Recent advances in the study of complexity have given scientists profound new insights into how natural innovation occurs and how its power can be exploited. Now two pioneers in the field, Robert Axelrod and Michael D. Cohen, provide leaders in business and government with a guide to complexity that will help them make effective decisions in a world of rapid change.
Building on evolutionary biology, computer science, and social design, Axelrod and Cohen have constructed a unique framework for improving the way people work together. Their approach to management is based on the concept of the Complex Adaptive System, which can describe everything from rain forests to the human gene pool, and from automated software agents to multinational companies. The authors' framework reveals three qualities that all kinds of managers must cultivate in their organization:
- Variation What is the best way to manage the development of software? Should the problem be broken up into small pieces for programmers working independently, thus enhancing variation, or should there be a centralized hierarchy of programmers ruled by a chain of command? The authors show how the decentralized creation of variation combined with the centralized maintenance of standards was the key to the success of the Linux "open source software" project, which brought together thousands of volunteers in cyberspace to produce an operating system that can outperform Microsoft's.
- Interaction Why did northern Italy prosper while southern Italy remained poor? Recognizing the internal interactions of a Complex Adaptive System -- be it a national region, a company, or a nonprofit group -- reveals vital networks of trust. Axelrod and Cohen explain that in successful adaptive systems, rich networks of horizontal linkages foster cooperation and provide an advantage over other less cooperatively networked groups. In the case of Italy, voluntary associations created networks of trust in the Middle Ages that became northern Italy's critical advantage over the south.
- Selection Is a Pulitzer Prize better than a National Book Award? How can foundations and corporations design competitions that have a positive effect on the evolution of excellence? The authors' framework makes clear that the worst selection processes are mired in orthodox standards that have not adapted to a new environment. The best selection processes, on the other hand, are created and run by leaders who understand how the standards they use can transform their organization and its environment.
This simple, paradigm-shifting analysis of how people work together will transform the way we think about getting things done in a group. Harnessing Complexity is the essential guide to creating wealth, power, and knowledge in the 21st century.
In a world where companies are forced to adapt to an ever more quickly changing marketplace, where people from diverse backgrounds must work together in order to solve problems rapidly and the future is hard to predict, wouldn't it be wonderful if all this complexity could work to your advantage Axelrod (The Evolution of the Corporation) and Cohen (a consultant to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center), both professors at the University of Michigan, aim to draw on the principles of evolutionary biology, computer science and social design to explain the functioning of "complex adaptive systems" (specifically businesses), and how to improve them. They explore such abstract issues as whether to encourage variation in a rapidly changing situation (whether it refers to a diversity of products or problem-solving approaches, variety is defined as "the raw material for adaptation"); the impact of manipulating interactions (with respect to time as well as both physical and conceptual space) in an organization; and how to select and support the most viable individuals, teams, systems or business strategies that emerge. Although their schematic approach and well-drawn anecdotal examples yield pragmatic insights, Axelrod and Cohen rely on somewhat idiosyncratic terminology to make their key points: "Agents of a variety of types use their strategies in patterned interaction, with each other and with artifacts" (authors' emphasis). While most managers are aware of complexity theory and are eager to learn how to adapt it to their organizations, some may be put off by the convoluted language used here. Agent, Raphael Sagalyn. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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July 11, 2001
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Excerpt from Harnessing Complexity by Robert Axelrod
This is a small book about a large question: In a world where many players are all adapting to each other and where the emerging future is extremely hard to predict, what actions should you take
We call such worlds Complex Adaptive Systems. In Complex Adaptive Systems there are often many participants, perhaps even many kinds of participants. They interact in intricate ways that continually reshape their collective future. New ways of doing things -- even new kinds of participants -- may arise, and old ways -- or old participants -- may vanish. Such systems challenge understanding as well as prediction. These difficulties are familiar to anyone who has seen small changes unleash major consequences. Conversely, they are familiar to anyone who has been surprised when large changes in policies or tools produce no long-run change in people's behavior.
When managers and policy makers hear about complexity research, they often ask, "How can I control complexity " What they usually mean is, "How can I eliminate it " But complexity, as we shall see, stems from fundamental causes that cannot always be eliminated. Although complexity is often perceived as a liability, it can actually be an asset. The thesis of this book is that complexity can be harnessed. So, rather than seeking to eliminate complexity, we explore how the dynamism of a Complex Adaptive System can be used for productive ends. Therefore, we ask how organizations and strategies can be designed to take advantage of the opportunities provided by complexity.
In a world of mutually adaptive players, even though prediction may be difficult, there is quite a bit that you can do. Complexity itself allows for techniques that promote effective adaptation. When there are many participants, numerous interactions, much trial-and-error learning, and abundant attempts to imitate each other's successes, there will also be rich opportunities to harness the resulting complexity. And there will be things to avoid. To take a simple example: Even though one action seems best, it usually pays to maintain variety among the actions you take so that you can continue to learn and adapt. The purpose of this book is to help managers and policy makers harness complexity.
We address a variety of readers. Some of our readers may simply be interested in learning more about the exciting research frontier called complexity. For these readers we provide a nontechnical introduction to the field. Other readers may have more specific interests in how to design social systems, or in how to make better policy for existing social systems. For these readers we draw on a wide range of applications from business, political, and cultural settings. We make no assumptions about the backgrounds of our readers, except that they are curious about how social systems work and how they can be made to work better.
As we were developing the organizational implications of complexity, we saw the need to bring order to the vast range of research in the field. To do this, we constructed a framework that provides a systematic way to analyze a particular setting and thereby suggest useful questions and promising possibilities for action. We found that our framework helped to clarify some deep relationships among many hitherto separate lines of complexity research. Moreover, the framework uncovered some important gaps. To fill them, we made a number of specific contributions to complexity research. These include the critical role of nonrandom interactions in adaptation, the contrast of biological with informational copying, and the relationships between credit allocation and measures of performance.
The foundations of this book lie in three distinct fields: evolutionary biology, computer science, and social design.