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Stacey’s Complexity Theory

An important idea that comes from Stacey’s Complexity Theory is that small changes at key points early on can have huge downstream effects. But can one predict with any certainty where those changes and leverage points will be or what downstream results will emerge as the result of actions we take today? Often the answer is no. Motorola likely had no clear idea where wireless technology would take the world when it began work on cellular phone technology in the 1960s. Likewise, Monsanto probably had little sense of the magnitude of the marketplace resistance that would build for genetically modified seeds when its research and development program was initiated in the 1980s.

We may not be able to predict precisely what will transpire over the long term, but we can make complex and uncertain futures more understandable and predictable if we do our homework in an open systems manner, look at data in nonlinear as well as linear terms, engage different voices and perspectives in the discussion, and rigorously consider different scenarios and different approaches to envisioning what the future might look like.

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When organizations do this, they are likely to get a sense of what is possible from a visionary, directional, and technological perspective. Further, through the engagement and involvement of many, change leaders are in a strong position to initiate change with a shared sense of purpose. They are also more likely to have identified critical actions and events that must occur and where some of the potentially important leverage and resistance points exist. As a result, they are more aware of how things may unfold and are in a stronger position to take corrective or alternative action as a result of their ongoing monitoring and management of the process.44 As well, change agents will recognize the importance of contingency planning as unpredictable, unplanned events occur.

It may not be possible to predict absolute outcomes. However, it is possible to generally predict where an organization is likely to end up if it adopts a particular strategy and course of action. The identification of the direction and the initial steps allow an organization to begin the journey. Effective monitoring and management processes allow leaders to make adjustments as they move forward. The ability to do this with complex change comes about as the result of hard work, commitment, a suitable mindset (e.g., openness and flexibility), relevant skills and competencies, appropriate participation and involvement approaches, access to sufficient resources, and control and signaling processes. In the end, the authors of this book subscribe to the belief that “Luck is the intersection of opportunity and preparation.”

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