In the past, some command-and-control managers viewed human organisations as machines. Those ‘machines’ would function with predictable outcomes when operated correctly. Nowadays, managers that embrace complexity theory adopt a radically different model: human organisations, including businesses, are regarded as being more like living organisms. They interact with their environments constantly adapting to changing circumstances.

Complex systems, as I suggested last time, reside at the edge of chaos without “becoming” chaos. It’s a term I’ve borrowed from M. Mitchell Waldrop, who wrote:

“The edge of chaos is the constantly shifting battle zone between stagnation and anarchy, the one place where a complex system can be spontaneous, adaptive, and alive.”

Complexity theory holds that there is no master controller of a complex system: rather, coherent system behaviour arises from interplay of cooperation and competition between a number of individuals. Think of an ant colony switching to a more nutritious food source: no single, “command-and-controller ant” made the decision to switch; it arose because of the group’s interaction.

Human beings, of course, have vastly more resources than ants to imagine and discover. However, giving up the illusion of complete control from above allows for the development of a new form of management that involves stepping back from the day-to-day running of a business. By taking advantage of novel organisational patterns and newly emerging initiatives a business can thrive. The new manager seeks to preserve the good ideas and patterns created by the team that bring about the best business solutions.

Complexity theory helps contain the panicky feeling that chaos might ensue; it cultivates faith in human creativity, although it doesn’t negate the need for strategy. Above all, it helps managers manage the ways in which accidents and rules interact, while preventing chaos or rigid order that serves no one.

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