Planning for Emergencies: Unpredictable, Complex Systems

Emergency situations are a great example of complex systems at work. They are self-organizing, nonlinear, have an order/chaos dynamic, and are characterized by emergence.

Emergencies bring about fascinating self-organizing systems. They are systems which are fully liberated to adapt to their environment. They are coordinated, but don’t have a coordinator.

A crisis is an especially challenging self-organizing system to navigate because it emerges straight out of chaos, making adaptability a crucial element to reaching order.

The real challenge is planning for adaptability. We all hope to have a plan and feel prepared for emergencies, but how do you plan for the unpredictable?

Well, there are no absolutes in preparing for crisis, but there is hope in planning for a non-plan.

Like a Democracy, the strength of a self-organizing system is derived from its tolerance and a rigid plan doesn't allow for much tolerance. So, planning for crisis requires creating preparations, more so than a creating a finalized plan.

By sharing ways to understand and deal with unpredictable systems, people can help each other become more comfortable with the idea that there is no plan, only tolerance and preparation.


Here a few helpful ideas/concepts to keep in mind for emergency preparation:


Understand that connections are more important than leadership:

"The relationship between the agents are generally more important than the agents themselves."

Rather than planning around the roles of leadership, crisis management requires more attention and dedication to network connections.

Establishing and empowering networks can make a huge difference during an emergency. This requires building relationships and figuring out the most effective ways to stay connected. Networks need strong communication channels and decentralized decision making. These factors allow for optimal sharing of situational awareness and real-time data, as well as better coordination for backup support.  

Emergency situations rely heavily on networks, but leadership can also play a role. Depending on the circumstances, leaders can be more or less influential due to the fast-paced and complex nature of each situation. Imagine a flock of geese flying in an organized V-shape or a school of fish swimming in unison. Do you think these systems are managed by one particular leader? Probably not. But, these systems are generally flawless.  

Human systems during an emergency are chaotic and all of the forcing functions are so quick and emotionally charged that “acting” leaders, or in-the-moment leadership” can emerge out of this chaos. Therefore, those who project calm, are empathetic, and demonstrate resolve may have others looking to them for guidance and purpose.


Always anticipate emergence:

"Emergence: Rather than being planned or controlled the agents in the system interact in apparently random ways."

Emergency situations require handling and even embracing ambiguity. Emergence is an inevitable factor, which is characteristic in self-organizing systems, so attempting to place too much structure or too many demands on the system will not work.

Decentralization works best. More specifically, the decentralization of knowledge, access to information, and communication channels.  A flexible framework, which allows for distributed decision-making, is the best way to enable agents and networks. It gives them the authority to change their behavior in response to changes in the environment. Everyone within the system should be empowered to act, intervene, and even improvise if necessary.


Prepare/train with storytelling and reflection:

Use stories to examine complex problems and learn from past experiences. Then ask questions. What went right? What went wrong? What were the gaps? Were there any patterns that emerged? Were there any leverage points -- points where a simple intervention could have caused a lasting, directed effect?

This process should help people explore, recognize, define, and communicate the elements which might arise during the next crisis situation.

“Create models to examine complex problems. They add a fluid dimension to the exploration of complexity, allowing for nonlinear thought when tackling nonlinear problems.”

Provide a productive way for people to communicate outside of chaos. Feedback loops will occur too quickly during a chaotic event, so they should be addressed and reflected upon at a later time and in a calm environment. 

The HumanCurrent podcast is hosted by Angie Cross & Stacy Hale. Subscribe in iTunes or listen at Stay tuned for our next episode which will be a casual conversation about happiness at work.