Edgeware - Aides


Board of Trustees:
Evaluation and Appreciation

James B. Webber
Kensington, NH
and Curt Lindberg
Complexity Management
VHA Inc.
Cranbury, NJ

Complexity lens


"Complexity is about reframing our understanding of many systems by using a metaphor associated with life and living systems rather than machines or mechanical systems." (Edgeware – A Complexity Science Primer)


Stacey: Strategic management

Most trustee evaluation schemes were designed for the machine age, for stable worlds characterized by predictable futures, planning as prescriptive intent, being in control and short term fiduciary responsibility. The oversight of conformance and performance is a necessary role, but one that is insufficient in a world of unpredictable change.

In a world where strategy becomes emergent, where being somewhat out of control is desirable and where leadership is asked to absorb and amplify uncertainty rather than protect the institution from it, the board, along with the rest of the organization, must assume the additional role of adapting and learning. The three approaches outlined in this section are designed to help with this and can be used with the board and any other leadership group within the organization. The approaches are:

  • Board Evaluation Using the Complexity Lens

  • Board Evaluation Using "Slow Learning"

  • Celebrating Our CASness

1.   Board Evaluation: Using the Complexity Lens

The basic idea:

Complexity criteria drawn from Edgeware materials are used to assess and appreciate the role of the board in creating conditions of adaptability and learning among board members and within the institution and its leadership.

Potential context for use:
  • when there is a sense that change is overwhelming the institution

  • when there are complaints of lack of responsiveness and lack of nimbleness

  • when the Conforming and Performing role of the board seems to be in good shape but there is a serious, intuitive concern for long term viability

  • when the CEO is trying to introduce a complexity perspective into the leadership approach of the organization and needs the support, understanding and wisdom of the trustees to do so

  • when board members need a step by step approach to exploring complexity (in spite of our reservations about explicit tools)


Board evaluation systems under conditions of both stability and change should involve the search for both efficiency and adaptability.

Both "A"

Stable World,
Search for Efficiency


And "B"

Unstable World,
Search for Adaptability

Conforming and Performing Board Role Adapting and Evolving Board Role
Short Term Fiduciary Responsibility Long Term Fiduciary Responsibility
An orderly world. Protect from, and dampen uncertainty and change. A disorderly world. Absorb and learn from uncertainty and change.

Board Self-Assessment Topics:

  • Governance
  • Planning Oversight
  • Quality Oversight
  • Community Oversight
  • Financial Oversight
  • Management Oversight
  • Board Effectiveness
  • Individual Assessment

Board Self-Assessment Topics:(From: Edgeware: Complexity Resources for Health Care Leaders)

Complexity Science Primer
"[An invitation] to examine the unpredictable, disorderly and unstable aspects of organizations."

Nine, emerging, Connected Organizational & Leadership Principles:

-The Lens of Complexity
-Good Enough Vision
-Lead From the Edge
-Tune to the Edge
-Uncover Paradox and Tension
-Multiple Actions, Let Directions Emerge
-Listen to the Shadow System
-Grow Complex Systems Through Chunking
-Mix Cooperation and Competition

Aides for Complexity

Tales of Complexity

Helping Others Learn About Complexity

There are many examples of health care organizations
that did a fine job in column "A" but missed the boat in column "B."
They performed but did not evolve.



1. Complexity criteria (see some sample criteria in next sections) are first identified, reviewed and discussed for understanding, using the resources in Edgeware.

2. The board then rates the relevance of the criteria to the organization’s situation using a simple scale, say, from 1) low to 3) high.

3. Given highly relevant criteria, how is the board and the institution doing? Use a simple scale, say, from 1) low to 10) high. Evaluate and discuss the extent the organization or board meets each relevant criteria.

4. Explore what actions are suggested by the results of the evaluation? How can the board or the organization act more like a living system and less like a machine? In what ways can the can the organization’s leadership create conditions that will promote organizational learning, adaptability and responsiveness?.

Reflection: This process helps boards spend time discussing long term viability rather than concentrating on shorter term operating and conformance matters. Board members make their wisdom explicit by searching for and testing complexity criteria, and by applying the relevant criteria to the situation at hand.

Stacey matrix


A. In a retreat setting, trustees, management and medical staff of a community hospital developed a set of complexity criteria to provide a basis for evaluating management performance in an uncertain future. The need for the complexity criteria arose when the CEO convinced board members that adaptability of the organization was as important as current operating efficiency. After a brief primer on complex adaptive systems using a chart similar to "Both A and B" above and Stacey’s Agreement and Certainty Matrix, participants were asked to evaluate the relevance of a set of complexity criteria. Small groups were formed to evaluate which characteristics were most applicable to the hospital’s future governance using a scale of 1 (low) to 3 (high). The group work was tallied, discussed and a consensus was reached by the full group. The results were a set of institutional expectations for the board in creating conditions for greater adaptability. A portion of the results are shown below.

Adaptability Criteria

Group Ratings



Extent leadership is aware of and tries to be one step ahead of emerging trends. 2.8 But not too far out-front
Appreciation of experiments and learning 2.7 Innovation is a better term than experiments
Do incentives support adaptability? 2.3 Need reinforcement to walk on the edge.
Exploratory thinking before strategic planning 2.0 Need a balance between the two.
Membership diversity of all kinds 2.7 It takes all kinds. But no quotas.
Web of connections of board members- breadth and depth of community connections 2.8 Web masters wanted!
Balanced scorecard for the hospital, adding innovation, adaptability and personal development to conventional financial performance and activity measures 1.5 No comments
Acceptance of ambiguities, paradoxes and dilemmas at the top 2.2 It is the reality. Calls for wisdom.

B. The board of directors of a state hospital association used this method to evaluate their effectiveness under conditions of disruptive industry change. The project was initiated by the president of the organization who felt the board was spending its time on minutia and missing the need for industry restructuring and association redesign. In evaluating themselves against a set of complexity criteria, they found that they were wasting their time on routine and short term matters and were dodging their long term fiduciary responsibility for creating the conditions for hospital and association change.

Specifically, the criteria used were clustered into four groups similar to those in the Sample Criteria Section below and an overall rating was given to the board’s performance for each. The results were:








Criteria Group Ratings Comments
Evolutionary Promise


Virtually no time spent or consideration given to adaptability, emergence, learning, boundary stretching. Too busy to do so.

Analytical Creativity


Few assumptions challenged, no exploratory thinking, some consideration of market value migrating away from hospitals

Political Savvy


In dealing with the state, yes. In terms of our membership, a lack of diversity on the board. Political channels seem clogged.

Relational Competence


Have created and maintained a diverse set of relationships, could use them in a more generative fashion.

Sample Criteria:

(See also Edgeware, especially Primer, Principles and Tales)
Overall: Healthcare organizations, like all living systems, are viewed as complex adaptive systems, always in the process of evolving, changing and becoming in an unpredictable world. In this view, the leader sees the organization through the complexity lens and….

Evolutionary Promise:

  • Consciously encourages living on the edge to stimulate complex learning and knowledge creation. Amplifies fluctuations to see what can be learned. Focuses on contradictions and paradoxes as signals of potential emergence to higher levels of performance.

  • Allows innovative fringe activity and protects such activity from hidebound traditions, institutional memory and bureaucratic relapse. Searches for the patterns that emerge from boundary stretching activities.

  • Thinks in terms of learning, evolving, adapting, resiliency, nimbleness, redundancies, building blocks, organizational slack, the possibility of quantum leaps and individual variation that leads to perpetual novelty.

  • Views the future as always unfolding and transitioning and never fixed in spite of pundits’ prognostications at industry conferences.

  • Thinks of long-term societal legitimacy and ecological sustainability as a source of opportunity.

  • Values the notion of co-evolution, the coordinated and interdependent evolution of two or more parties, when partnering with others.

Emergent Planning:

  • Ensures that open, exploratory, conceptual discussions precedes any strategy making effort. Searches for emergent strategies. Views planning as a discovery process not as pre-determined decision making.

  • Is sensitive to how data and information are handled. Are assumptions challenged, and filters surfaced and questioned? Sees management as creators, not just processors of information.

  • Encourages competing for share of future, emergent opportunities (opportunity share) as well as performance in existing markets (market share).

  • Ensures that the board as well as the organization as a whole enjoys abundant, shared information.

  • Measures and monitors the rate of development and the contribution of new service and product initiatives, those that have been launched in the last 3-5 years.

  • Thinks in terms of a healthy degree of diversity, anxiety and information flow when creative strategies are needed.

  • Spends time encouraging and learning from multiple small experiments, searches for patterns in these endeavors, and helps along those that are growing.

  • Is comfortable setting a few minimum specifications to define a desired approach leaving everything else open to creative emergence.

  • Encourages examination of contradictions in current practice and challenges to orthodoxy from which new directions emerge.

  • Uncovers and works with differences in viewpoints rather than suppressing them.

Relational Competence:

  • Promotes distributed control, understanding that it, not centralized control, leads to adaptability.

  • Ensures diversity on the board and the leadership team by including different leadership styles, personality types, learning styles and demographic backgrounds. Tolerates "loose cannons" and unorthodox thinkers in the organization.

  • Prides oneself on, and continues to develop the breadth, depth and diversity of its network of connections in relevant communities.

  • Ensures that the right people come together for future oriented, generative relationships. Encourages such relationships. Understands that opportunities arise from generative relationships.

  • Concerns self with the energy, mood and spirit of the organization since human relationships are central to viability, sustainability and health.

Facilitator’s Tips:

With lists, weighting and evaluation, this aide is designed to appeal to concrete, rational thinkers. Many CEO’s and board members like this approach. However, members of governing bodies often have substantial life experience and have been selected for their hard earned wisdom. Such members may be affronted by linear evaluation schemes. If this is the case, use the next aide which is much more artful and which emphasizes wisdom informed by complexity principles.


The authors have found no references on board evaluation using a complexity lens.






2.   Board Evaluation: Using "Slow Learning"

The Basic Idea:

 Wisdom of board members is built through the slow, and unconscious learning processes of rumination, osmosis and contemplation. Wisdom as a group emerges from collective reflection, appreciation and sensemaking. To the extent that the complexity way of thinking and seeing is inherent in all living systems, wise board members already know it. The purpose of this aide is to help make this understanding explicit and in doing so, to enhance the governance of adaptability.

Potential Context for Use:
  • when there is little faith in the cause and effect relationships between effective governance and lists of criteria in method 1

  • when board members are sophisticated and value the wisdom they bring to the table

  • when the board has time to be reflective, to ruminate, to let their intuition come forth, "to know better by thinking slower." (Claxton 1997)

  • when a more explicit evaluation would trigger political battles or finger a specific board member


Gain general feel for the complexity lens by discussing various sections of Edgeware— especially Tales of Complexity.

  • Then with complexity in mind apply reflectivity

  • Then with complexity in mind apply collective sensemaking. Sensemaking definition: The leader helps others in various settings make retrospective sense of the situations in which they find themselves and through reflection and progressive clarification create a unique sense of the reality they face. "What is real is up for grabs." (adapted from Weick 1995). The leader as a sensemaker…

    -Uses Weick's principles of a sensemaking meeting including: suspect old answers; encourage multiple interpretations; target ambiguity not uncertainty reduction through information; understand that ambiguity collects at the top: mobilize requisite variety at meetings; and beware of norms that stress obedience and prevent embarrassment.

    -Works on creating new meaning though expressive techniques such as analogies, metaphors, imaging, signs, symbols, myths, rituals, games and paradox.

    -Uses verbs to capture the action that lays down the path for sensemaking, "organizing" vs. organized, "integrating" vs. integrated.

    -Uses storytelling about joint experiences to make sense of things.

  • Then with complexity in mind apply appreciative inquiry principles. Focus on what is working rather than what is wrong. See what it would take to amplify the positives and discuss what kind of future might be constructed based about them (see Cooperrider).

  • Then with complexity in mind apply the slow learning processes that builds unconscious intelligence, refreshes intuition and informs wisdom. Learn complexity through osmosis. Boards are the trustees of wisdom for the institution. "Wisdom is practical; it involves seeing through the apparent issue to the real issue that underlies it; it is in touch with the simple truths that animate almost everyone; it is good judgment in hard times. To have wisdom is to possess a broad and well-developed repertoire of ways of knowing, and to deploy them appropriately. Wise persons soak up experience of complex domains, and extract the subtle, contingent pattern that are latent in it. Allowing oneself time to be wise is vital." (adapted from Claxton 1997, Chapter 12) Slow knowing, the building of unconscious intelligence though reflection, contemplation, and the exercise of curiosity is crowded out in popular management culture such as worshiped in the magazine, Fast Company. Managers, according to Claxton, typically look for solutions rather than examining questions, treat perception as unproblematic, base action on conscious understanding, value explanation over observation, like plans that are reasonable rather than intuitive, seek clarity rather than values confusion, and operate with a sense of impatience. Boards must counteract these tendencies and take time to cultivate a feel for complexity through slow learning and reflection.


Wisdom building is not for the faint of heart.


•Claxton, Guy (1997). Hare Brain Tortoise Mind, Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, London, Fourth Estate.

•Cooperrider, DE. L. and Srivasta, S. (1987). "Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life" in Woodman and Passmore (eds.) Research on Organizational Change and Development, Vol. 1, JAI Press.

•Weick, Karl (1995). Sensemaking in Organizations, Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications.

3.   Celebrating Our CASness

The Basic Idea:

Basic Idea: The board is a CAS nested within the institution as a complex adaptive system. Let’s recognize and enhance it. Living under conditions of complexity is a normal fact of life. Most of us have learned how to hedge our bets as we face an uncertain future.

Potential Context for Use:
  • when the board has learned enough about complexity to be able to recognize the reality that the board, the institution and the community are all complex systems

  • when it is inappropriate to emphasize the distinction between CAS and normal management thinking

  • when searching for new ways of looking at things



Generative relationships


Try some of the following:

  • Relating experiences to the Nine, emerging & Connected Principles in Edgeware. Review the general tenets of complexity emphasizing the real life nature of the perspective. Ask how a city works. Who is in overall charge? What role does comprehensive planning play in the future of a city?

  • Explore the Nine Principles and some Complexity Aides, and invite participants to chose one or more that helps them interpret a particular situation. Ask them to describe the interpreted experience in story form.

-For instance, examining the Complexity Aide Generative Relationships might bring to mind a story about how an idea for a new service emerged from a relationship and extended conversations with a group of current clientele.


-Another example, talk about the principle: Grow Complex Systems by Chunking. Review Holland’s idea that a set of building blocks can be adapted and recombined to build a great number of new concepts. To illustrate this principle ask how many words there are in the English language(over 460,000 in Webster’s Third Edition). Then point out that these words are all based on simple building blocks, the 24 letters in the alphabet. Now apply the principle to the health care setting, think of the basic building blocks of a hospital, of a health care system. Think in terms of physician specialties or core competencies and relate these building blocks to the vast array of diseases treated.

  • The limited ability of management to predict, prepare and control under conditions of dynamic change.

-Think of recent examples of corporations that failed to adapt to changing markets such as Kodak, IBM in 1991, Digital, Montgomery Ward, General Motors and Levi-Strauss. Did their leaders value "predict and control towards a predetermined outcome" as the way to run a company? Were they trapped by a management mindset that valued efficiency over adaptability? Why did they miss the fundamental shifts in their markets?

Lorenz: Essence of Chaos

-The "butterfly effect" suggests that a small change in a non-linear system can make a large impact. In fact there are consulting firms that specialize in "minimalist interventions." Take the beginning of World War I as an example. The assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand by a young Serbian student was the triggering event. What other examples of small changes having huge impacts come to mind? What small changes in healthcare regulations have affected the industry in a major way? Think about the various rises and falls of HCA and Columbia/HCA.


All of these approaches help board members become comfortable with the complexity lens. They come to recognize what they have always known that linearity - direct cause and effect - is relatively rare in human affairs.


Stacey, Ralph (1996). Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics, Second Edition, London, Pitman Publishing.

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