Edgeware - Primer


Complexity questions

The questions asked by complexity scientists in the physical, natural and social sciences are not little questions. They are deep questions about how life happens and how it evolves. The questions are not new. Indeed, some of the 'answers' proposed by complexity science are not new. But in many contexts, these 'answers' were not explainable by theory . They were the intuitive responses that were known by many but appeared illogical or at least idiosyncratic when viewed through out traditional scientific theories. Complexity science provides the language, the metaphors, the conceptual frameworks, the models and the theories which help make the i_4.gif (12444 bytes)idiosyncrasies non-idiosyncratic and the illogical logical. For some of the health care leaders who are studying complexity, the science is counterintuitive because of the stark contrast with what they had been taught about how organizations should operate. Complexity science describes how systems actually behave rather than how they should behave.

Complexity science provides more than just explanations for some of our intuitive understandings. It also provides a rigorous approach to study some of the key dimensions of organizational life. How does change happen? What are the conditions for innovation? What allows some things to be sustained even when they are no longer viable? What creates adaptability? What is leadership in systems where there is no direct authority or control?


"It is a curious thing... at least for me it has been. It is both mind expanding because of new notions but it also seems like it is affirming of stuff you already know.  It is quite paradoxical."
James Roberts, MD,
Senior Vice-President,
VHA Inc., Irving, Texas

What does strategic planning mean in highly turbulent times? How do creativity and potential get released? How do they get trapped? Traditional management theories have focused on the predictable and controllable dimensions of management. Although these dimensions are critical in organizations, they provide only a partial explanation of the reality of organizations. Complexity science invites us to examine the unpredictable, disorderly and unstable aspects of organizations. Complexity complements our traditional understanding of organizations to provide us with a more complete picture.



That is the good news about complexity science. There is also some bad news. Complexity science is in its infancy. It is an emerging field of study. There are few proven theories in the field. It has not yet stood the test of time. But it has become a movement. Unlike some other movements in the management arena, the complexity science movement spans almost every discipline in the physical, natural and social sciences. There is often a huge schism between those who study the world using quantitative approaches and those who use qualitative methods.

"Out of nothing, nature makes something. How do you make something from nothing? Although nature knows this trick, we haven't learned much just by watching... [Life's] reign of constant evolution, perpetual novelty, and an agenda out of our control... is far more rewarding than a world of clocks, gears, and predictable simplicity."
Kevin Kelly
Out of Control, pp. 468-472

Complexity has created a bridge or a merger of quantitative and qualitative explanations of life. It has attracted some of the greatest thinkers in the world including some of the most highly respected organization theorists and Nobel prize winners in physics, mathematics and economics. It has also attracted poets, artists and theologians who see the optimism implicit in the science. By examining how life happens from a complexity perspective, we seem to have increased our reverence for life - the more we understand, the more we are amazed.

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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