Introducing complexity to public sector: the Greek experience

September 26, 2010

Hi, I am Stefanos Michiotis. I live nearby Athens, Greece and work as an independent trainer and consultant. For the next two weeks I‘ll try to share with you my experience from using the Cynefin model and other complex methods in training. But first, let me tell you my personal narrative about the wider context and some dominant patterns of the Greek public administration, as viewed from my own perspective.

Back in 2005, when all started, the re-engineering approach was the new fad in Greece. Best practice was being worshiped like Holy Bible and management-by-objectives was not just a theoretical framework and a process, but a law of the Greek state! Complexity was mistaken for complicatedness and systems engineering. Anything about emergence, self-organization and narrative was considered heretical (nearly non scientific) by the mainstream approach in management; unfortunately still is to a certain degree. (You see, my country does not import used fighters only, but washed out knowledge too.)

Yet, Dr. Ann Kontoni, a pioneer designer of training programs on behalf of the National Centre for Public Administration and Local Government, was willing to risk with something different that had never been taught or applied before in the Greek public sector. So, I happily accepted the challenge to participate in a pilot course and present complexity basics and how they could be applied in organizational context. Almost five years later and based on the evaluation made by 2000+ participants, I feel justified. It seems that complexity deals better with the problems and challenges faced by the Greek public sector, especially today, in the midst of the national crisis.

However, by that time, the whole attempt was looking very hard. For the Greek bureaucracy operates under a feudal culture, with politicians incarnating the absolute feudal archetype. Strongly influenced by kind of messiah or crusader syndrome, most of them think that they are here to fix all problems (the deeds of their opponents) or even more to raise the dead (us)! This inner narrative leads them each time to shape a small team of consultants who, just like true believers, start another “reform”-crusade, in order to leave their own personal mark (unfortunately on our body). Thus, existing policies change, staff is moved upwards or downwards, according to their political beliefs and everything has to be redesigned and reset, each time a new minister enters the government. It is like when a new sheriff comes to town and sets a new law…

In this way, the system is perceived (and therefore operates) as a huge complicated machine, based on a simple linear – deterministic concept and rule: decisions derive from the minister-god and are expected to be carried out willingly, accurately, in time, and without quantitative deviations. Otherwise ….. It doesn’t matter if they are obviously incompatible to the way society or market works. All that is required is obedience and control, which have been named “loyalty” and “quality”. It makes no surprise then that staff worries only to avoid any possible mistake. And when this happens (because it always happens), the main concern is how to bury it deeply, along with its causes and the knowledge-in-potentia that could be obtained. As Tsoukas has blogged two years ago, “Greece is a country that never learns”!

But people cannot be ordered in such a way nor can their reactions be predicted; especially when they have not been asked on issues related to them. So, they withdraw or resist and fight back and thus, the “reform” runs out of ‘fuel’. Although this ugly pattern is obviously non-rational, it is very powerful and generally accepted as the way things are around here. This is the worst, as it creates a pattern of depreciation among public officers and citizens (nothing changes), which acts like a thermostat for any future attempt for change, even for the most necessary one.

This was the most frightening dragon I had to face (and still have); the historically based disbelief for the (non) applicability of such theories of self-organizing change in the Greek public sector. To be honest, by that time I didn’t know how to fight it, so I followed my instinct. I addressed to the participants on a deeper level, the one of the heart, discussing with them in plain terms about human paradoxes and ambiguity. To my knowledge, this must be the Achille’s heel of linearity. Fixation to order gradually fades as the need for meaning and a more natural way of doing things emerges.

However, these were still theoretical and abstract. I was in need of something more concrete to base all this stuff. This is where Cynefin entered the scene, followed later by other frameworks. I used it in many ways: corresponding its domains to various folds of human life, labeling them in different terms, and sometimes perhaps broadening the original definitions and scope of the model. This proved to be very helpful, as participants were enabled to make sense what I was trying to tell and re-discover what they already knew.

Out of this process I was able to penetrate deeper into this four-fold framework and I became more experienced and hopefully a little wiser. In the following days I’ll share with you some incidents and insights from this pathway.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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