Introduction: Why culture and complexity?
‘Sometimes you find a theory and sometimes the theory finds you’
This was said to me as I chatted with a newly minted-PhD colleague. I realised that complexity theory found me as I explored the conceptual framework for my thesis.
Before I explain complexity, though, I want to talk about ‘culture’. Halfway through last year, I was grappling with the rationale for my study, I came to realise that my unit of analysis wasn’t the school, the teacher, pedagogy or design, it was actually culture.
Too often, I believe, culture is explained as ‘the way we do things around here’. This is a somewhat simplistic view. Schein (2009) argues that “Culture is a pattern of shared tacit assumptions that was learned by the group to solve its problems” (p.27), when solutions are validated by the collective, they are then taught to new members and ultimately are integrated into the fabric of the organisation. Culture goes deep, it is not necessarily good or bad, it just is. But there comes the time for change and innovation that needs to address the prevailing culture. But how? By embracing the exciting possibilities of complexity
To understand complexity, then, we need to appreciate the cultural norms that exist in any school or organisation. We commonly use metaphor to explain ourselves, “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). We do it constantly, as we navigate everyday life.
Think about the school as factory. This metaphor has been used to describe schools unfit for our 21st century aspirations for learners. The cultural norms of the factory rely on top-down directives and where human activity resembles the parts of the machine. Work in the factory is linear, with the focus on the efficient management of human and non-human elements alike, the former without voice or agency.
As a result, the ‘shared tacit assumptions’ of the people are resonant of the machine-like culture. This might describe my school experience half a century (!!!) ago – learn the concept, pass the test, move on. And perhaps it remains so for many.
From what I’ve discovered there are three key components of complexity:
- Agents – the people
- Interactions – the means
- Emergence – the innovation
The metaphor commonly ascribed to complexity is that of the ant. Over the last six months, I probably have learnt more about ants than in my entire life. I’ve discovered that ants are fascinating. Ants are an example of bottom-up systems, not top down. They embody complex adaptive systems that display emergent behaviour.
Johnson (2001) in Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software explains that multiple agents dynamically interact in multiple ways. They follow local rules and are oblivious to higher level instructions. Emergence occurs when local interactions result in macro behaviours.
There are a number principles common to complexity.
|What works in complexity:||What doesn’t work:|
|– Bottom-up led innovation|
– Openness to the unknown, the unprecedented and unexpected
– A system greater than the sum of its parts
|– Top-down/control leadership|
– Applying simple cause and effect, formulaic, predictable solutions
– A system reducible to is component parts
There is so much to talk about as I explore culture and complexity. My goal here is to help people embrace change and to innovate during times that are characterised by the unknown, unexpected and unprecedented (does that sound familiar?). We cannot apply linear/cause and effect solutions in the context of complexity. It’s like the old saying…
If you are looking for new ways for new days…this is the place for you! As I talk and write about complexity I will share ideas here.