Putting the complexity into the complex


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Author: Philip Wood

‘Schools/universities are complex organisations’. This is a statement we hear on a frequent basis when discussing the experience of schools and universities. But how often is this a throw-away line with little consideration of its implications? If schools and universities are complex, why do so many rely on reductive processes to understand and develop their own activities? How can we harness and understand complexity in ways that inform rather than impede institutional growth?

The shift towards managerialism in schools and universities since the late 1980s has led to a system which treasures simple measures of productivity, such as examination results, student satisfaction and destination data. This has developed in conjunction with a belief that if we can just identify the factors which will maximise outcomes, then we will be able to bring greater effectiveness and higher productivity. As a consequence, numeric data have become central to understanding educational organisations, accompanied by a belief that analysis of this data will lead to clear trajectories for improvement. When inspections occur, it is these same ‘numeric landscapes’ which are mined for evidence of quality, as if they tell the complete story of the organisation. These managerialist approaches contain fundamental assumptions which are highly reductive in nature. They assume that simplified sets of numeric data reflect accurately the ‘complex organisations’ to which they relate, and further, that if only we can use this data properly and accurately that we can foster ‘best practices’.  Thus we have educationalists who describe their organisations as ‘complex’, whilst leading them as ‘reductive’ entities.  

Almost a decade ago, David Snowden and Mary Boone published a paper in the Harvard Business Review, in which they consider the decision-making processes in which leaders need to engage, 5 contrasting situations in which decisions have to be made; simple, complicated, complex, chaotic and undefined. These five contexts differ with respect to the relationships between causes and effects and the impacts these have on the dynamics of decision-making. I concentrate here on those with the greatest relevance to the leadership of educational institutions - simple, complicated and complex:

  • Simple contexts are characterised by cause and effect patterns which are well established and stable (often of a one-to-one nature). In such cases, there is clearly definable ‘best-practice’ where simple, and tried-and-tested solutions can be applied by all.
  • Complicated contexts are less well defined. Here, there may be multiple appropriate ways forward in response to an issue, but there are still clear links between (a greater number of) causes and effects; it takes more time and thought to find a constructive solution, but it is still relatively easy, with application, to find a positive answer to a situation.
  • A complex context is in a dynamic state leading to levels of unpredictability and flux. Understanding of the context, therefore, actually only occurs retrospectively. This means that positive ways forward come from rich engagement with the context and exploration of possibilities to help develop a coherent response. Whilst there is often a desire to control, to attempt this only leads to restriction and choking off of possible resolutions.

I would argue that when we instinctively identify schools and universities as ‘complex’, we are right. Many of the situations which occur in education are complex in nature (take teaching itself), but we constantly try to reduce that complexity to a point where we convince ourselves that we have gained full control, whilst actually hiding from ourselves our increasingly narrow understanding of our own organisations. If we overly rely on reductive data, and instil hierarchical management, we are actually operating against the very structures we need to work with to find positive ways forward.

Snowden and Boone offer pointers as to some of the approaches which will allow organisations to operate well in complex situations. These include the opening up of discussion within recognised organisational boundaries (to ensure a level of focus and coherence) where the ideas of all are sought and fostered. Diversity and dissent need to be encouraged thereby offering insights based on experimentation and experience. These approaches foster institutional open-mindedness about emerging outcomes and change (rather than establishing beforehand what the detail of the outcomes will be), but require a horizontal and receptive structure rather than hierarchical organisations operating through fear and diktat. To develop a complexity approach to organisation requires trust and a place for narrative. Finally, all of these approaches cannot work through rigid annual cycles of ‘improvement planning’ and ‘performance management’, instead they call for an environment of constant dialogue and trust.    

If we know that schools and universities are predominantly complex in nature, we need to explore what this means. We need to begin to understand and adopt perspectives which are often at odds with the managerial structures we have created. Whilst we might be able to convince ourselves that the reductive portraits we paint of our organisations are useful, they are often only a hazy shadow of the complexity of the lived reality they attempt to capture.

Phil Wood is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Education, University of Leicester with research interests at the intersection of complexity theory, pedagogy, teacher development, and accountability.

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