Sport Systems – fragments of thought #7

Mark Upton
Jul 5, 2017

previous fragments – #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6

How do Newtonian and Complexity paradigms manifest themselves within organisations? From a personal point of view becoming aware of these paradigms, and subsequently exploring that question, has been an eye-opening and worthwhile adventure over the last few years.

Jean Boulton…

there is an increasing focus, for organizations, on defining detailed rules, standardizing methods, evidencing and measuring outcomes. The intention is to make the hospital, school, or firm work as an efficient, optimized, well-oiled machine. The belief is that if we tell people exactly what to do and check they do it exactly, then standards and efficiency will improve.

…Newtonian, machine thinking leading to a plan-do-review method for management.

Cliff Bowman…

As someone who has only more recently been exposed to complexity thinking, I can certainly say that it changes how you see the world. It’s difficult to appreciate how much our thinking is bound up within a Newtonian worldview. Once you have understood the complexity view it opens up new and quite challenging insights into the way the world really ‘works’. I have had to rethink what organizations are, the limits to ‘control’, what ‘strategy’ might mean, whether there are optimal ‘designs’ of better systems, etc. But once you start viewing organizations through a complexity perspective you can better understand why change happens, and why it doesn’t happen. You can see that attempts to predict the future are precursors to beliefs that we can control the future.

For me, it seems most professional sport bodies and governing organisations in the UK and Australia (perhaps everywhere?) unknowingly operate from a Newtonian paradigm. Therefore it follows that the actions to formally structure and organise sport in the last 15-odd years would reflect this…and increasingly so. I wonder if any have considered the benefits of limited governance…

“Limited governance is about limiting the governance of a person or organisation in any position of authority, one step at a time. This enables and empowers people to take more responsibility for themselves and each other, and in turn contribute more to the direction of the group as a whole.”

The Netflix story in the post above is particularly intriguing. It runs counter to the idea that we should just focus on, and stick to, The Process…some governing bodies having quickly gained notoriety for their love of a pre-determined process from which they can assign targets, milestones & action plans and then hold people “accountable” for delivering on. However in the complex human systems encountered in sport, there could be multiple and emergent paths that take us in a desirable direction…therefore we need to maintain a degree of experimentation, stay alert for novel opportunities and indeed encourage a degree of failure. Whilst this is nothing new for experienced practitioners with adaptive expertise, perhaps these very practitioners are the ones feeling the squeeze of unlimited governance?

It also raises the question whether investment from sports bodies would be better directed at nurturing adaptive expertise across all layers of a sport system, rather than the outputs of “blueprint thinking” as described by Elinor Ostrom…

“whenever policymakers, donors, citizens, or scholars propose uniform solutions to a wide variety of problems that are clustered under a single name based on one or more successful exemplars”