Posts

This post, originally from January 2013, highlights one of the key frameworks in the M&B toolbox.  We use the features of complex adaptive systems to create tools, methods, and frameworks that allow us to be more agile and realize greater results than we ever thought possible.  We leverage these assets and resources to create a new and more desirable future for our clients and partners. 

The metaphor of the machine or clockwork universe continues to dominate the way we think and talk about the world.

This unusually persistent meme can be traced to Isaac Newton and Copernicus, who understood the universe in terms of elegant, linear, predictable relationships. Behavior in this world is easy to predict, and therefore easy to control.

The theory is that one can understand anything – from the human body to the universe – by dissecting it and completely describing each part. And some things work this way, like your car engine or your computer.

However, we now know that many aspects of our world defy this kind of analysis, that the universe is a system of many systems that operate by a completely different set of rules. The weather, markets, communities, organizations, ecologies of organisms and our own brains, are systems that cannot be reduced to the sum of their parts.

They are complex adaptive systems that learn as they develop. And although the parts interact in unpredictable ways, they develop rich patterns of complex order through a process of feedback that further influences their development. Over time, these systems become more complex, more coherent and more organized.

Here are some components of complex adaptive systems:

Self-organization: Complex adaptive systems are not planned by a central controller. It is the activity of agents in the system, acting individually and collectively that leads to emergent order. Like birds flocking and fish shoaling according to simple rules of interaction

Systems within systems: Within each complex adaptive system are other smaller systems that interact with each other. Some of the most complex systems humans have created, such as the stock market, food production and distribution, transport systems and the Internet interact with humans in an evolving symbiotic relationship.

Emergence: There is no command, control, planning or managing. It is the activity of all of the parts of the system which influences the activity of the other parts of the system.

Feedback loops: Through feedback, connections grow in a system, which gathers momentum, and patterns start to form, leading to the development of more complex patterns.

Simple rules: A few simple rules of interaction lead to complex outcomes. For example, a shift in the way we speak to each other – from “you must!” to “what if we?” – builds trust and accelerates communication that leads to highly synchronized teamwork.

Period doubling cascade: Complex adaptive systems periodically undergo “phase transitions” to a higher level of organization, in what is known as a “period doubling cascade”. For example, the stages of development of the human brain, the magical moment when a group becomes a high performing team and the big social and technological shifts that occur when humans invent smarter tools, such as the shift from the typewriter to the computer.

Coevolution: When the environment changes, individual parts of the environment adapt to the new conditions created by the interaction of all of the parts.

Dynamic stability: Complex adaptive systems live dynamically on the edge of chaos, where new possibilities emerge from the variety and creativity of the system. These give it life and sustain it.

This is a very different world to the clockwork or networked universe with which we are familiar, one that is much more dynamic, less predictable–and, ultimately more malleable–than the one that has shaped so many of our institutions and organizations.

Control is….an emergent property, not an option to be selected. – Dr. David S. Alberts, US Defense

 

Opportunities & Challenges:

The Excelsior Service Fellowship, created by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2013, is an initiative to attract the “best and brightest” of recent graduates from law, graduate, and professional schools to NYS government service. Each fellow, bringing a diverse background and skill sets, is placed for two years in a policy or operational position within the executive branch.
Tasked with working on some of the most pressing issues facing New York State, Excelsior Fellows required the right tools and frameworks to lead in the 21st Century.

What we did:
Over five months in 2017, M&B provided a multi-session Leadership Development Program for some 50 fellows serving throughout NYS government. Session topics included:

  • Leading in a Complex World
  • Forming and Leading Teams
  • Leader as a Facilitator
  • Working Well with Stakeholders
  • Leading Organizational Change

In addition to the above topics, fellows also inventoried stresses in their personal and professional lives that inhibited performance and effective team leadership. M&B presented mindfulness as a tool for focusing on the present moment, while not reacting to all the stressors that enter our daily lives. Participants were led through a 10-minute guided meditation.

Deliverables:
Each fellow was tasked with creating an individual “leadership development plan” and a “project plan” to implement throughout the five month program. Projects were identified based on actual opportunities and challenges within the workplace. In between sessions, fellows worked with their supervisors and teams to reach clear and measurable results with their projects during the 5-month program.

Organizations around the world will spend $US3,300 per hire (Forbes, 2013) on recruiting yet spend just a few hundred dollars, a small fraction, on the equally important task of setting up their teams for success.

Mostly the on-boarding process focuses on socializing people into an organization’s, culture, learning “how we do things around here”. But often the process requires the new arrival to adopt the organization’s identity while downplaying their own, which can be “psychologically depleting” (Cable, Gino & Staats, 2013).

This “don’t rock the boat” approach may be ideal for firms in slow moving backwaters of the world economy, but in a rapidly changing world it is an organization replenishment opportunity foregone.

New, more mobile arrivals, whose average time in a job is now 4.6 years, bring to an organization a rich diversity of cultural knowledge, mental models and experiences. They are often better able to work across ever-evolving or transforming boundaries than incumbents who have been at the firm for many years. Their adaptability skills may as valuable to their new firm, as the skills for which they have been hired.

The problem is most acute in the world of complex project management, where innovation, change and increasing complexity is the order of the day. Projects, by their nature, occur at the pointy end of the economy, where new systems are developed that are often so leading edge, the details are not fully worked out until the contract has been awarded and implementation is underway.

In a way, starting a project is like recruiting a band of mercenaries. Project people are used to working in temporary organisations for short term assignments. They also know disruptive change, because when their work is done, they are often rewarded by losing their jobs, until the next project comes along.

So how do you socialize the engineers and technologists who design and implement new projects, who are expected to be very adaptable and flexible, but also be perfectionists, to guarantee the system they build will work, not just reliably, but without harming anyone?

Another challenge is to create the infrastructure, system, technologies or tools which will serve a useful purpose for not only the current way we do things, but for the next 30-50 years. On time, on-budget and fit for the purpose.

This means that the leadership of complex projects often must recruit a mix of talents that are on the one hand creative and daring and on the other very conservative or risk averse. They include introverts such as programmers and extroverts such as team leaders plus a handful of cowboys and geeks. They come from a diverse variety of disciplines, in order to create new systems with many moving parts, often made or built in a wide variety of locations, remote from each other, anywhere in the world.

Add to this potentially difficult mix, accelerating knowledge creation and implementation, and growing complexity and you have what could easily turn into a conflict and contradiction nightmare.

To make matters worse, some project teams just jump straight into the work because they are focused on getting results. Others party until the cows come home, and cant get started until they have a perfect solution that solves everyone’s problems.. Kumbaya on steroids.

Our recipe for success is a balance between results AND relationships. 

On day one, get to know one another, and build systemic connections across the team. Then and only then do we engage in an initial round of strategic planning to clarify the purpose of the project/program, develop shared goals and a create a plan of action.

Workshop

Here’s a workshop to help a team prepare for success:

1. Warm-up: In 25 words or more, tell us the story of the most amazing, crazy or dangerous thing you have ever done. What you learned from the experience?
2. Passions: In 25-words or more, what are your excited or passionate about?
3. Life story: What’s the story of your life? Name of the movie and the plot.
4. Your interests: Why did you join the team? What do you hope to get out of the project if it is very successful?
5. Skills and tools: What skills, methods, tools etc. do you bring to the project and how could they contribute to its success?
6. Biggest issues you have faced: Give an example of a big issue or challenge that you have had to deal with in your work/life that you would really like to have better answers for in the future.
7. Helping others: Thinking about all the other members of the team and their interests, and the challenges or issues they face, who could you help and what could you do to help them?

Opportunities & Challenges:

The Materiel Group within the Canadian Department of National sought to develop the capacities of Project Team Leaders and Managers to think and operate more flexibly, adaptively, and creatively.

What we did:

In 2014, M&B delivered a four day course: Complex Adaptive Systems Approach to Complex Project Management. Participants appreciated the personal coaching by the presenters as they learned to apply each framework to a challenging project issue, that each person, or intact team, brought to the course. They also liked the opportunity to work in groups to openly explore issues with colleagues and learn from each other.

Once upon a time, we thought of major projects as space exploration, new warships, armored vehicles or fighter planes, and infrastructure investments in roads, electricity and telecommunications.

Now we must add to that list just about everything we do. Any project or program that involves multiple suppliers and distributors of products and services that work like an integrated web has become a complex major project. Think of how we get the thousands of fresh foodstuffs that are available to us into stores, set up the systems to sell books, hotel and airline seats over the internet, treat the huge variety of diseases we can now diagnose and deal with, provide a seamless integrated public transport ticketing system for a large city or launch a new product or service everywhere around the world.

Many major projects fail to live up to expectations, and they do so for a variety of reasons: underestimating the cost in order to win support, requirements creep or the use of unproven technology or technological change during the course of the project. A tremendous amount of effort goes  into dealing with technical risk, specifying the requirements and tightly defining contract terms, as if these entirely logical measures will solve all the problems.

But now, projects  increasingly fail due to human factors: the absence of leadership, stakeholder battles, cross-disciplines communication gaps, abrupt changes in the political environment and seemingly unpredictable social shifts in parallel with technological shifts, which we do not see coming.

We live in a world of rich professional and cultural diversity, all of which is required to maintain the infrastructures on which we have come to rely. Also required is consistent, ever-developing creativity, so we can continue to invent better ways of doing things. The educators, the technicians, the builders, the designers, the financiers, the shippers, the carers, the repairers, and the nurturers are all necessary to get it done.

Until now, we have focused, and placed high value, on technological skills at the expense of the so-called soft skills, many of which are critical to successful management of major projects in today’s complex and rapidly changing world.  Most project managers have the traditional technical skills; but only one in 20 has the high level leadership, facilitation and knowledge integration skills needed to navigate the rapidly evolving terrain.

To develop and run these systems we need people who have both the technical competence for efficiency and certainty at both the micro and the macro level AND the flexible leadership and communication skills to work well with many people in multiple locations as if each were a close personal relationship.

Project managers must support their people in playing to their strengths, being creative and delivering high level results while facilitating the integration of  different opinions, cultures, capabilities and viewpoints so that the new systems or programs are developed and operate in ways that serve everyone’s interests.

So here is a workshop you might like to consider :

1. Thinking about the activities of your organization, what activities could you consider to be a major complex project e.g. IT system roll-out?
2. What are some of the major issues you encounter in trying to design, develop, commission and operate complex projects or programs?
3. How does your organization go about resolving differences or integrating the interests of the suppliers and professionals who develop or maintain the systems and the stakeholders who have an interest in a project or program?
4. What skills are now needed to be able to successfully develop a complex project or program, especially to deal with stakeholder interests integration, conflict resolution and relationship management.

The task is to harness the collective brainpower of the military and their suppliers on three continents to work out how to better manage complex projects in a more uncertain, ambigious and rapidly changing world and to publish the recommendations as a White Paper.

It’s a complex project in its own right. The project taps into the expertise of defence procurement agencies in Australia, the US, Canada and the UK, as well as  defence and aerospace suppliers such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, NASA, Raytheon, Rolls Royce and Thales.

The Zing/Maverick and Boutique network has been facilitating a series of conversations for the International Centre for Complex Project Management. The team comprises Nick Obolensky (in the UK), Abby Straus (in the US) and John Findlay (roving).

A small army of consultants is helping to write the 10 chapters. The chapters deal with the difference between complicated and complex, the leadership styles and competencies required, the tools and methods that are proving most useful, better ways to deal with risk, new approaches to knowledge management and education as well as issues that require further research.

For each chapter, participants were asked to consider how to deal more successfully with the kinds of problems/difficulties that might be encountered in the future. Each question was accompanied by a set of prompts to probe all the different aspects of the issue.

After talking in pairs about each question for about 5-10 minutes to have as much air-time as possible, the task force members captured and shared their ideas using the Zing complex adaptive learning system, which helps shape emergent knowledge. Participants then read aloud and looked for the patterns or stand-out ideas. Examples of past project successes and failures were also recorded.

Here are the kinds of questions we have been asking:

1. BASELINE TRENDS.  What for you is complex and how do you deal with it? Compared with what? What are the big trends/discontinuities emerging?
2. What kinds of EXECUTIVE BEHAVIOURS, LEADERSHIP QUALITIES or CULTURE are essential for great projects or lead to project failures? What qualities do you need to develop?
3. Describe in 25-50 words a real example of a project failure, cost-over-run, cancellation, etc. where issues of EXECUTIVE BEHAVIOURS/LEADERSHIP QUALITIES/CULTURE was a factor.
4. What is RISK for the private sector? What is risk for the public sector?
5. Give examples of projects where RISK was poorly or well managed and the factors that led to these outcomes.
6. COMMERCIAL MANAGEMENT. What do you see as the main contracting challenges in the future?
7. Describe a project where COMMERCIAL MANAGEMENT was either poor or brilliant and the factors that led to these outcomes.