Complex Adaptive Systems – a New Paradigm

Most business systems and processes follow Newtonian principles – fixed input, process, output. And that works well for predictable, simple situations.

However, for larger systems, life and random chaos continue to intrude, so that humans have to continue to override or go outside of their formal deterministic systems. Some examples include supply chains, health care, weather, biological systems, and education. Trying to create and impose “If-then” one-size-fits-all logical systems in these environments is like driving a surveyor’s stake into the ocean. As much as we would prefer to live in a simple, predictable world, our world is actually extremely complex. So perhaps we would benefit from using a new theory, that of complex adaptive systems.

The principles of complex adaptive systems include:

· Emergence / evolution – a complex adaptive system emerges from its current state to change to a new state. It continually evolves, with no “grand plan”.

· Sub-optimal – a complex adaptive system is never “perfect”, because its components continue to change to fit the new environment, and its components are never all “perfect” at the same time. In fact, striving for perfection in a component can seriously degrade the performance of the entire system. (Contrary to typical Newtonian principles, in which we assume that if we can make the components “perfect”, the entire system will be “perfect”.

· Connectivity – the connections themselves are a critical part of the system. The system lives and functions in the relationships, the connections, rather than as just a sum of the parts.

· Self-organizing – there is no command and control hierarchy – instead, the system constantly organizes and reorganizes itself. One excellent example is self-managed work teams.

· Simple rules – complex adaptive systems actually follow a few very simple, fundamental rules. For example, the water system in our planet follows the law of gravity (water flows downhill) and evaporation.

· Nested – most systems are nested within other systems, again with no command and control hierarchy. The relationships ebb and flow.

· Edge of Chaos – complex adaptive systems live on the edge between equilibrium and chaos, like the saltwater marsh at the edge of the ocean. A system in equilibrium is frequently hard-pressed to adapt to changes in its environment, and will therefore die. Therefore, the most productive state for a system is being a complex adaptive system.

Where does that leave us? If we’re trying to make our organization, or our customers, or our family, fit into a logical box and follow the rules we want to impose, I can guarantee that we’ll be both ineffective and frustrated. We can, instead, start looking at these complex systems for what they really are and how they really operate.

How does this concept fit your own personal experience? You can reach me by e-mail at gary or by phone at 971-221-8155.

Gary Langenwalter

This blog is based on the work of Peter Fryer.