Complexity – How to Cope?


Complexity refers to the number of states a system can adopt. Complex is not the same as complicated. Complicatedness refers to the number of elements the system consists of.

How to cope with a complex environment?

Cybernetics has provided us with a fundamental rule for the management of complexity –  “Ashby’s law”: Only complexity (or “variety’ as a measure for complexity) can absorb complexity (‘variety’).

Theoretically, an organization has two possibilities to cope with its complex environment.

Firstly, it can reduce the (increasing) complexity of its environment by simply not seeing or recognizing it, by consciously ignoring it, by redefining its boundaries, e.g. by concentrating only on specific customer groups, and so forth.

Secondly, an organization can become more complex itself. Only then it can absorb at least part of today’s proliferating complexity. E.g., an organization acquires new knowledge, becomes more diverse, sets up a structure corresponding to customer needs, grants more autonomy to operating units, allows horizontal communication beyond its traditional boundaries, smartly uses new communication technology – becomes more “agil“.

New Thinking

Coping with complex systems requires a new way of thinking. The central question:

How can we wisely increase our own – personal, institutional, regional, national, global – complexity in order to allow reasonable and meaningful development?


see also: Malik approach