Fielding Graduate University News

Fielding Alumni Track 2013 Recap: Putting Complexity to Work

Posted by Hilary Edwards on Tue, Aug 13, 2013

By Alice MacGillivray, PhD

alice and jim resized 600At Fielding Graduate University’s All Schools National Summer Session 2013, alumni James Webber (HOD '03) and Alice MacGillivray (HOD '09) facilitated a workshop entitled “Putting Complexity to Work.” Webber took the lead on design as part of an Institute for Social Innovation project, with MacGillivray joining in to co-design and co-facilitate.  Webber and the late alumnus Bernie Novokowski had offered many national sessions in the past and several of Bernie’s ideas were integrated into the design to honor his many years of experiential learning with systems.

Diversity of many types—backgrounds, disciplines, cultures, ways of thinking—can be a critical asset in working with complexity. The over twenty people who came together for this workshop exemplified diversity, which was a perfect setting for the workshop. There were doctoral students, alumni from the Fielding schools of Education Leadership and Change, Media Psychology and Human and Organizational Development doctoral, masters and certificate programs. Some participants specialized in complexity-related consulting and some were curious about the concepts. There were people from at least three countries and from private, public and not-for profit backgrounds. In typical Fielding fashion, interchanges were respectful and curious, regardless of how much people had in common.

“We wanted to offer a workshop that exemplified work as a scholar practitioner” said Webber and MacGillivray. “Work with complexity theory has challenges, but it is important enough to make the effort.  We know that organizations can seriously flounder when they rely on mechanistic tools that worked well in the past, but which fail in rapidly changing times.  It is so easy to fall back on tight vision statements, multi-year plans and a dominant focus on milestones and metrics.  But there are other ways based on concepts such as boundaries, attractors, emergence and intentional redundancies. Some organizations are ready for these new ways.”

Webber and MacGillivray presented theories and models, told stories from their research and practices, and referenced Jim’s 40-page handout (a hallmark of Webber-Novokowski workshops). “We hadn’t actually worked together before,” said MacGillivray “but we had a blast.  It was interesting to find out we had led somewhat parallel professional lives, meeting many of the same people and working on similar projects.”

Workshop participants took part in activities, including a “crowdsourced” literature review  Each person chose a resource, either a a book or journal paper, and found an idea that captured their imagination. They shared those ideas and commented on whether they thought they could use them in their practices. A few examples they selected follow:

  • Understanding organizations as patterns of interactions between people

  • Change is difficult, any change alters power relations and insider/outsider dynamics

  • Complicated problems are different than complex ones

Every participant received a book, either a Ralph Stacey book or Kurt Richardson’s Thinking About Complexity: Grasping the Continuum through Criticism and Pluralism. Webber and MacGillivray shared key concepts with several scholars, one of which included Richardson. Richardson started out as a physicist and aeronautical engineer, and the book is a subtle autobiography of his journey to a more pluralistic world view. MacGillivray told him about the workshop she and Webber were preparing. In response, he generously provided copies of this book for all workshop participants, hoping the ideas would inspire others to work with the application of complexity theory. In reflecting on resources shared during the workshop and from Webber in a subsequent e-mail, workshop participant and Fielding Alumni Council member Noah Harris, said "he was quite beside himself with so many Christmas gifts’ in July!...each these tools are directly applicable to my practice and scholarship interests, so they couldn’t be more timely or appreciated.”

MacGillivray mentioned two journals for potential publishing: Emergence, Complexity and Organization and the International Journal of Complexity in Leadership and Management. MacGillivray and Webber believe Fielding remains unusually progressive and relevant through offering systems knowledge areas and the option of working through other knowledge areas using a systems or complexity lens.  They look forward to future opportunities to support scholar-practitioner work in these fields.

 describe the imageECO logo

Alice MacGillivray is an independent consultant based on Gabriola Island in western Canada, program head for graduate programs in Learning and Technology at Royal Roads University, and visiting scholar at Capella University. MacGillivray also serves on the Fielding Alumni Council. For more information, visit or @4KM on twitter.



Tags: fielding graduate university, human development