Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Complexity Theory: A New Way to Look at Organizational Change

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Complexity Theory: A New Way to Look at Organizational Change

Article excerpt


There is a revolution in the physical sciences with applying new theories that emphasize holism, uncertainty, and nonlinearity and that de-emphasize reductionism, predictability and linearity. The interest is growing in applying these theories to the study of organizations, including public organizations. The classic model of the organization as a machine has long since been discredited, but the models that have replaced this metaphor have been less than satisfactory. The basic principles of complexity theory are explained using organizations as examples. Complexity theory suggests that organizational managers promote bringing their organizations to the "edge of chaos" rather than troubleshooting, to trust workers to self-organize to solve problems, to encourage rather than banish informal communications networks, to "go with the flow" rather than script procedures, to build in some redundancy and slack resources, and to induce a healthy level of tension and anxiety in the organization to promote creativity and maximize organizational effectiveness.


During the last decade of the 20th century, new theories to explain phenomena in the physical world, such as chaos theory, complexity theory, catastrophe theory, self-organized criticality theory, and nonlinear dynamics systems theory, have gained increased credence. There is growing interest in applying these new perspectives to organizations, including public organizations.

One motivation for this growing interest is the revolution in theory in the fields of physics and biology. New theories that emphasize uncertainty and randomness and that relegate reductionism and predictability to second-class status have changed how scientists look at the universe.

For example, natural phenomena such as radioactive decay are not seen as deterministic, but rather probabilistic. Schrödinger's equations permit one to calculate the probability that an electron will be found at some point away from a proton, but not where it will be in the future with any certainty (Adler, 2000). The Heisenberg uncertainty principle (Imamura, 1999) states that one cannot simultaneously measure the position of a particle and its momentum. In what appears to be a contradiction, matter acts simultaneously as both particles and waves (e.g., photons acting as particles when they bounce off a mirror, and acting as waves when they create interference patterns as they pass through pinholes.

Einstein showed that matter and energy are interconvertible and that time is a useful construct, but not an absolute. In biology, evolution is viewed today as not the slow, steady march as once described, but rather punctuated by revolutionary advances followed by ephemeral stability.

The roots of much of traditional organizational theory have as their basis metaphors based on scientific principles from the physical sciences (Morgan, 1997). Many have written about the inability of organization theory to explain and predict. The new ways physicists have of looking at natural phenomena may have promise in explaining why our old ways of looking at organizations are unsatisfactory. Why do organizations with nearly identical components have divergent results? Why do public organizations that put redundancy into their work processes or promote slack resources (see Kearney, Feldman, and Scavo, 2000), apparently wasting precious human capital, appear to do better-and how does this relate to redundancy in biological systems, such as brains, DNA, and other systems of living organisms?

Complexity theory and other theories relating to non-linear dynamic systems, may help provide an answer.

Although traditional approaches to the explanation of organizational change and transformation processes are limited and have proven unsatisfactory in guiding both research efforts and applied management practices, it is suggested that these limitations may be lessened at a theoretical level by developments in the complexity sciences. …

Author Advanced search


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.