Sunday, January 5, 2014

Quo Vadis complexity management?

It is now 8 years since I bought a 1500 GBP report on how to measure complexity in business. I also remember how I read Mandelbrot's book on the misbehaviour of markets with great excitement, and how my head went on a spin after spending a week with a self-acclaimed "guru and publisher "on the subject matter. Since then I have read hundreds of articles and many books on complexity in order to gain a practical understanding (and application) into it. Also have to add to this, tried to solve real world problems in supply chain, retail credit books, merchandising, commodity trading, stock control, systemic risk management and a few more with so-called complexity tools and techniques.

Having spent another holiday reading books on "non-linear dynamics", "chaos theory" and “black swans”, I must admit that in these 8 years I still have to find a practical application or use for things called “self-organised criticality", "fragility" or wolfram's "cellular automaton". It is if either the author tries to find a case in the rhythm of the flight of a butterfly, or writes 300 pages describing him playing with sand piles, or tries to discredit 300 years’ worth of scientific discoveries. The fact that man has accomplished major feats such as putting a man on the moon, develop quantum physics, and splitting atoms doesn't seem to matter at all to these complexity gurus. So for people like me that is really interested in solving business problems and believe complexity theory can assist in developing new approaches to achieve this, I have to say "Please, if you publish or claim to be a complexity expert/guru, show us real applications with evidence instead of always ending with vague statements of how the world is going to change with your contribution!"

Quo Vadis complexity management?  It is nice to talk about complexity; it becomes a real problem when you measure complexity through qualitative surveys, and a waste of time when one can't implement anything in the business world from those mathematical proof theories. If you think you will discover complexity insight through articles, books and current claims of quantitative complexity measurement, you need to know that you will most probably end at the same spot where you started - confused.

I believe that there is a place for complexity management, first of all as a management philosophy, one that states we need to solve real-world problems through cross- functional diversity. One great example of this is in data science, specifically the open-source R movement which enables learning between disciplines such as genetics, bio-informatics, finance and engineering. Here my company has used algorithms from the ecology and bioinformatics disciplines to solve problems in marketing - that is a real application of complexity management thinking.

As a science there is place for complexity management, one which requires bridging the chasm between academic research and real business applications - and as such I would like to see it as one where you don't have to be a nuclear physicist to understand what it is all about. Even Taleb, the author of the Black Swan concept confuses principles of probability, event outcomes, scale-free and scalability - and then to end after hundreds of pages with vague speculations about how it will change the world. It won't - stop torturing the human race.

So, if Complexity Management keeps on its current road it will either keep on thriving or eventually die in exotic academic locations and R&D labs; or maybe reach a best seller list by confusing people with butterflies and sand piles. Or just maybe we can start seeing real practical applications which will benefit the business world – if this happens, then this road might have a bright future.


  1. I agree: But Complexity Management stimulates thinking and perhaps we get a few ideas to think differently about management, interconnections, strange attractors, managing on the edge of chaos etb al. The fact is that there are practical applications but it probabably diverges from complexity theory per se. But does it matter? Have a look at my Slideshare programmes (see and click on the Slideshare button): Notably Making sense in the Age of the Unthinkable. . . , Strategy, Leadership and Organisational Reinvention, The Art of Quantum Planning applied to the Building Industry, Leadership and Complexity, Competing on the Edge. In all of these I have tried to apply some of the Complexity thinking. Perhaps amateurish but still exciting!

  2. I am not sure there should even be a case of "Complexity Management" as if Complexity was a subject matter i.e. a part of a body, a section of a business, a process, etc.
    Complexity awareness and "preparedness" should maybe be more appropriate, perhaps Complexity should be hammered down our brains like calculus/algebra so that it becomes an embedded skill.
    Here I think about getting the minds to appreciate multiple feedback loops (positive/negative), inter-connectivity, fat tails, emergent properties, counter-intuitive behaviors, multi-dimensionality, etc.
    Our Cartesian/mechanistic view of the World needs to be broken down at some level for people to start appreciating that Complexity is not complication!

    My point again is that Complexity is maybe not a subject matter (and therefore can not be managed) but its grasping/embracing should be a foundational knowledge that should help us navigating the day-to-day decision making.

    My 2 cts.


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