In complex open systems such as organisations, the classical logic of linear causality (in which a cause leads to a proportional effect) just doesn’t work. Organisational development and change are shaped by little interactions that have unexpectedly big effects. Tiny changes in initial conditions can result in large, unanticipated and unintended consequences. An effect can have multiple causes, and a single cause can result in multiple effects. Complexity Theory understands that, while agents repeat certain actions and interactions, the action of one agent doesn’t always have the same effect on all the others. Relationships are as unpredictable as they are predictable.
We need other concepts such as “attractors”: patterns of where a system is moving. Periodic attractors are like the seasons, repeating similar but non-identical patterns over time. Point attractors are like the marble rolled around the rim of a bowl: it always ends up at the bottom (the point), but the path it takes is different in each roll. Most peculiar (and most valuable for OD consultants) are “strange attractors”; these patterns don’t head toward a steady state, though they subsequently can be seen as bounded in some way. They exhibit regular irregularity or stable instability. A key tenet of Appreciative Inquiry is that organisations are continually recreated and maintained by the conversations of their constituent actors: this inevitably introduces the dimension of the unforeseeable, of novelty, of departing from custom and convention. We tend to enjoy human conversations (and sometimes fear them) because they often surprise us.
Roffey Park OD consultant Andy Smith describes the moment when a group conversation is poised to flip from one type of pattern to another as “the edge of chaos.” This is the point – undeterminable beforehand but nonetheless expectable – when change and innovation can happen. The OD consultant needs to be here, moving toward anxiety and naming it to help contain it, keeping polarities issue-focused, not person-focused, and encouraging the new to emerge.