More Interaction, More Change

Tom GibbonsChange, Complexity, Leadership, Organization DevelopmentLeave a Comment

Most current perspectives on the future of organizations will begin with comments on the accelerating pace of change.  The consequential generation of ideas for dealing with these phenomena focuses on leadership, management, technology, character, relationship and just about any other topic of interest.

I think it is very important to make sure we scratch hard at the surface of these ideas and try and understand what assumptions they are resting on.  It can be too easy to grasp at virtually any suggestion for dealing with this pace of change, simply in the hope it will affect some relief.

My belief is that many, if not most of these ideas rest on the assumption that this pace of change and the specific changes within it can be predicted and/or controlled

George Herbert Mead pointed out that when interaction takes place it is the dynamic between the ‘gesture’ and the ‘response’ that produces meaning.  That is, the gesture and the response together create meaning.  What is critical here, is that the meaning that may actually result from any given interaction is uncertain.   Interaction rests on a foundation of uncertainty.  Within this uncertainty is always the potential for novelty; and novelty means change.

One fundamental thing that has changed in our world over the past 20 years or so is the number of interactions that people have with other people.  Interaction now takes numerous forms due to technological advances, social media, etc.  They may or may not be intentional or attended to but there is no doubt we are interacting more these days. 

As our levels of interaction increase we can expect more novelty, more uncertainty, more change.  Less predictability and control. 

This is why it is important to look closely and critically at the ideas currently being espoused to deal with the experience of accelerating change. Many of these ideas, especially those informed by complexity science point to increased interaction as a way of dealing with these situations.  What is often attached to these solutions however is a subtle sense that increasing the number of interactions will ‘make things better’.  The subtlety tends to come in descriptions that the quality of these interactions must change as well and if the quality changes then things will get better.  From Mead’s perspective, the quality of the interaction was immaterial, the interaction rested on uncertainty.

As an example of this, below is an excerpt from a paper published in 2000 – Leading at the Edge: How Leaders Influence in Complex Systems, by Birute Regine and Roger Lewin.

We can restate this in the language of complexity science as follows: In complex adaptive systems, agents interact, and when they have a mutual affect on one another something novel emerges. Anything that enhances these interactions will enhance the potential creativity and adaptability of the system. In human organizations this translates into agents as people, and interactions with mutual affect as being relationships that are grounded in a sense of mutuality: people have a mutual respect, and have a mutual influence and impact on each other. Mutuality lends itself to an appreciation of the wholeness of the other person, which increases the range of responses and possibilities between people.

I like this paper now and I liked it when I first read it years ago.  Nevertheless I also think it represents a very subtle slip into giving the impression that ‘good’ interactions will produce something ‘predictably good’ as well.  The bolded text above represents that subtle slip.

Interaction produces the possibility of novelty, the ‘goodness’ of that novelty is uncertain.

This does not mean that we shouldn’t try and have the very best interactions that we think we can have with others.  Of course we should.  It does mean that we should not burden these interactions with the expectations of predictability and control.

I agree that more, and more authentic interactions are a good way to ‘be’ in these times of high uncertainty.  It increases the potential for ‘good’ novelty.  It also increases the uncertainty we feel, especially the uncertainty we feel as predictability and control erodes away with each new uncertain interaction.

Perhaps the greatest gift we have as humans is our adaptability.  We have a tendency to adapt and be ‘ok’ in a very wide range of circumstances.  It seems our current drive in organizations for predictability and control has compromised our trust in our capacity to adapt.

As we enter this new year, we would suggest you ask yourself and your teams a question as you make decision after decision, each one resting on the uncertainty of the interactions surrounding them:

Will we be ok?

Push hard on the answer and you will likely find or rediscover that trust in our very human capacity to adapt.

Author – Tom

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