Complexity Science and Innovation

What has complexity science to do with innovation management? Quite a few things if you ask Dr. Curt Lindberg of Plexus Institute, NJ, the States. Complexity science is the scientific study of complex systems, systems with many parts that interact to produce patterns of behavior that cannot easily be explained by the behavior of the individual constituent elements. From a business perspective you can use it to better understand the importance of relationships and interactions to your innovation efforts.

Complexity science is making an increasingly important contribution to economics and management science. The implications that follow from viewing the economy and organizations as a complex evolving systems have an impact on how we work with innovation. InnovationManagement asked Dr. Curt Lindberg, Chief Learning and Science Officer of Plexus Institute, a few questions about complexity and innovation.

Could you define complexity science for our readers?

– Complexity science is the most current attempt by scholars to understand how change and stability occur in systems of all kinds and the underlying dynamics that produce these patterns. The scientific community has identified a number of core principles of complex systems. Two of the most prominent are self-organization and emergence. These principles suggest that no individual agent in a system is able to control the behavior or outcomes in a system as they are a consequence of interactions within the system and with other systems. Complex systems thus by nature are unpredictable and generate surprises, which for those interested in innovation is promising news.

Why would you, as a manager working with innovation, be concerned with complexity science?

– If you more fully understand the dynamics associated with change and innovation, you can make better choices on how to foster change and innovation. You can also make better choices about who should be involved both within and outside the organization and what you can do to foster creative relationships and conversations. And you can make sure that there are diverse voices and experiences involved in your innovation processes because diversity is one of the driving forces in change and novelty in complex systems.

– This young science also helps managers temper their expectations about control. Because complex systems, like organizations and groups, are self-organizing and unpredictable, no one no matter how powerful can control them. Managers with awareness of complex systems drop the burden and unrealistic expectation of control and focus on small actions they can take to influence patterns of interaction.

– Many people say that smaller companies are better at innovation because they are more flexible. And that bigger organizations are slower and resistant to change and that this is the reason why they are less innovative. Maybe the whole innovation game has more to do with complexity rather than size?

– I think it might have something to do with the quality and the nature of interactions. Sometimes in smaller organizations there are more opportunities for the development of healthy, creative relationships among people.

– I know there are some larger companies that try to structure themselves in ‘smaller’ ways to help ensure there are ample opportunities for people to interact.

– Some larger organizations may become more rigid and rule-bound because many leaders and staff feel the need for more consistency and coherence across the firm. They fail to realize that adaptive, resilient systems are characterized by the paradoxical coexistence of order and disorder or stability and variability. People tend to divide into two camps on this spectrum. Some think that routines, predictability and order are required in organizations. Others think that experimentation, freedom and the pursuit of new ideas are what are required. They are both right.

How would you approach innovation from a complexity perspective?

– I would come at it with several questions in mind. One would be what kind of opportunities can I, as a manager, provide for a diverse group of people to interact in creative ways? What kind of processes might we employ to increase the likelihood of creative, generative interactions? In Plexus we have come to call these processes Liberating Structures. You may have heard of some of them – appreciative inquiry, positive deviance, open space, conversation café.

– Next I would suggest that instead of trying to develop a grand plan or long term blue print for becoming more innovative managers should adopt a shorter-term perspective that focuses on the creation of “good enough” plans and stimulation of multiple small experiments, combined with a sense making orientation. What emerged from our plans, our actions? What did we learn? What seemed to be underneath the outcomes that were generated? What do the resulting insights suggest about the next series of steps and actions.

You mean like a learning cycle?

– Yes, rapid learning cycles, because if you go into a planning cycle with a very long term detailed “blueprint” orientation you are assuming it is possible to make long term projections about your organization and the economy and base detailed plans on these forecasts. Complexity suggests that, like the weather, it´s very difficult to always be right about your  organizational forecasts. You may have heard the old adage, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

There is an ongoing discussion if innovation should be managed centrally in MNCs. What is your idea about this from an organizational perspective?

– I think I would return to paradox and ask leaders to explore how innovations can be pursued from decentralized and centralized perspectives. For example, how can you build an organization-wide network to generate and spread innovations, a “centralized” undertaking, while simultaneously encouraging lots of experimentation at the local level, a “decentralized” undertaking.

– Such a strategy, a broad network and abundant experimentation, builds on the observation that in complex systems large scale change comes from small changes. The scientific term for this in nonlinearity.

What can you do then to make sure that you don´t miss those small actions or ideas that might result in something bigger and more important?

– You can never be sure that you don´t miss anything, but you can have your antennae “on alert” and rely on a diverse network to listen for promising developments. Others may notice something you do not. You can provide opportunities for people to connect across the organization. The resulting conversations may uncover patterns, new innovations that were not previously apparent.

Could you mention the three most important skills for leadership in making innovation happening?

– First I would observe that leaders cannot make innovation happen. What they can do is lead and interact with colleagues in a manner that fosters innovation. How others respond and what they do will determine whether a culture of innovation is created.

– Leaders can certainly provide time, space and skills to enable employees to participate and interact in creative ways around issues of importance. Too often we act like there are more important things to do than converse and make sense.

– Leaders can also work on their personal skills – learning to be truly present and listen, to notice what new is emerging in conversation and how people are interacting, and to let go of the notion that as a leaders we know best.

– The third skill would be the development of the ability to encourage employees to experiment, take risks and to learn from them.  Accompanying such encouragement must be the genuine signal that if things do not turn out as expected “that’s OK, what can we learn”. Innovation is by definition out of the ordinary. This raises anxiety. Will it work, what will people think of me, would the leader have done it this way? Trusting that the leader will understand these feelings and stands ready to provide support and opportunities for learning may help  employees to work with the anxiety associated with change and innovation.

By Karin Wall, chief editor

About Plexus

Plexus institute is a non profit organization with the mission to help people use insights emerging from complexity science to improve the health and well-being of organizations of all types. Plexus Consulting Services, provided by a faculty drawn from Plexus staff, trustees, science advisors and affiliated consultant, are designed to help leaders become acquainted with complexity concepts and use them in practice. The goal of consulting assistance is not to bring answers but to provide processes which enable people in an organization to deal creatively with complex challenges and learn new approaches to management which can be used every day.

About Curt Lindberg, DMan, MHA

Curt LindbergCurt Lindberg, Chief Learning and Science Officer of Plexus Institute, has devoted a significant portion of his professional life to bringing complexity science insights and complexity informed practices to the fields of management and healthcare. He has accomplished this through his writing, speaking and by connecting complexity scientists, organizational and healthcare practitioners. After serving as President VHA of New Jersey, a network of 19 community hospitals, where he first explored complexity science and healthcare, Curt joined with others to found Plexus Institute.

In 2008 he was awarded a doctoral degree in complexity and organizational change from the University of Hertfordshire. Lindberg also hold a masters degree in healthcare administration from The George Washington University. One of his current priorities involves introducing the social change process Positive Deviance into healthcare and public education, helping hospitals employ this process to prevent the transmission of the deadly pathogen MRSA and assisting inner city schools address intractable problems. He is coauthor/co-editor of two widely regarded books: Edgeware: Insights from Complexity Science for Health Care Leaders and On the Edge: Nursing in the Age of Complexity.

  • Christer Edman

    Interesting article and I look forward to learn more about this new complexity science. There is a theory “KAI” Kirton Adaption Innovation related to cognitive styles and it would be good to have some scientific articles on which methods works and are in use today? Plexus Institute mentioned 25 methods…

  • Gisela Jönsson

    I think it is very important to promote this view on complexity. At the same time there is a large following of the idea that what is needed is more “control” & “regulations”. Seeing how politicians freak out about the freedom & emergent orders of the internet for example, is quite unpleasant. I think there is an element to this that is not just a question of what “works” but what is right. So, very important article! :)

  • Dr Paul Thomas

    This article is great to see. I have been working here in Wales, UK for about 7 years implementing Complexity into Social Systems (Organisations) with great success. The BBC followed me into 7 of them. 6 with a Radio Series and 1 a TV Documentary. These cases are freely available along with the BBC stuff online. I have done 26 companies to date. I am not a consultant, but an academic and each organisation I’ve implemented Complex Thinking or Human Systems Thinking has been free of charge, and done simply to show that it can be done. Once done we have a sustainable organisation, without management to hinder the co-evolution and interconnectivity of the people within.

    We need more people like Dr Curt Lindberg pushing the boundaries of organisational design and operation, but even more people doing this in organisations. We are certainly doing this in Wales, but its slow.

    Great article!

  • Curt Lindberg

    Christer, Thanks for your posting. The methods mentioned in the interview we call LIberating Structures. These are all processes that foster creative conversations, and therefore help build relationships among staff. They seek to bring more and different voices into the exchanges, change the predictable (and many times boring and unproductive) patterns of interactions that are typical in many business meetings, and welcome emergence. You have probably heard of some of the processes – open space, appreciative inquiry, conversation cafe, positive deviance.

    In Plexus we have worked to introduce Liberating Structures in a number of organizations. Once staff become acquainted with the processes (and this doesn’t take long) they are free to use them in their daily work. Once they experience a number of the processes they become more comfortable with the general principles that underpin these processes (and here they will uncover complex systems concepts) and see them at work around them in their lives and in their organizations. It can be quite transformative.



  • Curt Lindberg


    I would be most interested in learning more about your complexity informed work in organizations and what you’ve learned in these engagements.


  • Dr Paul Thomas

    Hello Curt,

    A really great article. I’ve placed some of the research cases on my website and
    However, would be great to send some of the TV documentary stuff over for you and see what you think.

    I’ve been an academic for 15 years now, 8 of which taking Complexity into Practice. Had some great results, and some low points, but its incredible when humans are let loose to achieve their passion.

    Curt, great to hear from you.

  • Christer Edman

    Excellent topic and I really enjoy learning and reading from Dr. Paul Thomas also. To open up for the employees passion is the key and this needs true leadership.

  • Christer Edman

    Thanks for your clarification I really appreciate it!

  • Daniel Andersson

    Mr Lindberg,

    Thank you for an interesting interview.

    I agree with the notion that the importance of complexity science in economics and management is increasing. Or maybe the need for a more complete and complex understanding has been there all along, only to find itself inferior of the need (or want) for control and power.

    I find the research in complexity, such as chaos theories and complex system theory, valuable for organizations and companies as they serve managers and co-workers with the notion of “the value of surprise”. Often we prepare for every situation we face, for example what we should say if we meet this person or at this meeting if that one says this. We like to be prepared. But one can only be prepared to a certain degree, things will always happen that you can not prepare for – or control. The need for an ability to improvise is therefor important for us to handle unexpected events. Hence, if we accept that we, as an individual, can´t control all the events that occur in a complex system we more likely will stress the importance of listening to the surroundings and sharpen our “antennas” – because this is the only way we can prepare, by being more present instead of being too future or past orientated. Complexity though, is not an excuse to ignore control as some may think. Organizations will still need control at some point in the innovation funnel to effectively drive ideas through the implementation phase.

    My master thesis (found here: dealt with the leadership for innovation and I used a complex system point of view in my perspective on organizations. This means that the true complexity of the system in which the leader is active is captured – another way of saying that is that leadership, organization and its surroundings is defined by its reciprocal relationships. My foundings indicated that the leadership’s opportunities to improve the organizational innovativeness depend on a number of independent organizational variables and the adaption of the variables to one another and the system as a whole. Even the smallest task in an organization is affected by events anywhere in the complex system. To understand how the system and its relationsships affects your organisation and you as a manager, or a coworker, is crucial to understand what the market (your customer) need today – and tomorrow.

  • Daniel
  • Heinz Essmann

    An extremely interesting article and comments. I look forward to future development in the combination of innovation management principles and practices and Complexity Science.

  • Edwin Childs

    Clinically complex patients require comprehensive, collaborative, coordinated, continums of individualized care.

    Our delivery system is hopelessly fragmented by provider competetion, perverse incentives, and extreme over regulation and control.

    After 40 years in the industry I am convinced the empowerment of the patient and the plan sponsers (purchasers) through Positive Devience is our only hope for a successful change agent.

    The person closest to the front line in healthcare is the patient. The patients still trust their personal physician and nurse. I believe this to be fertile groung to scatter the seeds of Positive Devience and nurture each seed that grows to bear the fruit of improvement.

    Ed Childs
    Patient Advocate

  • Dr Paul Thomas

    Ed, could you contact me again at [email protected]

    Your email address seems to bounce!