Changing mental models of complexity: “Now I define complexity as a window on the world”

Credit: Jesse Yardley

Credit: Jesse Yardley

As most of you know I very much enjoyed my weekend in Joinville last month where I was teaching MBA students about chaos and complexity theory, and where I also gave an evening lecture to the public “Making sense in a complex world.” One thing I am constantly asked is what value is this to businesses? What does this mean on a practical level, to teach students about complexity.

Another related issue is the fact that many practitioners and teachers of complexity observe that the great insights from this still nascent discipline have not been comprehended or absorbed by our leaders, be they in business or politics. However much we talk about feedback, emergence, self-organisation and fractals, most major thinkers in the West remain resolutely in a linear world, a mechanistic world where control and domination are still the order of the day.

Can I play with your mind

The lessons I give at Sustentare Business School are quite possibly the most difficult classes taught in any business school in Brazil. We do not just cover complexity in a superficial manner, we really look at our mental models of reality, and how these fundamentally shape the way we see the world. Teaching complexity is not a case of simply transmitting information, the course is about breaking down our existing mental models in order that we are able to rebuild new ones, where process and relationship are seen as primary, rather than matter made of building blocks.



Because I know how hard my course is, I like to start by showing students a picture of Pelé. I ask them if a young Pelé always knew he was going to score a goal when he shot? No, of course not. The students who learn the most on my course are the ones who really engage with the discussion, and who attempt to answer my curious questions even though they may not be able to make full sense of the question. Why? Well my course is about exploring the way we think, and the questions I ask often have no set answer, I ask questions to help me monitor the efforts that students are making in exploring new ways of thinking.

Many can often feel embarrassed in class when exploring new ways of thinking, so if I ask a question and there is silence I like to kick an imaginary ball and ask them what would Pelé do at this point? Would he wait until he had the perfect answer, or would he learn and improve each and every time by making speculative answers? This does not work with everyone, but when I tell them I am invoking the good name of Pelé it seems to break the ice and a little and give them permission to be that little bit more creative in their thinking.

As always, at the end of the course my students complete a final questionnaire, and this is my opportunity to find out the impact of the course on them. The final question I asked was:

What were the key points that you took on during the course? How are you going to use this knowledge in your organisation?

Again as always the answers were revealing.

The key idea of “Complexity Theory” shows us the essential interdependence of all phenomena.

It was great to see the impact of the first section of the course on seeing and mental models.

Think differently, try to understand the other person better. What we think is right may not always be the best option, so we should open up to a range of knowledge through the exchange of ideas in order to arrive at a consensus.

This student went on to say that of course developing our working environment is no easy task:

The strongest idea for me was understanding that not everyone sees the same thing. Each person has their way to see in so many different situations, so we have to see it as positive the accommodation in our work environment of different ways of thinking.

Photo: Simon Robinson

Photo: Simon Robinson

A number of students said the the framework of Jung’s mandala (thinking, sensing, feeling, intuition) was powerful for them, although as this student recognises, it is hard when you take on a completely new way of thinking when those in your organisation are still using mechanistic ones:

– Four ways to Knowledge: Thinking, Intuiição, Feeling, Sensation,
– Interaction of Chaos and Order.
I’ll try to use this knowledge through informal conversations with my friends and also with my manager. I’ll try to show them some examples given during the course. The challenges that I believe may exist in the implementation are the lack of general understanding of the ideas and theories, especially the study of Chaos and Order. This topic is not widely discussed, and people have no opnion formed.


The two main ideas for me were: 1) the notion of inseparability between chaos and order, 2) the four forms of knowledge. I intend to discuss with my colleagues the importance of chaos in support system with a view to not being so obsessed with order at all times and having greater tolerance and greater capacity to deal with chaotic situations. With regards to the four ways, it was helpful to learn about the 4 Jungian psychological types and their multiple uses. I want to encourage my team to think in these terms of four forms of knowledge and see what the weaknesses are that we need to improve.

Many students remarked that they now understood more profoundly the notions of chaos and order, and how they could co-exist in the same system. This student also made a similar comment to the student above that implementation will not be straight forward:

I realize that is not always the case that chaos and disorder are a bad thing and detrimental to any organization, provided that we have some control. The big challenge will be the existing reluctance and resistance on the part of management, not accustomed and habituated to this practice.

This student recognised this challenge too, but was now empowered to be a part of the change. What I see in this answer is a very encouraging level of self-awareness and mindfulness, two key traits required for successful leadership and change management:

We need to work on our organization to build ideas together with collaborators. Involve people. Participatory management, when stimulated and well managed, generates great results for companies, both financially and in organizational climate, work environment and retention of manpower. The challenge for our organization is to break the paradigms that exist and blocking this form of management. Although the decisions are taken primarily by managers.

Of course, Rome was not built in a day as we say, and this student also recognises the continued commitment to themselves in terms of transformation and self-development:

I liked a number of words such as:

  • collaborative
  • communicative
  • creative
  • flexible

Because these are some attributes of the new professional, I will work to develop it in me. I believe that these four words, along with complexity will make me do some thinking about some attitudes everyday. I am sure that this module has added a lot of value. I have new ideas and practical implementations to start. The challenges will be myself, increase my mastery and develop new skills.

This student first talked about linear thinking, before discussing the impact of the various case studies we looked at, of organisations inspired by nature:

I think for my organisation the best we can do in this direction is to create a philosophy of self-managed cells, where members are fully responsible for the success of these cells and have autonomy. It’s a simple change of concept, but it certainly creates an environment for innovation and flexibility. However it is a very big cultural shift, where the biggest challenge lies. We have here breaks barriers by paradigms of hierarchy, trust, governance and (in the case of my organisation) conservatism.

Some students undergo quite radical changes in their thinking, as all of these students have demonstrated. Although in the space of two days it is not possible to delve deep into a phenomenological or hermeneutical analysis of the organisation, I do emphasise the need to think about the whole organisation in a new way, which is reflected in this student’s comments:

I think the vision of complexity that Simon has opened was for seeing the company as a whole. Showing that each part of the business is important to the whole work, and that each party has its complexities.

And finally this student was given a new window on the world:

It changed a lot and now my vision of complexity is more comprehensive. Today I define complexity as a window to the world.

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I would like to say a very big thank you again for all the students who took up the challenge of joining my course and battling through it. It is quite a journey to go on, especially as I know many are not actually expecting the course to be as it is, being quite unique in content and approach. I always monitor the class closely, and try and check up frequently on their levels of discomfort, since although to me discomfort is a good sign, a sign that they are working through the material in their minds and making an effort to comprehend, much of the shift in thinking does not come until the end of the course where we explore real case studies, such as the Amoeba Management System of Kyocera and the lattice organisational structure of Gore, and perhaps some changes do not take place until some time after the course, when it has had time to settle in.

My wife Maria also teaches at Sustentare, and recently we have been having a lot of conversations around the links between chaos and complexity theory and change management. Maria teaches on the same MBA courses as me, and this year she said that the students coming to her module after mind were really able to them apply the news ways of thinking in this domain, happily using the new terminology such as mental models, and applying them in this specific domain. We also both have new plans for 2013 in terms of teaching people are helping many more on a much larger scale experience the transition of consciousness. We will both be sharing some of these thoughts soon, and I hope you found these insights of interest in the meantime.

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Changing Mental Models of Complexity


3 responses to “Changing mental models of complexity: “Now I define complexity as a window on the world”

  1. Pingback: A few thoughts on Richard Louv’s Nature Deficit Disorder « The Transition of Consciousness·

  2. I really understand your frustrations with Leadership and feel it in my own day job. I’m a Leadership agnostic, a heretic and see it as a rather pathetic and inevitable dead end of indoctrination to contrived order. Despite the coffee shop psychology and trendy vocabulary Leadership is the last vessel of a medieval pseudo religious social control fantasy. Complexity is a different paradigm in which leadership is irrelevant and therefore complexity is psychologically invisible to them. After all, nobody leads an ecology! Top Blog!

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