The Limits of Strategy: Lessons in Leadership from the Computer Industry


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Complexity Leadership: An Overview of Core Concepts and Frameworks

A full explanation of IMP and its application is best left to other articles e. Yet, essentially, IMP is a meta-epistemology that integrates all of the major epistemological methodologies. It is summarized in Figure 2. Figure 2: The eight major methodologies of integral methodological pluralism Source: Wilber Courtesy Integral Institute. Each of these methodologies enable us to reliably reveal knowledge about the different aspects of a phenomenon.

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These eight major methodologies help us to understand and explain the intentional, behavioral, cultural, and social forces that affect any given phenomenon, such as a leadership initiative. The more aware we are of all major forces at play, the greater chance we have of responding appropriately and succeeding in bringing about our objectives.


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The eight major methodologies are: phenomenology , structuralism , autopoiesis , empiricism , hermeneutics , ethnomethodology , social autopoiesis , and systems theory Wilber, The usage of these terms here differs slightly from their use in other contexts. Certainly there are other research approaches, but these are some of the more historically significant Wilber, a.

Each is a unique culture of inquiry which reveals a perspective and data that the others cannot. The practice of using as many of these methodologies as is practically possible, to gain a comprehensive understanding of any phenomena, is called integral methodological pluralism Wilber, Complexity theory is based in two of the eight methodologies of IMP: it is mostly grounded in systems theory Bertalanffy, ; Laszlo, a, b and somewhat draws upon social autopoiesis Capra, , ; Luhmann, , Complexity theory has been explained as an expansion of systems theory by some leading researchers Stacey, et al.

Thus, while it can offer very powerful insights about leadership, it still holds an epistemological bias that filters out other equally valid data concerning leadership. As such, the practice of complexity leadership should be supplemented with other types of leadership that draw upon different epistemologies, thereby helping leaders to see a broader picture than that offered by complexity leadership alone.

Uhl-Bien and Marion strive to do this in their article on complexity leadership theory. Not only did they mention the linkages to transformational leadership and other leadership approaches in their earlier writings, their framework for complexity leadership includes adaptive leadership, administrative leadership, and enabling leadership. In my opinion, this is primarily done to acknowledge that not all leadership activities require or are served by a complexity leadership approach.

In some cases, such an approach is unnecessarily complex and not useful when traditional managerial and leadership practices are sufficient such as in administrative leadership. Thus, when combined with transformational leadership and even other leadership practices, a leader begins to draw upon multiple epistemologies that enable him or her to see a more comprehensive picture. However, it should be noted that even this combination — complexity leadership theory plus transformational leadership theory and adaptive, administrative, and enabling leadership — will still leave out several of the key epistemologies that provide important data on any leadership situation.

Missing but often highly relevant perspectives include phenomenology Idhe, , hermeneutics Howard, , ethnomethodology e. In my review of the complexity leadership literature, particularly salient for me was how strongly it de-centers the subject. These perspectives, as traditionally defined, do not incorporate the subjective viewpoint of the observer or participant.

This appears to be a profound limitation for the complexity leadership literature because it does not acknowledge, much less attempt to tap into as a source for creative insight, the subjective reality and internal experience of leaders themselves. Humans are not merely rational, objective beings, and, as such, subjective forces, dynamics and influences are present during any leadership moment. To not even acknowledge the entire subjective reality experienced by leaders and draw upon it as part of the complexity leadership process seems to be doing a disservice to both the field and the leaders that engage with it.

A complexity leadership theorist might say that such subjective experiences and influences are indeed incorporated into the approach as they are considered as potential small perturbations to the complex adaptive system that can cause large-scale change. However, this response still demonstrates an objectification of subjectivity, for which empiricism has long been criticized.

Fundamentally, despite the critical viewpoint I have offered, I believe that efforts to encourage complexity leadership to incorporate the subjective sciences and other epistemologies are not likely succeed. Such a strategy seems short sighted. Rather, complexity leadership should be embraced for the valuable perspectives it provides and encouraged to develop its approaches to leading through that epistemology.

Yet it should also be held within a larger context and broader leadership approach that incorporates other types of epistemological inquiry. What we need is not to force different epistemologies and leadership approaches to change so as to be inclusive of all others, but instead to adapt a meta-epistemological framework — and ultimately a meta-leadership framework — that embraces each of them for their unique perspective while also recognizing their inherent limits. Integral methodological pluralism offers one such meta-epistemological framework, and a leadership framework based upon it may offer a pathway through this theoretical entanglement.

The second potential limitation I see to complexity leadership concerns the degree of meaning-making maturity that may be required to effectively engage with it.

My proposition is that leaders with more mature meaning-making systems may be more capable of engaging the practices of complexity leadership. Conversely, those with conventional meaning-making systems may not be able to fully adapt to the fundamental changes in leadership perspective called for by complexity leadership. Traditional leadership is largely decentralized in this approach, and those with positional power are asked to think in systems, tend to the conditions that support emergence, and focus on process rather than outcome.

The literature challenges leaders to manage the polarity between equilibrium and dis-equilibrium — between stability and chaos — and that they foster conflict and dissonance in the system regularly.


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  • Complexity leaders are also called to see multiple causal loops, recognize patterns within complex processes from the micro to the macro, and engage in improvisational dance with complex adaptive systems — listening closely and responding in an instant. These leadership behaviors would seem to require not only considerable cognitive complexity, but also a very mature self-identity and ability to make meaning. The meaning-making systems of the majority of managers and leaders may not be sufficient to sustainably engage — without regular support — in these behaviors. To clarify this point, I offer below a brief review of the studies that have estimated the distribution of leaders and managers across the spectrum of meaning-making systems, from pre-conventional to conventional to post-conventional.

    Limits of Strategy Lessons in Leadership From The Computer Industry by Von Sims

    I propose that the qualities of conventional meaning-making systems limit the ability of those with them to engage effectively in complexity leadership. This is because complexity leadership seems to require a strong comfort with ambiguity, uncertainty, and not knowing.


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    • Other requirements seem to be: enter deeply into multiple frames of reference and take many perspectives [such as to manage the entanglement between adaptive and administrative structures Uhl-Bien, et al. Thus, those with later stages of meaning-making may be able to adeptly handle the challenges of complexity leadership.

      This is because, for example, the main focus of the expert action logic is expertise, procedure and efficiency Cook-Greuter, Experts tend to be immersed in the logic of their own craft and regard it as the only valid way of thinking. These qualities of the Expert meaning-making system do not seem to align with the demands of complexity leadership. Achievers face a similar struggle, although they may have better chances. For them, the main focus is on delivery of results, effectiveness, achieving goals and being successful within the system Cook-Greuter, They tend to emphasize reason, analysis, measurement and prediction Cook-Greuter, It is not until the first of the postconventional action logics — the Individualist — that one really begins to understand complexity, systemic connections and unintended effects of actions.

      Additionally, Individualists can play different roles in varying contexts and are able to adjust their behavior to the context Torbert, et al. These qualities, and the others previously mentioned that develop in the postconventional action logics, seem to more accurately fit the needs of complexity leadership. In sum, while complexity leadership theory and its various approaches offer considerable potential improving leadership, the training of it should probably be reserved for leaders who have demonstrated advanced i. It does not seem realistic to expect leaders with a conventional action logic to learn and sustainably engage with it over an extended duration.

      The application of complexity theory to leadership has generated a novel field and important perspective that facilitates the understanding of complex organizational behavior. It reveals dynamics and forces present within and across organizations that no other approach to leadership offers. When combined with other leadership approaches that complement its epistemological bias toward systems theory, complexity leadership can be a powerful tool for any individual to support organizational change.

      For me, personally, the study of complexity leadership theory and practice has provided a fresh and powerful leadership lens. My engagement with this literature has dislodged several notions I previously held about leadership and has inspired new ways to think about and act in the face of complexity. My biggest change is a commitment toward supporting the conditions for the emergence of novel order within complex adaptive systems.

      By focusing on creating fertile ground for innovation and insight to sprout within and across systems, I feel that I do have some degree of influence over the otherwise uncontrollable reality of organizational behavior. The field of complexity leadership theory and practice is still young and will require considerable research to substantiate its claims and realize its full potential.

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      Complexity leadership is not a panacea for our leadership problems, and never will be in my opinion. No matter how much research backs its findings, it will continue to require supplemental perspectives to fully map the leadership terrain. Nonetheless, I feel that it offers one of the most important ways to reflect upon and engage in leadership. Our organizational environments are becoming increasingly complex, and the complexity leadership approach is grounded in decades of research in how to work with complex systems.

      Anderson, Philip Complexity theory and organization science. Organization Science, 10 3 , Self-Organized Criticality. Physics Today, 42 1 , S Bass, B.

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      Implications of transactional and transformational leadership for individual, team, and organizational development. Passmore Eds. The Bass handbook of leadership: Theory, research, and managerial applications. New York: Free Press. Transformational leadership. Mahwah, N. Brown, Barrett C. Use of integral methodological pluralism to comprehensively engage in sustainability initiatives.

      The Limits of Strategy: Lessons in Leadership from the Computer Industry The Limits of Strategy: Lessons in Leadership from the Computer Industry
      The Limits of Strategy: Lessons in Leadership from the Computer Industry The Limits of Strategy: Lessons in Leadership from the Computer Industry
      The Limits of Strategy: Lessons in Leadership from the Computer Industry The Limits of Strategy: Lessons in Leadership from the Computer Industry
      The Limits of Strategy: Lessons in Leadership from the Computer Industry The Limits of Strategy: Lessons in Leadership from the Computer Industry
      The Limits of Strategy: Lessons in Leadership from the Computer Industry The Limits of Strategy: Lessons in Leadership from the Computer Industry
      The Limits of Strategy: Lessons in Leadership from the Computer Industry The Limits of Strategy: Lessons in Leadership from the Computer Industry
      The Limits of Strategy: Lessons in Leadership from the Computer Industry The Limits of Strategy: Lessons in Leadership from the Computer Industry

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