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    1999 Foresight Gathering Leaping the Abyss - Contents

Foresight "Group Genius" Weekend

Leaping the Abyss:

Putting Group Genius to Work

Chapter Eight

Leveraging Complexity


Back at the Wharton event, it's late afternoon on Wednesday, the first of the three days. It's been a very full day, but there's one more exercise before breaking for the night: Metaphors. This will also be the last exercise before turning attention and energy to the organizational problem that has brought everyone here-so it had better be good.

What's the purpose of this episode in the adventure ride of the DesignShop process? The Metaphor exercise has been designed to load participants' heads with new concepts of complex systems, use the night's sleep to assist integration of the knowledge, come back in the morning, and begin using the difference in people's problem-solving abilities. At that point, everyone needs to be operating at the very highest level of performance that can be reached, both individually and as a team.

The problems that have brought everyone here involve their organizations-each a system embedded in a larger external system. Therefore, each problem is a systems problem. Almost by definition, it is a complex systems problem. If it weren't complex, so many people and so much time would not be needed to deal with it.

Complex systems problems are among the hardest things that people ever think about. Just holding such a problem in its entirety in your head is difficult. Add to this the challenges of seeing how all the parts fit together and affect each other as well as how to make a change in one part that will accomplish the goal without bringing down the whole system.

Ironically, as hunters and gatherers, we evolved by living within complex systems. Our brains can, with effort, address this task.

However, we have also acquired a strong tradition of linear thinking which, for all its benefits, now stands in our way. Artistotle, Descartes, many of the people providing the basis of our historical way of working, liked to take things apart and understand the pieces in detail. The Industrial Revolution, the rise of engineering practices, and the Saint Simon Engineering School of France showed the tremendous power of linearity applied to the final stages of the creative cycle: building in a controlled and linear fashion. The assembly line is the golden grandchild.

Out of the success of building roads and bridges, many disciplines, such as philosophy, economics, and political theory, became carried away with over-inflated notions of what linear processes could and should be used for. Many of the disasters of 20th century politics and history, such as the rise of Communism-which had its roots in the Saint Simon school-stem directly from this error.

American management owes its foundation to two champions of linearity, a husband and wife team: (yes, it's ironic) the Taylors. This first Taylor revolution produced "scientific management," which completely swept the country at the turn of the 20th century and produced the first generations of young managers and technocrats. The approach dominated industry, the military, government-the works. Most famous for its time-and-motion studies, there was nothing that couldn't be Taylorized, and so everything was. You could even Taylorize your home-and people did. Today, when a real estate salesman or an architect points out how wonderfully few steps there are between stove and sink and fridge, you are living the kitchen legacy of the first generation of Taylorizing.

But how about linearity for designing and tweaking complex systems comprised of employees, customers, suppliers, regulators, and the physical systems that support all the related activity? Nope. Wrong tool. It is insisting on using a hammer-a fine and noble tool for driving nails and prying them out again-for absolutely everything else.

Even in the best of circumstances, with smart people and lots of computers and tons of training and mental conditioning, linearity is not going to solve your problem. (See the collapse of communism in the late 20th century for a long-term experiment.) Linearity, from which we have all reaped benefits, will only take you so far before the complexity of reality stops you cold.

The most intelligent thing to do is to optimize the circumstances to provide every possible advantage. This means allowing our brains-evolved for dealing with complex patterns-to do what they do best and work with complex systems metaphorically.

Matt explains that the purpose of this next exercise is to provide "strategies that add value for us as we think about complexity." Throughout the day everyone has been learning. This involves looking at analogies, making new connections, picking up new factual information we didn't have before, as well as continuing the ongoing task of getting to know each participant's skills, strengths, and weaknesses. For the next couple of hours, it is time to do some high-level, abstract learning of new systems models in the Metaphor exercise.

For this exercise, the facilitation team has selected eight complex systems to serve as metaphors for human organizations, one to be studied by each of eight participant teams: the ant colony, the river, the rainforest, the ship, the beehive, the ocean, the human body, and the garden. While these systems are different in important ways-there is a mix of planned vs. unplanned, natural vs. manmade, single entity vs. community vs. entire ecosystem-they are all complex systems with enough depth to lead to insights about human organizations.

New teams are formed and each group receives one of the complex systems as its object of investigation. This marks the fourth new group formation today. By the end of this exercise, each participant will have had the experience of meeting and working intimately with almost half of the other participants.

Groups are asked to look at (1) the organizational requirements for success in this metaphorical environment, and (2) what would a 21st century organization based on this metaphor look like, in terms of strategy and specifications. Each team needs to do quick learning to extract the high level concepts and defining details about, for example, ant colony organization, and then use that knowledge in thinking about the future of organizations.

When each group goes to its own break-out space, they find that the facilitators have already stocked each space with a rich collection of the best books and other resources on the appropriate topic. In addition, the facilitators are available to assist the group's library research or in surfing the Internet, especially the World Wide Web.

Work continues on into the evening. Hunger is not a problem as dinner is served and people return from the buffet to their work areas, everything continuing in a seamless fashion. Empty plates disappear as if by magic, unnoticed, as the teams concentrate on the task at hand.

As usual with the DesignShop activities, you need not like it for it to fulfill its purpose, but this particular part is enjoyed by almost everyone. Some people can get downright crabby, especially first-time participants. Explains one veteran of many facilitation teams: "The first-time participants have found the thinking to be very hard work, they're exhausted, and by five or six o'clock when you come around with one more thing to do, they can get downright hostile."

However, the experienced DesignShop participants are loving it. Gail Taylor points out that the reason participants love this accelerated learning task is that they so rarely get to immerse themselves in a rich new topic, discover fascinating and sometimes bizarre new information, and share it immediately with interested others.

This joyful exploration is playful yet intense. One woman smiles and says, "I'm starting to float." This state has been termed "flow"-it happens when people become so engrossed with an activity, moving smoothly and almost effortlessly from task to task, that they lose track of time.

The rainforest group gets blocked about 20 minutes into the session. The reason for their misfortune is instructive: one member already knows quite a bit about the rainforest, so initially they're relying on that resource instead of doing their own research, their own learning, and firing up their brains in the process.

This problem is spotted by one of the support staff and a facilitator steps in to redirect the team. Participant Dorothy Zeviar from AEDC explains:

What impressed me in working with my team is that when we had spent about 20 minutes, Matt came around and challenged us to "push the limits of the box" in applying the metaphor to our organization. We stayed until 8:30 PM going over the details, until we reached a deeper level of insight and understanding.

The ant colony team is also doing something odd: instead of working on .i.ts;ants, they're talking about themselves, getting to know each other better. The staff notices this too, but in this case, the facilitators don't intervene-it's a good development. In fact, the team decides on their own to come in an hour early the next morning, at 7 AM, to work on the main task.

Meanwhile, the team thinking about ships was having a difficult time getting started. Participant Elsa Porter describes the process:

Our instructions were to use the ship as a metaphor of the 21st century and explore how the ship can be the metaphor for organizations of the 21st century. We took it seriously and tried to think of how ships run and work. We were putting up ideas and struggling. Then John Poparad looked at me-he had been silent throughout this first part. He was sitting there letting us do all the work. That was my first impression. Then it became clear that he had an idea. He said, "I think it's the wrong question. The real question is how can a ship survive in the 21st century?" Then you have to think about the environment. From then on, it was just wonderful. It was a very different assignment: principles of how to survive in the future.

What the group was doing was struggling with the problem, making it their own. From outside the group, this reformulation may not seem like a major change, but it served to galvanize this group's work. The group extracted a tremendous amount of learning from their session. Although, as we found out later, it was not at all the interpretation that the designers of this exercise intended. Value was created through merging the designer's direction and the participants' interest.

At 8 PM it's time to break for the night, but despite the long day, some groups and individuals are in the flow of their work and choose to keep going...and do. This break has been deliberately timed so that participants have twelve hours off and a night's sleep to integrate their new knowledge before making their teams' reports to the larger group.

Long after the participants reluctantly left for bed, the staff is still going full tilt, capturing the work of each team from the breakout room walls, getting this latest round of discussions into the computer, and printing it out for the team break-out books which will be awaiting the participants when they reassemble at 8 AM the next morning.


The Second Day Begins

By 7 AM-an hour before things are supposed to start-participants start showing up. The support team, of course, is already there working on today's events. Some participants are there to peruse library shelves or other information that intrigued them yesterday. Other participants grab some breakfast and then head off to their work group. The ant colony group, says Colonel Bill as he heads off to join them, is fulfilling its 7 AM meeting time to complete the assignment postponed from yesterday.

By 8 AM all participants and staff have finished breakfast and are gathered as a large group for the Metaphor team reports. Matt greets everyone with an overview of the structure for the day, and a comment from yesterday:

The best remark yesterday was when someone came up here around ten or eleven and he said he was more confused than he had been before. That is the true test of scanning. If you do not go out far enough in the design process to get upset, confused, and lost, you have not gone into new territory.

The theme of today is "forming the problem." The question is to form the right problem. If you form the wrong problem, then you solve the wrong problem. In our society we are good at solving the problem. We solve problems which are really conditions, and we get a result we did not want.

First, we are going to put together the processes, tools, and environments for the future we want. We are not going to put ourselves in a system we do not want. We are going to report-out the metaphors. We'll look at the strategies nature produces, and the kinds of specifications that add value as we think about complexity. There is nothing wrong with the organizations we have today except they cannot handle the environments-internal or external. We will harvest what you did yesterday and then go into organization teams.

The ants are up first, and their report contains an astounding quality and quantity of work, replete with provocative insights. They have clearly done both real research on biology and real thinking about business. There is much more content than one would have expected. Even more amazing is that they've done the work-the ant-specific work, that is-in just one hour this morning.

Their comparison of an ant colony with a 21st century organization covered an amazing number of similarities and contrasts, including:

Variation in sources of supply, adaptability, resistance to attack, robustness, division of labor, sacrificial activity (benefitting the group at the expense of the individual), balance, variety of internal communication methods, leadership and its succession, dedication level of team members, organizational size issues, life cycle issues, the problem of inbreeding, managing the social environment, learning strategies, teamwork, need for face-to-face contact compared to virtual contact.

Next, the ant colony group drew lessons for the 21st century organization based on these insights about similarities between human organizations and a complex, evolved system which has been successful for millions of years.

Robert Taylor, best known as the author of How to Select and Use An Executive Search Firm and with decades of experience as a senior executive for companies such as Mobil Oil and ITT in Europe, South America and the U.S. as well as the founding of a global executive search firm that became a worldwide success, looked back at the work done by his fellow ant colony team members with pleasant surprise:

I would have expected that especially the hard-noses would, at least initially, have ridiculed the idea of spending serious, valuable time learning and thinking about ants. However, the prior five modules in this Scan phase of the DesignShop process had initiated a shift of minds that were already open to quite different ways of thinking. This enabled the group to achieve the purpose of the exercise-expanding thinking and stimulating creativity.

It was a virtuoso performance, presenting business-relevant insights of the highest quality, the kind of insights one expects to pay a high-priced consultant to get. Watching this process, the first thought that occurs is-"These were bright people before, but now they're top-notch. How did they get so much smarter overnight?" The answer is that they didn't; these are the same people, it's just that they have absorbed a great deal of useful information, and have run though a process that boosts them into a higher state of performance. There has been no real change in IQ, presumably-though it would be fascinating to test this-it is their effective IQ and an ability to apply what they know that has increased, at least short term.

The same observation of enhanced performance also held true for all the other groups. Not only their minds seem different. Physically, they have all dropped years. This can be seen in their postures, the way they are sitting or standing, the way they are talking and listening so intensely. The environment is being modified, furniture being moved around, lots of laughter is heard. There's more energy: some people choose to stand instead of needing to rest in a chair. They are paying rapt attention to the insights presented by the other groups. Someone starts to unconsciously play with a toy while intently listening about how a ship and a company each use and misuse a network of sensors to sense, measure, and process responses to its ever-changing environment. The ant colony group had mentioned the parallels between ants' succession plans and those for leaders in the 21st century organization; now the beehive group touches on how radically different bee succession planning is as well as their organizational vision and style. The metaphors, the analogies, the connections, parallels, contrasts, and implications are being drawn thickly, richly-productively.


Metaphoric Richness

What is telling about the richness of these metaphors, though, is how a very small change can make a huge difference. Change the participants working with a metaphor and different results emerge. Change the question you put regarding a metaphor and different results emerge. Change your understanding of what you mean by a "ship" and different results emerge.

The group working on the ship metaphor had made an unintentional change in how they worked their exercise. The design and writing team that had formulated this exercise had intended that "ship" refer to a masted sailing ship, a wind-driven ship. Maybe because of the presence of military folks in the group working the problem, the participants had thought of "ship" as one of the Navy's floating cities, bristling with radar and satellite dishes, tied in to weather satellites and international communication systems. What they extracted from this model was very useful...and very different from what they would have extracted from the metaphor of a sailing ship.

What richness had the DesignShop team intended to have the group draw from the sailing ship metaphor?

In a sailing ship that is tacking, the wind is pulling the sails, not pushing them the way most people think. Minor corrections at the beginning of a sea journey made such a big difference at the end: a trim tab, just a small part of the rudder, controls the direction of the entire ship. You tack to make progress, you don't always sail directly toward your goal.

Now, how is your business like a sailing ship?


How It Works: Increase Complexity

Since the DesignShop session began, the activities assigned to the participants have asked them to handle more and more complexity. This is in preparation for the next stage, in which-for the first time-participants will split into groups based on their organizational affiliation and grapple with the specific business challenges facing that organization.

Usually when an organization faces a difficult decision or needs to make an important plan, a decision-maker drives a push for simplicity, wanting to identify the dominating factor or short list of main factors to consider. There is a lot of truth to the cliché of the manager who refuses to look at a proposal until it's boiled down to one piece of paper: "If you can't do that, you haven't thought it through." Requiring one person to do this eliminates the group input that would make it a much better proposal.

Bringing in more people takes time, because it adds complexity, as does bringing in more information. But the answer isn't to artificially screen out the real complexity of the situation. Instead, accept it and use it. Matt Taylor explains:

The general principle is if you have trouble solving a problem, take it up an order of magnitude in complexity. Instead, people try to take it down to something simpler and somehow are supposed to aggregate that up. Wrong. If you are having trouble solving a design problem, it means that you do not have enough variety in the problem the way you posed it. It means that there is no material in the problem from which to get an answer. Instead, you add more to the problem, bring more content into the problem. You bring more content in and have complexity. Complexity leads to spontaneous order. It gives you more substance to deal with.

This increase in complexity requires that those participating all agree to reach for divergence, to tolerate ambiguity, in the ultimate quest to reach a goal. Matt gives an example from architecture:

A master designer will pursue an idea in the first parts of a design without consideration of whether he knows how to do every part. He would say, for example, "The solution would be to cantilever this building 50 feet out over to the right." I might object: "No one has done that before." He replies, "That is irrelevant, and I will solve it tomorrow. If I can cantilever this out, that enables me to have all of this freedom up here. Then I have this roofing problem, and I have to deal with this roof. Gee, what if I come down here with this and suspend the roof. That is interesting. What if I suspend the floor? Then I have the solution to the first problem that I ignored. But I did not solve the problem that I ignored early on, instead I solved another problem."

Recall the earlier example of this kind of thinking back at AEDC when Matt kept saying, "What if it weren't illegal? What if it weren't the law?" This formed a perfect example of ignoring a problem and thereby giving yourself room to come up with a brilliant solution.

It highlights another aspect of the analogy we made back in the beginning to Gulliver tied down by a multitude of little threads. Each condition is a thread that limits your freedom of motion. If you are designing while tied down by one thread, you've still got a lot of flexibility. But imagine you are trying to move when you're tied by two ropesor threeor four. It's not long before you're virtually immobilized. Getting rid of the constraints and increasing the complexity of possibilities actually gives you the freedom to go discover the solution that might be hiding behind and beyond the constraint. Matt:

Through Scan, the divergent part of a DesignShop activity, there is actually more control over the process than later on. The reason we exercise control at this time is to drive divergence into greater complexity, because most people would not go for divergence. They try to force a decision too quickly.

Some people come into a DesignShop session saying that their problem is so complex that the only way they can get done is to consider just one or two alternatives. We say no, the problem is so complex that the only way to get it done is to consider hundreds of alternatives.

Part of the strategy is an awareness of when to give in to the problem, when to let it take you where it wants. We start off each DesignShop event with an extremely well-worked design of the event. There is a certain point where that slips, where you let it work on its own dynamic. You have to know where to let that go. We go through all of this DesignShop planning as if we know what the outcome should be. But we don't. So we design it as if we know what the outcome will be, but at some point the actual outcome reveals itself. Then you follow the outcome, not the original plan. It's the same in any design process.

One counterintuitive aspect of the divergence stage is that error is tolerated. Most of us have experienced this in traditional brainstorming sessions, when we're told that the goal is to generate ideas, not critique them. Mindy Bokser, a Director of R&D who has pulled off a string of technical breakthroughs in the field of optical character recognition, comments: "In brainstorming sessions, what appears at first as a bad idea, might in fact be good. It is just not fleshed out in the speaker's mind, or it's not understood by the listener. But later, you find that it has provided the tip of an important thread."

We had seen plenty of errors going up on the walls at this DesignShop session, but no one called a halt to the process to correct them. Over time, the quantity and severity of the errors had just seemed to magically diminish. Matt elaborates:

The work had errors in it, but it was still useful. Most people would say that you have to straighten out all these false assumptions. But designers do not care. They are in the creative process. They observe reality. They build a model. Then they try building the real thing and they test it. Error is filtered out during that process. You do not have to argue about it. Erroneous things do not fly. You learn from them and repeat the process.

Meanwhile, you document errors, improve your understanding of the principles, and add to the knowledge base, which makes future iterations quicker until your solution gets so good it actually works. But being systematically ignorant-pursuing ideas that are prima facie false-is an excellent technique for a designer. Designers manipulate information and ideas-they don't care about accuracy when designing. Is the idea interesting? Does it cause me to do something that I otherwise would not do-and as a result is useful? I am a designer and that is the way I use information when designing. When I report information, I try to be extremely accurate. But I use it, internally, in ways that many may view as criminal activity.

So-- the design process is messy. When you present the final product formally, you don't present the messy process that gave you the result. Instead, you explain it in a clean, formal way that makes sense. This is unfortunate, in a way, because it confuses people about how the creative design process actually works. Then, when they try to do it themselves, they get into trouble. When they get into messes and don't realize that this is a natural stage of the successful process, they get scared or frustrated.


The NASA Example:

Add Complexity to Reach a Solution

NASA Aeronautics headquarters held a DesignShop event when that organization was under intense pressure to downsize, and had been for some time. Morale was down. There was even reason for a certain amount of panic. Their response was to simplify. Matt Taylor sets the stage:

They had to come up with a whole new organizational design for Aeronautics. They wanted to study only one white paper with the goal of implementing this white paper. The white paper was a "roles-and-missions" statement for the existing NASA Aeronautics centers.

We said that the answer did not lie in the white paper. We talked to the sponsors about this for two-and-a-half days, and they finally agreed to widen the possibilities being considered. What emerged was an entirely new model.

What they came up with in the DesignShop session was-no center, roles driven by projects, a cluster organization, and an aerospace alliance-the opposite of the earlier plan. Before the DesignShop experience, the complexity that had been brought into the design process was not in proportion to the complexity the system actually faces. We were able to fix that. It is so basic. It is very simple.

They solved their problem by moving to a higher level of complexity. You can increase complexity in a number of different ways. You can become more abstract, thinking in conceptual terms. You can dive to depth and become more detailed on some aspect. You can add complexity horizontally, by including more aspects of the environment or more vantage points. Narrowing complexity has the same kind of logic as that of the drunk searching for his car keys under the lamp post "because that's where the light is." You need to broaden the search zone if the answer to a complex problem lies beyond the beam cast by the street lamp. Often, in the process, the original problem dissolves into the larger structure and is "solved" even though it is never specifically addressed.

The lesson is: add complexity, bathe in it, revel in it, and try to hold back the urge to narrow options and reach a decision. This is difficult to do for Type A people, but the exercises at the Wharton event seem to be working at broadening everyone's thinking. In Metaphors, they've been provided with complex paradigms from other aspects and artifacts of life. They've spent some time working to understand what those paradigms are and then carried them over to their present situations. As a result, they ended up transforming their insights into business theory.

The usual attitude in business is "make it simple so I can do something." But for complex problems, this is counterproductive. From the moment this DesignShop session began through now, just before the participants regroup with others from their own organizations, everyone has been immersed in sophisticated, evolutionary systems thinking.

The report-out on the Metaphors exercise has shown a clear and rapid transition from simple, linear thinking to complex, evolutionary systems thinking. You could take the insights from these Metaphor reports, polish them up, and make a book from them. You could then sell yourself as a management consultant on this material alone.

As people assemble to tackle their organizational problems, there are probably a few people who still think that only now are they beginning the "real work." But "real work" is a misleading term-everyone has been working hard since they got here. People are not just warmed-up, they are close to overheating. It's time to aim this mental energy at the key problems that brought each organization here, and start harvesting the value created since yesterday morning.



1. Take a trip to the library and pick up a dozen books on one of these complex living systems with which you are unfamiliar:

The books can range from children's picture books to highly technical scientific textbooks. Get some of both: the pictures will simplify things and the textbooks will challenge your understanding.

2. Immerse yourself in the books and compose several diagrams which illustrate the philosophies, policies, and strategies that the system uses to work as a whole system; to evolve, grow, and maintain itself. Do a thorough job: work until the degree of complexity pushes your ability to handle the ideas and connections. Then sleep on it, or do something else, and come back to it with fresh energy.

3. Now, how do those philosophies, policies, and strategies apply to your company or your department, or your life over the next three or four years?

4. Expect the unexpected.

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Leaping the Abyss - Table of Contents


1999 Foresight Gathering

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