Five Lessons on Complex Adaptive Systems

My last blog explored how earning my BA in Organizational Communication deepened my understanding of systems and described three system thinking approaches. Since earning my BA, and while continuing to use system thinking approaches, I expanded my curiosity and understanding into the world of complexity thinking. One of my mentors, Douglas Drane, has been a key influencer of my expansion in this field. Doug’s life work has been focused on his Complexity Model for business development, which presents an understanding of business as a complex adaptive system. The Model was based on decades of collaboration with brilliant minds across many disciplines to understand how small teams of aligned, high performance individuals can change the workplace for everyone. Doug and I have had countless inspiring conversations of how the world would be a better place if more people were complexity thinkers, which became the spark that brought The HumanCurrent podcast to life.

Three amazing years since starting the complexity podcast, I continue to learn about complexity science and grow as a complexity thinker. My curiosity to further understand and apply complexity thinking at work and in other areas of my life led me back to school, this time to expand my complexity thinking lens as a leader. I experienced metanoia from earning my MA in Leadership from Royal Roads University; it was a transformational experience that shifted my mindset and understanding of the world and the complex adaptive systems that exist in the world.

 Douglas Drane, Mentor & Co-founder of the HumanCurrent

Douglas Drane, Mentor & Co-founder of the HumanCurrent

As a systems thinker, I don’t ever recall a time that I couldn’t see systems. However, as I was learning about the various complexity terms and aspects, light bulb after light bulb went off, and having the words that explained what I understood gave me more confidence. What I learned from my MA was rich and invaluable, and while it did not result in me being fluent in "complexity speak", the following are some of the terms that have especially resonated with me and continually show up in my work, life, and all the things I do.

Complicated versus complex. This was one of my first ah-has—a big light bulb. Understanding that a process or situation in a complicated system has a solution, even if it is confusing and involves many steps, is different than a complex system. Take an organizational chart for example. The flow of who reports to who can seem confusing, but one way or another it can be mapped out. However, taking the same organizational chart and adding the personalities, relationships, and history to those on the chart reveals a complex situation. I like to think of it as complicated situations can be solved or figured out; whereas, complex situations are something you navigate through. The “complex” part of a system implies there are layers of interconnectedness and interdependencies. Navigating through complexity requires a greater level of understanding, flexibility, and curiosity.

I’ll also note that there are complexity scientists who are working on new mathematical models to work through today’s complexity. You can learn more and hear about some examples through our interviews with people like Yaneer Bar-Yam, Jean Boulton, and Melanie Mitchell.

Complex ADAPTIVE systems. I had just grasped the understanding between complicated and complex systems when another light bulb moment happened with adding “adaptive” to the system. This was big for me. I had this epiphany that by understanding what complex adaptive system meant I was understanding the foundation of ‘complexity speak’. YAY me! All of a sudden, everywhere I looked I could see complex adaptive systems—systems that were always there, but it was like I saw them with a new lens. For example, the ecosystem, politics, global economics and socioeconomics, families and communities, and so forth. By adding “adaptive” to complex systems, it implies that systems are dynamic, that there is constant change, evolution and movement within the system.

Often used in ‘adaptive systems’, the term ‘adaptive’ refers to interacting entities that individually or together are able to respond to environmental changes or changes between the interacting parts. The term can refer to a temporary modification to meet a changing context, or a long-term, permanent modification.
— Complexity Explorer

Emergence. The New England Complex Systems Institute stated that “emergence refers to the existence or formation of collective behaviors — what parts of a system do together that they would not do alone.” While earning my MA, emergence was a key theme as I coded data for my thesis. Here at the HumanCurrent, my co-host and I have trusted and embraced emergence to guide our work forward. We continue to be in awe when the perfect guest presents him/herself at the perfect time. On the podcast we have talked about how we trust the process, which we believe allows for emergence or for us to recognize and appreciate emergence. I would even go as far to say that the HumanCurrent is successful because of our philosophy and value of emergence.

Emergence describes a process whereby component parts interact to form synergies, these synergies then add value to the combined organization which gives rise to the emergence of a new macro-level of organization that is a product of the synergies between the parts and not simply the properties of the parts themselves.
— Complexity Labs

Feedback loops. While earning my MA I read countless articles and books, many of which I still refer to regularly. Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline is one of the books at the top of my list, especially when I think of systems thinking, personal mastery, and feedback loops. In my attempt to synthesize Senge’s definition of feedback loops, I’d say that feedback is a reciprocating flow of influence, which is both cause and effect. Of course for a more in depth description, I would strongly recommend grabbing a copy of Senge’s book.

A significant ah-ha from my studies and Senge’s book was that feedback loops can be reinforcing and balancing (negative and positive), which are influenced by patterns and behaviors. I especially recommend Senge’s book if you’re interested in learning more about how feedback loops affect behaviors within a system and how those behaviors can influence a system’s behaviors.

Human beings, viewed as behaving systems, are quite simple. The apparent complexity of our behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which we find ourselves.
— Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial

Interdependencies. As a lifelong systems thinker and growing complexity thinker, seeing and understanding interdependencies came fairly easy. However, a big ah-ha for me with understanding interdependencies was not in knowing the definition, but rather in appreciating what my understanding had to offer to a situation. I’ll explain. I had this impression that seeing and understanding interdependencies would make navigating through a situation or relationship easier. Boy was I wrong. You know that saying, “ignorance is bliss”? I think that in many cases, before I had an understanding of interdependencies, my ignorance made things easier to an extent. I could just "keep it real", do what I thought was best, and say what I wanted to say. With that mindset came all kinds of unintended consequences (and a great example of a feedback loop).

Because interdependencies exist within complex adaptive systems, there is no ‘easy button’. In fact, it’s not about finding a solution; it is about navigating through a situation. While having an understanding of interdependencies doesn’t provide a magic formula or easy button, it does provide a deeper level of understanding and appreciation to navigate through situations in a meaningful way. This requires a mind shift and, I believe, leads to a heightened level of mindfulness where we appreciate the collective whole, not just the parts.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
— Aristotle

These five lessons —complicated versus complex, complex adaptive systems, emergence, feedback loops, and interdependencies— have fundamentally fostered my complexity thinking. As a result, I believe I am a better co-host, employee, friend, and human. Another ah-ha just happened. Doug was right, the more complexity thinkers there are, the better the world will be. Thank you, Doug!  

You can listen to the HumanCurrent podcast here and don't forget to subscribe in iTunes. Be sure to listen to our recent episode where we share our interview with Data Scientist & Professor at NECSI, Alfredo Morales