Working with Complex Issues

Resource Type: Audio Seminar || Speaker: Brenda Zimmerman
Brenda Zimmerman

Complexity suggests that relationships between parts are more important than the parts themselves. Learn more in this podcast as you explore ‘wicked questions’, leadership, social innovation and complex systems thinking


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"Complexity science is not a single theory. It is the study of complex adaptive systems and the patterns of relationships within them: how they are sustained, how they self-organize and how outcomes emerge. Within the science there are many theories and concepts. The science encompasses more than one theoretical framework. Complexity science is highly interdisciplinary including biologists, anthropologists, economists, sociologists, management theorists and many others in a quest to answer some fundamental questions about living, adaptable, changeable systems." - A Complexity Science Primer
Brenda Zimmerman, Professor of Policy/Strategic Management at the Schulich School of Business at York University, was the guest resource person at the fourth AD symposium in April 2005 where she gave a presentation on the link between complexity science and applied dissemination. We are thrilled to welcome Brenda to our learning community once again for a conversation on complexity science and social innovation.
Access Podcast Highlights:
Complexity: A Summary 
What is complexity science?
Current management thinking - the way of understanding organizations - largely assumes that a well functioning organization is akin to a well oiled machine. This leads to the notion that performance is optimized when work is specified in detail and shared out to distinct operational units. "Organization as machine" is the implicit metaphor used to describe organizations and the way we work. 
Many of the theories about management and change believe that considering parts in isolation, specifying changes in detail, battling resistance to change, and reducing variation will lead to better performance. 
In contrast, complexity science, because it's built on a living organism metaphor, studies complex adaptive systems, with all of their inherent messiness, unpredictability and emergence. Complexity suggests that relationships between parts are more important than the parts themselves. This leads to assumptions such as:
Neither the system nor its external environment are, or ever will be, constant - emergence and natural creativity are the norm. Equilibrium is actually an unhealthy state. 
Individuals within a system are independent and creative decision makers and highly interdependent.
Uncertainty and paradox are inherent within the system.
Problems that cannot be solved like a machine can solve something, but they can nevertheless be “moved forward” if you understand the patterns that are creating them. 
Effective solutions can emerge from minimum specifications or simple rules rather than over-specification.
Small changes can have big effects (nonlinearity). 
Behaviour exhibits patterns (that can be termed “attractors”) 
Change is more easily adopted when it taps into attractor patterns 
Traditional and complexity management ideas 
When Brenda met with the learning community in Montreal, she used an analogy to make the distinction between traditional and complexity management ideas, arguing that the traditional addresses the simple and complicated but rarely the complex. 
Simple was like following a recipe and complicated was like flying to moon. 
In both of these cases we are dealing with knowable processes, even if they are unknown at the moment. We should be able to figure it out a priori. But we then said complex was more like raising a child - and good luck to you if you think that endeavour can be scripted ahead of time! It is a great way to help people understand that you can still move things forward and act as a parent even when the future is inherently unknowable, the situation changes constantly, and the relationship between you and your child is more important than any specific parenting intervention or plan you may espouse. 
Stacey MatrixIn our work in organizations, and perhaps especially when talking about the dissemination of great ideas/programs, we face the simple (known), the complicated (the potentially unknown, but knowable) and the complex (the unknowable). Understanding this is crucial to designing interventions and approaches that will work to match the context. This is helpful to practitioners because it allows you to be able to discern the difference between the complex and the simple parts of the work while recognizing that there are some parts of your work that are unknowable because they have emerging characteristics.
Complex adaptive systems 
Spider webComplex adaptive systems are everywhere - they are eco-systems, the stock market, organizations, our bodies, etc. - and they are recognizable by their interdependent attributes. Consider a spider-web:
Not Predictable in Detail - Complex adaptive systems are not predictable in detail. The machine metaphor pushes us to predictability, but complexity tells us this is not so. 
Order without Central Control - you don't need a hierarchy where the top of the organization drives things down. (e.g. Machine metaphor would see the CPU in a computer drive or control all other pieces.) 
Natural Emergence - you can't explain the outcome from the part that created it. The outcomes are different from the sum of their parts.
Simple Rules - a few key patterns of interaction can repeat over and over again to create patterns we see within systems.
Embedded Systems - we are never outside the system, we are always influencing systems and being influenced by them . 
Co-evolution - as you change your environment changes and so you are co-evolving with your environment.
When we know we’re working with these attributes we can be much more mindful of patterns emerging. "Believing is seeing." 
Because we believe things are machine-like, in terms of organizations, we've looked for machine-like attributes and so have begun to believe the metaphor as true. But if we look at organizations as adaptive systems we begin to see iterative loops between actions and reflections, we can see the embeddedness of systems, etc. and recognize that we cannot drive or control change. 
As the same time as we give up the sense of control, we have to be extra attentive to the patterns that emerge and determine how best to work with it. That's an interesting paradox in complexity - there is a lightness, but there is a tight loop between thought and action. 
Connected organizational and leadership principles
Brenda's study of the science of complex adaptive systems and her work with leaders in health care and other organizations has led Brenda, along with Curt Lindberg and Paul Plsek, to propose some principles of management that are consistent with an understanding of organizations as Complex Adaptive Systems. There is nothing sacred or permanent about this list but these principles do begin to give us a new way of thinking about and approaching our roles as leaders in organizations.
  1. View your system through the lens of complexity - The basic problem with the organization as machine metaphor when applied to a complex adaptive system is that it ignores the individuality of agents and the effects of interaction among agents. Or worse, they simply assume that all this can be tightly controlled through better (read: more) specification. When we view our system through the lens of complexity, we take on a new metaphor – that of a Complex Adaptive System – and, therefore, are using a different model to determine what makes sense for leaders to do. 
  2. Build a good-enough vision - Provide minimum specifications rather than trying to plan every little detail. Have a good enough sense of where you want to go but don't over-specify and don't expect a detailed blueprint. 
  3. When life is far from certain, lead with clockware and swarmware in tandem 
  4. Tune your place to the edge 
  5. Uncover and work with paradox and tension 
  6. Go for multiple actions at the fringes, let direction arise 
  7. Listen to the shadow system 
  8. Grow complex systems by chunking 
  9. Mix cooperation with competition - In healthy living systems cooperation and competition co-exist. When we consider social justice or movements, complexity science encourages us to be aware that we need both in a creative tension to move the agenda forward.
Check out the full article here.
Complexity and social innovation
Complexity encourages us to create optimism, to create energy, to recognize progress which is not necessarily visible from the traditional management perspectives. 
Additionally, it encourages us to change the inquiry – the way we ask questions, what we pay attention to and a capacity to act quickly and engage in deep reflection. See these not as contradictions but two sides of the social innovation story. 
We consider every effort at social innovation an opportunity for those involved to practice thinking. Distinguishing the simple from the complicated, and the complicated from the complex, is the foundation of complexity thinking. In this regard we aspire to have complexity thinking about social innovation to do what Arendt hoped her exercises in political thought would do, namely, "to gain experience in how to think," in this case, how to think about and evaluate the complex dynamics of social innovation in order to learn and increase impact. 
An Example 
Recent action on the world stage of politics offers a prime example. The Iraq Invasion was conceived as a complicated problem with the goal of “regime change.” The American military planned the invasion based on a “shock and awe” strategy using overwhelmingly superior force and unprecedented speed to squash the Iraqi military. While there were some relatively minor deviations from the original plan, on the whole the invasion unfolded as an exercise in coordinating and directing implementation of a complicated blueprint for victory. “Mission accomplished,” President Bush declared. Then came the challenge of securing the peace. 
Whatever one may think of the Iraq invasion -- its necessity, wisdom, or legality -- it seems clear that nation-building is a complex challenge, more akin to rearing a child than sending a rocket to the moon (the complicated comparative frame for the blueprint invasion plan). However, the evidence is that those in charge continued treating securing the peace, instituting democracy, and building a new nation as a complicated rather than complex problem. Perhaps the political environment and controversy of the invasion kept those nominally “in charge” from being able to acknowledge their lack of control, inherent uncertainties, rapidly changing and unstable system dynamics, and unpredictably emergent insurgencies. But failing to think about the situation appropriately, as a complex rather than merely complicated problem, has, we think, increased the chaos and contributed to instability and loss of life. That’s not a political judgment. That’s a complexity judgment.
Brenda hopes that we are more open to the complexity judgments in our work as social innovators; that we become more skillful in our thinking and discerning the differences. 
She also encourages us to think about predictions as only possible in the knowable, complicated aspects of our work and not demand it of our complex, unknowable aspects. Instead we should learn to be more prepared for what is to come by increasing our capacity to see patterns as they emerge and work with them and begin to look for the inherent coherence rather than the imposed consistency. 
The Language of Systems
The language of systems has been taken over by the machine metaphor. There are groups in the UK now referring to this as "complex responsive processes" in order to put the emphasis on connections and responses, but Brenda struggles with that when dealing with institutions and groups, etc. because that language also has baggage (e.g. lack of focus on outcomes). 
We do have a "language" problem. Instead, let's think about the questions we need to pose to help us move forward. Some of those questions need to be paradoxical, "wicked" questions that hold both sides together. (e.g. How can we, with all of our collective agendas, work cooperatively to reach our mutual goal?) 

Links & Resources 
A Board's Journey into Complexity Science - In this paper, Brenda Zimmerman and Brian Hayday go beyond interpreting results through a complexity lens to demonstrating how board members and staff of an organization deliberately applied insights from complexity science to improve their work.  
New to Complexity - If you're new to the field of complexity science and its implications for organizations, management and leadership, check out this page on the Plexus Institute website. Here you'll find a basic set of recommended learning material that covers the science of complexity, the history of complexity science, stories about how leaders have used complexity-based management approaches, readings on complexity-inspired organizational theory and leadership, and opportunities for face-to-face learning with others who share your interests in this emerging field.
Additional Links & Resources
Meet Brenda Zimmerman
Brenda ZimmermanBrenda Zimmerman - Brenda is Professor of Policy/Strategic Management at the Schulich School of Business at York University. She is the author of many articles applying complexity science to organizational strategy and change, and a co-author of the book Edgeware: Insights From Complexity Science for Health Care Leaders. She is also co-author, with Frances Westley and Michael Quinn Patten, of the forthcoming book Getting to Maybe: How to Change the World. 
Brenda’s gifts for scholarship, teaching and writing have brought many advancements to complexity and the management field and reached many practitioners and policy makers. Learn more about Brenda here or visit her faculty profile on the York University website here!