Navigating Complexity: Nine Key Concepts for Transformative Change

Inspire to Change
4 min readSep 26, 2023


By Nora F. Murphy Johnson, PhD

Complex adaptive systems (CAS) are always changing and adapting, making them unique and interesting to study. These systems have special features that help us understand how they work and how we can improve them. The complexity field is vast. And we’ve read dozens of books and articles about complexity. When it comes down to it, we are looking for what is useful, meaningful, and has integrity. Here are nine concepts we use with clients every time we co-create transformative work.

  1. Agents. The individual elements or entities within a complex adaptive system that can interact, adapt, and learn from each other and their environment.
  2. Inputs. Any external factor or element that is introduced into the system and can affect its state or behavior. These inputs can be varied and numerous, such as information, energy, resources, or influences from the environment.
  3. Boundaries. They can be physical, like a room, or non-physical, like a shared goal. They define what’s inside the system and shape its behavior. Boundaries keep a system together. They also keep some things in, and some things out.
  4. Differences. These are the variations within a system. They can be in knowledge, beliefs, power, roles, etc. Differences can cause change by creating tension.
  5. Exchanges. These are the interactions within a system. They involve sharing things like information or resources. Exchanges help create relationships and enable learning and adaptation.
  6. Emergence. The concept that the behavior of agents within a CAS is interconnected and dependent on the actions of other agents, often leading to complex chains of cause and effect.
  7. Co-evolution. The process by which agents in a CAS mutually influence and adapt to each other over time, leading to the evolution of the entire system.
  8. Self-organization. The process by which agents in a CAS spontaneously form structures or patterns without the need for external guidance or control.
  9. Non-linearity. Small changes can have large effects (and vice versa).

Why these concepts?

By understanding agents, we realize the importance of individual elements within a larger system. Empowering these individual entities, whether they are people, organizations, or cells in an organism, means strengthening the entire system. In a world that needs transformative change, recognizing and nurturing individual capacities is critical. In societal contexts, this can be seen as elevating marginalized voices or supporting grassroots movements.

Recognizing the power of inputs helps us identify and introduce positive factors or influences that can catalyze change. Whether we’re talking about educational resources in a learning environment or ethical values in a corporate setting, the right inputs can drive behavior towards a more equitable and harmonious world. Negative inputs, if not recognized and named, can wreak havoc and cause chaos and disillusionment at every level.

Setting and recognizing boundaries allow us to maintain order and coherence in a system. In co-creating change, boundaries can help us delineate roles, responsibilities, and areas of focus. By respecting boundaries, we also respect the sanctity and uniqueness of different systems, ensuring that changes made are both localized and effective. And, sometimes naming and changing inequitable or unethical boundaries are the most powerful move one can make in systems change.

Embracing differences is at the heart of creating a just world. By valuing diversity, whether in thought, background, or capability, we promote a richer and more creative environment. Differences can provide alternative perspectives, leading to holistic solutions and fostering inclusivity. Noticing differences — and identifying which difference make the difference — help us make sense of patterns that might otherwise seem random.

Promoting healthy exchanges ensures that resources, be it knowledge, wealth, or power, circulate and reach those who need them. Facilitating exchanges also creates stronger interconnections, encouraging collaboration, mutual growth, and unity. It’s often said that knowledge is power but in reality, it’s exchanges of value that have power. Recognizing the valued exchanges can also help identify the centers of power.

Recognizing emergence is about recognizing that sometimes, the collective power of individual actions can lead to outcomes that are unpredictable yet significant. For co-creating change, this means fostering environments where organic, bottom-up initiatives can sprout and thrive. And supporting meaningful top-down initiatives. And finding the best path forward through the muddled middle.

In a co-evolving world, no entity is static. This reminds us that as we push for change in one area, others will adapt, and the entire system will shift. It promotes a worldview of interconnectedness and mutual responsibility, where our actions today influence and are influenced by the trajectory of the entire system.

Trusting in the ability of agents to self-organize means believing in the innate capability of communities, organizations, or ecosystems to find their own equilibrium and harmony. By fostering environments that support self-organization, we allow for natural leaders to emerge, resources to be allocated efficiently, and resilience to be built from within.

Understanding non-linearity is about embracing unpredictability and being prepared for outsized reactions to small actions. In a world where a small grassroots movement can spark global change or a single voice can represent the cry of many, recognizing the power of non-linearity encourages us to value every effort, no matter how small, in the journey to a more just, beautiful world.

Incorporating these nine principles into our approach not only enhances our understanding of complex adaptive systems but also equips us with the tools needed to co-create meaningful and lasting change. These concepts are not just ideas; they are actionable steps towards a more equitable, harmonious, and just world.

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