Edgeware - Primer


A Complexity Science Primer:
What is Complexity Science and Why Should I Learn About It?

Brenda J. Zimmerman
Associate Professor
Schulich School of Business
York University
Toronto, Canada

This paper is called a 'primer' because it is intended to be a first step in understanding complexity science. In house painting, the primer or prime coat is not the finished surface. A room with a primer on the walls often looks worse than before the painting began. The patchy surface allows us to see some of the old paint but the new paint is not yet obvious. It is not the completed image we want to create. But it creates the conditions for a smoother application of the other coats of paint, for a deeper or richer color, and a more coherent and consistent finish. As you read this primer, keep this image in mind. This paper is not the finished product. Ideas and concepts are mentioned but only given a quick brush stroke in this primer. You will need to look to the other resources in this kit to get a richer color of complexity.

Permission to Experiment
A CEO's Personal

Complexity science reframes our view of many systems which are only partially understood by traditional scientific insights. Systems as apparently diverse as stock markets, human bodies, forest ecosystems, manufacturing businesses, immune systems, termite colonies, and hospitals seem to share some patterns of behavior. These shared patterns of behavior provide insights into sustainability, viability, health, and innovation. Leaders and managers in health care organizations are using complexity science to discover new ways of working.

"At first learning about complexity science and what it suggested about leadership was confusing, even stressful.  Once I began to learn it, to understand it, and to discuss it with other professionals, it began to make sense... I really believe in it... In complexity science I'm learning that leaders of modern organizations have got to take on a different roles - especially in this health care revolution."
-John Kopicki, CEO,
Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center,
Plainfield, NJ.

Why would health care leaders be interested in complexity science? In a recent research project with VHA members, we uncovered two inter-related reasons for the interest: frustration and resonance.

There is a frustration with some of the traditional clinical and organizational interventions in health care. The health care leaders in the study said they no longer trusted many of the methods of management they had been taught and practiced. They didn't believe in the strategic plans they wrote because the future was not as predictable as it was depicted in the plans. They saw intensive processes of information gathering and consensus building in their organizations where nothing of substance changed. They were working harder and feeling like much of their hard work had little or no impact. Complexity science offered an opportunity to explore an alternative world view. Complexity science held a promise of relief from stress but also suggested options for new interventions or ways of interacting in a leadership role.

The second "hook" for health care leaders was resonance. Complexity science resonated with or articulated what they were already doing. It provided the language and models to explain their intuitive actions. By having a theory to explain what they 'knew' already, they felt they could get better leverage from their intuitive knowledge and use it more confidently.

Although we are in the early days of deliberately applying complexity science to health care, we are gathering evidence of leaders applying the ideas to general management and leadership, planning, building health care systems, clinical quality improvement, community health improvement, and new service development. Some of the application projects have generated positive results while others are still works in progress. Complexity science holds promise to have an important impact on health care.

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All Components of Edgeware Primer Copyright 2000, Brenda J. Zimmerman.
Schulich School of Business, York University, Toronto, Canada.
Permission to copy for educational purposes only. All other rights reserved.