I am by no means an expert on the complex topic of ‘complex systems‘. My basic understanding of the term is enough to realize that most, if not all, of the projects I have managed can be classified as either being complex systems or evolving in the neighborhood of complex systems.

In this post I would like to reflect on my exposure to complex systems and share some thoughts going through my mind when trying to grasp this topic.

Some commentators discussing the domain of complex systems argue that the search for simplifying the complexity represents an over simplification of what complexity is all about. Complexity, so they suggest, is not a sign of over engineered system but rather a natural property of a system that is genuinely complex. Attempts at looking for simplifications is more an indictment of the observer rather than the system. A lack of an intellectual capacity to grasp a complex  system is not a sufficient argument or drive for simplification. If you artificially simplify a complex system you end up with a different system that, while simpler, is fundamentally and conceptually different from the one you started with and thus, simplification ends up with destruction.

When going through a thought experiment involving a complex system it is useful to contrast that system with other, better known, such systems.  Many observers use different analogies, like that of the human body, ant colonies and modern cities.

The obvious observation arising from such comparisons is that organization-made complex systems have some things in common with these three examples. To begin with, they are highly regulated and all parts of the system are engineered to support a common goal – i.e. advance the survivability and, subsequently, the well-being of the organism. All parts in a complex system are there to support the system and not themselves. In fact, without the whole, no part could practically survive.

On the other hand the key differentiating factor between most organization-made complex systems and the three examples provide is their aversion to adaptability. Being highly regulated they enforce their policies, standards, processes and work instructions and attempt, quite strictly, to govern all aspects of their existence. In contrast, adaptive systems recognize the connectivity between all parts of the system but acknowledge that no centralized control can effectively manage all parts of the system, thus allowing the constituent parts to govern themselves.

Some may refer to this as an evolution of spontaneous order and others (especially if they are economists) might refer to it as an intervention by an Invisible Hand; though irrespective of how you refer to it, it demonstrates the ability of highly complex systems to be successful, efficient and sustainable with little or no governance except for a set of commonly agreed rules.

Which is the point where one ought to ask, what is preventing a complex system from evolving into a complex adaptive system; after all, it does seem like the natural thing to do?

In a naturally evolved complex system there is an underlying governance theme that dictates that all parts of the complex system drive their respective operations towards contributing to and sustaining the common good of the system. While natural complex systems are not immune to the emergence of rogue components, they operate under the expectation that in the main the majority of the activity  around their different parts will be constructive rather than destructive. In other words, TRUST is built into the system and this trust is complemented by control mechanisms aimed at reacting to events should that trust be broken.

The ability of any complex system to aspire to become adaptive is predicated on trust. Its success (or even initiation) hinges on the acceptance of people morality. While the scope of ‘morality’ can be subject to interpretation, establishing moral ground rules should be the first step on the way to becoming adaptive. And with the ground rules needs to come the acceptance to let go and trust people to follow the rules.

And this is where the difficulty lies. Letting go of centralized command and control in favor of distributed leadership is a tough call for many, both conceptually and practically. If you think about it, though, it is the way to go.

Think about it!

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  1. Shim, the analogy which works best for me when explaining complex, dynamic adaptive systems is to use hurricane prediction models (or in my part of the world, typhoons)

    Because they are so graphic and because examples of typhoons/hurricanes are so ubiquitous, it makes explaining how any complex, dynamic adaptive system works fairly easy in terms laypeople can readily understand.

    And what it boils down to are probabilities that any given event or series of events can or will happen and that the further out into the future we look, the less precise, reliable and accurate our projections will be. And that many of the factors which influence the outcome (where the hurricane will actually hit land) is subject to variables over which we have absolutely no control.

    Taking the hurricane analogy to the next step, FEMA is faced with a quandary. If they do NOT predict accurately where the hurricane will make landfall, people will die. On the other hand, if they alert too broad an area, there will be significant financial losses (shut businesses, emergency preparedness costs) not to mention the danger of “crying wolf” will cause people to not trust the system. Meaning FEMA needs to create a predictive model which balances these conflicting and in many cases, mutually exclusive alternatives.

    Bottom line- I think if you use the hurricane/typhoon analogy to gain a better understanding of the nature of complex, dynamic adaptive systems modifying the concepts and applying them to project or program management does not take a huge leap of faith.

    Dr. PDG, Jakarta, Indonesia


    • Thanks Paul for the additional clarification. The ability to articulate what a complex adaptive system is, and how it differs from a complex system, is paramount to be able to have constructive conversations with executives about the need to adapt organizational behavior and adopt adaptive leadership style. If my observations are correct (anecdotal as they might be), we’re moving into a greater level of business agility and the speed of conversion is likely to grow. With that it mind, this process of transformation will also include greater openness to the possibility of introducing adaptive concepts into complex organization structure. I am looking forward with anticipation to observing how that would pan out.


  2. Shim: your statement “A lack of an intellectual capacity to grasp a complex system is not a sufficient argument or drive for simplification. If you artificially simplify a complex system you end up with a different system that, while simpler, is fundamentally and conceptually different from the one you started with and thus, simplification ends up with destruction.” is quite profound. I suggest that “destruction” could be the intended end-game insofar as if you can’t understand a system you may not be able to control it, and certainly can’t predict its behavior. So, destruction to a simpler device may be what you want to do.

    Also, when discussing complexity, especially adaptive complexity, one must be careful not to cross domains: CAS in biological and chemical systems, to include weather systems, is not a phenomenon we have to deal with in man-designed physical systems that operate within reasonable environmental limits. To give CAS properties improperly is one of the common errors I see.


    • Hi John, interesting comment regarding the validity of ‘destruction’ as a viable option for reduced complexity. I certainly didn’t consider this as an option. Having said that, even in the context of your comment, you would agree that this ‘destruction’ would be done for the right motives and in a planned manner (i.e. acknowledging the lack of capacity to comprehend the total system complexity)?


  3. The challenge here, from a Systems Engineering point of view is to trace the system architecture from the needed capabilities. There are tools now that can do that. Coupling and Cohesion is a starting point. Then the interface control assessment. “Critical path,” – the timing and synchronization version of CP is next. Then a workflow process.

    Future Combat Systems http://goo.gl/w3wOP3 failure mode was finally dioscovered when the Coupling and Cohensiion and the ICDs overwhelmed the planning and execution processes.


  4. Three probably unrelated comments, Shim.
    a)I remember a history supposedly told by A. Einstein. A woman (I don’t know why I imagine a fat woman in 20’s party clothes, with loooong eyelashes) says: “Profesor, I’d want to know about your Relativity Theory, but ina simpler way”. So Einstein begins with the train and all that stuff. “Thanks, Professor, now I understand!”. “You are welcomed Madame, but that wasn’t actually Reativity Theory”.
    b)I cannot recall where I read it, maybe some book by Jean Piaget, about partial isomorphisms. You can declare a partial isomorphism between two system if there is s series of steps that make one system have the same relationships as the other. “simplifying” involves some sort of partial isomorphism. From that perspective, building a 700-mt high skyscraper is partially isomorph to building a 2-story house. And most of us can build a 2-story house!
    c)”Letting go of centralized command and control in favor of distributed leadership…”. I guess that’s the actual challenge, from a management perspective. For I think it extremely difficult to model, say, the mucus distribution for a guy sneezing while smoking a cuban cigar -most complexities require specific-to the field research-, not to mention a whole organization’s people sneezing at once. But we can expect some training can make people use handkerchiefs and maybe learn to both make decisions and enable others to make decisions, too, without a pretense of control over such complex events.
    d)It occurs to me, and I’m sure I’m not the first one, that organizations need to get accustomed to non-optimal answers to their problems. You already commented, Shim, on the excess of staff in many organizations, suggesting that could be “good” in the long term. Living, adaptive systems are not optimized (if they are, we see them as freaks, like some people you see at the Olympics).
    They were 4 comments, not 3 as I said before. Please give me the change now.


    • Thanks Ricardo for sharing your thoughts. I was intrigued by your assertion that living adaptive systems are not optimized. Not sure I understand the significance of this point. At the end of the day the discussion is not necessarily about achieving optimum level of optimization but rather about improving on an existing situation while moving into a better position. The argument made about complex adaptive systems is that the move from CS to CAS provides an improvement but not necessarily achieving total optimization. Makes sense?


      • Dave,
        I guess so. from a physical point of view, adaptive systems tend to structure in order to accommodate to challenges the environment (niche) poses on them. That’s negentropic, thus energy-inefficient.
        Taking in account a changing niche, the adaptive system will always be out-of phase until it perfectly fits the niche. I guess that at this point (take a snapshot!) you can say it’s performing optimally. but then the niche changes, the offset appears, and optimally is lost (it occurs to me that in the long run these adaptive systems will present a better performance than rigid ones. Or at least they will survive for longer]..
        But we need to clearly separate living systems from human-created systems. The first ones have many residual parts -like the appendix- that add to lack of optimality. However, my main concern is about timing. We sapiens sapiens are almost the same since the time of caverns, many thousands years ago. natural evolution takes its time, and I doubt that DuPont or Microsoft will wait for that long.
        Organizations, even the better ones, are nothing but devices -tools- we use to better exploit the environment -no judgements here, just the facts.
        The problem with those devices is that they are showing a negative side-effect. With simple tools we had immediate feedback from our environment (“take care with the fire”, “please don’t dirt close to the food”, “don’t throw that dead animal into the lake we use for drinking”, etc), but huge organizations make people lose sight of others (and they build Customer Services), thus taking every advantage they can, but losing rapport with the *needs* of the niche they grow in…
        What more can I say? Yes, Free Willy!


  5. Great post, Shim (as usual). I would suggest that a complex organization that sees the need for change, and acts on it by funding a project to implement that change, is adaptive. Further, the act of delegating authority to a project manager is indicative of at least some acceptance of distributed leadership.

    With that in mind: the primary challenge for any organization is survival. All activities carry some degree of risk, positive (rewards) and negative. The ability to learn and retain the knowledge gained is key to that survival, but not all learnings are equally valuable. Consequently, I would argue that a key survival skill for a complex, adaptive organization inclined to distribute leadership is the ability to determine which risks/rewards to avoid, transfer, or accept. The organization that outsources the wrong functions (for example) incurs an opportunity cost, in addition to the operating costs. Governance, both centralized in the form of executive decisions and distributed in the form of project portfolio management, is the attempt to maximize the value derived from operations.

    Punch line: simplifying the governance structure of a complex organization (AKA “flattening”) makes it less adaptive, and inhibits the survivability of the organization. Effective middle management makes an organization more responsive to feedback and learnings, and thus more survivable. Note that the key word here is “effective.” The primary contribution of Confucianism in China was the development of professional managers (“scholars”) with an ethical code, who today would be considered bureaucrats. The Taoist movement influenced the implementation of Confucianism, which led to institutionalized, distributed governance during the Song dynasty. To give you an idea of how effective they were, the Song Dynasty was the first government in history to issue paper money. They also were the first to use gunpowder, and to find true north using a compass and declination adjustments.

    So, before you diss the ‘crats again, as a well-known writer likes to say, “Think about it!”


    • Hi Dave, thanks for your comment. I don’t think I would personally classify organizations implementing change projects as being adaptive, at least not from the perspective of contrasting Complex Systems with Complex Adaptive Systems. In my mind there the implementation of change projects is an evolutionary process while a move into an adaptive organization is a revolutionary process that has to be coupled with a much larger and more profound attitude and behavioral change right across the organization.

      One other thing I would appreciate your consideration about is regarding your second last paragraph where you suggest that flattening results in lower adaptive-ness. When considering agile project teams vs traditional command-and-control teams, my perception is that agile teams represent a flag hierarchy while at the same way provide a much greater level of adaptivity than the alternative. What’s your assessment?

      Cheers, Shim.


      • Regarding my second to last paragraph: I was looking a couple of layers above “team.”
        Small teams of skilled, highly motivated people will nearly always outperform larger teams comprised of average people, in nearly any domain, using nearly any methodology. The problem with the 80/20 rule is that you can’t simply dump 80% of the folks into the bin and reduce expected output by 20% without exacerbating retention problems. Even Ford Motor Company has been able to adapt, but in order to be effective, larger organizations need the management equivalent of a central nervous system.


        • Good point Dave. And this is where the challenge lies. How to operate an organization with the effectiveness exhibited by small teams. I don’t know the answer but I would damn sure want to explore until I know 🙂


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