Complexity theory and why should we care?

The Author

E. Alana James

E. Alana James

Dr E Alana James is reinventing herself again! Coming full circle to the first love of her life - art - and bringing back to her images all the lessons of her life as author, researcher, academic and wife. Concerned mostly with the idea of images as vehicles for expression of the truth of our inner and outer life experience.

Remember to focus on the outliers, respect the future they represent.

I first came across the ideas of complexity theory during my doctorate work at Columbia in 2001.  I was instantly energized because the battle described by scientists as they wrestled to force meaning and knowledge out of apparent chaos seem identical to me to the experience of a person who is trying to learn something they are having difficulty understanding.  Since then I have explored authors who write on complexity theory and its ties to both business and education.[1] It is not uncommon for me to bring it into general conversation.  Often I notice that people tune out or stop listening, making the assumption that it is too much for them.


What is it about complexity theory that I think is so important for everyone to consider?  It has to do with the power of outliers.

Next I’ll speak on a topic that arose for me as I taught in public schools in the 1970s and 80s.  During that time we had some students who regularly disrupted classes, we sent them to the office, and if they were bad enough they were suspended from school.  Students like this were relatively rare.  The systems of public education have gone on for 20 or 30 years in the same vein.  Today if students disrupt class, they are sent to the office, and if this happens often enough, they are suspended from school.  Unfortunately, everywhere in the Western world, teachers report that this is much more frequent and prevalent that it was when I was working in classrooms.

Complexity theory tells us that there is a norm of activity that exists in any field of interactions.  In my example, that is the norm students in schools.  However there are also always outliers whose activity appears at first random, chaotic, and disruptive.  Science has taught us that these outliers with their random chaotic and disruptive pattern, if watched long enough, will create a complex new possibility.  They call these fractals.

Let us just consider that idea.  We live in a time when all of our systems are stressed by change.  Could you perhaps the disruptive elements be creative potential for the development of a new and marvellous norm?

Imagine a system that you are involved in is feeling the stress of change.  What are the outliers?  What are the stressors causing disruption?  What might happen if, instead of fighting against the disruption, we took it seriously, respected its message as the potential of something new, and made plans accordingly?

Twenty or 30 years ago, we were unable to imagine that students being disruptive in class had any kind of relationship to the future of student behaviour.  What if we had asked ourselves seriously what we needed change in order to make some fully engaged?  What if we had started to change our behaviour as teachers?  What if we had begun to learn how to include multimedia in our presentations?  What if we had asked their opinion on what they wanted to be learning?  Is it possible, that because of schools and teachers, who would have by now (after 30 years of experience) built flexibility into the standard mode of operation, education would be better prepared to face modern students who have grown up with computers and iPods?

Some things I find important to consider:

  1. When I find myself upset, stressed, or angry about something that is disrupting my norm, do I stop to consider whether or not the disruption might involve something that will improve the future?
  2. If I do not consider that, is my anger or frustration really about my loss of control?
  3. Does my desire to control my life and my situation inhibit my ability to be flexible and move into the new world that is being created around me with ease?

There is an old saying that “if you cannot beat them, join them.”  Maybe at the conclusion of it all, the message of complexity theory is the same.  The secret is in looking ahead enough that we see which disruptive outliers are the important ones, and going to become the new fractals in our lives.

In another article on three keys to staying young, based on ideas from neuroscience, creativity research and transformation, I discuss the use of tension as a precursor to transformation.  When we add complexity theory to this, we see the message that rather than fighting or defending our position, perhaps we need to make use of these disruptions as they help us chart new paths to the future. wp-content/uploads/2008/11/fractal_1.jpg

[1] (Brent, 2008; Garmston & Wellman, 1995; Mansfield, 2003; Waldrop, 1992; Wheatley, 1999; Zohar & Marshall, 1994) among others.