Leading in Complex Systems


Health care leaders have begun to adapt to the complexities, ambiguities and paradoxes that are now the norm in healthcare.

It is more and more apparent that the emerging field of complexity science offers important strategies for leading in chaotic, complex healthcare environments. A 2001 survey by Burns found that healthcare leaders intuitively support principles of complexity science and understand the value of complex adaptive systems as a model for leading and managing in healthcare environments.

Leadership that uses complexity principles offers opportunities to focus less on prediction and control and more on fostering relationships and creating conditions in which complex adaptive systems can evolve and produce creative outcomes.

Principles and Practices for Leaders

1. First and foremost view your system through the complexity lens.

2. Build a good-enough vision and provide minimum specifications.

3. Use Clockware and Swarmware interchangeably.

4. Balance data and intuition, planning and acting, safety and risk.

5. Find the right degree of information flow, diversity, connections, power and anxiety.

6. Work with paradox, polarity and tension as the norm.

7. Try multiple actions and let direction arise, rather than being sure before proceeding.

8. Attend to the shadow system, the informal networks and relationships.

9. Grow complex systems by enabling their emergence from the links among simple systems.

10. Balance cooperation and competition, rather than relying only on one or the other.

Original Source: Zimmerman B, Lindberg C, Plsek P. Edgeware: Insights From Complexity Science for Health Care Leaders. Irving,TX:VHA, Inc.; 1998:3-44.

Burns, J. (2001) Complexity Science and Leadership in Healthcare. Journal of Nursing Leadership. 31 (10) 474-482.

Upcoming posts will explore each of these principles in detail.

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