Managers Are Not Game Designers!

Conway’s Game of Life has always been a classic example of a complex system. In designing his game John Conway found that some sets of rules were too ordered, while other sets were too chaotic. It took him a while to find a set of rules that was nicely balanced, resulting in systems with complex behavior. Not too ordered, and not too chaotic.

In an interesting Wired article I read that Klaus Teuber took a similar approach when he was designing The Settlers of Catan, one of the most popular board games of all time. Teuber continuously played the game with his family, reconfiguring it again and again, changing the rules, the cards, and the pieces. It took him four years to find a set of rules that was nicely balanced, and that allowed for complex gameplay and heated family competition.

What sets games apart from living systems is their lack of the “adaptive” part. Games do not change their own rules while they are in progress. But living systems do. Complex adaptive systems are systems that are able to find their own way toward that sweet spot of complexity, right between order and chaos, where life blooms and creativity thrives. Scientists call it the edge of chaos. But they also could have called it the edge of order, because it is at the edge between chaos and order where we find complexity. (Never expect a scientist to come up with a name that actually makes sense.)

The question is then who or what is tuning the rules in an organization so that the organization moves towards the edge of chaos, being neither too ordered nor too chaotic? A common misconception (and yes, I plead guilty here) is that managers are somehow responsible for this.

This amounts to a negation of self-organization and emergence. If managers are choosing what “emerges”, then it is not emerging. If they have a blue-print guiding self-organization then it is not self-organization – that is, it is not agents acting purely on the basis of their own local organizing principles, but rather on the basis of simple rules chosen for them. [Ralph Stacey – Complexity and Management]

It is tempting to think of managers as game designers, like John Conway and Klaus Treuber. When the manager chooses the wrong set of rules for the organization, then the system is either too bureaucratic too chaotic. (And if they’re really screwing up it will be dead.) Metaphorically this view is interesting, but scientifically it is hogwash.

This approach completely loses the sophisticated concept of self-organized criticality, in which a system evolves to the edge of chaos through its own internal dynamic, where self-organization produces potentially novel strategies, again through the system’s own internal dynamic. […] The edge of chaos is a dynamic that occurs when certain parameters fall within a critical range – for example critical rates of information flow, degrees of connectivity, and diversity between agents [Ralph Stacey].

Every organization is a complex adaptive system. It’s like a game in which the rules are changed on the fly, and where the job of designing the game is delegated to the participants themselves. Your job as a manager is not to create the right amount of rules in the organization. Your job is to make sure that the people are able to create their own rules together. And it’s their collaborative effort that makes the system find its own way to the edge of chaos. (Or the edge of order, if you prefer.)

As complexity scientist Ralph Stacey pointed out, self-organization takes care of the edge of chaos when certain parameters fall within a critical range. The manager is not a game designer. He does not need to concern himself with the low-level rules of the game. He configures the high-level parameters, like diversity of team members, information flow between people, and connectivity between teams.

In aligning groups of people, the first responsibility of a manager is the construction of a self-organizing system. Don’t try to be John Conway or Klaus Treuber. You may define the squares on the board, but not the rules of the game. When you take rule-making into your own hands, you will significantly influence and frustrate self-organization, and then creativity, innovation and adaptability in the system will suffer.

Don’t be tempted.

This article will be part of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. You can follow its progress here.

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