Complementarity – what it means for organizational change

In my research into sustainable leadership practices, I have come across some helpful research on “complementarity”, which may provide both an answer to the question of “why does it seem so hard for the average organisation to change?” and potential guidance for organisations who do attempt to make a  change, especially a change to being a sustainable organisation.

I first came across the idea courtesy of John Roberts and the Modern Firm and am now perusing the supporting literature.

The essence of the academic idea of complementarity is that variables (in this case organisational performance variables) are complements when “doing (more of) one of them increases the returns of doing (more of) the other” (Roberts, 2004, p34).

For example, continuously developing people, promoting from within and taking a longer term perspective, are complementary variables because continuously developing people provides a bigger and more skilled talent pool for internal promotions, which allows an organisation to benefit from taking a longer term perspective, because there are people with the history and the skills to follow through on longer term projects and initiatives.

According to Roberts and colleagues, complementarity “gives rise to system effects, with the whole being more than the sum of the parts” (Roberts, 2004, p37). Thus complementarity helps to explain why we only see certain patterns or structures in organisations.  It also gives credence to the stability or “coherence” of patterns such as “command and control” and starts to explain why taking on a few sustainability leadership practices may make performance worse not better.

So how does a responsible organisation, start on the sustainability journey and get through the performance hole?  That’s my next research question!

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