Requiring humility and patience

Whenever we have a large number of actors, each pursuing their own notion of “success”, there is a potential for a Complexity. Such complex adaptive systems typically show emergent behavior, which is neither predictable from the actions of individuals, nor is it necessarily the intent of the actors. This emergent quality means the system has its own momentum and integrity. It is often mysterious to those involved, even to those trying their hardest to modify or "lead" the system.

The “problem” and the ”solution” are recursively linked; one cannot be defined or explored without impacting the other. There are perplexing circular causal chains, often with time lags that mask the tie between cause and effect. As a result, the effects of change efforts are often unpredictable and even out of proportion to the effort.

Change efforts cannot be withdrawn. There is no experimentation; any changes alter the system in irreversible ways. There is often mysterious resistance to even obviously beneficial change.

The “change agents” are in the system, not outside of it; therefore their behavior (even their curiosity) is an event which changes the system. Executives who believe they are "in charge" often make decisions which are ill-timed or capricious, which only sends the system into more dramatic reactions. In reality they do not run the system; they only ride it.

In organizations, problems of this sort most commonly result from the difference between the formal, purposive systems of the organization vs. the informal, emergent systems that are outside our conscious intent or control. For example, the organizational chart specifies who can talk to whom, and who can give orders to whom; in contrast to that formal statement, there is an informal network of friendships, car pool partners, members of the company soccer team, parents in PTA programs, frat buddies, and all manner of other links that create an entirely different network by which get things done..and even figure out what to work on. There are other types of systems that contribute to the complexity of organizations.


  • The U.S. economy
  • A sour corporate culture
  • Difficulty attracting talent in a tight labor market
  • Unpredictable oscillations in complex supply chains
  • Quarter-end spikes in customer demand that pose tremendous burdens on all involved
  • Increasing the size of sales force results in reduced sales volume

The Present
  • Unpredictable and uncontrollable
  • Unintended consequences often dominate intended ones
  • Causal links are circular, reciprocal, delayed, obscure, and just strange.
  • Any change is irrevokable.
  • Small, symbolic events are often very powerful.

Likely Actions
  • Humility
  • Learn the system, but never completely
  • Take small steps, and then watch
  • Accept the reality of being in the system, not outside the system
  • Attempts to make things better always make them different, but only sometimes actually improve things

The Future
  • Always emerging, always shifting
  • Never under control
  • Never fully understood
  • Constrained by homeostasis typical of organic systems

Common Typing Errors

Some situations are merely puzzling to us, so we may be tempted to apply the term 'system', but it is more out of our own ignorance than a real understanding of the phenomenon. Work process problems, for example, often present as complex systems simply because outcomes are below what we would expect given the talent and commitment of all the participants to a quality result. Our lack of understanding, however, may eventually fade away with straightforward process characterization, and the problem appears properly as a Puzzle, not a Complexity.

Sometimes we confuse a Complexity for an Uncertainty. Both involve unknowns and both seem out of our hands. The difference is that an Uncertainty will eventually resolve as the future reveals itself. But a Complexity is confusing now, and will be equally so in the future.

< Copyright © 2003 by Jerry L. Talley [ Home Page ]