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!