Home Concepts Organizational Theory Leadership in the Midst of Complexity, Uncertainty, Turbulence—and Contradiction

Leadership in the Midst of Complexity, Uncertainty, Turbulence—and Contradiction

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The emerging sciences of complexity begin to suggest that . . . order is not accidental, that vast veins of spontaneous order lie at hand. . . We have all known that simple physical systems exhibit spontaneous order: an oil droplet in water forms a sphere; snowflakes exhibit their evanescent six-fold symmetry. What is new is that the range of spontaneous order is enormously greater than we have supposed. Profound order is being discovered in large, complex, and apparently random systems. I believe that this emergent order underlies not only the origin of life itself, but much of the order seen in organisms today. So, too, do many of my colleagues, who are starting to find overlapping evidence of such emergent order in all different kinds of complex systems.

Organizations (like virtually all other systems) contain layers of chaos and order. When confronted with a seemingly chaotic and unpredictable organization, we have only to move up one level (to greater abstraction), or down one level (to greater specificity) if we wish to find order—this is the essence of emergence.

For instance, the behavior of a specific person may begin to make some sense once we begin to examine overall dynamics in her department rather than just look at her individual behavior. Organizational theorists tell us about the deskilling of managers or subordinates that often occurs in organizations and the ways in which this deskilling contributes in some manner to the maintenance of stability in this department. Similarly, we can move up or down levels of analysis to find chaos in an organization that seems to be orderly.

This is the process described by the “big history” advocates in their emphasis on the scale of analysis. The operation of a ballet or theater company, for instance, may look very orderly from the audience’s perspective. At a higher level, however, everything may look quite chaotic (inadequate funding, props that never arrive, recalcitrant performers)—just as at the level of the individual performer we will find stage fright, confusion, rivalry and other forms of non-rational and chaotic behavior that are never seen by the appreciative audience.

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