Another Set of Data for Complex Systems: Why Knowing Reality is Not Enough

by Augusto Cuginotti

What is critical data for organizational development?

Organizational development is a science-based process to enhance the organization’s capacity to adapt and improve strategies.

The organizational development process has become increasingly important in modern times. The current world has uneasy volatility and uncertainty, complexness, and ambiguity. This VUCA world requires heightened agility through organizational structures, and organizational development enables that purpose.

This complex world also needs other data that bring more relevant information to the table.

Many OD practitioners and human resources professionals disregard this type of data when researching or implementing their programs. Many OD interventions focus on leadership development or talent management without proper analysis of the aspects critical to the organization.

How can we understand the organization, people practices, and internal conflicts? How do you identify people’s knowledge, innovation possibilities, values, and new strategies?

I say we’ve better listen to understand, but not listening processes led by the OD practitioner or in the form of a context-less database or other sources or tools like traditional climate surveys.

We’d better listen to organizations: teams, employees, and management. But then two questions come to mind:

  1. What kind of different data are we talking about?
  2. What possible strategy or method could be used to do that?

But what data do we need to develop organizations in this VUCA, complex times?

When dealing with complex systems in organizational systems, we want data that tell us how we see, feel, and experience the world around us. So, beyond looking at things, we look at how we, as people, look at things.

A branch of social sciences tells us we should not only look at the world as it is but also at how people interpret the world around them. We will see why that makes sense and an example based on our current history.

In the same way, we should collect data about the world and its metadata: how people perceive the data in front of them.

On Complexity, Do not Rely on Reality

The world’s reality might be a significant constraint, but it is not enough to clarify what is going on. The reason is that we don’t see the world as it is but see it as we are. And although I believe the world eventually catches up with our illusions, this does not bring clarity but chaos. Even so, this eventual clarity does not come within a workable timeline, and it might be too late to change.

A good example is climate change. How much more data do we need? At some level, we don’t need any more complicated data; all have been proven and sufficiently peer-reviewed. And yet we still need to understand how people understand, feel and judge climate change and its repercussions.

This type of data, which I’ll call “complex data,” gives us a hint of how people deal (or not) with the issue. We need this information to create new collective understandings, declarations, and possibilities of action. We must bring new ways of seeing the world to the table and hope we will choose better and in time.

So our ability to understand reality is not enough. To change the world, we need to know how people understand the world. So we need another set of data for complex systems: “complex data.”

What is the process of data collection for this type of data?

We can get complex data by listening to people and understanding their perspectives. We can also look at how we, as people, look at things. By doing this, we can create new collective understandings, declarations, and possibilities of action.

Listening Differently as Organisational Development Process

Listening is not just hearing what someone has to say but also working to understand their perspective and add the other’s narrative and judgment of things into our landscape.

The problem is that we are hardwired to judge. It’s part of our limbic system, responsible for the “fight or flight” response. So our brain is constantly trying to protect us from danger, and it does this by judging everything it encounters.

So, when trying to listen to someone else, our brain automatically puts what they’re saying into a coherent package, going as far as categorizing it as good or bad, right or wrong, etc.

And this is where things start to go astray.

When we judge, we immediately stop adding other perspectives. That helps us choose and create an action plan but limits our ability to understand what the other or the system is trying to say to us.

No trained consultant or revered reporter is immune to it. All we need is enough time to create a coherent picture of what is being presented to cement our options.

But what do we do if we want to get complex data and we just can’t put aside our judging behaviour?

The Power of Understanding: Data Processing in a Different Way

Once we understand people’s perspectives, we can see how our views might be limited and the problems we identified be misconstructed.

But the problem is that we can’t understand other people’s perspectives on organizational systems, at least not at the level of scale we need.

The increasing emphasis on communication that tells us to be open to new ideas and willing to see things from another person’s perspective or working hard to change one’s mindset will not do the trick.

The power of understanding is that individuals, consultancies, and work groups should realize that we cannot wholly understand a complex system. Even with all the data in the world, we still don’t know how people see that data.

So we will accept we cannot gather data from others and judge ourselves through our lens. What we will do, instead, is to ask people to evaluate the data and facts themselves.

We will collect “complex data” on how people understand things around them. Beyond the perceived fact, we will ask and collect the lens that was used to judge that fact.

Imagine a data set that told us what people see, their beliefs, their confidence in those beliefs, and perhaps even which premises are in place.

By bringing these two levels together – the world and our collective lenses about the world – we can offer back to the collective the patterns that emerge and get the conversation going from a much richer set of data.

A richer set of data because rather than a constraint perspectives from a small few, it contains an expanded one by everybody involved.

What are your thoughts? Let me know!