Mapping new frontiers … Complexity - Canadian Government Executive
GovernmentInnovationsLeadershipPublic Sector
March 31, 2016

Mapping new frontiers … Complexity

Things just get curiouser and curiouser.

Lewis Carroll (1865): ’s Adventures in Wonderland

David Thompson was a British-Canadian fur trader, surveyor, and mapmaker, known to indigenous peoples as Koo-Koo-Sint or ‘the Stargazer’. He travelled 90,000 kilometres and mapped nearly five million square kilometres of . He has been described as the “greatest land geographer who ever lived”.

Thompson explored new frontiers to see the big-picture possibilities of a strange, forbidding continent. He scanned the whole night sky with his trusty sextant to decipher the cosmic starscape and imagined a vast expanse under the heavens. His quest transcended the intricacies and complications of geopolitical boundaries.

The Canadian frontier challenged the hardiness of brave homesteaders who sought to stake a claim for a better life. Aided by indigenous peoples, they created a great place to live, work, and do business. became a world leader in stable government, rule of law, social justice, resource management, and trade relations.

Some say that ’s public institutions have grown stale and inward looking. They subsidize failing systems and pursue policies that favour special interests over greater interests. The Frontier Centre for Public Policy has another view:

“In 21st Century the new Frontier is the Frontier of Ideas. Bold ideas challenge mainstream views, engage the public and improve economic and social growth. Poor, opaque policies discourage participation and fail to meet the public interest. Unbiased analysis that supports the former while making transparent the latter, that is the new Frontier.”

The Public Service

Ontario Cabinet Secretary Steve Orsini gave an ‘inside outlook’ on government at last October. His ‘Leadership in a Dynamically Changing World’ keynote highlighted the trends that contribute to complexityfierce global competition, slower productivity growth, increasing public expectations, innovation imperatives, fiscal constraints.

Orsini touched on lagging productivity, climate change, and income inequality as intractable issues for Ontarians. The Government’s priorities are investing in people’s talent, building modern infrastructure, creating a productive business climate, and ensuring retirement security. These are underpinned by fiscally responsible, accountable, citizen-centred, innovative public service.

The audience was left with six questions about the complex challenges ahead:

  • Will slower private sector productivity press government to cut taxes and/or invest in growth
  • Will the public pay for growing demand for high-quality health care, education, and infrastructure?
  • Will rising income inequality cause government to redistribute income to reduce poverty?
  • Will uncertain federal fiscal capacity compel new federal-provincial fiscal arrangements?
  • Will the world unite to address climate change before the risks to society become too great?
  • Will government balance the needs of today with intergenerational fairness for tomorrow?

 

What middle managers need to know

Complexity takes many forms, short of chaos. Organizational patterns are characterized variouslynon-linear, unpredictable, interdependent, emergent, fragmented, infinite, networked, spontaneous, sensitive, dynamic … even viral.

Experts argue that thinking has not kept pace with the complexity of the world and that smarter decision making is needed. Intuitive ways of thinking about problems are not enough. More sophisticated strategies for interpreting and responding to complexity are required. The search for certainty and simplicity affects how complex problems are handled.

At the same time, human instinct draws upon mental imagery to make problems more manageable. Middle managers must be able to vision an alternative future to become ‘disruption ready’. They need greater boldness to lead amidst expanding complexity and to thrive on chaos. Rather than accepting the status quo, they need to push back and offer new options that alter the playing field.

Culture, values, knowledge, and communications are at the heart of managing complexity. Classical approaches and rational scientific management can be dysfunctional. Experience calls for a management style that is reflective, pragmatic, adaptable, and humanistic. Managers look to innovation hubs and new technologies to test collaborative ways to solve complex problems.

Changing the world requires innovative thoughtboldly imagined, rigorously researched, strenuously reviewed, clearly communicated. Intellectual friction encourages new ways of looking at and tackling public policy problems. The cause is simple, the issues are complex, and the task is challenging.

 

 

JOHN WILKINS IS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR: PUBLIC MANAGEMENT WITH THE OF BUSINESS, (JWILKINS@SCHULICH.YORKU.CA). HE WAS A CAREER PUBLIC SERVICE MANAGER IN AND A COMMONWEALTH DIPLOMAT.

About this author

John Wilkins

John Wilkins is Executive in Residence: Public Management at York University. He was a career public servant and diplomat. (jwilkins@schulich.yorku.ca)

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