… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

Click for Cairney podcast

Click for Cairney podcast

Concept description

Wikipedia (28 February 2016) notes that “complexity is generally used to characterize something with many parts where those parts interact with each other in multiple ways.” But the writer also notes, with some exasperation, that “the only consensus among researchers is that there is no agreement about the specific definition of complexity.”

Paul Cairney (video link on right and reference below) says:

“Complexity theory has been applied to a wide range of activity, from the swarming behaviour of bees, the weather and the function of the brain, to social and political systems. The argument is that all such systems have common properties, including:

  1. A complex system is greater than the sum of its parts; those parts are interdependent – elements interact with each other, share information and combine to produce systemic behaviour.
  2. Some attempts to influence complex systems are dampened (negative feedback) while others are amplified (positive feedback). Small actions can have large effects and large actions can have small effects.
  3. Complex systems are particularly sensitive to initial conditions that produce a long-term momentum or ‘path dependence’.
  4. They exhibit ‘emergence’, or behaviour that results from the interaction between elements at a local level rather than central direction.
  5. They may contain ‘strange attractors’ or demonstrate extended regularities of behaviour which may be interrupted by short bursts of change.

“As you might expect from a theory of many things, the language is vague and needs some interpretation in each field. In the policymaking field, the identification of a complex system is often used to make the following suggestions:

  • Law-like behaviour is difficult to identify – so a policy that was successful in one context may not have the same effect in another.
  • Policymaking systems are difficult to control; policy makers should not be surprised when their policy interventions do not have the desired effect.
  • Policy makers in the UK have been too driven by the idea of order, maintaining rigid hierarchies and producing top-down, centrally driven policy strategies.  An attachment to performance indicators, to monitor and control local actors, may simply result in policy failure and demoralised policymakers.
  • Policymaking systems or their environments change quickly. Therefore, organisations must adapt quickly and not rely on a single policy strategy.

“On this basis, there is a tendency in the literature to encourage the delegation of decision-making to local actors:

  1. Rely less on central government driven targets, in favour of giving local organisations more freedom to learn from their experience and adapt to their rapidly-changing environment.
  2. To deal with uncertainty and change, encourage trial-and-error projects, or pilots, that can provide lessons, or be adopted or rejected, relatively quickly.
  3. Encourage better ways to deal with alleged failure by treating ‘errors’ as sources of learning (rather than a means to punish organisations) or setting more realistic parameters for success/ failure.
  4. Encourage a greater understanding, within the public sector, of the implications of complex systems and terms such as ‘emergence’ or ‘feedback loops’.

“In other words, this literature, when applied to policymaking, tends to encourage a movement from centrally driven targets and performance indicators towards a more flexible understanding of rules and targets by local actors who are more able to understand and adapt to rapidly-changing local circumstances.”

Roger Martin and his colleagues at the Rotman School of Management have developed an approach to addressing complexity in management: Practicing Integrative Thinking.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Helga Nowotny (reference below) says that we need to confront the “embarrassment of complexity – when it dawns on us that the categories we normally use to neatly separate issues or problems fall far short of corresponding to the real world, with all its non-linear dynamical inter-linkages.”

“The truth is that complex systems are beset and energized by a phenomenon called non-linear dynamics. In other words, what produces complexity is not so much the presence of many direct cause-effect links which operate with subtlety versus precision, but rather the presence of indirect, non-linear relationships between the variables, parts, and dimensions of the whole. What make complex systems so complex, therefore, are their multiple feedback loops and their indirect cause-effect relations which, moreover, play out at different speeds and on different time scales.”

Scholars from a variety of disciplines write about complexity in the social sciences. There is, for example, an International Transdisciplinary Journal of Complex Social Sciences (at that provides a list of the top 20 journals that deal with this field at, accessed 28 February 2016. There is a Complexity & Management Centre associated with the Business School of the University of Hertfordshire (see, accessed 28 February 2016).


Wikipedia, Complexity, at, accessed 28 February 2016.

Paul Cairney (2013), Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Complex Systems, at, including a 16-minute podcast.

Helga Nowotny (2013), The Embarrassment of Complexity, Harvard Business Review, 10 October 2013, at, accessed 27 February 2016.

Atlas topic and subject

Handing Complexity (core topic) in Leadership Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 2 April 2016.

Image: Tereza (Za) Procházková, at, accessed 2 April 2016.