Complexity and Learning: Has the Pendulum Swung too Far?

Albert Einstein once said, “everything in life should be as simple as possible, but no simpler”. What Einstein was alluding to was finding a formula for successful navigation in a complex universe, but not one that was too simple. In this complicated world we live in we’re constantly streamlining, simplifying, and hopefully making functional sense of the complexity that surrounds us. But has the pendulum swung too far?

In creating a simplified version of reality to cope, and ignoring the intricacies of life, have we ultimately paid the price of never knowing higher levels of sustained success and performance?

Are we deferring our success by forgetting that life really is complicated? It’s important to move through life with a questioning mind. Today’s most innovative, healthy, and successful companies don’t ignore or avoid complexity, they embrace it, leverage it, and study its lessons.

Complexity Science

A complex adaptive system is also a system in which a perfect understanding of the individual parts does not automatically convey an understanding of the whole.

Today’s innovative companies are learning the language of complexity. There are several interchangeable concepts in organizational science which advocate paying attention to the complexities of life and business, organizational complexitycomplexity science, and complex adaptive systems. A complex adaptive system in biology is a “complex macroscopic collection” of “similar and partially connected micro-structures” formed in order to adapt to a changing environment. A complex adaptive system is also a system in which a perfect understanding of the individual parts does not automatically convey an understanding of the whole. It’s helpful to note that systems can be complex without being adaptive, the difference being the system’s ability to evolve or change when needed. Systems can be complex in that they are dynamic networks of interactions, and their relationships are not aggregations of the individual static entities, they can also be adaptive if the individual and collective behavior mutates and self organizes corresponding to the change-initiating micro-events or collections of events. They are a complex macroscopic collection of similar and partially connected micro-structures formed in order to adapt to a changing environment and increase their survivability as a macro-structure. The study of complex adaptive systems in organizations blends insights from the natural and social sciences to develop system-level models and insights.

Like James March’s article on exploration, exploitation, and learning discussed in an earlier article, Ricardo Pascale’s research principles also cover learning but within the context of complex adaptive systems. Understanding a culture of ambidextrous complexity can be better understood by a recounting of the origins of Pascale’s complexity science which has been characterized as “the science of all sciences”.

Lessons from Physics

In his 1999 article Surfing the Edge of Chaos Pascale outlined how work on organizational complexity began in the 1980s at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Institute when a group of distinguished scientists with backgrounds encompassing disciplines as diverse as physics, microbiology, zoology, botany, paleontology, astrophysics, archeology, and economics were drawn together for one specific reason. All their disciplines shared the commonality of being made up of building blocks composed of many smaller agents which continually organized and reorganized themselves (sometimes clashing) in a boundary between rigidity and randomness. These researchers wanted to know what these agents and their behaviors shared with their own disciplines.

Lessons from Biology

Stanford University Biologist Robert Sapolsky in a now famous lecture on emergence and complexity discusses how small differences in nature can have consequences that magnify, resulting in butterfly effect, convergence, and fractals. Illustrating this using the example of cellular automata which establish simple “local neighbor rules” for generational growth, Sapolsky discusses the few rules which can be drawn from these patterns. Of the most compelling rules governing cells, Sapolsky tells us that by “looking at the mature state you cannot tell what the starting state originally was” and examining a cellular pattern starting state gives you “no indication as to what the mature state will look like”. While most cellular automata patterns ultimately go extinct, Sapolsky notes one rule which does appear to insure health saying that introducing asymmetry to a starting state results in living dynamic patterns while introducing symmetry will not. The implications for organizations seem to suggest that asymmetric (diverse), “not the same” patterns may have a better chance at achieving growth success and examining a successful “mature”, or “starting” state is no reliable indicator as to what it was or is going to be. This also suggests something profound for businesses regarding judgements, bias’s, and assumptions.

Lessons from Neuroscience

We combine the hemispheres in different ways to have a broad understanding of the world and at the same time manipulate it.

The world of the human mind is the world of the left and right hemisphere of the brain and rational and intuitive thought. Ian McGilchrist in his book The Master and His Emissary outlined in the video The Divided Brain tells us “thinking in the left hemisphere gives us narrow, sharply focused attention to detail”. When we already know something is important and we want to be precise we use our left hemispheres to pin it down and manipulate it. The left hemisphere prefers things that are “known, fixed, static, decontextualized, isolated, explicit, generalized in nature, and ultimately lifeless” while the world of the right hemisphere gives us “sustained, broad, alertness and prefers things which are open, individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, and implicit, but never fully graspable or known”. We combine the hemispheres in different ways to have a broad understanding of the world and at the same time manipulate it. The problem according to McGilchrist lies in the nature of these two worlds and their sometimes-conflicted ways of thinking as it’s important to have both knowledge of the parts and wisdom of the whole. In the business world people have cognitive hemispheric preferences, preferred “home-rooms” of thought, and have neurological and behavior skill and experience navigating in either the left, or right hemispheres world, the implications of this for exploitive and explorative (ambidextrous) behavior are obvious.

Lessons for Ambidexterity and Complexity

Recognizing a culture of ambidexterity (a culture with exploitative and explorative behavior) is important and akin to acknowledging a culture of complexity. It involves recognizing such things as equilibrium (balance), and imbalancetension, chaos, emergence as well as traditional creation and divergent and convergent thinking. In these systems entropy and negative entropyexploitation, exploration, butterfly effect, weak linkages, and fractals could be influencers. It involves seeing heterogeneity and homogeneityincremental and radical innovation, and evolutionary as well as revolutionary change.

An understanding and validation of complexity by leaders and managers is of the utmost importance to help breathe an ambidextrous culture to life!

Dr. Zabiegalski is available to talk to your organization or venue about this ground-breaking research or speak informatively and eloquently about organizational culture, leadership, strategy, learning, complexity, neuroscience in business, creativity, mindfulness, talent management, personal success, emotional intelligence, and Action Learning. Contact Eric Today.


Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski is a graduate of George Washington University in Human and Organizational Learning and has been researching and studying leadership, learning, and change for over 20 years. Eric has been on all sides of the leadership fence from leader and manager to employee and servant and has practiced leadership and served leaders in some of the most coveted and challenging places in the world. With an early professional history as a technical expert, Eric has gone from being a technical SME (subject matter expert) to being a people SME and considers the human mind, human behavior, and consciousness to be the next great frontier for discovery. It is in this realm where he combines his technical subject matter expertise with his human sociological and organizational expertise for the betterment of individuals, organizations, their processes, and humanity. With additional interests in emotional intelligence or "EQ", servant leadership and followership, neuroscience, complexity science, creativity and ambidextrous organizations, Eric has been driven to finding the right balance of qualities, efforts and behaviors in order to not only build better high performing and learning teams but also create a better world in which to live, love, and grow. Eric lives on the Western shore of the Chesapeake Bay close to Washington DC with his wife, daughter, and Chow dog Wamu. Eric is the author of The Rise of the Ambidextrous Organization and Leading Ambidextrous Organizations, Part 1,2,3 (E-Books).

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  1. oday, managers are trained and assessed on a broad portfolio of skills that are independent of the context and do not take into account their possible trade-offs. Therefore, they do not help to contextualize managerial action, leading to the risk of generating automatic, simplistic or ideological solutions to complex problems and situations where: reality is constantly changing; effective solutions are always contextual and there are no ready-to-use recipes that guarantee success; whoever is aware of the systemic feedbacks that his action generates wins; it is not only the WHAT that counts but also the HOW.

    To these effects it is necessary to respond with 4 managerial meta-competences, which must intertwine with each other, on which managers should be evaluated and trained:

    A manager must certainly be determined, enterprising, optimistic (RESULTS ORIENTATION), but must avoid action as an end in itself and know how to manage this characteristic by understanding the context in which it operates (CONTEXT READING). Managerial action does not therefore arise from automatic practices or from past success models, it takes shape within that given context. That specific situation will bring out a narrow range of possible actions.

    The final choice will fall on the one that minimizes possible negative consequences (COMPLEX THINKING) and does not compromise the possibility of achieving subsequent results, for example by destroying relationships or assets that are important for the future (CONTEXT GENERATION).

  2. Way of living a successful & joyous life is to make life simple . Every action requires a space to analyse the events by breaking into various entities and rebuild the system by segregation with elimination of complexities with a speed to satisfy the conditions of smooth flow of events , without being trapped by complexities itself . Off late the speed of complex developments is too high , to cope up with these high speed complexities ,we require intelligent drive to maintain stability of thoughts to gain greater energies to attain success through Simplicity .
    A nice thought provoking article by Dr Eric Zabiegalski… Ctd