Systems thinking and complex responsive processes – can they be integrated?

In a recent paper written by Luoma et al (Luoma, J., Hamalainen, RP. And Saarinen, E.  (2011) Acting with systems intelligence: integrating complex responsive processes with the systems perspective, Journal of the Operational Research Society, 62: 3-11.), the authors argue that there is very little disagreement between systems thinking and complex responsive processes of relating, the body of theories set out in this blog. What’s more, the authors put forward the idea that a complex responsive process approach could be integrated within their own method, which they term ‘systems intelligence’.

Systems intelligence (SI), according to the authors, is when a subject engages ‘successfully and productively with holistic feedback mechanisms of her environment.’ SI is exhibited by an individual operating in ‘systems settings’, and is influenced both by the positive psychology literature and by systems thinking. Thus SI ‘looks for positive opportunities and personal improvement actions’. According to the authors a system does not have to be an abstract ‘thing’ with a boundary. It might be ‘the context’, ‘the situation’, or ‘the environment’, amounting to ‘an integrated whole on a time axis in the process of becoming’. ‘System’ for the authors, is a meaningful unit of analysis worthy of attention, which calls out intelligent engagement. The authors claim a ‘liberal, broad and general interpretation of the notion of a ‘system’’, and not one that necessarily conceives of the subject in any way ‘outside’ the system. The broad notion of system is a helpful conceptual tool and human beings are natural systematisers: indeed, being able to systematise makes us human, according to the authors.

In their critical appraisal of the body of thought known as complex responsive processes of relating, the authors of the paper consider that it is very helpful at explaining the ‘process’ aspects of organisation, particularly at the local level. It is unnecessary to dismiss systems approaches as being unhelpful, however, because they are useful learning tools. No entities called systems need to exist for systemic thinking to prove useful, and the helpfulness or otherwise of any approach can only be judged by the consequences of that approach. To abandon systems thinking is to throw the baby out with the bath water. The authors argue that humans are capable of adopting several perspectives at the same time, so complex responsive processes and systems thinking could both be used. Complex responsive processes shares a similar starting point with SI since both are concerned with ‘soft, subjectivistic, first person aspect of the human endowment as fundamental to the human systemic engagement.’

The differences that the authors perceive between the two theories is that SI is concerned with the ‘logic of what makes things work’ and takes the form of ‘actual productive actions as the most important goal.’ They conclude the ‘effective management action is likely to involve processes of systems thinking’. Complex responsive processes are best suited to understand power and values in social interaction, while systems thinking would better equip a manager to look at the long term consequences of a plan. For the authors it is intelligent to approach one’s environment and context in terms of systems, but to do so flexibly and with multiple perspectives. In the end though the authors believe that management is the search for actions that lead to results.

In appraising this critical assessment of complex responsive processes it might be helpful to start with areas of agreement. So I would agree with the authors that in local interactions between managers, they will often be forming and discussing abstractions using systems thinking. Ralph dealt with this point comprehensively in chapter 6 of his most recent book Complexity and Organisational Reality in the section on immersing and abstracting: immersed in their local interactions managers will be using first and second order abstractions to communicate about the process of organising. It is impossible to avoid using abstractions. I agree with the authors that humans are capable of great feats of systematisation, which have been enormously helpful in our development and it would not be possible or helpful to abandon systematising forms of thought. But it is helpful to think about when they are useful and when they are not.

Here I am moving into areas of disagreement: it is not true that human beings are only capable of systematisation, or that this is necessarily their most important human quality. To privilege our capacity for systematising is to assert that abstract representations are more important than and prior to the experience from which it is drawn. It is this move that the body of thought we in the Complexity Research Group call complex responsive processes of relating is challenging fundamentally. Drawing on Mead we are pointing to human beings’ equally important and paradoxical capacity for the constant orientation and receptiveness to other selves and otherness, to the flux, change and the continuous evolution of our interactions with others and our surroundings. It is precisely this orientation that a fixation with systems thinking is in danger of covering over. This is what we see as being largely absent in what we are calling the dominant discourse of management, which is mostly concerned with what is static, fixed, reified and subject to further abstraction, manipulation and instrumenatlisation. Indeed, I would argue that this is exactly what the authors have done with the theory of complex responsive processes of relating: they have re-presented a complex set of ideas as a sub-set of systems thinking. Instead of encountering and staying with the difference the body of thought brings, the experience of otherness, the idea that patterning leads to more patterning, the authors are at pains to restate it in terms familiar to them, as another manifestation of systems thinking, and in doing so they lose much that is paradoxical and radical.

The authors constantly split out what we in the Complexity Research Group try to hold in dialectical tension. While SI is exhibited by an individual oriented to their positive and results-oriented engagement with a system, complex responsive processes enquires into the emergence of self amongst other selves in interactions that hold the potential for both positive and negative experience. Where the authors claim that taking a complex responsive processes perspective might be helpful for thinking about local interaction, but systems thinking is most appropriate for longer term strategising, we would argue that managers are constantly reinterpreting the past in the present in anticipation of a radically uncertain future: the past, the present and the future are present at the same time. Where SI is concerned for an individual manager to focus on improvement and actions that lead to results, whatever results might mean, from the perspective of complex responsive processes a manager would be interested in finding better explanations of what she and others are doing together. These explanations would lead to further enquiry and more explanations, where ‘results’ might be a by-product but could only be understood retrospectively. Where the authors understand complex responsive processes as being a process-oriented body of thought, thus suggesting that process is somehow a dynamic separable from what managers are doing, we would argue that what are generally understood as task and process are two aspects of the same phenomenon. Where the authors argue for managers to adopt both systems thinking and complex responsive processes as various methods a manager might choose, we would argue that managers’ ability to choose is limited because for the most part they are absorbed in the game they are playing with others. From the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating we recommend that rather than reaching for systemic tools to make sense of what is happening, managers ask each other what they think is going on right now between them in the living present. Why is it necessary, and how is it helpful to understand everything as a system?

In privileging the individual manager and the ‘intelligence’ she ‘has’, and in claiming that she is free to choose a variety of different tools to understand organisations, in arguing that she should be oriented to results, improvement, and the positive, there is little in SI that I recognise as different from mainstream management thinking. Additionally, there is very little basis to reconcile this way of thinking with complex responsive processes of relating which is concerned with the social, the paradoxical, the emergent and the uncertain.

In making the case for systems thinking the authors extend the boundary of their own definition of a system to make it almost meaningless. If a ‘system’ can mean a situation, a context or an environment, need not have a definable boundary, and can be imagined in what way is it helpful to continue to call it a system? It seems to me that the insistence that every aspect of human experience can be represented in systems terms covers over the very human interactions that the authors claim is best understood using systems thinking. Take the example of the mother/baby dyad which the authors describe thus: ‘Already in infancy, SI involves nonverbal and implicit ways of relating to the system’. This highly abstract way of describing the embodied, affective, dialectical communicative interaction between a mother and her infant, as both relate to each other, gives the best example of the shortcomings of systems thinking of which complex responsive processes of relating offers a radical critique.


2 thoughts on “Systems thinking and complex responsive processes – can they be integrated?

  1. Pingback: Agile, yes – but really really Agile Management » business model innovation design

  2. It occurs to me that one way of making sense of Luoma et al.’s article is to understand it as a way of trying to appropriate new ways of thinking and acting into their own take on human organizing. Chris’s response may then be seen to be an attempt to enter into an engaged discussion, and it seems like this is exactly what is required at this stage, in order for both SI colleagues and those from the Complexity Research Group to expand their understanding. Otherwise the effort of appropriateing new ways of understanding may rather look like attempts to annex and incorporate what has been developed at the Complexity Research Group. If there’s anything that complex responsive processes thinking invites one to do it is this: critical exchange of opinions in order for us to broaden our understanding of both what we’re doing and of who we are. May be the easiest way of dealing with this is not to respond through supposing that the Complexity Reaseach Group people are simply not getting it. Yet, this will then not extend our understanding but instead lead to a stalled sense of what I’m doing and of who I am vis-à-vis the other. In that sense I’m looking forward to Luoma et al.’s response! Eric

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