Human teams are enigmatic entities: they collaborate on shared aims and goals at one level, and randomly reshape or reform those very aims and goals at another. Welcome to complexity theory.

For managers, this can be something of a headache. Getting a project wrapped up on time and on budget appears to require disciplined oversight of the disparate crews working on different parts of it.  However, in today’s business world, the interconnections between people, enhanced and multiplied by digital technology, would require God-like powers to oversee and control. What’s the alternative?

Before answering, let’s consider the human beings constituting a team. No one turns up for work as a blank slate. Everyone brings a potentially infinite personal history along with them, and few of us manage to park it outside the office door. Why infinite? Because human minds aren’t merely repositories of personal data; personal experience isn’t stored in the way that a digital camera stores an image.

The psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe highlights the pivotal role of what he calls “the signified” in human mental life: the continually evolving nature of the meanings we have attributed to our earlier experiences, which come under continual revision from present and future experiences. We may not be able to alter certain material facts about our past – bereavement, a traumatic separation, a childhood illness, etc. However, we can and do alter the weighting and meaning these experiences have in our emotional economy in the light of new experiences.

If it’s impossible to command how our personal histories will influence our present-day interactions (controlling the infinite isn’t something that is within the reach of mere mortals), our only option is to embrace and harness the limitless complexity at play in open human systems – a complexity that is often at its most creative when it appears to be at the edge of chaos.

Next time, I’ll walk you through some basic concepts of complexity theory.

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