Capital City Organization Development Network

Monday, July 03, 2006

Measures of complex systems

During his presentation on organizational resiliance at the May 24 CCODN meeting, Joeseph Fiksel mentioned some work on determining the state of a complex organization. We had discussed the issue previously and I was glad to hear that their group is making progress.

Following is something I wrote, originally to another consultant trying to communicate to a client the benefits of embracing a greater level of change and innovation. This explanation of the sweet spot in complex systems - called 'the edge of chaos' - is the best I've come up with so far for communicating to a general audience.

I would appreciate your feedback, thoughts, or ideas.

Scott Holmes
Talsico Learning Strategist


I find that a concept from the field of complexity research can help people struggling to understand the benefits of some change. Briefly, complex systems are characterized by units (or 'agents') with links between them. Examples of units might be people, companies, nations, or neurons. Complex systems exist on a continuum between order and chaos, depending on the strength of the links between the units. My background is in materials science, so I use the bonding of atoms as simple way to illustrate.

To start, consider two atoms like silicon and oxygen that form strong bonds. Put silicon and oxygen together and they bond up to form silicon dioxide. Mostly this is what sand is made of. After bonding up, it basically sits there unless subjected to enormous forces. This is the ordered end of the spectrum.

Other atoms form very weak bonds. An example might be gasses like argon or helium. Or the weak bonds that form between O2 and N2 (oxygen and nitrogen) molecules in the air. The bonds that form when the atoms (or molecules) bump into each other are so weak that they quickly break and the atoms continue on their way. No structure survives. This is the chaotic end of the spectrum.

Somewhere in between is a place where bonds form, but can change. Structures form, but are not too rigid. This is where complex, adaptive systems can develop. In biochemistry, this is where we get life. Neurons in brains form links that allow information storage, but the links can change as old information becomes irrelevant and new things are learned.

So, if a business can be considered a complex system, where should we be on this continuum between order and chaos? Clearly somewhere in between is best. Companies that are too chaotic lose customer orders, can't produce reliably, or fail to pay employees or suppliers. They go out of business. Companies that are too ordered, too structured, too rigid, don't adapt to changes in the environment and also go out of business.

Complexity research finds a sweet spot between order and chaos known as 'the edge of chaos'. Entities near the edge of chaos seem to have the best long-term survival. They have enough structure to survive short-term, but enough flexibility to adapt and survive as environmental conditions change.

Realizing that 'the edge of chaos' is where I should be was a relief. Finally, I could let go of my feelings that I was supposed to be in total control all the time. Yes, there are key areas I do need to control, but not everything. Some chaos (random change) is good.

The sweet spot probably depends on an organization's mission or environment. For example, I would expect a startup to have more chaos than a pharmaceutical manufacturer. What we need is a way to measure where an organization is on the order - chaos continuum. Sort of an order-chaos thermometer. Perhaps you know of measurement techniques that would do the job.

The book I found most useful was:
Complexity -- The emerging science at the edge of order and chaos
by M. Mitchell Waldrop (1992)
It's a technically light read more about the history of how the field developed, with plenty of influence from those with economics or business interests. There might be better books available now.

Thanks for the opportunity to rethink what I've spoken for years. Even the slideshow presentation I created :
"Chaos, Complexity, and the Pursuit of the Optimally Messy Desk"
and have given to several groups didn't have this written down.

My limited experience is that discussing the 'edge of chaos' concept can help people accept more change. Perhaps it has something to do with one of the principles of "Getting to Yes", the 1981 book by Roger Fisher and William Ury. One strategy in negotiation is to appeal to a higher law, rule, or principle. In this case the principle is that organizations with an appropriate level of change tend to survive longer.

Anything you can add from your experience or reflections would be most welcome.



  • Thanks for posting, Scott.

    I like your idea of taking the temperature (measuring) the level of order/chaos in an organization. The question that comes to mind for me, though, is how one would evaluate such a measurement. You allude to this question in your discussion of a startup vs. a pharmaceutical manufacturer. What level of chaos is optimal in which situation?

    By Blogger tina, at 7/03/2006 4:25 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home