Leading Amid Complexity

By Mark Vickers

Attempts to apply complexity theory – also known as complexity science – to management is one of those long-term trends that never gains huge headlines but never quite goes away, either. This year, Management Decision magazine published a series of articles on the subject. Among the more interesting themes encountered in some of these articles is the apparent paradox of how leaders should lead in a “self-organizing” environment.

Complexity science is largely the brainchild of a multidisciplinary group of scientists working together at the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit research and education center. Much of the original research focused on complex adaptive systems, or CAS, which are systems that share a variety of characteristics. A partial list includes the fact that CAS are made up of smaller components, sometimes referred to as “agents”; they tend to behave in a nonlinear fashion because agents regularly react and interact with each other; they are self-organizing and adaptive; and they tend to exist at what some call “the edge of chaos” – that is, in a realm between high levels of order and utter anarchy.


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