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Notes on Complexity: A Key Idea for Business and Society by Chris Mowles3 min read

Complexity: A Key Idea for Business and Society

Chris Mowles book is a Professor of Complexity and Management at Hertfordshire Business School, and this book is somewhat academic. However, Mowles has spent time in the public sector, and that experience helps him bridge the academic to share the practical implications of his work. One of the large themes of the book is that there has been a great deal of convergence around management thinking, and the complexity sciences challenge those assumptions. Here are some of my key takeaways:

  1. “Managers are in charge but not necessarily in control.” Complex systems are always in motion, and there is no equilibrium status. This is something we all notice when we assume that, at some point, things will calm down and be normal. It won’t there is no normal. The flux is as close to normal as it gets. Not everything will work every time. Failure is normal and expected. The benefit of this is that even a small amount of diversity can lead to large amounts of novelty. However, “the potential we have to make a difference to the order of things will depend on context, history, and the interweaving of intentions.”
  2. “We are interdependent and need one another, and so we are inevitably caught up in negotiating our conflicting needs according to who needs whom more, and to negotiate inclusion in a group.” We are “caught up with others in a particular place at a particular time trying to make sense of how we go on together.” This includes politics and power dynamics. However, “speaking out, making ourselves visible to one another, is how we recognize each other as unique individuals engaged in a collective undertaking and gives us the possibility of starting something new.”
  3. The individual is not separate from the group. The group defines the individual as much as individuals define the group. “We are interdependent and need one another, and so we are inevitably caught up in negotiating our conflicting needs according to who needs whom more, and to negotiate inclusion in a group…We are interdependent with others, and it is our place in the network of relationships that makes us who we are. This is not to deny individuality but to explain how it is that individuality arises.”
  4. Communication is complex. “We may be…clear about the meaning we want to convey, but we won’t be sure about what has been communicated until we experience the response.” We often fall into the trap of thinking that communicating is the same as telling. It isn’t. For something to be communicated, both sides need to share an understanding. Communication happens a lot less often than we think. And yet, the organization is created in “micro-interactions where people are fiercely committed to work out how to go on together from within the context they find themselves.”
  5. “What is important…is not to claim objectively but to try and make as many of one’s value positions and assumptions clear.” In working in a complex environment, very rarely is clearly and explicitly right. Every strategy is a judgment call based on values and assumptions. The best we can often do is to make those values and assumptions clear, available for discussion, and either prove or falsify.
  6. “If what happens in organizations, happens as a result of what everyone is doing, then having enhanced skills in noticing and making sense of what everyone is doing may make one a more skillful manager…It might be more helpful to think of leadership as an improvisational activity which takes place in groups involving the negotiation of power and identity through processes of mutual recognition.” Rather than seeing our role as to control but to see and help others see, what is going on to others is a helpful way of thinking about what it means to lead in complexity.
  7. “Taking complexity seriously is an invitation to pay attention differently.” “Uncontrollability is the price we pay for novelty and freedom.”

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