An organisation case study in complex adaptive systems

A case study of a public sector learning organisation from the chief executive's perspective. I will always remember the first time I met Peter because he told me that the main way he helped enterprises was to get them to throw away most of their processes. You don’t hear many consultants say this so I got curious! Bioteams Guest Article by Peter Fryer



Peter believes passionately that most organisational processes are written because their leaders are not prepared to address the more fundamental question:

"Can you trust your staff to behave like responsible adults or not?"

Peter inspired some of my initial thoughts on the whole problem of “permission structures” in teams.

Subsequently I discovered through my research into bioteams that nature’s teams don’t have permission structures, orders or 'command and control' leadership styles - that’s why they are so agile and responsive.

So I am delighted to publish this bioteam Guest Article by Peter Fryer


Peter was Chief Executive of the Humberside Training and Enterprise Council (TEC) in the UK from 1991 - 2001.

In this role he was a brave pioneer in introducing the principles of complexity and self-managed teams to the organisation.

Peter describes the core principles of his approach to complex adaptive systems:

  1. Let the organisation operate naturally

  2. Enrich and increase connections

  3. Enhance feedback

These principles align well with a bioteaming philosophy and are very relevant to the problems and challenges of Virtually Networked Business Teams today.

You will see from what he writes this is no "consultant-speak" but an honest account of how this stuff works (and sometimes fails) with real people in a real organisation - warts and all!



Being a Learning Organisation


by Peter Fryer


1) Introduction

1.1) This article/paper is not written from a scientific or academic perspective, but as more of a story - of how we developed Humberside Training and Enterprise Council (TEC) into a learning organisation using the concepts of complex adaptive systems.

1.2) A word of caution, no matter how many times I tell this story and no matter how many caveats I put on it, it always sounds as though we knew where we were going and that we had some grand plan for becoming a learning organisation. But we didn’t, and for those of you who have experienced complexity you will know that we couldn’t have, because complexity just doesn’t work that way. So please read this as a journey with success and failures, great surges ahead, blind alleys and steps back, and no clear idea of where we were going.


2) Background

2.1) Humberside Training & Enterprise Council was one of a national network of 72 TECs set up by the Government in 1991 to replace the then Manpower Services Commission. In their locality each was responsible for, Government training programmes such as Modern Apprenticeships and Investors in People, development work with colleges of further education, economic development, business support, and for developing local initiatives to meet local needs. Although TEC funding was largely from the public sector they were independent private companies which ‘traded’ with the Government rather than receiving grant aid. They were limited by guarantee rather than shares so that all profits were ploughed back into the local community.

2.2) Humberside TEC was one of the larger TECs with an annual turnover of £35m and with 200 staff. In many ways we had much more freedom than the Civil Service agency that we replaced but we were restrained by our contract with the Government and we had the dubious pleasure of satisfying Government accounting and auditing as well as private company accounting and auditing.


3) Core concepts

3.1) During our journey we developed some core concepts which add clarity if stated up front. These are that:

All organisations are complex adaptive systems whether we want them to be or not. No matter how much command and control is exerted on the system, underneath the organisation also operates as a complex adaptive system, therefore it makes sense to view them as one.

Questions are often better than answers, and we spent a great deal of time looking for better questions and more importantly different questions. This is where viewing the organisation as a complex adaptive system helped as it enabled us to ask some very different questions.

The organisation is an entity in itself, ie the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. People pass through the organisation, and whilst it is constantly changing, it still maintains its own identity. Therefore a learning organisation is much more than one where its people are learning (although that is very important), it is one where the organisation itself learns. A frequent question we asked was “What is in the best interests of the organisation?”

In order to survive, and more importantly thrive we needed to co-evolve effectively with our environment. This required us to recognise how our environment was changing and to disperse the authority to make changes to the organisation to wherever was necessary. And most of all we needed to help the organisation learn.

That people in an organisation want to do a good job and if they are not it is because the organisation is preventing them from doing so in some way. Also that every one has a valuable and unique contribution to make.


4) Starting our journey

4.1) So how did we start our journey - well it sort of found us. We had intuitively realised that our planning processes did not work and that the more freedom we gave our people the harder they worked. So we had started implementing processes to take account of our intuition.

4.2) We had removed all reference to hours with our staff, they were free to come and go as they pleased and do what they wanted when they wanted as long as the job got done. This gave staff the responsibility and control over their own work, which helped to relieve stress and increase commitment. It also began the process of demonstrating trust. It also massively decreased overtime working.

4.3) We had abolished hierarchy charts as we felt that they were a false construct, and told everyone that they could talk to anyone, and should. I suspect that most people actually constructed their own charts for reference, but they that would probably have all been different because they represented that individual’s perspective of the business.

4.4) We realised that most of our rules and procedures were too bureaucratic and what’s more were based on “the worst person”. That is, when drawing up the rules we were thinking of who was most likely to get this job wrong and how can we ensure that they did not screw up, or who was most likely to try and take advantage.

So we started drawing up rules and procedures based on our best people, and where appropriate developing our worst people, or in extreme cases, getting rid of them. This then led to us developing “fuzzy policies” where rather than detailing the procedures to be followed we just stated the outcome we wanted.

Therefore our grievance procedure became “All grievances are to be resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned”. This put the emphasis on getting the right outcome rather than following laid down procedures and processes.

4.5) It then occurred to us that our biggest waste was management and checking processes and that if individuals could take full responsibility for their own objectives and actions that would free up the managers and checkers to get on with real work. This was when we ran into trouble! It was getting increasingly difficult to persuade both our Board of Non-executive Directors and our Government Contract Managers that we were not just operating some kind of lackadaisical free for all.

This was when complexity theory found us, first through a couple of management articles, and eventually through a Santa Fé Institute Conference where we met up with the London School of Economics who had a project looking at organisations as Complex Adaptive Systems. This gave us a respectability, which, although not necessarily understood by those who were sceptical, was sufficiently prestigious to allow us to experiment further.

4.6) This set the pattern for the rest of our journey through complexity. Rather than studying the theory and then trying to apply it in practice we seemed to do it the other way around, we just kept trying things (many of which didn’t work or we got wrong) and then we found the theory that explained what we were doing or what was happening. This then enabled us to ask new questions, and then to refine what we were doing, which led to us trying something new.

Our view of complexity theory was very “secular” in that its real value was that it gave us a different perspective on our organisation and we set about looking for other concepts that would also do that. We explored Neuro-Linguistic Programming, the Herman Whole Brain Model, Soft Systems, and much more, but the concept that made the most sense for the whole organisation, and helped us develop our new operating framework, was complexity theory because this was the one concept which also had room for all the others.

4.7) We had to accept that we were a complex adaptive system whether we wanted to be or not, and that if we were, then most of the traditional management and organisational approaches we had in place were at best ineffective and at worst harmful. We realised that in order to successfully co-evolve with our environment we needed to continuously learn at both the individual and more importantly the organisational level. We had to help the organisation become a learning organisation and this meant that we had to find ways to:

  • help the organisation with its natural evolution and emergence

  • improve the quality and quantity of its connections

  • develop more effective feedback mechanisms

These are explored in more depth below


5) Letting the organisation operate naturally

5.1) A learning organisation functions best (that is it learns most) when it is allowed to operate naturally, as a complex adaptive system. Therefore w e considered first, how we could help the organisation become a more natural one, emerging and co-evolving with its environment. This was not a one off event but a continuous discussion that took place in many forms involving everyone in the organisation. This discussion included:

Investing a lot of time on culture and values, eliciting from people what they thought they should be and when we had broad agreement asking them how they were going to get us there. This ensured that they owned the culture and values and understood that they were a product of their behaviour and thus a joint responsibility of everyone.

Considering what were we for, what did we want to be, and what was our purpose. In particular we spent a great deal of time considering “what do we want to be?” This was vital because it helped both provide a framework for everyone’s decision making as well as determining whether we should change to fit with the environment or to try and change the environment where it challenged our purpose.


5.2) After some initial attempts at writing down our answers to these questions we realised that writing them down would do more harm than good. These were emerging and evolving issues and writing them down would fix them in a point in time, and also every time we attempted to write them we lost so much of the essence of them. We realised that as everyone was involved in the process of clarifying the concepts they knew what the answers were, and also that the process was as important as the result. The nearest we got to codifying these concepts was to say “when in doubt do what’s in the best interests of the organisation even if it costs us”.


5.3) As part of this discussion we also considered on what should we base our organisational form, and after many mistakes three key principles emerged:

  1. All our staff were adults and were treated as such

  2. Everyone was trusted to operate in the best interests of the organisation

  3. We all gave each other loads of support

In effect, we recognised that our organisation was a community and that it would work best if we treated it like one.

5.4) Treating our staff as adults meant them not having to ask for permission, and not being told what to do and how to do it. We believed that every individual knew better than anyone else what was needed in their job, what their objectives should be and whether they were meeting those objectives. We trusted them to act in the best interests of the organisation and most importantly we told them that we trusted them to do so.

5.5) This approach had huge implications for us all. Critically, if staff were to operate in the best interests of the organisation they needed to know what the organisation was for, what was it’s purpose, and what did it want to be. They needed the skills of developing options, making choices, being accountable for their choices, coping with failure and learning from their mistakes. Although we were giving them immense amounts of freedom and effectively saying “you decide”, this was no soft option because they had nowhere to hide.

They couldn’t say when things went wrong “I was only doing as I was told”, because no-one was telling them, they had to take full responsibility for their actions and to recognise their accountability to everyone affected by their actions.

5.6) It was impossible to move to this way of operating straight away because people needed to develop the skills and confidence to handle freedom, but on the other hand you can’t develop those skills and that confidence without having the freedom. So, as we began gradually removing the controls on people we introduced a wide ranging development programme under the banner of “Being Comfortable with the Uncomfortable”

This was so called because we were asking people to move out of their comfort zone and the normal tendency when that happens is to try and get back to the area of in which one is comfortable. But we wanted people to stay in the area of discomfort and to learn how to become comfortable and furthermore we wanted them to actively expand their comfort zone. People often said to me “this is scary” and I would say “being scared is a really good management response”.


5.7) As part of the “Being Comfortable with the Uncomfortable” programme:

We introduced a thinking and learning skills programme. If people were to take responsibility for their part of the organisation they needed to generate options and to be able to chose between them. This meant that they had to be able to develop a wide range of thinking and learning strategies. This part of the programme included the Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the Whole Brain Model mentioned earlier as well as “How to be a Brilliant Learner”, “Thinking About Thinking”, De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats and much more.

We also wished to develop peoples’ confidence, self-responsibility, and accountability. Much of this was done within the work context. For example when people came to me for a decision I initially helped them identify the options and helped them choose the “right” one, after a while I then sent them away to do this for themselves, and eventually, when they were ready, I wouldn’t even let them tell me what they had decided until after the decision had been implemented.

Also most of our staff went on Dale Carnegie’s “High Impact Presentation Skills” course, not because we wanted them all to give presentations but having to stand up in front of people to give a wide range of presentations can do wonders for building confidence.

We introduced the concept of “loving mistakes to death”, meaning that mistakes are an essential part of learning and taking responsibility, and that “if you are not making mistakes you can’t be trying”. The most important part of a mistake is that by definition you end up in an unexpected position and that opportunities become clear from that were not apparent before. However there is a difference between a mistake and sloppiness and we were very “stroppy with sloppy”.


6) Enriching and increasing connections

6.1) In order to learn any system needs to have strong and multiple connections between its component parts. Therefore we implemented a number of measures to improve both the internal and external connectivity of our people:

We ran a number of whole organisation away events to look at issues such as becoming more resourceful, and built into these events were devices that required people to work with others that they did not normally come into contact with in the organisation.

I used to give a quarterly update to all the staff to ensure that they all heard the same message from the same person at the same time. The format was a short input from me followed by a coffee break where the staff had to team up with others they did not know too well and to discuss what the issues were that they would like to hear about. The meeting then resumed with a question and answer session on those issues.

Everyone was encouraged to belong to external groups and we facilitated many of our staff becoming school governors or mentors for young people. Support and, where necessary, training was given for this.

We were attracted to the complexity concept that, “to function well a system needs some built in redundancy”, that is available spare resource that can be called on in times of need. Therefore, when we came across interesting and challenging people who could add a different dimension to our organisation we recruited them whether we had a vacancy or not. There was always plenty for them to do, even if that amounted to them challenging us to think about things differently, and they were invaluable in times of pressure.

We built a café right in the middle of the most used thoroughfare in our building so that people could meet and mix for recreational and business purposes. It became the most popular meeting area in the place and was even in demand by people outside the organisation for their meetings.


7) Enhancing feedback

7.1) Feedback is the process whereby systems learn and adjust their responses to their environment and is therefore crucial to the learning process.

7.2) We explored with everyone, as part of the development programme, the concept of consequences and ensured that wherever possible feedback loops was closed. We encouraged every one to appreciate that “feedback is”, that is that it is all around us and that everything that happens is feedback. And we also ran development sessions on “Giving and Receiving Feedback”.

7.3) Our biggest breakthrough on feedback, however, came when we examined our appraisal process. Up until then we had had a tick box rating system based on the one we had inherited from the Civil Service and which was completed by managers. We wanted to “get rid” of our managers, so we devised our own paperless 360º appraisal process. First, we gave responsibility for appraisal to the individual, they decided when, where, how and who should be there.

The basic model was that a group of up to about of ten people should be invited representing people the individual being appraised accounted to, people who accounted to them, customers, and suppliers, and all of these could be internal or external people as appropriate. In the meeting room there would be a sheet of flip chart paper on each wall, one headed “stop”, and the others “start”, “continue” and “change”.

All the appraisers were given a different colour marker pen and proceeded to put their thoughts on each of the sheets of flip chart paper. Then, under the guidance of a facilitator they would discuss what was on the sheets of flip chart paper to gain greater clarity. Following this, the appraisee returned to the room, read what was on the sheets and questioned the appraisers about what they had put and why.

We found that people were more open and honest in this form of feedback and because the feedback was coming from a number of directions it was more balanced and acceptable to the appraisee. But most importantly, we found that the appraisers were getting just as much from the process because what was actually being appraised were the relationships between all the people present in the room - which takes us full circle to the emerging organisation and connections.

8) Leadership in a learning organisation

8.1) So, if everyone was responsible for themselves and mangers were not needed why did the TEC need a Chief Executive?

Well it didn’t need a traditional Chief Executive and I had to re-invent the role. First I adopted a “Holding Leadership” style that is about the creation and protection of possibility space, and I saw my job as:

Scanning the Environment, both external and internal, looking for regularities and patterns and analysing their likely impact on the organisation.

Giving Feedback on the findings from the environment scanning, and helping to make connections between the various parts of the organisation, again both internally and externally.

Clearing Pathways by identifying and removing the remaining vestiges of any inappropriate command and control mechanisms which were preventing peoples' natural potential to shine through.

Giving Oceans of Support in terms of time, space, encouragement etc. and by consistently living the philosophy.

Messing things up a bit, if things are getting too comfortable and the organisation was starting to drift back towards equilibrium, giving it a nudge back towards the “edge of chaos”.

8.2) I was accountable for the organisation’s running but it wasn’t my job to run it, rather to ensure the maintenance of all the parts of the system so that the whole exceeded the sum of the parts.


9) So what organisational learning took place?

9.1) This is all very well you may say, but what organisational learning was there, as opposed to individuals learning. I believe that that organisational learning was demonstrated in numerous ways with the most obvious being:

The TEC always maintained a good fit with its environment and was well regarded by its stakeholders. It was seen as a cooperative, enthusiastic, and an essential business partner.

TECs were an agent for change and Humberside TEC was seen as an exemplar, always willing to lead by example in both promoting change and in changing itself. In fact the TEC changed dramatically over its ten years but there was never a formal change programme or process, the changes just occurred naturally.

The structure of the TEC was very different over its ten years, yet there was never a formal restructuring programme. We believed that structures should follow and not lead. Therefore all changes in structure occurred naturally as a result in changes to tasks and workflow etc. Similarly people chose where they sat and moved desks (literally) to where it made most sense to be.

Although the individuals in the TEC were all very different as we encouraged variety and diversity, our stakeholders often commented on how corporate we were, in that no matter which part of the organisation they went they always received the same answer.


10) Conclusion

10.1) Our story of Humberside TEC demonstrates how a learning organisation can be developed by using the principles of complexity. Staff can take ownership of the organisation resulting in the development of a thriving community where innovation flourishes and where traditional results improve and costs fall. However if this is to happen the change must start at the top with the leader living and breathing the culture, values and approach, and the concepts must be persevered with even when the going gets tough.

10.2) This is not a prescription for a perfect organisation, things go wrong, ideas do not work out and many mistakes are made, but the results are better than trying to run the organisation along the traditional command and control approach.

10.3) I believe that the key points in being a learning organisation are that the organisation needs to understand that they:

  • are a complex adaptive system and that they need to work with the natural flow of the organisation

  • need to identify and share the organisations purpose and desired state of being

  • cannot capture the really important aspects of the business and that they must trust the organisation to know what they are

  • cannot create a perfect organisation and accept that however they choose to operate things will go wrong

  • must more than tolerate mistakes and see them as a positive contribution to the development of the organisation. Mistakes must be welcomed

10.4) There is no single correct view of any organisational journey as the London School of Economics, case study of the TEC amply demonstrated. Everyone on the journey has a different story and this is mine.


For an alternative perspective read an article entitled “Becoming a learning company” by Frances Storr who was an occupational psychologist at the TEC

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