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Coping with Complexity

Introducing ‘Cybernetics’

Cybernetics is the science or study of control or regulation mechanisms in human and machine systems, including computers. Cybernetics helps us to understand the underlying patterns of collective leadership, based on both qualitative and quantitative relationships between the contextual conditions, the mechanisms and the outcomes based on the interaction between the context (which draws on synergetics) and the mechanisms (drawing on cybernetics), although close associations remain between both synergetics and cybernetics.

As with synergetics, Brookes (2016) argues that the provenance of the word originates from ancient Greek (κυβερνᾶν to steer), hence its association with the verb ‘governs’, from the French cybernétique; this French word appears to have been translated into English from 1948 by Wiener:

We have decided to call the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal, by the name Cybernetics”
(Wiener, 1948: 19).

This is also an interesting distinction between the ‘machine’ and the ‘animal’ and the idea of control plays an important role in synergetics as well, but the difference lies in the way the control is being exercised. The concept of cybernetics relates to the idea of morphogenesis, originating from the Greek morphê, meaning shape and genesis, thus, creation, literally together meaning the “beginning of the shape”. Morphogenesis was also used by the famous father of the modern computer, a member of the University of Manchester, the mathematician Alan Turing. No surprise, of course, but morphogenesis originates from the biological process that causes an organism to develop its shape, namely morphological characters such as those that refer to structure or form which includes, as well as shape, length or colour of the body or, in geomorphogeny, the formation of landscapes, landforms and rock types. In nature, random disturbances occur, and these can be considered a part of the mathematical theory of catastrophe theory and which results in “transitions from one into another stable state of a system, where a catastrophe is a sharp change in the equilibrium state resulting from a smooth change of the external conditions.” In other words, slight external change causes huge change internally.


Cybernetics has been described as a defining influence on the creative process – “cybernetic systems were used to model practically every phenomenon, with varying degrees of success – factories, societies, machines, ecosystems, brains” (Dayal, 2009:23) and she goes on to describe how cybernetics was used to shape a music studio environment.

Times of crisis or complexity require vision, courage and innovation. A key question that we should consider is whether innovation is synonymous with risk or whether risk is the antonym of innovation. A broad definition of ‘innovation’ is as follows:

Changing the way we do things. It is about pushing the frontier of what we know in the hope of generating new and useful ideas, and then putting them into practice (GOS, 2014: 14)


Innovation is about managing risk, not avoiding it

Innovation Bulb

Technological Innovation

As Wright argues,technological innovation “could be considered under the rubric of ‘significant events’” (Wright, 2013: 94), although such ‘events’, it is suggested, are best considered as developments rather than events. In terms of social morphogenesis, Wright offers some useful key points which are applicable to wider public leadership challenges in its application to the analysis of social change at the global level:

  1. Social life is prone to change;
  2. These transformations result from forces at different levels of social life, including the international level;
  3. Social relations are multidimensional, so that the process of social change involves complex combinations of political, economic, cultural, psychological, and material forces;
  4. A wide range of actors can shape the course of social history in a global setting; and
  5. Structural forces play an important role in terms of the production of social change.

(Wright, 2013: 95) Reproduced with permission

The Icosahedron


From the perspective of leadership and governance, synergetics can be considered as context and cybernetics as mechanisms, but both within the whole (Brookes, 2016). Stafford Beer used the icosahedron as a model for organizing projects for much the same reason as Fuller used for structure: efficiency (Baldwin: 219).

An attempt to distinguish cybernetics from synergetics was made by Bushev (1994), whilst acknowledging the similarities. Both, he seems to suggest, relate to self-organisation phenomena, but he distinguishes cybernetics on the basis of maintaining a definite level of organisation, or the self-improvement of systems, which are capable of accumulating past experiences and making use of it, based also on the principles of feedback. He said:

‘Cybernetics sets itself the task of developing algorithms and methods of control (original emphasis) of systems’ (Bushev (1994)

He argued that this makes a fundamental difference from synergetics, which concerns a wider environment. Another strong proponent of cybernetics is Stafford Beer (a former Professor at Manchester Business School) who argued that cybernetics is done by comparing models of complex systems with each other, and seeking the control features which appear common to them all (Beer, 1981).

We can make a connection here with the concept of ‘transformation’; The literal meaning of transformation is “the action of changing in form, shape, or appearance; metamorphosis”5, thus more than just a change programme. An interesting dual-meaning of transformation from a business perspective has been offered by the Harvard Business Review;

Transformational Leadership Characteristics

Focusing on “today better” operational efforts does nothing more than create parity with the best executors of yesterday’s model. It is a recipe for short-term survival, not long-term sustainability. Leaders instead should be thinking about how to blend together operational model and strategic transformation to execute what Innosight calls a dual transformation.

“Transformation A” strengthens today by reinventing the core operating model.

“Transformation B” creates tomorrow’s core business. The efforts should be connected and coordinated through a carefully constructed capabilities link. This is the way that leaders can rise to the existential challenge of disruptive change to own their future, rather than be disrupted by it.”

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