One of the hardest challenges that we must face to survive and thrive in the digital age is changing the way we think.
Linear thinking has served humanity well. Being rational, after all, allowed us to emerge from the dark ages and the realm of superstition. We can thank René Descartes for providing us with a whole system of knowledge and investigation, including the ability to locate a point in space by giving its relative distance from perpendicular intersecting lines. By reference to the two coordinate axes, any point, line, or figure may be precisely located.
This logic brings us directly to the notion of a matrix. Matrices have allowed us to deepen our understanding of many phenomena. The excel spreadsheet exemplifies the idea of a matrix. The feeling of power, and control, that tackling problems that using a Cartesian approach gives us is incomparable. The problem comes when we try to apply “rational” methods beyond their scope. The Excel spreadsheet is a case in point. It certainly has its merits and is a useful tool for many tasks. However, it becomes an issue when we elevate Excel (or Numbers or any other spreadsheet) to the ranks of a management tool and use it for efforts that require something quite different.
Matrix vs. complexity
By relying heavily on matrices, we create a dangerously limited view of our reality as organizations. Given the complexity of managing and controlling the combined efforts of many people, it can be tempting to resort to something that gives us the impression of control, such as an organization structured as a matrix. This is linear thinking and it is too limited to encompass the full complexity of human organizations as we understand them today. It leads you to think, erroneously, that if you optimize all the parts the whole will do better. Linear thinking focuses on addressing “symptoms” instead of looking for what is causing the symptoms to happen. In the same way, it leads people to think that individual performance reviews make sense. It fails to recognize that it takes time for a signal to propagate through a system and so the result of an action can only be seen much later, making it harder to understand where the result came from in the first place. It induces us to concentrate on costs and not on how to maximize throughput and it confuses price with value.
Linear thinking imposes old patterns; it expects more of the same because it sees a past that continues in a linear way into the future. For this precise reason, linear thinking is blindsided to disruption. It is surely not a coincidence that iconic firms have failed under the leadership of CEOs isolated in their office and relying on linear spreadsheets to find out “what was happening” in the business.
Organizations are networks
We can’t keep managing organizations with basic physics, thinking that everything is linear and that a hierarchical functional organization with silos has any chance of being adequate for today’s complexity.What we know today that we could not know fifty years ago is that organizations are made up of networks, and they exist within other networks, and all of these networks are made up of multiple interconnections that increase their complexity. The relations within a network evolve in a nonlinear way. Indeed, we may even consider the conflicts that inevitably arise as explosions of nonlinearity. We may say that nonlinearity is the key to interpreting all complex phenomena that arise spontaneously when several entities interact, be they biological or human.
The systemic methodology for management developed by Intelligent Management approaches complexity from a nonlinear standpoint. Considerations of network theory led us to develop an organizational model for complexity that we call the Network of Projects to completely shift away from a traditional hierarchical/functional model while protecting the legitimate needs that every organization has for control and growth.
Digitization is accelerating the need to reshape organizations to function beyond silos. Leaders and managers urgently need to get a grasp of knowledge of nonlinearity and learn how to manage organizations in a completely new light. In other words, the evolution that takes us from silos towards a network requires not just a shift in how we organize our work but in how we think.
This post is by Dr. Giovanni Siepe and Dr. Angela Montgomery
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Intelligent Management, founded by Dr. Domenico Lepore, helps leaders in organizations to speed up flow, overcome silos, and shift towards a systemic way of working based on win-win collaboration and transparency. We are trusted advisors to leaders of organizations through our unique, whole system Network of Projects organization design. Intelligent Management provides education and training internationally on systemic management using the Decalogue methodology .
See our new books The Human Constraint – a business novel that has sold in 28 countries so far and ‘Quality, Involvement, Flow: The Systemic Organization’ from CRC Press, New York, by Dr. Domenico Lepore, Dr. Angela Montgomery and Dr. Giovanni Siepe.