In the two decades that I have been working in the field of applied complexity, I have seen it go from an obscure academic term to something that pervades conferences, business magazines, and consulting offerings. However, very little embodies what complexity philosopher Edgar Morin would term "lived complexity."  

In a paper written in 2008, he asserted that a real understanding of complexity could only come from an internalised intersection of intellectual knowledge and lived practice. He warns against a split between theory and practice and what he calls pseudo complexity thinking: approaches and people who define themselves in opposition to linear reduction approaches but do not consistently live complexity. Pseudo complexity is especially pervasive in the consulting world, where too many consultants brand their offerings with complexity language. However, a reductionist paradigm that believes that we can fully know our reality and that we can map paths into the future definitively still informs their practices.   

"They display all the distinctly reductionist habits of expecting to come to "know" the problem and objectively find the "right" solution by dividing the problem into discrete elements to be tackled by experts who "know" how to do it. Any range of solutions can be tried because, if they go wrong, they can be reversed with little consequence for the system. They will expect, consciously or unconsciously, that once the "real" solution is found, the problem will go away, and they will now have an "evidence-based" decision that can be applied again should "the" problem emerge again. "(Rogers et al, 2013)

(A heuristic I often advocate to my clients: if anyone promises to "simplify" your complexity or "future proof" your organisation, you need to beware.)

This is especially problematic as the world needs practical ways of applying complexity thinking now more than ever. All is not lost, however, as all human beings already have a lot of lived experience in complexity, although we may not use that language. As we negotiate city life or traffic, or social complexities in families or friendships, especially as we raise our children, we effectively engage complexity. We also tend to forget these skills when we enter the workplace.

In a peer-reviewed 2013 paper I co-authored, we attempted to make explicit some tacit heuristics that we collectively cultivated over many years of working in complex systems. We framed them then as habits of mind. (Text in italics below is all from that article)

Habits of mind to thrive in complexity

"A habit of mind is a pattern of intellectual behaviour that leads to productive actions. Habits of mind are seldom used in isolation but rather in clusters that collectively present a pattern of behaviours."

We identified three inter-dependent habit clusters or frames that we consistently apply when navigating complexity. Almost a decade later, it is interesting to see that our thinking still holds and how these relate to our COOL meta-skills.  

  1. Openness 

"Openness can be described as a willingness to accept, engage with, and internalise the different perspectives, even paradigms, to be encountered when dealing with diverse participants in an interdisciplinary situation. An open frame of mind requires conscious acceptance that notions such as ambiguity, unpredictability, serendipity, and paradox will compete strongly, and legitimately, with knowledge, science, and fact. In essence, it means that while navigating challenges of a complex system, one holds one's own strong opinions lightly (Pfeffer and Sutton 2006) and engages as both facilitator and learner. "

Some of the specific habits of mind/practices that promote patterns of openness include:

  • Hold your strong opinions lightly and encourage others to do the same.
  • Embrace emergence: Be prepared for the intervention of surprise, serendipity, and epiphany.
  • Cultivate curiosity — learn to "stay in inquiry" and be curious (vs. assuming, judging, and jumping to conclusions)
  • Value diversity: Encounter every person with equal respect, listen to and acknowledge their specific needs, knowledge, and ways of knowing.
  • Set direction, but be open to not having specific goals or outcomes.
  • Be open to both/and options.
  • Expect ambiguity or paradox: Accepting these as legitimate can often avoid unnecessary conflict.
  • Accept that consensus is often impossible in complexity, adopt an experimental approach rather than forcing agreement to a single approach or solution.
  • Accept others as co-learners, not experts or competitors.

2. Situational Awareness (Observe in COOL)

"One of the critical differences between complexity-based and reduction-based thinking is the importance of context and scale in complex systems. Each issue or system attribute can appear quite different, and interactions have different outcomes under different contexts and scales. Spatial and historical context are very important, but so too are the different participants' value systems and how they lead to different outcomes. An awareness of the complex context in which an adaptive challenge exists and of how it changes in time and space is critical to effectively navigating through it. In essence, one must cultivate a state of anticipatory awareness and constant mindfulness."

Habits of mind/practices that promote patterns of situational awareness include:

  • Consider the importance of relationships and interactions between entities, not just the entities themselves.
  • Be aware of contingencies, scale, and history.
  • Surface organising principles and values that bound decision situations and help keep decision-making consistent from one context to the next (vs. Setting rigid rules).
  • Reflect often: formally, informally, individually, and collectively.
  • Cultivate diverse feedback mechanisms and networks — avoid echo chambers

3. A healthy respect for, what we term, the restraint/action paradox. (Links to Courage in COOL)

"Leadership and decision making in a complex system constitutes a balance between the risks associated with practicing restraint and taking action. On the one hand, if the context requires it, one must consciously practice restraint and create space that allows the emergence of ideas, trust, opportunity, and even epiphany to loosen the tangled problem knot. There is a strong need for a certain slowness (Cilliers 2006) in taking time to allow emergence to unfold. On the other hand, one needs the courage to take action in a mist of uncertainty because, in a complex system, the consequences of our actions are never entirely predictable, and no matter how good our knowledge, there is never an objective "right" decision. This paradox is critical to successfully fostering and practicing adaptive leadership by being conscious of and comfortable with this paradox."

Habits of mind/practices that promote patterns of healthy respect for the restraint/action paradox include:

Decisiveness/willingness to act under tension

  • Encourage courage. Cultivate an awareness of the natural inclination to avoid discomfort and have the courage to push beyond it and seize the "just do it" moment.
  • Embrace provisionality: When we have to decide in the apparent absence of the necessary information, accept that it is likely to be imperfect and that it will be provisional at best.
  • Do not be afraid of intelligent mistakes. Mistakes lead to learning.
  • Avoid paralysis from the natural anxiety response to uncertainty. Accept that there is no one right place to start or end. Take the next best (fit-for-context) action that makes sense here and now.
  • Act small and local. If possible, avoid large, system-wide interventions. One certainty in complexity is that any action can (and often does) lead to unintended consequences.

Restraint under tension

  • Embrace liminality and avoid premature convergence — avoid being too quick to make judgments and choices.
  • Avoid overconfidence to take action in a data-driven "predict and act" mode.
  • Allow the "seeds of action" that you've sown time to germinate. Resist impatience and the need for an instant response.
  • Keep options on the table long past their apparent usefulness. Many will find context later in the process.
  • Know when to rest. Open and participatory engagement exposes vulnerabilities, requires humility, and takes energy.

These three frames of mind are interdependent, with openness as the most critical one of the three as it can enable or constrain the others. To some extent, adequate situational awareness is not possible without openness to diverse perspectives. In a complex system, one cannot afford a one-sided view. Knowing when to act and when to practice restraint depends on one's awareness of changing dynamics in the system, but it also requires openness to the unexpected.

In this paper, we didn't touch on Lightness (the L in COOL). In retrospect, that was a serious oversight. Lightness brings playfulness, the ability to hold our egos lightly enough to try and learn (and sometimes seem foolish while doing so). It also brings humor and appreciation of beauty, a highly needed restorative balm when we feel overwhelmed by the complexity we face.  


  • Rogers, K. H., R. Luton, H. Biggs, R. Biggs, S. Blignaut, A. G. Choles, C. G. Palmer, and P. Tangwe. (2013). Fostering complexity thinking in action research for change in social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 18(2): 31.
  • Cilliers, F. P. (2006). On the importance of a certain slowness. Emergence: Complexity and Understanding 8:106–113.
  • Morin, E. (2008). On complexity. Hampton Press, New Jersey, USA.
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