Jul 202009

Every so often I like to revisit some of the threads of thought that wove themselves into the agile movement. One of these is Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) theory which could be considered a science of adaptation. CAS concepts, found in several agile methods, are an important backdrop to many agile principles and practices. As quantum physics changed our notions of predictability and Darwin changed our perspective on evolution, complex adaptive systems (CAS) theory reshaped scientific and management thinking. In an era of rapid change, we need better ways of making sense of the world around us.

Former Visa International CEO Dee Hock drew on CAS when he coined the word “chaordic” to describe both the world around us and his approach to managing a far-flung enterprise–balancing on the precipice between chaos and order. In the last couple of decades scientists and managers have articulated a profound shift in their view about how organisms and organizations evolve, respond to change, and manage their growth.

Newtonian approaches predict results. CAS approaches create emergent results. “Emergence is a property of complex adaptive systems that creates some greater property of the whole (system behavior) from the interaction of the parts (self-organizing agent behavior). Emergent results cannot be predicted in the normal sense of cause and effect relationships, but they can be anticipated by creating patterns that have previously produced similar results” (Jim Highsmith, Adaptive Software Development 2000). Creativity and innovation are the emergent results of well-functioning agile teams.

Newtonian versus quantum, predictability versus flexibility, optimization versus adaptation, efficiency versus innovation–all these dichotomies reflect a fundamentally different way of making sense about the world and how to manage effectively within it. Because of high iteration costs, the traditional perspective was predictive and change averse, and deterministic processes arose to support this traditional viewpoint. But our viewpoint needed to change. Executives, project leaders, and development teams must embrace a different view of the new product development world, one that not only recognizes change in the business world, but also understands the power of driving down iteration costs to enable experimentation and emergent processes.

Complex Adaptive Systems theory is one of the root threads of agile development. The concepts about how biological systems evolve and adapt have relevance, if only metaphorically, to organizations and how they evolve and adapt.


Jim Highsmith

Jim Highsmith was the founding director of Cutter Consortium's Agile Product & Project Management practice.


  6 Responses to “Agile Roots–Complex Adaptive Systems Theory”

  1. avatar

    This has inspired some discussion on Twitter, including these questions from @dwwright99. He wonders “but the real goal is building complex adaptive systems themselves, what underlying methods are needed for that?” and “is it more use of BPMS and/or BRMS?”

  2. avatar

    I’m more interested in the implications for managing than for building actual CAS. There has been work in that area of building adaptive software, but I haven’t followed it closely. Not familiar with BPMS or BRMS acronyms.

  3. Business Process Management System, and Business Rules Management System; both are tools to define and manage those aspects of systems without coding. Just like no one has to code their own DBMS anymore, these tools mean you don’t have to code process or rules anymore.

  4. avatar

    I’ve been working on a presentation that looks at how jazz musicians learn their craft…because jazz groups have been identified as working CAS. I figure that both what they learn and the methodology for how they learn (woodshedding, jamming, hanging out) has some metaphorical value to how to effectively train & manage for agile organizations. BTW, I have a suspicion that the move to ultra-light startups & organizations is also somehow tied to CAS, but I haven’t given it much more than rumination.

  5. avatar

    I read a lot of CAS literature, including biology & physics material, preparing my first book, “Adaptive Software Development.” The “Adaptive” in the title is related to CAS. I remember references to Jazz groups, but can’t recall exactly where. There is an extensive bibliography on CAS in this book, but it’s a little dated now.

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