"Complexity science is not
a single theory. It is the study of complex adaptive systems
- the patterns of relationships within them, how they are
sustained, how they self-organize and how outcomes emerge.
Within the science there are many theories and concepts. The
science encompasses more than one theoretical framework. Complexity
science is highly interdisciplinary including biologists,
anthropologists, economists, sociologists, management theorists
and many others in a quest to answer some fundamental questions
about living, adaptable, changeable systems." - A
Complexity Science Primer
Brenda Zimmerman, Professor of Policy/Strategic
Management at the Schulich School of Business at York University,
was the guest resource person at the fourth AD symposium in
April 2005 where she gave a presentation on the link between
complexity science and applied dissemination. We were thrilled
to welcome Brenda to our learning community once again for
a conversation on complexity science and social innovation.
Brenda Zimmerman is Professor of Policy/Strategic Management
at the Schulich School of Business at York University. 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 Patten, of the forthcoming book
Getting to Maybe: How to Change the World.
Brenda’s gifts for scholarship, teaching
and writing have brought many advancements to complexity and
the management field and reached many practitioners and policy
makers. Learn more about Brenda here
or visit her faculty profile on the York University website
Back to top.
What is complexity
Current management thinking - the way of
understanding organizations - largely assumes that a well
functioning organization is akin to a well oiled machine.
This leads to the notion that performance is optimized when
work is specified in detail and shared out to distinct operational
units. "Organization as machine" is the
implicit metaphor used to describe organizations and the way
Many of the theories about management and
change believe that considering parts in isolation, specifying
changes in detail, battling resistance to change, and reducing
variation will lead to better performance.
In contrast, complexity science, because
it's built on a living organism metaphor, studies complex
adaptive systems, with all of their inherent messiness, unpredictability
and emergence. Complexity suggests that relationships between
parts are more important than the parts themselves. This leads
to assumptions such as:
- Neither the system nor its external environment are,
or ever will be, constant - emergence and natural creativity
are the norm. Equilibrium is actually an unhealthy state.
- Individuals within a system are independent and creative
decision makers and highly interdependent.
- Uncertainty and paradox are inherent within the system.
- Problems that cannot be solved like a machine can solve
something, but they can nevertheless be “moved forward”
if you understand the patterns that are creating them.
- Effective solutions can emerge from minimum specifications
or simple rules rather than over-specification.
- Small changes can have big effects (nonlinearity).
- Behaviour exhibits patterns (that can be termed “attractors”)
- Change is more easily adopted when it taps into attractor
Back to top.
complexity management ideas
When Brenda met with the learning community
in Montreal, she used an analogy to make the distinction between
traditional and complexity management ideas, arguing that
the traditional addresses the simple and complicated but rarely
Simple was like following a recipe and complicated
was like flying to moon.
In both of these cases we are dealing with
knowable processes, even if they are unknown
at the moment. We should be able to figure it out a priori.
But we then said complex was more like raising a child - and
good luck to you if you think that endeavour can be scripted
ahead of time! It is a great way to help people understand
that you can still move things forward and act as a parent
even when the future is inherently unknowable, the
situation changes constantly, and the relationship between
you and your child is more important than any specific parenting
intervention or plan you may espouse.
our work in organizations, and perhaps especially when talking
about the dissemination of great ideas/programs, we face the
simple (known), the complicated (the potentially unknown,
but knowable) and the complex (the unknowable). Understanding
this is crucial to designing interventions and approaches
that will work to match the context. This is helpful to practitioners
because it allows you to be able to discern the difference
between the complex and the simple parts of the work while
recognizing that there are some parts of your work that are
unknowable because they have emerging characteristics.
Back to top.
Complex adaptive systems are everywhere -
they are eco-systems, the stock market, organizations, our
bodies, etc. - and they are recognizable by their interdependent
attributes. Consider a spider-web:
- Not Predictable in Detail - Complex adaptive systems
are not predictable in detail. The machine metaphor pushes
us to predictability, but complexity tells us this is
- Order without Central Control - you don't need a hierarchy
where the top of the organization drives things down.
(e.g. Machine metaphor would see the CPU in a computer
drive or control all other pieces.)
- Natural Emergence - you can't explain the outcome from
the part that created it. The outcomes are different
from the sum of their parts.
- Simple Rules - a few key patterns of interaction can
repeat over and over again to create patterns we see within
- Embedded Systems - we are never outside the system,
we are always influencing systems and being influenced
by them .
- Co-evolution - as you change your environment changes
and so you are co-evolving with your environment.
When we know we’re working with these
attributes we can be much more mindful of patterns emerging.
"Believing is seeing."
Because we believe things are machine-like,
in terms of organizations, we've looked for machine-like attributes
and so have begun to believe the metaphor as true. But if
we look at organizations as adaptive systems we begin to see
iterative loops between actions and reflections, we can see
the embeddedness of systems, etc. and recognize that we can
not drive or control change.
As the same time as we give up the sense
of control, we have to be extra attentive to the patterns
that emerge and determine how best to work with it. That's
an interesting paradox in complexity - there is a lightness,
but there is a tight loop between thought and action.
Back to top.
and leadership principles
Brenda's study of the science of complex
adaptive systems and her work with leaders in health care
and other organizations has led Brenda, along with Curt Lindberg
and Paul Plsek, to propose some principles of management that
are consistent with an understanding of organizations as Complex
Adaptive Systems. There is nothing sacred or permanent about
this list but these principles do begin to give us a new way
of thinking about and approaching our roles as leaders in
- View your system through the lens of complexity - The
basic problem with the organization as machine
metaphor when applied to a complex adaptive system is
that it ignores the individuality of agents and the effects
of interaction among agents. Or worse, they simply assume
that all this can be tightly controlled through better
(read: more) specification. When we view our system through
the lens of complexity, we take on a new metaphor –
that of a Complex Adaptive System – and, therefore,
are using a different model to determine what makes sense
for leaders to do.
- Build a good-enough vision - Provide minimum specifications
rather than trying to plan every little detail. Have a
good enough sense of where you want to go but don't over-specify
and don't expect a detailed blueprint.
- 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 - In healthy living
systems cooperation and competition co-exist. When we
consider social justice or movements, complexity science
encourages us to be aware that we need both in a creative
tension to move the agenda forward.
Check out the full article here.
Back to top.
Complexity encourages us to create optimism,
to create energy, to recognize progress which is not necessarily
visible from the traditional management perspectives.
Additionally, it encourages us to change
the inquiry – the way we ask questions, what we pay
attention to and a capacity to act quickly and engage in deep
reflection. See these not as contradictions but two sides
of the social innovation story.
We consider every effort at social innovation
an opportunity for those involved to practice thinking. Distinguishing
the simple from the complicated, and the complicated from
the complex, is the foundation of complexity thinking. In
this regard we aspire to have complexity thinking about social
innovation to do what Arendt hoped her exercises in political
thought would do, namely, "to gain experience in how
to think," in this case, how to think about and evaluate
the complex dynamics of social innovation in order to learn
and increase impact.
Recent action on the world stage of politics
offers a prime example. The Iraq Invasion was conceived as
a complicated problem with the goal of “regime
change.” The American military planned the invasion
based on a “shock and awe” strategy using overwhelmingly
superior force and unprecedented speed to squash the Iraqi
military. While there were some relatively minor deviations
from the original plan, on the whole the invasion unfolded
as an exercise in coordinating and directing implementation
of a complicated blueprint for victory. “Mission accomplished,”
President Bush declared. Then came the challenge of securing
Whatever one may think of the Iraq invasion
-- its necessity, wisdom, or legality -- it seems clear that
nation-building is a complex challenge, more akin to rearing
a child than sending a rocket to the moon (the complicated
comparative frame for the blueprint invasion plan). However,
the evidence is that those in charge continued treating securing
the peace, instituting democracy, and building a new nation
as a complicated rather than complex problem. Perhaps the
political environment and controversy of the invasion kept
those nominally “in charge” from being able to
acknowledge their lack of control, inherent uncertainties,
rapidly changing and unstable system dynamics, and unpredictably
emergent insurgencies. But failing to think about the situation
appropriately, as a complex rather than merely complicated
problem, has, we think, increased the chaos and contributed
to instability and loss of life. That’s not a political
judgment. That’s a complexity judgment.
Brenda hopes that we are more open to the
complexity judgments in our work as social innovators; that
we become more skillful in our thinking and discerning the
She also encourages us to think about predictions
as only possible in the knowable, complicated aspects of our
work and not demand it of our complex, unknowable aspects.
Instead we should learn to be more prepared for what is to
come by increasing our capacity to see patterns as they emerge
and work with them and begin to look for the inherent coherence
rather than the imposed consistency.
Back to top.
The Language of
The language of systems has been taken over
by the machine metaphor. There are groups in the UK now referring
to this as "complex responsive processes" in order
to put the emphasis on connections and responses, but Brenda
struggles with that when dealing with institutions and groups,
etc. because that language also has baggage (e.g. lack of
focus on outcomes).
We do have a "language" problem.
Instead, let's think about the questions we need to pose to
help us move forward. Some of those questions need to be paradoxical,
"wicked" questions that hold both sides together.
(e.g. How can we, with all of our collective agendas, work
cooperatively to reach our mutual goal?)
Back to top.
Complexity Science Primer - A good first step
in a painting project is to lay down a coat of primer. This
prepares the surface, so the paint will go on better. The
same is true in learning. This introductory paper prepares
your mind with a context and a base-level understanding of
complexity science and its relevance to human organizations.
Later, the more challenging concepts are much more likely
to stick. Learn more here.
Organizational & Leadership Principles
- "Theory is fine. But what am I supposed to do?"
Good question. That's where this article comes in. 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. Learn more here.
to Maybe: How to Change the World - A practical,
inspirational, revolutionary guide to social innovation, Getting
to Maybe applies the insights of complexity theory and
harvests the experiences of a wide range of people and organizations
– including the ministers behind the Boston Miracle
(and its aftermath); the Grameen Bank, in which one man’s
dream of micro-credit sparked a financial revolution for the
world’s poor; the efforts of a Canadian clothing designer
to help transform the lives of aboriginal women and children;
and many more – to lay out a brand new way of thinking
about making change in communities, in business, and in the
world. Learn more about this forthcoming book here!
Board's Journey into Complexity Science - In this paper,
Brenda Zimmerman and Brian Hayday go beyond interpreting results
through a complexity lens to demonstrating how board members
and staff of an organization deliberately applied insights
from complexity science to improve their work. Download this
to Complexity - If you're new to the field of
complexity science and its implications for organizations,
management and leadership, check out this
page on the Plexus
Institute website. Here you'll find a basic set of recommended
learning material that 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 field. Learn more here.
Additional Links & Resources
Back to top.