Organisations and Complexity: The Reality

What follows are some of the consequences of looking objectively at what complexity science tells us about the behaviour of organisations, when viewed as complex adaptive dynamic systems.  The results are closer to reality than we tend to believe and until we start to face the truth then things will not change for the better.

Organisational Change

  • In most circumstances the outcome of any applied change in an organisation is unpredictable.
  • The effectiveness and predictability of the outcome of a change increases as organisational complexity decreases.
  • Changes take time to permeate through an organisation and most changes are applied long after the event. The consequence is that most changes are fairly ineffective.
  • Change has a destabilising influence upon organisations that decays (usually) over time.
  • The change – complexity dichotomy. Larger scale effects of a change are more predictable, but such changes depend upon the complex behaviour of all of the lower level components and so we cannot infer the nature of the change we need to apply.
  • Large scale organisational change is always a high risk strategy.
  • We seldom measure the effectiveness of our changes.


  • There are two aspects to predictability and the unpredictability that we see consists of both components:
    • Intrinsic predictability is the level of predictability that is a direct consequence of the complexity of the organisation.
    • Systematic predictability is the predictability that we calculate using predictive methods. The upper limit of systematic prediction is capped by the level of intrinsic predictability.
  • The general accuracy of systematic predictability is woefully poor leading to us blaming the complexity of the system and giving up. We can do a lot better.
  • We can potentially increase (intrinsic) predictability by simplifying our organisations or its behaviour.
  • We can improve our predictions through dynamic modelling techniques and understanding the dynamics of our organisation’s behaviour.

The Illusion of Control

  • We all have an inherent set of quirks in our thinking that lead us to believe that we have more control than is possible.
  • We cannot control organisations; the best we can do is use complexity science to help moderate the organisation’s behaviour.
  • Unless you are in the business (of complexity sciences) you do not understand how complex complexity truly is and this feeds the delusion that we have more control than is possible.
  • One of the easiest ways of moderating your organisation’s behaviour is to optimise the ability of individuals to locally adapt to their environment.
  • We need to apply a relentless pursuit for simplification throughout our organisations.
  • Humans cannot exist in a truly chaotic environment so no organisation is truly chaotic it just has more extreme complex behaviour.
  • We spend almost nothing on understanding our organisation’s dynamic behaviour so how can we change its behaviour in a predictable manner?
  • Stop beating up on Hierarchy. From many, if not all, biological, social and physical systems a hierarchical structure emerges. Also the structures of our thoughts are often hierarchical. Therefore is seems reasonable to assert that hierarchies have certain advantages to complex systems. That is not to say that hierarchies cannot be optimised, but stop thinking that organisational hierarchy is a fundamental limitation to changing the behaviour of your organisation.
  • We never ask ourselves how long it takes before our plans diverge significantly from the real system and consequently our plans become useless. There are ways of assessing for how long our plans will be tolerably accurate.
  • Good plans are vital for continual ‘what if analysis’ so as to see potential perturbations and to identify potential actions to reduce the impact.

Decision Making

  • Research has shown that in most circumstances we use a maximum of two pieces of information (cues) to make a decision, which is generally inadequate.
  • Research shows that using even basic quantitative and objective assessment techniques vastly increases the effectiveness of decisions.
  • We are poor decision makers, but can be better.
  • We have a selective memory and emotional bias when making decisions.
  • Organisations do not consider spending money on improving decision making capabilities.
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