Catalyzing Story: Complexity in Action Series

Discovering Complexity: A Story of an Organization in Crisis and its Response

David Hurst tells his story of how his organization was thrown into crisis by an ill-advised takeover on the eve of a sharp recession. He explains how the management team muddled through to grapple with complexity and to survive. He then develops a useful ecological model that maps the trajectories of complex systems in space and over time and helps managers deal with the dilemmas and paradoxes they will encounter.

Learn about the language & concepts of complexity referenced in this story.

The ecocycle is the name given by David Hurst and Brenda Zimmerman in their 1994 article, From Life Cycle to Ecocycle (Journal of Management Inquiry 1994; 3; 339) to the use of ecologist C. S. Holling’s adaptive cycle (Holling, C.S. (1986). “The resilience of terrestrial ecosystems: Local surprise and global change. In W.C. Clark & R.E. Munn (Eds.), Sustainable development of the biosphere (pp. 292-317). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) when applied to human organizations. The infinity loop-shaped cycle identifies four phases in the persistence of an ecosystem: exploration, conservation, creative destruction and renewal. The resulting mental model allows powerful analogies to be drawn between natural and human systems, disciplined by the multiple perspectives of complex adaptive systems. The framework has been extended (Hurst, 1995, 2012) to include the phases of emergent action (passion), rational action (reason) and constrained action (power) as well as many other management concepts.  Its application is featured in The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures (Lipmanowicz H. and McCandless K. (2013).

Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks….. There are four crucial aspects of resilience. The first three can apply both to a whole system or the sub- systems that make it up.

  1. Latitude: the maximum amount a system can be changed before losing its ability to recover (before crossing a threshold which, if breached, makes recovery difficult or impossible).
  2. Resistance: the ease or difficulty of changing the system; how “resistant” it is to being changed.
  3. Precariousness: how close the current state of the system is to a limit or “threshold.”
  4. Panarchy: because of cross-scale interactions, the resilience of a system at a particular focal scale will depend on the influences from states and dynamics at scales above and below. For example, external oppressive politics, invasions, market shifts, or global climate change can trigger local surprises and regime shifts.

(Walker B., Holling C.S., Carpenter S.R. and Kinzing A., (2004) “Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability in Social-ecological Systems”, Ecology and Society 9(2): 5)

A distinction should be made between engineering and ecological concepts of resilience (Holling, C.S., “Engineering Resilience versus Ecological Resilience” in Engineering with Ecological Constraints, National Academy of Engineering (1996)). Engineering resilience is concerned with maintaining the efficiency, constancy and predictability of the system and focuses on stability near a single equilibrium steady state. Ecological resilience on the other hand, is concerned with the persistence, change and unpredictability of the system and assumes the existence of multiple possible steady states.

The adaptive capacity of a system is its ability to adjust to changing internal demands and external circumstances and is a central feature of its resilience. This capacity is diminished by the emergence of socio-ecological traps (Carpenter S.R. and Brock W.A. (2008) “Adaptive Capacity and Traps”, Ecology and Society 13(2):40), in particular the withering of underused systems – the so-called ‘poverty’ trap – and lock-in by overused systems – the ‘rigidity’ trap. Rigidity traps occur in socio-ecological systems when institutions become highly connected, self-reinforcing and inflexible. In human organizations management by command and control can reduce diversity and inhibit innovation. In poverty traps, by contrast, connectivity and resilience are low and potential for change is not realized. Ideas and raw materials may be abundant but there is no capacity to focus and move the system forward.

Additional Resources

David’s first book was Crisis & Renewal (1995). His most recent book is The New Ecology of Leadership (2012)

His latest video Beyond Cartesian Management

His most recent article Lead Like a Gardener 

David Hurst FRSA
David Hurst FRSA
David Hurst is a reflective practitioner, an executive who spent most of his management career in what he thinks of as organizational ‘train wrecks’ before becoming a management educator. He teaches on three graduate level programs at McGill University and in Finance and Organizational Behaviour at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University. He is also associated with the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina. He is a Contributing Editor to Strategy+Business.