This situational leadership model is an outcome of twenty years of learning how to find the right balance between order and complexity in organizations. Any group of people (two or more) is continuously moving between two states: order and complexity. This model tries to explain when it happens and what leadership can do to prevent getting into destructive states of too much order or complexity.
The 4 stages
There are four stages through which groups always shift:
- Order is the state of minimum change and more control of what people are doing and how they are doing it.
- Growth is the state in which new ideas, capabilities, and properties start to emerge as a result of a reduction of control and an increase in autonomy.
- Complex starts to happen when the interaction and the result of the interaction between people start to be unpredictable.
- Entropy will take place when the group degrades and starts to lose properties and capabilities created during the growth and complex stages.
How to know which state you are in?
We believe that two forces define which state any group experiences at a certain point in time. The first force is Autonomy. Using autonomy we refer to the level of freedom people have to make decisions and to take actions. This axel starts with full external control and ends up with no external intervention.
On the autonomy scale, there are infinite options. We believe that there are 4 main stages. 1) full control. Decisions and actions are given by an external entity. 2) people are free to make decisions and take actions within their defined roles. 3) People are free to make decisions and take actions within broadly defined boundaries. 4) No limitation, People can make their own decisions and take their actions.
The other force is the variety. Variety is the number of internal states and resources that a group has.
We define 3 levels of variety. High, stable, and low. Since we try to define a state of a group in a given time, we measure variety base on history. If the number of internal states and resources grows compared to the past, the variety is higher. If the number of internal states and resources decrease, variety is lower. Last but not least, if states and resources hardly change the variety is stable.
A low variety and low autonomy mean that the group in a state of order. A low variety and higher autonomy mean the group is in a growth state. It’s important to mention that variety should be geared more towards stable or even high for growth to occur. High autonomy and variety imply that the group is in a complex mode. When variety is high and autonomy is low that is an indication that the group is getting into entropy mode.
There are two initial states in this diagram. Order and complex. Let’s start with “order”. To grow, groups need to increase their internal variety. To increase variety they need to enable creativity by providing more autonomy. First, autonomy needs to be increased. Then, as a result, the variety will start to grow. That’s the reason why the first transition will be from “order” to “growth”.
As growth evolves, variety increases until it reaches complexity. The number of autonomous and diverse people, and the number of states, create unexpected behavior in the system. The “complex” state can be a valid one for a long time. In a matter of fact as long as the group manages to have enough resources to deal with complexity, the group will be in “complex” mode.
If the group reached the state where complexity keeps on rising but there are not enough resources to deal with it, the group will fall into entropy. The impact on the group will be decreasing autonomy. The entropy state will start to reduce variety until an order is back in place.
The model recommends not getting into an entropy state. Leadership should prevent the move to entropy, by changing group conditions in a way that will cause the group to get back to order. in a nutshell, preventing the group from reaching maximum complexity is a prerequisite to being able to skip entropy.
Without taking action to prevent entropy, the group will follow the growth of complexity as explained above and depicted in the diagram above. Preventing entropy increases the time of the complexity cycles and the level of complexity that can be reached. Therefore, it increases the time that groups can be in the complexity state.
In a nutshell, there are two transitions. One is the move from order into complexity. This transition is described very well by chaos theory. The other transition is from complexity back to order. This transition is reversing the conditions created by chaos. We call this transition equilibrium.
What can be done to switch back and forth?
There are actions that we can take to expedite or delay the transition from one state to another. All of those states required an understanding of the science of complex systems. We will touch on them in more detail in our next post.