Complex Adaptive Leadership

By Anton Rossouw.

Complexity Science to me best describe the dynamics and uncertainty of what business face today, and offers us new insights on the true nature of Leadership.

Although Complexity Science is not “one unified thing” but rather a collection of aligned theories, a few concepts are consistently used to describe what’s happening in the complex “systems” space.

This is a very simplistic list but here goes:

  • It’s a Network – A complex system consists of a group of interconnected agents that interact locally with those that are close, and within their immediate environment and wider ecosystem.
  • It’s Dynamic – Energy and information flows though it (the agents) all the time and it changes its characteristics over time in fairly stable ways or sudden dramatic ways, whereas any figment of stability is always short-lived.
  • It’s Non-Linear – Small inputs can have dramatic non-linear effects that through positive and negative feedback loops dampen or amplify the stuff that could lead to either collapse (loss of complexity) or a leap forward (gaining complexity).
  • It’s Unpredictable – There are too many interconnected variables in the system to be able to dependably predict where it’s future will be over the medium and longer term. Short term prediction is mostly wrong.
  • It Learns – It collectively processes events and perceptions in its memory and then decides on what it knows from current environmental contexts how to act next, and then remembers the experiences from acting for it's next iteration.
  • Its Emergent – States of newness emerge from the interactions of the agents when they find themselves at high levels of local and environmental interaction commonly known as at “the edge of chaos”, which is a bit of an overstatement.
  • Its Special – The diversity and special nature of certain agents and the changes that result from their interaction contribute to innovative emergence that could lead to either or all of collapse, revolution, evolution, exaptation.

The above describes what is commonly known as a Complex Adaptive System (CAS). This aptly presents an interesting perspective and practical model to describe our social world of business, organisation, company, social group, city, movement, government, and from the natural world tribes, species, ecologies.

Now the question is what do we do with this new insight...

  • Is it "correct" and authentic to use CAS as a model?
  • How do we understand business as a CAS? 
  • Can we influence a CAS to move into a direction that we want to nudge it to?
  • And how do we do this?
  • Can we stand “apart from” the CAS or are we “a part of” the CAS ?
  • If we get this right will it create better business?
  • What is we nudge it and it goes haywire?  

To approach these questions with answers, a range of passionate and inspiring authors and bloggers such as Ralph Stacey, Jurgen Appelo, Dave Snowden, Brian Goodwin, Glenda Eoyang, Brian Arthur, Melanie Mitchell, Nicholas Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Yaneer Bar-Yam presented us with many plausible and exciting ideas. Fundamentally they provide answers on how to understand and influence a business as a Complex Adaptive System, and make different format decisions in the way we act and respond to strategic thinking and operational events. However, from an evidence perspective Complex Adaptive Leadership remains mysterious because it is difficult to conduct qualitative research on complexity.

All I know is that as leaders we need to live immersed within uncertainty and ambiguity and act in positive ways to "nudge" changes in our agents and affect changes to our ecosystems to incubate the ideal conditions for "emergence". And then let the system find its way, and then nudge some more.

However, when acting like this  there is no one right thing to do except to be responsible for and with the complex system, think about it with a complexity mindset, and implement simple things to move it along.

This rational mysteriousness is eloquently explained by Dr. Shamin Bodhanya for the University of Natal in his Ted talk.

In support Dr. Jon Whitty from the University of Southern Queensland also offer great supportive perspectives on his YouTube Channel on the subject of viewing projects as Complex Adaptive Systems: