I have been a fan of complexity science for a number of years. I don’t remember exactly when this area of thinking first crossed my desk. I only know that I was fascinated. I am a nurse and worked in the ICU and ER in my early career. I am currently more involved in teaching and learning, leading and managing change, developing leaders and fostering innovation. Working with complexity has been a significant part of my thinking and it has influenced some of my career choices for many years. To see it becoming a larger part of mainstream thinking and study is a welcome change.
The concept of complex adaptive systems, and the links made with natural ecosystems, was a timely addition to my learning. I have long believed that we, as members of the human species, need to get closer to nature and cultivate a better understanding of natural systems. I am appalled by landfills and recycling bins that are full – but little or nothing actually is recycled. I am awed in the forest, or in a garden, by the complexity and the interconnectedness that support natural systems. I am concerned about the tremendous inequities in the world and feel responsible for playing my part in sharing my abilities and good fortune with others who aren’t so lucky.
My journey to a better understanding of complexity and complex adaptive systems (CAS) began in the late 1980s. I came across Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigms, which significantly resonated with me. I was working as the Nurse Manager of a Women’s Health program at an academic teaching hospital in Montreal and studying molecular cell biology for a graduate degree. The complexity was swirling around me both at work, at home and in my educational pursuits and I wanted to better understand it all so that I could be more effective. I loved the idea of viewing systems through different lenses. It was early days but I was captured by the ideas and concepts of CAS and began to read everything I could find. I realized that I needed new language to be able to better understand complex systems, and express my thoughts.
Fast forward to the 1990s when organizational change, and the engagement of the people who were involved in the changes, was more and more important. Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline was just published and it too was path-breaking. His introduction to learning organizations, systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning were not all entirely new concepts, but his positioning them in terms of organizations that can learn was a novel idea. Until that time industrial and machine models were prevalent, organizations were perceived as static institutions. Senge’s concepts positioned organizations as living, breathing, thinking and learning entities – active, alive and constantly evolving. Looking back now, this thinking makes so much more sense. Again, I was hooked on the new ideas and how they could be translated to the organizations I was working with, usually hospitals and higher education institutions, which were complex and largely caught up in old economy thinking, with static hierarchies and bureaucracies holding a tight grip on real change.
In 1998, Brenda Zimmerman and her colleagues, Curt Lindberg and Paul Plsek published Edgeware: Insights from Complexity Science for Healthcare Leaders which introduced healthcare leaders to the importance of complexity thinking and it is this work where I will take a deeper dive. Before I do, I want to highlight one more experience that actively altered my thinking. In November 2013, I traveled to Vienna to attend The Drucker Forum, an annual global event that brings together a couple of hundred people – across the spectra of roles, experiences, ethnicity and country, age, economic and social sectors – all interested in the work of Peter Drucker and wanting to better understand current paradigms and how the world is changing. One of the most important concepts I took from this experience is the notion of increasing VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, a world view we are currently experiencing in every aspect of our lives as we deal with SARS2-Covid19, a worldwide pandemic of epic proportions as well as the effects of climate change both challenging us and our values in so many ways.
Edgeware (1998) was published at a time of significant flux in the organizational life of hospitals in Canada. Conservative governments were promoting significant reorganization in what was being positioned as “right-sizing”. There was merit in the work; health care costs, which are a significant part of provincial budgets in Canada, had been driving upwards for many years and experts indicated there was potentially some slack in the system and room for new ways of doing things. As is common is such situations, there was a great deal of angst among those charged with “changing” and there was expected job loss as a result of new expectations. Edgeware with its practical tools and ways of progressively understanding systems was a welcome addition to my reading list and to the vocabulary I was trying to master.