Leadership and cybernetic skills for leading change

Through disrupting the idea of who is a leader, and re-thinking how we identify differing goals and values in a system, we now introduce a series of cybernetics principles that will allow us to translate these themes into skills for leading change:

  • Feedback
  • Connections
  • (Perspective) Plurality
  • Synergy

Cybernetic principle: Feedback

Central Idea: In order to achieve our purpose, we need to understand the impact of interventions. This is achieved through identifying and managing the impacts of feedback.

“Feedback” is a common term now, but it is less than a century old as a term in English. Before the 1940s, “feedback” as a word was rare, and related primarily to feeding back in electrical systems. It is now a term that is taken for granted. We ask for feedback on our work, and give it to staff during performance interviews. It has become a central idea in agile
methodology and rapid prototyping. It is worth stopping and considering what feedback is, and how it helps us navigate the world.

Feedback in the development of technology has been a central process in designing more autonomous self-regulating systems. From the governors in early steam engine technology to control systems now present in today’s cyber-physical systems, feedback is ever-present. Systems that are AIenabled learn through feedback loops and input of new data, with the addition of complex statistical time series methods and different varieties of neural network algorithms.

Cybernetics teaches us that understanding either technological feedback, or interactive human-to-human forms of feedback in isolation is insufficient in today’s world. Those seeking to create positive change will need to take into consideration feedback loops between human and technological facets of systems, as well as environmental feedback from local and global contexts.

Cybernetic principle: Connections

Central Idea: The relationships between things are more important than the things themselves.

One of the more exciting developments in algorithmic decision-making is graph database technology (GDT). In GDT the connections are more important than the object itself. This supports semantic search and a whole range of ways we can understand complex data. The learnings in this technical field have application in how humans interact with each other and with actors in natural and human-made systems.

In organisations or other communities of people, how individual actors respond to stimuli in the system is more about the system than the individual. This concept, a key component of cybernetics, is central in the works of French poststructuralists who focus on the power of networks and relationality between things other than humans. If we look back further still, it is a centuries and millennia old key concept in Indigenous and Eastern philosophies, where acting based on interconnectedness, relationality, reciprocity and responsibility to relationships in systems that humans are a part is key.

Taking the lens that organisations are goal-oriented complex adaptive systems, which are interconnected with a range of other systems, a helpful frame for leading change is to understand relationships, as well as identify and act on what connections need to be promoted, sustained and renewed.

Cybernetic principle: (Perspective) Plurality

Central Idea: System definition is a contested process where deciding on system boundaries and goals is a cultural and political act. Navigating ‘boundary’ work and making decisions on definitions of ‘systems of interest’ is a core leadership need for the 21st century.

Leading change in complex systems has long had to deal with ambiguity, uncertainty and conflict. In such messy situations, embracing multiple perspectives is necessary. Over the past 50 years, research in operational research, anthropology, political science and application of decision theory in a range of organisational, cultural and political contexts has developed to explore the identification of differing values, beliefs and preferences linked to decisions for managing the dynamics of complex systems.

The concept of boundaries is core to leading change in complex systems. Skills for leading change include:

  • boundary judging — deciding the edges of the system is difficult, once you see everything as connected. We need to know how to create systems of interest so that we can observe behaviours and drive desired actions without becoming overwhelmed by complexity;
  • identifying and using boundary objects — objects (including conceptual ones) that are sufficiently ill-defined or have many different definitions for different groups of people can be used to enable discussion and interaction across worldviews.. By focusing attention on a boundary object we can bring people together around something of common interest and develop helpful conversations even where the parties are not aware that they mean a completely different thing when they use the same words; and
  • boundary spanning — boundaries exist everywhere and are frequently taken for granted, until someone steps across them. Spanning boundaries is the action of working across different systems (whether they be organisations, sectors, disciplines, or any number of other types of boundary) to create additional connections, opportunities for communication, and innovation in the broader system of interest.

Cybernetic principle: Synergy

Synergy is the interaction between the goals of the individual and the goals of the group. High synergy groups have strong alignment between these goals and the overarching system purpose. These groups achieve more.

Ruth Benedict (American Anthropologist, 1887-1948) took the word ‘synergy’ from biological sciences and applied it to human societies.25 She inspired a number of others, including early cyberneticians like Margaret Mead, who in turn inspired Warren Bennis. He writes: “The more I learned, the more I realized that the usual way of looking at groups and leadership, as separate phenomena, was no longer adequate. The most exciting groups – the ones […] that shook the world – resulted from a mutually respectful marriage between an able leader and an assemblage of extraordinary people.”

Through synergy, the people in the group providing the skills for leading change will likely shift as the focus on different goals and actions adjust dynamically over time. Synergy also allows a collective memory to be constructed and accessed over time to allow for creative synthesis at opportune moments in the dynamic shifts of the complex adaptive systems the group is working with. This also relates to new work in generative versus exploitative leadership. As Ariella Helfgott describes, we need to move systems towards generative rather than exploitative processes throughout their configurations, which raises new questions for ethics and what organisational changes and can be enacted to achieve these.

Stay tuned, next up in this series of extracts, we will bring you – Leadership is a condition of an organisation, not an individual.