Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Keep it complex stupid!

I just returned from a brief break in a quiet corner (Naqalia Lodge) of Waya Lailai island in the Yasawa islands, Fiji. Expecting to do a little reading I took Weick and Sutcliffe’s Managing the Unexpected 2nd edition (2007) with me.

Serendipitously the June HBR caught my eye in the airport bookstore (along with The New Scientist and Scientific American). HBR’s June focus was Rebuilding Trust. I was interested that interpersonal communication was the key common element.

O’Toole and Bennis argue that “What’s Needed Next [is] A Culture of Candour”, arguing that “we won’t be able to rebuild trust in institutions until leaders learn how to communicate honestly – and create organizations where that’s the norm”.

Then I got into my hammock with Weick and Sutcliffe.


After I adjusted of their denser writing style, I appreciated the depth and complexity compared to the popular HBR style. When I finished I enjoyed the new cohering sense it gave to the HBR articles about building trust, not trusting too much, achieving innovation, being a good boss, and the deep failure of business schools.

Interestingly, between the 2001 1st edition and the 2007 2nd edition the subtitle changed from “Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity” to “Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty” reflecting the continuing Richter 5+ seismic shifts in organisational environment. What’s impressive is that their thesis seems more powerful in the light of recent events.

Of course Weick and Sutcliffe write about communication too but unlike the HBR articles they have room to go beyond description and exhortation to update and further demonstrate their 2001 thesis about mindful action.

They provide excellent argument against fashionable simplification, focus and strategising being the ways to achieve success in this day and age. This is particularly true for businesses operating complex technical systems in dynamic, ambiguous contexts. They argue for mindful infrastructure. They contrast this with mindless infrastructure, which typically attends to success, simplicities, strategy, planning and status. They argue very convincingly that attention to success confirms the status quo; simplification rules out crucial information and diverse perspectives; attention to strategy and planning ignores operational reality and attention to status erodes and ignores expertise.

They argue that the keys to success today are attention to failure, context, operations, resilience, and expertise. They recommend managers lead change by opportunistically demonstrating changed communication behaviour: candidly reporting and discussing failure; including and rewarding diverse perspectives; being intimate with actual operational experience rather than ideas and generalisations; pushing analysis and decision-making downwards; deferring to expertise (which exists between people) not authority, so that others can begin to see what mindful work looks and feels like. Out of that experience emerges changed values, attitudes, and beliefs – changed culture.

Very convincing. Though I guess that one reason I find it so is because it confirms my own analyses and makes useful sense of my own experience in and with organisations over that last decade or so.

I can see this providing me with a rich resource for thought, analysis, action and blogging . . . . . . .


  1. O’Toole and Bennis' call for candour and culture is nothing new; Senge was talking about leadership and candour in The Fifth Discipline (1990). I'd suggest the challenge still remains the exucution of candour. I concur that the need for candour is no greater than now. Instead of maintaining (or worse, reverting back to) managerialist assrtions of 'control' managers/business owners might find candour with peers and staff empowers individuals to reconcile the dire consequences that some find their organizations in.

  2. Yeah Lisa. Senge's the seminal writer there.

    Managerialist control is still very pervasive but there are some signs in SME's and even a few large orgs that I work with of inquisitiveness for alternatives and even action!