A Personal Journey to Complexity Thinking – Part 3

Over the past twenty years Plexus Institute has provided a network platform for members to share their work and ideas about how the understanding, application and learning from complexity science impacts organizations and people. A wide variety of projects, research, models and practitioners’ experiences have offered a way for the community to engage with and gain valuable knowledge for applying complexity thinking to our most pressing challenges.

This is the second of a three-part post from Beverley Simpson, a Plexus Institute member. As a totally volunteer organization we rely on the commitment of network participants to share new content, facilitate conversations, curate resources, develop projects and lead Plexus into the future.

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.

Edgeware reminds us to always be aware of the Shadow System, the informal communication structures that exist in all organizations, the hallway and lunchroom conversations, and the rumor mills that contribute to beliefs and values, mental models and subsequent actions. The authors encourage us to work with the Paradoxes and Tensions that occur in most situations, rather than trying to pretend they don’t exist.

It has become more and more obvious that the old Either/Or logic that was useful in the past and is still valuable in certain situations, has given way to a more useful Both/And logic that helps decision makers compare two or more tracks when deciding how to best move forward. There is no more important example of this broader approach than the need for both Cooperation and Competition.

More difficult for me to get my head around was tune to the edge. Now I see the meaning more clearly as the edge of chaos – so take it as far as you can without going over the edge and into chaos, which is a scary thought. Now I also realize that if you do take it too far (which is always possible in experimental approaches) and you get lost in the chaos, you can always bring it back.

Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn taught us that the interesting thing about paradigms is that they change when the old paradigm no longer provides answers to pressing questions. New ideas and models emerge to help us find answers to the pressing questions of the day. The world view has changed and it is more and more obvious that both collaboration and competition is what will drive us forward, and an ecosystem approach will help us build resilience. It’s not about hierarchy anymore, but collectivism, shared vision and symbiosis. Some would argue that biology has replaced physics as the mental model of choice for a VUCA world.

My experience indicates to me that with practice, time and a thoughtful approach, new ways of thinking become more comfortable and more natural. As you move further into a paradigm, get more comfortable with new lenses, and let go of old models that are no longer useful, it becomes clearer what kind of responses are going to work best. Organic processes that honor engagement, self-organization and experimental approaches are the way forward in many complex situations. Slowly my industrial era modeling has been challenged. As new lenses and complexity thinking permeate my thoughts, I’ve grown  more skilled at actively using them myself and being better able to explain the approaches and the thinking behind them to others.

I want to thank Mike Taylor and commend readers to look at his review of “A scoping review of complexity science in nursing” by Olsson et al in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, April 2020. This paper provides new learning opportunities and a whole range of good papers to pursue as I continue on my quest to better understand complexity and complex adaptive systems and their importance for nursing practice, education, administration and the patient experience.

Contributed by Beverley Simpson, RN, MSc, CMC. She works closely with organizational leaders seeking innovative solutions to complex practice and organizational issues.

Bev is a nurse with an extensive health care background. Her broad experience in staff, management, education and project leadership roles, a University of Toronto joint appointment, and a wide-ranging network of collegial relationships have sustained her practice and lifelong learning. She has developed expertise in understanding complexity models and influencing complex adaptive systems, and gained knowledge in the development and application of many leadership and team performance tools including Appreciative inquiry. She is a member of a global network of Master Facilitators working with Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Practices suite of development tools.


Casting a Wide Net

June 15th, 2020|0 Comments

A Scoping Review of Complexity Science in Nursing One of the things that complexity theory has taught me, is the value of looking at complex systems from a variety of perspectives. The article [...]