In reality change, especially large scale change, defies logical rules and simple management actions. Complexity theory and a view of organisations as ‘complex adaptive systems’, attempts to consider some of those realities and arguably provides a better model for change in an education setting (see for example Lewin and Regine (1999), Olson and Eoyang (2001)).
Most textbooks focus heavily on techniques and procedures for long-term planning, on the needs for visions and missions, on the importance and the means of securing strongly shared cultures, on the equation of success with consensus, consistency, uniformity and order. [However, in complex environments] the real management task is that of coping with and even using unpredictability, clashing counter-cultures, disensus, contention, conflict, and inconsistency. In short the tasks that justifies the existence of all managers has to do with instability, irregularity, difference and disorder.
Stacey identifies the following propositions as the basis for complexity theory:
- All organisations are webs of non-linear feedback loops connected to other people and organisations by webs of non-linear feedback loops.
- Such non-linear feedback systems are capable of operating in states of stable and unstable equilibrium, or in the borders between these states, that is far from equilibrium, in bounded instability at the edge of chaos.
- All organisations are paradoxes. They are pulled towards stability by the forces of integration, maintenance controls, human desires for security and certainty and adaptation to the environment on the one hand. They are also pulled towards the opposite extreme of unstable equilibrium by the forces of division and decentralisation, human desires for excitement and innovation and isolation from the environment.
- If the organisation gives in to the pull of stability it fails because it becomes ossified and cannot change easily. If it gives in to the pull to instability it disintegrates. Success lies in sustaining an organisation at the border between stability and instability. This is a state of chaos, a difficult to maintain dissipative structure.
- The dynamics of the successful organisation are therefore those of irregular cycles and discontinuous trends, falling within qualitative patterns, fuzzy but recognizable categories taking the form of archetypes and templates.
- Because of its own internal dynamic, a successful organisation faces completely unknowable specific futures.
- Agents within the system cannot be in control of its long-term future, nor can they install specific frameworks to make it successful nor can they apply step-by-step analytical reasoning or planning or ideological controls to long term development. Agents within the system can only do these things in relation to the short term.
- Long term development is a spontaneous self-organising process from which new strategic directions may emerge. Spontaneous self-organisation is political interaction and learning in groups. Managers have to pursue reasoning by analogy.
- In this way managers create and discover the environments and the long-term futures of the organisations.
The general approach can be visualized using the Stacey agreement vs certainty matrix: