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Complexity, homeostasis and change in the workplace

Modern workplaces are sociotechnical systems, which means that they consist of both technical (hardware and software) and social (personal and community) systems.

What if we took social systems at work more seriously?

The technical systems within a company tend to be far better recognised and understood than the social systems. In fact, the humans in the workplace are even characterised as somewhat unreliable extensions of the technical systems! Think of how we try to “programme” our staff by implementing processes to make them more efficient and less error prone.

What if we took social systems at work more seriously? What would that look like? Most companies have many people who are technically qualified, skilled and experienced, but not a single person who is formally qualified or trained in understanding, cultivating or managing social systems. (There are a few green shoots of change in this area — I’m coming across more psychologists in business than I used to.)

Social systems are complex

In understanding social systems we have to adopt a different mindset. Technical systems are generally complicated, whereas social systems are complex. These terms have specific meanings in this context and are explained more in the Cynefin framework:


The complicated domain consists of the “known unknowns”. The relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or expertise; there are a range of right answers. The framework recommends “sense–analyze–respond”: assess the facts, analyze, and apply the appropriate good operating practice.


The complex domain represents the “unknown unknowns”. Cause and effect can only be deduced in retrospect, and there are no right answers. “Instructive patterns … can emerge,” write Snowden and Boone, “if the leader conducts experiments that are safe to fail.”

Broadly, the reason this difference matters is that technical systems can be understood and managed by experts because every part can be “known”. Social systems cannot be understood sufficiently to predict cause and effect and therefore practitioners need to have strong “sense and adapt” skills and methods.

Your homeostatic company culture

In many biological systems (including social systems) there exists a stable state which is resistant to change. This is a homeostatic state. Any forces acting upon the system that upset the stable state will trigger negative feedback loops which act to return the system to its stable state. Maintaining this stable state through negative feedback loops is called homeostasis.

For example: body temperature. This needs to remain stable within a narrow range. If your body temperature starts to go up, your body has a number of negative feedback loops that can reduce that temperature. You could start to sweat. Your brain could tell you to remove some clothes, or if that’s not socially acceptable, get a cold drink, or move somewhere cooler, or stop drinking that tea!

In an organisation, the culture is something that also remains stable through homeostasis. There are established social norms that act against destabilising behaviour. Every company has a different culture (stable state) and different social norms. Examples of social norms within a company culture are:

  • What behaviours are incentivised and rewarded.
  • Who has power and how this is reinforced.
  • What can be discussed and what must not be.
  • Who is involved in decision making.
  • What information different people have access to and how it is shared.

Moving between stable states

There are many different possible stable states for a company’s culture and some states can be transitioned between relatively painlessly — if there are no strong negative feedback loops to resist it. However, for more radical culture changes, pressure must be simultaneously exerted on multiple points sufficiently to break enough of the negative feedback loops and move the culture to a new stable state.

How should this be factored into in any planned change at an organisation? We know already that social systems are by nature complex and they are also not well understood or actively managed within most companies.

We know that most change management looks only superficially at social systems. Often it’s just the org chart that is considered. Sometimes processes are reviewed but rarely is a suitable sense-and-adapt methodology put in place for large cultural change.

Change management in social systems

I don’t know as yet whether there is a playbook out there for explicitly managing social systems within organisational change management. I would love to hear from anyone who has experience in this.

My current thoughts are:

  1. Acknowledge that social systems are a real and important part of your company, and that change management should include a plan for how to transition them as needed.
  2. Find a way of understanding what the key elements of your company’s social systems are. You may want to hire someone who is qualified and has skills and experience in this realm.
  3. Put in place a sense-making process for detecting negative feedback loops that are resisting the change you want to make.
  4. Create a way to experiment with different ways of doing things that create positive feedback loops (loops that accelerate change rather than resist it).
  5. Understand that “stable states” can take time to bed in, and can drift over time, be vigilant and keep sensing what’s currently working and what isn’t.
  6. Consider both personal and community elements of the social system. People may be resistant to change for reasons you would never guess unless you take the time to find out.

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