The paradox of talking about complexity with certainty

Jonathan Rosenhead, in an article dating from 1998 takes a critical look at how ideas from complexity sciences get applied to management. It is not a light read, but I thought he made some interesting arguments. This is the nub:

This account of attempts to apply ideas from complexity theory to management practice has been broadly critical – critical of claims for the authoritative status of what would be better presented as stimulating metaphors. It is indeed curious that a message based on the importance of accepting instability, uncertainty and the limits to our knowledge should be presented with such an excess of certainty. The explanation for this paradox may lie in the twin heritage of management complexity. The ‘systems’ community world-wide has been particularly prone to sectarianism and evangelism, while the audience for management texts is conditioned to expect large generalisations supported anecdotally. It can be a heady mixture.

That itches a scratch for me. I find it very helpful to look at management as complex rather than complicated but sometimes feel uncomfortable with the tone of voice with which this analysis gets presented. Rosenhead puts his finger on the paradox. Years ago, I titled an essay on this topic “Simple ideas, lightly held” and I think the lightness still feels significant. I often forget it myself.

Rosenhead goes on to suggest which aspects of the complexity metaphor are useful to managers, and which seem to take things a bit far. And he has some provocative things to say linking some complexity gurus with Adam Smith’s invisible hand, which I’m not quite sure what to make of. It’s worth reading in full, if you can find the time.

Hat tips: Harold Jarche and Stephen Downes.

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