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The Shape of Complexity

Complex adaptive systems (CAS) are composed of simultaneously independent and interdependent agents who self-organize into emergent patterns of behavior that tend to maximize the likelihood of mutual success.  In other words, the interdependence inclines agents toward independently selected choices and behaviors that also operate for the benefit of the group or for the system as a whole. The result is often emergent behavior within the system that could not have been predicted or controlled.  

Complex adaptive systems self-organize around “attractors,” points in the system that have the power to gain a constituency. These are often anomalies that in the traditional “equilibrium” organization would be seen as a deviation from preordained conditions, established norms, or the status quo, and duly eliminated. In an adaptive organization, variances that are attractive enough begin to collect and accumulate a consistently growing constituency. As commonalities of interest or purpose increase, the emergent behavior potentially can move toward collaboration as its benefits outweigh the cost of competition inherent in purely self-interested behavior.  Eventually, the amplification of variances from the norm increases to a degree that destroys the status quo. These attractors can exist in any of the embedded levels. Where they arise is unpredictable.  And as they induce movement in one level (in complexity terms, this is movement along a ‘fitness landscape’ in order to increase the likelihood of success or survival), the impact upon that level and on other levels is also unpredictable.  

As a complex adaptive system, every company or organization exists in a series of consecutively imbedded systems: an economy residing within a global sociopolitical system; an industry within that global economy; a company within the industry; divisions, departments, and other subgroups within the company and its stakeholders; and individuals within the subgroups.





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