I was recently introduced to the field of complexity science. Broadly speaking, complexity recognizes that certain systems are more than the sum of their parts. A traditional approach to understanding a system might look at it the way a mechanic looks at a machine. If you can understand what each component does, you can understand the whole. But some systems, like organizations and communities or, say, the global human ecosystem, are more than the sum of their individual parts. They are complex.
What I particularly appreciate about this recognition is that it acknowledges an aspect of the unknown. So much human effort goes towards the pursuit of certainty at the expense of not knowing. I recently spoke with about this with Denise Easton. Denise shares that there is a sweet spot between chaos and certainty that is optimal for constructive creativity and this is where complexity thinking can help gain a better understanding. Whether it’s an organization, a community, or a movement like #metoo, applying a complexity lens can bring awareness to the emergent potential of a system.
Denise leads the Plexus Institute, a professional community that addresses real-world challenges through approaches rooted in complexity theory. She co-authored the book Complexity Works! Influencing Pattern-Based Change in Teams & Organizations, and is the co-founder of Complexity Space Consulting, an organization that helps companies cultivate profitable and innovative business practices through complexity thinking.
A complex system is the part, the whole, and the greater than the whole. Denise highlights a process of iterative inquiry and embodied awareness building that helps us see the reality and the potential of a system. In her own words, “Lurking behind every exchange that we have with somebody is an opportunity to discover something that has not been discovered.”