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An Introduction to Complexity Theory

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As part of the highly successful lunchtime talk series, the contemporary Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (TIHR) food-for-thought programme, Eliat Aram, the Institute’s CEO introduced staff and guests to some key concepts and philosophical underpinning of Complexity theory and its implications to understanding organisational praxis.

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An Introduction to Complexity Theory

  1. 1. Complexity: An Introduction<br />Eliat Aram<br />The TIHR Lunchtime Talks Series<br />June 2011<br />
  2. 2. The complexity sciences originated in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology:<br />Prigogine & Stengers, 1984: Order out of Chaos <br />Gleick, 1987: Chaos: Making a New Science<br />Waldrop, 1992: Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Chaos<br />Gell-Mann, 1994: The Quark and the Jaguar <br />Kauffman, 1995: At Home in the Universe<br />Coveney& Highfield, 1995: Frontiers of Complexity <br />Goodwin, 1995: How the Leopard Changed its Spots <br />
  3. 3. Ideas from these new sciences were taken into theorising about organisations and management during the 1990s<br />Allen, 1998: Modelling Complex Economic Evolution; Evolving Complexity in Social Science in Systems: New Paradigms for the Human Sciences <br />Whitley, 1992: Leadership & the New Science: Learning about Organisations from an Orderly Universe <br />Stacey, 1991: The Chaos Frontier; 1992: Managing the Unknowable; 1993: Strategic Management & Organisational Dynamics; 1996: Complexity & Creativity in Organisations; - to name a few<br />Stacey, Griffin & Shaw: Complexity & Management: Fad or Radical Challenge to Systems Thinking? <br />
  4. 4. Chaos Theory <br />The dynamic of Mathematical Chaos:<br />Bifurcation points?<br />Strange attractor?<br />State of non-equilibrium ?<br /> non-linearity?<br />= PARADOX : stable and unstable; predictable and unpredictable, at the same time <br />
  5. 5. Chaos in Nature:<br />The weather system:<br /> Comprises patterns in interdependent forces such as pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speed that are related to each other by nonlinear relationships<br />
  6. 6. The Edge of Chaos <br />The paradoxical dynamic has become known as the “edge of chaos”, a dynamic where order and disorder co-exist. <br />‘The edge of chaos is where life has enough stability to sustain itself and enough creativity to deserve the name of life. It is the constantly shifting battle zone between stagnation and anarchy, the one place where a complex system can be spontaneous, adaptive, and alive’ <br />(Waldrop, 1992: 12).<br />
  7. 7. Dissipative Structures: <br />Chaos performs the important task of amplifying small changes, or fluctuations, in the environment, causing the instability necessary to shatter an existing behaviour pattern and make way for a different one. <br /> Systems may pass through states of instability and reach critical points where they may spontaneously self-organise to produce a different structure or behaviour that cannot be predicted from a knowledge of the previous state. <br />
  8. 8. What if? <br />We LIVE at the edge of chaos?<br />Our lives characterised by a state of paradoxical <br />Existence?<br /> Order and chaos – planning and emergence –predictability and unpredictability – all always at the same time? <br />
  9. 9. Complex Adaptive Systems: <br />Organisms can be understood as complex adaptive systems made up of many interacting agents. <br />Complex adaptive systems are nonlinear and self organising with emergent futures. <br />Self organisation? <br />emergence?<br />Criterion of diversity<br />
  10. 10. Complex? Adaptive? <br />Capacity for Learning<br />Single and double loop learning (Argyris & Schon, 1978). <br />Through double-loop learning 'species evolve for better survival in a changing environment - and so do corporations and industries' (Waldrop, 1992: 11). <br />'Competition and conflict emerge and the evolution of the system is driven by agents who are trying to exploit each other, but the game can go on only if neither side succeeds completely or for long in that exploitation' (Stacey, 1996b: 340).<br />
  11. 11. Self organising process:<br /> A complex adaptive system is capable of self organise, i.e., produce emergent novelty when it operates in the dynamic at the edge of chaos<br /> This capacity consists of iterative non linear interactions<br /> These interactions are heterogeneous and hence take on a life of their own which means they are characterised by transformative rather than formative causality <br />
  12. 12. Profound and contentious implications: <br />Life in the universe and life in organisations arises from a dialectic between competition and cooperation, not from an unconstrained competition => emerging order which is unpredictable<br />Through an internal process of self organisation the system produces both parasites and something like predator-prey dynamic => potential for tidiness and harmony of cooperation together with dissonance, destruction and messy competition<br />Evolution: not an incrementally progressive affair but a rather stumbling sort of journey in which a system moves both forwards and backwards and that- <br /> – is the most effective way to proceed! <br />
  13. 13. More profound and contentious implications: <br />Identity – personal and organisational – is based in transformative causality<br />Life in organisation – strategic management, leadership, consultancy, research, design – operates at the edge of chaos and is hence<br />Paradoxical <br /> Unpredictable <br />nonlinear and conversational<br />
  14. 14. Teleological Causalities:<br />Secular law teleology<br />Formative teleology<br />Rationalist teleology<br />Adaptionist teleology<br />Transformative teleology <br />
  15. 15. So ... ?<br />What happens to order and hierarchy?<br />What about our sense of control?<br />What does ‘knowledge’ mean? <br />Implications for our work? <br />Who am I? How to understand self, mind and identity ? <br />Any other questions? <br />

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