Introduction to the Basic Concepts
This introduction to the basic concepts of Complexity science is intended to be easy to understand for all
people interested in Complexity and its practical applications, Codynamics.
If you find anything in here that is hard to
understand, or you have suggestions for improvement, please email us at
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.
Businesses and 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. Applied Complexity (Codynamics) restores the natural way of working together, and once
people make the transformation to the new way, it feels natural and has
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
7. 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
8. 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
9. 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.
10. 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
11. A New Role for Leaders
Leaders in Complexity (Codynamic) 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.
12. 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 (Codynamic) 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.
15. 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
16. 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 (Codynamic) organizations are:
Trust each other.
Meet customers' needs.
Always seek better ways to do things.
17. 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.
18. We Are All Connected
The most important thing to focus on in Complexity/Codynamic 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 and Codunamic organizations connect internally and with their environments
(including customers) with continuous, free-flowing communication and caring
Copyright 2004, E.W. "Buck" Lawrimore, Lawrimore Communications
Inc., Charlotte, NC USA