“It is not
a good time for control freaks,” writes Brenda Zimmerman,
with her co-authors Michael Quinn Patton and Frances Westley,
in their recent book, Getting to Maybe: How the World
is Changed (Random House Canada, 2006).
The world, with its rapidly changing and
evolving systems, is too complex for those who like to manage
the individual components of a defined process or system.
But it can be a good time for those who
are able to live with uncertainty and embrace complexity.
She asserts that there are ways in which
we can address the sense of “being stuck” and
create major transformation in our work, in our communities,
and in the world.
On this page, Brenda explores the challenges
and opportunities inherent to working in complex systems.
She looks at some key characteristics of leadership in uncertain
times, and lays out several important principles for leading
in complex systems.
Zimmerman is an associate professor at the Schulich School
of Business at York University and the founding director of
York’s Health Industry Management Program. She is the
author of many articles applying complexity science to organizational
strategy and change, and a co-author of the book Edgeware:
Insights From Complexity Science for Health Care Leaders.
She is also co-author, with Frances Westley and Michael Quinn
Patton, of the book Getting to Maybe: How the World is
Brenda’s gifts for scholarship, teaching
and writing have brought many advancements to complexity and
the management field and reached many practitioners and policy
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In Getting to Maybe, Brenda and
her co-authors write, “It is not a good time for control
freaks. But it is a good time for those capable of living
with uncertainty.” She sees times of uncertainty as
opportunities for innovation and creativity.
a linear model, there are limited points of connection, and
each connection depends on the next, like the links of a chain.
The whole system is only as strong as its weakest connection,
so we constantly fear collapse. In times of great uncertainty,
with a complex model, there are many, many points of connectedness
which lend flexibility and stability. They also allow entry
into the system from myriad points, and this means that there
is an entry point for everyone. The more people are at the
table, the greater the scope for creative solutions.
This challenges the dominant rhetoric of
the hero, the great leader, and places the onus for change
on the rest of us. Small changes, in a complex system, can
have big effects.
In times of uncertainty, Brenda says, there
is a greater spirit of experimentation – people are
more willing to try new things, as it becomes clear that the
old ways of dealing with issues are not working. At the same
time, we have to be more attentive to detail, and take the
time to reflect more carefully as we act.
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What does it mean to be a leader in complexity?
It means accepting that certain aspects of our work are inherently
unknowable. It means accessing the wisdom in our communities,
rather than being the 'Big Brain' leader who provides the
wisdom. It means not beating up on ourselves when we can't
figure something out.
Leadership in complexity requires different
skills than traditional models of leadership. It requires
us to think of leadership as inquiry, and this in turn means
that we need to think much more critically about the kinds
of questions that we ask. It may not be the answers that need
changing, but the questions. A convergent question, one that
leads to a specific answer, has a very different effect from
a divergent question, or one that allows for a more creative,
more open space for answers. Seeing leadership as inquiry
also lets us accept that we don't have to have the answers
to every question; the questions themselves are at least as
A key skill for leaders in complex systems
is pattern recognition – knowing when the answers to
divergent questions are leading to something new.
Another key element of leadership in complexity
is hope. Brenda distinguishes between hope and optimism. Optimism
implies an expectation that a particular result will occur,
while hope is more general, an attitude that seeks the possibility
in everything. While optimism can lead to disappointment and
frustration, hope is more resilient, and keeps us moving forward
to the next possibility.
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In her paper, “Nine Emerging
and Connected Organizational and Leadership Principles
Brenda describes 9 key principles for working in complexity.
- View your system through the lens of complexity
- Build a good-enough vision
- When life is far from certain, lead with clockware
and swarmware in tandem
- Tune your place to the edge
- Uncover and work with paradox and tension
- Go for multiple actions at the fringes, let direction
- Listen to the shadow system
- Grow complex systems by chunking
- Mix cooperation with competition
These principles are not a checklist, where
each item stands alone. Instead, they are factors that complement
each other as part of a more holistic model. The principles
work together and feed into one another.
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Brenda walks us through five of the nine
principles in greater detail. The deeper we delve into any
one principle, the more we realize how interconnected the
nine principles are.
Build a Good
We strive for perfection, but it is all too
possible to get tangled in the quest for the perfect solution.
We have to realize that the overwhelming majority of strategies
are not implemented as planned – and this does not necessarily
mean that they are failures. Building a vision that is good
enough to get the work started, and then developing the vision
further as the work progresses, means that the work can be
anchored and yet flexible. We build the road as we travel,
but we never travel without a map.
This does require much greater attentiveness:
the thinking and reflection continues throughout the process,
not just as a 'planning' stage at the beginning.
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Work with Paradox and Tension
Paradox – as opposed to contradiction
– is inherent to the realm of complexity. In a paradox,
both sides of a statement are true; in a contradiction, one
must be true and the other must be false. If we can accept
that both sides of the paradox confronting us are true, then
we can look at the various perspectives on it in a new light.
We can recognize that perspectives that seem opposed are actually
working on the same issues, and in recognizing this, we may
be able to help align them.
Paradox and tension can reveal exciting insights
and opportunity, if we engage with both sides of the paradox
rather than trying to ignore them.
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Go for Multiple
Actions at the Fringes
Rather than focusing on best practices, which
imply a certain linear progress and a 'right way' of doing
things, working in the complex means that we need to encourage
action and experimentation to arise anywhere in the system.
This means that we need to have a much tighter feedback loop
between thinking and action, as the situation is constantly
If we do not follow this approach, there
is a very real danger that those on the fringes will feel
disempowered and begin to become the enemy. Perhaps they will
become apathetic, simply withdraw their support, or actively
work against us.
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Grow Complex Systems
In a complex world, a blueprint-style plan
that requires us to implement whole systems can be very problematic.
Systems grow naturally one piece at a time. Accepting this
allows us to evaluate these 'chunks' as they emerge, keeping
what works over time, and pruning back what does not.
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In our 'nice' sector, we usually aim for
cooperation – but competition can help spark innovation.
We can over-cooperate, losing the edge that is needed to come
up with creative ideas.
In fact, competition happens in the voluntary
sector anyway. Turf wars or competition for funding can be
destructive, but striking a better balance between competition
and cooperation allows for creativity and innovation.
For example, business competitors cooperate
to reap the benefits that credit cards can bring them. They
cooperate on key elements that will help everyone thrive.
But they compete with each other on everything else, reaping
the benefits of both cooperation and competition.
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Nine Emerging and Connected Organizational and Leadership
Principles – Here you will find summaries
of nine specific, action-oriented rules of thumb for leading
in a complex environment. Each principle is accompanied by
insights from some of the leading thinkers in complexity science.
to Maybe: How the World is Changed –
In this book, authors Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and
Michael Quinn Patton lay out a brand new way of thinking about
making changes in communities, the business, and the world.
Written for ordinary people who want to make connections that
will create extraordinary outcomes, this book looks at complexity
theory to make the impossible happen.
A Conversation with Brenda Zimmerman –
Brenda joins us to talk about about social innovation and
leadership principles within complex systems.
Complexity Science Primer – This introductory
paper, an excerpt from Brenda's book Edgeware, gives
a context and a base-level understanding of complexity science
and its relevance to human organizations.
New to Complexity? – The Plexus Institute
website covers the science of complexity, the history of complexity
science, stories about how leaders have used complexity-based
management approaches, readings on complexity-inspired organizational
theory and leadership, and opportunities for face-to-face
learning with others who share your interests in this emerging
A Conversation with Frances Westley – Brenda's
co-author of Getting to Maybe, Frances Westley, introduces
the concept of panarchy. Panarchy is a model adapted from
biology that describes complex, interactive, and adaptive
systems and how they change over time.
– A selection of Brenda's other articles
is available online.