Complexity Theory

Article by


Simplifying the complex topic of leadership with Kevin Ball.

Notes from the coaching room

Complexity theory: how to be as complex as you need to be while remaining as simple as you can be

Pablo Picasso is generally given credit for saying that ‘Art is the elimination of the unnecessary’. Whether it was Picasso that first said it or not, the word ‘art’ could usefully be replaced by ‘successful organisation’, or ‘good leadership’ and there is certainly an art in designing ways of working that embrace all the complexity required to make them effective whilst also being simple enough to reduce error, increase speed, efficiency, repeatability and productivity.

Left to their own devices, most processes have a knotweed-like tendency to proliferation that lends itself to regular pruning but equally; a process that fails to recognise the complexity of the environment where it operates will be prone to sometimes mystifying error.

Leaders do well to pay regular attention to how things get done and the people who are doing it to make sure the right balance between simplicity and complexity is struck.

Complexity theory draws from research in the natural sciences that examines uncertainty and non-linearity. In Management Studies, complexity theory has become prominent in service environments, project management and organisational studies where the desire for predictability and reliability in system design bumps into a naturally chaotic and unpredictable state in most human systems most of the time. With its emphasis on interactions and the accompanying feedback loops that constantly change systems, complexity theory has led to the observation that human organisations are constantly adaptive to complex environments, rather than the simple, static state that would make life more comfortable for most leaders most of the time. The saving grace is that complexity theory also proposes that while systems are unpredictable, they are also constrained by order-generating rules.

That description makes complexity theory sound like something insufficiently simple for everyday use in the workplace. Dave Snowden was a senior engineer at IBM in the early 2000s when he developed his Cynefin model to help add some simplicity to the thinking about complexity.

‘Cynefin’ is the word for habitat in the Welsh language and captures the idea that systems are self-contained, separate from one another and subject to internally-generated characteristics. Think water and land, or General Practice and Secondary Care, or one PCN from another. The contact between systems is known as the edge of chaos and this is the place where the greatest opportunity for error and confusion exists but it is inside the systems themselves that the solutions must be found for dysfunction.

Snowden’s tool is designed to support diagnosing underperformance in the system and determining action to create improvement.

In the Cynefin model, every system exists in a state of disorder between its component parts and the first step in solving a challenge is to diagnose the nature of the component under examination and act according to its individual attributes:

  • Complex systems require data collection as a first step. Acknowledging that the data will not by itself lead to a clear conclusion, sensing the correct solution from the data is important before initiating a limited response, analysing its effect and then repeating or varying as required.
  • Complicated systems are best resolved by starting with a sense of where the challenge may exist before using experts to analyse that component and develop a unique solution, planning a response and seeing that response through in an orderly progression to deliver the outcome.
  • Simple systems are best solved by sensing the nature of the challenge, categorising it into some known solutions and executing the known solution using known models.
  • Chaotic systems are crisis-management situations requiring immediate action before sensing the response to the action and flexing the action in counter-response.

It is the sequence of leadership activity that gives Snowden’s model its greatest utility. Trying to solve a chaotic system challenge with simple techniques or vice versa is a clear recipe for confusion and frustration.

Chaos Theory and Quantum Physics, both elements of Complexity Theory, feel like a long way away from the daily work of most leaders. But there is real value in understanding that collections of humans working together to achieve things are as much a part of the natural world as anything else and are subject to the same forces. Grasping the chaos at the heart of most organisation is challenging but choosing the right way to wrest a little control is important.

Things for modern leaders to consider:

  • Pay attention to how things get done in your organisation. Do you see unnecessary complexity? Do you see complications? Are things as simple as they should be, or is there chaos? Wonder about how you choose solutions to challenges. Are they always the same? Are you using simple solutions to try and solve complex or complicated challenges? Might your complicated solutions be deployed on simple challenges?
  • Do you have persistent challenges in your organisation? Have you tried to solve them using any of Snowden’s techniques? What might happen if you chose another of the Cynefin models of intervention?

Xytal is one of the leading British consultancy developing leadership in the health sector. Notes from the coaching room is drawn from our real experience of the issues faced by many leaders in improving their practice. If you found this article beneficial, contact one of our team to learn more.

Leaders do well to pay regular attention to how things get done and the people who are doing it.