Dialogue on Leadership: Discussing Complexity in the UK Construction Industry with Dr. Dimitris Antoniadis

I have recently entered into some very interesting dialogue via email with Dr. Dimitris Antoniadis, who has been generous enough to share with me much of his doctoral research into complexity and the UK construction industry. His research suggests that there has been very little progress in terms of performance of the industry over the last 20 years. The conclusion though is that complexity theory in this domain can definitely contribute to improving the performance of construction projects, many of which consist of many different types of organisation, which creates on a temporary basis a far more multiorganisational structure.

If we look at some of the causes of failure and poor performance, we can see that there is still a considerable failure even to define complexity, with only 10% of those surveyed responding that their organisations do define it. From a related analysis of 31 depth-interviews, only 41% of project managers replied that they were using any formal tools to define and manage complexity, and the majority of these related to risk assessment tools and techniques.[1] The two figures below show the perceived sources of this complexity.[2]

Dimitris believes that most research in organisational complexity has focussed on the individual elements, rather than attempting to understand how complexity can arise from the myriad interactions between these parts. He also suggests that there has been a general failure to pay attention to the socio-organisational aspects of complex interactions, and the impact of these on management style and project structuring.

From his research with Project Management practitioners, Dimitris has been able to develop a new framework he calls F4MCI® for managing the complexity of these interactions.

The F4MCI® is a suit of tools that enable the management of the effects of complexity through specific project management processes by using taking action(s) for its characteristics. The Framework’s Objective is to enable Project Managers (PM) and Team Leaders (TLs) to manage the effects of complexity of interconnections on the project through the respective project management processes. The project management sub-processes, for which the F4MCI® has been designed at this stage, and which are part of measuring the Project Management Outcome are:

• Selecting project team members

• Structuring the project team as well as

• The Management style to be adopted

I think what is progressive about this work is that a common complaint by business executives is that when they are first introduced to complexity science, they can often be left thinking “So what?” They are left without any tools for applying complexity science in a business context. Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World and Fritjof Capra’s Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems are both widely read books, both of which I think are excellent, but they do not address this issue.

Dimitris and his colleagues though have taken a comprehensive list of complexity characteristics, and translated these into a tool which has been validated by Project Managers. The characteristics of complexity they identified were inspired by Chris Lucas [4], and are:

  • Unpredictability
  • Non-standard
  • Undefined values
  • Autonomous agents
  • Instability
  • Non-equilibrium
  • Non-linear
  • Attractors
  • Co-evolution
  • Self-modification
  • Self-reproduction
  • Downward causation
  • Mutability
  • Non-uniform
  • Emergence
  • Phase changes

Dimitris summarises his work as follows:

The overall aim of the research outlined above was to investigate the effect of complexity of interconnections on the project performance through the socioorganisational sub-processes of selecting team members and structuring the project team as well as the management styles adopted, and thus develop a framework which will enable the management of these effects. It is hoped the investigation will enable all project managers, not only those in construction, to understand the effects and implications of complex interconnections and that the framework developed will enable the management of these effects and contribute towards the improvement of the project performance. [5]

Looking through all of this work got me thinking about how it relates to the work I have been doing on complexity. I am interested in the relationship between tools, frameworks, paradigms, and mental models, and the way I look at complexity science is through the dynamical way of seeing which could be described as a phenomenological way of seeing, or a hermeneutical way of seeing. It is a very organic way of seeing, and in this way of seeing, one moves out of a mechanistic way of seeing, to one where as Henri Bortoft puts it, you go upstream into the act of seeing itself, where you are able to comprehend the coming-into-being of living systems. With this way of seeing, you are no longer seeing a fragmented world of objects, but you are coming into contact with the dynamic processes of living systems, and in this way of seeing one can only approach these dynamic processes through one’s intuition and not via ones normal rational and logical mind, based on Cartesian and Euclidean geometry and logic of solid objects.

Whew – what the heck did that all mean?

Another way to look at this is via the wonderful wood carving of Albrecht Dürer, who created a new way for painters to create drawings in true perspective.

Albrecht Dürer, Draftsman Drawing a Reclining Woman, Woodcut, 1525, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna

In this self-portrait, Dürer is using a physical framework to capture the external features of his subject, a woman, partly clothed, draped as a goddess, perhaps like Aphrodite, the goddess of love. While the framework can certainly capture some physical aspects of the subject, many qualitative aspects are lost, the great impact of her beauty and her ability to move us emotionally. This is all lost by the framework, rendering her now in 2 dimensional space.

In business we use the term framework wantonly and with wild abandon, never really considering just what the deeper implications are. And likewise in science, we use the term paradigm just as loosely, with endless calls for new paradigms to help us solve complex problems, and to find new answers to age old questions.

Frameworks and paradigms are born of our mental models, our world views, and more often than not these are limited. These are limited to the extent that even the wildest conceptualisations of quantum theory can still be regarded as offering a limited view of reality. I think we should regard frameworks and paradigms as tools, and tools are often designed for specific purposes. If we can recognise these limitations in our thinking, then we can enter into true dialogues, as envisaged by David Bohm, who encouraged us to put as much energy into understand the meaning of what others were trying to communicate, as we put into our own efforts to put across what we wish to communicate. The result is then a much larger pool of meaning, a collective meaning, larger than any single one of us, out of which new meanings, ideas and creative solutions can emerge.

What Dimitris and his colleagues have developed is an excellent framework for helping project managers better understand the various sources of complexity in their work, and this includes the softer socio-organisational aspects which can have such a great impact on a project’s success. This does not though affect the overall aim of the project, which in these instances are to build what ever mega structures are being conceived.

There is a deeper form of knowing which comes from what Henri Bortoft describes as “doing philosophical work”. By this Henri was saying that you can not just study books, words, and other people’s verbal descriptions of their insights, you actually have to experience in your intuition the deep insights gained from the dynamical way of seeing. From this way of seeing the world is a movement in thinking, one which moves from seeing fragments, objects, things, to seeing in terms of dynamic processes, and conceiving not atoms, or particles as the foundational building blocks of reality, but relationship, relationship which flows within a whole.

I am now attempting to describe the indescribable, so I shall stop blogging at this point. What I would like to do though is open up this dialogue in the comment section below, to Dimitris and anyone else who would like to comment on these themes. His work consisted not just of surveys and interviews, but 5 in-depth case studies, and these offer an excellent insight as to how complexity science can be practically implemented in some of the most interwoven and complex business environments there are.

References

[1] Exploring Complexity in Construction Projects

[2] Dimitris Antoniadis et. al (2012) Structuring of Project Teams and Complexity in Project Perspectives 2012, p78-85, IPMA

[3] Framework for Managing Complexity of Interconnections (F4MCI®)

[4] Chris Lucas The Philosophy of Complexity 

[5] Dimitris Antoniadis Executive behaviours and Decision Making in Complex Environments – Where Complexity Begins and Ends

See also

Henri Bortoft (1996) The Wholeness of Nature Floris Books

8 thoughts on “Dialogue on Leadership: Discussing Complexity in the UK Construction Industry with Dr. Dimitris Antoniadis

  1. Hi Simon,
    I thought I would respond to your blog before I take a short break with some more ‘food for thought’.

    To date, in the project world and as my research has indicated, we considered complexity on the technical side, or the contact side and used tools that deal with programme or various types of uncertainty but we forgot about the social / behavioural side.
    As most scholars agree complexity is raised by interconnections between dynamic systems, and projects, whatever the industry and wherever these are performed, are basically delivered by a number of dynamic systems (people) in an evanescent environment.
    In UK construction some steps, based on improving transactional costing and minimizing litigation (with all its effects), have been taken with the establishment of partnering / alliancing types of contract, which, as a ‘side effect’, deal partly with some of the soft issues. Although current economic conditions are affecting implementation, these contractual forms generated some improvement(s) but have not addressed the issue of complexity. In limited cases (to my knowledge) efforts were made to establish a team environment but this remained at a very high level – entities and senior level individuals – rather than team members at the lower/lowest levels.
    Interconnections and therefore complexity occurring at the lowest levels, where the actual work is carried out, is not addressed, as proven by my findings, which included a wide audience from Site Manager to Project Director. That is also why the Framework for Managing Complexity (F4MCI) developed is designed to be used by/from the lowest to the highest level within a project enabling feedback and continuous improvement to occur throughout the project structure. Additionally the three areas researched are part of measuring Project Management Outcome and ones that should be addressed continuously not only in projects but anywhere where team members need to be selected, teams need to be structured and one needs to be aware of the management style to be adopted.
    In terms of how we overcome the ‘so what’ syndrome, I would say that we need to focus on explaining complexity, rolling out the definition and drawing the distinction between complicated and complex. Then we need to make it clear that there are different types of complexity, e.g. technical, social, etc. Then explain how complexity characteristics affect processes and actions taken. Complexity has specific characteristics which do not vary according to the industry, profession or anything else. The only thing that might vary is the number of its characteristics that affect the particular process. Therefore some coordinated effort needs to be made towards the above so that we can get practitioners on board and expand on solutions available.
    Regards
    Dimitris

    • Hi Dimitris

      Someone in the LinkedIn group commented that Gantt charts have contributed to our thinking in terms of linear processes. I have also been thinking the same thing about excel spreadsheets. You make a change to a cell, and the changes filter down to all other connected cells, but there is no iteration there.

      Obviously I respect the fact that much of F4MCI is proprietary, but I would be really interested in hearing, if possible, how the tool helps people change their mental models about linear and non-linear processes. Are you able to say more on the differences in the use of the tool compared to Gantt charts which have been with us for something like 90 years.

      Thanks

      Simon

      • Hi Simon,
        The F4MCI has nothing to do with the GANTT charts, which, depending on how these are used, a tool that controls time and cost.

        In terms of the F4MCI, the only reason I used excel during my research was because it was the simplest tool to use and it would not take me long to develop. for the past year I have been discussing ways to develop the tool in much more user friendly and more ‘modern’ tools, e.g. web based.

        Irrespective of the above, the way excel is used currently is as follows:
        (please note that extensive macros are running in the background)
        1. Each characteristic has a worksheet,
        2. The worksheet contains:
        a. An expanded description of the characteristic, that is translated into project management terminology: ‘what does it really mean for the practitioner’ (who as I said before could be from a Site Manager to a Project Director).
        b. Then the individual will have to select between a set of measured questions regarding action(s) taken to manage the effect of the characteristic. Again as I explained earlier these actions were confirmed by the interviewees.
        It should be noted that the individual cannot see the value of the response given, until he finishes with all 16 characteristics.
        c. The individual also has to comment regarding the response given. ‘Why was this selection made’ as well as ‘What actions will be required in order to achieve more’.
        d. Responses are aggregated and comments are transferred to the reporting section.

        As far as functionality of the F4MCI, I believe this is explained in one of the documents on my website, the tool is distributed for completion to leaders in the project team from the Director, to the Team Leaders / Site Managers, including subcontractor management and team leaders. The response/report produced is feedback to the senior level(s) who will need to respond to the actions/comments made.
        Also, the duration of implementation is short between 0 to 6 / 8 weeks, as the processes researched need a fast response.

        The responses given and comments made against each characteristic challenge not only the individual that responds but also management to identify means to provide support and improve the performance not only of the process but also the individual. It is a continuous improvement process that supports all levels to address issues on the particular process.

        The F4MCI is not locked in terms of the actions required to manage the effect of each characteristic. This means that as more research is carried out in the subject, or as organisations become (or in some cases are) more aware and require their own actions to be included then the F4MCI can be modified, as long as these actions are considered complimentary to the existing.

        I hope I have clarified a few of your points.
        Regards
        Dimitris

  2. Hi Dimitris

    I have probably confused things with my excel example. I come from a business development perspective, and hence was thinking about excel only in financial terms, where you build a business model with financial forecasts. You would in predict linear growth year-on-year, and there would be a huge number of assumptions built in. My thinking was that the structure of a financial spread sheet helps reinforce linear thinking.

    I can see how F4MCI uses Excel in a very different manner, and I hope that you did not take that as a criticism. I had thought that maybe you have developed a suite of software. In the way you are using it, would it be right to say the rules are not necessarily in the spreadsheet, but in the guidelines around how to use your methodology?

    • Hi Simon,
      Don’t worry I didn’t take your comments as criticism. I have seen excel used to write reports and I can understand your point(s).
      You are absolutely right that the ‘rules’ (if I can call them that) are in the guidelines/actions proposed. I mentioned earlier the flexibility it has and the main reason for designing it this way is because ‘things change’, theories evolve and some of the progressive companies have some very good thinkers so that they can add to the capabilities of the F4MCI.
      Above all it is the two way communication between team leader(s) and manager(s) of various levels.

      One think I would not say is that the F4MCI is the ‘bees knees’. From my long experience and as I said in the first response, my aim is to spread the knowledge on complexity as much as I can.
      Dimitris

  3. Also, it would be so better to have a face to face dialogue and record that!

    I was not trying to say F4MCI was like a Gantt chart. The point was that what you are doing is creating tools that can overcome the perhaps subconscious implications in using Excel and Gantt charts. These have maybe moulded our thinking, and now we need tools such as F4MCI to really help evolve our mental models to think in non-linear and complex ways. Hope this helps clarify!

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