Frequently Used Terms in Complexity Thinking

Understanding when it is necessary to modify or adjust an action or a behavior is as important as recognizing the need to continually adapt to changing environments. Ronald Heifetz, founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, emphasizes the need to build adaptive capacities in society and business through assessing realities, clarifying values, and closing the gap between what is real and what is valued. Because most social systems honor a mix of values, he writes, adaptive work usually contains tensions and conflict (Heifetz, 1994). Adaptive Positive Deviance compliments adaptive work by encouraging members of a community to collaboratively assess, clarify and share existing knowledge and experience to find real solutions.

Adaptive Space
A place or time that offers unusual flexibility and possibility for collaboration and generative conversations to take place. An adaptive space can be literal or relational, existing anywhere at anytime. It is a bottom-up, grassroots approach activity when people decide to try new things as they adapt approaches in their respective environments.

Appreciative Inquiry
What Went Well? Why? Today? Yesterday? This week? This year? Last year? This structure democratizes conversations across hierarchical levels. Anyone can respond to the question, “What went well?” and the person giving the information offers a perspective on why it went well. Others may add to the “why.” This simple design promotes resilience, creativity, and well-being.

Chaotic Events
Chaotic events are situations that are radically unpredictable and uncontrollable (e.g. during a natural disaster). Spontaneity, resourcefulness, and improvisation are required, rather than standard operating procedure.

The term was coined by Kevin Kelly, a former editor of Wired Magazine, to explain how complex systems emerge from collections of simple components that work well independently and become building blocks for new systems. One example is the internet, which evolved in chunks. Separate components were integrated into a larger system after they had been individually tested and refined and widely accepted. In organizations, the chunks, or building blocks, could be small teams or units that work well on their own and later combine efforts with other people and other teams to create new products and systems. The process is always bottom up rather than top down.

Communities and Ownership
Communities are human systems given form by conversations that build relatedness. The conversations that build relatedness most often occur through associational life, where citizens are unpaid and show up by choice. Rather than the belief that the future will be improved by new laws and more oversight, Peter Block (2008) suggests a new context that restores community – one of possibility, generosity, and gifts, using the all-purpose ownership question: What have I done to contribute to the very thing I complain about or want to change?

Complementary Pairs
Such contraries as light and dark, good and evil, friends and enemies, have always been present in human awareness. We usually perceive them as mutually exclusive. Neuroscientist Scott Kelso (2006) says our either/or thinking tends to obscure the dynamic relationship between pairs that actually complement each other rather than being polar opposites. Neuroscientists and social scientists remind us that potential for reconciling these pairs, and for enabling understanding between diverse fields, lies in the space between them.

Complexity is found in systems when there are unpredictable interactions of multiple participants and components across many levels of the system. School systems are complex systems of many interconnected parts that can be viewed as their own unique complex system from an individual school within a school system to a classroom right through to the family enrolled. Complex systems face complex challenges, rooted in those same unpredictable interactions present in the system itself and require different ways to address challenges. Predetermined solutions that “should” work, in theory, are often much less impactful than expected in complex environments. Approaching an issue looking for emergence is highly valuable in complex systems.

Connectivity and Co-evolution
Connectivity and co-evolution are essential to the sustainability of a complex adaptive system. How people in a system connect and relate to each other influences collective changes in system-wide patterns that impact their environment. As the environment responds to change it influences the patterns in the system, which will once again change — this is a constant process that allows the people, systems, and environment to work together for adaptive survival.

Diversity and Difference
Research on human organizations and other complex systems has shown differences and diversity among members of teams and groups lead to better and more creative problem solving and project success. Teamwork flourishes when the perspective of members include differences influenced by race, ethnicity, gender, age, academic training, economic status and life experience.

Dynamic Tension
Change is seldom a smooth transition from the old to the new. When there is push-back or resistance to change, a dynamic tension becomes apparent between the known current reality and actions and the unknown future reality and actions. In APD, this tension indicates an important time and space for asking lots of questions, getting all feedback and encouraging experimentation.

Emergence refers to the unpredictable events and issues that result from the interactions between people and among elements of the system. The arising of new, unexpected structures, patterns, or processes in a self-organizing system. These emergents can be understood as existing on a higher level than the lower level components from which the emergents emerged. Emergents seem to have a life of their own with their own rules, laws, and possibilities unlike the lower level components. The term was first used by the nineteenth century philosopher G.H.Lewes and came into greater currency in the scientific and philosophical movement known as Emergent Evolutionism in the 1920’s and 1930’s. In an important respect the work connected with the Santa Fe Institute and similar facilities represents a more powerful way of investigating emergent phenomena. In organizations, emergent phenomena are happening ubiquitously yet their significance can be downplayed by control mechanisms grounded in the officially sanctioned corporate hierarchy. One of the keys for leaders from complex systems theory is how to facilitate emergent structures and take advantage of the ones that occur spontaneously.

Feedback is the reciprocal effect of one system or subsystem on another. A negative feedback loop occurs when two systems dampen each other’s output. Positive feedback happens when two systems amplify each other. The mutually reciprocal effect of one system or subsystem on another. Negative feedback is when two subsystems act to dampen the output of the other. For example, the relation of predators and prey can be described by a negative feedback loop since the more predators there are leads to a decline in the population of prey, but when prey decrease too much so does the population of predators since they don’t have enough food. Positive feedback means that two subsystems are amplifying each other’s outputs, e.g., the screech heard in a public address system when the mike is too close to the speaker. The microphone amplifies the sound from speaker which in turn amplifies the signal from the microphone and around and around. Feedback is a way of talking about the nonlinear interaction among the elements or components in a system and can be modeled by nonlinear differential or difference equations as well as by the activity of cells in a cellular automata array. The idea of feedback forms the basis of System Dynamics, a way of diagramming the flow of work in an organization founded by Jay Forrester and made popular by Peter Senge.

Generative conversations lead to discovery of new ideas, behaviors, practices and unanticipated sources of value that could not have been predicted in advance. A generative process can nurture and guide the birth of new ways of thinking and doing.

Initial Conditions
In a complex system, the initial conditions for change begin when there is greater sensitivity to an action. See the Lorenz “butterfly effect,” described above. Being deliberate about choosing things, such as room set-up and meeting design are initial conditions that can make a significant difference in how successful a meeting or conversation is.

Iteration is the act of repeating small changes in the initial conditions or current state of the system, which can significantly influence outcomes and change behaviors. A small change is often unnoticed like the “flapping of butterfly wings” yet as the change iterates and interacts with other elements in the system during each feedback loop, it serves as the engine for emergence and self-organization, resulting in significant changes to the overall system.

Newtonian Theory
According to Newtonian physics, the whole is equal to the sum of it parts. Classical physicists thought we could understand the whole by studying the parts in greater and greater detail, and that the whole and its parts constituted a linear system. Newton’s laws of motion laid the foundation for classical mechanics, which gave rise to the idea that physical and human systems were also linear, were as predictable as machines, and could always be expected to obey scientifically accepted laws. That mechanistic view prevailed well into the 20th century.

Nested Systems
This concept demonstrates that most systems (communities) are embedded within other systems that are part of even larger systems. Another way to think of nested systems is to recognize that the components of a large complex system such as a government are also complex systems, such as the judicial system, educational system, and defense systems.

A paradox is evident when two opposite points of view or understandings seem to be true. The value of a paradox, rather than trying to decide which point of view is the truth (either/or), is to explore it, study it, consider it a gift. A paradox presents an opportunity to examine long-held assumptions and discover which of them can be let go in order to have creative innovation (both/and).

In a complex adaptive system, patterns reflect an identifiable condition or behavior that is both resilient and adaptive to the fluctuations in the system. Patterns can be influenced and change over time by the individuals, the community, the environment, and other systems.

Self-organization is the way in which a complex adaptive system responds to changes and makes adjustments. The system is continually adjusting to fluctuations in its environment. The process of self-organization sets the conditions for patterns of behavior to emerge from the random interactions throughout system. This process is generally spontaneous, triggered by continual and random actions. It can also be influenced by deliberate interventions. Any system of people has the capacity to be self-organizing.

Sensemaking is the process in which people work together to create a collective interpretation that includes multiple perspectives. This concept refers to the way in which individuals and/or groups make meaning by creating order and a collectively shared awareness and understanding of the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Simple, Complicated, Complex
Problems are seldom successfully addressed using a one-size fits all approach. In complex adaptive systems, assessing and addressing problems requires a continuum of approaches that range from simple solutions to complex change. Example:

Standardized, easy replication, no expertise required to follow, such as in baking a cake. A good recipe gives ingredients and instructions. Recipes are easily replicated and following the recipe will produce nearly the same cake every time.

A formula or method is necessary with a degree of certainty; requires rigid protocols and high level of expertise, such as sending a rocket to the moon. Sending one rocket increases assurance that the next effort will be successful.

Each situation is unique, so exploration is required along with curiosity and good will in the face of uncertainty, such as in raising a child. Expertise is no assurance of success. Rigid protocols have little applicability and may be counter productive. Experience helps, but raising one child is no guarantee of success with another child. Each child is unique. Results can’t be replicated and the outcome is uncertain.

The Part, the Whole, and the Greater Whole
The Part, the Whole, and the Greater Whole signify that a complex adaptive system seldom exists in isolation. A neighborhood may be unique and operate within its self-defined boundaries and affiliations but it is also part of a larger community, that is part of a city, a state, a country, or a continent. The actions of any one part can be effective but when coordinated with the actions or activity of the whole, and ultimately the greater whole, the combined interactions produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements.

Unusual Suspects
Individuals who may not be viewed as experts on the basis of title and position but who have direct knowledge or understanding of the challenge can provide an unusual influence on the project outcome. Adaptive Positive Deviance (APD) encourages participation by everyone because nontraditional voices add different perspective and possible solutions to existing challenges. Their unique knowledge, experience, skills, and intuition can provide unexpected contributions. When invited into the conversation, some may initially be apprehensive about whether they really have anything to contribute. Finding out how big their contribution really can be often generates tremendous energy for the project.

Wicked Questions
Wicked questions hold a special place in the art of inquiry and engagement. They embody elements of apparently irreconcilable issues that do not have an obvious or easy answer, and are used to help expose tensions and contradictions and dislodge self-fulfilling prophecies. Wicked questions open the way for new and unusual information flows while expanding possibilities for experimentation. For example, “How can identify our direction when we don’t know the future?”