Change Agility is the New Capability

Posted on November 1, 2013. Filed under: Our Leaders Say |

Change management expert John Findlay of Maverick & Boutique explores organisational agility in today’s increasingly complex world.  John will be speaking at the neuresource group working breakfast on 13 November 2013 in Brisbane.

Register now for a morning of networking, sumptuous food, and important news about organisational transformation.


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A Complex Adaptive Operating System (CAOS) Approach to Organisational Agility 

We live in an era of unprecedented complexity and disruptive change. In order to thrive, organisations must respond quickly and creatively to shifting market, social and political conditions. People within organisations must be adept at collaborating effectively across the boundaries of disciplines, sectors, and cultures.

While our technology has become extraordinarily sophisticated, our organisational operating systems—the ways we coordinate, act, and interact—are no longer up-to-date. And most efforts at change fail simply because the methods we continue to use no longer work as well as they once did.

The science of complex adaptive systems (systems such as markets, ecologies, and the human brain) offers great promise as an operating guide for 21st century organisational success.

At the American firm of Maverick & Boutique, we have developed the Complex Adaptive Operating System (CAOS) and the Complexity Model of Change, an approach which assists organisations to become more agile and adaptable.

Using Complexity to deal with Complexity

For much of the past century, with its intense focus on “scientific” method, organisations have attempted to manage their processes and their people in a linear way—as if they were machines. As the world has become exponentially more complex and rapidly changing, we’re experiencing huge failures in our ability to create the financial and human well-being that seemed a sure bet when Fredrick W. Taylor, one of the first known organisational consultants, wowed the industrial world with his efficiency movement.

According to the 2013 Gallup State of the American Workplace report, a mere 30% of the American workforce considers itself engaged, which results in $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity annually. Clearly, something has to change; and yet it’s generally accepted as axiomatic that 70% of organisational change efforts fail.

Poor odds, indeed. It seems that nothing short of a miracle will do.

There’s a saying that a miracle is just a change in perspective, which, we suggest, is precisely what’s needed to begin to sort out our predicament. Rather than using the metaphor—and science—of industrial age machines to understand and manage our organisations, we can turn to the science of complex adaptive systems, which was developed to understand the behavior of ecologies and the weather, and has since been expanded to include human systems such as markets, cultures, and the human brain.

Complex adaptive systems are made up of multiple sub-systems, which interact with each other and evolve over time as a result of that interaction. In the same way that there are patterns in linear or algorithmic systems on which we can rely to operate machines, there are patterns in complex adaptive systems that we can leverage to successfully influence the future of our organisations and their people.

The CAOS Approach to Organisational Transformation

Key to this approach is the concept of phase transitions, or disruptive transformational change, where the whole system “jumps” from one state to another, like water becoming steam. Examples of this phenomenon in the human realm are personal growth through successive stages of development, when groups become high performing teams or when society undergoes a major socio-technological shift. When this happens, we experience major transformations in how we work and learn together.

Complexity650-300 At each transition, the structure of the whole system changes dramatically, transcending and including previous states of the system. How we understand the world, the tools people use, the ways we interact and coordinate, the roles we play and the relationships that follow are all are transformed. That’s how the model works…on paper.

In reality, of course, these transitions are messy, with parts of the system existing in different stages. For example, an organisation that produces cutting-edge Knowledge-age technology may still be managing its HR component in a hierarchical, Industrial-age way, which interferes with its ability to attract and retain young, bright talent.  An executive may move to a thrilling new level of cognitive development while her emotional development lags behind, making it difficult for her to relate to and support her team.

The idea is to align these different sub-systems, so they are all pulling in more or less the same direction. When we do, we realise huge gains in productivity, cultural alignment, and human well-being.

The CAOS Toolkit

New tools are needed to improve the dismal rate of change effort success. Maverick & Boutique have created or adapted a number of useful tools to approach change in a different way:

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 3.14.15 PMThe Complexity Model of Change: At the core of the CAOS approach is a model of socio-technological change, which provides a robust explanation of thescale transformations— known as phase transitions—that have occurred over the past 200 years, and provides a general indication of future trends.

Fractal Leadership: As its name implies, Fractal Leadership is self-similar at every scale. All members of the project team or organisation are expected to acquire the skills of fractal leadership, which can be learned easily and applied as simple rules of interaction. The skills need to be consciously practiced until they become a natural part of engaging with others.

A Fractal leadership approach recognises the importance of the dynamic interplay between people, between teams and between organisations with widely differing world views or centres of gravity. It addresses their resistance or willingness or adapt to change, and helps leaders develop and maintain trusting relationships with peers, teams, and stakeholders. The result is that, as circumstances change, they are able to work transparently and collaboratively with others to identify and implement new, satisfying solutions in a timely way.

Polarity Thinking: At the heart of many complex organizational issues are paradoxes or wicked problems, which pose significant challenges to the leaders and their teams, and result in ongoing conflict, disengagement, and sub-optimal performance. Many of these messes can be untangled using polarity thinking.

Each perspective, or pole of a polarity, may appear to be the ‘answer’ to a problem; but, when we focus on one pole to the exclusion of the other, we achieve sub-optimal results over time. The polarity thinking method supports us in developing concrete strategies for realizing the benefits of both points of view and early warning signs for detecting when we are focusing on one pole to the neglect of the other. This creates a “dynamic certainty” and flexibility in the system resulting in risk reduction, conflict resolution and enhanced benefits realization.

The complex adaptive meeting environment: In order to successfully deal with the diversity of world views, interests and activities of complex stakeholder systems, it has been necessary to develop innovative tools for the creation of new knowledge and for its wise application. The goal is to help people rapidly share their opinions, make sense of their collective ideas and concepts, develop shared mental models and create and apply new knowledge together.

A complex adaptive meeting environment, known as Zing, creates a safe collective thinking space for bringing key players together at any scale, across the boundaries of participating organizations, between organizations and their stakeholders or within functional teams. The tool makes it possible for people to think together and create a robust, shared model of the system they are collectively dealing with.

Interests integration and knowledge co-creation: This approach leads to the expansion of the possibility space for both internal and external stakeholders, by creating win-win-win synergistic outcomes. Participants are encouraged to develop ‘both-and’ solutions: for example, where some aspects of the project will be centralized and other aspects decentralised; or ‘transcend and include’ solutions: where the project has an overarching aspect operating at a highly integrated, complex or sophisticated level, but includes functions operating from a more rudimentary level. This integration is achieved by using dialectical discourse, whose primary purpose is to create overarching conceptual models that incorporate the interests of all parties.

With these tools and approaches, managing change isn’t the arduous task it’s frequently considered to be. In fact, we think of change as an opportunity. It opens the space for new knowledge, new discoveries, new thinking. In today’s increasingly complex environments, an organisation that possess agility when confronted with change is well-positioned to benefit from unexpected opportunities. After all, change agility is the new capability.


John Findlay copyJohn Findlay, Maverick & Boutique

A native of Australia, John brings an international perspective to organizational change. His complex adaptive systems model of socio-technological change offers a robust explanation for the hyper-chaotic period currently being experienced in every realm of human activity as we make the shift to a new and higher level of social and technological order.  John has translated the complex adaptive systems model into a diagnostic that gives people and organisations a roadmap to the future.  John has a PhD from the University of Wollongong and an MBA from Southern Cross University. He is also a research fellow in the Economics Faculty at the University of Wollongong.


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[…] the first of our working breakfasts. John Findlay of Maverick & Boutique spoke about the Complex Adaptive Operating System (CAOS) and the Complexity Model of Change, which he developed to assists organisations become more […]

[…] with the idea that organisations are complex, (requiring a complex adaptive operating system to […]

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