Navigating Complexity

Summary

Navigating Complexity collects together for the first time the ideas and language of a recent development in management theory – complexity theory.

The command and control approaches to management ‘no longer hold true’, complexity theory asserts. The theory states that any system contains built-in unpredictability, that every system is comprised of many components and that these are all interconnected.

Why is it worth reading?

Attractively presented, with navigation made easy by chapter headings, sub-headings, summary boxes and visual signposts, Battram’s book neatly summarizes the arguments of numerous theorists who have written about chaos in its various contexts since civilization began.

In doing so, Battram aims to expose the difficulties inherent in any management science. Navigating Complexity is a useful counterpoint to orthodox management books which supply rational answers to problems of human and economic organization.

‘The myth of the economic person,’ Battram contends, ‘is that the market is perfect, free and open, and everyone behaves perfectly within it.’ No such luck.

In the era of e-commerce, when loss-making start-ups have shattered economic laws by receiving megabucks valuations, Battram’s common sense ideas seem particularly persuasive.

Talking points

On the other hand, Battram makes conclusions about economic and organizational behavior through metaphors of complexity. This is less convincing.

For example, at one point he draws parallels between the complexity of business structures and the haphazard yet ultimately harmonious movement of ants in an ant hill. The application of organic metaphors to business issues leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination.

Even nature and the seemingly constant universe are continuously evolving, the book explains. Nothing is fixed. In some complexity theories, ecosystems provide an apt ‘global metaphor’ for a world without boundaries.

This slightly ‘new age’ logic is used to contradict and shed light on the ‘reductionism, determinism’ and false ‘equilibrium’ of modern economics and management theories. Battram offers organic metaphors such as the ant hill to help us think more sensitively about how, for example, uncoordinated human actions in an economy combine to determine ‘the overall behavior of the market’.

Quotes

‘Management theory has a tradition of borrowing ideas from science in its search for the latest solution, but that’s not what we’re offering here. Instead, we propose that you make up your own mind.’

‘Ecosystems are constantly evolving, new species moving into new areas, old species dying out, new interdependencies forming and collapsing.’

‘Complexity theory offers no quick fixes, no new answers to the old managerial and organizational problems: instead it offers us new questions which can produce powerful new insights and distinctions.’

What others say

Will Hutton: ‘In today’s highly competitive environment, organizations need to tap every possible source of creativity, intelligence and loyalty.’

Michael Lissack, editor-in-chief of Emergence: A Journal of Complexity Issues in Organizations and Management: ‘This is the best designed and best illustrated of all the complexity and management books. More than just another “how to” book, this is a “how to think” approach for practicing managers.’

Author

Arthur Battram, according to the Industrial Society, is a ‘thinker, writer and consultant’. He trains senior managers in complexity theory and is the founder of PossibilitySpace, a ‘design methodology’ aiding collaboration and creativity in groups.

Details

Navigating Complexity: The Essential Guide to Complexity Theory in Business and Management, by Arthur Battram, is published by the Industrial Society. ISBN 1-85835-870-1.

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