September 23, 2014

Telling Tales About Complexity Part 4 – Will Pop Go the Weasel?

Written by Keith JohnstonKeith Johnston

As I have written in previous blogs about my journey around and around the complexity mulberry bush, I have been on a journey where complexity was a thing I could most easily teach as something that happened outside of myself. The richest accounts were often those where investigations were conducted into why a particular tragedy had occurred and unearthed how multiple intersecting events and omissions added up to a major failure.

While these accounts are vivid, I have also found they are distancing from people. They are big and scary, heavy with the tragic consequences, and also feel distant from the lives of the participants. Could this possibly happen to me? Could so many things go wrong at the same time? It is a thing that many of us find hard to imagine.

Instead, what about exploring the complexity closer to home? Could we see the complexity in our personal lives, among our family dynamics, with our closest colleagues at work?

Is it possible for us to see the emergent properties of a system when we are in the midst of it? Might we be too subject to the story to be able to see the dynamics of the system, the way patterns emerge, and how the system self-organises to return to a familiar start, or when it tips into a new basin of attraction?

Recently I watched my friend and colleague Geoff Mortimore very successfully introduce to a room full of accountants, analysts, and auditors, ideas from family systems therapy and have the participants explore how conversations between two people can become stuck and how the factors leading to this stickiness can deepen the basins of attraction and increase the distance between people and the stuckness of the system.   There are ways this connected with the more abstract models of Peter Coleman (The Five Percent) but Geoff, in his gentle way, was able to lead people to reflect on the day-to-day details of their conversations and how these dynamics deepened basins of attraction and could hold people apart.

I have tried something similar using trust as the model and having leaders think about how they are trusted and how they trust others. Trust is not a thing; it is a property that emerges from the system.

I have begun with David Maister’s trust equation: Trustworthiness equals Credibility plus Reliability plus Intimacy divided by Self Orientation.   This gives people a framing they can use to think about particular examples. Did trust break down because there was a lack of reliability (often the factor where people have trouble with me!) or was it a lack of intimacy or did the person seem self-oriented rather than oriented toward me or a wider group or purpose? Or is it some combination of these factors? One of the values of the framing is that it helps people to see how the different factors can interact as a system to build up or erode trust.

In workshops we have been having people think of important relationships: what factors combined to create trust; what factors, or the absence of what factors, were operating if trust had corroded? Leaders have found this last question a hard one to face especially if they have been the agents of trust diminishing. It seems easier to talk about the dynamics of reduced trust when we think of ourselves more as victim than perpetrator. There are many challenges in this for people. For all that it seems a powerful way for them to see the ways factors combine in feedback loops to enable a quality to emerge or to be lost.

A similar line of inquiry can be followed with the Immunity to Change (or four column) exercise of Kegan and Lahey. It makes object the balancing feedback loops that exist between the competing commitments that operate within each of us. We can see these feedbacks within us. We can also step back and look at the ways we have constructed our lives to support and retain these competing commitments. We often unconsciously or subconsciously construct basins of attraction within which we self-organise to resist changing.

If we can see these basins and the ways they hold us, we can also ask: What little things might we enable to blossom at the edges of our system and grow to overrun it, in joyous and fulfilling ways?

Around and around the mulberry bush basin of attraction we go with our monkeys chasing our weasels. But sometimes, seemingly from out of nowhere, a new attractor emerges and ‘pop goes the weasel!’

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