Understanding Complexity Theory

Ana Villarreal

Pepperdine University
MSOD 618: International Organization Development and Large Scale Change
November 4, 2013

Understanding Complexity Theory
Complexity theory has turned out to be more complex to understand than I
imagined. Trying to understand dynamic interactions, unplanned interventions,
collective behavior and self-organizing networks just lead me to reaffirm what every
reading of this course has repeated over and over: the future in unknown. Yet, we
live in a world that tries to make it as predictable as possible; at least that is what
the budgeting team does for one whole month behind closed doors before
presenting the company forecast. One thing I did get from Daneke (1997) is that it
is the pattern of interactions, not the control mechanisms, which determine our
future movement. So, if we focus on our interactions, we might just create a more
manageable future and build results that resemble our forecasted goals. In this
context, I chose to focus this essay on two strong concepts: 1) powerful questions,
and 2) non-linear relationships. To add perspective to this writing, I will apply
these concepts to the organization I am currently employed with. I work for LMMM,
a retailer (grocery store) focused in the Hispanic market. In a time where specialty
grocers have proven beneficial financial results (i.e. NASDAQ: SFM, WFM, TFM) we
are now preparing ourselves for an IPO. Established 28 years ago, LMMM still is a
family company with a very CCO mindset and structure, giving me a setting for
infinite OD interventions.
It was not until I finished all my readings about complexity theory that I
understood why was it that Patricia Shaw’s (2002) book left me with more
questions than answers. It is through questions that we progress. Throughout her
book, Shaw continuously sets questions that explore our interactions, trying to
make sense of ourselves and our conversations while acknowledging our
contributions to the construction of the future as co-improvisers. She continuously
asked us questions about our relatedness, she invites us to inquire about our
dynamic patterns of interactions and calls to an awareness of narratives that draw
the past, shape our present and influence our expectation of the future. It is through
questions, that Shaw helps us understand how we participate in the way things
change and how we are changing ourselves and situations. Questions lead to
intentions, decisions and actions.
Peter Block (2002, 2008) gives us a more practical sense of the
transformative power of questions, describing them as more influential than
answers by recognizing them as an instrument of engagement. I had a big aha!-
moment when reading Block’s point of view about question. I was fascinatingly
connected to his explanation of how we must resist the urge to give advice or to call
for immediate action, but rather replace advice with curiosity; otherwise, tomorrow
will be the same as yesterday.
As I mentioned earlier, I work for a company that is getting ready to go from
family owned to publicly hold. Every time I think about this, I, as part of the catalyst
team, immediately get excited for the professional opportunity and then, a second
later, start shivering as I feel a big weight on my shoulders. Being owned by a
patriarchal family, change is not in our culture. Control from upper management is
the most comfortable way of leading our company. As many interventions have been
made, changing our mindset is still in progress. I constantly wonder what are the
factors, and specific behaviors, that feed such resistance. As I connected the dots
from Shaw and Block about the use of questions, I got an epiphany that the way we
deal with questions does not facilitate our teams, our processes nor our way of
thinking to evolve. Questions in our company culture are to be answered
instantaneously and directly, with a firm and undisputable tone that will reassure
the expertise of whoever is answering. Questions are not made to move the
company forward, but to move doubt out of the way of solving a problem. Questions
are not used as an instrument of change; they are more of what Block describes as
defense against action, a wish for control and predictability. We are missing the
opportunity to use question as a path to start new conversations. As Shaw proposes,
we must begin using narrative in the scenarios that we create and participating in
the self-organizing emergence of meaningful progress within the chaotic open-
ended responsiveness to one another.
The mentality that makes members of the organization answer all questions
in the “right” way right away is nothing but a manifestation of a linear approach to
relationships. Linear approaches, explained in my own words, believe that X
happens because of Y. This view might come from the need of control; such as if
knowing that by just controlling X we will get more or less of Y. Such mindsets
aligns with management by instruction, where there is a top-down philosophy of
control and supervision and where all eyes are set on production and discipline,
leading to a pyramidal organization. There is nothing wrong with linear approaches;
I actually find them very useful when using them to understand certain aspects of
the business. However, the grocery store industry is characterized by a combination
of elements that create a turbulent environment. Developing an understanding of
such elements could be more useful than trying to control them. Retail is a tough-
competition, fast-paced ever-changing environment. Competitors are not afraid of
going head to head with all participants in the market. Sales are directly dependent
on what is on the everyday wallet of the buyer, highly affecting price elasticity.
Grocery stores margins are small, smaller than many industries (as of November 1

2013, according to yahoo! finance , grocery store industry net profit margin is of
.10%). Trying to predict the future status of the system through a simple cause and
effect equation might lead to inaccurate decisions because so many factors that
weight in may be ignored. LMMM may benefit from an approach that admits and
prepares for an uncertain future; an approach in which evolution doesn’t
necessarily happen continuously or is a result of a single element. I am talking about
a non-linear approach. A change in how the system is viewed will call for autonomy,
responsibility, expectations, flexibility and commitment. Changing the way the
system is understood, going from inputs and outputs to understanding networks,
will open LMMM visions and result in a thoughtful consideration of the probable
pathways. Such change will then, as a natural part of the process, welcome
questions that can expand our horizons and increase the possible outcomes.
Complexity theory calls for creativity in the evolutionary processes that
occur as networks intertwine and self-organize. This happens through the discovery
and exploration around the feedback processes that emerge by way of action and
choice. Complexity theory did not make me find the solution to the situation LMMM
faces where the own company might be its biggest obstacle to evolve. It does,
however, help me understand all the elements that interconnect in order for the
company to be getting the results it is getting. It also helps me understand the value
of managing self-organizing process to create an advantage, rather than trying to
control every input to produce the desired outcome. I have a fair understanding of
the value of questions and of non-linear relationships, which might result in chaos. I
hope, as I grow as an OD practitioner, to better understand better the
methodological use of Complexity Theory in interventions.

Block, P. (2002). The answer to how is yes: Acting on what matters. San Francisco:
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Block, P. (2008). Community: The structure of belonging. San Francisco: Berrett-
Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Daneke, G.A. (1997). From methaphor to method: nonlinear science and practical
management. The International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 5 (3), 249
– 266.
Dolan, S.L., Garcia, S., Auerbach, A. (2003). Understanding and managing chaos in
organizations. International Journal of Management, 20 (1), 23 – 35.
Griffin, D., Shaw, P., Stacey, R. (1999). Knowing and acting in conditions of
uncertainty: A complexity perspective. Systemic Practice and Action Research,
12 (3), 295 – 309.
Grocery Stores Overview: Industry center – Yahoo! Finance. (2013, November 1)
Retrieved from: http://biz.yahoo.com/ic/734.html
Industry Browser - Yahoo! Finance – Full industry list. (2013, November 1)
Retrieved from: http://biz.yahoo.com/p/sum_qpmd.html
Shaw, P. (2002). Changing conversations in organizations: A complexity approach to
change. New York: Routledge.