What is Complexity?

Our work in economic development is generally taking place in complex systems. But what, exactly, does complexity mean? In their award winning article titled “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making“, published in the Harvard Business Review in November 2007, David Snowden and Mary Boone feature a box in which they describe the main characteristics of complex systems. I found this to be a very comprehensive and yet understandable description an that’s why I want to share it here.

  • It [a complex system] involves large numbers of interacting elements.
  • The interactions are nonlinear, and minor changes can produce disproportionately major consequences.
  • The system is dynamic, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and solutions can’t be imposed; rather, they arise from the circumstances. This is frequently referred to as emergence.
  • The system has a history, and the past is integrated with the present; the elements evolve with one another and with the environment; and evolution is irreversible.
  • Though a complex system may, in retrospect, appear to be ordered and predictable, hindsight does not lead to foresight because the external conditions and systems constantly change.
  • Unlike in ordered systems (where the system constrains the agents), or chaotic systems (where there are no constraints), in a complex system the agents and the system constrain one another, especially over time. This means that we cannot forecast or predict what will happen.

Moreover, Snowden and Boon differentiate between two types of complex systems. In the first type, the individual actors or ‘agents’ in the system strictly follow predefined, simple rules, such as birds flying in a flock or ants in an ant colony. In the second type, however, the individual agents are not animals but humans and, hence, follow their own reasoning according to the relevant context and situation.

Consider the following ways in which humans are distinct from other animals:

  • They have multiple identities and can fluidly switch between them without conscious thought. (For example, a person can be a respected member of the community as well as a terrorist.)
  • They make decisions based on past patterns of success and failure, rather than on logical, definable rules.
  • They can, in certain circumstances, purposefully change the systems in which they operate to equilibrium states (think of a Six Sigma project) in order to create predictable outcomes.

So where does this lead us in our everyday work? Snowden and Boone also offer a number of tools to manage complex situation out of which I want to pick two that I find are relevant for the work in development projects:

  • Open up the discussion. Complex contexts require more interactive communication than any of the other domains. Large group methods (LGMs), for instance, are efficient approaches to initiating democratic, interactive, multidirectional discussion sessions. Here, people generate innovative ideas that help leaders with development and execution of complex decisions and strategies. (…)
  • Stimulate attractors. Attractors are phenomena that arise when small stimuli and probes (whether from leaders or others) resonate with people. As attractors gain momentum, they provide structure and coherence. (…)

The first point clearly points out that participation still is a very important part of every development project that really wants to make a difference. In the end we have to be aware that it is not us that is changing the system, but we are merely working to enable the system to move itself towards a more favorable state (who defines whether this state is more favorable remains another point to discuss and influences a lot whether the system is actually moving in that direction).

The second point is important to recognize that we always have to look for things that work or try to start small pilots and see whether they work and amplify them. This is essentially the recognition that change to a system happens from within a system.

This is a slightly edited version of a post first published on Marcus Jenal’s blog.

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