Coherence in complexity

Many of our older business models are not working any more. Anecdote reports that John Kotter, leadership guru, is accepting that methods like his 8-step process for leading change may not be effective in the face of complexity.

“The majority of the [HBR Paywall] article is focussed on a ‘new’ concept Kotter calls ‘Strategic Accelerators’. In effect, he is talking about using Communities of Practice/collaborative networks to tap into the power and agility of the informal capabilities of an organisation. The network of strategic accelerators complements the formal systems; it does not replace them. Collaborative networks are not a new concept, but Kotter’s application of them to the arena of strategy is very insightful.”

I have been discussing the potential of communities of practice in fostering innovation for some time here. In my last post I wrote that in an increasingly complex workplace, many of the old models are no longer useful, referring more specifically to workplace learning. The same is happening to our models for management and ‘change management’, as if we could manage change in the first place. Complexity, driven by global networked communications, is the main factor.

High value work today is in addressing complexity, whether it be in the market, society, or the environment. This requires learning, sharing, innovating and engaging. Organizations that promote awareness, transparency and openness through appropriate ways to coordinate, collaborate and cooperate have a better chance of understanding complexity. Joachim Stroh describes this in his fractal image below.

The coherent organization is our way of creating a framework to look at organizational performance. It is based on the fact that governance, work, and learning models are moving from centralized control to network-centric foundations. For instance, coalition governments are increasing in frequency, businesses are organizing in value networks, and collaborative & connected learning is becoming widespread. A coherent organization framework ensures that collaboration (working for a common objective) and cooperation (sharing freely) flow both ways. Systems, such as enterprise social network tools, can assist ‘net work’ practices like the narration of work and personal knowledge mastery.
communities of practice

So while change cannot be managed, per se, organizations can be structured in ways to be more resilient to change. Kotter suggests a second operating system:

“The existing structures and processes that together form an organization’s operating system need an additional element to address the challenges produced by mounting complexity and rapid change. The solution is a second operating system, devoted to the design and implementation of strategy, that uses an agile, networklike structure and a very different set of processes. The new operating system continually assesses the business, the industry, and the organization, and reacts with greater agility, speed, and creativity than the existing one. It complements rather than overburdens the traditional hierarchy, thus freeing the latter to do what it’s optimized to do. It actually makes enterprises easier to run and accelerates strategic change. This is not an “either or” idea. It’s “both and.” I’m proposing two systems that operate in concert.”

I would strongly suggest instead that organizations need to get the first operating system correct so that they do not need a second one. A coherent organization is structured to take advantage of the complexity and noisiness of social networks, allowing information to flow as freely as possible, and affording workers the space to make sense of it and share their experiences and knowledge. The underlying concept of a coherent organization is that organizations and their people are members of many different types of networks, for example, communities of practice, the company social network, and close-knit collaborative work teams. A coherent organization requires a single unifying framework, not two operating systems.

11 Responses to “Coherence in complexity”

  1. Dave Mckenna

    Thank you for this and similar posts – I have been following them with great interest.

    I was particularly interested in the discussion of the organisations ‘operating system’ as it as an area I have been trying to make sense of. I have suggested the idea of social bureacracy where, instead of hierarchies, markets or networks, the central organising principle is the ‘community’. You can find my post on that topic here:

    A candidate for the ‘single unfying framework’ for coherent organisations perhaps?

  2. Reuben Tozman

    Hey Harold,

    I need to think about that last statement. If you look at the movement in robotics away from single brain controlling everything to multiple brains controlling smaller parts with algorithms for communicating with other brains, I’m not sure a ‘Single Unifying Framework’ is where its at. I understand your not talking about a single hierarchy and your still working with networking principles, but look at the web itself. Used to be that the next gen web was dependent on a single unifying framework (RDF, OWL) but then people got smart and started figuring out how different data, speaking different languages, coming from different frameworks could all somehow still talk to one another and how the ‘system’ could make sense of it all. The magic of the web now is that there is no single web per se but rather systems that are able to speak to one another.

    Not saying right or wrong, just thoughts at this point.

    • Harold Jarche

      I am not promoting a single “brain” but a single framework to look at . One that supports collaborative & cooperative behaviours. That framework is one of overlapping networks, communities of practice & work teams. It differs from the traditional org chart in that it incorporates relationships outside the organization. Like the web, it is about talking to one another. What I see with my clients is the challenge of connecting social networks, with communities of practice, and with work teams, while also maintaining privacy and security. I have used the coherent organization framework as a way to show the need to communicate (and learn) across these boundaries. So far, it makes sense to several of my clients, but of course it is a work in progress.

  3. Carol Anderson

    Framework, system, process, governance…all can be good and all can be overly controlling and overly simple. In my experience, once the framework or system is in place, human nature is to simplify and adhere, instead of question and learn. I keep feeling if leaders and organizations could become more comfortable in ambiguity, it would matter whether it was a framework or system, but it would be dynamic rather than static.

    A long time student of Kotter’s theory, I found it did me no good when faced with a huge change project. Instead, falling back on the simplicity of action research – what’s happening and why, helped a whole lot more.

    I have recently discovered your blog and am enjoying the thought process.

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks, Carol. Simplicity is what I am aiming for here. Like you, I find complicated processes do not work when things get difficult. I learned that in the military, where battle procedure was as simple as possible, so it could withstand the stress of combat.

  4. Glisten

    Hi Harold,

    Your coherent organization framework sounds like such a needed development in the field of human interactivity – I gather from the discussion here that it is a work in progress – thank you for the documentation and shareable insights. We are very interested in best possible methods for setting up a new enterprise model which uses a unifying framework as a stable context for complex interactivity.

    I look forward to exploring your models in greater depth.

    Kiind regards

  5. Luis Alberola

    Hi Harold
    Very challenging. I like the concept of coherent organization, but my feeling is coherence is more an emergence than a framework… even though striving for coherence and consistency when initiating client work
    I very much like the comment of Reuben Tozman. I would say that coherence in a corporation allows just that : different people and different systems (work organizations) speaking with one another.
    Working with a military organization these days, I see that coherence is possible if the organization members are very clear about the fact that the organization possesses different ways of working and different operating organizations, and if they are aware of what to do in each context (in terms of ways of working and working organizations). I like what you say about working teams, communities and cooperation, and I would even add hierarchy (isn’t it a working model too ?).
    Problem I see is that context is diversifying greatly, and therefore there is a need to foster autonomy and decision-making skills in people. That needs dedication, work, talent … and our learning and development systems have not caught up with reality yet.
    Great post in any case

  6. William Ryan

    This was a great provoking article and as I reflected on your point of operating systems I sketched out the idea that it may be a degree of connectedness, that we need a digital performance strategist that can help connect the multiple “OS’s” as we strive to streamline the framework. As we have increased our commmunication tools we have (unintentionally I hope) added new OS’s, and new “owners” of the systems and to streamline into a common framework we will need to integrate and merge the infrastructure for it might be a part of the problem keeping us apart. Thanks for the chance to think!

  7. Jon Husband

    @ Carol ..

    Instead, falling back on the simplicity of action research – what’s happening and why, helped a whole lot more.



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