Complexity Everywhere

Ernst & Young recently “discovered” that employees will resort to corruption and fraud when they are squeezed by management. Or, in other words, when you treat them unethically they will behave unethically.

Surprise, surprise!

It is hard to count the number of similar discoveries people have made over time. Patrick Hoverstadt, author of The Fractal Organization, wrote that Theory-X managers get constant feedback that their world-view is correct. They treat employees as people who cannot be trusted. Et voilà, the result is indeed that nobody can be trusted! You get what you measure! (Goodheart’s Law). Ralph Stacey, author of Complexity and Management, called it reflexivity. There is no objective observer.

The observer influences the system, and the system influences the observer.

This makes it all the more strange that some complexity thinkers aim to provide a framework for dealing with different kinds of systems. If the observer judges the system to be “complicated” then he should apply “Sense-Analyze-Respond”, and if the observer thinks the system is “complex” then she should use “Probe-Sense-Respond”.

Sorry, but that just doesn’t make much sense to me when I take into account reflexivity and the influence of observers. Because maybe, when I treat a complex system as simple, this is exactly how it will behave to me. Or when I judge the system to be chaotic, this could indeed be how it will respond, but only because that's how I treat it. The way I treat the system will influence how it behaves. The observer influences the system. For example, why bother deciding if the behavior of a system is chaotic? Simply the act of ignoring chaos could make it go away! Problem solved. (It could also blow up in your face. You just can’t predict the cascading effects of your actions.)

It’s much easier just to assume complexity everywhere.

You can always reduce the universe to a few domains or categories later. When you have time, over a cup of coffee. With a delicious slice of Welsh tea cake, as I just enjoyed.

(image by Jonathan Lidbeck)


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  • Glenda

    I agree with you for sure. Don’t I have to engage with the world in some way to judge whether it is “chaotic” or “complex”? By the time I judge, it has already moved and maybe in the other direction.
    We support Adaptive Action (What? So what? Now what?) as a way to engage with any system. If it is in a stable state, great. And, if it is far-from-equilibrium, even better. Our new book Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization (Stanford University Press, 2013) is 350 really good pages about these five little (and redundant) words. You can see more about it at
    Thanks for your thoughts. Always more to learn in an uncertain and evolving system.

  • Paul Klipp

    I’ve always said that complicated is doing your taxes and complex is finding your spouse crying with an empty wine bottle.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Until you hear that the tax collectors are crying over your tax forms with an empty wine bottle. Then it gets complex again.

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