Digital Garden of Paul


Complexity theories - a diverse set of viewpoints - are concerned with the emergence of order in dynamic non-linear systems operating at the edge of chaos, such as weather systems. Systems that are constantly changing and where the laws of cause and effect appear not to apply.

In such systems, order manifests itself in a largely unpredictable fashion.

A number of different, but related complexity theories have emerged. Three central concepts lie at the heart of complexity theories:

  • The nature of chaos and order: Chaos - from the complexity viewpoint - can be seen as a different form of order. Within chaos an hidden order may be concealed beneath what looks completely random. Three types or order-disorder are identified:
    • stable equilibrium: such systems can become so stable that they ossify and die
    • explosive instability: such systems can become too unstable and, as with cancer, get out of control and destroy themselves
    • bounded instability: these are complex systems which, torn between stability and instability, have the ability to transform themselves in order to survive.
  • The edge of chaos: Under conditions of bounded instability, systems are constantly on the brink between order and chaos. It is argued that creativity and growth are at their optimal when a complex system operates at the edge of chaos.
  • Order-generating rules: The emergence of order, in complex systems, is based on the operation of simple order-generating rules. These rules allow systems to maintain themselves at the edge of chaos.

An example is the financial industry. Before the 2008 crisis the system was about 'lend as much as you can'. After the crisis, the system reversed the rules to 'avoid risk and minimise lending'.

Applying complexity theories to organisations leads to three implications:

  • There will be a need for much greater democracy and power equalisation in all aspects of organisational life, instead of just narrow employee participation in change.
  • Small-scale incremental change and large-scale radical-transformational change will need to be rejected in favour of a 'third-kind'. A kind which lies in between of the two and which is continuous and based on self-organisation at the team or group level.
  • In achieving effective change, order-generating rules have the potential to overcome the limitations of rational, linear, top-down, strategy-driven approaches to change.

Reservations on complexity:

  • Requires significant shift towards greater organisational democracy and power equalisation.
  • Complexity theories has many variants, each with its own disputes and implications
  • Lack of clarity how writers are applying complexity theories to organisations.
  • Some believe complexity cannot stand alone as a means of understanding and changing organisations.

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