Complexity & Change

What do we mean by complexity?

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Today’s justice leaders, organizations, and networks are operating in a complex ecosystem where practice that leads to real change is emergent; cause and effect can only be fully understood in retrospect; and more frequent experimentation, risk-taking, and ongoing learning may be the best course of action. The last decade has seen a significant shift towards a more complex environment, marked by:

  • A political and economic time where policy change, especially at the federal and international level, is very hard to achieve
  • Increased understanding that progressive issues are intersectional and won’t be advanced by fighting in issue silos
  • Demographic shifts along multiple dimensions reveal both deep rifts and powerful opportunities

The typical levers and buttons for creating change don’t work in many situations now. In this often unpredictable environment, traditional rules of organizational development may not apply. Organizational change has always required looking at governance, structure, staff, and culture -- now we have to do it in ways that welcome innovation, experimentation, adaptation, and emergent practice. Moreover, leaders at all levels must adapt and innovate, developing new approaches to capacity building, leadership development, strategy, and more.

Through our work with clients, our learning programs such as the Network Leadership Innovation Lab, and our research, we are learning how to apply a complexity lens to the social justice context in order to create stronger organizations, leaders, networks, and movements.

Through this program [MAG’s Network Leadership Innovation Lab], I was introduced to complexity theory and its applications in the work I do. I remember the first time I heard about complexity theory in one of the sessions. I literally began to cry because it put words and context to multiple experiences and helped explain the limitations I was feeling in my work. Mark [Leach] has helped me to introduce complexity theory to my management team so that we can restructure how we are organized internally, how we make decisions as a leadership body in this context, and how this influences our strategic approaches to fulfill our mission.
— Sarita Gupta, Executive Director, Jobs with Justice

MAG's Learning on Complexity


What We Are Reading

Auspos, Patricia and Mark Cabaj. Complexity and Community Change: Managing Adaptively to Improve Effectiveness. The Aspen Institute, 2014. 

Berlow, Eric. Simplifying Complexity. Ted Talk, 2010.

Garvey-Berger, J., Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World. Stanford: Stanford Business Books, 2011.

Laloux, Frederic, Reinventing Organizations. Nelson Parker, 2014.

McCandless, Keith and Henri Limpanowicz. The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash A Culture of Innovation. Liberating Structures Press, 2014.

Mowles, Chris. Complex, but not Quite Complex Enough: The Turn to Complexity Sciences in Evaluation Scholarship. Evaluation 20(2), 160-175, 2014. 

Snowden, David J. and Boone, Mary E., “Leader’s Framework for Decision Making. Harvard Business Review, 85(11), 68-76, 2007.