Can we impact complexity?

It helps to have an understanding of complexity science as we explore new ways to understand the unique nature of organizations. Complexity science is the study of complex adaptive systems. All organizations that include people are complex adaptive systems (other examples include natural life forms, economies, ecologies, weather, traffic, networks and ant colonies).

“The complexity paradigm uses systemic inquiry to build fuzzy, multivalent, multi-level and multi-disciplinary representations of reality. Systems can be understood by looking for patterns within their complexity, patterns that describe potential evolutions of the system. “Cite: Dooley, K. (1996), “A Nominal Definition of Complex Adaptive Systems,” The Chaos Network, 8(1): 2-3.

As organizations seek sense-making strategies to cope with the combination of escalating change and enmeshed networks, the lens offered by compolexity science provides a new view for organizational survival in the 21st century. Essential qualities of complex adaptive systems are their ability to self-organize, to integrate new internal and external information, to modify their behavior (evolve) as they adapt to changes in their environments, and to make way for the emergence of a new behavior – a new pattern.  Santa Fe Institute member Murray Gell-Mann, highlights the importance of patterns to complex adaptive systems. “Complex adaptive systems are pattern seekers. They interact with the environment, ‘learn’ from the experience, and adapt as a result.” (Gell-Mann, quoted in Strange Beauty, Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in 20th-Century Physics, George Johnson p. 15)

It is the opportunity to more immediately impact the dynamics of an organization – the complex adaptive system – that influenced the development of the second core structural element of The Complexity Space Framework — “Impact Variables.”  As an organization begins to surface and understand system-wide patterns (the organizational “ecosystem”, the first core element of The Complexity Space Framework) and appreciate the dynamics within, we suggest focusing attention on seven Impact Variables that can be assessed, prioritized, and shifted to move towards desired results.

Impact Variables are “levers” that can be directly adjusted within the system. Changing these variables offers choices that can be implemented quickly to shift the processes, operations, behavior and “patterns” within the organization.

Larry and I selected the following seven Impact Variables because they manifest and span the structure, practices and processes that provide the means by which an organization is run.  We also determined that each of these variables were essential to the overall sustainability of an organization. The seven Impact Variables are:

  • Time
  • Talent
  • Resources
  • Knowledge
  • Policies
  • Measures
  • Communication

These Impact Variables are distinguished by how they operate within the organization:

  • Always present
  • Operate at multiple layers simultaneously
  • “Levers you can pull”
  • Can be modified directly
  • More easily measured
  • Shorter feedback cycles

Each Impact Variable can be considered as a possible component of an intentional attempt to influence the activity and patterns within an organization.  Want to accelerate a new leadership development strategy to identify top talent and succession planning? Provide an aggressive time-frame for results. Hope to change the way research and development funding is allocated? Change the way departments/divisions are held accountable (measured).

Each of these intentional interventions will influence and change significant and insignificant parts of the organizations.  Perhaps in the direction desired, perhaps not. Any one intervention cannot help but have some sort of impact on each of the other variables.


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