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Maximizing Facilitation Skills Using Principles of Complexity Science Lisa Kimball, Group Jazz, lisa@groupjazz.com Nedra Weinstein, Arden Consulting, nedra@ardenconsults.com Trish Silber, Aliniad Consulting Partners, trish@aliniad.com 2004 OD Network Conference October 4, 2004 Session 201M Then following handout is an excerpt from the presenters’ chapter in: The International Association of Facilitators Group Facilitation Handbook, published by Jossey-Bass and edited by Sandor P. Schuman (in press). CHARACTERISTICS OF COMPLEX ADAPTIVE SYSTEMS At the heart of complexity science is a set of essential characteristics of complex adaptive systems that we can directly apply to organizations and our work as facilitators. It is always risky to take scientific principles developed in one context and apply them to another. Some researchers (Stacey, 2001) have objected to treating organizations as complex adaptive systems and point to the many ways in which human organizations differ from the models developed by complexity theorists. However, we believe that treating organizations as if they are complex adaptive systems can yield many valuable insights. Systems are composed of agents—molecules, termites, plants, or people, for example. In complex systems, multiple agents interact with each other, each agent unique and different from the next, such that no agent’s behavior will be the same in all conditions. Each of these agents changes and adapts over time and has an impact on the other agents because of the mutual context of the system they share. Complex adaptive systems have the following characteristics: Order is emergent and self-organizing. One characteristic of a complex system is that order emerges as it flows from the interactions among the individuals. This process is called self-organization because there is no central control over the behavior of the individual agents. Think about how teams and organizations pull together in crises: they are often able to achieve astonishing results and later reflect on how rewarding the experience was. There is no time in a crisis to mandate or centrally control action. Relationships are the coordinating mechanism in these situations as order emerges from the interactions and relationships among individuals. A common puzzle in organizations is why groups work together so well and achieve so much during a crisis, yet everyone reverts back to poorly coordinated, territorial behavior on an everyday basis. Complexity science explains that our everyday desire to centrally control activities and behavior in organizations actually stifles individuals’ ability to interact, take coordinated action, and achieve desired results. This OD Network Annual Conference Session 201M Handout Page 1


explains why micromanagers tend to foster precisely what they do not intend—either stagnation or chaos, actually preventing the organization from being able to perform. A small set of simple rules generates purposeful, complex, and dynamic behavior. Flocking birds are exquisite examples of another essential characteristic of complex adaptive systems because they exhibit a kind of self-organization where a small set of rules generates complex behavior. A computer simulation developed by Craig Reynolds in 1987 demonstrates this concept (Zimmerman, Plsek, and Lindberg, 1998). In this simulation, autonomous agents (called boids) are placed in an on-screen environment full of obstacles and are governed by three rules: (1) maintain a minimum distance from all other boids and objects, (2) match the speed of neighboring boids, and (3) move toward the center of the mass of boids in your vicinity. Although the boids are not instructed to flock, the simulation generates complex, dynamic flocking behavior. In the same way, many organizations today (among them, Yahoo! Dell, Miramax, and Lego) successfully navigate uncertain and chaotic business environments by using a small set of rules and strategic processes to guide themselves (Eisenhardt and Sull, 2001). There is no time to wait for guidance from top management or lengthy strategic plans in such a rapidly changing business environment. These simple rules and strategic processes help individuals (and business units) quickly decide what kinds of opportunities to pursue, when a project should be dropped, and how to rank priorities. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, with its own distinct identity. As each unique individual takes independent action, changes, and interacts with other individuals, a complex system emerges as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Unlike the airplane example described above, by studying each of the individuals, we achieve only an incomplete understanding of the whole. When we think about great team experiences, the team typically exhibits a unique identity, and great ideas or achievements cannot be attributed to only one or a few individuals, but rather to the whole team. The same is true when we reflect on great meetings or the culture of great organizations such as Disney, Herman Miller, or Cirque de Soleil. At the edge of chaos is where systems are most adaptable and creative. Complexity scientists describe complex adaptive systems as moving among three states: stability at one end of a continuum, chaos at the other, and a state called the edge of chaos in between. When systems are in this zone between stability and chaos, they are most adaptable and creative. The elements of the system do not lock into place but do not dissolve into anarchy. There is a balance between order and disorder. This is where innovations happen. In organizations, the edge of chaos is that space where new ideas and unexpected directions emerge and flourish. When skunk works became popular in research and development organizations, it was an attempt to provide an environment that would create and protect this edge of chaos. The features of skunk works typically include guidance by a set of simple rules and freedom from most of the organization’s policies and procedures and provision of resources and an environment (physical and cultural) that fuel the creative interaction among team members. OD Network Annual Conference Session 201M Handout Page 2


Small changes can generate big effects. The relationships and connections between the parts of a complex system can be the underlying cause for changes and new ideas to accelerate and multiply throughout the system. This produces another key characteristic of complex adaptive systems: small changes or ideas might create big effects (which is precisely what happens in skunk works). This phenomenon represents a very different notion from the Newtonian view that actions and reactions are equal and opposite. In organizations, we typically assume that it takes big change efforts to create big change, but we have found that many of these huge efforts failed. However, on any given day, a rumor can spread like wildfire and have a huge impact on careers, business decisions, or Wall Street at lightning speed. DESIGN PRINCIPLES FOR FACILITATING DYNAMIC MEETINGS These five characteristics of complex adaptive systems provide a general framework for facilitation. We think facilitators can go even further and define a set of design principles to inform specific design choices. In the remainder of this chapter we focus on three such design principles: 1. 2. 3.

Engage the whole system first. Use simple rules. Create an edge.

Principle 1: Engage the Whole System First This design principle derives from the characteristic that the whole of a complex adaptive system is greater than the sum of its parts. This principle suggests the importance of keeping the system perspective present in the minds of all participants. This system frame sets the stage for all of the discussions that emerge and allows participants to see how their particular perspective both contributes to the overall result and is affected by the interplay between the various groups and stakeholders within the system. To garner this synergy during a meeting, especially with a group of people grappling with a contentious or complex issue, first engage the group of attendees with a system perspective of the issue at hand rather than kick off the meeting with specific stakeholders focusing on their individual perspective on the situation. There are several ways to do this in a meeting or multiple meetings. One tactic is to begin the meeting with small, heterogeneous groups, that is, groups comprising five to seven participants who have different perspectives or allegiances, to focus on the whole system that they represent rather than on their particular stake or position. These minisystems (in complexity science terms, fractals) contain the diversity of views, opinions, hopes, and concerns that are inherent in the larger system. There have been a number of large change approaches that have developed over the last fifteen years, such as Janoff and Weisbord’s Future Search Conferences OD Network Annual Conference Session 201M Handout Page 3


(Weisbord, 1992), Dannemiller-Tyson’s Real Time Strategic Change (Dannemiller and others, yes1994), and Axelrod’s Conference Model (Axelrod, 1995). Although each of these has its own unique approach, one common denominator is that they all bring the whole system into the room. Another approach that is used to put the whole system first is the World Café process, which was conceived by Juanita Brown (World Café Community Foundation 2003). This approach, described in Exhibit 14.1, allows the entire group, even a large group of over a hundred people, to have one conversation in which ideas, questions, and themes around an issue can begin to be linked and connected. Graphic recording on a large wall or chart is another method that can be used to put the whole system first. A combination of text and graphics is created that allows each small group or individual to see their ideas merged with others' ideas in a single, shared picture of the whole, resulting in a systemic view of the issue at hand. Principle 2: Use Simple Rules Understanding that a small set of rules or guidelines can generate complex and dynamic behavior and useful results leads to a design principle to use simple rules. A completely open process without structure or rules generates chaos, and too long or narrow a list of rules stifles a group. For example, as facilitators, our desire to ensure that a group has a rich, deep, and fruitful conversation can sometimes lead us to overstructure a session with too many ground rules, instructions, and expectations. In these instances, it is not uncommon for groups to be confused and raise many questions and for the session as a whole to fall flat. Complexity science tells us as facilitators that our simple rules must provide minimum specifications and no more. Each simple rule should be just that: simple and a rule. Groups should be provided with a short list of rules that refer to how individuals should interact with each other. Too many detailed instructions will burden and stall the group. Implementation of the rules should be tightly managed, but what the rules produce should be loosely held, allowing as much self-organization to emerge as possible. Think of simple rules as liberating structures for groups that allow individuals and groups to safely step up to the edge of chaos, where they can be most creative, adaptive, and productive. Simple rules guide the interaction between individuals and the system and are not focused on any one individual. The simplicity of the rules gives freedom to individuals to behave in adaptive, creative, surprising ways, which create complexity. We have noticed that groups, organizations, and cultures have so many unwritten rules and norms that one way to liberate the natural performance of a complex system is to explicitly confirm or reshape these unwritten rules. We recently facilitated a meeting in which we invited small groups to discuss a set of issues. In this organization, an implicit OD Network Annual Conference Session 201M Handout Page 4


rule was that small group conversations must generate a consensus view. We told the small groups that we did not expect them to provide a consensus view; instead, we were curious to hear what they naturally agreed on, any patterns in their views, and any differences of opinions they held. We noticed that the input of the small groups was particularly creative and powerful. At the end of the meeting, many participants shared with us how ecstatic they were to be freed from the expectation of consensus; they found it refreshing and believed the freedom to disagree encouraged them to explore ideas and views with more vigor and rigor. Principle 3: Create an Edge In nature, the edge of chaos is a called a verge—a rich mixture of ecosystems that happens when two distinct regions border each other and begin to overlap and interact. All living things in these regions are forced to engage in adaptation, cooperation, and competition that cause them to differentiate and create new forms. Costa Rica is an example of an area where two continents met and created a verge in which there is extraordinary biological diversity. Although it makes up less than three ten-thousandths of the earth’s landmass, Costa Rica is home to 5 percent of its species. How can we create this zone of creativity where ideas can emerge and develop in human systems? Most organizations and groups operate with multiple boundaries, including those between organizations, functions, roles, and areas of expertise. To create an edge, we need to find ways to engage people in and around these boundaries. We want to put participants in the zone where they grapple with the differences among or transitions between their familiar patterns. One approach to creating an edge in a meeting is to work with the physical environment. Dixon (2000) writes about the hallways of learning, making the point that much of the juicy learning and knowledge exchange within an organization takes place in the hall rather than within the formal structure of offices and meetings. Although most of us recognize the value of these informal exchanges, we have not thought consciously about how to make explicit use of the "hall" within the context of a meeting. Hewlett Packard convened a series of Work Innovation Network (WIN) meetings where they tried to do this. The goal of the WIN meetings was to bring people from different parts and levels of the company together to share learning. They provided the typical opportunities for people to make presentations and facilitate discussions about projects. But they also created what they called white space in the meeting by placing comfortable sofas, plants, and coffee tables in defined areas between the conference rooms where sessions took place. The configuration of the furniture was inviting and attracted people to sit down in small groups. This space enabled conversations among people who would not necessarily have encountered each other in the course of their work and conversations that were not defined by the formal agenda of the meeting. Another approach to creating an edge is to introduce disruptive agents to the system. A product development group from a consumer products company convened an off-site meeting to develop new ideas for reaching customers. They had experienced frustration in previous meetings where it seemed that the ideas were limited to OD Network Annual Conference Session 201M Handout Page 5


unimaginative extensions of current offerings. In the past, they had invited outside experts in different fields to make presentations that they hoped would trigger new thinking, but the strategy had not paid off as they hoped. The presenter’s new ideas had not become integrated with the discussions around projects. This time, they invited professionals from another field to come to the meeting as full participants rather than as outsiders. Their different perspectives, language, and frameworks were surprising and challenging and took the conversations in new directions this is an example from my own consulting work so there is not a citation. One of the most effective ways facilitators can create an edge is to introduce challenges to the group’s standard more of operating. This can be done by providing advice about who should be invited to a meeting, who could be added to the group, or where the meeting could be held. It can also be done by posing provocative questions that cause participants to stop and think before responding with their standard reply. These questions can put participants literally on edge, where they experience just enough discomfort to generate new ideas.

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Design Principles Engage The Whole System First

Use Simple Rules

Create An Edge

Whole System Represented

Focused, Minimum Specifications

Physical Environment

Utilize MiniSystems “Fractals”

Can Be About: How-To, Boundaries, Priorities, Timing, Exit

Disruptive Agents

Discussion Short List Of Addresses The Explicit Instructions “Whole System” Brainstorming World Café Open Space Large Scale Change Dialogue Graphic Recording

Challenge Standard Mode Of Operating

Provocative Questions Devil’s Advocate; Odd Man In “What are the paradoxes/dilemmas of this situation?”

OD Network Annual Conference Session 201M Handout Page 7


Application Presenting Opportunity:

Engage The Whole System First

Use Simple Rules

Create An Edge

OD Network Annual Conference Session 201M Handout Page 8


REFERENCES Allison, M. A. “Enriching Your Practice with Complex Systems Thinking.” OD Practitioner, 1999, 31(3), 11-21. Appalachian Center for Economic Networks: Cooperative Economic Development Strategies Replication Manual. Athens, Ohio: Acenet, 1998. Arrow, H., McGrath, J., Berdahl, J. Small Groups as Complex Systems : Formation, Coordination, Development and Adaptation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000. Arthur, W.B. “Increasing Returns and the Two Worlds of Business.” Harvard Business Review, 1996 (July - August), 74(4), 100-109. Ashmos, D., Duchon, D., McDaniel, R. R., Huonker, J. W. “What a Mess! Participation as a Simple Managerial Rule to ‘Complexity’ Organization.” Journal of Management Studies, 2002 (March), 39(2), 189-206. Axelrod, R. and Emily Axelrod, The Conference Model. Wilmette, IL: The Axelrod Group, 1993. Cole, C. R et al., “Heart-Rate Recovery After Exercise as a Predictor of Mortality.” The New England Journal of Medicine, 1999 (October), 341(18), 1351-1357. OD Network Annual Conference Session 201M Handout Page 9


Dannemiller, K. et al., Consultant Guide to Large-Scale Meetings. Ann Arbor, MI: Dannemiller Tyson Associates. 1994. Dixon, N., Common Knowledge: How Companies Thrive by Sharing What They Know. Cambridge:Harvard Business School Press. 2000. Dooley, K. “A Complex Adaptive Systems Model of Organizational Change.” Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences, 1997, 1(1), 69-97. Eisenhardt, Kathleen M. and Donald M. Sull, Strategy as Simple Rules, Harvard Business Review, pp. 106-116 (January 2001). Olson, Edwin E. and Glenda Eoyang, Facilitating Organization Change: Lessons From Complexity Science John Wiley & Sons. 2001. Osborn, A. Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Problem Solving. New York: Scribners, 1957. Owen, H. “A Brief User's Guide to Open Space Technology.” [http://www.openspaceworld.com/users_guide.htm]. No date. Shaw, P. Changing Conversations in Organizations: A Complexity Approach to Change. London: Routledge, 2002. Stacey, R. D. Complex Responsive Processes in Organizations: Learning and Knowledge Creation. London: Routledge, 2001.

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Sweeney, D. and Meadows, L. B. The Systems Thinking Playbook. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Institute for Policy and Social Science Research, 2001. The World Café Community Foundation. The World Café. [http://www.theworldcafe.com]. 2003. Tower, Dudley, Creating the Complex Adaptive Organization: A Primer on Complex Adaptive Systems, OD Practitioner. 2002. Weisbord, M. Discovering Common Ground. San Francisco: BerrettKoehler, (1992). Zimmerman, B., Plsek, P., and Lindberg, C. Edgeware: Insights from Complexity Science for Health Care Leaders. VHA, 1998.

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Maximizing Facilitation Skills Using Principles of Complexity Science  

We think facilitators can go even further and define a set of design principles to inform specific design choices. In the remainder of this...

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