Bas Reus' quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces

Crises are a result of complexity

Posted in self-organization by Bas Reus on February 19, 2010

Crises are a result of complexity, or better, a result of environments that become more complex than they were for quite a while. We see it all the time. While more people are and become more connected with more people, complexity levels will rise. My thesis here is that when complexity levels rise, entering a crisis is very likely. It’s very likely that something will happen that is unexpected, and has never occurred before. There is no plan or prescription of how to deal with this situation. So what happens when such a situation occurs? It can happen that people panic. It’s their initial response to something unexpected and apparently undesired. After some time, or when more crises occur, many people will blame others. It’s just not their fault, so it must be someone others fault and these people should solve the problem. Of course, one of the characteristics of complexity and crises is that many actors play a role and many connections are present between those actors that it is not easy to blame the right people for a crisis. I think that a Complex Adaptive System (CAS) has similar characteristics.

While the above introduction can be invalidated quite easily by the most of you, including myself, I think there’s something very true in it. Our environments are more complex than they were ten or fifteen years ago, or maybe even three years ago. Complex situations become more common and more normal every year. It would not be a good response to panic or blame others. It’ll probably be better to accept the fact that the world is quite complex, and that there is not a standard solution for everything. As crises become normal, deal with it normal.

Dealing with it as normal is not as easy done as it is said. There is so much we just can’t understand. The human brain is simply not capable of understanding all phenomena. That, and the fact that we are so dependent on so many other people from many countries and the more and more declining availability natural sources makes the world in the years to come even more complex. That is at least one good reason to change our behavior and attitude towards crises and complexity. It’s there and it will be there in the future waiting for us.

The question is, what do we have to change in our behavior and attitude to deal with crises and complexity like it is more normal? Not as business as usual, but because these situations will stay here and the world will become more and more complex. How do we not panic and not blame others for the new or changed situation? Crises are here to stay. I’m not sure what the right responses are, but I know that panicking will not help us so that’s at least one good response. The other ‘right’ responses probably depend on the particular situation, and sometimes responding will not help you at all. It will help to accept the crisis, accept that the situation is complex, and accept that you maybe can’t do anything about it. It’s a change in the mindset of people.


7 Responses

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  1. Richard S Lalleman said, on February 19, 2010 at 15:04

    I recently wrote about the intertwined relationships between complexity and crises. It is being argued that when working in complexity, you should encourage diversity, because businesses should anticipate on complex situations which cannot be done by one single person; traditionally the leader. Therefore it is believed that leaders should create spaces for staff members so that staff members can become more innovative and, as a result, businesses can make sense of and decide over challenges in fast-moving and complex environments. One of the elements in these spaces is that staff members need to become more self-organized. Therefore, we can ask ourselves the question:

    What is the role of the leader in an environment where people are encouraged to be self-organized?

    This question is as current as the recent crisis in society: the credit crunch. Many guilty parties have already been found for the crisis of today, with the financial system as main suspect. However, who had the leadership’s role in this system? Were those the bankers or the governments? One thing is for sure and that is that governments rushed with billion of Euros to avoid the financial system’s collapse.

    Certainly, the crisis started in the financial market itself. Governments did not construct the bonuses or the complex financial products which pulled the wool over everybody’s eyes. However, it is the task of governments to lead and interfere if the free market is getting out of hand, by setting out rules which, consequently, should influence behavior. The bankers were taking too much risk which was being made possible by the flexible rules of governments. Innovations within the financial markets resulted in obscure products and services which governments could not keep up abreast. As a result, governments failed as leaders because they did not have the ability to anticipate, identify, and respond to unpredictable occasions.

    This example outlines the importance of leadership in fast-changing, highly competitive and complex environments. Drucker argues that many organizations are taking a far too simplistic view of their structure and culture. Organizations underestimate the size and scale of the “challenge of change” of especially the culture. He stresses that leadership is a key element in such a successful change. Additionally, Umemoto stresses that knowledge-creating processes, which are required to generate new knowledge to make sense and decide over new opportunities and problems in a fast and creative way, cannot be managed in a traditional sense of management that centers on controlling the flow of information.

    With a move to self-organized environments, the leader’s role is crucial to balance the organization between predictability and unpredictability. The credit-crunch example makes it clear that leadership is crucial, but also a complex discipline.

  2. Noah Raford said, on February 19, 2010 at 21:39

    Nice post, particularly your articulation that crisis is the new normal. Wholeheartedly agree.

    You are aware of Charles Perrow’s “Normal Accident Theory”, right? Basically one of the best theoretical frameworks of what you outlined here. Very well argued with excellent examples.

    You might also enjoy a recent lecture I gave at the LSE Complexity Programme on collapse in complex adaptive systems. It draws on NAT and various other empircal examples. Check out my blog for the video ( or just google “Collapse Dynamics”.

    Good post!

  3. Bas Reus said, on February 22, 2010 at 15:24

    Thanks Noah. I must say that I was not yet aware of the “Normal Accident Theory” of Charles Perrow. So I’m glad I’m now 🙂 The same is true for “Collapse Dynamics”. Great inspiration for further exploration.

    The complexity and chained dependencies are of great value (and highly efficient) if everything keeps working, but it can be disastrous when a problem in the chain occurs. The earlier the problem, the more disastrous the outcome.

  4. Peter Bodo said, on February 28, 2010 at 12:28

    I guess the right behaviour is trying to create modular structures to fulfil our needs (energy, food, maybe money, etc.). These are less efficient in the short-term, but, as more robust, create some level of autonomy, sovereignty of the local level from the global complex systems. That would be the supply-side of thing.
    The attitude should deal with the demand side, i.e. to be content with less or with whatever.

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