A Tangled Bank: Complexity in Organizational Research
“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”
Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species 1859
DARWIN'S conclusion to his seminal The Origin of the Species is a compelling lens through which to consider the nature of organizational research.
Organizations are complex ecosystems, composed of diverse organisms moving across and acting in complicated patterns with, alongside, and against each other. Schools are a great example of this complexity as demonstrated by the constellations of teachers and students, administrators and parents, all of whom collaborate, albeit with varied philosophies and methods, to facilitate the transmission of institutionalized knowledge from generation to generation.
The laws that form and animate these ecosystems and their actors can appear in handbooks, mottos, and mission statements: to work diligently, to deliver quality, to put the customer first. Through these methods, schools are attempting to define the archetypal graduate. Perhaps even more influential, however, are the less explicit laws that drive individuals: to pay the bills, to climb the ladder, to buy a house, to start a family, to make friends, to live well, to do good. Occasionally, these aspirations mesh with institutional goals. Other times they don’t, and we experience friction. Most of the time, however, actors within an institutional ecosystem operate in loose relation to each other, simultaneously partially in step and at odds in an elaborate, multidimensional, somewhat chaotic dance.
Working as an organization can be – and often is - a turbulent experience. Even so, the goal of an institution or institutional interventions should not be to eliminate complexity. Such an objective would likely be impossible and ultimately unsustainable. After all, complexity is the natural state of all ecosystems, human or otherwise. Further, I would argue, it is this complexity that makes us intelligible to our colleagues, and them intelligible to us. Because we are complex creatures with complex perspectives and ambitions, we can more easily relate to others that are similarly complex. We are familiarly unfamiliar.
It’s critical to be mindful of and empathetic to these differences as organizations are fundamentally interdependent. If the ongoing worker shortage has illuminated anything, it’s that every role and every member is important to the overall success of the system. Thoroughly entangled as we are, when one part of the ecosystem suffers, we all feel the loss. All of us, but especially the leaders who seek to steer organizations toward ultimate goals, cannot afford to ignore this complexity.
As organizational psychologists and anthropologists, we work within tangled banks. Interventions that aim to make lasting improvements to the resilience and outcomes of such intricate organizations must be grounded in and informed by a deep understanding of that intricacy. At Psyince, we work to create and advocate for complexity-driven approaches that celebrate and leverage diverse institutional rhythms to cultivate thriving ecosystems.