Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

The art of interaction, the design of digital and the science of social complexity

Tag: Stuart Kauffman


The way we want to make sense of the world around us often has to do with causality. The question we ask is what caused “it” to happen. The mainstream approach is that an arrow, or arrows, can be drawn. There is a variable, the “it”, that happened, that is now to be explained. In scientific study this variable is regarded as dependent. An independent variable, or variables, that cause it are then sought. Causality means that X causes Y. If there is more X there will also be more Y. This is the if-then model of management. In organizations, a familiar explanation for success is that a particular manager or a particular culture caused it.

But there is something significant happening today. Scholars are increasingly pointing out the fact that this view of the relationship between cause and effect is much too simplistic and leads to a very limited or even faulty understanding of what is really going on.

Cybernetics recognized a much more complicated causality. In this kind of system the arrows, the links, between cause and effect can be distant in terms of time or place. The system can be highly sensitive to some changes but very insensitive to some others. For the first time, it was understood that it is a non-linear world.

Complexity challenges the assumption of earlier systems theories that movement in time can be predictable in the sense that X causes Y, or that the movement follows some archetypes. The modelling differs significantly from all previous systems models.

Complexity means a different theory of causality.

The most important insight is that it is often not possible to identify specific causes that yield specific outcomes. Almost indefinite number of variables influence what is going on. The links between cause and effect are lost because the tiniest overlooked, or unknown, variable can escalate into a major force. And afterwards you can’t trace back, you can’t find the exact butterfly that flapped its wings. There is no trail that leads you to an independent variable.

The future of a complex system is emerging through perpetual creation. Complexity is a movement in time that is both knowable and unknowable. Uncertainty is a basic feature of all complex systems. It is a dynamic in time that is called paradoxically stable instability or unstable stability. Although the specific paths are unpredictable, there is a pattern. The pattern is never exactly the same, but there is always some similarity to what has happened earlier.

In the end it is about the combination and interaction of the elements that are present and how absolutely all of them participate in co-creating what is happening. None of the elements cause the end result independently. From this standpoint a lighted match does not cause a fire. Rather, the fire took place because of a particular combination of elements of which the lighted match was just one. In the same way, a rude remark does not start a fight. The argument starts as a combination of an offensive remark and a coarse response.

The big new idea is to reconfigure agency in a way that brings complex relationships into the center. The task today is to see action within these relationships.

Complex relationships cannot be understood through spatial metaphors such as process maps or network charts. Unhelpful or wrong models and metaphors are often a big obstacle to moving our thinking forward after the technological constraints are gone.

We need to move towards temporality, to understand what is happening in time.

An organization is not a whole consisting of parts. There is no inside and outside. An organization is a continuously developing or stagnating pattern in time. Industrial management was a particular pattern based on specific assumptions about communication, causality and human psychology.

Recent developments in psychology/sociology have shown that human agency is not located or stored in an individual, contrary to what mainstream economics would have us believe. The individual mind arises continuously in communication between people.

The focus of industrial management was on the division of labor and the design of vertical/horizontal communication channels. The focus should now be on cooperation and emergent interaction based on transparency, interdependence and responsiveness.

Looking at communication, not through it, what we are creating together.


Thank you Ralph Stacey, Ken Gergen, Doug Griffin, Jim Wilk, Marko Ahtisaari and Katri Saarikivi

A Christmas Letter

Gregory Bateson wrote that the major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and how people think. Mainstream economics still sees the economy and society as ultimately predictable and controllable (machines), although the repeated financial crises have shown how deeply flawed this view of the world is.

Luckily, during 2013, more scholars than ever before saw organizations as being more analogous to nature. There, it is not about predictions and control, but about perpetual co-creation, complex responsive processes and fundamental interdependence. Their claim is that we should study links and interactions. Many aspects of our social and economic world would start to look completely different from this complex network perspective.

2013 also brought us closer to understanding how work itself is changing.

Knowledge work is creative work we do in interaction. Unlike the business processes we know so well, where tangible inputs are acted on in some predictable, structured way and converted into outputs, the inputs and outputs of knowledge work are ideas, information and decisions. Even more, there are no predetermined task sequences that, if executed, would guarantee success. Knowledge work is characterized by variety and exception rather than routine. It is thus impossible to separate a knowledge process from its outcomes. Knowledge work is not “just work”, a means to doing something else! Knowledge work is about human beings being more intensely present. Thus, a business today needs to be human-centric – by definition.

The good news then, is the advances during 2013 in network theory and knowledge work practices. The bad news, as we now look ahead to 2014, is that today we are as far from being human-centric, as we have been for ages. As one example, people still tend to see their work and personal lives as two separate spheres. Although this conflict is widely recognized, it is seen as an individual challenge, a private responsibility to manage.

It is now time to challenge this and see the conflict as a systemic problem. It is a result of the factory logic, which saw human beings as controllable resources and interchangeable parts of the main thing, the production machinery. The context and logic of work are dramatically different today. In knowledge work we need to create an explicit, new connection between work and personal life. We talked earlier about balancing work and life. Here we are talking about connecting work and life in a new way, with a new agenda. Human beings are the main thing.

Traditional management thinking sets employee goals and business goals against each other. The manager is free to choose the goals, but the employee is only free to follow or not to follow the given goals. This is why employee advocates mainly want socially responsible firms, nothing else, and the management of those firms wants committed employees who come to work with enthusiasm and energy. Must we then choose between the goals of the people or the goals of the business, or can the two sides be connected? As we know, passion and commitment are best mobilized in response to personal aspirations, not financial rewards. We need a new agenda connecting people and businesses! The aim, however, is not to have a single set of common goals, but complementary goals and a co-created narrative for both!

Linking personal lives with corporate issues may seem like an unexpected, or even unnecessary connection. But if we don’t learn from network theory and knowledge work practices, and continue to deal with each area separately, both individuals and organizations will suffer. The lack of a connecting agenda may also be one of the big challenges facing the emerging post-industrial society.

We need to study the intersection of business strategy and personal narrative and use the new agenda to challenge our industrial age practices and flawed ways of thinking. Knowledge work needs whole human beings. People who are more fully present, people with responsibility and ownership. We are accustomed to taking work home, but what would the opposite be? This may be the next frontier of social business. More on this next year!

Christmas is a special time for family and friends. Perhaps the rest of the year can also be made very special through rethinking and reinventing some of the basic beliefs we have about work!

Happy New Year!


Thank you Deborah Kolb, Lotte Bailyn, Paul Ormerod, Ken Gergen, Ralph Stacey, Joyce K Fletcher, Doug Griffin, Kim Weckström and Katri Saarikivi

More on the subject:

Futurice. A company that is already in the future. HBR: “To Optimize Talent Management, Question Everything” HBR: “The Ideas that Shaped Management in 2013” “Essential Zen Habits” “The Third Way of Work” “a way of working where the people doing the work matter as much as the work being done” “Bring Your Own Device is really Bring Your Own Mind” “work is you, you are the work. So what is the future of You?

Resilience, rationality and how we make decisions

We have been studying companies’ connections and disconnections for more than twenty years and have worked inside a huge number of them. Across all this research, common themes have emerged and intensified during the past few years: good communication in the era of the Internet and the new interactive tools does not mean any more that companies should listen carefully to their customers or that leaders should talk clearly with their subordinates. The linear view of communication, the movement of messages or sharing of content between people is giving way to a totally new understanding of what interaction, and work, are all about.

The first emerging theme is that communication is in fact a process of continuous coordination and knowledge creation. Knowledge is not shared as contents, but arises in action. Knowledge is never transmitted from one mind to another. It is a change from the movement of messages to a joint movement of thought. The future and viability of an organization depend on this process.

Economics still makes the assumption that individuals, the agents, as they are called, operate autonomously, separately from the influences of others. When choosing something, making a decision from a set of alternatives, the agent compares the attributes of the alternatives and selects the one that corresponds to her preferences. It is a world where independent individuals carefully weigh up the costs and benefits of any particular course of action.

However, scientists have emphasized the limits of our understanding. An important point is that these limits apply to everyone. They apply to politicians, to central bankers and to top executives of multinational companies. John Maynard Keynes once wrote that we have, as a rule, only the vaguest idea of the consequences of our actions. Herbert Simon and Stuart Kauffman on the other hand have argued that the number of future paths open to us at any point in time is so vast that it makes no sense at all to speak of the best or optimal decision.  But we still think the world works like a predictable machine operated by rational agents

Behavior that does not follow an economist’s definition is often called irrational, but it may be that in a world of ubiquitous networks, a proliferation of choice and an abundance of information, the economic definition of rationality has itself become outdated and irrational.

We need a new model of rational behavior and a new understanding of how we make decisions. We need a new decision model!

The second emerging theme is that the assumption that people make choices in isolation, that they do not adopt opinions simply because other people have them, is no longer sustainable. The choices people make, their buying decisions and their political views, are directly influenced by other people. That is to say that we construct our world together in communication. Network scientists such as Duncan Watts and Mark Granowetter have proved that the world comes to be what it is for us in our relationships. In the end it all depends on the company you keep and the conversations you have.

This leads to the importance of emphasizing relations instead of reductionism and separations. Reductionism means that the organization is understood as being split from its environment and one functional team is seen as being separate from another function. The worst mistake we make as a result of reductionist thinking may be that we assess and reward employees as if they were disconnected from other employees.

Links and communication are at the centre of organizational life. Depending on the quantity of interdependent links and the quality of communication, the organization lives or dies. Work is interaction between interdependent people.

The third emerging theme is that communication creates patterns. Words become what they are through the responsive actions of the people taking part. The relational view means in practice that if a conversation goes badly, it is always a joint achievement. On the other side, a conversation can only be successful if both participants join in and make it so as Ken Gergen points out. In management, it means that there is nothing one person alone can do to be a good manager. Good ideas don’t count as good ideas, if other people don’t treat them as such.

New leadership is about an awareness of creative and destructive patterns and having the ability to influence what is going on. In a creative pattern, the participants build on each other’s contributions. The conversation, thinking and action are in a process of forward movement.

Destructive patterns are the most harmful in terms of organizational viability. These patterns don’t contain forward movement but running in circles. People and organizations get stuck! People slow down in bitterness and silence, or even to the breaking of the link. The most destructive patterns often begin subtly, but unless they are worked with soon, not only will relations suffer but the whole network will deteriorate.

Being aware of the patterns includes being aware of the roles that we play. Whenever we speak, we do two things: we subtly define ourselves and define the other. Does the speaker in a company context define herself as one who can talk down to others or as an equal? What we say is important to the viability of the organization but the way we say it can be equally important. Talking down or talking up between people creates an asymmetry that leads to bad decisions and inefficient movement of thought.

The machine metaphor meant that we tended to think that the people “above” us have significant power. They are in control. We thus talked up to them. They should decide. They should do things for us because they were the ones who were responsible, not us. Knowing that they are not in control raises the question of a need for a new distribution of responsibility. Bottom-up as a metaphor is as harmful as top-down when the common goal is resilience.

There is no aspect of work or leadership that takes place outside the realm of communication. Human agency is not located or stored in an individual, contrary to mainstream economics. The individual mind arises continuously in communication between people.

Being skilfully present in the forward movement of thought and relational action is the new meaning of being rational.


Thank you Ralph Stacey, Doug Griffin, Ken Gergen, Marcial Losada, Katri Saarikivi and Paul Ormerod

Links: “Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty” “Possibilianism” “Stanley Milgram and the uncertainty of evil” “The fluid core“. “On functional stupidity and trust“. “Tulipmania” “Neuroeconomics

Social media and the change from information to formation

The change towards the creative economy has major implications for the nature of what we have called assets. In the industrial age, the assets were physical resources, plant and equipment. Most of the resources were traded in markets and could thus be valued. Taking care of the value of an organization could be understood as managing physical assets and resources.

Now knowledge and people are seen as the major assets. But since neither of them are efficiently traded in markets, their value cannot easily be measured. Neither can knowledge be understood as an asset that can be managed like a physical asset. This is what many people within the Knowledge Management community learned the hard way. Knowledge is not a thing! Thus it cannot be stored, measured or shared.

From a more modern point of view, knowledge creation is understood as an active process of communication between people. Knowledge cannot be stored but is constantly constructed and re-constructed in interaction. Knowledge cannot be shared but arises in action. Knowledge is the process of relating.

The assumption was that learning and knowledge management involve processes that transmit content. This notion derived from the information theory/model of communication developed by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver. Their theory created a sender-receiver model of communication according to which person A sends a signal (message/content) to person B, who receives it and then perhaps sends a responding feedback signal back to A. From this perspective, learning and knowledge creation are processes that resemble transmission or the sharing of content. This is why schools and other educational institutions still look the way they do.

But Shannon & Weaver’s concept was meant to be purely technical. They were interested in whether a byte sent was a byte received in a technical sense. They said nothing about the meaning of the bytes. For a human being a message can evoke a very wide range of associations and interpretations depending on the experience and emotional state of the individual. One person’s interpretation is never quite the same as another person’s interpretation. There is no linear causality in the world of human beings.

If learning was understood from a more modern relational perspective it would resemble a process of many voices interacting at the same time. In this way, each comes to know the context in which the other makes meaning. The progression of B’s understanding of A’s story also constitutes a change to A’s story – creating new meaning, learning, for both.

Social media are most meaningful when giving voice to multiple perspectives, making it possible to seek out, recognize and respect differences as different but equal.

All stories continue, meaning that learning takes place, as participants create a more shared understanding of what the other means. Knowledge which used to be regarded as existing independently in people and things – becomes viewed as co-constructed in communication.

Communication does not represent things in the world. It brings people and things into being in constantly surprising ways.

Supportive, energizing and enabling patterns of interaction are the most important “assets” of a modern organization. That is what should be nurtured and taken care of. Communication either accelerates and opens up possibilities or slows down and limits what would be possible. Communication either creates value or creates waste. Communication either creates energy and inspiration or demeans and demotivates.

Information theory is not only unhelpful but harmful, when trying to understand communication between human beings. Communication is not about sharing information but a process of formation.


Thank you Karl-Erik Sveiby and Doug Griffin. What a great meeting!

Designing a beautiful business

I have recently heard people say: “I have a great job.”; “I love what I am doing here.”; “He did it in a beautiful way.”; “I work in lovely surroundings.”; “I work with nice people.” Conventional analysis of organizations is dominated by a rational tradition that ignores aesthetics, yet life is pervaded with beauty as these people proved.

Aesthetic considerations can sometimes be of decisive importance. Apple products and the Nokia N9 attract people the same way that the theory of Einstein attracts scientists – by virtue of their sheer elegance.

Organizations are social constructs. They are nothing but constructs to which people are drawn in pursuit of some purpose. Healthy organizations are a concept of relationships to which people are drawn by beauty, values and meaning, along with the freedom to pursue them cooperatively. Healthy organizations enable more than constrain.

Unhealthy organizations are a concept of relationships into which people are forced by birth, necessity or manipulation. Unhealthy organizations constrain more than they enable.

The concept of the social organization has intensified the debate as to whether competition or cooperation should rule in business. But competition and cooperation are not mutually contradictory. In the new design of work they don’t have opposite meanings. They need to be complementary. In every aspect of a healthy life we paradoxically do both at the same time. No successful social endeavor has existed without combining the two.

But sometimes things have not worked out.

The idea of cooperation went mad in socialism leading to an unhealthy and false pursuit of equality and left us with centralized, totalitarian governments enslaving their own citizens. Competition has also gone mad in many capitalist countries, which has led to mindless self-interest and left us now to cope with the results of the irresponsible abuse of people and natural resources.

We need new thinking beyond the old dichotomy: The political left lacks any convincing narrative in the post-socialist world. The right tells a story in which greed is the dominant human motivation and markets actually mean gambling.

The Internet era has proven that we are capable of working together competitively/cooperatively and building social communities that some time ago many would have dismissed as impossible dreams. Thus we don’t yet have a good idea of what cannot be done by connected people working together in new ways. Changes in existing organizations and the evolution of new ones will have characteristics in common. Just as natural systems like the human body are not vertical hierarchies with each part superior to another in ascending linear order, neither will organizations of the future be structured that way. This is not to say that all present industrial organizations are doomed but the models we use to describe the world around us are.

We need a new vocabulary beyond the models of industrial production and separatist, mechanistic concepts of a corporation.

The emerging organizations cannot be portrayed in two dimensions on a traditional organizational chart. They are closer to the networked organization of neurons in the brain. Yet, even these dimensions are not enough without the aesthetic dimension of doing a beautiful work.

The next challenge is to design a beautiful business.

Happy, Beautiful New Year!


Thank you Dee Hock and Thomas Kuhn.

The future under construction

The approaches of industrial management have given us remarkable material well-being over the last few centuries, but are increasingly being criticized for not being suited to handling the needs of today. Organizations need to excel in innovation. Companies also need to embrace rapid change and uncertainty. Some of the most creative ones have even gone so far as to take a “let’s just do cool things and see what happens” approach, trying to avoid traditional governance systems. Is this yet another sign that management is in crisis?

The industrial theory of management is based on top managers choosing the future of their organization and guiding its development in the right direction. The belief is that managers can make useful forecasts and set goals. Their daily responsibility is to monitor activities to identify gaps between the goals and actual outcomes so that the gaps can be closed. Uncertainty plays a minor role. Managers know what is going on.

Every business is a set of assumptions that are taken as given, thus reducing the perceived uncertainty. The whole plan–execute cycle is a process designed to prove those assumptions correct. But assumptions are never totally right most often not totally wrong, either. Accordingly, it is quite seldom that ideas are turned into a successful business in just the way described in the business plan. Things change.

In conditions of rapid change and uncertainty, there have to be systematic processes indicating progress and new opportunities as they emerge. This is much more important than forecasting or planning. It is about testing the assumptions continuously and signalling which assumptions are helpful and which are not. It is about finding out repeatedly which of the efforts are creating value and which are wasteful. Are we on the right track? Are we progressing? What new possibilities have become visible?

Lean thinking defines value as providing benefit to the customer. Anything else is waste. But what if we really don’t know?  Then the most important business process is to find out. We have to learn what creates value for different customers in different situations. “Anything that does not contribute to learning is waste”  as Eric Ries puts it. The business challenge for a creative company is to learn fast and cheaply!

Management theory needs to leave behind the industrial, mechanistic model of reality and the belief in linear if-then, causality. The sciences of complexity, non-linear dynamics, uncertainty and creative learning are the foundations of modern, human-centric management.

The task of managers is not the reduction of uncertainty but to develop the capacity to operate creatively within it. Ilya Prigogine wrote in his book “The End of Certainty” that the future is not given, but under perpetual construction:

“Life is about unpredictable novelty where the possible is always richer than the real.”


Thank you Eric Ries, Stu Kauffman and Ralph Stacey

The new world between chance and choice

Nonlinear dynamics are concerned with messy systems. Examples for these systems are the human brain, the weather and the evolution of life itself. There is not a single science of non-linearity, but there are different streams of research such as chaos theory or the theory of complex adaptive systems. The latter strand takes up an agent- and rules of interaction-based approach to modeling what is going on. The first explains the behavior of systems that can be modeled by complex mathematical equations where the output of one calculation is taken as the input for the next.

Chaos theory explains how the parameters in the equations cause patterns in time. These patterns can also be described as phase diagrams. Then they are called attractors. A parameter might be the flow of information or the amount of energy in the system. At low rates the system moves forward displaying a repetitive, stuck behavior. This pattern, “spatially”, is called a point attractor. At higher rates the pattern changes. At very high rates of, for example information flow, the system displays a totally random behavior. The pattern is highly unstable. However, there is a level between repetition and stability or randomness and instability. This level is called the edge of chaos. The pattern in time is called a strange attractor when it is described as a phase diagram.

The strange thing with a strange attractor is that the ongoing movement is never the same but always recognizable. The pattern is paradoxically stable and unstable, predictable and unpredictable at the same time. Chaos theory describes a paradoxical dynamic that is not a synthesis of order and disorder. It is about orderly disorder or disorderly order. The very meaning of these words is new.

The weather is often used as an example of a system that displays this pattern. The overall weather patterns can be (almost) predicted over short periods of time. Over longer periods, the behavior cannot be predicted. The long-term behavior of a system like this is determined as much by the smallest changes in the smallest of parts of the system, as it is determined by the laws governing it. The conclusion is very clear. Predictability, if it is possible, is always short-term. Longer-term predictions would only be possible if absolutely all the variables in the system could be measured with absolutely infinite accuracy.

As it is impossible to know all the variables and as it is totally impossible to measure the variables with the infinite accuracy needed, the smallest overlooked variable or the most minute change can escalate up by non-linear iterations into a major transformative change in the later life of the system. Another conclusion is that from a chaos theory perspective, movement towards equilibrium is always movement towards death. If a system is healthy, successful and alive, it is “at the edge of chaos” where the long-term cannot be seen.

The scientists at the Santa Fe Institute developed another strand of research: the complex adaptive systems (CAS) approach. A CAS consists of a large number of agents. Each agent behaves according to its own intentions and rules for local interaction. Local here means that no agent can interact with the whole population of agents at the same time. No individual agent can determine or cause the pattern of behavior that the system as a whole displays. These adaptive systems display the same dynamics as the chaos theorists found: stable equilibrium at one end of the spectrum, random chaos at the other, and in-between the newly found complex dynamic of simultaneous stability and instability or predictability and unpredictability, paradoxically at the same time.

The conclusions are hugely important for us. Firstly, novelty always emerges in a radically unpredictable way. Secondly, the patterns of healthy behavior are not just caused by competitive selection or independent choices made by independent agents. Instead, what is happening, happens in interaction, not by chance or by choice, but as a result of the competitive/collaborative interaction itself.

The Internet changes the patterns of connectivity, transforms our understanding what “local” is, and makes possible new enriching variety in interaction. The changed dynamics we experience every day through social media may have the very characteristics of the edge of chaos.

The sciences of complexity change our perspective and thinking. Perhaps, as a result we should, especially in management, focus more attention on what we are doing than what we should be doing. The important question to answer is not what should happen in the future, what the goals are, but what is happening now that creates the continuously developing pattern that is our life.


Thank you Stu Kauffman and W Brian Arthur. Special thanks to Ralph Stacey and Doug Griffin.

Complexity and management.