In a nutshell

Posted: March 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy

I think that scientific complexity is no cure for the limitations of the current management / business disciplines, because:

  • Management is inherently unstructured. It is only (perhaps) 25% about scientific methods and related techniques (whether “linear” or not), while the other 75% is about persuasion, communication, intuition, empathy, leadership, unstructured knowledge, empirism, luck. This soft fabric is hard to teach and the related talents are typically acquired via experience: mostly, they cannot be conveyed via software or formal models and languages.
  • The management community has an insufficient command of the 25% part which is “scientific”, i.e. controlled, verifiable, repeatable and quickly teachable. For example, less than 5% of managers participating in manufacturing ecosystems master statistics or linear programming, the basic tools of the trade, and have to rely entirely on specialized consultants to manage the relevant software. As another example: bankers or CFOs do not understand the technicalities of the debate concerning the math models of creative finance. And so on.

At business, I contend, the problem is not that the world be «unknowable» and/or «unpredictable»: the problem is that too many people ignore even that very small part of it which is controllable.

I do see the risk of «illusion of control», «scientism» and «mechanism» that the management literature talks about: however I do not view these excesses as the fault of the approach, of the underlying “science”, but rather as the result of limited comprehension of said approach.

I therefore do not see how getting involved in abstruse nonlinear concepts and related machinery could in any way bring help; as much as I do not believe that driving lessons should take place at Monza on Formula One cars…

Hence my view of “complexity” subjects as sexy diversions from the actual challenges.

  1. I’m curious to know what is your opinion of Dave Snowden’s “Cynefin” framework.

    • paolomagrassi says:

      It is one of the zillion such models (and not the worst one, despite some confusion, particularly around the notion of chaos, which escapes 99,9% of these works), only that it became famous thanks to an HBR paper.

  2. Giorgio says:

    I’m currious to know what is your opinion of S. Beer’s “Viable System Model”.

    Take care

    • paolomagrassi says:

      Oh my! Fond memories of my cybernetics times of yeasteryear…

      Somehow the engineering counterpart of autopoiesis, and more articulated, although limited in scope to firm organization (at least as far as I remember!), VSM came up when cybernetics was still à la page.

      I think it will make a come back someday soon, perhaps under some variant, as robots will more and more take over production of most goods and services, including decision-making. (As long as humans govern firms, the original VSM model seems inapt to take into account communications and psychological nuances making up 80% of what a business is about).

      PS: While sounding “good” to the systems science-trained ear, these are the kinds of efforts that are dismissed by most pop-complexity fanatics as “mechanistic contructs” leading nowhere. Yet, I know it is being currently abused in some crippled Mediterreanean variants…


  3. eYs says:

    The application of complexity in business is indeed in many cases superfluous. But complexity as a whole (outside of business) proposes a unified natural philosophy that can be applied to many disciplines and renders a holistic belief system that allows man to reconnect with nature and rediscover his place in it. Especially a systemic view on organizations can aid not only business configurations but also any type of organizational formation that essentially function in similar ways. Organizations at different scales of reality, be it cyrstallization, ant colonies, social networks and chaotic systems such as the weather can be seen from one and the same perspective. This is the true power of the complexity paradigm: to bring about a singular perspective to interpret many phenomena of reality.

    Moreover, chaos theory shows inherent unpredictability of our descriptive capabilities of nature. The world IS fundamentally unknowable due to our limited measuring capacity. Our belief in linearity is countered with the nonlinear butterfly effect which shows how infinitesimal changes can be fed back in systemic iterations and ‘grow’ to large consequences. In other words, even the smallest of difference, the smallest digits after the comma of measurements can completely change the system’s outcome if iterated into the future. The unpredictability comes from our own constrained perception which cannot capture all digits after the comma when measuring reality (our measuring devices always have a limited number of precision, we cannot measure with infinite precision). As Cartwright argued: ‘chaos is order without predictability’. Hence, our universe is very orderly, but our perceptive qualities are still to ‘primitive’ to work with infinity.As such, we see disorder where there is in fact order.

    Two very good books that back up this line of reasoning are the following. They are truly mindbending when indicating flaws in our traditional way of thinking about reality.

    – James Gleick (1987) Chaos
    – Ilya Prigogine (1984) Order Out of Chaos

    Check out Systems Theory, Chaos theory, Information theory, Fractal geometry, Cybernetics,
    Self-Organization, Autopoiesis and Network theory.Then interconnect these fields with complexity. It will allow you to discover how nature functions without being mediated by business people. Also, be sure to check out Principia Cybernetica ( It condenses many concepts in a way that is relatively easily grasped by laymen such as myself.

    enjoy 🙂

  4. Paolo Magrassi says:

    Hello. Thanks for your comments. I am indeed familiar with the body of knowledge your are referring to.

    In this particular blog post, I was argueing that it is silly and useless to teach these things to business managers.

    And I will forgive you for citing Prigogine: with Kauffman’s The Origins of Order and Gell-Mann’s The Quark And The Jaguar, it is one of the pop-complexity must-quotes that nobody actually ever really read 🙂


    PS: For the shortest version of my Weltanschauung on complexity, see the menu bar of this very blog (of which apparently you’ve seen just one post). For a more elaborated commentary, see For an almost complete discussion, see I also have published a number of scientific papers on the topic of nonlinearity and emerging behavior, which I generously save you here but you can peruse by taking a look at my personal website.

  5. eYs says:

    Hello again,

    Would you care to elaborate on the Prigogine part of your comment? I do not fully understand what you mean. Is there something incorrect about Prigogine’s book? I know both books by Kauffman and Gell-Man but haven’t had the time to read them. I’m under the impression you understand something that I do not :). Please inform me if you find the time. Thx!

    Btw, I am under the impresssion the complexity paradigm is not at all useless to teach business managers. On the contrary, an evolution from a paradigm of order, top-down control and domination to a paradigm of self-organization and autonomization is in my view essential to reintegrate business in society as a collective enterprise. How would the world look like if the egoistic capitalist business logic is replaced with a perspective in which managers realize that the ‘workforce’ needs as much fostering as the organization itself? In my view, the complexity paradigm offers the seeds to topple the industrial paradigm and perhaps offer an ecofriendly integration of man within his environment.

    If all entities are envisioned as organizations themselves within larger scales of organizations (such as atoms->molecules->cells->organisms:>social systems), the grandeur of the universe is exposed as a monistic and holistic unified process. Especially Fractal geometry seems to provide such unitary framework of layered scales (which show how infinity can be manifest within perceived finite boundaries). It aids to realize we are not external to nature but intricate and necessary parts inextricably interwoven within the fabric of reality.Hence, from such a perspective of organization, businesses can be interpreted and ameliorated according to natural law (e.g. as dissipative structures). Business then is not a purely arbitrary construction of man but as much a natural emergent phenomenon of natural logic as any organizational entity. I deem this very important for the future development of a global consciousness and eco-awareness, a piece of the puzzle to envision Buckminster Fuller’s ‘spaceship Earth’ and James Lovelock’s Gaia, etc.

    Moreover, complexity resonates with philosophical Buddhist and Taoist interpretations of reality. Imagine a corporate business logic based on Buddhism, or at least a hybrid of western and eastern philosophy. It is because of the belief in the separation between man and his environment – as an individual struggle for life, a template of survival of the fittest – that western man is driven towards detachment with his environment and his fellow man, fueled by the perpetuation of existential ‘angst’.A holistic perspective of complexity counters the traditional reductionist analytical way of perceiving the surroundings. A much needed perspective in the world as it stands today. Furthermore, although I’ve had the tendency to envision the progression of humanity rather pessimistically, complexity has aided me to try to explain rather than judge, to understand rather than arrogantly discard even the most absurd of human behaviour. In short, complexity made me humble, has shown me my own place in this universe and gave me back the feeling of wonder in all natural manifestations, a profound emotion which could benefit all of mankind.

    Of course, the truth validity of such perspective remains relative to current contextual conditions, but from all belief systems I’ve encountered over the years to define myself, complexity seems the most promising. The challenge of the world today as I see it is not external but internal to how people perceive themselves and the world. This is the basis for all behavior and action. If we can change how people see themselves, behavior will follow (cognitive dissonance is a handy tool :))
    I’ll be glad to receive some comments or criticism :). In the mean time, I’ll surely check out your worldview.

  6. Paolo Magrassi says:

    My 2011 book is indeed centered around the ascertainment that many people interpret nonlinearity in a religious way. You are confirming it, to my pleasure. Thanks

    • eYs says:

      After a more careful consideration of your blog and reading the first few pages of your book (which I would happily read if provided in full for free), I assume you define me exactly as that which you are trying to debunk. Unfortunately, your reply to my post did not make me much wiser and didn’t do much ‘debunking’ but led me to a paid book of which the back cover indicates a rather shortsighted explanation for ‘pop complexity fanatics’ as people “frightened by increasing complexity”, “repelled by rationality” and “thinking that Nature escapes human insight entirely and that science is an algorithmic system aimed at turning the world into a final exact equation”. In short: “Curious people turned dogmatic and bigots”

      Perhaps there is some diversity among those ‘fanatics’ who may lack the scientific background to fully grasp the mathematical foundations of the complexity paradigm but nevertheless are still genuinely in search for understanding Nature and their place in it and moreover believe that complexity insights can aid such understanding. Moreover, I find philosophical implications in complexity thinking that seem to transcend traditional science (believe it or not, science itself can elicit dogmatic thinking and knows its own revolutions (cfr Kuhn – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)). In this regard, concerning the interpretation of the complexity paradigm, which of course goes much further than merely the concept of nonlinearity, the worldview that emerges is enticing in a religious way specifically in the fashion Einstein once expressed it:

      “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear — that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man… I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence — as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.”

      Comparing such profound feeling of religiosity when thinking about complexity in nature to notions of intelligent design, as you did in your book, I find unfortunate. Although you attribute dogmatic thinking to pop complexity fanatics, for me, complexity has implied instead the relative nature of all human thought in a way Nietzsche describes beautifully:

      “What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms — in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.
      We still do not know where the urge for truth comes from; for as yet we have heard only of the obligation imposed by society that it should exist: to be truthful means using the customary metaphors – in moral terms, the obligation to lie according to fixed convention, to lie herd-like in a style obligatory for all…”

      I do indeed admit to lack much knowledge but I am intrigued by this still immature perspective on Nature as many are. I long for a comprehensive guide that can explain to the laymen the ‘absolute’ meaning of complexity, if there is such a thing. But the epistemological quest for grasping complexity is indeed far from over and I find many unresolved issues and contradictions in scientific, philosophical and ‘pop’ complexity writings (e.g. on the concept of emergence). Perhaps a more constructive course in explaining complexity rather than quickly discarding models other people worked on with genuine intentions and oversimplify definitions of pop complexity fanatics, apparently missing the complexity of each of these fanatics, could aid in redirecting misconceptions to more approximate truths or beliefs. Nevertheless, I am grateful that you confronted me with my own beliefs in other parts of this blogs which is always an interesting experience…

      P.S. I was looking for some interpretation of how you define yourself in this complex universe on this blog but was unable to find any indications of it. If you find the time, I would be interested to hear how complexity insights have changed your vision on life, yourself and the very existence of this universe. von Foerster, when defining second-order cybernetics, once said: “the cybernetician, by entering his own domain, has to account for his or her own activity.” So my question is how do you account for your own activity in a complex reality?

  7. Paolo Magrassi says:


    • eYs says:

      I had hoped for a more in-depth discussion :). UnfortunateIy, I see more sarcasm in your writings than knowledge. I once read somewhere “Sarcasm is the last refuge of the imaginatively bankrupt.”

      I would like to link this with another Einstein quote:
      “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.””

      A final Carl Sagan quotation that may expand your thinking:

      “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

      I wish you all the best.

  8. Ernest says:

    Interesting read… However, I find your replies to eys unfortunate. Perhaps you should give the man/woman something more than plain sarcasm… Moreover, perhaps it’s not because ‘you’ cannot see any applicability of complexity theory to management that, therefore, any application of it is ‘useless’.

    Let me adjust the quote you start with a little bit:

    “There are more things in heaven and earth, Paolo,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”

    The subscript on your site says: Debunking the myths of pop “complexity theory”
    well, than please do so. Give the (wo)man something to think about instead of leaving him unworthy of a descent answer…

    • Paolo Magrassi says:

      Thank you Ernest. I hear you. However I have no time left other than for brief sarcastic notes. I wrote books on this subject, and got quite bored in the process. You folks should avoid this blog altogether. Please go refer to the many authors who write fascinating stories about complexity, and enjoy. Here you are but wasting your time.
      Best, Paolo

      • Ernest says:

        After browsing through this blog, it seems there is not much ‘debunking’ going on here. I predominantly see a lot of frustration based on unnuanced allegations but nothing really fleshed out concerning complexity science itself. Moreover, as far as I can find (a quick search, I admit), you wrote exactly one book about complexity, and, after skimming, it seems to be the embodiment of my previous sentence. In this book, next to correct but basic explanations (which are in part readily available on wikipedia), you seem to have an ability to overgeneralize the diversity of potential perspectives regarding (pop) complexity thinking while fully disregarding the philosophical (and I do mean philosophical) contexts in which complexity thinking is questioned. One example of several:

        “a larger part is, at its core, a conscious or unconscious attempt to bypass, when not liquidate the scientific approach. If nothing is predictable, all is at the edge of chaos, and behaviors always emerge unexpectedly in Nature, it follows that no rigorous, methodical, controlled approach is possible. That is how the pop-complex enthusiast does reason and often explicitly states, such as, e.g., in some essays on emerging behavior and Darwinian evolution. In her mind, all we are left with are animistic beliefs or at most some organized religious scheme.”

        and the cause for all this seems to be:

        “Now, why is this happening? Because many people, including intellectually gifted people such as some of the pop-complex exponents, are afraid of mathematics.”

        Where is the science in this? You impose a strange sense of causal relationships while proclaiming yourself to be the connaisseur of all non-scientists interested in complexity science. The world might not be as black and white as you think. Maybe you should read a bit of Wittgenstein or Deleuze (for diverse of reasons). This blog and book probably explain more about you than about complexity enthusiasts…

        After all, you were right: I should go read something more fascinating, this is a waste of my time. I can understand your sense of boredom when you wrote this stuff. In my book, science is not meant to elevate oneself above others. True science must lead to humility, not arrogance.

        “Vulnerable, like all men, to the temptations of arrogance, of which intellectual pride is the worst, he [the scientist] must nevertheless remain sincere and modest, if only because his studies constantly bring home to him that, compared with the gigantic aims of science, his own contribution, no matter how important, is only a drop in the ocean of truth.” (de Broglie, 1962)

        Debunking the debunker… I should start a website…

        Should I now also wish you ‘all the best’ or do you merely use it to be kind of politically correct?

        Best regards,

      • Paolo Magrassi says:

        The world is not black&white: it is complex (from “complector”), intricate and nonlinear. And it cannot be known entirely via the scientific approach.

        It is also, more unfortunately and less interestingly (safe for psychiatrists), full of mentally handicapped people who spend the day printing anonymous idiocies on the world wide web.

        So what? Am I supposed to take that load on my puny shoulders? Laissez moi cultiver mon jardin, unhappy creatures…

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