Navigate Complexity: Three Habits of Mind

In 2013, I co-authored a paper with several scientist friends on cultivating complexity thinking in social-ecological systems (Rogers et al. 2013). An assertion we made in this piece (and I believe it is still valid) is that too much of our understanding of complexity is intellectual. There is very little that embodies what complexity philosopher Edgar Morin would term “lived complexity”.

Many academic and professional disciplines abound with mentions of complexity. These include business (Ostrom 2002, Snowden and Boone 2007), philosophy (Cilliers 1999, Ulanowicz 2009), education (Grimmet et al. 1990), economics (Ostrom 1990, 2002, Scharmer 2010), health (Zimmerman 1999, Jayasinghe 2011), leadership (Wheatley 2006), the natural and social sciences (Kay et al. 1999, Levin 1998, Holling and Allen 2001, Funtowicz and Ravetz 1992, Nowotny et al. 2001, Mazzocchi 2008, Ulanowicz 2009), planning and policy (Mitchell 2009), public service (Raelin 2001), and warfare and crime (Ward 2005, Habtemichael and Cloete 2010). (See Rogers et al. 2013 for detailed references)

Most of the literature is dominated by an intellectual understanding and theorising of complexity. Morin asserts that “Scientists who do not practically master the consequences of their discoveries, do not control the meaning and nature of their research, even on an intellectual level” (Morin 2008:4). In other words, real understanding can only come from an internalised intersection of understanding (intellectual) and practising (lived). Nowadays we see a lot of what Morin calls pseudo complexity thinking: approaches and people who define themselves in opposition to linear reduction approaches but do not consistently live complexity. Too many consultants profess complexity, but their practices are still informed by a reductionist paradigm that believes that we can fully know our social–biophysical reality and that we are able to map paths into the future definitively.

“They display all the distinctly reductionist habits of expecting to come to “know” the problem and objectively find the “right” solution by dividing the problem into discrete elements to be tackled by experts who “know” how to do it. Any range of solutions can be tried because, if they go wrong, they can be reversed with little consequence for the system. They will expect, consciously or unconsciously, that once the “real” solution is found, the problem will go away and they will now have an “evidence-based” decision that can be applied again should “the” problem emerge again. “(Rogers et al, 2013)

Consultants need to practice what they preach if they are not to “mutilate knowledge and disfigure reality” as Morin (2008:3), somewhat belligerently but cogently, phrases it.

This is problematic, as the world very much needs practical ways of applying complexity thinking to ever more pressing intractable problems.There is hope however. All human beings actually have a lot of lived experience in complexity, we simply forget about (or disregard it as irrelevant) in professional or work contexts. As we negotiate city life, traffic, social complexities in families or friendships and raising children, we are effectively engaging complexity.

In this 2013 paper, we attempted to make explicit some of the tacit heuristics that we collectively cultivated over many years of working in complex systems. We framed them as habits of mind.

Habits of mind to thrive in complexity

“A habit of mind is a pattern of intellectual behaviour that leads to productive actions. Habits of mind are seldom used in isolation but rather in clusters that collectively present a pattern of behaviours.”

We identified three inter-dependent habit clusters or frames that we consistently apply when navigating complexity. They are:

  1. Openness

Openness can be described as a willingness to accept, engage with, and internalise the different perspectives, even paradigms, to be encountered when dealing with diverse participants in an interdisciplinary situation. An open frame of mind requires conscious acceptance that notions such as ambiguity, unpredictability, serendipity, and paradox will compete strongly, and legitimately, with knowledge, science, and fact. In essence, it means that while navigating challenges of a complex system, one holds one’s own strong opinions lightly (Pfeffer and Sutton 2006) and engages as both facilitator and learner. “

Some of the specific habits of mind that promote patterns of openness include:

  • Hold your strong opinions lightly and encourage others to do the same.
  • Embrace emergence: Be prepared for the intervention of surprise, serendipity, and epiphany.
  • Cultivate curiosity — learn to “stay in inquiry” and be curious (vs assuming, judging and jumping to conclusions)
  • Value diversity: Encounter every person with equal respect, listen for and acknowledge their specific needs, knowledge, and ways of knowing.
  • Set direction, but be open to not having specific goals or outcomes in mind.
  • Be open to both/and options.
  • Expect ambiguity or paradox: Accepting these as legitimate can often avoid unnecessary conflict.
  • Accept that consensus is often impossible in complexity, adopt an experimental approach rather than forcing agreement to a single approach.
  • Accept everyone as co-learners, not experts or competitors.

2. Situational Awareness

“One of the critical differences between complexity-based and reduction-based thinking is the importance of context and scale in complex systems. Each issue or system attribute can appear quite different, and interactions have quite different outcomes, under different contexts and at different scales. Spatial and historical context are very important, but so too are the different participants’ value systems and how they lead to different outcomes. An awareness of the complex context in which an adaptive challenge exists, and of how it changes in time and space, is critical to effectively navigating through it. In essence, one must cultivate a state of anticipatory awareness and constant mindfulness.”

Habits of mind that promote patterns of situational awareness include:

  • Consider the importance of relationships and interactions between entities and not just the entities themselves.
  • Be aware of contingencies, scale, and history.
  • Surface organising principles and values that will bound decision situations and help keep decision making consistent from one context to the next. (vs setting rigid rules).
  • Reflect often: formally, informally, individually, and collectively.
  • Cultivate diverse feedback mechanisms and networks — avoid echo chambers

3. A healthy respect for, what we term, the restraint/action paradox.

“Leadership and decision making in a complex system constitute a balance between the risks associated with practicing restraint and taking action. On the one hand, if the context requires it, one needs to consciously practice restraint and create space that allows the emergence of ideas, trust, opportunity, and even epiphany to loosen the tangled problem knot. There is a strong need for a certain slowness (Cilliers 2006) in taking time to allow emergence to unfold. On the other hand, one needs the courage to take action in a mist of uncertainty because, in a complex system, the consequences of our actions are never entirely predictable, and no matter how good our knowledge, there is never an objective “right” decision. Being conscious of, and comfortable with, this paradox is critical to successfully fostering and practicing adaptive leadership. “

Habits of mind that promote patterns of a healthy respect for the restraint/action paradox include:

Decisiveness/willingness to act under tension

  • Encourage courage. Cultivate an awareness of the natural inclination to avoid discomfort and have the courage to push beyond it and seize the “just do it” moment.
  • Embrace provisionality: When a decision has to be made in the apparent absence of the necessary information, accept that it is likely to be imperfect and that it will be provisional at best.
  • Do not be afraid of intelligent mistakes. Mistakes lead to learning.
  • Avoid paralysis from the natural anxiety response to uncertainty. Accept that there is no one right place to start or end. Take the next fit-for-context action that makes sense in the here and now.
  • Act small and local. Avoid large system-wide interventions. One certainty in complexity is that any action can (and often does) lead to unintended consequences.

Restraint under tension

  • Embrace liminality and avoid premature convergence — avoid being too quick to make judgments and choices.
  • Avoid overconfidence about being ready to take action in a data-driven “predict and act” mode.
  • Allow the “seeds of action” that you’ve sown time to germinate. Resist impatience and the need for an instant response.

In facilitation settings:

  • Discern when to trust the facilitation process and stand back quietly, giving the group dynamic space and allowing emergence.
  • Keep options on the table long past their apparent usefulness. Many will find context later in the process.
  • Know when to rest. Open and participatory engagement exposes vulnerabilities, requires humility, and takes energy.

These three frames of mind are interdependent, with openness as the most critical one of the three as it can enable or constrain the others. To some extent, adequate situational awareness is not possible without openness to a diversity of perspectives. In a complex system, one simply cannot afford a one-sided view. Knowing when to act and when to practice restraint depends on one’s awareness of changing dynamics in the system, but it also requires openness to the unexpected.

Besides these, there are many other habits of mind that are useful when dealing with complexity. I’m reminded for example of Jennifer Garvey-Berger’s “simple habits for complex times” which are

  • ask different questions
  • take multiple perspectives
  • see the system

What habits or heuristics do you use when you encounter complexity? Let’s co-create a more comprehensive list together.


Cilliers, F. P. (2006). On the importance of a certain slowness. Emergence: Complexity and Understanding 8:106–113.

Berger, J. H. & Johnson, K. (2015). Simple Habits for Complex Times, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Morin, E. (2008). On complexity. Hampton Press, New Jersey, USA.

Pfeffer, J., and R. I. Sutton. (2006). Evidenced-based management. Harvard Business Review 84:62–74.

Rogers, K. H., R. Luton, H. Biggs, R. Biggs, S. Blignaut, A. G. Choles, C. G. Palmer, and P. Tangwe. (2013). Fostering complexity thinking in action research for change in social–ecological systems. Ecology and Society 18(2): 31.

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One thought on “Navigate Complexity: Three Habits of Mind

  1. great point of view … We are used to using the reduction approach, and this works fine for decomposing “features in stories” (using IT terminology), but complexity can’t be solved this way …

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