(Self)-Organize for Complexity

March 4, 2015 5 Comments

“You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it.”

– Toni Morrison


I’ve been re-reading Niels Pfleaging’s short book Organize for Complexity and appreciating how it succinctly captures the current challenges for many groups and organizations trying to navigate complexity while clinging to old tools and beliefs. This can also be the nature of social change work amidst the significant shifts we are seeing. Here’s the trick – as things shift more, and more rapidly, people’s natural inclination may be to try to exert greater control or dig in to what is familiar but does not work. The more one does so, the worse things can get. As Pfleaging writes, we see a “high price for the illusion of control.” Within organizations this takes the form of various gaps – social, functional, and temporal – that make them  increasingly irrelevant and ineffective. Responding to complexity requires (to borrow a phrase from Eugene Kim) new muscles and mindsets.

If I could summarize my own reading of Pflaegings’s book, I would put it this way – the world we are living into requires more integrated ways of seeing and doing, and this is hard to do (if not impossible) if people maintain highly differentiated ways of organizing themselves. There is really a baseline call for self-awareness and mindfulness so that one is able to respond not by default or fear, but with perspective and intention, which connects to the idea of “strengthening the network within” at the individual level. And it is important to reach out and connect this self-awareness to others . . .

“Problem-solving in a life-less system is about instruction. Problem-solving in a living system is about communication.”

-Niels Pflaeging

Throughout his book, Pflaeging notes that in all formal organizations, there are informal structures, and that these are really the life blood of those organisms. They are what contributes maximally to value creation, that is to being more intelligently responsive to needs and opportunities “out there.” Yet formalized structures often stand, by intention or by accident, as impediments to these informal structures. When things are complex, it can be helpful to connect the social system to more of itself so that people are better able to make sense of what is happening. This can sometimes mean getting out of the way of informal structures and inherent self-organizing tendencies, or creating spaces for informal sharing and connecting.

“Self-organization in complex systems is natural. Having “a leader” is not.”

-Niels Pflaeging

Whether we are in nascent or long-standing organized efforts, there are threats of being pulled to the overly formalized, bureaucratic and centralized side of things. Pflaeging echoes others (including Mila Baker, Carol Sanford, and Frederic Laloux) in some of his recommendations for keeping eyes on and supporting the less formalized and life-affirming prize. These can be of great support generally-speaking in encouraging network ways of working.

  • Let purpose [not incentives] drive behavior.
  • Cultivate [guiding] principles, not rules.
  • Emphasize roles, not [fixed] positions.
  • Support and practice maximum transparency.
  • Encourage informal knowledge forums, guilds, communities of practice.
  • Decentralize, rather than delegate, decision-making (delegation still smacks of hierarchy).

This kind of work may be more difficult than what some typically lean towards. And there are those who might question its effectiveness and efficiency. But this is very much intelligent systemic work, organized as social and emergent processes.

Organize for Complexity, part I+II – Special Edition Paper from Niels Pflaeging


  • Steven Byers says:

    Thanks for this essay, the whole series of related essays. Very helpful as I try to help a local team think differently! I would also note that “hierarchy” is a tricky word. All living systems have an implicit hierarchy (different information stored in different places at different “levels”), yet in our culture “hierarchy” is often (usually) thought of as an obstacle. Just two different uses of the same word, but worth, I think, noting the importance of context. Hooray for hierarchy!


  • Curtis Ogden says:


    Totally with you. There’s a difference between legitimate functional hierarchy and then hierarchy that gets imbued with power, privilege and unhelpful bureaucracy. I read a tweet recently that said something like “It’s not hierarchy, it’s fixed hierarchy that’s the problem.” In any case, I appreciate the comment.


    • Cory Wofford says:

      Hi, Curtis. Your comment response about hierarchy is beautiful, concise, and captures a dilemma that I think many organizations struggle with, especially non-profit or volunteer organizations. I am curious if you’ve done additional research and writing around hierarchy in organizations or in groups?

      • Curtis Ogden says:


        Thanks for the comment and question. The answer is yes, and I/we are actively doing more. The regenerative economics literature is a good source for writings on “functional hierarchy” and also flows that support optimal systemic (including organizational) functioning. Structure in some ways matters, and in other ways does not. Flow is what matters, to be responsive in appropriate ways.


  • Floris Koot says:

    Beautiful, great, yes, this is how it works. Then it also means that our personal behavior has to change with this approach towards, what I call Swarm Leadership. Here’s some of the points I make about that:
    As leaders we should not be so much focussed on outcomes and results, but on what wants to be heard. Swarm leadership is about taking a role in a process of listening to and creating a platform for what wants and needs to happen. Participate and contribute with and to what is already there.
    Dare to say or do what feels true.
    Let Others Shine; this is about integrity in use of sources, supporting idea carriers, not needing to be original or be the leader.
    It also requires a strong community that allows these emergent solutions to happen. So what gives live to such groups and movements? Often the same what makes a strong community:
    1. A mix of people that trust and acknowledge each other.
    2. Shared purpose and access to active participation in getting there.
    3. Members feel at the same time builder of it all and of service to it all.

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