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The Architecture of Complexity

A number of proposals have been advanced in recent years for the development of “general systems theory” which, abstracting from properties peculiar to physical, biological, or social systems, would be applicable to all of them. We might well feel that, while the goal is laudable, systems of such diverse kinds could hardly be expected to have any nontrivial properties in common. Metaphor and analogy can be helpful, or they can be misleading. All depends on whether the similarities the metaphor captures are significant or superficial.

Reading level: Intermediate


Herbert Simon was a Nobel laureate and social scientist most noted for his study of decision making. He is not usually thought of as a “complexity type” and was in fact quite critical of such areas as emergence. He tended to think of systems as near-decomposable hierarchies.

But one idea in this paper really caught my attention, namely the relationships between states and processes. These relationships provide a useful duality.

How complex or simple a structure is depends critically upon the way in which we describe it. Most of the complex structures found in the world are enormously redundant, and we can use this redundancy to simplify their description. But to use it, to achieve the simplification, we must find the right representation. Pictures, blueprints, most diagrams, chemical structural formulas are state descriptions. Recipes, differential equations, equations for chemical reactions are process descriptions. The former characterize the world as sensed; they provide the criteria for identifying objects, often by modeling the objects themselves. The latter characterize the world as acted upon; they provide the means for producing or generating objects having the desired characteristics. The distinction between the world as sensed and the world as acted upon defines the basic condition for the survival of adaptive organisms. The organism must develop correlations between goals in the sensed world and actions in the world of process.

If you are involved in facilitating complex change, it is important to think in terms of both present and future state, and the process needed to move between them. My experience has been that when considering complex organizational opportunities, most people think in terms of states. I can’t even count the number of times I have been asked to find a solution in terms of “drawing a new organizational chart”. Rather, I sense a lot more truth in the old adage that “form follows function” and that you should rather consider actions and processes required to achieve goals, and leave the organizational chart as a future implementation consideration.

Simon’s well noted paper The Architecture of Complexity is worth reading, but perhaps more for the serendipitous gems it contains than for his main reason for writing it.