Why being smart is not enough — the social skills and structures of tackling complexity
Imagine you are working for an organisation and you are invited to contribute to solving a certain complex problem that needs to be addressed, a problem that is outside the full control of your organisation. For example, you might be working in a university and be asked to think about how to improve the wellbeing of students. Or you are working for a tech business and asked to contribute to making a certain industry more sustainable. You are invited to a meeting to discuss this problem. When you enter the room you first notice that there are no tables and the chairs are positioned in a circle. The person receiving you introduces themselves as ‘the facilitator’. No one seems to be chairing the meeting, there is no meeting agenda and there does not seem to be anyone there who is taking minutes. You do see a massive piece of butchers’ paper stuck on the wall. Then you notice there are a lot of people there you have not met before. You start chatting to the person next to you and within a minute you realise that you totally disagree with the person and the way they think about the problem. But before you can start defending your point of view the person says: ‘your opinion is totally different than mine, how interesting!’ .
Sounds exciting? Something you do all the time? Or does it sound like a waste of time? Even though this is a fictive situation, there are many organisations around the world who are adopting ways of working together that are similar to this. These organisations are aiming to address complex societal problems such as climate change, housing affordability, crime, and chronic health issues, and are applying new ways of thinking about these problems, because traditional problem-solving techniques have not been effective. At the same time, they are applying and experimenting with new ways of collaborating and working together. As an academic working in a faculty of transdisciplinary innovation I am very interested in these ways of working. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to conduct a small study on this topic as part of a 6-month ‘professional experience program’ generously offered by my current employer, the University of Technology Sydney. In this blog post I will share my main insights.
To explore this topic I spent one month each at two organisations who have expertise in addressing complex challenges: the MaRS Solutions Lab(Toronto), and Oslo School of Architecture and Design (Oslo). And I conducted interviews with six experts in systems & complexity thinking and/or in facilitation of complex collaborations.
So what did I learn?
There is one thing that became very clear to me and that is that thinking about how we work together and how we behave as individuals, is at least as important as how we think about innovation in complex problem situations. Or, as Cheryl Dahle (Fliplabs, Carnegie Mellon University) mentioned:
“The insights, the research, the smarts, the intellectual heft part of this world gets you to a certain place and everything after that is about relationships”.
A second thing that I learned is that these ways of working together have characteristics that are very similar to those of the complex systems that these collaborations aim to influence, namely that:
- These ways of working are systemic, acknowledging that the whole is more than the sum of its parts
- There is a pattern or structure to these ways of working, but at the same time, they are unpredictable, and leave space for ‘emergence’
- They have many parts that are invisible
- And they are fundamentally different from the dominant current ways of working in organisations that are focused on efficiency, optimisation and exploitation.
To explain that, let me first take a step back and explain briefly what a complex system is and why it is relevant.
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