a special property of complex systems

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The notion of emergence is essential to understanding systems. In contradiction to our Western reductionist thought patterns, in Nature "the whole" is more than the sum of the parts, a lot more that the parts. Emergence is the surprising property of system to create new forms, new structures. In an organizatoin, the culture of the company is an emergent property. And it evolves without the direction or even the consent of those supposedly "in authority".

The Essence of a System

Relationships among the parts are more important than the parts

In our analytical style, we try to understand things by taking them apart. In Nature, it is the relationships among the parts which are the most important, and those are obscured from view the minute we cut things up. The parts are only meaningful as they relate to other parts. A company is more than the skills of its employees; the most important element of the company is the relationships (communication patterns, lines of authority, friendships, feelings of trust, common work flows) that link (or fail to link) those employees. The motives and values of the employees are individual properties; the shared culture that rides on top of those individual properties will shape how these individual properties (skills, values, etc.) actually emerge.

  • Billions of neurons interact to form Mind, consciousness
  • Dozens of birds flying interact to form Flocking
  • Moisture, temperature, pressure interact to form Hurricanes, tornadoes
  • Buyers, sellers, transactions interact to form Markets
  • Lots of conversations interact to form Culture
  • Lots of water molecules interact to form Liquidity
  • DNA, protein, other molecules interact to form Life
  • Mom, Dad, and the kids interact to form Family
  • Lots of families interact to form a Community
  • Lots of communities interact to form a nation-state
The implications

A major implication of systems thinking is understanding that enormous amount of order and structure may be found even when there is no agent in charge. We often presume that order implies an intent, an authority, a purpose. In Nature systems come to awesome levels of organization without a single meeting, without a strategic plan, without even a vision statement.

Systems thinking is so rare in Western thought and practice because it requires a certain amount of humility. Complex adaptive systems are not merely complex, they are often beyond our understanding. We can make sense of them in retrospect (sometimes), but when we are in the flow we are often unclear even on the boundaries, much less the elements, and even less the interactions that are the heart of the system.

Systems also push against our reductionist strategies in Western thought. We learn by dissection, by listing all the parts, by reducing things to their most fundamental elements. While that works fine with a mechanical device, it is immediately inadequate for complex systems. The parts are meaningless outside the whole. The flow of energy and causality is only visible in the whole. The parts -- no matter how carefully documented -- do not reveal the system dynamics.