Innovation is a Complex Adaptive System

Innovation is a Complex Adaptive System Maybe I’m taking on more than I can chew here but I’m going to attempt it. I apologise if it does not work for you, or you simply just give up on this but I am going to try to explain innovation as an complex adapative system. Why?  I like the pain involved!  I’m certainly not in any shape or form an expert, or even that much of a student of complex systems, and what it fully consists off but I do need to explore this more, and a little shared pain helps in this as I go.

This issue is one I consistently come across in many references to innovation. The trouble is I’ve never been fully clear on what does make up a complex system for innovation. I’m not sure anyone does for complex systems either! But I want to establish a direct and clear set of links across to innovation without it involving me in ploughing through incredibly ‘dense’ academic papers on this subject.

It is amazing how Wikipedia is becoming rapidly a first call of reference, is it because it takes away all this density found in academic papers, or that the academic papers are written mostly for an informed group and for those of us, obviously sitting on the outside of this ‘elite’ group,we gravitate to where we seem welcome to gain a ‘reasonable’ and quick understanding. So this is my starting point.

Irrespective our starting point has to be definitions

Just as an aside, I’m presently having a debate/ discussion on whether social innovation’s definition needs changing and have been arguing do we need any more debates on definitions around (any) innovation but equally, having one, does always clarify the starting point, so borrowing from Wikipedia again, lets define:

A complex system is a system composed of interconnected parts that as a whole exhibit one or more properties (behavior among the possible properties) not obvious from the properties of the individual parts.A system’s complexity may be of one of two forms: disorganized complexity and organized complexity. In essence, disorganized complexity is a matter of a very large number of parts, and organized complexity is a matter of the subject system (quite possibly with only a limited number of parts) exhibiting emergent properties.

Complex adaptive systems are special cases of complex systems. They are complex in that they are dynamic networks of interactions and relationships not aggregations of static entities. They are adaptive in that their individual and collective behaviour changes as a result of experience

So did that help?

Thankfully whoever wrote the Wikipedia entries kindly gave some examples of complex adaptive systems. These include the stock market, social insect and ant colonies, the biosphere and the ecosystem, the brain and the immune system, the cell and the developing embryo, manufacturing businesses and any human social group-based endeavour in a cultural and social system such as political parties or communities. There are close relationships between the field of CAS and artificial life. In both areas the principles of emergence and self-organization are very important.

So does innovation also fit within complex adaptive systems?

If we take the suggested feature list presented on Wikipedia’s entry for complex systems ( ) I feel innovation fits. Let’s make some comparisons and this is my attempt to quantify innovation for being a complex adaptive system in the table below. It is a work-in-progress.

Components of an innovation complex adaptive system compared.

Complex System Features Innovations Adaptive Complex System
Wikipedia Entry My Innovation related view
Cascading Failures Due to the strong coupling between components in complex systems, a failure in one or more components can lead to cascading failures which may have catastrophic consequences on the functioning of the system The amount of effort we put into the Stage-Gate process for innovation. If this is allowed to be sidetracked, given over to the whims and agenda’s of individuals as we progress innovation through the system we arrive at cascading failure and a poorly functioning end point in value due to consistent compromise.
Difficult to determine boundaries It can be difficult to determine the boundaries of a complex system. The decision is ultimately made by the observer As we open up more our innovation processes to joint collaborations, the borders between the parties will ‘blur’ and tough decisions made on who owns what will occur. This needs actively managing
Complex systems may be open Complex systems are usually open systems — that is, they exist in a thermodynamic gradient and dissipate energy. In other words, complex systems are frequently far from energetic equilibrium: but despite this flux, there may be pattern stability, see synergetics. As innovation is allowed to interact increasing outside our four walls it becomes more permeable, more shaped and influenced so we need to become far clearer in our goals and objectives we are trying to achieve. The battle of managing equilibrium against adaptability and agility will not be “Business as Usual”- it can’t be, we are consciously changing it.
Complex systems may be nested The components of a complex system may themselves be complex systems. For example, an economy is made up of organisations, which are made up of people, which are made up of cells– all of which are complex systems. Innovation is nested. We need to build an innovation business architecture made up of at the highest level, at the strategic level, and working down through several other “layers”, including people and processes.  The goal is to deconstruct the important drivers and influencers which will direct innovation activities.  From this we identify a innovation framework.
Dynamic network of multiplicity As well as coupling rules, the dynamic network of a complex system is important. Small-world or scale-free networks which have many local interactions and a smaller number of inter-area connections are often employed. Natural complex systems often exhibit such topologies. In the human cortex for example, we see dense local connectivity and a few very long axonprojections between regions inside the cortex and to other brain regions. The more we connect in the world the more we can reach new thinking for innovation. The internet allows us to make contact with anyone, on any thing. Strangers are being linked by a mutual objective or casual acquaintance that moves innovation into the small world network theory. We are working more towards scale-free networks as ‘hubs’ or centres increase their connections that offer a power-law influence over the others. We do need to layer innovation, like a cortex and we are constantly working on making connections for more innovation discoveries.
Complex systems may have a memory The history of a complex system may be important. Because complex systems are dynamical systems they change over time, and prior states may have an influence on present states. More formally, complex systems often exhibit hysteresis. The more we infuse ‘dynamics’ into innovation the more we can achieve.  As we improve our systems and structures the more dynamic they can become. They can over time in steps evolve to manage multiple innovation types. I call these dynamic capabilities for innovation fitness landscapes and am working towards a model on this.
May produce emergent phenomena Complex systems may exhibit behaviours that are emergent, which is to say that while the results may be sufficiently determined by the activity of the systems’ basic constituents; they may have properties that can only be studied at a higher level. For example, the termites in a mound have physiology, biochemistry and biological development that are at one level of analysis, but their social behaviourand mound building is a property that emerges from the collection of termites and needs to be analysed at a different level. It is the amount of interactions we can promote; the greater the potential is for breakthrough innovation or more radical concepts. The ability of an organization to allow time for increased interactions, the richer the possibilities can arise. There are lots of potential for unintended consequences in encouraging this consistent exploring but it will be the ability to manage these through the building of absorptive capacity through its three stages of accessing, anchoring and diffusion for new knowledge creation and exploitation.Our innovation behaviours will evolve the more we invest and discover the multiple options that reside in managing innovation as a discipline.
Relationships are non-linear In practical terms, this means a small perturbation may cause a large effect (see butterfly effect), a proportional effect, or even no effect at all. In linear systems, effect is always directly proportional to cause. See nonlinearity. The argument for innovation is it has to become non-linear. Most innovation is complex involving multiple agents, dynamic interactions combining in often unique ways. These fluctuate and combine and any innovation system has to have higher degrees of flexibility more for today, as many issues are difficult to solve in just (simple) linear ways.
Relationships contain feedback loops Both negative (damping) and positive (amplifying) feedbackare always found in complex systems. The effects of an element’s behaviour are fed back to in such a way that the element itself is altered. I have been recently discussing the different learning loops for innovation. When an event is part of a chain they often have a cause-and-effect on the next steps in the innovation cycle. These often form a loop, said to “feed back” into itself. These move towards ‘double or triple’ loops needed for greater innovation learning.

Source for the features used for a complex adaptive system has been taken from: and for the innovation complex adaptive system are my thoughts on where the feature does apply in innovation to fit.  W-I-P 09 02 2012

Do you agree, do you see other ones, or have I lost you? Perhaps we need to view the complexity within innovation differently- a further blog I hope helps on this. Coming soon.

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Paul HobcraftPaul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation, an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations core capabilities.

Paul Hobcraft

Paul Hobcraft is recognized for his consistency to champion and informs on innovation. He focuses on building innovation capacity, competencies, and capabilities and promotes innovation in informative, creative and knowledgeable ways, piecing together the broader understanding of innovation. Paul continually constructs a series of novel and relevant frameworks to help advance this innovation understanding and writes mainly through his posting site of where he regularly publishes his thinking and research based on solutions that underpin his advisory, coaching and consulting work at




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No Comments

  1. Jan W. Vasbinder on March 7, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    The idea that innovation is closely related to innovation is appealing, and not new. W. Brian Arthur argues it in a very profound way in his book “Technology, what it is and how it evolves”
    What I miss in the argument above is a definition of innovation, that is as clear as the definition of complex adaptive systems.

  2. Bruce Waltuck on March 7, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    Hi there… I appreciate the post, and the efforts at describing innovation in terms of complex adaptive system dynamics. I’d offer a few comments in response..

    First, I’d definitely go beyond wikipedia for info. Sure, I use it all the time- for a basic sense of a topic. But a topic like complexity and innovation is probably better-served with a web search. Here is an article by my friend Curt Lindberg, then of the Plexus Institute:

    There is also a book on complexity and innovation by Jose Fonseca, published by Routledge. Part of an excellent series rooted in the work of Ralph Stacey and his colleagues at Hertfordshire.

    And these lecture notes with excellent reference links, from Carol Webb (who is at a U in the UK now).

    For a general intro to Complex Adaptive Systems, Try the well-known Leadership and the New Science, by Margaret Wheatley.

    With particular regard to innovation, organizations handle it in all kinds of ways. Some try to manage and control their innovation processes. In a cover story in Business Week in 2008, 3M reported how implementing the rigorous Lean Six Sigma methodology almost killed their famous culture of innovation. Others, such as the remarkable Brazilian firm Semco, tap the collective creativity of everyone in the organization.

    What makes an org or system complex, are the iterated interactions of its people- individuals who think and decide and act as they wish, within the constraints of the system they are in. These dynamics result in self-organizing and emergent behaviors. You can not predict or control a truly complex adaptive system. Causality can only be understood in retrospect. Probably the best strategy for innovation is to devote a portion of your resources to experiments in novelty – exploring the “adjacent possible.” Free flows of info and connections among people are key.

    Good luck,

    Bruce W, M.A., Complexity, Chaos, and Creativity
    (yes it actually says that on the diploma lol)

  3. Paul Hobcraft (@Paul4innovating) on March 8, 2012 at 9:31 am


    Really appreciate these. Maybe I’ve been searching in the wrong places. I’ll certainly take a look as I’d like to reinforce this complex and innovation view more.


    I struggled a little more on your comment- can you clarify a little more please

  4. Graham Douglas on March 9, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Thanks for this stimulating and useful article. Hope it was not too painful.

    To my mind, a common basis for communication is the essential characteristic of complex adaptive systems generally and innovative, effective and efficient organisations in particular. It is also the characteristic seldom found in organisations so creating it should be the first step towards improvement and innovation.

    The starting point is to train EVERYBODY in the organisation to think integratively as well as critically (the way we all have been previously taught to think). This training in integrative thinking needs to be based on our currently much improved scientific understanding of the human mind.

  5. Peter Bond on March 15, 2012 at 8:16 am

    Hi Dru, Not an easy subject to get to grips with, but you’ve made a great start. As Bruce implies, internet provides only part of the story. Most of what you outline can be said of systems in general. Although the word has not so far been mentioned, complex systems, which behave as Bruce describes, are nonlinear systems. A truly complex system is a nonlinear system. Sometimes (often?) complexity is confused with system size: the bigger the system the more complex it is. This is not so. In the case of what we might call human activity systems, a two or three person group is complex. You never know where a conversation might lead. For example, to solutions to problems as brilliant as they are unexpected. Regarding innovations, here’s a thought. Adaptation is itself might be treated as innovation. Adaptation is evidence that a system change has taken place,that a change in system structure has occurred, giving rise to a change in the relationship between system and its niche, medium, or environment.

    The really interesting question is about the source of nonlineality in human systems. The ‘accidental or ‘coincidental’ scientists of complexity Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (because they did not set out to be scientists of complex systems)show that it arises in the nature of the relationship between an organism (e.g., Homo sapiens) and the medium of its operation. This means our every day experience is nonlinear, continuously adaptive, and thus always full of potential to invent/innovate. It pretty clear from the children’s behaviour how naturally inventive we humans all are. Some more on this approach is here:

  6. Romulo Queiroz on March 20, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    You’ve hit the nail. In my opinion, innovation is certainly an adaptive complex system. I have been working on and studying about innovation for over a decade, now. In the beginning of 2006, I had the chance to meet Prof. Malcolm Philip Young, scientist, pro-vice-chancellor of Newcastle University in the UK and a complex systems specialist. In his country, he is considered to be one of the “brains behind the XXI Century”.
    ( ).
    At that time, I had already developed an innovation management framework that could be applied to any type of innovation in any realm from specific projects, organizations, and even States. As I explained my model to him, he immediately identified it as a complex system. Since then, I have been studying about adaptive complex systems in order to improve my innovation management methodology, but as it is not my field of expertise, I have had very limited advancement.
    I loved Bruce’s comments and reading suggestions. And, he is absolutely right about causality, but we are starting to manage innovation with quite interesting results and control, reducing chance and causality factors that lead to higher risks in innovation endeavors. Yet, I think that with today’s technology we can fairly predict some systemic behavior and response, if the model is correctly managed through specific techniques.
    In fact, I am planning to start a research program to learn more about it, using mathematical algorithms and super computer support. If anyone is interested in joining this effort I would love to exchange some ideas.

  7. William Reed on November 6, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    I have some resources on my website ( about the connection between complexity and innovation.

    Regards, William Reed, PhD

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