Let’s look at the three kinds of complex within a school environment:
Simple systems are when a ‘few objects or variables interact’. This would apply to small teams with the simplest of lesson plans and most basic of timetables. Everything has been prepared, rehearsed and repeated so often it’s like clockwork.
This is massively reassuring for those who want to be able to predict, without too adjustment to their own habitual way of being, what is happening and what the outcomes are going to be. On the surface these classrooms and schools are tidy, orderly and efficient. Scratch the surface and you’ll find, whilst this approach might serve the needs of the few, the majority of children are not being catered for.
Also, time seems different at each level dependent on if the individual is open or closed. If open then you will see time as a balance between the past, present and future. If you are closed at the simple state you can only cope with the here and now. Everything is important and there’s always a deadline and inevitable disappointment (things not done, or slipping out of place’).
Complicated systems is when there are a large number of variables (pupils, subjects, teachers, budget, external pressures such as governors and government et al) in the system (school, college, university or any other institution with more than three people and one shared task). It is now vital to adapt to more complicated and interconnected dynamics.
In many of the schools I work with the challenge is supporting school leaders to be open to move beyond their own self-doubt and manage the unreasonable, ill-informed and partial understanding of staff, governors and government whilst the school moves to the next level of thinking and being.
This is even harder for ‘open’ leaders working with ‘closed’ staff and governors and impossible if both parties are closed. Time, seen through the lense of closed individuals in a complicated system is backward focused. Everything has to be a continuation of what has been. A complacent ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ attitude prevails. Change can only occur once reassurance is given that any new initiative will not disregard, disrupt or dismiss earlier practices and processes. Or worse still, a crisis occurs to force change (potentially change that could have been planned for).
Complexity is when a system recognises and responds to the fact that it is shaped by its own complicated elements. Therefore, predictability is difficult and certainty is impossible. That is not to say that complex systems cannot deliver outcomes. They can. However, the outcomes or the pathway to achieving these may not be what was expected. When the framework for supporting such a dynamic self-organising system allows for all parts of the system to work toward a shared goal, the outcomes are always greater than if the system relied on the effort and insights of the chosen few (Senior Leadership Team, department heads, teachers).
The additional challenge to a leadership team to embrace a new, genuinely complex curriculum, timetable or approach to learning, requires them to let go of the very competences that got them the job in the first place. That’s not to say that the skills they have don’t have a value in the emerging system. They do. It’s just that the skills they need for the new system have yet to be discovered and developed and cannot not be revealed until an opening for the new complex system to begin is created.
What a dilemma! However you are never going to solve the problems and challenges of any system using the same approaches and mindset that created the problems in the first place. Using linear, mechanistic systems in a complex. non-mechanistic, self-organising system just don’t work. In the words of Brent Davis and Dennis Sumara (‘Complexity and Education’):
"The behaviours of simple and complicated systems are mechanical. They can be thoroughly described and reasonably predicted on the basis of precise rules, whereas the rules that govern complex systems can vary dramatically from one system to the next. Moreover, these rules can be volatile, subject to change if the system changes. Such precariousness arises in part from the fact that the “components” for the complex system are themselves dynamic and adaptive".
Time at this level of complexity, to those who are open to it, is both future focused and gives value to, and draws lessons from, the past. There is no throwing babies out with the bathwater here. Leaders are comfortable with the tension in supporting an existing system as it moves towards its inevitable decline, whilst putting in strategies and staff to explore, plan and prepare for the next stage of growth. As Margaret Wheatley, author of ‘Leadership and The New Science’, says they have to be both a ‘hospice worker’ and ‘midwife’ at the same time.
The leader who works at this level knows that unless they can undergo their own personal transformation then their organisation will not be transformed. Whilst it’s unfortunate for them and their school if they don’t grasp the reality that people who are in the systems transform the system they’re in, then there is little hope of any new system being allowed to evolve.
Which leader do you want to be?