Complexity: Introduction to the
This introduction to Complexity is intended to be easy to understand for all
people interested in Complexity, with an emphasis on how it can be used to
transform organizations. It is divided into three parts, all in one long "page"
so you can print it in one section (actually 8-10 pages printed):
If you find anything in here that is hard to
understand, or you have suggestions for improvement, please email us at
PART I: COMPLEXITY - THE
1. What Complexity Is
Complexity is a new field of knowledge based on how groups of living things -
people, animals, organizations, communities, the economy etc. - actually behave
in the real world. These behaviors are very complex - thus the name Complexity.
Complexity scientists use powerful computer systems to create visual and
mathematical models of how living things behave, adapt to their changing
environments, and evolve over time.
Complexity organizations are using this new knowledge to transform the
way they work into new patterns of structure, relationships and activities which
they find extremely beneficial. From international corporations like Monsanto
and Citicorp, to ad agencies and hospitals, membership associations and small
retail stores, Complexity is being used by more and more organizations all the
time. This is a real revolution - not just another fad, but a whole new way of
working and thinking which many people believe will become increasingly
widespread in the 21st Century.
What is very interesting about this revolution is that it is based on the
natural world as opposed to the mechanical-industrial world. It turns
out that humans' natural way of working together is really much better than the
unnatural ways of working which many organizations practice today. For over 100
years the model of an organization as a machine has dominated America and the
Western World. This has in many situations been destructive of human
relationships, innovation, the fun of work, and in some cases income and
profits. Complexity restores the natural way of working together, and once
people make the transformation to the Complexity way, it feels natural and has
2. The Benefits of Complexity
Complexity offers many powerful benefits to organizations which use it:
People enjoy their work more and feel more energized.
Creativity, flexibility and innovation are maximized.
Continuous adapting to change is made easier.
The emphasis on continuous learning enables people to develop and grow.
Customer relations and satisfaction are improved.
New opportunities for increased income and profits are developed.
The organization is able to consistently outperform its competitors.
Of course the benefits of Complexity vary with each organization, and many other
advantages are possible. To start you on your journey, let's begin by looking at
the importance of complex systems.
3. Understanding Complex Systems
Complexity views all groups of living creatures, including people in
organizations, as complex adaptive systems.
Any system is a group of two or more parts which interact to function
as a whole. (The root word systema means "organized whole.") The parts
of a system are interconnected and interdependent. Every system is composed of
subsystems and is nested within larger systems. A person is part of a
department, which is part of a company, which is part of a community, state,
nation and world. They are all systems. The important thing to understand
whenever we talk about systems is that we are emphasizing that everything and
everyone are interconnected and the whole has characteristics different from
the parts. For example an organization has a "personality" that is more than
just a group of people.
Complex, as we have already said, refers to the fact that groups of
living things and their behaviors are complicated. (The root word means
"twisted together.") Creating computer models of these living beings and their
behaviors is extremely challenging and has really only been possible in the
past 10-15 years. These models give new insights into how organizations work
and how to make them better.
Adaptive refers to the fact that living systems constantly adapt to
their changing environments. (Adapt means "fit to.") In organizations people
adapt to each other, to customers, the economy, competitors and many other
things. They are able to adapt through learning. Continuous learning is very
important in Complexity organizations.
4. Environments Are Systems, Too
Living systems are interdependent with their environments. Environments are
everything external to organizations which affect them in some way, including
customers, suppliers and community. Environments are complex systems,
interconnected in complex ways. Organizations also affect their environments
through their actions. In terms of the world, the impact of your organization's
actions may be slight. But in terms of a customer who is depending on your
organization, the impact can be substantial.
5. Feedback Impacts Systems
The primary way a system interacts with its environment or other systems is
through feedback. When you move your hand, your nerves provide feedback
signals to your brain so you know where your hand is. When a customer tells you
he likes or dislikes something which your organization is doing, that is
important feedback. Feedback in the form of information or signals is essential
for an organization to be able to adapt to changes in its environment. Feedback
within the organization is also essential for people to adapt to each other.
Feedback occurs in two forms: balancing, which keeps the system stable by
limiting change (like a thermostat), and reinforcing, which intensifies
the change or activity.
Complex living systems exhibit behaviors and characteristics that are different
from the behaviors and characteristics of the parts or members. This is called
emergence. An organization has behaviors and characteristics such as a
"personality" and a "corporate culture" that emerge from individual behaviors
but take on a "life of their own" and persist even when people come and go.
People shape the organization and the organization shapes the people in a
continuous feedback loop. Emergence is the source of creativity and innovation -
it is unpredictable and sometimes amazing.
One important example of emergence is self-organization. The parts of a complex
adaptive system, including people, have a natural capacity to self-organize. No
one knows exactly how this happens - it's a "wonder of nature." Birds naturally
flock together. Bees naturally form hives. People naturally recognize their
interdependence and work together to accomplish shared goals or tasks. They do
not always have to be told what to do.
8. Powerful Attractors
As a complex system adapts to its environment, a preferred state or way of doing
things is discovered, and the whole system converges on that pattern. This is
called an attractor or attractor state. In human
organizations, a desired future state may also be expressed through a shared
vision. The attractor state may have happened naturally or it may be planned
- either way, the organization as a whole is drawn to it. Over time a strong
pattern of thinking and working can become so deeply ingrained that it is very
difficult to change. If a new attractor state is desired, it must connect with
the energies, needs and desires of the people in the system, or it will not
9. Small Changes Lead to Large Effects
In a complex system, small changes can lead to larger effects, which in turn
lead to ever larger effects. This snowballing effect is one thing that
distinguishes living systems from mechanical systems, where small changes only
lead to small effects. This is sometimes called the "Butterfly Effect" because a
butterfly flapping its wings in India may influence air currents that eventually
lead to a windstorm in Chicago. In a Complexity organization, one person may
discover something new, other people in the organization may "flock" to this
discovery, and in a short time the change has swept through the organization.
This is more likely to happen in a Complexity organization where there is a high
degree of flexibility and communication, but it can happen in any complex system
- often in unpredictable ways. The decisions of a few al Qaida members to seize
jet planes and crash them into the World Trade Center had enormous effects on
the American economy and ultimately the whole world - far greater than anyone
PART II: COMPLEXITY IN
1. People Are Agents
The living parts (people) of complex systems are called agents. An agent
is "one who acts, exerts power, and represents the organization as a whole."
Agents interact with each other, affect each other, and in so doing are capable
of a high degree of creativity and innovation which cannot be precisely
predicted. Whether you call your people agents or not, it is important to
recognize their power to act as agents and the value of their interacting with
each other. In Complexity organizations, taking care of customers and creating
innovative solutions are not just the responsibility of specific departments but
of all agents.
2. The Importance of Teams
Agents naturally self-organize into small groups such as teams, which allow
close communication, cooperation and working as united systems. The interactions
among agents is the source of the most creative adaptations and solutions, and
this works best in small groups (teams). Teams can be either permanent or
temporary. They can be either functional (doing one type of activity such as
accounting or sales) or cross-functional (combining multiple talents and skills
to serve customers or accomplish projects). Teams can be self-organized or
appointed. In general teams:
Save money and make better use of resources
Improve decision-making and other processes
Produce higher quality products and services
3. A New Role for Leaders
Leaders in Complexity organizations are responsible for creating and nurturing
conditions which will enable fast, innovative adaptations to change, not to try
too much to control or direct people. Teams of people who are free to create new
solutions will enable the organization to adapt much better than rigid control
allows. Hierarchies (organization charts) are flattened and control is
distributed as much as possible to the teams, not centralized. Managers who are
used to controlling people must transform into caring leaders who serve as role
models and focus on providing favorable conditions. (More in Part III.)
4. Learning Organizations
Living systems receive feedback from their environments, which enables them to
learn from their experiences. Organizations which learn as a whole through
sharing new knowledge are more adaptable and successful than those where people
only learn as individuals. Organizational learning is very important in
Complexity organizations and allows evolution to higher forms and behaviors.
This requires a lot of shared information in a form which is easily accessible
In fast-changing environments with a high degree of uncertainty, many small
experiments are more effective than detailed planning. This is based on the way
natural systems learn - through trial and error. Try a new idea and see how it
works, then act on the basis of results and either intensify it or try another
new idea. Creativity and innovation work best in organizations which accept
errors and mistakes as a natural part of the learning process.
The most successful Complexity organizations have leaders and cultures which
encourage genuine caring for people in the system. There is a sense of identity,
of everyone being part of one united system, that makes working together more
enjoyable. People realize that they are all connected, and helping each other
helps the system as a whole. This culture of caring in turn allows people to be
more innovative and take more risks because there is less fear of failure. The
resulting higher level of creativity and innovation often has a positive impact
on the bottom line. In other words, smart organizations know that caring for
people is good business.
7. Communication Is Vital
Organizations working as united systems place high importance on continuous
communication and information flow, which enhances relationships and cooperative
work among people and teams. Continuous communication with customers is just as
important as continuous communication with co-workers. This results in a higher
level of organization and performance. The best communication occurs when many
different forms are used and key information is repeated and accessible in a
variety of ways, such as in print, on bulletin boards, via an intranet or web
8. A Few Simple Rules
Complexity scientists have discovered that complex behavior can result from a
few simple rules. The most creative organizations have a few simple rules which
reflect shared values and guide behavior. Too many rules constrict creativity
and can lead to resentment. The fewer the rules, the higher the creativity.
People are also able to keep a small number of rules in mind, which helps them
act on behalf of the organization - as its agents. Four good rules which work
well in Complexity organizations are:
Trust each other.
Meet customers' needs.
Always seek better ways to do things.
9. Diversity Enhances Creativity
The greater the diversity of agents in teams, the more varied the patterns and
solutions which emerge from their interactions. Diversity should include if
possible different cultures, ages, genders, backgrounds and personalities for
the most creative results. Teams which lack diversity tend to think more alike
and generate fewer possible solutions.
10. We Are All Connected
The most important thing to focus on in Complexity organizations is
relationships between people and continuous communication. In other
words, connections. A single living organism has all its parts connected
by a central nervous system and a circulatory system. But organizations do not
have central nervous systems. To compensate for this and achieve the best
results, Complexity organizations connect internally and with their environments
(including customers) with continuous, free-flowing communication and caring
TRANSFORMING ORGANIZATIONS WITH COMPLEXITY
1. Creating A New Attractor State
Because of the strong tendency of all living systems to resist change and
persist in an attractor state, transforming an existing organization into a
Complexity organization is not easy. Some organizations have evolved into
Complexity because of the pressures on them to adapt to rapid change. Others
have had strong-willed leaders who learned about Complexity and decided to
transform their organizations from the top down.
But the natural way is probably the best way. This involves tapping into
people's natural energies and desires for improvements - changes which will make
their work more fun and enjoyable, and in some cases more profitable. Studies of
many leading organizations have found consistently that a shared vision of the
desired future can be a powerful attractor that pulls people toward a new and
better way of working and organizing.
So the first step for any organization wanting a Complexity transformation is to
develop a shared vision, often facilitated by a skilled external or internal
consultant. The power of that shared vision will be exactly equal to how much it
represents what the people in the organization want - the improvements they
personally desire. Involving all people in the organization - every single
person (agent) - in participating in this visioning process, preferably through
small groups or teams, is essential for energizing the transformation.
As famous "7 Habits" author Stephen Covey says, "No involvement, no commitment."
Don't expect anyone to support the transformation if they are not involved in
the process. In fact expect those not involved to feel hurt and rejected,
resisting and in some cases sabotaging the change process.
In addition to the importance of a new attractor state, which is widely
recognized in Complexity science and organizations, the following additional
activities are highly recommended by this author as how to accomplish Complexity
transformations, based on decades of experience working with a wide range of
organizations. While these techniques and strategies are not part of the
"Complexity gospel," we believe you will find them very helpful and effective,
and totally consistent with Complexity principles.
2. Drawing Energy from Customers
The second powerful source of transformation energy is customers. After all, the
whole purpose of your organization is serving the needs of customers. That's
where the money comes from. Many traditional organizations make the mistake of
undertaking change processes that do not include customer input. Complexity
organizations understand that they are closely interconnected with their
customers. So they ask them on a frequent basis, using internal or external
professional assistance, questions like:
What do you value the most from an organization like ours?
How are we doing in terms of satisfying your needs?
How are we doing in terms of communicating with you and keeping you informed?
What do you like or not like?
What can we do to improve your satisfaction?
This process generates the customers' vision of the desired future state.
It can be really energizing to get this information in fresh and candid form,
and use it to shape the shared vision of the organization as a whole.
Going forward it is very important to communicate continuously with customers.
Sending them information is just part of the job. Seeking feedback from them and
listening to them provides powerful energy and direction for continuous
improvement. This in turn can lead to increased income, profits, market share
and other bottom-line benefits.
3. Creating A System Model
A shared vision is a vivid picture of how we want the organization to be or
become. But envisioning it as a working system using a system model makes it far
more tangible and likely to be achieved.
All living systems:
Input matter and energy from their environment. This includes food and
warmth as well as, for organizations, raw materials, electricity, information
and other supplies.
Transform that matter and energy into some other form. In animals food
is converted into sugar and other chemicals needed to sustain, replenish and
grow the body. In organizations this process involves adding value through
production, services or other work so that what is sold or delivered to
customers has more value than the imported materials.
Output matter and energy back into their environment. Animals eliminate
wastes, carbon dioxide and heat from their bodies. Organizations produce
products and services which customers purchase in exchange for money or other
valuable items. This is input back into the system to continue the cycle.
So your task is to create a model, either with words or a diagram or both, that
shows what is input, how it is transformed, and what is output. For
manufacturers, this is fairly easy. But for service organizations, especially
those which are in the information business in some form, this is more of a
In addition to these system components found in all living systems, there are
five other critical success factors which need to be included in an effective
People, how they are selected, organized, trained, developed and
Purpose, what the organization is trying to accomplish - a combination
of the shared vision, a few key goals (not too many) and basic strategies for
accomplishing those goals, subject to continuous change.
Processes, not only the input-transform-output processes, but any other
activity such as communication or innovation which is important to your
Physical resources, the financial, equipment and facility needs of your
organization now and in the future.
Connections with other systems and the environment, especially customer
relations, but also community, competitors, monitoring trends in the
marketplace, the economy, technology etc. Connections include both
relationships and communications.
When everyone in your organization understands this system model, and has some
input into how it is shaped, this will greatly enhance your ability to work as
one united system and achieve greater success.
4. A Continuous Flow of Information
All effective Complexity organizations have a continuous flow of information.
This is the "central nervous system" that connects all the "parts of the body"
so the organization can work as one united system. Internal communication is a
real problem for most organizations today. There is just so much information
bombarding us at all times, and so much pressure on us to do a lot of things in
what seems like not enough time, communicating with others often gets
Organizing into teams can greatly improve the flow of information IF
communication meetings are a regular practice and IF the teams are all
interconnected so everyone knows what is going on. In Complexity organizations
communication gets very high priority because this is the thing - the only thing
- that enables the organization to work as one united system.
In addition to internal information, a continuous flow of feedback from
customers and information on what's happening in the marketplace keep the
organization in tune with its environment and better able to stay ahead of the
People also need caring feedback about their performance. In a Complexity
environment this is part of the ongoing dialogue within teams. The formal rating
process which occurs once a year or quarterly in traditional organizations is
often painful for all concerned. It treats other people as objects and is
inconsistent with Complexity.
The five critical System Model factors listed in section 3 above are a good
checklist of items which require measurement, feedback and communication at all
5. Restructuring Into Flexible Teams
As we said earlier, teams have many advantages, and they can take all sorts of
formats. There is no one form of team organization that meets all needs. If
teams are essentially departments, they are by definition apart from other
units. Any organization has people with different skills, and it is natural to
have accounting people in one group and production or creative people in
another. This type of organization is called functional, because each group
performs a different function for all customers. But teams may also be organized
by market, customer, distribution channel, product, geography and other factors.
Most Complexity organizations put a lot of emphasis on flexibility. Regardless
of which type of team structure provides a home base, members are free to move
around or be assigned as the organization's or customers' needs change. Some
organizations encourage spontaneous teams, or emergent teams as they are
sometimes called. Any agent who needs help can ask other agents to form a team,
and as long as they have available time and agree, the new team emerges
So the keyword about teams is flexibility. Keep structure loose. Let people move
around as needs and opportunities arise. Promote the idea that we are all one,
all united in one organization system, doing what is best for the whole. Teams
are a means toward that end, not an end in themselves.
6. Focusing on Caring Relationships
As we said earlier, Complexity is all about communication and relationships,
acknowledging the interconnectedness of everyone in the organization system. The
most successful Complexity organizations realize that the "magic" happens in
relationships between people, relationships characterized by authentic care.
Roger Lewin found in his studies of Complexity organizations "people share a
mutual respect, and have a mutual influence and impact on each other. From this
emerged genuine care. Care is not a thing but an action - to be care-full - to
care about your work, to care for your fellow workers, to care for the
organization, to care about the community. We saw that genuine care enhanced the
relationships in these companies, with CEOs engendering trust and loyalty in
their people, and the people being more willing to contribute to the needs of
the company.... Care, which enhances relationships, in turn enhances companies'
creativity and adaptability."
(The Soul At Work: Embracing Complexity Science for Business Success, Simon &
While we sometimes think of care as an emotion, Webster's Dictionary defines the
verb care as "1. To have or show regard, interest or concern. 2. To mind
or be concerned." Caring is action based on thought, focusing the mind on
someone or something. You don't have to love all your fellow workers or team
members. You don't have to feel warm fuzzies for everybody. But you can act -
work - listen attentively when they speak, consider what they have said, and
respond in an informative, nonjudgmental manner.
7. Continuous Improvement
The Complexity model is based on evolution and assumes organizations
continuously evolve. You never reach perfection in Complexity. The environment
is constantly changing, including your customers' needs. The word
co-evolution is often used in Complexity to point out that we evolve as
other people and organizations we are connected to evolve. If we don't, they
leave us behind and move on to others who can meet their needs better.
Yet if we are sensitive to the environment, carefully observe what is happening,
and share that information with all our agents, we can stay on the cutting edge
of change, perhaps even in some cases influence the environment. We can be
trend-setters and not just trend followers. Such is the potential and the
excitement of Complexity in the 21st Century.
Copyright 2002, E.W. "Buck" Lawrimore, Lawrimore Communications
Inc., Charlotte, NC USA