In the 1990s, when academics and business leaders first began discussing the idea of applying complexity science to organisations and businesses, their enthusiasm failed to be picked up by the majority of managers. Managers were resistant to seeing the world as it really was (i.e. infinitely complex), preferring instead to wish this issue away in order to retain their belief that they could control the show by using a small number of variables and adopting a straightforward cause-and-effect model of managerial intervention.

However, history hasn’t been kind to these command-and-control managers. The world has become mind-bogglingly more complex since then, with vast numbers of people actively creating constantly shifting patterns of digitalised interconnectedness and operating within dense, information-saturated networks. Complexity denial is no longer an option for the enlightened manager.

Most of us have at least heard of the “butterfly effect” – the capacity of a seemingly small event (like the proverbial butterfly fluttering its wings in a distant part the world) to trigger a major disruptive change in the larger system (like a hurricane in the case of the butterfly). In the field of human organisations, we now appreciate far more fully that we’re always dealing with infinitely complex entities (sentient, learning human beings) in dynamic interaction not only with other sentient, learning individuals but also with the equally infinitely complex organisations that somehow order their interactions.

Complexity theory isn’t identical to chaos theory; they’re not the same, although both relate to the layer of chaos beneath complex systems. Instead, complexity theory is interested in how a degree of “orderedness” persists in continually adapting open systems without descending into lawless pandemonium. Complexity theory stands at the edge of chaos, appreciating that business moves in a nonlinear and often unpredictable fashion without falling into bedlam.

I’ll pursue these ideas further and explore their relevance to businesses, in part two.

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