Complexity Theory at TST
Complexity Theory at TST

For eleven years I’ve been called the “director” of the Toronto School of Theology. I can hardly use that word without chuckling, because I don’t direct much. Most often I’m the directee.

After all, TST is a consortium which exists to serve its seven member colleges, and to administer various policies and procedures required by the University of Toronto. TST has no other reason to exist.

So, as the so-called “director,” my job has been to follow the direction of others.

Complexity theory

But one management theory says that that’s true in most organizations. Successful leaders don’t try to impose their will, because they know that organizations are too complex to control. Instead, they discern how the organization is naturally co-evolving in its environment, and they support that.

That’s the management approach of “complexity theory.”

My mentors in complexity theory were two close friends who died much too young. Brenda Zimmerman and Bryan Hayday taught at the Schulich School of Business at York University. Their field was management in the not-for-profit sector.

It’s a matter of metaphors, they said. Traditional management theory thinks of organizations as machines. You construct the machine to produce a defined output; you assign tasks to its operating units; you value predictability and efficiency; you eliminate variability.

Complex adaptive systems

Complexity theory, by contrast, thinks of organizations more on the analogy of raising a child. You can’t control outcomes. You can’t create circumstances. You can’t eliminate variability. As problems arise, the patterns of family life shift to address them. Communication is key.

A family is a complex adaptive system.

Or, on another analogy, living organisms and ecologies are complex adaptive systems. They self-organize. Birds flock; ants make colonies; species evolve, and they do it by themselves. They don’t need to follow blueprints or rules.

I’ve been told that the landscape architects who designed the beautiful Trent University campus didn’t put down paths at first. They waited to see where people walked, and that defined where the paths went. Communities of people self-organize too.

Suspicions of strategic plans

Brenda and Bryan warned that the more organizations try to work in a machine-like way, the less successful they are.

For instance, traditional organizations like to plan things for the future. One popular step in strategic planning is for the organization to assess its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

Brenda and Bryan said that this approach was based on delusion. Organizations always overestimate their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. They can never predict where the next threat will come from, and they ignore opportunities that aren’t in their direct view.

Strategic plans seldom work out, even if corporate annual reports describe them as successful, in order to flatter management.

Successful organizations, by contrast, according to Brenda and Bryan, attune themselves to constant adaptation and innovation. They aren’t structured like a machine with pre-designed outcomes and predictable processes; they’re like an organism that has to be resilient as contexts change. They don’t set up a central authority to program inputs; they let themselves co-evolve in a dynamic environment.

“We need to be skillful,” Brenda and Bryan said, “at expecting, seeing, and responding to surprise.”

A military example

I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s biography of U.S. Grant, the Union Army general.

The battle of Vicksburg was arguably the turning-point of the Civil War.  Grant didn’t start with a master strategy; his army responded to changing circumstances.

He started with some approaches that didn’t work, which helped him assess the lay of the land and the vulnerabilities of the enemy.

Collaboration with other leaders was crucial. For instance, he worked with Admiral Porter, despite the historic rivalries between Army and Navy.

He recognized the importance of human variability, so he got to know his soldiers and gained their trust. He “never assumed military airs,” Chernow says, but “constantly fraternized with his men.”

In short, he didn’t view his army as a machine, but as a complex adaptive system that depended on flexibility, trust, collaboration, synergies, and connection with a changing environment.

Churches and academies

Years ago three of us — Brenda, my wife, and I — wrote a couple of articles for a now defunct magazine called Practice of Ministry in Canada describing how helpful complexity theory would be for churches. And I wrote a piece in a magazine called In Trust, which serves the governance bodies of theological schools, to explain how helpful complexity theory would be for theological schools.

But if I was expecting churches and accrediting agencies to repudiate machine metaphors for their business activity, and embrace the metaphor of dynamic biodiverse pond ecologies instead, I was mistaken.

But in my own mind, TST is a remarkably complex “complex adaptive system,” and no one can “direct” it.  What we call “directing” is a matter of seeing and responding to surprises, and co-evolving as part of a larger environment.

I’ve found that “directing” TST has been a matter of asking questions, on the premise that, as Brenda and Bryan quote one of their theorists as saying, “human systems grow towards what they persistently ask questions about.” It has been about recognizing change as necessary not avoidable, attractive not threatening, organic not mechanistic.

Some examples

Thus in 2008 a group of faculty members, including Lois Wilson and Margaret O’Gara, were chatting about TST and prayer, and they hit upon an idea that TST’s year should begin with common worship. The result was our “agapé” service which became an annual event, bringing together 200 or 300 of us every year.

In 2008 two doctoral students wanted to talk to me about the need to train imams in a Canadian setting. I frankly couldn’t see how a Christian theological school could take that on, and wondered if the conversation would even be worth having. But I met with them, and after many twists and turns, Emmanuel began its Muslim studies program.

In 2011 a new quality assurance system was imposed on TST. It looked like a nuisance, but it contained hidden opportunities for evolution. After many twists and turns, an outcome was a new conjoint PhD program and a new conjoint MA program.

In 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission published a report. Somehow that crystallized a lot of unexpected opportunities, and TST now is affiliating an Indigenous theological institution, called NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community.

In 2016 the Art Gallery of Ontario opened an exhibition called “Mystical Landscapes,” organized on the premise that some modern European and American landscape artists functioned, in effect, as spiritual directors. The huge public response to the exhibition was a surprise to everyone, and TST was involved in that. We found ourselves developing a program stream in theology and the arts.

None of these  --- the agape service, the Muslim studies program, the conjoint PhD program, the affiliation with NAIITS, the arts, spirituality, and theology program stream --- was envisioned as part of a strategic plan. They were opportunities that arose. And all of them, in some measure, entailed re-framing and refreshing our institutional mission.

Classroom complexity

Actually, I organize my classroom teaching in the same way.

I don’t think I’m supposed to admit that. The curricular experts say that what’s important is to begin a course with statements of predictable course outcomes and then lay out the strategies for students to achieve these outcomes and devise mechanisms for evaluating their achievement, and then make sure that everything follows predictably from the syllabus.

But I’d be terribly disappointed if my students didn’t learn unexpected things in the course, things that I’d never thought of. In my view, the surprises are the main reason for taking any course.

A theological reflection

For post-modern organizational theorists like Brenda and Bryan, expecting surprise instead of planning predictable outcomes, and adapting instead of controlling, and co-evolving with a complex environment instead of inputting process rules, are secular principles of business organization.

But if I were being theological, I’d say that complexity theory represents the recognition that, in God’s plan, the Babels of human ingenuity and pride don’t stand for long.

It’s a story about the mystery of grace, the value of trusting in providence, and the confidence that God is working things out all around us.

It’s the discipline of waiting on God in discernment, and then responding in faith.

~ Alan L. Hayes