The Complexity of Change Management


My last blog titled, Preparing Leaders for Change Management, focused on leading change management by starting with oneself and I revealed the various aspects of change management, including adapting to change, controlling change and effecting change. In addition to my last blog, I also want to discuss the aspect of complexity, as it relates to change management.

While completing my undergrad in Organizational Communication at St. Edward’s University, I became familiar with Katherine Miller’s book, Organizational Communication Approaches and Processes. Miller described how twentieth century organizational theorists—whether it be Fayol, Weber or Taylor’s—are no longer effective in our fast-paced, interconnected and global society. In response to linear management models now being ineffective and irrelevant, organizations are increasingly applying theories of chaos, self organizing systems and complexity. Furthermore, as any complexity thinker and leader will tell you, change does not happen in a vacuum or overnight; instead, change, especially as it relates to organizations, is continuous and complex.

So how does all of this relate to change management?

While change management literature tends to be prescriptive and results focused, I believe that coupling complexity theory with change management approaches can help with understanding the continuous change and nonlinearity of today’s organizations. The benefits of applying complexity thinking to organizations, which are complex adaptive systems, can lead to seeing situations from different lenses, developing new and innovative approaches to problems, and gaining a greater appreciation for processes such as safe-to-fail. Many organizations are even going as far as to create a safe-to-fail environment to manage their organization’s continuous changes and limited ability to apply retrospective coherence. Additionally, while various aspects of change management assert a level of control (ie. adapting to change, controlling change and effecting change), complexity theory embraces the lack of control in complex adaptive systems.

With a complex system there is no such thing as central control.
— Jurgen Appelo

In our upcoming episode, we air our interview with Paolo Gaudiano. Gaudiano discussed how larger organizations are more complex than smaller ones since they have more people and more constraints. However, he goes on to reveal that there is higher variability in the likely outcomes with smaller organizations. Even though there’s typically less complexity with smaller organizations, they are faced with a greater cone of uncertainty, which broadens the probability of outcomes, leading to limited predictability. Alexander Styhre’s article explored change management informed by complexity theory and stated, “chaos theory highlights the impossibility to long-term prediction for non-linear systems, since the task of prediction would require knowledge of initial conditions of impossibly high accuracy.”

"Chaotic systems are deterministic, but inherently unpredictable." - Ogniank's Youtube Video

This leads me to believe that smaller organizations—rather than larger organizations—are more probable to reap the results of a standard change management approach. After all, they are more likely to experience complicated problems versus complex problems. Larger organizations, on the other hand, should consider coupling a change management approach with complexity, chaos, or self organizing systems theory.

You can listen to the HumanCurrent podcast here and don't forget to subscribe in iTunes. Be sure to listen to our most recent episode where share our interview with entrepreneur, teacher, and visionary Paolo Gaudiano. 

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