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Complex Adaptive Systems Implications for Leaders, Organisations, Government and Citizens Policy Brief 1

Partners' Institution
Södertörn University
McKenzie, F., n.d. Complex Adaptive Systems Implications for Leaders, Organisations, Government and Citizens Policy Brief 1 [WWW Document]. URL /paper/Complex-Adaptive-Systems-Implications-for-Leaders%2C-McKenzie/4083b179f2f882a1e413103b403422df3a9a670c (
Thematic Area
Development studies
to build Australia's capacity to make decisions for a flourishing shared future in the 2020s and '30s. A multi-sector, non-profit, non-partisan initiative hosted by This policy brief provides an overview of key concepts of complex adaptive systems – and why understanding them is important for modern Australian society. An approach called 'systems thinking' is described as a tool for making sense of a changing world. Implications of complex adaptive systems and systems thinking, though relevant for any sector or individual, are framed here in the context of leaders, organisations, governments and citizens. The key message is that the way we think about complex adaptive systems needs to be different from the way we think about simple systems. We also need different skills to thrive. • We need leaders with humility, willing to draw upon the emergent and self-organising nature of complex adaptive systems through empowering others and continuous re-calibration. • We need organisations that can keep up with the dynamic nature of complex adaptive systems by being able to learn and adapt to changing circumstances. This is turn requires processes of evaluation and reflection. It also requires taking risks, experimentation, and accepting failures. • We need governments that are willing to do all these things. • We need citizens that will accept – and encourage – them doing so. For those that learn how to adapt and navigate an unpredictable world with incomplete information and uncertain outcomes, complexity won't be a liability. It will be an advantage.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
This is not a scientific article but a policy paper arguing for the use of systems thinking for leaders and in organizations. The argument is underpinned with easily understood examples of what distinguish a complex system from non-systemic thinking (the way a flock of birds behaves in the air is countered by the path of a piece of rock thrown through the air). It continues by showing easy ways of visualizing systems drawing maps on actors, relationships, structures processes and resources, and then continues to show how scientific maps over what  complex systems may look like. The third section of the paper shows how leaders can use systems thinking  to bring out directions and commitment in organizations to generate systemic emergence. In the fourth section, the paper moves on to discuss how organizations can use systems thinking to avoid risks  and to promote learning and adaptation. This line of thought is followed up to the level of governance and implementation of decided measures. Finally , the paper discusses how citizens can make use of systems thinking.
Point of Strength
The paper is written in a very pedagogic way and could be useful as part of an introduction to systems thinking and complex system in the social sciences. It could be used both in undergraduate courses and for life-long learning courses. For undergraduates there is a strength in that it brings up real world problems linked to the various levels of governance and management.