From scientific management through systems thinking towards complexity science

The curiosity and interest towards the first blog were highly encouraging – thank you very much for your interest and really valuable feedback. As outlined in the first post, the idea of this blog is to challenge the dominant – and many ways taken for granted – ways of thinking about leadership and organizational practice. We are surrounded by various ideas, beliefs and abstractions we take for granted; our human nature and cultural existence can be seen as ways that we have adapted to anxiety inducing conditions of our world. Thanks to the advancement of modern sciences, we know today that the body has to more say to the brain than vice versa. Leadership is largely about coping and sustaining the illusions of certainty and acting in a way which aims to decrease the anxieties stemming from these conditions. Uncertainty and unpredictability can be seen also as a fundamental existential threat to the professional identity of a leader, identity related to being in control, making accurate predictions about the future and planning and executing change processes.


What follows next will be publication of a series of posts [I-V] outlining the particular human picture, particular form of causality and the particular way how different schools of management model the organization. We will focus on identifying the underlying assumptions behind the scientific management and it’s more modern derivatives such as Total Quality Management, along other forms of cybernetic control systems in regards to management. As we move forward, we’ll also address the Systems Thinking and its embedded limitations to describe the nature of our social “reality”. Finally, we’ll discuss the limitations of today’s dominant discourse and the ways of interpreting the sciences of complexity as it refers to leadership and organizational theory. Idealizations such as leading the process of self-organizing and taking the organization to “edge of chaos” are highly controversial. We draw our insights from cognitive neurosciences, process sociology, complexity sciences and the theory Complex Responsive Processes, developed by Professor Ralph Stacey and his colleagues at the Complexity and Management Center at the University of Hertfordshire.  

It’s our belief that the natural starting point stems from understanding the history and development of leadership ideology and science. This started from the idea of heroic and charismatic individuals, towards mechanistic models and eventually towards biological analogies of an organization. Scientific management has its base on reductionistic, deterministic and linear way of thinking, which has its history on Newtonian physics and the Cartesian Method as the philosophical and scientific system. This way of thinking is based on equilibrium dynamics where the mechanism of control is based on cybernetics. This school of thought can be accurately crystallized by the statement from a French mathematician, astronomer, and physicist Pierre Simon Laplace [1749-1827]: “We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”


Since then, the scientific advancements in the fields such as evolutionary theory, cognitive neurosciences, physics [especially quantum physics] has shown that the scientific ground we’ve been operating is far too Platonist and simplified considering the complexity of evolving natural and social realities. A wealth of examples could be drawn but let’s focus on two: long-term accuracy of weather prediction, governed by nonlinear dynamics, will always remain limited due to sensitivity of initial values [part of mathematical chaos theory] and another example from quantum physics is the Heisenberg Principles of Uncertainty. From mathematical modeling point of view - as has happened in physics with the emergence of quantum physics – deterministic trajectories have been supplemented with statistical mechanics to demonstrate how macroscopic observations [such as thermal energy] are related to the world of microscopic constituents [such as molecular dynamics]. Gaussian distribution [supplemented] with the power laws and heavy tail distributions – in the dynamical world we live in the outliers are more common than we would [like to] predict. 

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, or Indeterminacy Principle, articulated [1927[ by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg states that the position and velocity cannot both be measured, exactly, at the same time. A characteristic feature of quantum physics is the principle of complementarity, which implies the impossibility of any sharp separation between the behavior of atomic objects and the interaction with the measuring instruments which serve to define the conditions under which the phenomena appear. Particles had no longer separate, well-defined positions and velocities, instead they had quantum state. A scientist, emitting light waves to identify a particle's velocity and position in space, faces a constraint since the measurement precision is limited by the distance between the wave crests. Trying to optimize the precision by using high-frequency, and thus short wavelength light, means the particle is exposed to more energetic quantum which will influence its velocity in an unpredictable fashion. While Classical mechanics is deterministic, quantum mechanics is not. As the uncertainty principle states, there is a built-in uncertainty, indeterminacy, unpredictability to nature which also introduces a limit the precision of the scientific understanding. As it’s impossible to measure the present state to infinite precision, this means neither the future prediction can be accurate in Newtonian sense.

How about the social sciences? Highly valuable starting point is a quote from Murray Gell-Mann, an American physicist who received the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the theory of elementary particles: "Think how hard physics would be if particles would think." Particles are stationary; they don't adapt, learn or evolve. On the contrary, our human agency is influenced by complex cognitive, situational and socio-cultural variables. We are emotional agents where part of the social and cognitive processes is subterranean. In fact, as the influential contribution of a Portuguese-American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s research has shown, emotions are absolutely crucial for our performance and decision-making processes. Our brains are wired so that our sense making process utilizes inducive rather than deductive logic and reasoning. This feedback mechanism then creates 'mental shortcuts' by comparing our current experiences to historical experiences built on narratives, beliefs and interpretations. The day-to-day experience as a father, husband, private consumer and a leader demonstrates that our behavior as humans is governed by bounded rationality: heuristically driven decision-making models and intuition.


Besides this, we have the concept of the ‘social brain’. The idea of an autonomous individual has faced severe challenges due to new insights of neural sciences and research methodologies such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, fMRI. These findings have provided evidence that the brain may be configured to form groups by virtue of cells, mirror neurons, that respond similarly to behavior of self and other. This mirror region reflects and resonates facial expressions, gestures, vocal inflections, and other social cues and body language. The model of the “electromagnetic” field that Lewin used in his early formulations could be reconceptualized in terms of neural “electrochemical” fields forming complex “maps” in the brain (Damasio, 1999). Contrary to the traditional Cartesian dualism separating mind from the body and the material world, mirror systems are distinctly relational, forming a possible linkage among embodied selves, suggesting that, by extension, the mind/brain may be inherently social and intimately linked to its environmental and group context (Cozolino, 2006). As American pragmatist, influential sociologist and the founder of symbolic interactionism Herbert Mead has stated; No very sharp line can be drawn between social psychology and individual psychology.

It’s our belief that today by fair share of leadership and managerial literature is challenging the complex and bounded rationality perspective of the human condition, but still the underlying assumptions haven't really changed. We believe this relates to our nature seeking simple solutions and tools and secondly to the leadership ideologies, identities and the political nature of sciences. Changing paradigm has a lot to do with transforming professional identities, questioning the accepted ways of thinking and acting, unfreezing the fixed frameworks and networks of power, and changing the power dynamics around these phenomena. Here, we’d encourage to consider power not as an amulet or artifact belonging to a powerful individual or a group of individuals but as a natural characteristic of each and every relationship; both enabling and constraining our actions and ways of thinking. As Foucault wrote: “Truth” is linked in a circular relation with systems of power that produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which induce and which extend it — a “regime” of truth. 

As we started this blog, this leads us to identifying and reflecting the way we understand the human picture, the form of causality and the way we understand organization and leadership. We invite our readers to a journey to gain better understanding considering the underlying order in the world as well as to learn more about our human agency. Instead of identifying simplicity where it does not exist, we explore the concept of complex causality. Trying to gain better understanding from a multidisciplinary and holistic perspective, rather than looking for individual culprits or clear cause-and-effect relationships through a linear lens of thinking. We see this framework as a fertile one and believe it could yield significant added value in the spirit of creative understanding. We also believe that the insights and concepts of complexity sciences enable us to create a common language between all levels of organization, to enable rich and pragmatic ways of interaction as well as understanding the social reality around us. A language, which more efficiently enables us to encapsulate and encode our social reality. 


As an example, phenomenon of emergence, which means complex behavior or a set of properties emerging based on local interaction of agents/objects, demonstrating qualities which its parts do not have on their own. Hydrogen [H] is a flammable, highly reactive and considerably lighter gas than air. Oxygen [O], another gas, highly reactive with a number of substances forms in combination with hydrogen substance we know as water [H2O] which can be liquid and is the main constituent of all known living organisms. Consciousness, on the other hand, is an emergent property of the neural processes conducted by electrochemical signals. Could we, for example, open our understanding with more freedom and explore organizational strategy as an emergent property of social interaction?

 “I don't write a book so that it will be the final word; I write a book so that other books are possible, not necessarily written by me.” 
― Michel Foucault

BlackSmith Consulting Oy, Juho Partanen
Chairman of the Board
+358 40 153 5606