Complexity Works! with HR Strategy

A recent HBR post on LinkedIn Millennials Are Pushing Organizations To Fully Reinvent How They Lead And Manage, by Mark C. Crowley led to an exchange (between us and Crowley) on the need to push organizations to rethink how they support their people. Crowley’s article outlines “a comprehensive redefinition of what all 21st Century workers seek from work today. Millennials are simply the first generation to insist upon them.”

We think HR Strategy is a place where that thought leadership should begin.

What organization doesn’t claim that, “People are our most important asset” (PaoMIA)?   Why wouldn’t they? However, our consulting experience suggests that the truth of this statement is often not supported by the organization’s policies, procedures and behaviors. Is yours?

We think that the following two questions are appropriately applied to any core organizational claim, but for now let’s consider PaoMIA:

  • What does this really mean?
  • How do we actually make this happen if it isn’t, or sustain it if it is?

 What does this really mean? In the context of the Complexity Space™ Framework (CSF), we feel it means exhibiting patterns of thought (often codifed as values, policies, and procedures) and behavior that are embedded in the system-wide patterns (Ecosystems) of the organization.

We define Patterns as “combinations of qualities, acts, tendencies, etc., that form a consistent or characteristic arrangement and persist over space and time.”  While we (still) can’t predict future weather with certainty, we can be confident that the set of weather characteristics during the summer will be different than the characteristics in the winter.

An organization’s Ecosystem Dimensions focus on a particular set of organizational patterns that are present in all parts of an organization.

They encompass an organization’s history, context, culture, and motivation and display the following properties:

  • Always present
  • Operate at multiple layers simultaneously
  • Not immediately visible
  • Not predictably influenced
  • Inputs/outputs not proportional
  • Exist in the context of a particular place and point in time
  • Influence, and are influenced by external systems

Therefore, if people (really) are an organization’s most important asset, the company would implement:

  1. A series of behaviors (not just a slogan on a wall) that are
  2. Consistent over time (not just on “Employee Appreciation Day”),
  3. Open to continuous feedback, and
  4. Aligned with its mission, vision, and values.
  5. Individually and collectively, these behaviors would be flexible and adaptive – changing and evolving as the organization’s internal and external context evolves.

How do we actually make this happen if it isn’t, or sustain it if it is?

Catalysts are a proactive element of the Complexity Space™ Framework. It is the function of Catalysts to be the primary change stimulant for direct and intentional action. Catalysts’ unique attributes contribute to their effectiveness:

  • Function across all elements of the CSF
  • Operate at multiple layers simultaneously
  • Offer alternatives for creating intentional shifts in patterns
  • Can be modified directly, quickly and repeatedly
  • Easily measured
  • Generate shorter feedback cycles

As we were developing the CSF, we described Catalysts as “levers” that people interested in influencing complex systems could push, pull and pivot to perturb the system’s current patterns. Although “levers” is a familiar mechanical term, we believe that the concept of a chess piece, specifically the queen, more accurately represents the act of making moves that create intentional shifts in patterns. The Queen, the icon we selected, is arguably the most powerful piece because it has the largest number of possible moves available to it.

There are seven Catalysts for Pattern-Based Change:

  1. Connections: In a “PaoMIA” organization, people would be encouraged to create formal and informal networks – both inside and outside the organization. This is where synergy is created.
  2. Leadership: Leaders who live PaoMIA would lead situationally, based on the specific needs and desires of each person they support. They would likely practice the “Platinum Rule,” leading others as they would prefer to be led.
  3. Stories: In both formal and informal channels, accomplishments of the organization’s employees would be highlighted. The stories would not stop at results, though. Stories of employees helping other employees; of being coached and coaching others; of learning new skills in new ways; of experiments that worked and those that didn’t (see #4 below) – all serve to reinforce the pattern of employees as valued and valuable resources of the organization.
  4. Risk Taking: For an organization that truly values its employees, they would provide opportunities for engagement and growth. This sometimes means pushing or pulling them “out of their comfort zone” to rotate positions, collaborate in new ways, or experiment in other ways to take full advantage of each person’s strengths and passions.The scary part of risk taking – not every risk will be successful! (If 100% of the risks are successful, they may not be risks at all.) How the organization responds to intelligent risks that fail is a critical indicator of whether PaoMIA is real or just a slogan.
  5. Organizational Structures: Overlapping with the ideas in #1 above, a PoaMIA organization creates both formal and informal organizational structures that enable and invite collaboration. Permanent and short-term teaming is prevalent. Organizational structures are designed to minimize hierarchy and barriers to the free flow of communication and information.
  6. Systems: HRIS (HR information systems) would be evaluated to be sure that desired employee patterns of thought and behavior are easily captured, synthesized, and communicated throughout the organization. Knowledge management and best practices sharing systems would be created, publicized, and their use recognized and rewarded.
  7. Processes: “You get what you reward.” The words and behaviors of a PaoMIA organizations would be supported by its parallel compensation, performance management, development and succession processes.

A reminder: There are no “guaranteed” solutions when trying to achieve change in complex systems like organizations. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try! The act of intentionally trying to influence patterns will create new possibilities for thought and action. Do your valued employees deserve any less?

This post is one of several we’ll be creating in the first quarter of 2017 about the applications of the CSF within an organization’s Human Resources and Professional Development strategies. We hope you will share your stories, questions and even disagreements with our articles because that is the only way we can continue to make sure Complexity Works!

Changing Patterns in 2017

How can anyone not be struck by the unique challenges and opportunities that have been ushered in with the new year?  Those challenges include aligning the needs of employees, the environment, shareholders and customers;  establishing a new level of security across our physical and digital spaces; addressing challenges from inside as well as outside of an organization that we cannot control; and influencing shifting tensions in a healthy and healing way.

The opportunities are equally significant across the systems, people, processes and technology found in every organization.

At Complexity Space Consulting, we view both the challenges and opportunities through two unique and integrated lenses — the Complexity Space Framework (CSF).

The CSF provides a dynamic blend of traditional change management and new, non-linear concepts and tools. The Complexity Space Framework is designed to shift underlying patterns of thought and behavior to provide organizations struggling with multi-faced, “wicked” problems with new possibilities for action.

We have seen how the CSF acts as a powerful lens through which any organization gains new language, distinctions, and tools for uniting strategy, operations, innovations and the people who make it all possible.

During the first several months of 2017, we will be writing about applications of the CSF within an organization’s Human Resources and  Professional Development strategies. We hope you will share your stories, questions and even disagreements with our articles because that is the only way we will continue to make sure Complexity Works! is keeping the conversations open and relevant.

Declare Your Stance

The final week of the year often produces a hyper-awareness of time and transition — when the past and the future converge in the moment of one year ending and the next beginning. Denise calls this a magical moment offering wisdom and hope, strength and courage. This is the moment you can declare your current “stance.”

Stance embraces the potential for integrating a full range of experiences and ideas when developing a new and robust perspective.

From the dictionary definition:

1. The attitude or position of a standing person or animal, especially the position assumed by an athlete preparatory to action.
2. Mental posture; point of view.

In Complexity Works! the Navigation Process serves as a guide for both understanding past patterns of actions and engaging with current and new patterns for change.  Each phase of the Navigation Process is  highlighted by questions — recognizing the emerging nature of the process that drives assessment, prioritization, action and learning.

We encourage clients to use the Navigation Process to help frame a team’s stance before ending one project and embarking on a new project.  Like the ending of one year and the beginning of the next, this critical process of reflection  offers collective insight into the influence(s) of past and future actions on the organization.

So we offer the following suggestion — use the Navigation Process as your team’s year end  review.

  1. Have each member of the team answer the questions for themselves individually.
  2. Discuss the questions as a group from the overall team’s perspective.
  3. Keep track of the overall outcomes of the discussion.
  4. Repeat during the first two weeks of the year.


We contend that the practice of reflection and action is the real power of developing a stance.  At Complexity Space Consulting we wish all the insight, innovation and change needed to make a positive difference in your organization.

Is Santa Real in Your Organization?

During this holiday season, the usual holiday TV shows, movies, and conversations abound. An interesting one surfaced yesterday. “What do I tell my young daughter about Santa Claus? I’d like her to experience the joy that comes from believing, but I know she’ll hear from at least one of her friends that Santa isn’t real. And what do I say if she asks how there can be so many Santa’s available at the same time? Shouldn’t Santa still be at the North Pole?”

Tough one. Should we be positive or negative? Whimsical or realistic? Literal or figurative? How is a parent to choose?

Organizations face the same struggles in the stories they tell – to themselves, their customers, their stockholders, and the increasingly connected world. Is it more fair/ethical/ helpful to tell the cold, hard, unvarnished “truth” of quality problems, declining morale, and poor prospects? Or do we exclusively focus on the optimistic story– new products in the pipeline, aggressive business development efforts, successes of high performing teams and continuous improvement training initiatives? Perhaps a mix would be best – but how much of each?

Stories are one of seven Catalysts in the Complexity Space™ Framework (CSF). In the CSF, Catalysts are the short-term, intentional actions we can take to influence organizational patterns of thought and behavior. Think of them as chess pieces we can move. We move them intentionally, with a strategy in mind, recognizing there are no guarantees we will accomplish our desired outcome.

Which stories does your organization tell? How many? Who tells them? How consistent are they? How frequently are they told? Who listens to them? What might happen if you change the answer to one or more of those questions? Becoming conscious of your current responses invites both an invitation to engage in a conversation and to try an experiment. When conducting an experiment or moving a chess piece, the goal is to consider your strategy carefully before actually making the move. What might be the impact – intended and unintended — on other elements of the CSF?

To end this post where it began, “What do I tell my young daughter about Santa Claus?”

(With credit to the TV show Family Feud …)

Audience answer #3: “Yes, darling, Santa is real. He is at the North Pole now. These others are Santa’s helpers, collecting lists and spreading joy.”

Audience answer #2: “Santa is a symbol that represents happiness, joy, and giving. All these Santa’s you see are here to remind us of those things.”

Audience answer #1 (drum roll, please …): “Ask your other parent.”

How Does Your Organization Engage With Risk?

We have been researching how and why an organization integrates behaviors and actions that introduce “Risk” to an organization. We feel this is critical because it has significant impact on growth and profitability.

Two LinkedIn posts offer very different perspectives. The first post is by Sir Martin Sorrell, Founder and CEO of WPP and is titled, Want Success? Think Long-Term and Take Risks. Sorrell suggests that long term thinking and smart risk taking in many large corporations has lost out to an emphasis on retaining earnings and a “bunker mentality” emphasizing maintaining the status quo and avoiding risky ventures.

The second post is by Rob Alston, CEO of Access, and is titled, Company Culture Improvements in 4 Not-Exactly-Easy Steps. His post described how Access intentionally opened their “Pandora’s Box” by conducting a company-wide survey on benefits and how that led to significant and beneficial changes for everyone.

In both cases responding to a disruption resulted in the ensuing behaviors and outcomes. In Sir Martin Sorrell’s post, the post-Lehman meltdown, the geopolitical turmoil created by Brexit, and increased global instability made C-suite decisions less about taking smart risks and seizing the future and more about surviving persistent uncertainty.
Access, on the other hand, sought feedback from the employee survey as an opportunity to proactively confront the issues that could hold the company back from leveraging the commitment of everyone as new opportunities emerged.

4-stepsAccess modeled a willingness to take a risk across the entire company as demonstrated in their four “steps” to improving corporate culture (shown in the graphic). Each step is a clear commitment to total engagement with each and every employee – from asking tough questions to receiving tough feedback through the resulting actions taken to make a change (or shift a pattern).


These different perspectives illustrate several different aspects of the Complexity Space™ Framework. The CSF focuses attention on the patterns of thought and action in organizations. It recognizes that in complex systems, how risk is managed has implications for both the short and long term health of the organization.

To the extent the “Four Questions” are actually implemented, our belief is that Access was trying to reinforce a core dimension in their “organizational ecosystem” — a clear commitment to total engagement with each and every employee. It seems to be working — the results for Access have been significant, an average growth rate of 44% per year over the past seven years.

In the Complexity Space Framework, our definition of Motivation is: What was the “attractor” that brought the organization into existence? What is the “glue” that holds it together today? Sir Sorrell’s post suggests that the motivation of maintaining the status quo results in an aversion to making the type of investments in innovations and change that prepare the organization for the future.

Mr. Alston highlights a different motivation, one built around the sticky note posted on the bulletin board in the graphic above: “Reject complacency and commit to continuous improvements!”

What motivates your organization to take a risk?