Complexity Science in Human Terms:
A Relational Model of Business
by Birute Regine and Roger Lewin

Changing Landscapes

At the cusp of the twenty-first century, we are experiencing unprecedented structural shifts in our economy brought about by the revolutions in computation and communication technologies. Today the world is linked in ways unimaginable just a decade ago. A new kind of economy is emerging–the connected economy--a shift that rivals the onset of the Industrial Revolution in its impact on society and the way commerce is transacted. And with this shift, the business world finds itself in the throes of revolutionary change. Where once companies felt themselves to be the master’s of their own destiny, in a connected economy, companies find themselves as interdependent players in a fluid and vacillating economic web, where their fate is affected by the behavior of other members.

The change is not only real, but it is also accelerating, driven by rapid technological innovation, the globalization of business, and, not the least of it, the arrival of the Internet and the new domain of Internet commerce. Change–the pace of innovation, of forming and reforming alliances among companies, of corporate mergers, emerging markets--driven by this connected economy, creates an environment of urgency in the workplace that is unprecedented in the world of business as we knew it. Consequently, business leaders are preoccupied with change itself–how to generate it, how to respond to it, how to avoid being overcome by it. But, as Intel’s Andy Grove indicates, change is not exactly a welcome guest in business: "With all the rhetoric about change, the fact is that we managers hate change, especially when it involves us."

During these changing times, leaders and managers are finding many of their background assumptions and time-honored business models inadequate to help them understand what is going on, let alone how to deal with it. Where

managers once operated with a Tayloresque mechanistic model of their world, which was predicated on linear thinking, control, and predictability, they now find themselves struggling with something more nonlinear, where limited control and a restricted ability to predict are the order of the day. Consequently, many managers and executive professionals are uneasy and eagerly seeking new ways of dealing with change, as the current $17 billion-a-year management consulting business would indicate.

Science, too, is in the midst of an important Khunian shift that parallels what is happening in business, or, more accurately, is the vanguard of that change. Where once the natural world was viewed as linear and mechanistic, where simple cause-and-effect solutions were expected to explain the complex phenomena of nature, scientists now realize that most of the world is nonlinear and organic, characterized by uncertainty and unpredictability. As in science, managers are also discovering that their world is not linear but rather predominantly nonlinear, not mechanistic but rather organic and complex. It’s amazing how far we have been able to take the linear model for understanding the world, both in science and in business. But in the new connected economy, the limitations of the mechanistic model are becoming starkly apparent and a new way of thinking is needed.

Enter Complexity Science

The realization that much of the world dances to nonlinear tunes has given birth to the new science of complexity, whose midwife was the power of modern computation which for the first time allows complex processes to be studied. The science is still in its infancy, and is multi-faceted, reflecting different avenues of study. The avenue most relevant to understanding organizational dynamics within companies and the web of economic activity among them is the study of complex adaptive systems. Simply defined, complex adaptive systems are composed of a diversity of agents that interact with each other, mutually affect each other, and in so doing generate novel behavior for the system as a whole. But the pattern of behavior we see in these systems is not constant, because when a system’s environment changes, so does the behavior of its agents, and, as a result, so does the behavior of the system as a whole. In other words, the system is constantly adapting to the conditions around it. Over time, the system evolves through ceaseless adaptation.

Complexity scientists are learning about these dynamics of complex systems principally through computer models, but also through observation of the natural world. Complex adaptive systems are everywhere–ecosystems, the brain, ant colonies, just to name a few. The point is that business organizations are also complex adaptive systems. This means that what complexity scientists are learning about natural systems has the potential to illuminate the fundamental dynamics of business organizations.

If complexity scientists are right in arguing that if complex adaptive systems of all kinds–in the natural world and the world of business–share fundamental properties and processes, then the science offers something that most management theories do not. The argument here is that most management theories are not really theories at all, but rather techniques for managing in a certain way. Complexity science is still nascent as a theory but it has determined certain fundamental processes and characteristics of complex adaptive system. In other words, when we speak of businesses as complex adaptive systems we are not speaking of a metaphor or a technique; rather, we are saying that by understanding the characteristics of complex adaptive systems in general, we can find a way to understand and work with the deep nature, that is, the fundamental processes, of organizations.

The significance of understanding the deep nature of organizations is that companies in a fast-changing business environment need to be able to produce constant innovation, need to be constantly adapting, and be in a state of continual evolution, if they are to survive. Thus if companies are to work with change optimally, they are better able to do so if they understand their organizations as complex adaptive systems and the processes that underline these systems.

Because the dynamics of complex adaptive systems are complex and largely unpredictable, accepting businesses as being such systems requires a different mind set that is more organic than mechanistic. Managers and executives cannot control their organizations to the degree that the mechanistic perspective implies; but they can influence where their company is going, and how it evolves. They can be sure some order will emerge, but they cannot be sure exactly what that order will be.

Recognizing that businesses are complex adaptive systems means understanding that businesses are like living organisms and tend to fluctuate between different states, from static to chaotic, with the edge of chaos, or the zone of creative adaptability as we call it, in between. Different states are appropriate for different times: a static state, when the environment is little changing and certain; a chaotic state when old patterns need to be broken through, to be replaced by something new, but as yet unknown; and the zone of creative adaptability, which is characterized by paradox, as the place to be when innovation is necessary.

We know that complex adaptive systems are dynamic and thrive on diversity, and with abundant connections will build towards a critical mass from which something new will emerge. With this understanding, diversity in organizations then is not fragmentation but rather critical to creativity; and economic dynamism is not deterioration but rather healthy fluctuation. Fluctuation is to be welcomed in complex adaptive systems because it is the wellspring of the capacity to adapt to changing environments. We also know that small changes can have a big effect in complex adaptive systems which means that multiple experimentation on small scales is the most productive way and offers the greatest potential for creating big changes in an organization. In a connected economy, the rules of the business game have changed. Indeed, the game itself has changed.

A Naturalistic Study of Business as Complex Adaptive Systems

It is in this context of change and at this juxtaposition in different ways of thinking about business and organizations, that we conducted a naturalistic study, which involved interviewing people in a dozen companies, of different sizes and different business sectors in the United States and England. Among those companies are: the Belle (West Virginia) plant of DuPont--a chemical plant of a thousand people; The Industrial Society--the largest non-profit consulting organization in Europe of three hundred people; the River Café--a successful English restaurant; VeriFone--an American high tech company of three thousand, recently acquired by Hewlett-Packard as a subsidiary; St. Luke’s Advertising Agency of one hundred people; Babel’s Paint and Decorating Store, a small family business of four stores and thirty-five employees; Monsanto Company, of twenty-two thousand. Some we interviewed several times, for a longitudinal perspective; often we did a cross section of interviews, from CEO to secretary; a few times we spoke solely to the CEO of the company.

We were interested in companies that were following principles from the new science of complexity in running their business. All we had to begin with was an understanding that businesses are complex adaptive systems, and some fundamental principles that underlie such systems. Some of the companies we talked to were using complexity principles explicitly to guide how they operated; others reached this place intuitively. It didn’t matter which was the case for our work. We found these organizations mostly by word of mouth.

Companies whose management is guided by principles of complexity science are organizationally flat, have fewer levels of hierarchy, and promote open and plentiful communication and diversity. Complexity science argues that these properties enhance a system’s capacity for adaptability; thus, in the case of business, giving them a cutting edge in these fast-changing times. The companies we chose for our study therefore shared the properties of being organizationally flat and having rich, open communication. But we had no idea what our study would find in the realm of organizational dynamics, of management style, and people’s work experience.

Relationships: A New Bottom Line

What we began to hear consistently among these diverse organizations was a new way of doing business. For these organizations, relationships had become the new bottom line, not simply for humanistic reasons, but as a way to promote adaptability and business success.

This new science, we found in our work, leads to a new theory of business that places people and relationships–how people interact with each other, the kinds of relationships they form–into dramatic relief. In a linear world, things may exist independently of each other, and when they interact, they do so in simple, predictable ways. In a nonlinear, dynamic world, everything exists only in relationship to everything else, and the interactions among agents in the system lead to complex, unpredictable outcomes.

We can restate this in the language of complexity science as follows: In complex adaptive systems, agents interact, and when they have a mutual affect on one another something novel emerges. Anything that enhances these interactions will enhance the potential creativity and adaptability of the system. In human organizations this translates into agents as people, and interactions with mutual affect as being relationships that are grounded in a sense of mutuality: people have a mutual respect, and have a mutual influence and impact on each other. We know from complexity science that interactions and connections among agents of a system are the source of novelty, creativity, and adaptability. Thus, the source of novelty in human systems is connections within relationships. In this way, relationships are the organizing principle in businesses as complex adaptive systems.

Complexity science in the business realm therefore illuminates the power of relationships. When relationships and connections are weak in an organization, there is a poor flow of information, limiting feedback loops and thus adaptability. On the other hand, positive relationships create rich connections in an organization which lends itself to generating a more robust, adaptive system. We therefore expected that companies guided by the science would in some manner attend to interactions among people in their organizations. But this could have simply manifested itself in a concern for prolific communication.

Open and prolific communication was indeed what we found in these companies, but universally it was within an affiliative context of genuine care. Care is not a typical business power word, but it proved to be a powerful action. These organizations took their task of caring for their employees seriously, and this manifested itself as people caring about their work, caring for fellow workers, caring for the organization and its shared purpose, caring about their community. Not everyone, not all the time, but enough to define the culture. Those people we spoke to who had worked in companies other than their present ones told us that, in their experience, this sense of connection and care was uncommon in the business world. Therefore, when we are talking about relationships, we are not talking in terms of "networking." Rather we are talking about genuine relationships based a sense of care and connection.

What these organizations and their leaders recognized was one of the greatest and often untapped resources of the business community–the power of caring and connected relationships for creating constructive change. By attending to the quality of relationships, such as, confronting negative relationships and addressing disconnections within their organization, these leaders entered and influenced the non-linear processes of the organization. For The Industrial Society, this meant CEO Tony Morgan taking a disjointed senior management away on retreats in order to forge new and positive lines of communication and to get people on board with a shared purpose. At Monsanto Company this meant CEO Bob Shapiro overloading the business with impossible demands, so that people had to discover for themselves a new way of working; that is, by self-organizing around the most immediate problems.

Although each organization had its own distinct way of addressing relationships and connections and disconnections in their business, they all managed to unleash enormous potential that previously was dormant in their organizations. By relating to employees in a different way–that is, by allowing people to self-organize around issues that concerned them that also benefitted the organization as a whole, by creating opportunities to make work more fulfilling–these organizations tapped into a deep human need: namely, people’s desire to contribute and their need to belong. They had succeeded in engaging their people more fully, that is, as full human beings in the workplace by accommodating people more in terms of their interests and skills. Even in a paint store, owner Jeanne Babel saw "a potential in everyone to get excited about what they do at work."

Because people felt more personally fulfilled, they were more willing to contribute to the needs of the company. Because they felt connected to others, they were willing to go the distance so as not to let others down. And it was the strength of these caring and connected relationships that provided an ethical foundation and continuity for people during difficult times of flux, unpredictability, and change. As plant manager of DuPont Belle plant, Dick Knowles stated, ethical principles based on care, which his plant people were personally involved in developing, were "like the poles you hold onto in a crowded, jostling subway car so you don’t fall."

A Community of Care and Connection

One of the most important lessons of complexity science is that complex adaptive systems generate emergent, creative order and adapt to changes in their environment, through simple interactions among their agents. In other words, in business, how we interact and the kind of relationships we form has everything to do with what kind of culture emerges, has everything to do with the emergence of creativity, productivity, and innovation in the workplace.

In turn, the emergent order influences the behavior of individuals in the system, in a feedback loop. Similarly in business, the culture that emerges in a company will influence people’s behavior. There is a constant interplay between people’s behavior and the emergent culture, a dynamic feedback loop. As former CEO of VeriFone Hatim Tyabji succinctly stated, "The being is the cause; everything else is a manifestation of that being. And the being is care."

When more interactions are care-full rather than care-less in an organization, a community of care and connection emerged in these organizations. We found that a sense of community, guided by shared values and a shared purpose, helped the organization to be more adaptable. People said that when they felt part of a community they were more willing to be flexible and adapt, which in turn, made their organizations more flexible and adaptable. Arie de Geus, a former senior executive of Royal Dutch/Shell stated that "Before they will give more, people need to know that the community is interested in them as individuals." This proved to be true in the organizations we studied.

A Relational Model

What we found within these organizations was a dynamic vortex of five levels of relationships that created a web of interdependence and defined their world of business: 1, relationships between individuals; 2, among and within teams; 3, to the CEO who embodied the organization’s purpose and values; 4, the relationships with other companies in the business environment and in their economic web, and to the community in which they lived. Last of all, and most tenuously developed in most companies as yet, 5, a relationship to the natural environment. This nested set of relationships represents a new view of organizational dynamics, within and outside the organization.

Understanding these dynamics identifies the source of creativity and adaptability in business. In short, it is a new theory of business. It is a theory, rather than a collection of actions with desired outcomes, because addressing the quality of these relationships as a means towards business success flows from a new understanding of what organizations are and how they work, informed by the science of complexity. A relational view of business redefines the meaning of business itself, as Jeanne Babel of Babel Paint and Decorating Stores stated: "Business is bigger than your own organization...we are an ecosystem of different relationships."

Most organizations are founded on a linear structure of hierarchy and bureaucracy, which impedes agility and flexibility, qualities so needed in times of unprecedented change. The most effective way to change a linear structure to a nonlinear process is to attend to the nonlinear world of relationships. Feedback loops exist in complex adaptive systems, and through their dynamics the system evolves over time. In order to have more positive outcomes, positive and constructive relationships need to feed into those loops, and lots of interconnection among people is needed to enrich the loops. As senior manager Patrick Burns of The Industrial Society said, the root of organizational problems is often "abysmal relationships," which create negative energy and limit what the organization can achieve. As Hatim Tyabji of VeriFone told us, it was strong, positive relationships that maintained his global organization at a high level of a creativity and adaptability.

None of these organizations had a design for working with nonlinear processes. Rather than a concerted effort to deliberately change the hierarchy and structure, they focused on relationships in the organization, and so gained access to non-linear processes from which a new structure could and did emerge. By attending to the issues and relationships at hand, done in a spirit of mutuality and experimentation, a new way of working emerged and the organizations evolved from there. These organizations were agile and frequently operated in a state of creative adaptability, or the edge of chaos, because they engaged non-linear processes which in turn affected people’s way of working. For VeriFone, the importance of their relationship to their customer led them to decentralize and have teams physically set up next to their customers in order to serve them better. At St. Luke’s Advertising Agency, the linear chain of operation that is typical in the industry, where a project was handed down from person to person, was abandoned. It was replaced by a project-centered process, which brought everyone together, including the customer, in one room, and where everyone had a equal say in developing a campaign strategy. Each company had its own distinct way of working with nonlinear processes; and as CEO Bob Shapiro of Monsanto rightly told us, "Don’t look at us to learn how to do it." Companies have to find their own way by working organically with their people, their collaborators, and their competitots; that is, working with where they are, rather than imposing plans of where you might want them to be.

Complexity and a human-centered approach to management

We can see, therefore, that management practice guided by complexity science will focus on relationships that leads to a very human orientation of the workplace, and this was a surprise. Of course, there have been many human-centered approaches in management before, amongst the more notable being political scientist Mary Parker Follett’s work done 1920 and 1930's in the United States, which has had a recent resurgence of interest. For more than half a century, there has been a constant battle between human-oriented management and scientific, or mechanistic, management, with the latter prevailing. But it is only now, and for the first time, that there is a science behind the human-oriented approach that gives a legitimacy to the whole realm of human-centered management. With complexity science, we have a human-oriented management practice emerging from science, a novelty.

"Business is about people" has been bandied around for some time, and yet rarely addressed with any human depth. Consequently, the feeling of not being valued is pervasive in the business world, and a few writers recognize the fact. "Too many people feel insecure, threatened, and unappreciated in their jobs," writes Tom Morris, a philosopher and business consultant. "Overall job satisfaction and corporate morale in most places may be at an all time low." Peter Senge, director of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and author of The Fifth Discipline, notes that the prevailing mechanistic model of business encourages managers to see people as machines, not as people. "We deeply resent being made machinelike, in order to fit into the machine," he says. Henry Ford once said "How come when I want a pair of hands, I get a human being as well?" A manager in today’s knowledge-based economy might paraphrase this: "How come when I want a mind, I get a heart as well?"

Today, in many businesses, there continues to exist a stark omission of the importance of people; that is, valuing them not only for the revenues they bring in, but also as human beings, and being willing to invest in them. The obvious is often overlooked in a mechanistic approach to management–that when people are treated as replaceable parts, as objects to control, are taught to be compliant, are used as fuel for the existing system–inevitably the organization will be fraught with frustration, anger, and isolation, which ultimately is detrimental to the business.

"In the living company, the essence of the underlying contract is mutual trust," says Arie de Geus. An important reason why some companies fail, he says, is that "managers focus exclusively on producing goods and services and forget that the organization is a community of human beings that is in business–any business–to stay alive." It is common sense that if people are treated as machines, not as people, they are unlikely to give loyalty and trust and they will not give of their best. And yet, unfortunately, to use Voltaire’s phrase, "common sense is not so common."

Many companies that are anything but human oriented in their management practices survive and even thrive, of course–for a time. "If you’ve drained the tank of human goodwill and motivation, you can continue to coast downhill for a while, even at a pretty rapid clip," observes Tom Morris, "but heaven help you if you encounter any big bumps in the road or the competition forces you into an uphill struggle." VISA’s Dee Hock concurs. "When an organization loses its shared vision and principles, its sense of community, it is already in a process of decay and dissolution even though it may linger with the outward appearance of success for some time." Senge is emphatic about human orientation, believing the future workplace must be personally fulfilling for people. "As we enter the twenty-first century, it is timely, perhaps even critical, that we recall what human beings have understood for a very long time," he says, "that working together can indeed be a deep source of life meaning. Anything less is just a job." As Chairman Andy Law of St. Luke’s Advertising Agency stated, "Profits are like breathing. You need it to live, but it’s not what you live for."

Jeffrey Pfeffer, of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, is distinctly puzzled by the omission of a human approach in business management. "Something very strange is occurring in organizational management," he writes in his book The Human Equation. The book is, among other things, a compendium of data that show that human-oriented management practice consistently increases the economic performance of companies that follow it when compared with companies in the same economic sector that do not. "But even as these research results pile up, trends in actual management practice are, in many instances, moving in the direction opposite to what this growing body of evidence prescribes."

We may speculate that the rising enthusiasm for embracing a Tayloresque style of management in the face of evidence that encourages the opposite is a collective expression of apprehension at the prospect of the rising tide of uncertainty and chaos that is washing over the business world. In other words, it might be a desperate effort to retain control by turning ever more fervently to what is familiar rather then seeking new, unfamiliar, and uncertain, ways of managing. Another speculation is that businessmen–and it is mainly men who occupy 95 percent of senior management positions, despite representing less than half the work force as a whole–are so uncomfortable with the humanness of human-relations management, that they retreat into the "safer" mechanistic realm of management, despite the force of the data that indicate that the alternative approach leads to a more robust bottom line.

The companies we worked with, that engaged their organizations as complex adaptive systems, whether consciously or intuitively, were all very successful in traditional bottom line terms, not despite being human-oriented, but rather, as many of the CEO’s we talked with would argue, because of it. But they also said attending to relationships and people, rather than numbers and boxes, was perhaps the hardest of all management practices.

Management guided by the principles of complexity science therefore constitutes a style that is very human oriented in that it recognizes that relationships are the bottom line of business, and that creativity, culture, and productivity emerge from these interactions. And when those interactions are more connected and caring than not, a sense of community emerges, increasing an organization’s potential adaptability. It’s a style of management that does not readily lend itself to being turned into a "fix it" package that is the stuff of much of management consultancy, because it requires genuine connection with coworkers; you can’t fake it and expect to get results. A human-centered approach to management is not new in that parts of it, as described here, already exist in many forms in many organizations. What is new is that the science of complexity gives a scientific foundation for a human-oriented management approach; that is, it gives an explanation of why a human oriented management practice is successful, and a rationale for why to take this approach.

The complexity-guided style of management is hard to do, very hard we heard, especially for managers who seek safety in a command-and-control practice. It is hard even for those who embrace its principles, because the everyday urgency of business can make time spent interacting and nurturing relationships seem like a waste of time, a distraction from tough business realities. It is hard because it requires strong interpersonal skills, and constant vigilance of one’s own behavior and the behavior of others. We found the organizations we worked with took this task very seriously, clearly visible in the time spent on developing relationships. For example, VeriFone’s senior management went away together for a week, every six to eight weeks. The Industrial Society took the entire company away for a three day retreat twice and are planning to do it again–a huge financial investment. The entire staff at St. Luke’s goes away for a week every year to reinvent itself. Clearly, spending time on developing constructive relationships, between employees, with customers, to the organization and it’s purpose, with potential collaborators was not a waste of time. From a complexity viewpoint, we might say that all work is relationship.

Emerging Patterns in Management Behavior

There was for a long time the belief in science that complex order in the world was generated by complex processes. Contrary to this belief, however, complexity scientists have discovered that complex patterns are typically generated from a few simple rules of behavior for the individual agents in the system. Complexity comes from a deep simplicity, the physicist Murray Gell-Mann has stated.

We saw common behaviors for sustaining constructive relationships within the organization, in their economic web and their communities, which generated a different way of working and being. Rather than "rules" of behavior, we call them "practices," to capture the sense of striving towards rather than achievement of a goal, because in human systems, the agents--people--are not perfect, their behavior fluctuates. A practice provides a point of reference to which people return when they find themselves off track.

We saw particular ways of thinking and behaving, that cultivated conditions for a more adaptable system, from which a collective sense of connection and care emerged. Because we saw the same patterns of behaviors emerge in these companies of very different sizes and very different economic sectors, we infer that we are seeing something fundamental that applies to organizations in general. We call these different ways of being in the workplace paradoxical leadership–a way of leading change; emergent teams–a way of working together that keeps organizations on the edge; and relational practice–a way of developing trust and loyalty through rich connections.

Paradoxical leadership

Paradoxical is the way we characterized the leadership style of the CEO’s of the organizations in our study. From a complexity perspective, paradoxes are not problematic. Instead paradoxes are indicative of being on the edge; paradoxes create a tension from which creative solutions emerge. All the leaders had come from a command and control tradition, and they had also come to see the limits of this style in the new business environment. They had come to recognize that they had limited control; that they depended and needed others to achieve their aims; and that they didn’t, nor should or could, have all the answers. This perspective expanded their style of leadership, rather than replaced it.

They acted more as cultivators than managers. They didn’t manage people; in fact, they relied heavily on people managing themselves. Instead leaders cultivated conditions to increase positive connections in their organizations, and in their economic web, from which nonlinear results could emerge. There were four common behaviors that guided their leadership style and how they related others:

Allow–they allowed things to unfold, allowed mistakes, and open experimentation. The paradox here is that leaders provided direction without directives. They gave a strong direction in terms of purpose and values, and then allowed people to find their own solutions according to these guidelines. They listened, responded, and then let go. This way of relating encouraged personal efficacy in their organizations–people discovered they could and did do more than they imagined.

Accessible–These leaders were physically accessible to the people in the organization, to customers, to partners. Because they cared deeply about their organization, they were also emotionally accessible.

All the leaders made their values and purpose accessible to people by embodying these values. By demonstrating a very strong ethical foundation that they strove to uphold, they made these values possible for people to personally connect to in their organization. For Tony Morgan, at The Industrial Society, "keeping your word" was a value he espoused, and he would be the first to apologize publicly when he failed to keep his word. The paradox here is that these leaders were visible as one of the people, as in being available and vulnerable; but also invisible in that as a leader they were symbolic and seen as more than a person.

Attuned–Being accessible helped these leaders to have a finger on the pulse of the organization. As CEO Bob Shapiro of Monsanto Company described his task, his specialization was generalization. Leaders were simultaneously aware of the organization as a whole and as a living organism--at the macro level, but also attuned to the interactive level; that is, the micro level of connections and disconnections within the organization. They relied heavily on their intuition and ability to empathize, knowing it was impossible to have all the facts. In this way they were paradoxical in that they knew and didn’t know–knew through hunches without knowing all the facts.

Emergent Teams

Emergent teams are a democratic approach to problem solving and opportunity seeking. Rather than teams being imposed on workers, emergent teams are self-organizing, self-selected, and self-governing. Whoever wants to join a project, initiate a project, can do so which instills a sense of mutuality–a trait critical to developing genuine teams. People organize around tasks rather than positions. The intent behind self-selection is two fold. One, self-selection is a way of inviting the wisdom of the front line--that those people in the problem are likely to have some good ideas about how to get out of the problem. And two, self-selection is a way of implementing the value of providing fulfilling work--emergent teams are an opportunity for people to engage in work they care about, that also benefits the whole. The thinking here is that when people are connected to their work and to their organization, people flourish, and so, then, will the organization. In emergent teams, no one person is blamed or given credit for a project. In other words, no one stands or falls alone.

The manager’s task shifts from managing people to cultivating conditions for teams to emerge by 1, cultivating group relationships, including diversity, and creating opportunities for people to participate and contribute; 2, cultivating an information-rich context, through being open with resources and information, and creating safety for expressing ideas and risk taking; 3, cultivating connections, by forging new connections between people or clarifying and improving existing connections; connecting people to a sense of the collective purpose; and connecting people to resources; keeping lines of communication open.

The emergent teams themselves had three characteristics–fluctuating authority in guiding the team; mutuality among its team members; and resilience as a group to persist and pursue--that is, they are given time to discover whether the project will wither or grow.

The purpose of emergent teams are primarily experimental, with many teams trying different things simultaneously in different parts of the organization. In other words, they seek those unexpected nonlinear results. They are a way to find out what works and what doesn’t; for the organization to learn as it goes; and they hold the potential for creating big changes through small actions. They keep the organization on the edge and keep it adaptable.

Relational Practice

Relational practice strives towards creating positive and rich connections that lends itself to building trust and a sense of community, which contributes to a robust system. Relational practice attends to people’s need for affiliation as well as achievement in our organizations. There were four ways of behaving in relationship to others that were small actions that made a big difference in developing caring and connected relationships.

Be authentic: rather than wasting time on looking good, being authentic makes for greater efficiency at work–it takes less time and energy to be yourself. It is also a practice, as Tony Morgan of The Industrial Society stated, of tracking one’s own and other’s inauthenticity.

Acknowledge others: appreciating people for who they are as well as what they do, enriches connections and a sense of belonging. Acknowledging others promotes loyalty and commitment which are qualities closely connected to people’s experience of being recognized as people by managers.

Be accountable: moves the culture out of a blame/victim cycle that drains energy from the system; and when people take responsibility for themselves, it can simplify difficult and complex issues

Be attentive: taking a deep and genuine interest in others, knowing people’s stories, and recognizing the power of listening, aids in creating a well-informed and robust system.

Soft is Hard

Many aspects of these management practices that enrich connections and relationships are already alive and well in organizations, or as parts of business theories, particularly in human-relations management, and in Peter Drucker’s work on businesses as communities. We know that there are many pockets of people exploring the same avenues in other businesses. Many astute business leaders have already intuited what we have made explicit; that is, a way of working with organizations as complex adaptive systems that is relationship- and human-centered, and have had success: Intel and Hewlett-Packard are prominent examples.

What we have done is identify an intellectual framework for all these aspects of behavior collectively, that forms them into a coherent whole based on a scientific understanding of the dynamics of business organizations. The difference here is that the science of complexity brings these behaviors all together under an umbrella of a scientific understanding of the deep nature of business organizations. It is not just that paying attention to ways of behaving in relationships might be "nice" or effective, but rather, the science shows us, that certain behaviors engage the dynamics of complex adaptive systems in a positive way that can potentially move the system to more positive outcomes.

These behaviors–such as respecting and acknowledging others for who they are–tap into people’s good will and wish to contribute to the collective purpose of an organization. This is what we saw in the companies we worked with–that attending to the relational world unleashed enormous potential in these organizations and made them more adaptable and financially successful. Complexity science validates a focus on human relationships, and in a sense, turns things inside out. What was once regarded as "soft," that is interpersonal skills, is actually "hard." What was once regarded as a distraction and not work, that is cultivating relationships, is the nexus of business success.

Beyond complexity science

We don’t have to bring complexity to the business world, because businesses are, and always have been, complex adaptive systems. In the new business environment it is simply to recognize that fact, and then work appropriately with the principles of such systems in a human context. In the connected economy of the twenty-first century, management cannot afford to try to succeed with management methods that were developed in a different age and for a different type of business environment. Having said that, we also recognize, that although the current environment could be best characterized as chaotic, this may not always be the case. In other words, complexity-guided management doesn’t just toss out traditional mechanistic management models, but rather encompasses and expands them.

We said that the principles of complexity science add to a deeper understanding of the dynamics of business organizations, because they share those dynamics with other systems that the science is studying. It has been important to have the science behind us, because uncritical hand waving might lead to a decent way of working, for a while, but it would have no theoretical foundation. Having said that, however, we would argue that the experience of working with organizations as complex adaptive systems has advanced the science in a way, too; that is, in the human dimension.

Science, by tradition anyway, needs to be analytical, needs to be able to define its terms and conditions, which is why scientists often choose to work with simple systems, such as, in the complexity realm, computer simulation models: they are amenable to these needs. Human social systems–including the business environment–are far more complex than computer models are at present, and probably will be for a very long time–and perhaps for all time. The science has done its job: it has brought us to a position of seeing organizations through new eyes. It might, through further advances, illuminate organizations in ways we don’t yet see. But management no longer need constantly to seek the validation of the science for each new way we might feel–through intuition–is right to work with organizations as complex adaptive systems. We cannot describe organizational behavior with the rigor that complexity scientists–or any scientists–would recognize as scientific, and we might never be able to do so. But we can now claim to have a deeper sense of organizations as complex adaptive system than even the most prescient manager did previously. Organizations have found, and are finding, new ways of working with nonlinear processes that have led to bottom line success. We can thus claim as our own the emergent understanding of our organizations as complex adaptive systems in human terms.