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Complexity theory offers a powerful tool for understanding and working with diversity.

The world we live in is getting more difficult to navigate, especially when it comes to diversity and difference. First, there is more information available than ever before. Gone are the days of three TV channels. Now anyone can self-publish information on YouTube, Medium, Twitter, and podcasts. Second, social media allows for constant dialogue 24/7. A single inappropriate use of language can, in minutes, spark a blaze of memes. And lastly, terminology is constantly changing. Is the “correct” term “Native American” or “American Indian?” And who gets to say it is correct?

How can we learn to navigate difference when there is more information than we can consume, ideas evolve at a rapid pace, and there is ambiguity and inconsistency around what is “correct?”

Our old models for solving problems will not work with the rise of what complexity experts call volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA).

Simple, Complicated, and Complex

Complexity theory identifies systems as falling into two categories: predictable and unpredictable. A predictable system is repeatable, follows the rules of cause and effect, and lives in the land of the probable. Unpredictable systems don’t have clear cause and effect relationships and live in the land of the possible. Problems exist in a continuum from unpredictable to predictable, and are referred to as simple, complicated, and complex. (We’ll leave off “chaotic” for now.)

A simple problem has a clear cause and effect solution: I’m hungry, I eat an apple, the hunger goes away.

A complicated problem also follows cause and effect, but finding the solution may require time for analysis. For example, I may need to get my car repaired. I don’t know how to repair a car, so I take my car to an auto mechanic with special expertise. A trained mechanic will be able to go through the maze of interconnected parts, indicators, and wires and understand how they all work together to find a likely solution.

Now take the example of raising a child. There are so many variables and events outside of our control that we cannot predict the perfect path to success. The child-raising approach you used with your first child doesn’t even guarantee success with your second child.

When we start working with things like human beings, social groups, weather or markets we are addressing complex problems. In order to handle these types of problems well we need to shift our perspective from looking for what is probable—looking to past experiences to predict the future—to looking for what is possible. What is happening in the present moment and what single, available step is most likely to take us towards what we want?

Diversity is Complicated and Inclusion is Complex

Increasing diversity within an organization can be a predictable, complicated problem. We can predict, for example, that by recruiting in areas that better represent target groups we can increase the number of people of that target group in the applicant pool. While it may not be entirely that simple, with the right experts an organization can increase diversity.

Now that we have hired more people from the underrepresented groups, or diversified our student body, how can we help everyone get along and thrive? How can we retain these new hires? How can teaching styles be adjusted to fit the needs of these new students without losing existing students? Can the organizational culture shift to allow for new cultures, perspectives, and needs?

We are no longer dealing with a predictable problem: we are now dealing with complexity. What was done in the past won’t necessarily work now, nor will the best practices of other organizations necessarily work for our organization. There are too many variables. Different organizations are located in different environments, have different histories, and have different needs that change as they grow. Meanwhile, current events keep delivering new surprises, new technologies come and go, people come and go, and external and internal cultures shift for a huge number of reasons.

Different Methods for Different Systems

With a complex system we cannot determine outcomes like we can in a complicated system. We can only enable outcomes using a different set of skills.

To solve a complex problem we need to make several shifts:

Look at the past → Look at the present
Single perspective → Multiple perspectives
Be an expert → Ask questions
Stay on track →  Notice emergent patterns
Goal driven → Experiment

Cultivating Inclusion

Here is one example of a method for dealing with complexity. Say you’ve increased your organization’s diversity and are having challenges with team dynamics. Try conducting a survey to better understand how people currently see the situation, norms and challenges. Explore the responses and look for patterns. Based on the patterns, form a guess as to how a small change, a little experiment, might make a shift. These experiments should be simple to implement and non-catastrophic if they fail: what are called, “safe to fail experiments.”

Try the experiment with one or two teams and see what happens. Did inclusive behavior increase? If so, try the experiment with other groups. Did inclusive behavior decrease? If so, try a different experiment. This is how we navigate complexity: with tiny steps and small experiments, one step at a time through the fog, adding more weight when we feel solid ground and shifting our foot when we don’t.

Inclusion is deeply related to culture. Culture is a complex living ecosystem. Making things even more difficult, culture is also almost completely invisible to us from the inside. As the old saying goes, a fish doesn’t know what “water” is. We need to be able to step up and out of the ocean to gain perspective, ask the sort of questions that open new ways of seeing, and gather fresh observations from both deeper within and without.

Hiring an outside consultant can bring in the outside view, and training an internal team to track culture can provide a source of what is presently alive in the organization. The key is have dedicated, skilled cultural botanists spotting and responding to emerging patterns, continuing to pop out of the assumptions that limit our field of view, and tending to the health of the organization and its necessary continuous evolution.


Author Angella

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