The Complexity Worldview with Jean Boulton

In our upcoming episode, we share our interview with the co-author of Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence, Jean Boulton, who is also an academic and management consultant, specializing in complexity theory. Our conversation with her was very rich, covering concepts from how complexity thinking compares to systems thinking, change management, complexity as a worldview, and even how this field is shining a light on climate change. We covered a lot of ground in the time we had with her, although we wish we could have talked longer. Her humility and brilliance were captivating and just minutes into our conversation, we realized that she lives and breathes complexity, using this worldview to frame how she thinks, feels and acts. We wanted to learn how she became interested in this field of complexity theory.

Boulton shared that her interest in complexity theory was the result of path dependency, calling it a “systemic coming together” of her outlook on life, her background as a physicist, and her interest in social justice. She also mentioned that growing up her friends would describe her as a “serious seeker” and a questioner.

It came as no surprise that her current work as a management and academic consultant focuses on the importance of “the complexity worldview”, which is also a topic communicated in depth in her book, Embracing Complexity. She talked with us about her passion for challenging the assumption that the world is mechanical, predictable and controllable, a worldview that is often implied in modern science. Boulton stated in her interview, “the world is complex whether you like it or not and we need to unpack that and understand that we’re saying more than that. There is a theory and understanding of complexity that we can bring to bear, and with that we do a better job of engaging with our world.”

Boulton suggested that organizations can do a better job by leveraging some of the ideas of complexity theory. She mentioned detail planning for the short term, experimenting often, and getting more cross functional groups involved in feedback (all popular aspects used in design thinking). Honoring emergence was also mentioned as a way to help manage change and even promote innovation. Boulton recommended taking time to pause and review, asking questions like: What has emerged that we couldn’t have known or planned for? Do we want to shift our focus a little because of what has emerged? Does it align with our values and bigger vision? These questions and insights are a wonderful way to probe an organizational system and explore the wider picture before reacting in a way that could result in unintended consequences. Embracing emergence is also critical to an organization's survival because this practice recognizes unknowns and allows the system to adapt accordingly. 

Throughout her interview, many of Boulton's insights were relevant to personal change, as well as organizational change, and it is becoming more and more apparent that you can't have one without the other. We are often reminded of the importance of self-awareness while working within complex systems, and her advice was a helpful reminder that we need to continually question our own assumptions and mental models, especially while working towards personal growth and transformation. 

Boulton strongly believes, as we do, that the complexity worldview can help us navigate our world as it is, not as we believe it to be or want it to be. Practicing humility and curiosity helps us on our journey to unpacking complexity because we can never know everything, but we can learn enough to gain some clarity and perspective. Boulton explained that complexity “is a middle ground theory between saying we know everything and we know nothing”. It's about learning to be comfortable with uncertainty, because inevitably things will not go according to our plan. We can adapt by becoming more resilient and refraining from our command and control methods.

Ultimately, Boulton taught us that embracing our complex reality is simpler than trying to control a machine that does not exist. If we begin to understand complexity and unpack it, we can start our journey toward figuring out how to act congruently with and within it. What would you do differently if you were embracing the idea that the world is complex?


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