Harnessing Complexity

Using principles of complex adaptive systems to construct a marketplace of ideas. 


I was working with a client on their annual planning process for next year and beyond. We had about 50 people in the room, gathered from their offices around the world.

For the last portion of this two day meeting, I persuaded the manager to use the concept of a marketplace to generate ideas for the plans they had to create. The idea is derived from the town square or bazaar, socially constructed spaces where people congregate to transact their business. 

We built the marketplace on many of the basic principles of complex adaptive systems, including:

  • disintermediation - people, information, and tools were all freely and directly accessible without the requirement to pass through intermediate channels.
  • distributed cognition - knowledge and ideas were generated through the dynamic interaction between team members, tools, and the environment; no single individual held all the knowledge.
  • proximity and connectedness - we had ready access in the room to the resources we needed.

We also agreed these essential ground rules:

  • We had a clear objective or outcome - everyone knew the the target we were aiming at.
  • We set constraints, boundaries, or parameters - these defined the field we were playing on. This is often seen as unneeded or a paradox: if we want people to think openly and creatively, how can we put constraints on them? In reality, it is impossible to be creative without constraints. 
  • We encouraged the free flow of information, and this was both represented and demonstrated by movement in the room, movement of people and ideas. 

At first glance, it appeared chaotic. It was totally unlike the typical planning process where attention is focused in one place, usually the front of the room where presentation slides are being shown.

In the end, it turned out to be a thing of beauty, as people and information went where they needed to go. Large groups, small groups, pairs of people all found their way into the conversations they needed to have.

The experience proved once again the power and effectiveness of working with, rather than against, complexity. To do this, you must be willing to relinquish the need to control (i.e. prescribe) outcomes. Create a space where you can run small experiments that can safely fail. Allow answers to emerge. Rather than directing activity toward some precisely determined future, manage the evolutionary potential of the present.