Mastering Complexity: Introduction

Most of us are familiar with key features of today’s turbulent environment – the changed expectations and priorities of a connected world; the new dominance of ideas, intangible assets and experiences over services and physical objects in creating profits; complex social issues and “shocks”.

On a smaller scale, closer to home, we’re certainly all familiar with:

  • Leadership challenges with opportunities and early warning signals missed, data overload, difficulty of setting goals and making decisions, and constant pressures to do more with less.
  • Governance and quality issues with poor execution and performance, inconsistency, and difficulty converting strategy into best practice.
  • Front line issues with failing projects and relationships, repeating problems, mismatches between strategy and practice, and a sense of disenfranchisement and of being ignored.

Complexity is Foundational

It’s all about behaviours/trust/people!” … “We need radical innovation!” … “Digitalisation is the key to success in a digital world!” …“We need to upskill and develop our capability!

Just some of the assertions presented – in isolation or in some combination – as answers to these challenges. 

But not only are they all so vague as to be of questionable use in practical terms, they’re also fatally wrong – even, and perhaps especially, as they contain at least a grain of truth.

Why?  Because, despite the grains of truth, they miss the crucial point that it’s all about Complexity – the explanatory model of reality and the practical model for dealing with it:

  • It is complexity – the nature of nature and the explanatory model of science – that unifies these assertions, explains what’s happening in today’s world and then shows how to respond to it. 
  • It is complexity that is key to going beyond these assertions into practical implementation.

This is what we have been devoted to throughout our entire history – really understanding what’s going on, to be able to really respond to it – and, in this series, we will see how we have developed a new, holistic and sustainable approach and toolset that apply wherever Complexity is found.

Why?  Because it is based on recognising that the world is Complex – particularly when it comes to Value, with what it is, how it’s experienced and how it’s facilitated – and understanding in depth what Complexity is, to then be able to harness its dynamics.

Becoming Complexity-aware

We are pioneers in being Complexity-aware, having found at each juncture that not only were there large gaps in theory – especially when it came to business and organisations – but an almost complete absence of practical, systematic application.  

Many authors and consultants recognise and describe the symptoms of Complexity, but few of these explore or understand its underlying dynamics, and fewer still have anything useful to say about what to do in response.

Most remain content to use some of the “language” of complexity (“VUCA”, “pace of change”, etc) and, if any answers are proposed, they rarely go beyond buzzwords (“resilience”, “behaviours”, “agility”), reasserting familiar approaches more forcefully or sweeping generalisations (mostly about how technology, training or innovation are the answers).

They also typically, and unhelpfully, dismiss everything that has gone before, which both alienates and throws the baby out with the bathwater.

As the Bibliography below shows, we have drawn on and synthesised a huge swathe of existing cutting-edge material – academic and popular books, consultants, vertical industry publications – drawn from the worlds of (amongst others) science, economics, change management and management theory.  

However, more importantly, we have then also conducted intensive original research and work on codifying the dynamics, processes and intellectual content needed to translate theory and anecdotal experience – our own, and that of others – into systematic practice.

From a privileged position of being involved in many different domains and vertical industries – but not restricted in focus to any one of them – we have been able to observe the patterns and commonalities between them to arrive at an approach and toolset that delivers spectacular results wherever Complexity is found… which is everywhere.

In 2014, one analyst stated that:

There is no overarching concept that embraces all these ideals/ideas in a comprehensive systematic, unified way… there is no compelling thought leadership or book that stakes out the future of the ‘new movement’…

– Robert Porter Lynch – Future Face of Capitalism, p66 (ICL Institute, 2014)

And a 2019 report stated that:

Decoding the deep structure of [the] economic shift [in competitive pressure and what to do in response] will allow executives to thrive in the face of intensifying competition and growing economic pressure”.

Skills Change, But Capabilities Endure (2019)

However, there now is such a concept – Value Management – and the “deep structure” of Complexity has now been fully decoded, finally providing the previously missing theoretical pieces and moving into practical implementation. 

The Mastering Complexity Series

In this “Mastering Complexity” series, we start to introduce some of this work, covering:

  1. What “complexity” is, and why it describes and explains today’s turbulent business environment
  2. What “complicated” is, and how – and why – it is the root of inappropriate and ineffective responses to this turbulence.
  3. Defining what needs to be in place to respond differently and appropriately: a new complexity-informed mindset towards familiar concepts and a new complexity-informed toolset that will foster a new complexity-informed skillset.

Harnessing Complexity in this way enables individuals, teams and organisations to achieve the necessary agility and resilience to develop and exercise the discernment needed to truly thrive.


(those in bold are particularly important)

Books (41)

  • Ackoff, Russell L. – “Implementation and Control: Doing It and Learning”, Chapter 8 of Re-creating the Corporation (OUP, USA 1999), pp.157-176
  • Archer, David & Cameron, Alex – Collaborative Leadership: Building Relationships, Handling Conflict and Sharing Control (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2nd ed., 2013)
  • Axelrod, Robert & Cohen, Michael D. – Harnessing Complexity: Organizational Implications of a Scientific Frontier (Basic Books, 1999)
  • Blank, Warren – Nine Natural Laws of Leadership (Amacom, 1995)
  • Cameron, Kim S.; Quinn, Robert E.; Degraff, Jeff & Thakor, Anjan V. – Competing Values Leadership (New Horizons in Management Series) (Edward Elgar, 2nd ed., 2014)
  • Carabini, Louis E. – “Complexity, Adaption, and Order: Visualizing the Invisible Hand”, Chapter 8 of Liberty, Dicta & Force: Why Liberty Brings Out the Best in People and How Government Brings Out the Worst (Mises Institute, September 2018)
  • Conner, Daryl R. – Managing at the Speed of Change: How Resilient Managers Succeed and Prosper Where Others Fail (John Wiley, 1992)
  • Davis, Stan – 2001 Management: Managing the Future Now (HarperCollins, 1987)
  • Denning, Stephen – The Age of Agile: How Smart Companies Are Transforming the Way Work Gets Done (Amacom, 2018)
  • Gilbreath, Robert D.:
    • Forward Thinking (McGraw-Hill, 1987)
    • Compel: How to Get Others in Your Organization to Think and Act Differently (Wiley, 2007)
  • Gilson, Ronald J.; Sabel, Charles F. and Scott, Robert E – The Adaptive Contract: Innovation and Collaboration in an Uncertain World (Preliminary Draft, 2018)
  • Gunderson, Lance H. & Holling, C. S. – Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems (Island Press, 2001)
  • Hastings, Hunter; Bylund, Per & Klein, Peter – Understanding The Mind Of The Customer (Mises Institute, 2019)
  • Hoverstadt, Patrick – The Fractal Organization: Creating sustainable organizations with the Viable System Model (Wiley, 2008)
    Collected papers of the Spring 2003 postgraduate seminar
    (Helsinki University of Technology Control Engineering Laboratory, 2004)
  • Jaap, Tom – Enabling Leadership: Achieving Results with People (Gower, 1986)
  • Kelley, Robert E. – Star Performer: Nine Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed (Orion, 1998)
  • Keskinen, Auli; Aaltonen, Mika & Mitleton-Kelly, Eve – Organisational Complexity (FFRC, 2003)
  • Lipnack, Jessica & Stamps, Jeffrey:
    • The Age of the Network: Organizing Principles for the 21st Century (John Wiley, 1994)
    • Virtual Teams: Reaching Across Space, Time and Organizations with Technology (John Wiley, 1997)
  • Mann, Darrell – “Complex Systems & Root Contradictions”, pp.45-72 in Business Matrix 3.0: Solving Management, People & Process Contradictions (IFR Press, 2018)
  • McChrystal, Gen. Stanley – Team Of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (Portfolio Penguin, 2015)
  • Miller, James Grier – Living Systems (McGraw Hill Higher Education, 1978)
  • Mises, Ludwig von – Human Action (Liberty Fund Inc, 1949; The Scholar’s Edition, 2010)
  • Moore, Geoffrey A. – Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers (HarperBusiness, 1991, rev. 1999 and 2014)
  • Moore, James F. – The Death of Competition: Leadership and Strategy in the Age of Business Ecosystems (HarperCollins, Australia, 1996)
  • Nason, Rick – It’s Not Complicated: The Art and Science of Complexity in Business (Rotman, 2017)
  • Owen, Harrison:
    • The Power of Spirit: How Organizations Transform (BK, 1986)
    • Spirit: Transformation and Development in Organizations (Abbott, 1987)
    • Leadership Is (Abbott, 1990)
    • Riding the Tiger: Doing Business in a Transforming World (Abbott, 1991)
    • Expanding Our Now: The Story of Open Space Technology (BK, 1997)
    • Wave Rider: Leadership for High Performance in a Self-Organizing World (BK, 2008)
  • Parolini, Cynzia – The Value Net: A Tool for Competitive Strategy (Wiley, 1999)
  • Porter Lynch, Robert – Future Face of Capitalism (ICL Institute, 2014)
  • Sisney, Lex – Organizational Physics: The Science of Growing a Business (, 2013)
  • Spitzer, Dean R. (Ph.D.) – Transforming Performance Measurement: Rethinking the Way We Measure and Drive Organizational Success (McGraw-Hill Education, 2007)
  • Wheatley, Margaret J. – Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (Berrett-Koehler, 1992)
  • Whitehurst, Jim – The Open Organization (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015)
  • Womack, James P.; Jones, Daniel T. & Roos, Daniel – The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production (Rawson Associates, 1990)

Articles (97)