery" -- there are inputs, outputs and outcomes on most projects. The problem with this static approach, as Eddie Obeng delightfully points out in his Ted Talk on the rapid pace of change, is the world is changing too fast to keep up. We need to be able to adapt to that persistent. The only way to keep up is to spend less time designing civic machinery (projects) that cannot evolve as the world changes and more time designing highly effective collaborations that engage and empower stakeholders within complex systems that can evolve.

Most of us focus on projects because we know how (we've been trained) to get them done. We are intimidated by systems and complexity. Recently, while speaking to a group of corporate, public and non-profit leaders I was struck that none of the 40 or so leaders had attended a single class or course in complexity. I'm willing to bet none are trying to wade through "Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership" either, yet they are all being asked to lead change in their communities or organizations. I don't begin to claim that I fully understand how -- as the authors insist -- that complexity science empowers small groups to make a major difference that goes beyond any of their individual capabilities.

But I do know that I and others who care about our communities must better understand how complex systems work if our projects have a prayer of achieving the change we want.

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