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Welcome to the Complexity page


Complexity is a lens through which we can look at the world. It is a worldview that percolates through other disciplines. The key idea is that constraints are the main drivers.


What is complexity?

Complexity theory and organisations, also called complexity strategy or complex adaptive organizations, is the use of the study of complexity systems in the field of strategic management and organisational studies. It draws from research in the natural sciences that examines uncertainty and non-linearity. Complexity theory emphasizes interactions and the accompanying feedback loops that constantly change systems. While it proposes that systems are unpredictable, they are also constrained by order-generating rules.

Complexity theory has been used in the fields of strategic management and organisational studies. Application areas include understanding how organisations or firms adapt to their environments and how they cope with conditions of uncertainty. Organisations have complex structures in that they are dynamic networks of interactions, and their relationships are not aggregations of the individual static entities. They are adaptive; in that, the individual and collective behavior mutate and self-organize corresponding to a change-initiating micro-event or collection of events.


Complexity theory and knowledge management

Complexity theory also relates to knowledge management (KM) and organisational learning (OL). "Complex systems are, by any other definition, learning organisations." Complexity Theory, KM, and OL are all complementary and co-dependent. “KM and OL each lack a theory of how cognition happens in human social systems – complexity theory offers this missing piece”.


Complex adaptive system

A complex adaptive system is a system that is complex in that it is a dynamic network of interactions, but the behaviour of the ensemble may not be predictable according to the behavior of the components. It is adaptive in that the individual and collective behavior mutate and self-organize corresponding to the change-initiating micro-event or collection of events. It is a "complex macroscopic collection" of relatively "similar and partially connected micro-structures" formed in order to adapt to the changing environment and increase their survivability as a macro-structure. The Complex Adaptive Systems approach builds on replicator dynamics.


Thinking about the concept

A visual thesaurus search is always an excellent starting point to discuss a concept definition:

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Deep dive




While we often focus on the collective behaviors of a system, the "constraints" of that system inform and shape that behavior. Constraints shape a system by modifying its phase space (its range of possible actions) or the probability distribution (the likelihood) of events and movements within that space. Constraints are both key actors and key indicators of a system. (1)

External link
(1) Constraints

Constraints in complexity and the BART framework

(2) --- My first experience of a Group Relations event was pretty“discombobulating”. It was like being dumped into a strange parallel universe filled with foreign language, frustrating “ consultants” and trying to find your way through perpetual confusion with a group of complete strangers. I threw myself into that context with no knowledge of the various theories that underpin the method. Maybe because of that, I was able to be in the moment, not in my head and therefore the learning about myself and my own patterns of relating were profound. After this experience I made a point of acquainting myself with the language and theory. In subsequent events, while knowing the theory made it more challenging to simply be in the “here and now” experience of the event as it unfolded, having these new lenses and awareness enabled another level of learning.

On a point of clarity, I don’t see engaging with and consulting to organizations through this lens as implying an assumption that the system, or the people within it, is in need of therapy. Rather, I would say the intent of working in this way is to bring descriptive self-awareness to the system and its members. The ability to see dysfunctional dynamics and structures in new ways can have a profound impact. Interventions often involve changing boundary conditions, task and role clarity and authority structures to create spaces better able to contain anxiety and unleash creativity.

Although the language is different, this is very similar to managing constraints in complexity.

On complexity and constraints

Complexity theory is my primary “sense-making” lens as I have been working in the field for almost two decades now. Around the same time that my interest in Systems Psychodynamics started, the work of complexity theorists like Paul Cilliers, Alicia Juarerro, and Dave Snowden around the notion of constraints and their importance in complex systems became more salient in that field.

Constraints are one of the primary (if not the primary) ways that order is created. Many creation myths describe how order is created out of chaos by a God or gods imposing constraints. Separating light from darkness; creating rhythms and cadences, day and night and seasons. Creating spatial boundaries by separating sky, earth and waters. We create ordered traffic flows by imposing constraints — traffic rules e.g. which side of the road to drive on, painted lines and traffic signs, specific lanes for cyclists. In complexity, we find different constraints that co-evolve with the agents in the system. Enabling constraints that enable emergence and create bounded autonomy. Constraints like these create the conditions for creativity — think of poetry and the creativity of haiku and sonnets. Or rhythm in music.

“… it is important to realise that the notion of a constraint is not a negative one. It is not something which merely limits possibilities; constraints are also enabling. By eliminating certain possibilities, others are introduced. Constraints provide a framework that enables descriptions to be built up around it. When dealing with complexity, though, these frameworks cannot be fixed. They are constantly being transformed, and therefore our models will always be provisional”. — Paul Cilliers

“Constraints are relational properties that parts acquire in virtue of being unified -not just aggregated- into a systematic whole” — Alicia Juarrero

Dave Snowden describes constraints as ordered aspects of complex systems, i.e., things we can manage. He also created a typology of constraints, including some that contain, some that connect and some that exert a force.

In constraints-based coaching literature, they describe constraints that limit (close off options) or “invite,” i.e., they create affordances for action.

I believe the various evolutions of BART describe these same constraints.

BART, the four group analysis elements

·         Boundaries,

·         Authority,

·         Role,

·         Task,

is used extensively in the design and management of Group Relations events and by consultants who use this approach in organizations.

It was extended by Cilliers & Koortzen extended BART to CIBART, including Conflict and Identity as system elements to analyze and use in their consulting.

I find it a useful, yet limited, scaffold for reflecting on the dynamics in human systems across all scales, including groups, teams, organizations, and even societies. It loses some utility in knowledge-based and networked organizations where all these aspects are fluid and complex and, therefore, not easy to identify and observe. Larry Hirschhorn, James Krantz, Philip Boxer, and others have written extensively on extending or adapting these notions (among others) to remain relevant. I will discuss their work as I dive into greater detail of the various aspects.

While these aspects are presented separately, it soon becomes clear they are deeply interdependent and entangled. If the boundaries between different roles and tasks are not clear, it usually requires some form of authority to bring the required clarity. Boundaries can be imposed by formal authority or negotiated between roles. While we can use these are separate lenses, they cannot be “untangled.” When one looks at these as forms of constraint, it becomes clear that it is in the interplay between them that a “holding space” is created that can contain anxiety and enable creativity and productivity.

Similar to constraint, containment can also be a problematic word that is often misinterpreted. In this context, containment is about holding. It is not about controlling people or restraining them, rather it is about making anxiety and other emotions workable. Gianpiero Petriglieri describes it as follows:

“What do I mean by holding? In psychology, the term has a specific meaning. It describes the way another person, often an authority figure, contains and interprets what’s happening in times of uncertainty. Containing refers to the ability to soothe distress, and interpreting to the ability to help others make sense of a confusing predicament. Think of a CEO who, in a severe downturn, reassures employees that the company has the resources to weather the storm and most jobs will be protected, helps them interpret revenue data, and gives clear directions about what must be done to service existing clients and develop new business. That executive is holding: They think clearly, offer reassurance, orient people and help them stick together. That work is as important as inspiring others. In fact, it is a precondition for doing so.”


Cilliers, F. & Koortzen, P. (2005) Cilliers & Knoesen CIBART — A Systems Psychodynamics Consulting Model.

Cilliers, P. (2001). Boundaries, Hierarchies, and Networks in Complex Systems. International Journal of Innovation Management, Vol. 5, №2 pp. 135–147 © Imperial College Press.

Juarrero, A. (1999). Dynamics in action. Intentional behaviour as a complex system. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Green, Z.G., Molenkamp R.J. (2005). The BART System of Group and Organizational Analysis.

Petriglieri, P. (2020). The Psychology Behind Effective Crisis Leadership. Harvard Busines Review

External link
(2) Sonja Blignaut



Flexuous curves


The dominant player does not fail because they were incompetent, but because they were too competent in the old paradigm and that very competence means the inattentional blindness is writ large into the very fabric of the organisation.(3)

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(3) Flexious curves





Cynefin® is Welsh for a “Place of Your Multiple Belongings,” and the pragmatic framework that bears the name emerged in the late 1990s amid efforts to help decision makers locate themselves and their unique contexts. That was locating in ways which respected that many things have value so long as we attend to the boundaries within which they are valid, and respecting that we generally do well to embrace as much diversity as we can manage without fragmenting or becoming incoherent. (4)


Understanding Sense-Making

Sense-making emerges as a crucial competency in an increasingly complex world. By embracing uncertainty and leveraging interdisciplinary insights, individuals and organizations can enhance their capacity to make sense of complex phenomena and navigate dynamic landscapes effectively. As we continue to grapple with multifaceted challenges, understanding and refining sense-making processes remain paramount for informed decision-making and adaptive action.

Mapping Knowledge and Accepting Complexity

Mapping knowledge at the right level of granularity is essential for effective sense-making. By understanding and accepting the complexity of interconnected systems, organizations can better navigate uncertainty and identify innovative solutions.

Harnessing Human Sensor Networks

Human sensor networks play a pivotal role in sense-making during crises. By empowering individuals within organizations or communities to independently assess situations and provide real-time feedback, organizations can gain valuable insights into dominant views, minority perspectives, and outliers. This distributed approach to sense-making enhances adaptability and decision-making agility


Key learnings

  • You can’t change a complex system by changing parts, but you can change interactions
  • Do not try to fix a problem, change the ecosystem
  • Do not change mindsets, change the context
  • There are no linear causalities in complex systems
  • Heterogenous systems evolve, homogenous do not
  • Learn where you are now (as a system), move to ”adjacent possible”, and evaluate again
  • Sustainable change happens at the local level
External link
(4) Cynefin®


Do you want to know more?

External links
Complexity wiki
Complexity in teams
Complexity video Sue Borchardt - Scriptwriter, Video Editor & 2D Animator (
Wardley Map WardleyPedia
Tipping point B. Kaszás (Tipping phenomena in typical dynamical systems) - Nature - 2019


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