Are we all complexity theorists now?

It has become quite commonplace to adduce the complexity sciences in articles and talks about organisational change, although from the way the ideas are set out it is often difficult to know how the particular  ‘complexity perspective’ is adding anything to our current ways of understanding management and change. It can taste like the usual meat and two veg, but perhaps with a bit of mustard on the side of the plate.

So, for example, one frequently comes across the idea that we should ’embrace complexity’ or ‘allow emergence to happen’, or even ‘unleash complexity’ in the organisation. There are a number of two by two grids and frameworks which circulate which purport to help managers identify whether the situation they find themselves in is complex, or merely just complicated. If the former then certain tools and strategies should be used, and if the latter then it requires a different set of tools.

Emergence is often described as a good thing, and in contrast too much control a bad thing. However,  ‘just allowing things to emerge’  can also be a bad thing, so  a manager needs to achieve ‘the right balance’  between allowing emergence to happen, but not too much. Emergence is another tool in the toolbox for a manager to wield when appropriate.

Then there are commentators who claim to be able to make the complex simple. Sometimes this revolves around the concept of simple rules, an idea taken from Reynold’s computer simulation of flocking boids, or alternatively from Mandelbrot sets. The former is a computer simulation where a few simple instructions (maintain a minimum distance from other objects in the environment including other boids, match speeds with other boids in close proximity, move towards the centre of mass of boids in the immediate vicinity) make computer based agents flock in quite complicated patterns. Mandelbrot sets enact relatively simple non-linear equations where the output of one equation becomes the input for the next iteration of the equation, ad infinitum. When coded, beautiful spiral patterns emerge dynamically which generate irregular regularity, and are self-same at various levels of scale. The way that these computer simulations are often interpreted is that managers need to design simple rules for the people they are managing  so that they can ‘unlock’ their self-organising potential and presumably generate beautiful spiral patterns. The manager, then, is the computer programmer and the people they manage are like computer-based agents who will unfold what has been enfolded for them.

The complexity sciences are often used rhetorically as a way of buttressing a conventional argument. So the rationale of bringing in theories of complexity might unfold like this: things might be a lot more complex than we take them to be, so it is important to get all of the system in the room, or really be sure that our visions are realistic, or make sure that we really get people to participate with honesty and transparency, or create the necessary urgency for change, or make sure that we allow for the right degree of emergence to happen.

What might we make of these ways of bringing in complexity to the important discussion of management and change? On the one hand one would want to be supportive of people who are also struggling with ideas which undermine the simplistic notion that social processes are linear, and agree that the impoverished suite of concepts that we have to manage in organisations does not do justice to the complexity of what we are dealing with. Does it really matter if people are exploring different avenues in different ways?  On the other hand, one would also find oneself siding with the sceptics who argue that those who adduce the complexity sciences in the way that they do are often not saying anything new: it is managerialism with accessories. This can lead to the view that complexity is simply another management fad which will pass with time. Meanwhile,  all articles about change in organisations need to have the words ‘complexity’, ‘science’ and ’emergence’ in them to be taken seriously and to be at one with the Zeitgeist. To paraphrase President Kennedy, we are all complexity theorists now.

How might one begin to set out some of the differences that a radical interpretation of complexity sciences might make? How might one take them up not instrumentally as tools and frameworks, but by analogy?

This post will begin with one or two ideas just to lay the groundwork for further exploration in future posts.

Firstly, the idea of emergence. Put simply, we might think of emergence in social processes as the possibility for genuine novelty arising in unpredictable ways irrespective of what we might know about the people or organisations involved in the interactions. By genuine novelty I am suggesting that this is novelty which has not been pre-planned, or in any way part of someone’s ‘vision’ for change – this is the sense that it is genuinely new.  To use the analytical sociologist Peter Hedstrom’s phrase, it is the uncommon combination of common events and circumstances. Conventional thinking about emergence still places the manager outside the emergent patterning of different intentions so that they can ’embrace’, ‘unleash’ or somehow ‘strike a balance’ between emergence and control, or even allow emergence to happen towards an end point that they have already imagined. A radical interpretation of emergence would not so place the manager outside  social processes to which they are contributing and participating.

The problematic thing about emergence, then, is that it is unpredictable and may lead to both the unexpected and the unwanted: it is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It is a phenomenon which will occur when people come together to try and achieve things, whether one has a ‘loose structure’ or a ‘tight structure’ for doing so. Managers can quite clearly have an impact on the way people interact, but can have no control over what does and does not emerge: what does not emerge formally, may well emerge informally in different ways.

One of the central challenges of a radical interpretation of the concept of emergence, then, is that it fundamentally undermines the idea of the controlling manager who can choose how much emergence takes place, somehow harnessing complexity for the good of the organisation. Those turning to the complexity sciences looking for certainty are likely to find only uncertainty. This is profoundly identity-threatening and unsettling.


7 thoughts on “Are we all complexity theorists now?

  1. Jan

    Hmm, I think your view on utilisation of the concept of emergence is narrow. By having models (and honestly, why should they be completely accurate) we learn through exploration and pattern (copying) mathing – this is a current model, and may be obsolete next week. But is seems plausable enough to suffice. So continuing then, by watching patterns unfold and reacting or learning we can use emergence to understand social (organsiational) phenomena. So being unpredictable is not a curse. It is not about control, I guess, it is about being pre-emptive.

  2. Chris Mowles Post author

    Hi Jan,
    I suppose I would wonder about the fixation with models which are likely to be out of date as soon as you have built them. Why can we only trust to something if we build a model of it: why not just talk about what we think is going on?

    Although you say you think my definition of emergence is narrow, you don’t say what you think emergence means.


  3. Chris Rodgers

    Hi Chris,

    Picking up on this notion of emergence in social processes, you seem to be relating it solely to what you are calling “genuinely novel” outcomes. To me, in such processes of social interaction, I would see all outcomes as emergent; even though most are likely to smack more of continuity than novelty. Even what might be thought of as ‘stuck’ patterns of thinking and acting emerge from the ongoing, self-organizing interplay of the conversations and interactions that make up everyday organizational life. In that sense, when people get together, whatever emerges, emerges.

    I’ve also been reflecting on your inclusion of “embrace” in the ‘banned list’ of things that managers think they can do but can’t in relation to complexity. I agree, of course, with the the main thrust and intent of your argument. But I often call on managers to “embrace paradox” when engaging in their leadership roles. By that, I’m not trying to suggest that they can ‘get rid of’ paradox in any way or, as you say in relation to emergence, ‘stand outside’ the action and control it somehow. I make the point in Informal Coalitions that managers are ‘on the pitch, playing’. What I actually mean by “embrace paradox” is that they should recognize that these very dynamics are in play and not believe that it is within their gift to change or control them. However, as you say, this does not mean that managers have no influence at all on events.

    In brief, then, I would see it as being perfectly consistent with your view of organizations as complex responsive processes to call on managers to “embrace” this more radical perspective and, as a result, to engage with their organizations in the ways you advocate (such as talking about what they think is actually going on).



    1. Chris Mowles Post author

      Hi Chris,
      In the phrase about emergence producing genuine novelty I am trying to explore what Stacey et al call transformative causality, ie that which arises from the interaction alone, and not that which is ascribed to managerial design, (rationalist causality) or already enfolded in the organisation understood as system (formative causality). So yes I agree that emergence is a condition of all complex responsive processes, and I think I say this elsewhere in the piece: emergence occurs whether you ‘allow it’ or not. But what I was trying to draw attention to, obviously less successfully than i would have liked, is the radical unpredicatability of emergence: that emergence is not something that can in any way be designed, harnessed or planned.

      In drawing attention to the way that some theorists talk about ’embracing complexity’ I am not in any way trying to ban the word. I am trying to point to the way that the complexity sciences get taken up. I have been present for seminars conducted by some prominent people in the complexity world who turn the insights into the complexity sciences into ’embracing complexity good, not embracing complexity bad’. Ie embracing complexity will guarantee success. The word is used to connote for me co-option, or assimilation into a set of orthodox ideas. This seems to me to take us back to where we started with the managerial fantasy of control. If by embrace you are encouraging managers to consider, to struggle with or to enquire into, then I am with you. If it is about them co-opting complex ideas back into a managerial toolkit to ‘apply’ them to ‘problems’ then I suppose I would continue to take issue.

      However, thougtful comments as usual, Chris. Thanks.

  4. Chris Rodgers

    Thanks, Chris. I agree with all of that.

    In case you’re interested, I’ve written a review of Ralph Stacey’s latest book, which will be published in AMED’s Organisations and People e-journal in a couple of week’s time. I shall then make it accessible via the blog.

    Cheers, Chris

  5. Pingback: Are we all complexity theorists now? « Learning Change

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