But what is it?
It is the unifying theory which states that at the root of all complex systems lie a few simple rules. This revolutionary technique can explain any kind of complex system – multinational corporations, or mass extinctions, or ecosystems such as rainforests, or human consciousness. All are built on the same few rules.
In Roger Lewin’s immensely readable study the leading Complexity theorists tell the story in their own words. None of the scientists can ever be the same again.
I've read the middle part of this book several times, as written by Tom Peters, by Ricardo Semler, and by others. This is the bit about treating people at work as adults, by being honest and caring, allowing them to realise their potential, grow in their work, and perform an excellent job. The ideas are good, but I found it hard to be excited by them, simply because I've seen them before.
The difference with this book is that the authors relate these ideas to complex systems theory.
In our fast changing world, businesses can no longer afford to be static, rigid, old fashioned hierarchies: they must be adaptive, nimble and responsive networks. And the way to do this, the authors claim, is to recognise that they are "complex adaptive systems", and make sure they are "on the edge of chaos", or, as they prefer to call it, "in the zone of creative adaptability".
Leadership is no longer about control. Instead, its function is to break down the old hierarchical structures, to keep a company in the creative zone, to provide some high level overall vision, but then to step back, and to let the people "do it themselves". The honesty and caring part comes from this being necessary to foster the right kinds of communication in the zone so that the people have the necessary information, the confidence, and the desire, to do the job. Structurally, it is important to allow teams to emerge naturally, rather than having their composition imposed from outside. This way the right people come together, and form the right team.
I want to believe, but I'm not totally convinced. I believe the philosophy is a good, humane and practical one, but is it really based on complexity science? Or is it merely applying the field's technical jargon, like "edge of chaos" and "emergence", to only superficial similarities? It's hard to tell. But maybe it doesn't matter; the authors admit it is more of an illuminating metaphor, rather than providing hard and fast (and hence possible inappropriate) rules: