Consider how you would answer the following questions: Is the future known or unknown? What causes an organisation to move into the future? When transformative change occurs, what exactly is changing? 

The process of transformation honors the paradox of simultaneous continuity and change. To examine this further, let’s take a look at three approaches to a soccer game.

Rational Control

The basic assumption is that organisational movement is toward a known and predictable future. There is a strong belief that a known future arrives via various methods of control, such as the use of performance measures, rational analysis, plans, goals and actions of leaders. 

Soccer managers and coaches create the strategic maps for the players. They do this by analysis of previous games, and by evaluation of each player’s skills and competencies, as well as past performance. They move players around the map in a way that they, the rational decision-makers, deem necessary for the win. There is no self-organisation, and whether the team wins or loses is accredited to managers and coaches. 

The assumption is that those external to the action, the rational observers, can best determine the plans and actions necessary to win the game. The problem with this approach is the map may simply be wrong. Assumptions made at the beginning of the game cannot account for all the possible eventualities. A rationalist control approach trusts that, if the players implement the plans and designs of their managers and coaches the goal, a win, will be successfully achieved.

Formative Approach

The assumption here is that movement is toward a future that is known or predictable by the interaction of all related organisational parts. The future is recognised from the past and is carried forward in the present to the desired future. 

Soccer players will have been given the strategic map prior to the game. They will have done their homework, attended all pre-game sessions, and will have been given a strategy to follow. Like a rational control approach, this approach is based on past performance of the team as well as the perceived performance of the other team.

Players will put their uniforms on and proceed to the pitch with a belief that, if the map/plan is correct, all that is required is to unfold the plans and designs, follow the rules and principles of soccer, and release their own potential. They may or may not have had input into the plan, but nonetheless, with their skill and training, they can quite competently bring home the win. Whether the game is won or lost, formative approach informs that the whole (game) is already contained within the rules of interaction of the parts in the macro processes of repetition and iteration that will unfold the mature form of the game and the outcome.

The team will self-organise within the game, repeating and adapting pre-given forms and strategies. Players will adapt their play, but there will be no significant transformation of the strategies or the players. The map could fail and the players will be blamed for a loss.

Transformative Self-Organisation

The assumption is that movement to a future state is caused by self-organisation that occurs in the micro-interactions of team dynamics. Each moment is a reconstruction of the past in the present, accompanied by simultaneous continuity and change in the present, as the future is continually under construction—an unknown and unpredictable future. 

No one knows for sure how the game will be played out or what the final score will be. The soccer players are self-organising according to the micro-interactions between, within, and among them in the living present. Constraint and free will are inherent within their interaction and participation. There are also micro-diversity and fluctuations in how players experience and find meaning within the competition. Constraint and freedom are articulated as conflict and co-operation, and are simultaneously acting on the play action, the game is held within a paradox of stability and instability at the same time.

All players continually choose and intend for themselves in the moment. Being seasoned players, they recognise the emerging patterns of play; they differentiate between similarities and differences from other soccer games. These patterns of micro-interaction are continually forming and being formed by them. 

Essentially, they are all engaged in a process of simultaneous intuitive and reflective practice. They are sensing and reflecting on and in each play. They are participants and observers at the same time. Teammates and teams are continually forming the game while being formed by it, perpetually constructing and reconstructing the future. 

As players are choosing for themselves alone within the play action, another paradox inheres. Every player is simultaneously in a process of continuity and change at the same time, as are the teams, managers and coaches, spectators and the game itself. If transformative change occurs, the players and the teams remain paradoxically the same, yet different. 

In closing, it is the potential for simultaneous continuity and change of one’s personal and organisational identities with their concomitant paradoxical nature that is changing when one manages in complexity. One must be able to perceive, understand and manage within it – in other words, engage continually in reflexive and reflective practice in the living present. Managing in complexity does not necessarily mean that rational, formative, and transformational approaches are without value. It means that managing within the paradoxical nature of all interconnection and participation is the competency required. 

The capability to suspend the temptation to resolve paradox is difficult for western managers who have been schooled in a model of rationality and linear thinking about causality. As we become increasingly aware of all aspects (visible and obscure) of organisational life, and if we can remain open, comprehending complexity can offer some of the most important learning of our lives.

* * *

ADAPTATION of a leadership vignette titled ‘Rational, Formative and Transformational Approaches to Change’ in the book “HUMANIZING LEADERSHIP: Reflection Fuels, People Matter, Relationships Make the Difference.” by Hugh MacLeod. FriesenPress, 2019.

Meuser E., H. MacLeod. “Lessons From the Stanley Cup Playoffs.” Longwoods Publishing Essay, 2013.

Stacey, R.D. Griffin, and P. Shaw. “Complexity and Management: Fad or Radical Challenge to System Thinking.” Routledge, 2000.