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August 26, 2015

Embracing Complexity – a good new book on systems thinking (and action)

August 26, 2015
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Jean Boulton is a regular both here on the blog and in the corridors of Oxfam. She’s a onetime theoretical physicist Embracing Complexity coverturned consultant, and one of her passions is complexity and systems thinking, and their implications for how organizations, including development agencies, go about their work.

Now she’s teamed up with fellow lapsed physicist Peter Allen, and Cliff Bowman (a ‘theorist and practitioner of strategy’, whatever that is) to write Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence,  a smart, 250 page introduction to complexity and its implications for action.

They are pretty evangelical about their topic:

‘Once you recognize the realities of the complex world, there is no going back, and we have titled this book Embracing Complexity for a reason. If you take on board what it means to say the world is complex, this will change the way you think, feel and act. And we think this will be a change for the better.’

True that – I see systems everywhere these days, and it has definitely changed the way I ‘think, feel and act’.

The book reflects the authors’ commitment to blending theory and practice. The first half is an introduction to the ideas that underpin complexity, contrasting it with a linear, reductionist ‘machine worldview’, pulling in discussions on everything from Plato and Aristotle to Newton, Darwin and Peter Allen’s personal hero and complexity pioneer, Ilya Prigogine.

The second half is all about applications – to management, strategy and economics, with a chapter from Jean focusing on international development, mainly devoted to applying complexity thinking to Oxfam’s programme in the Turkana region of Northern Kenya and some work on savings group in Western Kenya.

The last chapter is an edited transcript of a conversation between the three authors about what each of them sees as the importance and value of complexity thinking.

Internet as complex systemAt this point, I have a confession to make: I’ve reviewed the book twice, and came to very different conclusions each time. This time I was in a bad mood, only skimmed it, and decided that it was OK but not brilliant and that ‘I was a bit frustrated with the final chapter when, rather than definitively pull together the threads of the previous chapters, they opt for a conversation between the authors. Very erudite, to be sure, and consistent with their ‘avoid blueprints and checklists’ message, but I felt it was a bit of a cop out in a book that claimed to be committed to practical implications.’

Then I found the review I wrote of the draft a year ago, which said ‘Great intro, comes across as both authoritative and conversational (hard balance to get right). It’s already got some excellent illustrative examples. Really like the conversational last chapter.’

Ouch. Enough to make you question whether reviews (or at least my versions) are worth reading at all….. OK, I realize I am now reviewing the review, let’s get back to the book.

Jean did set out a list of the principles, which was the closest I could find to an overall set of ‘so whats’:

  • History Matters: take time to investigate the relevant history/background of the market/country/organization
  • Build relationships: in this way, you learn about the past, shape approaches that are more likely to work and also are owned by people, and get more information about what is working and what is not
  • Weave together, with others, a vision for change: involve many perspectives and think through consequences systemically
  • Sometimes it may be better to start small: grow from there, or take a portfolio approach or try out several options. You can never be quite sure what will work and what will not.
  • Allow for customization: goals might be common but how to achieve them may depend on local circumstances,
    so allow for variation in how to do things
  • Expect to learn and adapt as you do things: unintended consequences and unexpected changes in the wider complexity signworld are normal. Build in iterative processes for dialogue, review and adaptation
  • Keep looking for change – around and ahead: take not of things that are interesting or different and triangulate these ‘qualitative perceptions’ with what others are noticing. Keep scanning widely for new factors emerging in the wider world; take a range of opinions, particularly from those close to the issues; think about the future; think a few steps ahead. You will be more attuned to change as it emerges and better able to anticipate and adapt and seize opportunities.’

These feel thoroughly sensible, mercifully jargon-free, and I wish all aid agencies adopted them.

I had a brief email exchange with Jean about this review. In her view ‘the book is best approached by reading half a chapter or a few pages at a time and then sitting with it. This is a book about mind change rather than method and as such, as Kuhn said about scientific revolutions, it takes patience to let it addle your brain and belief systems….. Its other real strength is that Peter Allen has worked full time on complexity theory for nigh on 50 years. He really really understands the maths of it, the different approaches etc. Most other authors have to take on trust others’ views of the science.’

Sounds about right. Overall I think you can add this to a list of top books on complexity, such as Donella Meadows, or the fascinating case studies in Ben Ramalingam’s book.

Wonder if other book reviewers have accidentally reviewed the same book twice, and whether (like me) they disagreed with themselves? Anyone willing to fess up?


  1. Thanks Duncan. I take heart from the fact the when you read it in more detail (a year ago) the title to your email was ‘just finished (and loved) Embracing Complexity’. It is not a skim read, it is true. I can’t quite believe it is finished, after seven years of writing, and do look forward to comments and feedback – and there are several talks about it going on at present (London and Bristol and Bath and Cranfield) if anyone is interested. My email is jeangboulton@gmail.com if anyone wants more information. I’d be interested in particular to hear back from people about some of the work on emergent impact assessment which is included in one chapter…there is a promotion code giving discount from OUP which I can give you..

  2. The list of principles given above does not leave me with much motivation to spend £25 on a paperback copy of this book :-(
    I would be hoping to learn something new from a book like this, even if it s a new perspective on old issues
    Could you dig into this book a bit further?

  3. If you go on to the OUP website and put in the book title, you can view the first chapter. I assure you there is more to be had than this list :-)

  4. I agree with what Duncan says about complexity thinking changing the way you see the world. I see it as the theoretical backdrop for all of the Doing Development Differently stuff. Each time I read a book/article on this (mostly Ben Ramalingam, Owen Barder and Complexity and the Art of Public Policy (http://press.princeton.edu/titles/10207.html)) I find myself nodding along and seeing situations in a new way so I look forward to digging into this.

    Any plans for a Kindle edition?

    And does anyone have any ideas for persuading a developing country government to take complexity seriously when making medium-term national strategies (my current challenge)? There are so many incentives pulling and pushing against the principles outlined above.

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