The late Donella Meadows wrote an interesting article titled ‘Dancing with Systems’ that provides a fourteen recommendations on how to approach the change of complex systems.
Newtonian thinking says by breaking down a system into smaller parts, and then understanding them, we will understand the system as a whole. Thinking about it in this way assumes that the system is certain, predictable, obeys known rules and laws, and has linear causation.
The problem is however, that most systems we deal with as managers do not meet these assumptions. Some examples are the workplace culture, company performance, or even an individual’s performance. All are complex systems that cannot be controlled by Newtonian thinking. Our toolkit to understand and deal with this needs another approach.
This is where complex systems theory can help. Complex systems are said to contain uncertainty, unpredictability, non-linear causation and emergent behaviour.
The core idea being that complex systems cannot be properly understood in the Newtonian way we are so used to thinking in. This is where ‘Dancing with Systems’ comes in.
Meadows states that “We exaggerate our own ability to change the world”, and that “the idea of making a complex system do just what you want it to do can be achieved only temporarily, at best”.
You can’t understand, predict and control a complex system.