Posts Tagged ‘complex systems’

What makes complexity complex? Why the fuss? Here’s a brief review of the key components and how they relate. It should remind you of your own experiences – your own sense of complexity and what you go through in bringing people together (or separating them, as the case may be) in solving problems and creating solutions.

As has been stated in previous blogs, the hallmark of complex systems is emergent behavior; behavior that flows bottom-up and is different in kind, creating something novel. A flame is a good example. The chemistry of burning carbon and hydrogen (wood) gives no indication of how a flame would appear. Here is another example. Knowing children want to play is one thing, predicting what games they will invent is in a “whole ‘nother ballgame” (pun intended).

The Building Blocks of Complexity

Four components and how they vary are at the source of complexity:

  • The ability to learn and adapt;
  • Connectedness;
  • Interdependency;
  • Diversity


Critical to emergence is the ability to learn and adapt. Novelty is what comes from complexity. This means having a team that learns, uses what works, and creates what is needed.


This is about being engaged, connected to the situation and people, and being fully present.  If you’ll allow a little hyperbole, the engineer and problem are one and this mythical engineer is in touch with everyone else in the situation.


In addition to connection there needs to be flexing. There needs to be the ability to influence one another (power) for emergence to occur. In complexity, Thomas Merton’s statement, “No man is an island,” is quite appropriate. One person on high does not dictate emergent structures – they evolve from the group in a situation where everyone and no one can take credit. It is the team that gets the credit.


For thorny, complex challenges to be taken on and fruitful results generated multiple frames of mind are needed. Healthy challenges from everyone involved – the conflict of diversity is needed.

The Interesting In-Between

How do these attributes, these variables relate in a complex system. “The Interesting In-Between” is a phrase John H. Miller, PhD, and Scott Page, PhD, use in their book, Complex Adaptive Systems in discussing how “settings” of the four variables are critical if emergence is to occur. The key trait is no one variable must either disappear or dominate. They each must be at the “in-between” setting.

If learning is at zero then obviously no adaptation will occur. Whatever set of rules are being used right now is how it will be. If it is at 100% everyone will know everything about everyone else and equilibrium will set in. Novelty will disappear.

Similarly, if connectedness is at zero novelty will be absent since there will be no influence on the system. On the flip side, if everyone is connected to everyone else then, once again, equilibrium sets in and novelty disappears.

Interdependency at zero would give us a bunch of hardheads with no interest in listening to others. If you have an adolescent child worried about what others think you are familiar with the paralysis that occurs with complete interdependence.

Diversity also influences novelty and emergence. If there is no diversity then groupthink occurs. If everyone is completely diverse then no common ground exists upon which a successful solution can emerge.

In addition to showing attributes that go into complexity the need for complexity shows when looking at these variables. Imagine a situation where same-old, same-old just doesn’t make it. Things can get very tiring and frustrating. It is like the vanity plates I see on a car routinely driving around the neighborhood, “SS DD.” If you don’t know what that means and want to find out, send me an e-mail.

Maintain a Balance Point

What all of this boils down to is the responsibility of the leader to maintain a balance among all four variables at a mid-point which has a positive tension.  To borrow a term from astronomers looking for earth-like planets, Goldilocks positions must be held for each variable, not too dampened and not too wild.