Complexity Explorer Glossary

Source: Complexity Explorer

full text of Rethinking The Fifth Discipline: Learning Within the Unknowable Paperback – 22 Jul 1999 by Robert Louis Flood 

per Amazon:

‘Fifth Discipline’ is one of the very few approaches to management that has attained position on the International Hall of Fame. Professor Flood’s book explains and critiques the ideas in straight forward terms. This book makes significant and fundamental improvements to the core discipline – systemic thinking. It establishes crucial developments in systemic thinking in the context of the learning organisation, including creativity and organisational transformation. It is therefore a very important text for strategic planners, organisational change agents and consultants.
The main features of the book include:

  • a review and critique of ‘Fifth Discipline’ and systemic thinking
  • an introduction to the gurus of systemic thinking – Senge, Bertalanffy, Beer, Ackoff, Checkland, and Churchman

*a redefinition of management through systemic thinking
*a guide to choosing, implementing and evaluating improvement strategies
*Practical illustrations.
Robert Flood is a renowned and authoritative expert in the field of management. He has implemented systemic management in a wide range of organisations in many continents and lectured by invitation in 25 countries, including Japan and the USA. Professor Flood has featured on many radio and TV programs. His book Beyond TQM was nominated for the ‘IMC Management Book of the Year 1993’.

It takes a system to change a system

Systems Leadership, Lessons & Learning

“….how would it be to have a space in which we as systems leadership developers, could come together and discuss our work?”

At the end of another day working with healthcare leaders intent on leading more effectively across their care system, one of the participants came up to me.

“I wanted to ask you,” she started, and then stopped.

pens 2

I glanced up from packing away my pens. She went on,

“The thing is…aren’t we just setting people up to fail?”

“Mmm…in what way?”

“Well, we come to a class like this and it’s great…we explore systems thinking, and the challenges of leading in systems, and we think about the behaviours of good system leaders – collaborating, listening to each other, valuing difference, adapting to VUCA conditions, asking questions – and then we go back with all that energy into our organisations and nobody wants to know…people talk over…

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Understanding Society: Social generativity and complexity – Daniel Little

Social generativity and complexity

The idea of generativity in the realm of the social world expresses the notion that social phenomena are generated by the actions and thoughts of the individuals who constitute them, and nothing else (linklink). More specifically, the principle of generativity postulates that the properties and dynamic characteristics of social entities like structures, ideologies, knowledge systems, institutions, and economic systems are produced by the actions, thoughts, and dispositions of the set of individuals who make them up. There is no other kind of influence that contributes to the causal and dynamic properties of social entities. Begin with a population of individuals with such-and-so mental and behavioral characteristics; allow them to interact with each other over time; and the structures we observe emerge as a determinate consequence of these interactions.

This view of the social world lends great ontological support to the methods associated with agent-based models (link). Here is how Joshua Epstein puts the idea in Generative Social Science: Studies in Agent-Based Computational Modeling):

Agent-based models provide computational demonstrations that a given microspecification is in fact sufficient to generate a macrostructure of interest…. Rather, the generativist wants an account of the configuration’s attainment by a decentralized system of heterogeneous autonomous agents. Thus, the motto of generative social science, if you will, is: If you didn’t grow it, you didn’t explain its emergence. (42)

Consider an analogy with cooking. The properties of the cake are generated by the properties of the ingredients, their chemical properties, and the sequence of steps that are applied to the assemblage of the mixture from the mixing bowl to the oven to the cooling board. The final characteristics of the cake are simply the consequence of the chemistry of the ingredients and the series of physical influences that were applied in a given sequence.

Now consider the concept of a complex system. A complex system is one in which there is a multiplicity of causal factors contributing to the dynamics of the system, in which there are causal interactions among the underlying causal factors, and in which causal interactions are often non-linear. Non-linearity is important here, because it implies that a small change in one or more factors may lead to very large changes in the outcome. We like to think of causal systems as consisting of causal factors whose effects are independent of each other and whose influence is linear and additive.

A gardener is justified in thinking of growing tomatoes in this way: a little more fertilizer, a little more water, and a little more sunlight each lead to a little more tomato growth. But imagine a garden in which the effect of fertilizer on tomato growth is dependent on the recent gradient of water provision, and the effects of both positive influencers depend substantially on the recent amount of sunlight available. Under these circumstances it is difficult to predict the aggregate size of the tomato given information about the quantities of the inputs.

One of the key insights of complexity science is that generativity is fully compatible with a wicked level of complexity. The tomato’s size is generated by its history of growth, determined by the sequence of inputs over time. But for the reason just mentioned, the complexity of interactions between water, sunlight, and fertilizer in their effects on growth mean that the overall dynamics of tomato growth are difficult to reconstruct.

Now consider the idea of strong emergence — the idea that some aggregates possess properties that cannot in principle be explained by reference to the causal properties of the constituents of the aggregate. This means that the properties of the aggregate are not generated by the workings of the constituents; otherwise we would be able in principle to explain the properties of the aggregate by demonstrating how they derive from the (complex) pathways leading from the constituents to the aggregate. This version of the absolute autonomy of some higher-level properties is inherently mysterious. It implies that the aggregate does not supervene upon the properties of the constituents; there could be different aggregate properties with identical constituent properties. And this seems ontological untenable.

The idea of ontological individualism captures this intuition in the setting of social phenomena: social entities are ultimately composed of and constituted by the properties of the individuals who make them up, and nothing else. This does not imply methodological individualism; for reasons of complexity or computational limitations it may be practically impossible to reconstruct the pathways through which the social entity is generated out of the properties of individuals. But ontological individualism places an ontological constraint on the way that we conceptualize the social world. And it gives a concrete meaning to the idea of the microfoundations for a social entity. The microfoundations of a social entity are the pathways and mechanisms, known or unknown, through which the social entity is generated by the actions and intentionality of the individuals who constitute it.

Source: Understanding Society: Social generativity and complexity

Eight infographics on Systems Methods (UToronto iSchool 2018) – Coevolving Innovations

[I love when David Ing shares his students’ infographics – truly rich sources of overview on systems thinking]

Learning only a single systems method is reductive.  A course that exposes breadth in a variety of systems methods encourages students to reflect on their circumstances-at-hand, and their explicit and implicit influences on guiding others in projects espousing systems thinking.  This was a premise behind the structuring of “Systems Thinking, Systems Design“, an Information Workshop (i.e. 6-week elective quarter course) offered to master’s students at the University of Toronto Faculty of Information (iSchool).

The first class day had a short course introduction focused on the history of the systems sciences, and a minimal orientation to the most basic concept in systems theory.  Then, for the four class days that followed, student groups led 8 presentation-facilitations on a research reference cluster (with the instructor on standby as a subject matter expert on the content).  The topics included:

  1. Object Process Methodology
  2. Dialogue Mapping
  3. Idealized Design
  4. Soft Systems Methodology
  5. Viable System Model
  6. Resilience in Socio-Ecological Systems
  7. Service Systems
  8. Generative Pattern Language

After each of the four days, students wrote Personal Appreciation Diary Logs (blog posts), mostly on the open web.  These provided feedback to the instructor for commentary (and some remediation) at the beginning of the subsequent class meeting.  We could review common understandings, difficulties and misconceptions about systems methods.

For the last (sixth) class meeting, each student group was asked to “prepare and present an infographic poster on their impressions about the system approaches most relevant to their research”.  The conclusions reflected different interests, experiences and orientations amongst the iSchool students.

Continues in source: Eight infographics on Systems Methods (UToronto iSchool 2018) – Coevolving Innovations

Cannon’s Polarity Principle:

Harish's Notebook - My notes... Quality, Data Science, Strategy & Lean.


I recently read the wonderful book “On the Design of Stable Systems”, by Jerry Weinberg and Daniela Weinberg. I came across a principle that I had not heard of before called “Cannon’s Polarity Principle”. Cannon’s Polarity Principle can be stated as the strategy that a system can use to overcome noise by supplying its own opposing actions. If a system relies on an uncertain environment to supply the opposing factor to one of its regulatory mechanisms, that mechanism must have a much more refined model. By supplying its own opposing factor, it can get away with a much simpler model of the environment.

This principle is one of those things that is profound yet very simple. The Weinbergs give the example of a sticky knob on a gas stove to explain this idea. If the knob is sticky then it is tricky to raise the flame to the…

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Guest article: Complexity, Systems Thinking and Sociology, Alice Junqueira | Transition Consciousness Blog


Alice Junqueira is a transdisciplinary professional who is currently an independent consultant specialising in gender, youth, sustainable development and culture. She also works on issues of climate change, socioeconomic inclusion, urban planning, human rights, public management and social participation.

I am very pleased to publish this article which is an updated edition which was previously published on Transition Consciousness in 2015.

Complexity, Systems Thinking and Sociology

When it comes to complexity and sustainability we often come across names such as Bertalanffy, Ilya Prigogine, Donella Meadows, Fritof Capra, and others, but we rarely come across complexity and systems theories through the “eyes” of Sociology.

How would we observe society if Sociology saw it as a system? This was one of the questions a German sociologist tried to answer. His name is Niklas Luhmman[1] and he started where many of others started, precisely in one of those names we often hear when studying and discussing sustainability: in Bertalanffy. He also read and incorporated ideas of other renowned authors from many areas of knowledge. He is known to have read thousands of books from Philosophy to Cybernetics, Sociology to Biology, Phenomenology to Psychology, and more.

Sounds interesting? It is. And it is

Continues in source: Junqueira | Transition Consciousness