Nonprofit Quarterly has a thoughtful overview of complexity and sensemaking as they relate to organizations, the first of a four-part series on the subject. The general idea is that purpose-driven collectives, such as civil-sector organizations like nonprofits, need to respond to an increasingly complex world by becoming increasingly complex themselves — in how they see, interpret, discuss, and act in the world.
If you’ve been to any leadership development or organizational change workshop lately, you’ve heard about complexity quite a bit. You’ve heard that institutional structures as we know them were useful in a previous world, but that now they are disconnected, overly rigid, and radically unprepared. Says the article:
These times require liminal being, a separation from status, a reconnection to others, an openness to the process of letting go, not knowing, and sensing the new, emerging structures. Just like the structures of the industrial era—hierarchy and centralization, clear cause and effect relationships, and efficiency—were relevant to that era, different ones are needed now.
Further, if you’ve ever met me or endured one of my classes, you’ll know that I’m all about complexity. I believe deeply in George Thorn and Nello McDaniel’s framing that “the first responsibility of professional leadership is to define and describe reality” (Arts Planning: A Dynamic Balance, 1997). And I believe that reality is complex.
But I’ve slowly (slowly) started to realize that I, and many in my crowd, love complexity just a bit too much. We’re drawn to complex framings of any issue. And we tend to retrofit even basic management problems into dilemmas and polarities. (My students and colleagues may have mentioned this to me once or twice.) In short, we’re demonstrating “an excessive and irrational devotion or commitment to a particular thing,” in this case complexity, which suggests we may well have a Complexity Fetish.
As it turns out, I’m not alone in this condition. Susanne Cook-Greuter has studied and written a lot about adult human development. But she’s among a tiny few who explore the downside/darkside of the complex developmental stages (which she calls “Construct-aware”). Says she:
…Construct-aware people who are in love with complexity are unable to be ordinary and simple no matter what the context. “Being complex” has become part of their self-identification. Both Autonomous and Construct-aware individuals can become so enamored with systems thinking and complexity, they tend to show their preference by always wanting to elevate others, to transform them to become more complex and developed as well. (from Integral Theory in Action, 2010)
Or, as Stephen Sondheim puts it: “What’s hard is simple. What’s natural come hard.” (Anyone Can Whistle, 1964)
The trouble with the Complexity Fetish isn’t that the world isn’t complex. Of course it is. The trouble is that its proponents (me included) assume that every individual and every collective action has to embrace complexity in every circumstance. We are called and committed “to transform [everyone] to become more complex and developed as well” (whether they want to or need to or not).
A more capacious view of the world would find a jumble of environments at various scales — some deeply and unavoidably complex, but others simple/obvious, complicated, or chaotic (as Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework suggests). In those many, concurrent worlds, many forms and frames of individual and collective thought bring impact and value — whether they engage the world through an obvious lens (feed the hungry), or a complex lens (eradicate hunger).
So, to say it simply (I’m trying): Yes to complexity and sensemaking in how we think and work together — especially when an individual or group is stuck or striving with the usual tools. But also yes to any and all forms of thought and action that ease suffering and amplify joy.
As the Nonprofit Quarterly article suggests, it may well be the purpose of the entire civil sector “to pay attention to the complexity of the social body and lead social change that keeps the polity relevant.” But it’s not the purpose or destiny of every individual or organization to embrace complexity. There’s plenty of positive difference to be made across the infinite worldviews we bring to the work.