Cooperative Complexity and Planning

Complexity is straining the ability of traditional plans to function as designed. When mass systems change is afoot, the key is not to jettison traditional planning, but collaborate with complexity rather than ignore it.

In an earlier post I made the case that the days of linear planning were over. I stand by that, but need to add a little more context.

By linear planning, I mean a cause-and-effect oriented set of recommended actions that are designed to produce specific outcomes. The success of the plan is largely tied to the fidelity of the implementation.

Complexity-oriented planning is designed around a set of principles or activities that foster ‘system sensing‘, learning, adaptation, and dynamic activity. The plan is much more like a road trip, rather than a monorail journey. It means we set a course, but accept — even embrace — the fact that there will be emergent, unforeseen aspects of the trip that will require we modify direction and then correct toward the goal over time. The goal itself is one based on value(s), less precise outcomes.

We can specify desired aspects of the goal, but the aim is not for precision (achieving a specific target), rather overall accomplishment (reaching the destination). This is about sailing, not hot rod racing. But what if you’re looking to race a hot rod anyway? Surely, despite all the complex situations we face as a society there is still room for traditional planning and change management?

It’s not just complicated; it’s also complex.

Complexity’s Implications for Planning

A typical plan might involve development of SMART goals and a logic model to link the activities to the desired outcomes. What makes this complicated — and often left out of both goal statements and logic models — are the assumptions that are embedded within your plan. In most cases, the assumptions are predictive and predicated on stability of system dynamics. In other words, we might assume that we have the data to confirm how stable things will be. When things like a global pandemic, evacuation order, or heat dome come into play, it can violate this assumption of stability.

But why does this matter to my project aimed at bringing a new product onboard? What does this have to do with providing services for families in my community? How does this affect the education and training we do within our organization?

When the environment changes, it changes you. Complexity may be manifest in increased absenteeism, delays in supply chains, disruption in essential services, fatigue, distraction, and an absence of focus (among many). Each of these might be small, but collectively – over the course of a planning cycle — they could have significant effects on our outcomes. So while we may not have operationally planned for adjustments, the absence of such changes may mean that the goals we set are not achieved. Further, we may actually do harm rather than good.

Instead of firm SMART goals, we might consider the following:

  1. Commit to a process, not a goal
  2. Release the need for immediate results
  3. Build feedback loops
  4. Build better systems, not better goals

There will be fewer places for linear planning models, tightly held. Complexity is also part of the process of change management, too.

Complexity and Change Management

Change management is actually set up to deal with complexity in theory. The practice is a little more tricky. Change management usually involves the following components:

  1. Prepare the organization for change.
  2. Craft a vision and plan for change
  3. Implement the plan
  4. Integrate the changes into the culture
  5. Review progress and analyze results

The devil is in the details here. For example, preparedness in times of disruption, volatility, and uncertainty is different than in stable times. Visions and planning, as we discussed, are different too. Developmental design principles are part of what makes planning and implementation tied together when complexity is present. Likewise, the review and analysis of data is also different and, as I’ve argued, is vital to ensuring operations stay on track.

Complexity does not mean the absence of linear cause-and-effect relationships in a system, it means that those relationships exist within a larger milieu of contextual forces that make the reliability and stability of these relationships and their outcomes harder to trust. It also makes predication far more difficult, if not impractical and (sometimes) dangerous.

Change management in areas of complex conditions requires a rethinking of what it means to undertake the steps outlined above. It means blending in some traditional aspects of planning and change processes with the kind of questioning and flexibility that we see with more complexity-oriented situations. There is no single guide, no one way to do it, but there are many ways to do it poorly.

Cooperation between complexity and linearity is possible. It’s tricky, but it beats the alternatives. Using linear planning for non-linear circumstances reminds me of Russell Ackoff’s wise words:

“All of our social problems arise out of doing the wrong thing righter. The more efficient you are at doing the wrong thing, the wronger you become.

Russell Ackoff

If you want to design for living systems and engage in change management for present day challenges, let’s talk about how I can help.

Image Credit: Mario Gogh on Unsplash and Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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