It’s become a complex world; an-introduction-to-Complexity

It’s become a complex world…an introduction to Complexity

Before we get into the broader framework of Cynefin ( which looks at the world in a range of 4 key domains -from simple to complicated to complex to chaos) lets me delve initially into one that deserves particular mention, i.e. complexity and the world of Complex Systems

As history has unfolded human civilisation has inexorably moved from a relatively simple hunter gatherer/agrigarian life towards the development of more complicated skills and expertise and we now find ourselves in the complex world of the 21st century.

The word complex is one that is bandied around all the time.. yet what does it mean to you? Have you heard of complex systems science? Well if not, you may be interested as while its relatively new, it’s already pretty useful.

The principles of complex systems..

A complex system is one that;

-is made up of many parts with

-has many interactions between its parts

-cannot be completely understood

-cannot be completely controlled.
so rather than trying to understand and control the whole system you look for the simple patterns and simple rules that emerge from the system and you harness those then the rest of the system will self-organise…

Certainly from my perspective, that is a perfect description of one of  the places I work, i.e. an Emergency Department and I’m eternally grateful for being introduced to the subject by Dr Mark Smith of Washington Hospital Center ED.

Over time I realised that it was also a very good way to explain hospitals.. and local health economies .. and healthcare systems in general too!

Moving beyond the confines of Healthcare,  I ventured into studying and taking on more Leadership and Management roles. Whereupon it was quickly apparent that many/most projects I was involved with fitted the same “Complex System” description. As has any of the management programmes I have been/am involved in. So it became clear to me that Complex Systems have a very good fit with Management science too.

Furthermore, as more of my work became involved with the Information Technology field, over time I began to understand most software quickly moves away from being complicated (its rarely simple) to being complex too, especially if issues of scalability and maintainability are examined. So yet again, I believe there is a good fit between complex systems science and the world of information technology/software engineering. If you would like an example of a complex system in the context of Information Technology… think Internet..

So though I’ve just mentioned 3 differing fields, I should explain that complex systems science applies to just about anything you can think of, from biology to mathematics, ecology to evolution, social science to economics, from military strategy to medicine.

If you have  an interest in that tiny taster in the subject, I should recommend Making Thinks Work by Yaneer Bar Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute as a very good introductory book on the subject.

If perhaps you may be someone who has come across complex systems before and wondered “that’s all very useful, but I’m not quite sure how to bring that into my world at work”/”how does this fit with the rest of my education?” etc….

For a time I was finding the principles of complex systems useful to my work while wondering how to reconcile these principles with the rest of my education and knowledge base. While I was wondering how to fit complexity into the rest of my thinking, I got some very useful help from Kate Silvester, a fellow medical doctor who introduced me to looking at complexity within the broader Cynefin framework.
As I’ve already mentioned it’s a framework that helps explain some/all of the world in 4 key domains- simple, complicated, complex and chaos.
Lets now explore this broad framework across 3 differing fields.. Healthcare, Management and Information Technology, exploring the complexity as we go.

Again, I hope that in doing so, that just might help…


Bar-Yam, Yaneer (2005) Making Things Work Solving Complex Problems in a Complex World

Smith M, Feied C (1999) “The Emergency Department as a Complex System”

Walley P, Silvester K, Steyn R. Managing variation in demand: Lessons from the UK National Health Service. Journal of Healthcare Management. Sep 2006;51(5):309-322.


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