Complexity, Emergence & Importance of Failure

Written by Zhen Goh

When seeking to solve problems, Snowden (2004) recognises that we have a tendency to either look for “best-practice” type strategies and imitate them, and/or stop exploring solutions too early. We think we have found the answer – and hence stop exploring how the ideas can be improved and made better. He calls this “premature convergence”. Where systems and the environments in which they exist become increasingly complex, what is known and what can be planned for becomes less certain – introducing and increasing organisational tolerance for failure is more crucial than ever. This tolerance for failure is essential in ensuring the resilience of organisations.

In complex systems, patterns emerge due to multiple interactions between agents and by accident. Although they may appear coherent in retrospect, but are not in advance. “Best practice” style management approaches thus do not take into account the context-bound interactions in new and complex environments (Snowden, 2003).

Premature convergence thus results, and this is due in part to three basic assumptions that have directly or indirectly underpinned decision-making in organisations (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003). These are (1) the assumption of order in the system, (2) the assumption of rational choice in people and (3) the assumption of intentional capability.

  • The assumption of order : lies at the heart of basic logic-governed, cause and effect thinking. It assumes an understanding of the system, in a non-varying manner – that certain actions will produce certain effects. This however, does not take into account the inherent chaos of everyday life, and the complexity of actions that produce emergent effects unforeseen and unknowable by people in advance.
  • The assumption of rational choice in people : this is a fallacy of neo-classical economists, where people are reduced to “rational” beings who will indubitably make decisions based on maximising pleasure and reward, and minimising pain and punishment. People, however, are multi-faceted beings. Everybody plays multiple roles in any one organisation and in their daily existence – thus the way in which “reward” and “pain” are understood and operationalised cannot be tied to universal benchmarks. Duplicity of intent and the subsequent complexity it causes cannot therefore be ignored.
  • The assumption of intentional capability : traditional cause-and-effect style decision-making and policy interventions do not allow for the serendipity of accidents. We assume that things are logical and that people do the things they do deliberately when, in effect, most things do not necessarily carry the laden meaning we confer upon them (Juarrero, 1999). “We accept that we do things by accident, but assume others do things deliberately” (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003: 463).

These three principles govern most large-scale intervention measures. However, in light of the increasingly complex environment most systems present (Axelrod & Cohen, 1999; Stacey, 2001)  – where there are more things that we cannot know or predict – embracing complexity as inevitable, and accepting our inability to control the effects of changes in a complex system, allows for emergent effects to evolve and surface in small ways.

The emphasis, then, is not on ensuring success or avoiding failure, but in allowing ideas that are not useful to fail in small, contained and tolerable ways. The ideas that do produce observable benefits can then be adopted and amplified when the complex system has shown the appropriate response to its stimulus. Where systems and the environments in which they exist become increasingly complex, what is known and what can be planned for becomes less certain – introducing and increasing organisational tolerance for failure is more crucial than ever. This tolerance for failure is essential in ensuring the resilience of organisations.

References

A. Juarrero, 1999, Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behaviour as a Complex System, Massachusetts: MIT Press

C.F. Kurtz & D.J. Snowden, 2003, “The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world” in IBM Systems Journal 42 (3): 462 to 483

D.J. Snowden, 2004, “Facilitating innovation within the organisation” in Finance & Management, Sept. 2004: 5 to 7

D.J. Snowden, 2003, “Managing for Serendipity; or why we should lay off ‘best practice’ in KM” in ARK Knowledge Management 6 (8) (reproduced by The Cynefin Centre in 2005, under Creative Commons License)

R. Axelrod & M.D. Cohen, 1999, Harnessing Complexity: Organisational Implications of a Scientific Frontier, New York: Free Press

R.D. Stacey, 2001, Complex Responsive, Processes in Organisations: Learning and Knowledge Creation, London: Routledge

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