Presentation to the UK Defence Academy: Creating cultures that cope with complexity

This post is a summary of a talk I did on complexity and culture in the context of government IT at the Design of Information Systems Symposium at the Defence Academy at Shrivenham on 14 Sep 11 (see abstract). It's intended as a reference for those who attended; it does not have the details of some of the examples that I talked about on the day and may well lack context if you weren't there...


The Internet is bringing game-changing complexity to Government IT. Whilst there are significant technical issues to be resolved, the real challenge is in promoting cultures that will allow appropriate responses to emerge and then enable those responses with the right technology.


The challenges of government are not just getting more complicated; they are getting Complex. Which is subtly different. Essentially: in Complicated situations cause and effect can be predicted - in Complex ones it can't. This is all explained very neatly in David Snowden's Cynefin Model and in the ideas behind Wicked problems. Whilst reasoning and design work beautifully for the Complicated: in the Complex they do not. Complexity needs sensing and incrementalism... which seems like winging things. Which is troublesome, because the right way is potentially counter-cultural and, for many, will feel just wrong. And this (I'd say) is the principal reason we have the problems we do in government IT.

When things are Complex... Think Grow not Build.


In the past when things were just plain old Complicated we were able to think our way to a solution, build it, do the 'business change' and Bob was one's uncle. When it's Complex, we have to be more agile: designing and building and changing all at the same time. We must be able to Explore the potential of a new capability whilst we are starting to get benefit from it; and this is inherently risky because it's often not possible to do all of the i-dotting and t-crossing necessary for smooth and efficient routine operation at the same time. It's particularly awkward doing this in organisations that are culturally dead keen on smoothness and efficiency (see my mutterings about the recent Public Accounts Committee report on Government IT). And, whilst Complexity is turning things upside down, the Complicated stuff hasn't gone away either. Everything needs to be jigged together nicely: we need to grow new cultures around old ones and everyone involved must understand why different situations need different approaches. We must match culture to the maturity of developing capabilities and make sure that we do the right things at the right time (which is explained in more detail in the How to think about IT - 4Ex Model). Bottom line: in Complex situations - if we don't make room for this exploratory culture - at best we will under-achieve and at worst we will end up in deep circumstances.

When things are Complex... Explore before you leap.


It is difficult to nurture cultures that cope with complexity inside ones that have have grown up to cope with... well... nearly the opposite. In IT, working in an agile way can bring significant, unexpected change, which can create headaches for security teams, support services, policy people and all sorts of other folks. These problems cannot usually be designed away, so it is crucial to involve those likely to be affected right from the beginning. Not by listing them on a stakeholder management plan, but making them genuinely part of the community creating the new capability; so that they feel purpose. Some may be heavily engaged and some not much at all, but it's important that they all feel involved and valued. It's only with this involvement that the inevitable risks and issues of working in this way can be handled quickly and pro-actively. It's doesn't take much for a critical stakeholder to gum things up by just doing their job. The distinction is that when it's Complicated you need to build teams to solve problems: when it's Complex you need to grow communities to improve situations.

When things are Complex...Ask "Show me the community".


Complexity creates enormous and immediate demand for new capabilities. It will not be possible for IT departments to provide everything everyone wants, so it will help a lot if there is a way for others, who have the necessary development skills, to build things when they are needed. These people could be hired-in teams, IT departments in partner organisations or even gifted amateurs in the bodies of organisations. The iPhone is an example: Apple provide a robust technology platform and facilities, for anyone with the skills, to create applications for it - there are now nearly 500,000 iPhone apps that Apple could never have created themselves. It's possible to do the same sort of thing within organisations and I reckon there are three important bits to consider: open technology that is available to all; open services that enable others to use that technology; and, crucially, open behaviours that create a cohesive, helpful community around the technology that will ensure that technology is used. And this openness starts with friendly, can-do, inclusive behaviours from everyone involved and not really the technology: the culture thing again.

When things are Complex... Make stuff open (and be open yourself).


In Complex situations, traditional means of coordination through organisational hierarchies are not responsive enough. Organisations need to be more spontaneous; when faced with a problem or an opportunity, people need to be able to respond themselves rather than wait for managers. This means people need the facility both to identify the others they need to work with and then to coordinate that work effectively (see The Flood). Tools like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Wordpress are transforming interaction and cooperation in our private lives: there is a huge opportunity to use similar tools within organisations to transform the way we work. Incorporating social capabilities in our work tools and creating the culture to use them effectively will take time but I believe that this is now pretty much non-optional; see, for example, The rise of the networked enterprise or Social Power - The coming corporate revolution. Whilst currently there is huge emphasis on creating tools to store and distribute information, in dealing with Complexity, it is more important to connect People with People than it is to connect People with Information.

When things are Complex... Build 'Social' into everything.


Complexity changes the game; and to be successful we need to allow new cultures to emerge...

If you were there, I hope you found the talk useful. Please do carry on the conversation by leaving a comment below.