Organisational Resilience and Cybernetics: Conversations as Feedback Loops

Posted on September 27, 2016

Organisations are constantly having to adapt and evolve to changes in the environment and markets. It is becoming increasingly evident that engagement of each individual within the organisation is required to support the organisation in becoming agile and resilient. What can cybernetics and systems theory reveal about creating resilience in an organisation?

Cybernetics is the study of control within a system. This filed of knowledge coined the term ‘feedback loops’ in 1940 to explain how a change in one component of a system can move around a loop of connected components until, eventually the original component undergoes a change.

According to the theory, when there are effective feedback loops in a system, all the components of a system can drive change and development of the system together This is because information about the condition of the whole system is being generated and shared between each of the individual components. This is known as ‘self-regulation’ of the entire system.

When a system is self-regulating it is extremely resilient because all of its components are able to respond to change in their own unique way. Ultimately, the components and the system behave as one agile and responsive entity to the original change experienced by the system.

If we look at organisations from a cybernetics perspective we can see that when an organisation (a system) experiences a change, it should, if working effectively, both gather and distribute information about the change through all of its components and functions, leveraging a diversity of knowledge and array of perspectives and experiences from different employees and stakeholders to generate a true 360degree vision of the change.

Effectiveness in this context centres around employees formed into feedback loops, exchanging information (perspectives, experiences, knowledge, etc) about the impact of the change on them, and feeding this back into the organisation as a whole.

In this way, employees and the organisation are both able to drive change and development as one responsive entity. According to the science of cybernetics, this results in self-regulation and resilience being fostered.

This leads to a critical question for today’s leaders …knowing that feedback loops act as crucial levers for engagement in the change you wish to embed across the individual components as well as the entirety of your organisation, how can you set up and enable effective feedback loops to exist?

At the heart of the answer to this question is … the act and art of conversation that crosses the boundaries of the organisation.

In the words of Otto Scharmer,
“In conversation we bring forth the world moment by moment”.

When leaders encourage employees from different levels and departments of the organisation to engage with one another through conversation, a sense of the whole organisation and the context in which it is operating, as it is lived and felt by the different individuals within it, can become known to all. In doing so, a diversity of perspectives, knowledges and ideas on how the organisation can respond to change can arise, enriching the organisation’s pool of ‘knowledge and creativity’.

By crafting opportunities for employees’ stories to be articulated and shared across the boundaries of the organisation regarding their felt experience of the change, an interconnectedness between the organisation’s components can arise.

If we compare an organisation to the elephant in this parable, where each of the blind men are assigned to different parts of the organisation, without feedback loops between the men to enable an exchange of information about what each of them are experiencing, they each are stuck with a particular assumption / understanding of what the system they are acting in is about…

“the organisation is like a spear…”

However, if feedback loops were established between them, by each of them sharing the information about their experience of this system, then together they may come to understand that the organisation is in fact like an elephant! This collective understanding, leveraged by feedback loops, would enable them to lead this elephant forward through change resiliently.
So, how can we create space for such conversations to emerge?

Through enabling ‘collective pauses.’ When we pause we shift our attention from the ritual mechanics of daily operations to the present moment, becoming critically aware of what is alive in us and in the system, right here, right now. For conversations in ‘collective pause’ mode to be successful, there must be built in some key ground rules, such as acceptance and openness to be challenged during the encountering of different views and ideas.

In Redwood & Co. we creatively craft ‘collective pauses’ with our clients. These pauses become rich, creative learning environments that hold the space for fresh energy, perspectives and ideas to travel through different members of a team, fostering connections between employees to establish and dynamise feedback loops in your organisation.

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