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A Critical Systems Thinking overview of the ‘GAPPS’ and the ‘EU Science Hub/Cynefin Centre’ guides to leadership in times of complexity
- Published on February 28, 2021
Two reports have recently appeared (February 2021) aimed at improving the capacity of decision-makers to lead and manage in the face of complexity and crisis. The GAPPS (Global Alliance for the Project Professions) document offers ‘A Guiding Framework for Leadership in Complexity’. The EU Science Hub/Cynefin Centre report is a field guide to ‘Managing complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis’. The purpose of this article is to compare and contrast the two documents and to subject them to an initial critique using critical systems thinking (CST). Both are worthy of closer attention and I’m sure they will receive this in the future.
The GAPPS framework argues that governments, organisations, and individuals are increasingly perceiving themselves as confronted by VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environments. These environments arise from dynamic interdependencies, within and between systems, and the existence of multiple stakeholders with differing perspectives. The framework seeks to set out the competencies that leaders require to navigate in VUCA environments. The competencies identified are ‘performance based’ and describe the minimum acceptable performance a leader should exhibit in the workplace in “trying to get things done in the face of complexity”.
Lists of competencies are common in the ‘project professions’. The GAPPS framework draws upon previous work of this kind and a lengthy period of consultation and workshops involving significant numbers of experienced project professionals. Although not explicitly a ‘systems thinking’ document, it is reasonable to regard its underlying world-view as being that ‘complexity is the issue and systems thinking the way forward’. I should declare that my own systems thinking work was an input into the original ‘International Centre for Complex Project Management’ standards, upon which the framework draws, and my most recent book is included in the references of the GAPPS document.
At the heart of the framework are 5 ‘Units of Competency’ in the workplace, incorporating 22 elements of competency and 81 criteria of threshold performance. The first unit, ‘Think Holistically’, is about applying appropriate systems approaches in the face of dynamic interrelationships and multiple perspectives, and emerging threats and opportunities. The second, ‘Exercise Personal Mastery’, deals with the qualities a leader, confronted by complexity, should demonstrate in their personal behaviour, in building trust, and in leading sensitively. The third, ‘Provide Conditions to Enable Decisions and Action’, concerns maintaining strategic direction, setting the minimal rules necessary to enable action (providing scope for autonomy and self-organisation), supplying data needs, and establishing control systems that contribute to learning. This unit also requires leaders to ‘act sustainably’, taking into account the UN’s ‘Sustainable Development Goals’. In particular, attention must be given to the impact of decisions on individuals and teams, the community, diversity, society, and the environment. Unit four, ‘Respond to the Environment’, demands that leaders establish flexible structures and processes, and continually review their assumptions in the light of new learning. The final unit, ‘Engage Collaboratively’, requires close engagement with stakeholders, working across boundaries to ensure open communication, and collaborative teamwork which respects diverse perspectives.
To many working in the ‘project professions’, used to mandates on how to manage the project life-cycle, integrate ‘systems of systems’, etc., this may all sound a bit ‘airy-fairy’. But the framework makes it clear that it is concerned to set out ‘what’ needs to be considered in dealing with complexity, not ‘how’ things should be done. For this, it is to be commended. Experienced project professionals may feel that they have imbibed most of the lessons the framework seeks to deliver through their practice. But it is still useful for them, and even more so for those learning the ropes, to have them clearly articulated in a manner which acts as a reminder and enables them to be enhanced.
The report is comprehensive, benefiting no doubt from the combined knowledge of the large number of contributors. It addresses the wide range of issues that CST sees as essential in managing complexity – strategic direction, responsiveness to the environment, stakeholder involvement, mutual understanding, sustainability, diversity, etc. That said, it also suffers from being produced ‘by committee’. It sets out a long list of competencies which, despite the structuring around five ‘Units’, lacks overall coherence. For example, once the need to ‘Think Holistically’ has been established, the next unit, ‘Exercise Personal Mastery’, might have been more clearly related to this requirement. Further, from the point of view of CST, it fails to capitalise on the opportunity to show how the competence of fitting selected systems thinking approaches to the problem context can be realised. Although various systems approaches are mentioned, there is no explicit recognition that they have quite different strengths and weaknesses. The competencies around ‘Provide Conditions to Enable Decisions and Action’ and ‘Respond to the Environment’ might usefully have been linked to the strengths of the ‘viable system model’ and ‘socio-technical systems thinking’; those around ‘Engage Collaboratively’ with soft systems approaches; and those concerned with ‘act sustainably’ to ‘critical systems heuristics’. Questions about how such a differentiated range of competencies can be exhibited together, might have been answered with some CST insight into how to work with different perspectives and manage a pluralism of systems approaches. Finally, from the CST perspective, and the point has also been made from a complexity theory viewpoint by Dave Snowden (on LinkedIn), the list gives the impression that competencies are static, and that homogeneity is desirable. In the midst of a crisis, brought on by complexity, the appropriate leadership qualities are likely to be emergent rather than fixed and those dealing with the crisis better served if they display a diversity of competencies.
The EU Science Hub/Cynefin Centre field guide advises decision-makers how they can best make sense of the world during crises and respond effectively. It therefore differs from the GAPPS framework in being praxis oriented. Its world-view is that complexity is the issue and decision-makers are better placed to navigate complexity if they employ a sensibility and methods derived from complexity theory. The field guide was written by Dave Snowden and Alessandro Rancati, and inspired by Snowden’s Cynefin framework. This ensures a certain coherence but means that other complexity and systems perspectives receive little attention. These include natural science variants of complexity (such as developed at the Santa Fe Institute or derived from Prigogine); social science variants (interactionist, radical change, postmodern, critical realist, etc.) developed during complexity theory’s promiscuous crawl through social theory; and cybernetic, soft systems, and critical systems approaches.
The Cynefin version of complexity theory is a ‘naturalising’ approach which seeks to be relevant to social- or anthro-complexity. It wants to bring ‘good science’ to bear to understand how humans interact with each other and engage with the world. Snowden is critical of existing science-based variants of complexity theory when they reduce the complexity exhibited by humans. Humans are not the same as ants, birds or crystals, he insists. Any complexity theory worth the name, and seeking to address anthro-complexity, must take account of human identities, values, intentions, and cultural practices. It is a difficult feat, I will argue, to remain ‘scientific’ while embracing those features of human systems that have been subject to multiple interpretations in the social sciences, leading to the paradigm wars with which other forms of complexity theory have had to become engaged.
Cynefin is about multi-ontology sense making but, as the field guide is concerned with ‘times of crisis’, its emphasis is very much on the ‘un-order’ domains of ‘complexity’ and ‘chaos’. Decision-makers are advised to navigate through crises by adopting a 4-stage approach – ‘Assess’, ‘Adapt’, ‘Exapt’, and ‘Transcend’. ‘Assess’ starts with a state of confusion which involves deciding whether an apparent crisis can be managed using existing protocols or will demand radical change. If the latter, it is important to gain some initial control by adjusting the ‘constraints’ that are operating. In the case of Covid-19 (and this example is used to good effect throughout the document), this would translate into tightening them by closing borders, insisting on confinement, and encouraging social distancing and remote working. At the same time, it is crucial to start to move away from bureaucracy and conservative practices by delegating decision-making, creating more flexible boundaries to improve communication, and empowering informal networks. Decision-makers should start ‘journaling’ – capturing in notebooks, using sketches as much as possible, the principles they are applying and the new relationships that develop. ‘Adapt’ is about managing ’emerging evolutionary possibilities’ (definitely not about designing some ideal future). This will require loosening organisational constraints and any narrative constraints which stand in the way of a wider variety of ‘stories’ coming forward. Overall co-ordination must be maintained but the organisation needs to become a distributed ‘human sensor network’ in which informal teams and various specialised ‘crews’ seek to reframe the problem space from diverse perspectives, react to weak signals, and seek out new opportunities. Prototyping of innovative solutions can begin but the overarching mantra is to keep options open. Journaling is essential as a means of recording lessons learnt and sharing insights. Decision-makers may still be uncertain what to do but a sense of urgency builds. At some point there is an ‘aporetic turn’, confusion begins to dissipate, and it becomes possible to produce a ‘map’ showing possible changes and how their impact can be monitored. Potential solutions are evaluated, and resources allocated to the most promising. The third stage, ‘Exapt’, sees action begin in earnest. ‘Exapting’ is a process of “radical repurposing of roles, processes, paradigms, values”. On the basis of a thorough knowledge of the present, intervention strategies are designed which will create new processes and structures, and the new ‘conceptual scaffoldings’ necessary for the organisation to transform itself. To ensure that the questioning of existing practices and conceptual boundaries is radical enough, it may be necessary to temporarily enter the domain of ‘chaos’. Multiple contributions should be encouraged and orchestrated so that agreement is reached on actionable ideas which can be carried forward and tested. By the time the ‘Transcend’ stage is attained, the organisation is likely to have changed dramatically. It is necessary to consolidate and establish greater stability. The ‘new normal’ must build on the freshly developed activities, the shared learning that has been obtained, and the narratives and stories that correspond to and give coherence to the new present. People will be acting more in concert but must still maintain the ‘requisite diversity’ necessary to respond to the next crisis. They will be stronger for having learnt from past failures.
I am conscious that in summarizing, tidying up even, the field guide’s account, I have lost some of its dynamism and much of the technical vocabulary. In the original, the stages overlap, and myriads of concepts and methods compete for the reader’s attention, sowing a degree of confusion. Being generous, I imagine that this is meant to convey the urgency and creativity that must accompany an appropriate response to crises. But it’s now time to stand back and put on CST glasses.
In broad outline, we have an account of an organisation responding to changes in environmental circumstances by shifting from a mechanistic management system to an organic and then back again (Burns and Stalker, ‘The Management of Innovation’, 1961). The description is enriched with complexity theory concepts. The field guide also provides the 4-stage methodology, and many accompanying methods, for achieving such transitions. This is a significant advance for complexity theory. While systems thinkers have usually been willing to accept that complexity theory has introduced many novel ideas that help improve understanding of the VUCA world, they have been quick to point to the lack of overt methodologies for putting the ideas into practice. In fact, the 4-stage approach closely resembles the methodologies developed by systems thinkers for translating systems ideas into practice. John Mingers (‘Systems Thinking, Critical Realism and Philosophy’, 2014) provides a generic version of such methodologies (‘appreciation’, ‘analysis’, ‘assessment’, and ‘action’) into which the field guide’s stages could be fitted without too much distortion. In this respect, it is interesting to speculate whether Ralph Stacey, for example, would regard what the field guide presents as complexity theory at all. From his interactionist perspective (‘Complexity and Management’, 2000, with Griffin and Shaw), he would likely see it as too influenced by systems thinking and as falling into the contradiction of regarding decision-makers as acting on the basis of ‘rationalist teleology’, trying to manage complexity, while treating the organisation as subject to ‘formative teleology’, evolving according to a pattern set by some hidden order.
Returning to the main critique, the Cynefin approach echoes CST by insisting that there are no context-free solutions, that use of a variety of methods is necessary, and that no automatic assignment of particular tools and techniques to the different stages of a methodology is sensible. For example, attention to narratives and stories is essential throughout, as is continuous learning supported by journaling, and the maintenance of ‘requisite diversity’. The inevitable question arises, therefore, of why well-established systems approaches are absent from the toolkit offered by the field guide, even when they seem to offer the most obvious and proven resource for helping decision-makers with ‘managing complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis’. The primary ‘constraints’ the field guide concentrates on managing, throughout the 4-stage process, can be classified into the organisational and the conceptual. The organisational issues of ‘coherent heterogeneity’, central co-ordination of delegated decision-making, balancing adaptability and stability, reallocation of resources, etc., are exactly those which Stafford Beer’s ‘viable system model’ (‘Heart of Enterprise’, 1979) can offer advice on and structure discussions around. Conceptual matters, such as encouraging diverse perspectives, explicating existing narratives and challenging them, reframing the problem space, developing new archetypal stories, etc., fall into the arena of soft systems approaches such as Peter Checkland’s ‘soft systems methodology’ (‘Systems Thinking, Systems Practice’, 1981) and of ‘strategic assumption surfacing and testing’ (see Mason and Mitroff, ‘Challenging Strategic Planning Assumptions’, 1981). The idea of ‘journaling’ as a means of promoting continuous learning would benefit from Checkland’s concept of ‘rich pictures’ and the method of continuously up-dating ‘Analyses 1, 2 and 3’ during a project.
There are, it seems to me, two plausible explanations for why the contributions systems approaches can offer are ignored. First, there is a tendency for complexity theorists, when extending their ideas to the social domain, to want to claim that complexity theory is something new, different, and a step beyond systems thinking. Ralph Stacey describes his version of complexity theory as a radical alternative to the systems approach; a “decisive move away from systems thinking”. Dave Snowden, the originator of the Cynefin framework, has similarly sought to position complexity theory as a “new and emerging body of theory and practice”, based upon more up-to-date science, that is leaving systems thinking and cybernetics behind (on LinkedIn). In original formulations of Cynefin, systems thinking was identified with system dynamics and pinned to the ‘complicated’ domain. This allowed complexity theory to present itself as a new answer to the challenges posed by the ‘un-ordered’ domains. That said, Snowden has readily acknowledged the influence of Ackoff, Beer, and Checkland upon his thinking and so it is strange that the field guide fails to make any use of their tried-and-tested approaches to managing complexity. Here, I think, the second reason comes into play. Snowden insists that Cynefin is a ‘naturalising approach’ – bringing good science to the understanding of how humans interact with each other and engage with the world. In other words, although he rightly insists that anthro-complexity is different, that humans aren’t the same as ants, birds, and crystals, he doesn’t see that this requires a radical shift in epistemology. By contrast, the soft systems tradition of work has abandoned natural science as a model for gaining understanding of and seeking to intervene in human systems. Geoffrey Vickers, for example, argued that the components of human systems, active individuals using ‘appreciative systems’ to attribute meaning to their situation, makes it impossible to study them using the natural scientific approach. Following Vickers’ insights, and drawing upon hermeneutics and phenomenology, Checkland rejected any attempt to understand problematic social situations in scientific terms, and developed ‘soft systems methodology’ as an approach that works with different perceptions of reality and facilitates a systemic process of learning that can lead to purposeful action in pursuit of improvement. Snowden talks a lot about narratives, micro-narratives, and stories, and sees them as crucial constraints and enablers but, from his naturalising perspective, understands them and responds to them completely differently to soft systems thinkers (or second-order cyberneticians for that matter). [And, although it does not make an appearance in the field guide, the same argument holds for Snowden’s SenseMaker]. His approach is to invent a whole new technical language of concepts, derived from complexity science, which he hopes decision-makers will learn and come to understand the world through, thus responding to it more effectively. Soft systems thinkers proceed, by contrast, by enabling decision-makers, and other stakeholders, to express themselves better (more openly and systemically) in their own language in a way that addresses the problems as they see them. The rationale is that change will come when they understand each other better and reach mutual understanding about what they decide it is feasible and desirable to do. For soft systems thinkers, providing decision-makers with better science will not get you anywhere because there is no ‘science’ of human systems. To take an example, the field guide pictures narratives as acting as ‘strange attractors’ which bring human beings into coherent interaction and lead to co-ordinated action. I suppose this is a nice metaphor, but it is shared appreciations, values, and intentions, at the level of meaning, that actually leads human beings to act in consonance, not some weird compulsion. The attempt to understand anthro-complexity with concepts and tools drawn from the natural sciences acts as a significant constraint on the argument of the field guide. As other complexity theorists have found, the very different epistemologies found in social theory are essential to relate complexity thinking appropriately to human systems. I have made the case for the ‘interpretive’ sociological paradigm underpinning soft systems approaches. An even stronger case can be made for ‘radical’ sociological paradigms which point in the direction of conflicts of interest, the exercise of power, systemic discrimination and disadvantage, etc., none of which make an appearance as issues in the field guide. Systems thinking has a methodology, ‘critical systems heuristics’ (Ulrich ‘Critical Heuristics of Social Planning’, 1983) which can help draw these matters to the attention of decision-makers and other stakeholders and suggest how they might be addressed. Dave Snowden needs social theory to really get to grips with social complexity and the easiest way he can improve the field guide is to recommend systems approaches which have already translated the insights of the different epistemologies offered in social theory into practical methodologies. His naturalising approach to anthro-complexity is currently preventing him from seeing their value.
Readers of this article may want to know more about the CST which underpins this critique of the two reports. Details can be found in my 2019 book ‘Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity’ (use code ENG21 for a discount if ordering directly from Wiley). The main element of CST employed here is second-order critique – revealing the blind spots of particular systems and complexity approaches by comparing them to other systems approaches (accepting that the other approaches will also provide limited perspectives).Report this
Dr Mike C Jackson OBE Centre for Systems Studies