Why are we looking for alternative ways of understanding Change in organizations? Because we are noticing that what we are doing is not working well enough. The big question then becomes – why is it not working and what can we do differently? This has been explored thoroughly from many different angles for a long time.

Ralph Stacey and his fellow researchers and students at the Doctor of Management Program (DMan) at the University of Hertfordshire have explored this question over a period of more than twenty years. In this, they use complexity theories from science as an analogy for understanding how change actually occurs in organizations.

What is complexity and leadership about and why is it important in understanding change in organizations?

As a DMan student, I have investigated this for quite some time. And to me an experience I had a year ago helped me make sense of this question. I will share it with you because of a conversation I had this weekend at the Complexity and Management Conference just south of London. I was talking at the time with Chris Rodgers*. His response to my sharing this experience was enthusiasm and delight; much like my own original experience. He encouraged me to put it down in writing and has later worked with me on the article. The story goes…

    About a year ago I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to sit in on a Master Class by Leif Ove Andsnes, a world renowned Norwegian pianist. In it, he generously shared his knowledge and experience with students, to help them become more accomplished in their chosen art.

    My curiosity was around how he would approach teaching his students to become even more fluent at playing the piano. What would he emphasise? How would he articulate it? And could I possibly learn something from it in my search to understand how to contribute more effectively to change as a leader or consultant?

    The first five minutes of the Master Class triggered my curiosity to the max.

    One of the students started playing a musical piece. As I listened, it all sounded correct and precise. He didn’t make any mistakes, as far as I noticed. But the whole thing didn’t do anything for me. I wasn’t moved. I really didn’t connect to what he was playing. I found myself thinking about other things, like my next meeting or the report I should be working on. I didn’t pay attention. It didn’t make an impression on me and I didn’t engage with it. In hindsight I would describe his playing as «instrumental», or «mechanical» even. He was doing the right things, but it didn’t invite me to engage.

    Then Leif Ove played the same piece.

    Tears welled up in my eyes. I was deeply moved and drawn into what he was playing. I engaged with it one hundred percent. He had my full attention. I felt a deep sense of connectedness. It was as if we were in this together in some way. I was fascinated. What was going on? How could it be that the exact same piece of music had such a profoundly different impact on me? I sensed that there was something important to understand in this experience.

    Leif Ove finished playing, turned towards the student and started to explain. He began by talking about the room they were playing in. He said something along the lines of «in this room, with this temperature and moisture, you can play like this», as he then demonstrated. «But in another room, you will have to adjust it like this». Leif Ove was taking in his surroundings with every cell in his body, really wanting to understand the context he was playing into, in all of its juicy detail. He frequently closed his eyes when listening to the student playing the piece again. He was paying full attention – fully present in the moment.

    He next went on to talk about how piano schools teach you to hold your hands, with the fingers at a particular angle on the tangents of the piano. He said, «forget this» – «hold your hands like this instead». He then showed a way to hold the hands that would allow the maximum connection between the fingertips and the piano. He explained that we have an extremely high sensitivity in our fingertips and that the more that these are in touch with the keys, the better we can «talk» through the piano.

    His final point triggered what I would describe as a deep sense of respect towards this man. I found myself thinking that he had obviously been through his share of challenges in life. He drew attention to the last part of the piece that the student had played and described it as dark and messy. «It is, » he observed, «harsh and unfriendly. » He said that you cannot possibly play this section and stay connected with the audience without owning it yourself. You have to accept your own messiness and «darkness» to be able to stick with it and play it to the audience in a genuine way. It is this that allows the audience to connect with it themselves. He explained that if you do not connect with it fully, and stay with it, it will become instrumental.

As change agents or leaders we are very much playing into a context. And if we do not deeply understand this context, we cannot act wisely into it. If we ignore the details, if we are disconnected or preoccupied with our own instrumental tools and matter-of-fact methods, we cannot connect. And if we do not connect, we cannot communicate well. And if we cannot communicate well, how can we expect to have any meaningful impact?

The challenge for managers and consultants, as for the skilled pianist, is that the context is never the same. Therefore, the mechanical application of so-called «Best Practice» becomes problematic. What works in one situation will probably not work in another. So, like Leif Ove, we need:

  • to immerse ourselves fully in the context into which we are acting – in all of its juicy detail;
  • to ensure maximum connection with the instrument of our practice (i.e. conversation), in ways which enable us to stay in touch with, and remain sensitive to, the changing needs of the moment;
  • to own and stay with the real-world messiness of organization – and our own participation in it.

This understanding demands a new kind of leadership and consulting. It calls for a practice of skilfully playing into the moment. And for practitioners who keep training this skill. For, as with playing the piano, this takes a lot of practice and you are never fully developed as a player.

Drawing on complexity sciences, Ralph Stacey & co helps us gain a better understanding of the context, of what goes on in the moment, so that we may skilfully play into it and thus act more effectively as leaders and change agents.

* Thank you, Chris, for encouragement and feedback on the article (www.chrisrodgers.com)