Book Review: Organize for Complexity

Organize for Complexity: How to get life back into work to build the high-performance organization by Niels Pflaeging is a small book on work and complexity. The book is intended to be a “textbook for thinking about organizations,” a “source of inspiration,” a “dictionary,” and a “workbook” (p.x). Niels Pflaeging argues that “we must create and sustain organizations that are … robust for complexity, as well as fit for human beings” (p.xii).

Alpha vs. Beta
Niels Pflaeging calls “control through bosses” Alpha, and “self-regulation within the team” Beta (p.26). Frederick W. Taylor introduced Alpha, the idea of “consistently dividing an organization between thinking people (managers) and executing people (workers)” (p.4). Pflaeging argues that “complexity can be neither managed, nor reduced” (p.9). What matters for “dealing effectively with complexity is human beings” (p.9). In organizations, a few “messes,” causes “problems,” and even more “symptoms” (p.12). By acting on the “messes with adequately complex solutions, many problems dissolve” (p.12).

Problem-solving in a life-less system is about instruction.
Problem-solving in a living system is about communication.1

Our “assumptions … shape our behavior, and the way we … run organizations” (p.17). The way we design our organizations, Alpha or Beta, depends on “the assumptions we hold about the human nature” (p.17). And the “diversity in motivations and preferences” between people “can be an asset, or a liability, depending on the level of self-reflection present” (p.23). An individual’s behavior “is shaped by motives, preferences, and competencies” (p.25). Value, or results, arise from the “interaction between … individuals” (p.27). And people “communicate & connect in wildly different manners” (p.28).

Teams vs. Groups
“Teams” and “Groups” are different (p.35). “Teams are multi-functional, … or functionally integrated,” while “Groups are uni-functional, or functionally differentiated” (p.35). Niels Pflaeging thinks that a better term for “self-organization” is a “socially dense market-organization” (p.36). He also thinks that “social pressure, used correctly,” is “far more powerful than hierarchy” (p.37). “Coordination/communication” within the Team is “usually combined with market-like dynamics” (p.40). The communication “between teams is peer-to-peer” (p.41). Markets “require decentralization” (p.41).

Nobody is in control. Everybody is in charge.2

Informal vs. Value Creation Structures
Every organization has “informal structures” in which “social phenomena arise” (p.46). Informal structures “cannot be purposefully molded” (p.81). Every organization also has a “value creation structure” (p.47). “Organizational robustness … comes from the … inter-connections” between individuals and teams (p.48). And “decisions are taken where interaction with … the market occurs” (p.53). “Culture,” furthermore, “is observable but not controllable” (p.54). “Market dynamics do the steering” (p.64). “Market pull … connects the market with the organization” (p.66).

Cultivate principles, not rules.3

Individuals are “not confined to one role” in a “decentralized network structure” (p.72). They “build individual role portfolios of their own” (p.72). Leadership is a “social process” which “operates by influencing people and their contexts” (p.77). Leadership “is a role, a kind of work, not a job” (p.83). Leadership “means working the system, not the people” (p.78). Reqruiting is the most important “leadership task of all” (p.84). Team-based “results” are made visible (p.79). “The interests of stakeholders are … interdependent” (p.81). A successful organization creates value “for all stakeholders” (p.81).

You cannot and need not develop people.
People can do this on their own.4

“Dynamic-robust network organizations need … efficient decision-making” (p.88), and “fast and easy access to information” (p.86). “Consultative individual decision-making” can be found “in organizations with … decentralized decision-making” (p.88). Consultation refers to “the collection of information and advice, before making a decisions” (p,88). Beta “requires dealing with power and communication” in ways which are “not built into” our “reflexes”(p.101).

Organizational change “thrives on being operated … by all the members of the organization” (p.105). It can neither be “planned, nor programmed” (p.105). Profound “organizational and personal” change are “intertwined and inseparable” (p.107). “There are three things that anyone can do to … nudge” change (p.109): (1) “Encourage … dialogue and networking;” (2) “Use existing forums;” (3) “Remove what hinders” (p.109).

To summarize, this is a small book which is very easy to read. Nils Pflaeging addresses questions related to people, work and complexity, with a strong emphasis on market dynamics. Maybe too strong? Getting life back to work has as much to do with compex human relationships as with market dynamics. The book has wonderful illustrations and can be used as a source of inspiration.

1 Niels Pflaeging, Organize for Complexity: How to get life back into work to build the high-performance organization (New York: BetaCodex Publishing, 2014), p. 9.
2 Ibid., p. 45.
3 Ibid., p. 71.
4 Ibid., p. 84.

Published by Jan Höglund

Jan Höglund has over 35 years of experience in different roles as software developer, project manager, line manager, consultant, and researcher. He shares his reading, book reviews, and learning on his personal blog.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *