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© Jurgen Appelo  version 2  management30.com
Complexity Thinking
or Systems Thinking ++ ?
“The search for simple –if not...
Jurgen Appelo
writer, speaker,
trainer, entrepreneur...
What happens when
you go to a bar full of
systems thinkers and
complexity researchers
Russell L. Ackoff
Ralph Stacey Dave Snowden
Donella H. Meadows
W. Edwards Deming
Peter M. Senge
Peter F. Drucker
Peter Che...
“What exactly is
the bar?”
“Are the people
here part of the
“Is the beer part
of the bar?”
“If we drink the beer, is
it still part of the bar?”
“What if my beer and
I go outside?”
“Is the bar a
“What is the
purpose of the
Complexity Theory
Complexity Thinking
Final words
We converse about abstractions
Abstractions are imperfect and incomplete.
It is a form of interaction
The activity of abstracting is basically a form
of interaction between people in which they
To make sense of the world
Sense-making is the way that humans
choose between multiple possible explanations
of sensory in...
re·duc·tion·ism noun ri-ˈdək-shə-ˌni-zəm
– explanation of complex life-science processes and
phenomena in ter...
The bar is... the building,
inventory, employees,
guests, some interaction,
A problem is that people have become addicted
to the successes of reductionism.
“Left-brain” thinking
All system theories were created by engineers
and scientists (“left-brainers”).
Analysis in management
This systems movement […] has come to
form the foundation of today’s dominant
management discourse,...
Problem: Dehumanization
Cold numbers in spreadsheets
Problem: Objectivation
“Designing” human interaction
Problem: Alienation
Instructions from ivory towers
Problem: Prediction
“Controlling” the future
Problem: Attribution
Blaming people for problems
• Problem: Dehumanization
• Problem: Objectivization
• Problem: Alienation
• Problem: Prediction
• Problem: Attribution
Complexity Theory
Complexity Thinking
Final words
Revenge for “right-brainers”
Some people have suggested more holistic
See the whole system
Living systems have integrity. Their
character depends on the whole. The same is
true for organizatio...
Greater than the sum of the parts
The enterprise must be a genuine whole:
greater than the sum of its parts, with its outp...
Synthesis, not analysis
Analysis is only one way of thinking;
synthesis is another. [...] In analysis, something
that we w...
But what is the whole
Problem: Impossible
If everything is connected to everything,
what is the “whole”?
Problem: Unscientific
new age fluffy bunnies
– Dave Snowden
An unquestioned assumption
By formulating a research aim to uncover
the fundamental characteristics of systems of
various ...
Actually, there are no systems
Where to draw a boundary around a
system depends on the questions we want to
– Donella...
There are perspectives
A system is a way of looking at the world.
– Gerald M. Weinberg
Introduction to General Systems Thi...
Systems depend on context
The boundaries of systems keep shifting,
using reductionism and holism.
How much to abstract or ...
No radical holism/reductionism
Complexity theory does not embrace the
radical holism of systems theory, the notion that
Complexity Theory
Complexity Thinking
Final words
Brains, bacteria, immune systems, the Internet,
countries, gardens, cities, beehives…
They’re all complex adaptive systems.
A team is a complex adaptive system (CAS), because it
consists of parts (people) that form a system (team),
and the system...
One perspective
The properties of complex adaptive systems are:
• Aggregation
• Nonlinearity
• Flows
• Diversity
– John H....
Another perspective
There are six notions in complexity theory:
• Sensitivity to initial conditions (butterfly effect)
• S...
And it evolved like this...
– Jeffrey Goldstein
Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership
Or like this...
Or like this...
Of course, these are all just abstractions...
Complexity theory itself is complex
Papers are being posted on the Web long
before publication and there is rapid movement...
Complexity theory is about change
Complexity theory is not a cohesive theory.
It is not one equation. It is really a colle...
People and relationships
We found that this new science leads to a
new theory of business that places people and
And about hype
I think the next century will be the century
of complexity.
– Stephen Hawking
San Jose Mercury News, 23 Jan...
And about unification
We can justifiably think of Complexity as a
sort of umbrella science – or even the Science of
all Sc...
But who wants unification?
Scholars […] have been understandably
reluctant to see their pet subject as simply one
more exa...
No consensus, no unification
Perhaps because the field has attracted
researchers from a wide diversity of home
Complexity theory explains why complex
problems need multiple perspectives.
It is successful in explaining its own failure...
But complexity is growing
Accelerating economic and social change in
the global economy, the consequent imperative
for eve...
And complicated is not complex
Analysis works in complicated cases (plic in
complicated means "fold"), but the
You can try to simplify a system to make it understandable
But you cannot linearize the system to make it predictable
Complicated vs. Complex is itself is reductionism
(and a false dichotomy)!
Some systems can be seen as both complicated
This is all great, but
how do we use all
these ideas about
The Scientific Method
The traditional approach...
1. Observations
2. Hypotheses
3. Predictions
4. Experiments
Houston, we have a problem
This makes the standard method of
accumulating evidence highly problematic,
because it is based...
Complexity invalidates prediction!
The crucial problem which science faces is
its ability to cope with complexity.
– Peter...
Complexity theory predicts that we cannot rely
on predictions.
That doesn’t seem
very helpful.
Is there anything
else we can do
Complexity Theory
Complexity Thinking
Final words
mod·el noun ˈmä-dəl
– a usually miniature representation of something
– a description or analogy used to help visual...
We use models for two reasons
Confirmatory models: prediction & control
Exploratory models: insight & understanding
– Stev...
We’ll focus on exploratory models
Confirmatory models are impossible to make in
complexity theory. But we can use explorat...
Making sense of improvement
Making sense of learning
Advanced Beginner
Making sense of complexity
Ralph Stacey Dave Snowden
There’s only 1 criterion for models
Does the model help people to make sense of
the world (insight and understanding)?
Of course, it requires a balance
How detailed (complicated) will you make the
model to make it useful?
The usefulness of a...
A simple model of London
A complicated model of London
A simple model for projects
A complicated model for projects
A simple model for managers
– Jurgen Appelo
Management 3.0
A complicated model for managers
– Dan Levinthal
The Interaction of Complexity and Management
Models are never perfect
All models wrong, some are useful.
– George Box
Usefulness is context-dependent. It depends
on th...
met·a·phor noun ˈme-tə-ˌfȯr also -fər
– a figure of speech in which a word or phrase
literally denoting one kind...
Metaphors in science
• Butterfy Effect
• Edge of Chaos
• Survival of the Fittest
Metaphors are fuzzy but effective models.
Metaphors in management
organizations as machines;•
organizations as organisms;•
organizations as brains;•
organizations a...
Organizations as machines
Machine images pervade management
jargon. We have managers who “run” a
company, much the way you...
Danger of metaphors
Reminiscence syndrome
Jumping to conclusions because things look “the same”
– Jack Cowan
Example: inventory as waste
The metaphor of inventory applied to
knowledge work can be useful, but it fails fast.
It leads...
Useful question: when do they fail?
Metaphors are the weakest of all models.
They fail fast.
Science likes mathematical mo...
A key point of complexity theory
Multiple weak models can make just as much
sense as one strong model. (And it’s certainly...
This point makes it clear you also need other
people’s views on complexity thinking.
A single perspective is not enough!
What’s this?
math·e·mat·ics noun ˌmath-ˈma-tiks, ˌma-thə-
– the science of numbers and their operations,
interrelations, co...
Scientific management (Taylorism)
The earliest attempt at applying mathematics to
management of organizations.
• Improving...
sim·u·la·tion noun ˌsim-yə-ˈlā-shən
– the imitative representation of the functioning of
one system or process ...
The heart of complexity theory
At the heart of complexity theory are these
formal models that utilize new techniques in
Problem: prediction & control
For systems dynamics thinkers, the aim is to
identify leverage points for interventions that...
pat·tern noun ˈpa-tərn
– a form or model proposed for imitation
– a reliable sample of traits, acts, tendencies, o...
Causal Loop Diagrams
Archetype: Shifting the burden
Shifting the burden, dependence, and
addiction arise when a solution to a systemic
problem ...
Archetype: Shifting problems
Solutions that merely shift problems from
one part of a system to another often go
Archetype: The easy way out
We all find comfort applying familiar
solutions to problems, sticking to what we know
– ...
Problem : objectivation
Consider how this systems thinking
compares with the earlier framework of
scientific management. T...
Problem : objectivation
Hard systems thinking is unable to deal
satisfactorily with multiple perceptions of
reality. […] D...
So, how should
we use those
models in a
social system
Complexity Theory
Complexity Thinking
Final words
“Soft Systems Thinking”
– Michael C. Jackson
Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers
“Soft Complexity”
Systems theory ->
Hard systems thinking
Soft systems thinking
Complexity theory ->
Hard complexity
Soft ...
“Social Complexity”
– Dave Snowden
Complexity Thinking
(as I see it)
1) Address complexity with complexity
The complexity of a system must be
adequate to the complexity of the environment
Law of Requisite Variety
If a system is to be stable the number of
states of its control mechanism must be greater
than or...
Law of Requisite Variety
Ashby's law of requisite variety is as
important to managers as Einstein's law of
relativity to p...
The Kanban board is complicated, not complex.
360 Degree evaluations
Narratives useful for sense-making
[Complexity thinkers] argue that complex
thinking is best accomplished in a narrative
Consider stories, metaphors, picture...
Reduction vs. Absorption
Complexity reduction entails getting to
understand the complexity and acting on it
directly, incl...
From reduction to absorption
Top-down rules reduce an organization’s
ability to deal with variety.
– John Seddon
Freedom f...
Insofar as the business environment is
becoming more complex, firms will need to shift
from the complexity-reducing strate...
2) Use a diversity of models
Complexity itself is anti-methodology. It is
against "one size fits all."
– Tom Petzinger
Each systems approach is useful for certain
purposes and in particular types of problem
situation. A diversity of approach...
Different people and tools•
Different metaphors and analogies•
Different patterns and simulations•
Different methods and p...
3) Assume dependence on context
Best practice is past practice.
– Dave Snowden
The Interaction of Complexity and Management
Retrospective coherence
Any evidence provided will depend on the
period selected and the place in which the
events are occ...
4) Assume subjectivity and coevolution
The observer influences the system, and the
system influences the observer.
The peo...
Feedback changes
the whole system.
5) Anticipate, adapt, explore
Looking forward, proactive, imagining improvement
Looking backward, ...
6) Develop models in collaboration
Does the model help people to make sense of
the world (insight and understanding)?
1. Address complexity with complexity
2. Use a diversity of models
3. Assume dependence on context
4. Assume subjectivity ...
Complexity Theory
Complexity Thinking
Final words
Address1. complexity with complexity
Use2. a diversity of models
Assume3. dependence on context
Assume4. subjectivity and ...
1. Address complexity with complexity
2. Use a diversity of models
3. Assume dependence on context
4. Assume subjectivity ...
What is the purpose of an organization?
It’s about the shareholder
Our aim is to be the biggest or second
biggest market player, and to return maximum
value to st...
It’s about the customer
There is only one valid definition of business
business purpose: to create a customer.
– Peter F. ...
It’s about the employee
When we talk to our People, we proudly
draw a pyramid on the chalkboard and tell
them: You are at ...
It’s about the organization
The fundamental mission of an organization
is to survive.
– W. Warner Burke
Organization Change
It’s about the environment
The function of firms is to produce and
distribute wealth.
– Russell L. Ackoff
Recreating the O...
It’s about all of them
Organizations must be viewed as social
systems serving three sets of purposes: their
own, those of ...
It’s about none of them
A system has no purpose. Purpose is a
relation, not a thing to have.
– Gerald M. Weinberg
Well, it depends...
Purposes are deduced from behavior, not
from rhetoric or stated goals.
– Donella H. Meadows
Thinking i...
My view (with complexity thinking hat)
They all have a good point.
Sometimes we need a simple model.
Sometimes we need a c...
The Shu-Ha-Ri of purpose
Shu Delight customers
Ha Delight all stakeholders
Ri Delight yourself
Complexity Theory
Complexity Thinking
Final words
All models can be useful.
Some fail faster than others.
– Jurgen Appelo
There is nothing as practical as good theory.
– Kurt Lewin
We should not take our models too
– Gerald M. Weinberg
Introduction to Systems Thinking
Is it Complexity Thinking
or Systems Thinking ++
The magpie
Finds what’s valuable and uses it in its nest
The only bird capable of self-reflection
Address1. complexity with complexity
Use2. a diversity of models
Assume3. dependence on context
Assume4. subjectivity and ...
The peacock
Showing off a complicated but totally useless idea
Not capable of self-reflection
Don't take speakers too seriously.
Listen (critically) to the magpies
Be wary of the peacocks.
This presentation was inspired by the works of many people, and
I cannot po...
reductionism re·duc·tion·ism noun ri-ˈdək-shə-ˌni-zəm –
reductionism re·duc·tion·ism noun ri-ˈdək-shə-ˌni-zəm –
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re·duc·tion·ism noun ri-ˈdək-shə-ˌni-zəm
– explanation of complex life-science processes and
phenomena in terms of the laws of physics and
– a procedure or theory that reduces complex data
and phenomena to simple terms

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