Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

Archive for complexity

Adaptive Tensions: Fuel for Innovation

In the twitter-based group that explores knowledge management topics (#KMers), John Bordeaux made some comments that piqued others’ interest. For example, he wrote that organizations pull for repeatability; people pull for creativity; and conflict can lead to novel approaches for both.

This statement speaks to the heart of my interests as a reflective practitioner. In scholarly circles I might say that I’m most interested in the intersections of complexity thinking, knowledge management and leadership. Since the mid-nineties I’ve not been able to think of any of those fields without the others. In lay terms, I might say that organizational structures serve good purposes AND constrain some types of knowledge-intensive work critical for growth or even survival. So many principles and norms in organizations are designed for predictable environments. This frustrates people who recognize the complexity around them, and have the energy to innovate and make a difference. These people find each other in coffee rooms, by water coolers, and increasingly through social media that can support networks and communities of practice. These connections can lead to anything from cynical camaraderie to deep learning, synergies and innovation.

Some KMers asked if I’d published anything related to the ideas in John’s comment, and I have, though I plan to expand this work in the future. For example, I identified 10 ways in which leaders work with the boundary between vertical and horizontal environments. One is to sustain adaptive tensions between the vertical and the horizontal. I illustrated this with a story of how an exercise was being planned to test and refine counter-terrorism capacity and capabilities. This quote from “Brenda” describes the process:

  • The first exercises very strongly focused on: “Here’s a spill, let’s clean it up” or “let’s find it first.” The second exercise was still along those lines, but they were a little more receptive to what if there were persons in that area of contamination. The third exercise was actually throwing in 50 rowdies who are potentially contaminated. How do you deal with them? So I’m anticipating that because of the way that I pushed for the exercise design, we’re pointing out gaps that will need to be addressed. And hopefully that will expand the areas of research interest for the next round of funding.

This quote is from p. 188 of Perceptions and uses of boundaries by respected leaders: A transdisciplinary inquiry by MacGillivray, Alice E., Ph.D., Fielding Graduate University, 2009, 256 pages; AAT 3399314 available through ProQuest database.

One of the points I was making was that networks of people that span organizational boundaries might be valued, respected and drawn upon by those in the vertical structures, or they might be excluded and marginalized to the detriment of learning and innovation. Even if they are respected, there are inherent tensions, which should not be ignored and which can contribute positively to innovation.

I posted my dissertation abstract below, and also have some papers that explore complexity-KM-innovation connections in the publications area of the blog:


Respected Leaders’ Work with Boundaries

I am about to respond to a request from some colleagues to post ideas from recent research. To set the stage, I am sharing the abstract from my dissertation here first. I have added a couple of notes to it in red font:


We work in organizational structures designed by industrial era architects, yet find ourselves in a knowledge era that is more like an ecosystem than a machine. We measure things, yet the real value may lie in the relationships amongst these things, especially as leaders face multidimensional challenges including climate change, terrorism and enabling organizational learning. This empirical research is driven by the need to better understand leadership in complex, unpredictable, horizontal, boundary-spanning environments.

This study explores how persons who are respected for their leadership in horizontal environments understand and work with boundaries. Each participant also brought current or recent experience as a leader in a vertical hierarchy, enabling them to compare and contrast these environments.

Data were gathered through interviews and–in many cases–direct observation of leaders at work. Phenomenography, ethnography and the integration of theoretical material were combined as an experiment in systemic phenomenography. This approach revealed detail and diversity of potential value for practitioners working in varied contexts. It also added to theoretical work about boundary critique and complex system leadership.

Participants generally described their vertical environments with factual statements about numbers of employees, structures, software, products and services. They generally described horizontal environments–such as communities of practice and shared leadership teams–with more emotion, revealing passion and frustrations. They had moved into horizontal work for several reasons including problems not being resolvable through traditional, vertical approaches. Frustrations sometimes related to the marginalization of horizontal environments, difficulties bringing learning and innovation from the horizontal into the vertical, and workload.

Participants understood boundaries and edges in different ways. One of the most common was to see edges of organizations and groups as places for the mixing of ideas to enable learning and innovation. (I have called these places Intellectual Estuaries )

Some participants thought consciously about boundaries in their work, and all worked implicitly with boundaries in several interconnected ways. Their behaviours included scanning the environment for potentially productive connections, making context-specific boundary decisions and maintaining adaptive tensions (the focus of my next blog post). Many worked consciously to integrate multiple identities associated with work in different cultures and disciplines.

KEYWORDS: Leadership, horizontal, boundaries, communities of practice, complexity, knowledge management, governance, counter-terrorism, narrative, systemic phenomenography.

Taken from: Perceptions and uses of boundaries by respected leaders: A transdisciplinary inquiry by MacGillivray, Alice E., Ph.D., Fielding Graduate University, 2009, 256 pages; AAT 3399314 available through ProQuest database.

KM Certification

Art Schlussel posted his views on knowledge management (KM) certification in a LinkedIn conversation here:

This was my reply:
It’s interesting how some KM questions–including certification–keep cycling around year after year.

Statements such as “rigorous standards to be considered true ‘certification’ programs” frequently come up. We might make some progress by digging into these statements more.

We all know that KM work is highly contextual and wrapped up in the complexities of human and social systems. Yet we either cling to the hope of a 2+2=4 kind of approach in education, or we elevate ourselves to the bleeding edges of new sciences where we hope for some version of a scalable Theory of Everything. Neither works for a typical practitioner.

In 2000, when we were planning the graduate degree in KM at Royal Roads, the advisory board members wanted (rightfully in my view) to emphasize human and social elements of the field. There were technically focused elements, but they were positioned as flexible, responsive and driven by context. Fortunately at that time, the university had a list of institutional abilities, which ideally permeated all programs and courses to guide instructors and the evaluation process. These included themes such as critical thinking, the ability to work in diverse groups and communication skills. All courses bridged theory and practice; several assignments were learner-designed to fit with their professional contexts.

We did not hit the $/# goals (which were better suited to more mainstream programs such as leadership) and the program was dropped (one more person will probably graduate). However, there was some amazing learning, growth and exciting progress with projects in the real world.

Initially, the approval body that oversaw university degrees gave permission for an “MKM” professional degree, but we asked this be changed to an MA in KM because several learners wanted to move into related doctoral work.

This may sound like the kind of thing you are working towards or encouraging. But at the same time, I saw it as very different than certification. We spent much more time on “why” and a range of “how”s than on checklists of processes with reasonable predictable results. When I hear the word “rigor” I always wonder if the speaker or author is thinking of rigor in a quantitative, positivist kind of way (objectivity, scientific method, transferability to other contexts…), or whether qualitative measures of rigor (such as trustworthiness, reflexivity and prolonged work with clients/participants) are being considered instead or as well.

Perhaps we avoid these conversations because they can create a sort of hierarchy of practitioners (reflexive better than efficient; technical better than social; organic better than mechanical…or vice versa)?

Food for thought: how do we think about ambiguity?

Chris Jones recently posted On Semantics: Ambiguity is the Enemy and Steve Barth responded with insights about the benefits of ambiguity.

If I worked as a bench scientist, production line supervisor, warehouse manager or project manager wearing blinders, I would probably be fully supportive of Chris’ perspectives and puzzled by Steve’s. However, in most of my career as an internal or external consultant, my work has navigated considerable ambiguity. I’ve found that by letting go, I am regularly rewarded with surprises that might never have manifested with efficient implementation of pre-determined agendas. I have also seen ambiguity   nurture diversity: an important attribute of complex systems. Is it a bad thing–for example–if the CEO of a company or the Deputy Minister in government thinks of sustainability in a holistic way and encourages such thinking, but some employees use different definitions (draw different boundaries) and innovate in areas of financial, social OR ecological sustainability?

I like a lot of what Chris has written (and have tried for years to employ some of the practices he encourages) but I also raise some questions.

1) Can the idea of “carefully choosing our words” put too much emphasis on presentation and not enough on questioning and working to deeply understand? Surely if we become experts at choosing the best words, others should “get it?”

2) Might the description of knowledge management as “identification and capture of the critical insights” be an example of #1?

3) Does the assumption that one can “lock in” definitions put too much emphasis on objective, external truths and too little on internally contructed ones? Will people ever share the same feelings and truths with locked in definitions of “poverty,” “progress,” “ethics,” “knowledge,” or even “leadership”?

4) Might an attempt to lock in the definition of ontology in Chris’ post be an interesting experiment in the effectiveness of locking in? (“Ontology. This is the workhorse of describing relationships among abstract words, ideas, objects or topics. Requires more rigor, but it’s often worth it. Useful in framing complex domains or topics. Similar constructs sit at the core of conventional design methods.”)

5) Chris writes about setting boundaries right up front. I’ve written (drawing on Churchman’s and Midgley’s work) about the ethics of boundary choices: that these choices are fundamentally about power. Could up-front boundary-setting reinforce current power dynamics at the expense of important alternatives?

6) Chris emphasizes the importance of asking “What’s “in scope” vs. “out of scope” to your discussion?” This is standard project management practice, but–again–does it reduce ambiguity at a cost? All people working with knowledge management have seen executives rush into big-budget IT projects, which may come in within scope, on time and on budget, but not beginning to address the challenge that launched the work.

The Scope of a Blog

I hear colleagues talk about the importance of scope decisions in a blog. Some create separate blogs–or separate twitter identities–for different topics. Others write about a wide range of professional and personal interests in the same forum. I assume these decisions involve several elements:

  • What is my identity as a writer, communicator or blogger?
  • What do [I think] others want to hear?
  • What am I trying to achieve?

I hope to connect with thoughtful people who share some of my interests. Although other parts of this site focus on my professional life, I intend to share eclectic interests and questions in my posts. As a systems thinker, it would be hypocritical to have separate blogs for–let’s say–knowledge management, complexity thinking, leadership and work with boundaries.\