Sustainability problems are today becoming more prevalent, more systemic and more serious than ever before. And they are expanding, from operational inconveniences that could largely be addressed through line-level fixes, to boardroom enigmas and political groundswells that defy traditional boundaries. This paper argues that these shifts in the nature of sustainability problems are highly significant for researchers as well. They indicate that the ontology of sustainability issues is also shifting: it is growing increasingly complex. We can no longer speak meaningfully about social, environmental and economic sustainability issues as isolated, independent incidents. With growing acceptance that “everything is connected to everything else”,1 we recognize that we must progress beyond sole use of conventional reductionist epistemologies. Growing complexity is not a descriptive term, but rather an ontological watershed between classical Newtonian assumptions of linearity, stability, and reductionistic inquiry on the one hand, and nonlinear, self-organizing, and emergent complexity theory on the other. While readers of this journal are likely to be well aware of these changes, there is value in a careful examination of this apparent shift toward complexity-based inquiry in sustainability research. Indeed, there are dangers in not doing so: not only is conventional research growing more limited for revealing the nonlinear nuances that increasingly make up sustainability problems, but further, it may obscure the actual dynamics and dynamic elements in play in a given situation.2 Hence, there is a need to both distinguish the two approaches from each other, and to highlight how each may be better suited to address particular problemscapes, or econo-social-environmental systems situated in space and time.3 This paper attempts to address the above situation in three ways. First, in a brief review of current literature, it finds several types of confusion in conventional research and research calls. Second, it offers a distinguishing framework that clearly differentiates complexity-based sustainability from conventional views, and shows how both are valuable but each is incommensurable. Third, it presents an original, longitudinal and quantitative case study of a sustainability initiative in a UK organization, using competing hypotheses from each perspective. Results are unexpected and anomalous from a conventional perspective, but these “negative” findings may be interpreted as consistent with a complexity perspective on the organization and initiative. In sum, the neoclassical, positivist, and reductionist model of sustainability is certainly not the only, and may not be the best way to study internal organizational shifts towards sustainability. From literature to theory, and theory to practice, it appears that complexity perspectives are fast becoming the “there” needed in sustainability inquiry in order to get to the “here” of today’s sustainability issues and problems.
This paper presents a new theory, the Dynamical Organizations Theory: Openness, Synthesis & Emergence for organizational change that is practical and proven in many organizations. It integrates the work of Ilia Prigogine on dissipative systems (open, free flow of information and energy into, out of and throughout the organization), and synthesizes Kevin J. Dooley’s discussion of complex adaptive systems, Jeffrey Goldstein’s discussions of dissipative structures and self-transcending constructs, Per Bak’s self-organizing criticality, John Bennett’s Systematics and uses Richard N. Knowles’ Process Enneagram, a disciplined, focused dialogue tool which leads to the emergence of new information and releases the creative energy of the people..
Change is co-created by the people and emerges from focused, disciplined, bounded conversations using the Process Enneagram©, a dissipative tool, and is sustained using the co-created Process Enneagram Map, a dissipative structure, to guide and focus ongoing conversations as the people and their environment evolve. With the emergence of new information and energy, the people and their organization transform themselves, bridging the business and human sides of the enterprise, developing a highly effective, and more humane and sustainable workplace. Leading with this approach is called Partner-Centered Leadership
Uncertainty is an inherent attribute of emergence. This makes the traditional approaches for envisioning a desired future state not only ineffective but often grossly misleading. The unexpected crashes of the financial markets, for example, proved devastating for several organizations. This paper proposes an entirely different way of engaging with emergent reality based upon the ideas introduced by John Steinbeck and hopes to stimulate further research in this field.
This paper describes how organizations experience self-organizing criticality in a crisis. Then it describes how the processes of many purposeful conversations can build the energy of self-organizing criticality to a level of high energy and creativity, and then hold the organization in this space using the Process Enneagram, co-created by the people in the organization, as a strange attractor, a container providing order and focus as well as the space and freedom for the people to make the decisions they need in order to do their work quickly and well.
Education’s most intractable, perennial problems go unresolved not because policy makers and teachers lack the will to address them but because the challenges result from the interconnectedness and complexities of education, creating social problems seemingly beyond reach for systemic, sustained solutions to be attempted. The purpose of this paper is to examine and apply a Futures Inquiry approach and rethink the challenges of school reform from a complex adaptive systems perspective to address the case of perennially low performing schools. The Futures Inquiry approach is a multidimensional approach to deconstructing educational issues that takes advantage of patterned solutions without artificially over-simplifying or prematurely reducing problems while also keeping in mind creating sustainable, adaptive educational futures. This approach is particularly valuable as a solution-pathway during times of rapid change, reduced resources, and social upheaval. The Futures Inquiry approach presented herein is essential for addressing the challenges of systemic educational inequalities to ensure full participation of all of our future citizens in a rapidly changing, global society. Futures Inquiry as a problem-solving tool, provides the basis for transforming education as a fundamental social institution.
Teaching and learning are infinitely complex enterprises, particularly in classrooms where adolescent English learners strive for academic success. This article offers ethnographic accounts in two settings in the United States, both of which involved similar instructional experiences and resources to support literacy learning among high school English learners. We apply principles from complexity science to the analysis of these two ethnographic accounts, each grounded in multiple data sources. The accounts highlight predominant patterns emerging from each setting. The subsequent analysis explores underlying conditions for self-organizing dynamics in these settings: shared identity; shared focus; relevant distinctions or differences; and shared practices). These underlying dynamics varied dramatically in the two settings, generating patterns we label as “playing school” and “authentic engagement.” Each setting manifested behaviors consistent with a short set of “simple rules” for behavior. Implications for future research suggest that a deep understanding of complex adaptive systems, emergent patterns, and implied simple rules can inform the work of teacher action researchers in complex school environments.
Using the lenses of complexity theory and dimensions of the SERVICE framework, the paper provides an abductive analysis of a freshwater governance case study. It aims to further develop our theoretical understanding of the complex interactions which contribute to the operation of sustainable public service organizations and systems. The analysis explores the dynamic features that have helped create this sustainable system. It also serves to highlight the nature and endogenous origins of the causes of threats to sustainability.
The field of evaluation involves making judgements of quality, value and importance to support accountability assessment, learning, and to improve performance. Traditional evaluation designs assume a high level of predictability and control. The problem is that complex programs or contexts challenge this basic assumption. Often programs deal with emergent outcomes and objectives, adaptive program processes, nonlinear theories of change and evolving stakeholder expectations. Under such complex conditions, traditional evaluation methods and tools do not allow realistic and useful representations of reality. In these instances, we need a more adaptive approach to evaluation. One that fits the environment without compromising rigor. In this paper, we articulate what we have found useful in seeing patterns in complex programs, understanding the dynamics in ways that are meaningful to stakeholders and recommending Adaptive Actions to improve impacts over time. In our work, synergy has emerged between complexity theory (through the lens of human systems dynamics) and evaluation practice (through a case study of a complex program of social change). What emerges at this generative intersection is an evaluation method that is simple, robust, rigorous and flexible enough to meet the demands of twenty-first century social change. We will explore the implications of this approach for theory and practice in complexity and evaluation, and we will share some questions that are emerging for us as we prepare for our next cycle of theory and practice development. In this paper, we provide an overview of the challenge and previous efforts to address it, an introduction to basic theory and practice of human systems dynamics (HSD) and theoretical foundations for a new approach to evaluation in complex environments, Adaptive Evaluation. We demonstrate applications of this new evaluation practice in a case study. Finally, we articulate lessons learned and emerging questions.
Today storm-tossed markets call managers to take a stand on the rising up of external complexity. Organisations are constantly facing a crossroad (complexity dilemma): To accept and nurture complexity, or to avoid and reduce it. The first option can be traced back to Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety, 1. while the second comes from Luhmann’s Complexity Reduction, 2. Both Ashby and Luhmann theories are valid due to an inverted U-shaped relation between complexity and firm’s performance, called “complexity curve”. Once fixed the amount of external complexity, performance increase as internal complexity increase, till reaching a tipping point; after that point, an overburden of complexity sinks performance. To solve Ashby-Luhmann trade-off on complexity, and moving over the complexity curve, we suggest that complex organizing may be facilitated by a simple design through (i) modularity, (ii) simple rules, and (iii) organisational capabilities.
Informed by complexity research and models for analyzing conditions in complex adaptive systems such as schools, I describe findings from a descriptive case study of influences on teacher decision-making about writing instruction in a high-stakes writing assessment grade. I highlight how the use of complexity as a theoretical framework for research provides a unique look at education systems, particularly looking at one teachers decisions across a school semester. I focus specifically on two conceptual models from the field of human systems dynamics (HSD), one used as a conceptual framework for complex adaptive systems, and the other used as a retrospective analysis tool in describing and explaining underlying conditions at work at a particular time for a particular decision.
This paper addresses an important aspect of urban infrastructure provision, which is the interdependencies between agencies involved in the process of provision of these critical urban systems. In order to identify these interdependencies, a qualitative multiple embedded case study, comprising the process of urban infrastructure provision for four new residential sites in Iran, was designed and conducted. The unit of analysis was the process of provision of different kinds of urban infrastructure systems, including water supply system, piping gas network, sanitation sewage system, electric power grid, telecommunication network, and transportation system network. The findings indicate that there are various kinds of interdependencies between agencies involved in the process, which can be classified into three main categories, namely, site selection interdependencies, designing interdependencies, and implementation interdependencies. Identifying these interdependencies provides a guide for decision-makers to consider the potentials and limitations of urban infrastructure systems in planning for new housing development areas.
We live in a world increasingly characterized as full of wicked problems, which are highly complex, ambiguous, and divergent problems that can never be completely solved. Moreover, the paradigm of complexity has begun to challenge the enduring mechanistic worldview. While there seems to be a sort of general agreement that such a paradigm shift is both important and well-founded, this article cautions against its premature wide-scale application in leadership education. Instead of a purely theoretical approach, we give a voice to three leaders who our earlier research led us to categorize as Chaos Pilots. They all share three characteristics. Each holds a senior leadership position. Each has a deep understanding of chaos theory, complexity thinking, or the concept of wicked problems and, most importantly, each has used that understanding to develop their leadership style. Our aim is not to offer any definitive lists of bullet points for resolution, but to draw from the experiences of these real leaders. We are especially interested in how such leaders who share a worldview of complexity sciences and have a highly attuned understanding of the nature of wicked problems actually go about transforming their leadership style.
In case study methods of organizations, researchers are often limited to the aggregation of individual cases within the context of the organizational case. Borrowing from Stake’s (1995) use of instrumental and intrinsic case studies, this paper presents a fractal geometry case study method. For the purposes of this article, on site interviews of seventeen librarians who work in a research institution were conducted to learn more about their experiences with organizational change. Instrumental case studies of these individuals, or rather those cases that respond to other phenomena, were performed and analyzed at the micro level. A clustering technique, serving as a fractal seed, was also incorporated to draw out themes that highlighted the interconnections of individuals. These cases were then recursively integrated into an emergent framework of the intrinsic case of the organization. The use of this method suggests that observations of individuals, and the subsequent meaning they generate at the micro level, reflect the complex interconnections of these cases. At the same time, this method suggests that the recursive integration of individual cases contributes to the understanding of the complex organization at the macro level.
A complex adaptive systems perspective is used to examine the sustainability of the supply network in the commercial aerospace manufacturing sector. A framework for the analysis of coevolutionary dynamical change is used which examines the structure, integration methods and process dynamics within the supply network. Multiple methods are used for data collection from 8 firms in the sector. The framework identifies 14 management implications related closely to the sector’s current heterarchical supply network archetype. The management implications address known environmental factors for the sector and the broader techno-economic paradigm.
With rising interest in sustainability, ecology is an increasingly important dimension of organizational research. Yet few empirical studies integrate local ecology into coevolutionary approaches where firms are key actors, and fewer still approach the question of sustainability and organizations from a systems perspective. In this paper, we ask how organizations can effectively participate in efforts to increase sustainability from a systems perspective. We develop an interdisciplinary framework for understanding firm-ecology relationships and then explore how this framework sheds light on regional planning and industrial practice in northern California’s wine industry.
This paper extends the concept of self-organization from the natural sciences to management and proposes a framework for the role of self-organization in the handling of adaptive challenges by enterprises. The process of self-organization is a characteristic of those complex adaptive systems that are far-from equilibrium, and results in the creation of order in a system by the internal interactions between agents leading to stronger adaptive capability. This paper presents a synthesis of the concept of self-organization suitable for management with communication as its central focus. Results from an empirical study in three Australian small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) indicate that an adequate level of three key factors—trust level, open communication and strength of the value system in an enterprise—is needed for self-organization to occur.
The paper investigates three levels of learning—adaptive, reactive and expansive—for the transformation of knowledge to enhance innovation and competitive advantage in commercial aerospace supply chains. A perspective of supply chains as complex Activity Networks is used for data analysis based on in-depth interviews in a global setting. Themes for the interviews were identified through rigorous literature research. The paper provides evidence of levels of learning in commercial aerospace supply chains. We found that a) adaptive learning brings a supply chain up to present industrial standards only, b) reactive learning makes the supply chain competitive, and c) expansive learning gives the supply chain potential for competitive advantage. By considering supply chains as the interaction of different work activities, the forces of change can be better understood. The findings may be useful to practitioners in understanding the importance of different levels of learning to supply chain sustainability.
At the beginning of the 21st century, all organizations need to address the continually changing social and economic landscape in which they operate. In this landscape organizations need to be responsive, flexible and agile and acquire the capability to leverage information and use collective knowledge to make appropriate decisions quickly and effectively. The practice of knowledge management allows knowledge workers to participate in dynamic processes that generate and use collective knowledge. However the complexity that arises from a continually changing global environment highlights the need for knowledge management to move in new directions both in practice and theory. This paper proposes approaches to knowledge management that incorporate concepts from complexity theory leading to the adoption of a network-centric paradigm in organizations, complementing or replacing traditional hierarchical bureaucracies.
Complexity science and conflict theory are two relatively new interdisciplinary fields that have much to learn from and offer each other. One benefit of their cross-fertilization is that data from real life conflicts becomes available for complexity scientists, and new models of conflict dynamics from complexity science become available for conflict practitioners. Challenges to effective cross-fertilization are the extreme jargon, disinclination for knowledge transfer, and few opportunities for practitioners and researchers of either field to meet across each specialty’s boundaries. Another important barrier to cross-fertilization is that espoused theory from complexity science does not yet easily translate into a theory-in-use for conflict practice. I suggest that one possible method for interpreting complexity science concepts for use in real life applications is to import complexity science principles into conflict practitioners’ conflict mental maps.
Environmental conflict situations are typically messy; a tangle of complexity, controversy, and uncertainty. As a means for addressing environmental conflict and decision situations and making progress on matters of substance, relationship, and procedure, Collaborative Learning integrates concepts and techniques from systems thinking, negotiation, experiential learning, and participatory communication. This essay establishes a context for understanding the creation and evolution of the CL methodology. Following that discussion, the Collaborative Learning approach is explained. A current comprehensive project in forest planning provides a case illustration.
Introduction Since the early 1990s, the Republic of Ireland has enjoyed sustained economic growth and development. With the transformation of the economy and the expectations of citizens as to what it can deliver, analysts have sought to explain the ‘miracle’. In that process, attention has been turned to individual role models, examples of excellence and […]
This article is an attempt to explore the implications of the emerging science of complexity for the management of organizations. It is not intended as an introduction to complexity thinking, but rather an attempt to consider how thinking ‘complexly’ might affect the way in which managers do their jobs. This is achieved in a rather abstract way with some theory, but I hope the general message that there is no one way to manage comes through loud and clear, and that management is as much an art as it is a science. In a sense complexity thinking is about limits, limits to what we can know about our organizations. And if there are limits to what we can know, then there are limits to what we can achieve in a pre-determined, planned way.
While complexity researchers have made considerable advances in recent years, complexity thinking, as a formal discipline, has yet to enter the mainstream. We believe that this is partially a consequence of the packaging. The relative dearth of research into practical tools, when compared with that conducted in the areas of philosophy and theory, serves to compound the problem. Given the difficulties experienced by those attempting to transfer complexity ideas from the laboratory to the field, maybe we can best approach the development of tools from alternative theoretical directions—and use our understanding of complexity to evaluate and enhance them. In this article, we introduce Confrontation Management—a theory of human interaction that has its roots in Game Theory—and show that this theory supports the modeling and analysis of, and planning within, complex social systems. As such, we suggest that it represents a powerful addition to any complexity practitioner’s toolbox.
The spiritual dimensions of occupation are explored using a dynamic systems model to address the interrelationships between spirit-mind-body-world. A deeper appreciation of the wholeness of human occupation emerges within a spiritual paradigm reflecting the fundamental complexity, nonlinear processes, and pattern flow formation of dynamic human occupation. Emergent perceptions about life-meaning, purpose, and identity are understood through the model of intention, meaning, and perception, influencing the system-wide changes that occur during spiritual occupation. Viewing spiritual occupation as both the creative process (means) and as engagement in spiritual activities (ends), which sustain and support life and health, affords a nonlinear view of the spiritual dimensions of personal growth through the process of self-organization and self-transcendence. Thus, facilitating a deeper conceptualization and understanding of human beings. Dynamic systems modeling of broad and deep spiritual occupations further validates the theory and practice of occupational therapy by addressing the full complexity of occupation as an embodied process of spirit-mind-body and world.