My fascination with nonlinear dynamics goes back to my University years: my 1994 dissertation was about applying nonlinear dynamics concepts to team dynamics.
Since then, I have been interested in how to apply the insights from complexity science to practical interventions.
In my consulting with organizations, awareness of nonlinear dynamics proved vital to the success of the projects I was involved in. I was deeply aware that an organization was like an organism – any external intervention would cause a reaction, mostly unpredictable.
Many colleagues of mine would approach the Organizational Change intervention with an “engineering” frame of mind: analyzing, explaining, promoting specific solutions that worked somewhere else. That is very reassuring to the client. And iff managers would not adopt the consultant’s solution, then the consultant would just push harder. And blame the “resistance to change”.
I had a different approach, inspired by complexity, more specifically by the work of Jeffrey Goldstein.
The model was that of a bifurcation state transition (how natural systems move from a steady state, fixed-point attractor, to more complex states, strange attractors).
I would set a “container” – a safe environment, say a workshop where the managers where to reflect on the change initiative.
I would then increase what I found to be a useful “control parameter“: “the information about how the system works generated by the system itself”. Which meant that I used specific tools (discussion formats, games…) to encourage participants to inquire about how they worked, about what the issues where, and so on.
By generating that information, the team dynamics had to change to take into account the new information: once something that was implicit (e.g. X is not fair in assessing Y) became explicit, the group had to adapt to accomodate (or to assimilate) that information.
My job was then to simply monitor the different responses and to reinforce the ones that were going in the right direction, in a co-creating process with the team.
This approach implies accepting that we cannot dictate change to a living system.
However, we can stimulate a living system to change; we can also shape, to a certain degree, that change.
The pro of this approach: the system finds its own adaptations, that are more stable and self-sustaining than anything introduced from the outside.
The con of this approach: be ready for some rough going! Sometimes conflicts that were underneath the surface would explode with full force once brought out in the open. Though that was part of the adaptation process, it is something that needs to be carefully handled.
I since found that a Solution-Focused approach is much more useful.
It is a way to establish a safe and strong emotional “container” AND a way to respectfully generate information about how the team (or organization) works according to the team (or organization) member themselves AND a way to get to the new complex “attractor” (i.e. solution) without having to go through the conflict phase.