Complexity Theory: A New Way to Look at Organizational Change

By Grobman, Gary M. | Public Administration Quarterly, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Complexity Theory: A New Way to Look at Organizational Change


Grobman, Gary M., Public Administration Quarterly


ABSTRACT

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.

INTRODUCTION

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Complexity Theory: A New Way to Look at Organizational Change
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    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.