Complexity - the new Behaviourism?

Thinking on organisational change comes in two varieties. On the one hand, there’s a body of work and practice that focusses on deep group and individual reflection, on the questioning of assumptions and identities, that I’ll characterise as analytical, as it’s mode of operation, and the positions taken and strategies followed by its practitioners, stem directly from the world of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. On the other, a set of concepts and interventions that grow out of both the behaviourist psychology of the mid- 20th century, bolstered (though I’m sure those holding these current ideas would be loth to admit it) by more recent developments in systems thinking and complexity science, which I’ll name behaviourist (acknowledging that this is not the whole story by any means, but for now it serves my — admittedly oppositional — purposes).

It’s easy to recognise the tell-tale signs of both. Read Argyris, or Kegan and Lahey, and you find yourself caught up in detailed descriptions of individuals and groups working through issues, being provoked into reflection and change either by the (it seems to me) explicitly assumed analytical stance adopted by the a consultant (the long case-study in Argyris is a great example of this) or by a procedure which recalls the structure and materials of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). The lesson of all of these is that change is hard, it requires rigorous self-examination and ruthless objectivity, and that it’s something that takes time to achieve and effort to sustain.

The behaviourists, on the other hand, promote the idea that you change groups, individuals and organisations by changing the environment. The approach characterises teams as complex adaptive systems: the only way you can successfully intervene in such environments is by providing attractors, placing barriers and so on, then examining the results and adapting the next set of interventions.

It’s not hard to account for the current popularity of the latter approach over the former. The committment to change through therapy is a serious one — the light-bulb must really want to change, or need to. It’s much more comforting to believe that all you need to do to effect change is move the furniture or buy pizza from time to time, than to spend time in a deep examination of one’s own and one’s company’s dysfunctions.

Of course, if you speak to the pioneers in both the analytical and behaviourist schools, you’ll find much a much more nuanced set of ideas and opinions: nevertheless I worry that the explosion of interest in systems, complexity and self-organisation is a sign that we’re tacitly reinforcing those many managers and coaches who believe that change is something you do to other people.

4 Responses to “Complexity - the new Behaviourism?”

  • Jamie responded:

    We were talking about this yesterday in a people over processes meeting. I said, it really should be called ’structure over people’. But, in your example, I am not sure how changing the environment is a way to change people. To help them work more effectively, sure. The way we do it is simple: change the structure and coach/analyse the people and align the motivation. Intent is important.

    People over structure, but structure is important.

  • David responded:

    Hi Jamie,

    The observation that changing the environment ends up changing behaviour (and - ultimately - provoking change in the individuals concerned) goes back at least to the pioneering social researcher Kurt Lewin, and is the focus of much recent work, both in the organisational complexity world (try David Snowden at Cognitive Edge) and in the popularity of the so-called “nudge” interventionists. Although I set these apart above, a lot of this does have deep roots in psychology and - nowadays increasingly - neuroscience: like I said though, I think a large part of the current popularity of this thinking lies in the fact that it redirects (to a point) but doesn’t really challenge some of the fundamental attitudes found in a large number of people who define themselves as “managers”.

  • Juha Seppänen responded:

    Jurgen Appelo’s Management 3.0 where he speaks of complexity theory - I just started with that book but there was another thing related to the complexity, not just in managing teams but also managing in politics. Seems that current societies are immensly complex by itselves and adding all EU and global politics to the mix the field that MP’s should be able to master. Increasing the size of the goverment officials seems to be only way to handle everything which leads into the power shifting outside the democratic process. As there is parlament elections next month looks very likely that I am not able to vote for anyone as no-one would fullfill my criteria.

    I’ll look into this a bit more after I finish Management 3.0

  • David responded:

    Hi Juha (and apologies for the tardy moderation…)

    The “nudge” stuff is certainly one way of being more effective with less explicit control: the growth of the executive, like the growth of bureaucracies in businesses, and the tendency for processes to become more and more prescriptive, all these are symptoms of old-school thinking. The balance between “manager as participant” and “manager as devious manipulator using all the weapons of complexity” is one that is going to be hard enough to get right in teams, given the background and mindset of many managers (_and_ teams). I fear that it will be beyond the instincts of our politicians to understand this - for them it will just be another mechanism for control.

    Hope you enjoy Jurgen’s book (I was one of the pre-publication reviewers).

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