Features Download
From: Tobias Mayer <scrum <at> agilethinking.net>
Subject: CAS for the layperson
Newsgroups: gmane.comp.programming.scrum.general
Date: Friday 7th August 2009 00:26:13 UTC (over 8 years ago)
[continued from post 40444

I have a sense that the subject of Complex Adaptive Systems is very
relevant to the Scrum Development list, and I'd hate for people here to
be turned away from the ideas because (perhaps like me) they are
intimidated by the language of science, and the protective stance that
is sometimes taken around pure theoretical ideas.  Human organizations
are by their inherent nature, complex.  Therefore CAS topic is a good
topic to help us explore how we personally work within such systems. 
For me, learning about CAS opened my mind to understanding
organizational dynamics, and gave me some insight into why change
initiatives so often fall apart.

It has been a couple of years since I read anything on CAS so I was
willing to accept I had some of the concepts wrong, but having done some
refresher reading I don't actually think I was too far off, in a
metaphorical sense -- in the context that interests me.  My focus has
been on how the ideas from CAS theory have been adopted by
organizational development researchers and developers to explain
patterns of behaviour in organizational culture and suggest ways that
organizations can better meet the demands of fast-changing markets.

Essentially, an organization is considered a complex system.  It is
complex because it is driven by forces and variables (including the
humans within) whose behaviour cannot be predicted.  It becomes an
adaptive system under certain conditions. Many organizations are not
adaptive, they seek and find equilibrium and use dampeners such as
negative feedback to help them stay there.   There is a misconception
that organizations can be run along mechanistic lines.  There is a
second misconception that organizational stability is good. 
Organizations that hold this belief tend to stagnate and eventually die.

In the domain of organizational culture, a system is considered adaptive
when it attempts to move away from equilibrium, and tend towards chaos. 
Usually the dampeners that are in place don't allow this movement to go
very far, which is why we see a reversal to old behaviour as soon as a
crisis hits.  This is useful to know.  Most big organizations tend
towards stability, and it takes some great force to change that.  That
force may be something that is being called a strange attractor.

The tendency to safety is undermined when strange attractor is
introduced.  The term strange attractor --in the domain of
organizational development-- has been applied both to people (usually
strategic leaders) and to the forces that are generated from the
presence of such people, e.g. a shared vision, or a sense of grass-roots
empowerment.  These attractors move the system away from equilibrium,
swiftly and the normal dampeners become insufficient to prevent the

This is very all very relevant to Scrum, as Scrum is part of the change
mechanism, part of the different thinking required by organizations to
be able to move away from safety and into new ways of being. The
introduction of Scrum could in itself act as a strange attractor. 
Having a single person on a team challenge the way work is done in an
organization (e.g. a "fool") could also have that effect.

If this description doesn't match scientific/mathematical understanding
of CAS I am okay with that.  And I don't think it is an abuse of the
term, nor is it pseudo-science.  It is the re-casting of a set of ideas
into a context that can make practical use of it.  Personally, I like

An excellent book that offers both theory and real-world examples of how
CAS thinking works inside big organizations is Surfing the Edge of Chaos
by Pascale, et al.  Here also are a few papers and articles that may be
of interest to Scrum practitioners:

Storytelling, time, and evolution: The role of strategic leadership in
complex adaptive systems <http://bit.ly/3Uuk13>
4a2675e25b>  Strange Attractors and Human Interaction: Leading Complex
Organizations through the Use of Metaphors
The Plexus Story <http://www.plexusinstitute.org/about/plexus_story.cfm>

Sorry for such a long post.  My next one will be 140 characters :-)


PS as an aside, Georges Boole invented Boolean algebra long before there
was any real application for the theory.  He may have been appalled to
see his perfect ideas applied to something so commonplace as computer
programming.  Then again, he may have been delighted.
CD: 3ms