Embracing Paradox and Duality

“I am convinced that the nations and people who master the
new sciences of complexity will become the economic, cultural,
and political superpowers of the next century”

Heinz Pagels, physicist 1998

Throughout the last century we treated organisations as machines. Operating in an environment that was analysable, quantifiable and predictable, we designed for certainty and engineered for control. We established formal hierarchies and organisational silos – specifying roles, standardising processes and tightly controlling activities. We built centralised bureaucracies to cascade goals to the workforce and monitor performance, via complex planning, budgeting and management-by-objectives. We focused almost exclusively on rational determinism, engineering out emotions and relationships along the way.

This way of organising and leading, which we call ‘Directional Leadership’, worked well enough on its own during the Industrial Age, but that was a time of much greater relative stability. Today, however, we are living through one of the most significant periods of change in human history. Increasing global connectivity and the accelerating pace of technological innovation have changed the rules of the game forever. Everything and everyone is connected. The world has become a single giant network, where the complexity of our web of human interactions increasingly mirrors those found in living systems.

As a result of this, we are seeing much greater volatility – where disruptive trends emerge with increasing frequency to continually change the rules of the whole system. The 2008 market crash, cloud computing, e-commerce and current political trends are just a few examples. The future is increasingly complex, uncertain and harder to predict – and the pace of change is only going to get faster. 

Directional Leadership is not enough on its own

In an environment which is increasingly volatile, complex and uncertain, the Directional Leadership approach, which is rooted in linear analysis, prediction and control, becomes increasingly ineffective for dealing with complex transformation.

We believe that many of the common challenges we witness in organisations today are caused by organisations trying to apply the Directional Leadership model to address complex, disruptive change. Senior leadership teams find themselves unable to engage their people, having to resort to top-down coercion instead of gaining real commitment. Silos emerge between functions and levels, with an inability to understand, accommodate or empathise with others’ perspectives. Contentious topics end up being avoided and the real conversations end up happening around the watercooler, not in the meeting room – leading to mistrust, the breakdown of relationships and ultimately turf wars.

In today’s environment Directional Leadership leads to fragmented goal setting, management and reporting processes, stifling the cross-boundary collaboration and innovation that is the lifeblood for future resilience. Even in so-called Agile businesses we see the predominance of mechanistic approaches to organisational transformation and corporate governance. These symptoms all point to the need for a fundamentally different approach to navigating complex, disruptive change. 

Connected Intelligence builds collective agility

So where can we look for inspiration in our search for a different model, one that can help us organise and lead through disruptive change? The obvious answer is to look to science, since we design our organisations according to the prevailing scientific paradigm of the time. The Directional Leadership model has its origins around 1900 and the work of Frederick Taylor. At this time, Isaac Newton’s idea of a “clockwork universe” reigned supreme. We saw the world as ultimately analysable, predictable and controllable, and we designed our organisations in this image. 

Over the last hundred years, however, the field of science has moved on considerably. In particular, the emerging science of Complex Adaptive Systems (or Complexity theory), provides an ideal template for organisations to remain resilient in a world that is increasingly complex, dynamic and non-linear.

In nature, complex, adaptive systems display the capacity for ‘Connected intelligence’. They adapt naturally to disruption in their external environment through the process of emergence – where complex, adaptive behaviour arises at the level of the whole, which cannot be explained by analysis of the parts alone. They are open, dynamic, self-organising and evolve continuously over time. By replicating this adaptability and resilience in how we organise and communicate in groups we can pioneer new ways to meet an increasingly volatile and complex future with greater confidence.

To remain resilient in an age of disruption, then, we need to recognise that organisations are not just mechanistic structures. They are also complex, living systems of people and relationships.  When we think about organisations as living systems rather than machines, we view them not as something separate from us that we can manipulate and control, but as an interconnected series of relationships, conversations and interactions, of which we are an inseparable part. 

Through the living systems lens the aim is to develop the capacity for Connected Intelligence. This represents a fundamentally different paradigm for leadership. By transforming how groups and individuals communicate and collaborate, it enables them to think, feel and act as a cohesive whole. By balancing a focus on direction (strategic alignment) with connection (relationship quality) at the organisational level it creates the potential for whole system change – enabling whole ecosystems to mobilise as one around their most critical challenges.

Embracing Paradox

To continue to thrive in an Age of Disruption, then, we need to embrace a paradox. Organisations are not just mechanistic structures, they are also complex living systems of people and relationships. At Living Systems, we have developed a unique approach for addressing complex situations, which we call Connected Intelligence. It is not intended to substitute traditional Directional Leadership, but to sit alongside it as an alternative – a case of ‘both-and’, not ‘either-or’. The aim is not to replace Directional Leadership in its entirety, but to embrace two paradoxical approaches to leading, working in groups and managing organisational change, depending upon the complexity of the challenge:

Organisational changeTop-down, siloed changeWhole ecosystem transformation
Group conversationFormal workgroup
Connected group
Directing and drivingEnabling and

Connected Intelligence is rooted in a combination of the latest leadership theory, cutting edge science and ancient wisdom. It balances planned and emergent change, and recognises organisations not only as assets, employees and capabilities – but also as dynamic living systems that, when properly leveraged, can become self-organising, creative and resilient.

Living Systems are industry-leading experts in leadership, group and organisational transformation. Start the conversation to move your business forward by contacting us today.