Complexity science is the science of interacting systems. It is the study of the patterns of relationships, how they self-organize, evolve, create emergence, and are sustained. It is a rapidly spreading, interdisciplinary science that includes biologists, anthropologists, economists, sociologists, management theorists and many others on a quest to answer fundamental questions about living systems.
Understanding organizations through complexity science
How many times have you heard a leader say “I run a tight ship!”? Management thinking tends to assume that an organization is like a machine. The belief is that performance is optimized when work is specified in detail and parceled to distinct operational units. “Organization as machine” is the common metaphor from the industrial era used to describe organizations and the way they work. 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 embraces a living organism metaphor and studies interactive systems, with all of their messiness, unpredictability, and emergence. Organizations are comprised of multiple complex adaptive systems, suggesting that relationships between parts are more important than the parts themselves, leading to assumptions such as:
- Systems fluctuate
- Long-term equilibrium is unhealthy
- Individuals within a system are independent and interdependent
- Uncertainty and paradox are inherent within the system
- Problems can be addressed if you understand the patterns creating them
- Behavior exhibits patterns
- Change is more easily adopted when patterns are understood
- Effective solutions can emerge from simple rules
- Small changes can have big effect
What does this image have to do with Complexity Science?
The ammonite, with its beautiful and intricate design has come to represent the science of interacting systems, or complexity science. This ancient creature represents a natural interacting system (the environment, the creature and its host shell) that provides an example of the many patterns that occur in nature – often hidden or disguised – that can reveal a great deal about the organism. Just like patterns in the natural world, these can also be found in organizations, offering the discerning viewer (or leader) valuable information about the system.
What are Complex Adaptive Systems?
A Complex Adaptive System (CAS) is a dynamic network of many agents (like people) acting and reacting to other agents. The Stock Market and internet are a good examples of a complex adaptive systems, so is an organization. As with a CAS, coherent behavior in an organization arises from competition and cooperation among the members. The overall behavior of the organization is the result of a huge number of decisions made every moment by many individual agents.
In philosophy, science, and systems, emergence is a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties (think about the V shape of a flock of birds). The process of emergence creates novel characteristics (the V shape) exhibited on the level of the whole ensemble, but not by the components in isolation. In an organization novel solutions to a challenge are created through a process of emergence. This gives rise to the notion that the sum is greater than the total of its parts.