What About Complexity in Organizations?

We create and change our realities every moment as we walk into, and through experiences.  Because of this, how we behave and are observed behaving in a complex world can make all the difference, these, are the final determinants of reality. The study of complex adaptive systems in organizations blends insights from the natural and social sciences to develop system-level models and insights, allowing for new discussions of such things as emergent behavior and other intricacies frequently overlooked.  Suddenly things like weak linkages between agents and the language of quantum physics become more relatable, and significant.

In a previous discussion, we began our talk on complexity and how a focus on intricate processes working behind the scenes provide powerful insights which could potentially catapult your company’s performance and sustainability.  Today, let’s continue our discussion on organizational complexity and ambidexterity by unpacking complexity concepts to include equilibrium, entropy, asymmetry, and structure and how they can be considered in everyday organizational practice.  It’s important to note the concepts and theories presented here are not absolutes assertions, they are open to new interpretation and are meant to stimulate thought, questions, and further exploration and discussion.

The intersection where theory meets practice is the place where the rubber meets the road, and it’s the place that matters most in business.

This is the place where battles are won or lost, relationships between things are cultivated and grown or discarded and plowed under.  In this place, we either stretch ourselves to a new understanding or fall back into the groove of the familiar and comfortable.  An ambidextrous organization is, first and foremost, a learning organization so regardless of outcomes, AO’s and their members always learn and incorporate that new learning into current practice.

Equilibrium and Imbalance   

In an earlier article (below), we outlined the ebb and flow of complex components and discussed equilibrium as organizational death, citing entropy—the tendency of living systems to run down, consume resources, and pursue a static state—and negative entropy—the renewal of systems by the introduction of new resources—as natural ways in which organizations (like living systems) breathe.

Complexity and Learning: Has the Pendulum Swung too Far?

These systems share strong characteristics with ambidexterity due to an ambidextrous organization’s dichotomous nature (exploitation and exploration) and emergent, diverse, and disparate properties.   In other words, a closed organizational system is unsustainable over time, consuming all its resources, and very few closed systems occur in nature. One example of negative entropy (an open system) acting upon and renewing an organization is the introduction of new information and learning in business. An organization amid learning is in motion and changing structurally, behaviorally, and culturally. Organizations facing the tensions between exploitation and exploration would be in this situation of negative entropy, breathing in and out like a living system.

Symmetry, Asymmetry, and Structure

Starting state doesn’t determine end state and looking at a pattern’s end state doesn’t give you an indication of what the starting state looked like.

The human mind loves symmetry, it “keys in” on it, notices it, finds it esthetically attractive, and subsequently looks for and imagines it everywhere.  However, it is asymmetry that is prevalent in nature and gives us our most dynamic structures and robust systems, and often the more asymmetric and chaotic the structure, the more robust it is.  Even pebbles in a stream that may first appear identical and perfectly symmetrical under close examination are not, symmetry in nature is always approximate, not exact.  Biologist Robert Sapolsky, researcher Bill McKelvey, and others discuss such complexity topics as Symmetry and Asymmetry, Emergence and Complexity, Fractals, Chaos, and Weak Linkages.  I once attended a presentation in which Bill McKelvey, Professor of Complexity science at UCLA presented a look at symmetry and structures, the pictures in his presentation spoke volumes.  His pictures depicting structures suggested something profound, that symmetry (when it appeared to occur) came from asymmetry.  Furthermore, symmetry and asymmetry (or more symmetrical and less symmetrical patterns) can develop quite different structures such as creek beds and sand dunes as an example.  As biologist Robert Sapolsky suggested in a discussion of cellular patterns and their starting and end states; you cannot tell with certainty what a mature cellular pattern will look like by studying its starting state or conversely tell what a starting state looked like by examining its mature state.  Starting state doesn’t determine end state and looking at a pattern’s end state doesn’t give you an indication of what the starting state looked like.  What Sapolsky was saying that McKelvey also illustrated speaks poignantly about structures first appearances and judgements.


When we think of asymmetry, we think of things that are uneven, un-alike, not identical, or out of proportion, and we don’t normally think of structures.  A truth in nature is that asymmetry creates and supports structures, very dynamic strong and robust ones like sand dunes made of individual unique parts.

The building of structure

The implications for building strong structures in organizations are clear, whether it is pebbles in a creek or magnified grains of sand from a dune, the individual parts which contribute to the whole can be quite unique, diverse, and “un-alike”.  Diverse agents and building blocks build robust structures and chaotic (asymmetric) structures and systems are perhaps the most robust of all.  San Diego State University (SDSU) mechanical engineering Professor, mentor, and longtime friend George Mansfield recently shared a story with me of a late polymath friend of his who offered the following insight.  He said that in nature the most chaotic structures tended to be the most robust and comparatively, companies with more open architectures appear to have very similar kinds of chaotic structures.  In his current work volunteering for innovative engineering start-ups and ad-lib engineering clubs, George says the “gang-style” working meetings of these clubs appear very chaotic from the outside but produce an amazing amount of innovative interaction.

There is still much more ground to cover about complexity and ambidextrous organizations.  Next time, we will continue our discussion as we talk about the language of complexity and emergence, thanks for reading! Eric


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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