There are many definitions of Complexity Theory, Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), and Project Management, and I’m about to create some more. My interest in these ideas is in their practical application to help people in organisations achieve common objectives efficiently and effectively.

For me, Project Management is defined as the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities, within the constraints of scope, quality, schedule, budget, resources, and risk (etc.), to create a unique, product, service, or result. (PMI, 2008).

Complexity Theory and Complex Adaptive Systems do not enjoy singular definitions with widespread agreement. This is to be expected, just as the definition of Project Management above is based on the Project Management Institute‘s (PMI), and is not universal.

For the purposes of this post, my lay description (by no means a definition) of Complexity is that of a system or a system of nested systems, where each system contains interactive and interdependent agents where no amount of research, examination, or theory allows anyone to completely understand the system, control the system, and much less predict anything about the system in detail and with high levels of confidence. And a Complex Adaptive System, is a complex system, that given the right starting conditions, resources, and boundaries, can adapt to its environment.

“Rather than focusing at the macro ‘strategic’ level of the organisational system, complexity theory suggests that the most powerful processes of change occur at the micro level, where relationships, interactions, small experiments, and simple rules shape emerging patterns. Everything in an organisation is interconnected, so large-scale change occurs through an integration of changes that affect the smallest parts. Organisation change emerges from evolution of individuals and small groups.” (Olson & Eoyang, 2001, p. xxxiii)

Another way of looking at Complexity and Complex Adaptive Systems is to look at what they are not. Armed with technology and science, it is tempting for us to believe or assume that the universe and all its contents behave with clockwork precision. Newton’s clockwork universe is only a useful approximation of reality and only when systems are closed, the rate of change is low, interdependencies are low, variability is low, and certainty is high. History and experience attest that such constraints only describe a small subset of systems and scenarios.

Enough by way of shallow-end introduction, I want to share two videos.

The first is by David Snowden, of Cognitive Edge fame. I have read his work, seen him present, and watched probably all of his videos on YouTube. He makes a lot of sense, and although I don’t pretend to understand or agree with all that he discusses, I appreciate the effort he makes at trying to be clear, unambiguous, and precise about what he says and writes.

David’s presentation on How to organise a children’s party is an example of accepting the complexity of a situation, accepting the limitations of one’s resources (such as patience, humour, and practical control), establishing limits or what David calls boundaries by defining what is and is not acceptable, and using attractors (video game, balls, etc.) to encourage acceptable behaviour. Or, as David would say, “we manage the emergence of beneficial coherence within attractors, within boundaries.” Beneficial coherence is amplified (encouraged), while negative coherence is dampened quickly (discouraged).

I don’t know much about the background to the second video Who needs leaders? (sound quality a bit poor sorry), I am just amazed that given the right conditions and constraints, that a group of people can self-organise and achieve the stated objective without the constant meddling of a supposed manager, project manager, or leader.

The two videos don’t provide us with answers as such, but for me, they hint at what is possible in organisations when the boss(es) relinquish control and decision-making to the subject-matter experts that they have employed.

In other presentations, David talks about distributing decision-making and safe-to-fail experiments. Relinquishing control to the troops, to the periphery, or the edge of the organisation is risky; people make mistakes and sometimes experiments fail. Failures and errors can be embarrassing and costly; costly to the organisation in terms of lost opportunities and cash, and to employees and bosses in terms of diminished reputations. Some organisations are not forgiving of errors or failure…

Since I have used the military metaphor of troops, it seems appropriate to raise awareness of a book I have been reading,  Power to the Edge by David S. Alberts and Richard E. Hayes. The military focus of the book is appropriate both because of the similarities between military and business organisations, and because it is fashionable in business circles to use clichéd military metaphors, perhaps without a full appreciation of the military’s move away from command and control. The book and lots of others are provided by the Command and Control Research Program (CCRP) of the Department of Defence (DOD); best of all, all the books are free to download.

In Power to the Edge, the authors discuss the limitations of command and control (C2), and highlight the benefits of pushing the decision-making to the edge of the organisation. This is not unlike the videos introduced above, but with real-world application, in literally, life or death situations.

References

Edwin E. Olson and Glenda H. Eoyang (2001). Facilitating Organization Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

PMI. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (4th ed.). Newtown Square,  PA.: Project Management Institute, Inc.