Managing Complex Organizations: Complexity Thinking and the Science and Art of Management

By Richardson, Kurt A. | Emergence: Complexity and Organization, April 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Managing Complex Organizations: Complexity Thinking and the Science and Art of Management


Richardson, Kurt A., Emergence: Complexity and Organization


This article is an attempt to explore the implications of the emerging science of complexity for the management of organizations. It is not intended as an introduction to complexity thinking, but rather an attempt to consider how thinking 'complexly' might affect the way in which managers do their jobs. This is achieved in a rather abstract way with some theory, but I hope the general message that there is no one way to manage comes through loud and clear, and that management is as much an art as it is a science. In a sense complexity thinking is about limits, limits to what we can know about our organizations. And if there are limits to what we can know, then there are limits to what we can achieve in a pre-determined, planned way.

Introduction

This article is an attempt to explore the implications of the emerging science of complexity for the management of organizations. It is not intended as an introduction to complexity thinking-many such introductions have already been published-but rather an attempt to consider how thinking 'complexly' might affect the way in which managers do their jobs. This is achieved in a rather abstract way with some theory I'm afraid, but I hope the general message that there is no one way to manage comes through loud and clear, and that management is as much an art as it is a science (which in itself is not a particularly original statement). In a sense complexity thinking is about limits, limits to what we can know about our organizations. And if there are limits to what we can know, then there are of course limits to what we can achieve in a pre-determined, planned way. Complexity thinking offers us a rigorous and scientific explanation as to why to some degree we are helpless, and that "shit happens!", as well as provide some tools for thought that help us manage our inevitable shortcomings and limitations. In a way, accepting that we have limitations, and that we can never have complete control over the future evolution of our organizations, is rather emancipating. Complexity thinking is about the middle ground between extremes, and so although managers are to a degree helpless and at the mercy of the 'system', it certainly does not follow that there are not many opportunities to affect organizational behavior in desirable, semi-planned, ways.

The first section explores the difference between the view that organizations are complicated and the view that organizations are complex. This distinction leads to very different conclusions about what we mean by management theory. This first section is a little philosophical so I hope it doesn't scare anyone off! Linear (complicated) thinking is often rather superficial and simplistic, whereas nonlinear (complex) is more sophisticated and often requires more time to do properly. Complexity thinking actually requires us to spend a little more time thinking, and a little less time working.

The next section presents and discusses an important concept in complexity thinking: incompressibility. It is this very notion that denies the possibility of a nice and neat theory of organization that managers might learn and execute. I'm sorry-being a good manager is always going to be a challenging job; there's no easy way out!

The penultimate section considers three schools of thinking within the complexity community followed by a brief discussion of how each school might inform management activity. Some concluding remarks will be offered to close the article, but first let's consider what we might mean by labeling an organization 'complex'.

What if organizations were merely complicated?

What if human organizations were complicated rather than complex? The simple answer to this question is that the possibility of an all-embracing Theory of Management would almost certainly exist. This would make management very easy indeed as there would be a book of theory (The Management Bible-it would probably challenge the current all-time bestseller in sales! …

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