Verge Team Assessments

I remember one of my first classes at Oxford. I sat enthralled while Professor Boulton (Embracing Complexity) lectured us on the abiding concepts of complex adaptive systems (CAS). As a former USN SEAL and budding molecular biologist (at least in my youth), I knew a bit about complexity, at least enough to say, “It’s all very complex.” But what Professor Boulton offered was new; it was exciting. It was deep and seemed to get at the essence, the marrow, of what this welter of existence was all about.

I approached her after class as any good former SEAL would—sheepishly. I managed to say that I enjoyed her lecture and that complexity, as a discipline, had fascinated me for some time. Combat is, after all, rather complex. But I’d always seen it as more of a metaphor, I told her. She looked up at me, patted me on the shoulder, and said, “It’s reality. Get used to it.”

The memory of that encounter still makes me chuckle. But Professor Boulton was right: the world is complex, and I’ve gotten used to it.

And in that world of complexity, we tend to stick, ironically perhaps, to a few simple concepts to explain what we mean by complexity and complex adaptive systems, like the fact that complex systems (our bodies, our companies, our planet, “and beyond”) are systemic. We are interconnected, interdependent, synergistic—the sum of our parts times a whole lot more.

Complex systems are also path-dependent, meaning history matters. Where we came from matters because it has a say in where we’re headed. It gets a vote. Our history, like our genetic history, to some extent fashions our trajectory into the unknown. But history isn’t deterministic, nor are your genes. The timing and sequence of events, life’s avalanches and earthquakes, that come down the pike and bash into our historical patterns of thinking and acting (i.e. the way we’ve always done it)—this interaction of current events and past habits shapes our future, for our planet as well our companies, our bodies, our minds, and our cells. These systems are multi-scalar, too. What happens at one level, unlike Vegas, doesn’t stay there but occurs in a similar fashion at numerous levels, from the infinite to the infinitesimal.

And complex systems are emergent. Astonishing features seemingly pop into existence and fundamentally—and qualitatively—change the nature of a system. Stuff happens. Emergence renders for us an uncertain world, not random, not chaotic, but not predictable either. Just up in the air. To fully recognize and come to terms with this aspect of complexity is to embrace humility. If we’re honest with ourselves, our elegant solutions are rarely elegant for long. And sometimes the best we should hope for is a workable solution, even a clumsy one.

And change within a complex system, at least radical change, is episodic. It is true that we are constantly changing, always in the process of becoming, never fixed. But the significant changes wait for tensions to build up and then the system tips and is forever altered, its equilibria punctuated and unable to turn back. Hard to un-bake a cake no matter how hard the pull of nostalgia.

Systemic, path-dependent, emergent, and episodic— c’est la complexité. Such is complexity.

But I left out sensitive. Complex systems are also sensitive—to both local context and initial conditions (some equate the two). The way the future unfolds is not just related to our history, but to the myriad features and relationships, the interconnections and interdependencies, in our local environments. Think of this initial context (or conditions) as a substrate: if it is dense in nutrients and opportunities, the population stands a good chance of flourishing. If not, well, then the population doesn’t stand a good chance.

Your onboarding process for your company is your initial condition for your new employees and execs, or one of them anyway. To what degree do you set the conditions to increase their odds of flourishing, and to what degree do your new hires fend for themselves? For many, onboarding is an afterthought. The new guy gets shown around and then he or she is on their own. These companies view onboarding the same way the Spartans looked at the Agoge. You have to fight to survive. Battle tested, bruised and beaten, you join the ranks of the elite. Welcome to the club.

Sounds cool to some, I suppose. Until you consider where the Spartans are today.

We refer to that initial condition inside organizations as “onboarding and integration.” By phrasing it that way, it hints at the importance of socialization. It’s not only about welcoming someone to the team, but it’s also about integrating them into the fabric of the cultures (yes, plural) of your organization. It’s about starting them off not only on the right foot but putting them, first and foremost, on the right path, the right trajectory, to success. When you recognize how deeply interconnected and interdependent we are in our teams and organizations, in our worlds, then you grasp the extent to which what one of us does affects us all. The onboarding and integration process marks the beginning of this awareness for many: Here’s how I create value for you, and you for me.

We can give you the information to build a proper onboarding and integration program, and then drop the mic and walk away. A lot of consulting firms can do that—a lot actually do. But such initiatives likely won’t work, at least not for long. Our mission is to give you that information—for free. And then we partner with you, using our knowledge of complex systems and how they change, adapt, and thrive, and our understanding of coaching and the psychology of goal-setting and goal-flourishing to help you, with all of your knowledge and experience, build a program that will make the Spartans wake up in their graves and take notice.