Putting Lipstick on a Bulldog

When outcomes are uncertain, answers hard to devise,
That’s the time to form a team, tap dreams, and improvise.…
Putting lipstick on a bulldog won’t transform enough,
Makeup can’t hide everything; change takes deeper stuff.

(e-volve!: Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow, Rosabeth Moss Kanter 2001).

In, e-volve!, Kanter sends two clear messages: there is a new digital culture of the future that we have to understand, and a little makeup here and there won’t be enough to meet the challenge. A little less documentation, sprinkling an “extreme” practice here and there, revamping a couple of procedures, or pseudo-empowering teams won’t be enough to build the team ecology required to deliver value as markets change again and again.

The new digital frontier “is a frontier of technologies, ideas, and values,” says Tom Petzinger, author of The New Pioneers.

“The new pioneers celebrate individuality over conformity among their employees and customers alike. They deploy technology to distribute rather than consolidate authority and creativity. They compete through resilience instead of resistance, through adaptation instead of control.

Indeed when you look deeply enough into a growing organization or spend enough time with thriving entrepreneurs, business begins to look very much like pure biological evolution, propelled into real time on the fuel of human intelligence.”

The central question related to turbulence, change, and our changing social systems is: Do our traditional, fundamental models of the world and how to manage make sense anymore? For a growing cadre of scientists, business executives, and Agilists, the answer is no.

Since the mid-1980s, scientists have explored the concepts of complex adaptive systems (CAS) in increasing depth. Similarly, since the mid-1990s, a growing group of managers have begun applying CAS concepts to make sense of how organizations operate in an increasingly complex world (for the latest rendition of applying CAS to management, see Management 3.0 by Jurgen Appelo). Many, but not all, of the leaders in the Agile movement have based their ideas about management on the sense-making ideas of complex adaptive systems. When Kent Beck talks about “organic design” or “generative rules,” his conceptual foundation is an understanding of complexity, as are Ken Schwaber’s ideas when he designs daily Scrum meetings.

There are five key ideas about complex systems that are helpful in understanding organizations in new ways. These ideas reinforce ideas that managers have found to work in actual practice.

  1. Complex systems, be they biological or human, are composed of independent, decentralized agents.
  2. These independent agents, in the absence of centralized control, will self-organize.
  3. Self-organization will create complex behavior and emergent results that are not evident from studying the agents themselves.
  4. Rich information flows in an ecosystem balanced at the edge of chaos define the most effective pattern for generating emergent results.
  5. Simple, generative rules guide the creation of complex behaviors.

The Agile Manifesto principle that individuals and interactions are more important than process and tools is a reflection of these complexity principles. Individuals are independent, and it is the interaction between those individuals that creates innovative (emergent) results. If these agents are guided by a simple set of rules rather than volumes of processes and procedures, they have a much better chance of responding to the complexity of the world around them. Why? In a turbulent, oft-changing environment, a set of comprehensive procedures will never be comprehensive enough to address every situation, and the more comprehensive they become, the more difficult they are to apply. Simple rules guide innovative, intelligent responses. Comprehensive rules guide rote, routine responses.

In complex, uncertain, ambiguous environments, adaptation is significantly more important than optimization. Optimization (anticipation) practices are based on assumptions of predictability and control. If the environment is relatively predictable, and the problems at hand are similar to ones we have encountered before, then optimizing practices—getting better and better at what we already know how to do—are useful. However, in unpredictable environments, those in which we have little experience, maintaining the flexibility to try different approaches, making mistakes and learning from them, and embracing change rather than fighting it become more useful strategies. Today, organizations require more of the former (adaptive practices) and less of the latter (optimizing practices).

Rich information flows in an ecosystem balanced at the edge of chaos define the most effective pattern for generating emergent results. Emergent results, creativity, and innovation require a rich stew of information, of conversations and interactions. The “edge of chaos” defines a narrow band in which there is enough order to stave off randomness, yet enough disorder to generate new ideas. Roger Lewin and Birute Regine (The Soul at Work: Listen, Respond, Let Go: Embracing Complexity Science for Business Success) refer to this balance point as the zone of creative adaptability. Dee Hock ( Birth of the Chaordic Age) refers to “chaordic” management, balancing between chaos and order. Creating an adaptive organization involves balancing on this precipice—a very uncomfortable position for those raised within a management culture whose worldview is one of Newtonian certainty.