Building on these cybernetic principles that bring new insight to leadership, we now turn to considering groups of people, and where and how people organise, looking at traditional organisations, but also beyond, to new conceptions of organising units. This follows on from the idea that relationships within a system of organisation and dynamics between groupings of people are critical to the skills we will need to lead change.

We explore the central idea that while individuals are driven by their own goals, the goals of the organisation drive both the organisation itself, and the individuals within it. That is, the goals of the organisation can influence an individual’s own goals, without them being necessarily aware of it.

In this section, we reference our colleague and fellow cybernetician, Paul Pangaro, who has researched organisational functioning from a cybernetic perspective and is a leading thinker in conversation theory. The statement: “Leadership is a condition of an organisation, not an individual” we credit to him.

Decision-makers in organised units must invariably balance their own personal comfort with ambiguity and complexity, with their role in reducing uncertainty for those around them, which is essential to make change safe. Therefore, a critical activity for those leading change is to develop their own certainty, where none can be found elsewhere in the system.

This approach tackles head on the paradox of needing change, whilst also ensuring efficiency and certainty for certain parts of effective system regulation. These two forces pull against one another and deeply affect the system that is the community of people (organisation). Shining awareness on these forces enables us to see their effects and therefore to use them sequentially and strategically as levers.

More broadly, early cybernetician, Gregory Bateson wrote about noticing the difference that makes difference. The stability of the system (“whether it will act self-correctively or oscillate or go into runaway”) is not determined by the ‘governor’ but by the “transformations of difference” over time. This has significant implications for how we view leadership and the role of the ‘governor’. Those who are notionally governing the system (be they team or community leader, or Board member, etc) need skills in identifying the hidden dynamics in the system and what causes change over time. As Mary Douglas put it, what is important is recognising the system’s state and its likely oscillations between different configurations to predict change in the system and intervene more effectively.

Building teams: Requisite variety and “Viable Systems”

Central Idea: A diversity of voices is required to ensure the constant adaptation that is required of organisations in this current climate.

Cybernetician W. Ross Ashby considered that to provide appropriate regulation, “the variety in the regulator must be equal to or greater than the variety in the system being regulated” and, moreover, that “every good regulator of a system must be [or contain] a model of that system.” While Ashby was considering closed systems, further work by Gregory Bateson and Stafford Beer use the word “viable” in open and living systems.

For these systems — like all organisational systems—this viability is linked to the interplay between different levels or arrangements of voices, functional roles, ‘models’ of the system and operational goals shaped by diverse knowledge and skills appropriate to system purpose. This complexity was a focus of cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead at the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics:

“There were three groups of people. There were the mathematicians and physicists – people trained in the physical sciences, who were very, very precise in what they wanted to think about. There was a small group of us, anthropologists and psychiatrists, who were trained to know enough about psychology in groups so we knew what was happening, and could use it, and disallow it. And then there were two or three gossips in the middle, who were very simple people who had a lot of loose intuition and no discipline to what they were doing. In a sense it was the most interesting conference I’ve ever been in, because nobody knew how to manage these things yet.”

Today we know such variety is not only a novelty but a necessity to ongoing viability and effectively navigating complex organisations towards their desired goals.

Building teams: The role of language and conversation

Central Idea: Organisations all develop their own languages and types of conversations, which increases efficiency. However, these can become constraints that limit future vision.

As organisations transition to more and more complex technology, different languages spring up in different areas to encourage efficiency, and so too do barriers between those areas. Organisations need people who can translate across boundaries, and others who can create new languages to enable different futures.

One way of ensuring a system of language regeneration and boundary spanning is to obey the law of requisite variety and the rules for “viable” systems. Another is to introduce, allow and practice unnatural question asking. Brian Eno in 1975 created ‘Oblique Strategies’ – a card game to enable people in organisations to ask unnatural questions.34 It’s an idea that has been copied over and over again so that it is virtually unrecognisable now as the insightful tool it was at the time. It is worth cutting through the avalanche of ‘daily thoughts’ and returning to what made oblique strategies so radical – creative action through frame multiplicity.

A key cybernetic skill is the ability to allow for multiple interpretations of things; to be able to hold ideas lightly, avoiding dogma and ideology. And as a result, to know when and when not to pin down definitions and commonly held concepts is crucial to support organisations through processes of learning and change.

Patricia Shaw’s “Changing Conversations in Organizations: A Complexity Approach to Change” also advocates for holding multiple interpretations by suggesting that messy sense-making conversations can shift constraints. Shaw argues that leadership is about:

  • convening conversations that might not happen otherwise;
  • having the courage and skill to invite and sustain open-ended and free-flowing conversation that is not always within a structured agenda;
  • enabling brave conditions for team members to meaningfully contribute ideas, voice and action aligned with purpose;
  • opening spaces for reflective inquiry;
  • taking action or giving voice “when the consequences of that will always ripple out in ways beyond what you can ever know”;
  • the ability to evoke and notice “vivid moments of experience” to enable collective sense-making about what is happening.

Sensing and knowing when and how to create opportunities for engagement and serendipity — and what the constraints or scaffolding may be to enable this, including who to have conversations with to develop these spaces for interaction — is another key cybernetic leadership skill, and happily one that can be honed.

Building teams: Productive discomfort

Central Idea: Insisting on variety and disrupting conversation status quo creates discomfort. However this feeling is part of embracing diversity in order to enable learning and change. We call this “productive discomfort”.

Current diversity and inclusion initiatives can work against productive discomfort, particularly those that seek to promote integration (which aligns with a desire to fit in, to adapt to surroundings, and to reduce discomfort). If we recognise the need to change (to update our goals against our reframed purpose) then we need to find a way to embed it in our goals, and to embrace an adjusted framing of what a diverse and inclusive environment might feel and behave like.

We need people who can lead with friction, those with the skills to hold people in productive conflict and harness the creativity that comes from this process of learning and exploration of multiple perspectives. Facilitating complex exchanges and processes for learning from and with others is thus fundamental to organisations effectively innovating to manage change.

Individuals are themselves goal-oriented complex adaptive systems

Central Idea: How individuals behave is as much a function of their environment and dynamic adaptations as of their innate personality.

We can think of humans themselves in the context of a cybernetic cycle. Our actions in life can be organised according to: 1) goal activation, 2) action (or strategy) selection, 3) action, 4) outcome interpretation, and 5) goal comparison. This has been explored in the Cybernetic Big 5 theory of personality. Our individual differences are a result of our innate personalities, but also of our interaction with our environment and feedback in this human system.

Thinking about our actions in this way can open us up to reframing our purpose (goals). If we understand that how we behave is influenced by the complex interplay between internal and external factors, and that our goals can be subconsciously reframed by our experiences, we can be more deliberate in deciding our purpose.

The challenge comes when individuals and the organisations they work with hold a collection of competing and potentially unrecognised goals. Navigation of this requires analysis to recognize and surface competing goal systems and intentionally weigh up and choose priorities for personal change that will lead to positive individual and collective outcomes.

Transcendence and grace

Central Idea: We have an obligation to imagine a better world and to disrupt the present to make that future possible.

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist, who, while famous for his hierarchy of needs, also developed a comprehensive theory of self-actualisation, which included the notion of “peak experience”, versions of which are found in many religious and core human experiences. This idea is enjoying a renaissance through work such as ‘Transcend’ by positive psychology practitioner Scott Barry Kaufman. Maslow was active during the time of the so-called cybernetics revolution, and it was the cybernetic ideas swirling in the zeitgeist that led to the creation of the humanistic psychology movement, which has influenced much of the leadership training in existence today.

Core to self-actualisation is growth, which is built upon letting go. As Kaufman quotes Maslow himself; “One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”

At the School of Cybernetics, in the context of the importance of letting go, we talk about grace. How can we hold ideas lightly, and let them go into the world? How might we not dictate solutions, but create conditions for human flourishing? How can we raise ourselves above, to see the whole life-cycle? Where will we be in 10, 20, 100 years time? How do we think about our purpose now? Leading change is about positively influencing complex adaptive systems. It is about us, deeply and unavoidably, and it is about how we connect to everything out there. This push and pull, this loop of prediction (or envisioning), action, assessing, adapting is the stuff of life.

The goals we set for ourselves and how we hold them productively in tension — continuously learning and adjusting our beliefs, values and actions—are what give us meaning and shape our purpose and those of the organisations to which we dedicate ourselves.

Stay tuned, next up in this series of extracts, we will bring you – Transformative leadership education: a cybernetics-inspired approach.