Thursday, August 7, 2014

Complexity Thinking vs. Systems Thinking

Complexity thinking is a stage of optimization in systems thinking.

In today’s digital dynamic with VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) characteristics, both system thinking and complexity thinking are crucial for crafting business strategy and solving business problems, complexity thinking vs. system thinking, are they the same, or the different thinking processes?

Complexity thinking is a stage of optimization in systems thinking: Systems thinking is a way of knowing the complexity and bringing certain level of simplicity to the existing complexity (complex problem) to be solved or attended too. Complexity is that point where the collaborative and parasitic forces within a set of processes find a balance by which its resources, the dynamic action of the whole, and external pressures of its environment, become the controlling behavior by which the subset of processes that make it up, come to be aligned to the best interest of the whole. Point being, complexity is that critical mass point of optimization for the system in question, such that it is an integral stage in a systems life-cycle. It’s not a question of complexity thinking versus systems thinking; but a stage of behavior in systems thinking. 

Complexity thinking adapts to digital dynamic, while system thinking emerged from industrial discipline: Complexity theory shares a common vocabulary with systems theory. Terms such as emergence, complexity, and adaptation appear in both domains. Despite the similarities, complexity theory is not a misnomer for systems theory. Several points of departure exist in complexity's research agenda and methods. Moreover, while systems theory appears to have embraced interpretive and critical philosophies, complexity theory remains firmly in the positivist camp, despite claims that it is a postmodern science. 

“An old wine in new bottle”: Complexity Thinking developed independently of grounding in System Thinking - suggesting that "many of the central concepts in complexity theory are simply old wine in new bottles. Some systems are complex - indeed most of the systems that are 'interesting' are complex. System dynamics takes a little further into uncertainty by dealing with probabilities, you can seek resolution that depend on the conditions and change over time, rather than solutions. If most flavors of System Thinking have rigorous ways to describe the relationships between Self-organization, including emergence, relationships, feedback, adaptability, nonlinear events, feed forward, constraints. The trick is to understanding the context in which one needs to operate and by implication understand what might be useful, without being blinded-sided by your own constrained perspectives (or group-think).

System thinking looks at the whole pictures, the interaction and relationships holistically, and involves the sequential alignment of a series of steps in already identified strategic approaches. Complexity means increased uncertainty in things outside our control and uncertainty in the results of implementing strategies. Complexity thinking is best thought of as a form of perspectives, continually generating multiple perspectives on issues. There are five capabilities that form the pillars on a development bridge that can close the gap from your current mindset to the complexity mindset, which are dynamic attention, synthetic understanding, integrated capacity, strategic clarity and cohesive collaboration. These capabilities expand system thinking, improve performance, understand complexity systematically and support high-impact relationships. 


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