Agile & Change
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Agile & Change

7 Implications of seeing organisations as complex systems

In the first part of this series, I listed Paul Cilliers’s 7 characteristics of complex systems. In this post I want to explore 7 of the implications of complexity that Paul thought was important for those working in and on organisations (his original text is in italics).

1.Since the nature of a complex organization is determined by the interaction between its members, relationships are fundamental. This does not mean that everybody must be nice to each other; on the contrary. For example, for self-organization to take place, some form of competition is a requirement (Cilliers, 1998: 94–5). The point is merely that things happen during interaction, not in isolation.

This is a point we often forget when we work with organisations, leading us to focus too much of our effort on trying to change people and their behaviour by telling or training them how to be. It is largely the nature of the interactions between inviduals, groups and the environment that determine the prevailing culture. Therefore, if we want to, for example, have more innovation in our organisations, focusing on changing how people and things are connected (making people more or less proximate to each other or changing the environment to increase the likelihood of serendipitous encounters) and shifting the nature of their interactions ( e.g. how we conduct meetings) will have a greater impact than trying to train people to be more creative or collaborative.

2. Complex organizations are open systems. This means that a great deal of energy and information flows through them, and that a stable state is not desirable.

In a world that has come to see stability, certainty and predictability as normal and change as something that needs to be controlled and managed, this implication of complexity creates a lot of anxiety. The fact is though that organisations and cultures, like water, become stagnant and unhealthy without continuous movement and change.

3. The fact that they are open systems more importantly also means that the boundaries of the organization are not clearly defined. Statements of “mission” and “vision” are often attempts to define the borders, and may work to the detriment of the organization if taken too literally. A vital organization interacts with the environment and other organizations. This may (or may not) lead to big changes in the way the organization understands itself. In short, no organization can be understood independently of its context.

The same goes for people and roles, we simply can never ignore context, whether inside or outside of our perceived boundaries. Roles are a co-evolution of the individual and the system, similarly organisations play a certain role in an industry or broader economic context. Making sense of identity boundaries and the exchanges across those boundaries are therefore critical in our understanding of the current state of any level of the system.

4. Along with the context, the history of an organization co-determines its nature. Two similar-looking organizations with different histories are not the same. Such histories do not consist of the recounting of a number of specific, significant events. The history of an organization is contained in all the individual little interactions that take place all the time, distributed throughout the system.

This is one of the reasons why practices and solutions don’t travel well between contexts — for example, in Johannesburg three of South Africa’s big banks are situated within less than a kilometer of each other. Even though they share geography and industry, they are very different organisations with very different cultural dispositions. Assuming a practice that works in one will work in the other is dangerous, nevermind assuming it would work in the insurance company down the road. The unique starting conditions and evolutionary trajectory of each organisation determines its current state and current evolutionary path, we need to honor this unique context when we engage with them.

5. Unpredictable and novel characteristics may emerge from an organization. These may or may not be desirable, but they are not by definition an indication of malfunctioning. For example, a totally unexpected loss of interest in a well-established product may emerge. Management may not understand what caused it, but it should not be surprising that such things are possible. Novel features can, on the other hand, be extremely beneficial. They should not be suppressed because they were not anticipated.

The emergent nature of complex adaptive systems often manifests in unintended consequences or behaviour that seem irrational. Carefully designed future states, however well intentioned very seldom realise, and similarly carefully crafted strategies seldom get implemented as planned. In complex systems we really need to embrace provisionality and be open to adapting our plans and designs as new paths emerge. Remaining open to emergence, and holding plans lightly, remain one of the biggest challenges to overcome in organisations used to command and control.

6. Because of the nonlinearity of the interactions, small causes can have large effects. The reverse is, of course, also true. The point is that the magnitude of the outcome is not only determined by the size of the cause, but also by the context and by the history of the system. This is another way of saying that we should be prepared for the unexpected. It also implies that we have to be very careful. Something we may think to be insignificant (a casual remark, a joke, a tone of voice) may change everything. Conversely, the grand five-year plan, the result of huge effort, may retrospectively turn out to be meaningless. This is not an argument against proper planning; we have to plan. The point is just that we cannot predict the outcome of a certain cause with absolute clarity.

In a recent Ted talk, Margeret Heffernan recommended that we need to shift from a focus on preparing “just in time” to a focus on preparing for “just in case” i.e. from efficiency to resilience. I think this is very good advice. In complex systems we simply cannot accurately predict outcomes. Take for example the lesson fashion retailer H&M recently learned the hard way. Out of a catalogue of hundreds of products, one image of a young black boy with a seemingly innocent slogan printed on it created a global outcry from communities who deemed the slogan to be racist. In South Africa, given our historical context, the image triggered violent protests in H&M stores, in other countries no-one even noticed. This goes to show that given the right conditions, something seemingly insignificant can create an inordinate amount of damage to a brand. While we can’t predict, we can prepare: in a recent Ted talk, Margeret Heffernan recommended that we need to shit from a focus on “just in time” to a focus on “just in case” i.e. from efficiency to resilience. If we are prepared, non-linearity can also be harnessed to our advantage. If we are able to see the window of opportunity, small local changes could lead to very big shifts in the broader system e.g. small, context appropriate actions taken by supervisors or team leads could impact the culture of the entire organisation or a well crafted tweet can change the market’s perception of your brand. We often forget that it is a disproportionately small rudder that can change the direction of even the largest ship.

7. Complex organizations cannot thrive when there is too much central control. This certainly does not imply that there should be no control, but rather that control should be distributed throughout the system. One should not go overboard with the notions of self-organization and distributed control. This can be an excuse not to accept the responsibility for decisions when firm decisions are demanded by the context. A good example here is the fact that managers are often keen to “distribute” the responsibility when there are unpopular decisions to be made — like retrenchments — but keen to centralize decisions when they are popular.

This notion of central vs distributed control is becoming more and more salient in modern organisations. Managing knowledge workers who need to be intrinsically motivated is very different from managing factory workers who perform routine tasks. However, as automation impacts on these routine tasks, enabling autonomy, meaningful work and the opportunity to continuously learn and grow will become more and more important. It is therefore imperative that this dynamic between central and decentralised control is managed well. New organisatonal forms are emerging, attempting to navigate this tension, and what has become clear is that there is no one-size-fits all recipe to achieve this. My own work has focused very much on helping organisations find their own fit-for-context ways of enabling local autonomy while maintaining overall coherence. A key shift we need to make in this regard is to move away from seeking alignment, toward enabling coherence in our organisations.

I hope this exploration has been useful. I find the more I read and re-read the work of pioneering thinkers like Prof Cilliers, the more richness I discover. I will continue this exploration in future posts, so if you find it of value, make sure to click on follow.



In a world so diverse where product cycles are shortening and time is of the essence it's crucial to stay focused and have the courage to change. Thriving in the ever-changing world is the new skill. Publications you will read here will assist you in the process.

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Sonja Blignaut

Exploring our relationship with uncertainty. Enabling future fitness. Complexity nerd, Waysfinder, Artist, Scientist.