Why Organizations of the Future Will Look Like Ant Colonies and Clouds

June 15, 2015 Updated: July 27, 2015

What do weather patterns, cities, and ecosystems have in common? And what lessons can they offer to companies and their leaders?

As part of “#LeadTheFuture,” Epoch Times spoke with Stacy Hale and Angie Cross, the hosts of the upcoming podcast Human Current. Human Current explores how understanding complex systems can help us make sense of the world—especially human systems such as workplaces.

Angie Cross (L) and Stacy Hale, co-hosts of podcast Human Current. (Courtesy of Human Current)
Angie Cross (L) and Stacy Hale, co-hosts of podcast Human Current. (Courtesy of Human Current)

In the unabridged audio interview, the Austin, Texas-based duo takes the conversation to some unexpected places—the nature of self and consciousness, why self-managing organizations are an evolutionary inevitability, as well as a thought experiment that will broaden your way of thinking.

Audio and voice recording >>

Epoch Times: What is complexity theory?

Human Current: When when we talk about complexity and systems thinking, we’re talking about seeing the world in terms of interrelationship. It’s the study of networks.

Human Current: Complexity theory views the world in terms of systems, where large complex patterns can arise from the simplest interactions between agents. The system—which can be almost anything (a workplace, an ecosystem, a colony of termites) continually learns and adapts so that the system and its agents co-evolve.

In a complex system, small changes or interactions can lead to large patterns of behavior. An ant colony may look like a really organized, coordinated operation. But mostly it’s just each ant interacting with the ants in its most immediate vicinity, and scent trails. In complexity we study the relationship of local interactions and global patterns.

Epoch Times: How is complexity theory applied in different fields today?

Human Current: Big data is showing us new horizons in how we can observe the behavior of complex systems, and now we can model large quantities of data that show patterns and life–cycles at a greater scale—and now we can actually quantify the spread of ideas, diseases, artificial intelligence, the way stories affect cultural development, the life-cycle of a city or a company. It’s changing the way we think about what’s “noise” and what’s actually just a natural and necessary evolution in the system.

Epoch Times: How can systems thinking be applied to organizations?

Human Current: An organization is not separate from its people—it is its people and its mission.

From a complex systems perspective, we know that simple cause and effect explanations for business and culture problems are an oversimplification. It’s this constant co-evolution that makes a complex system produce results that are unanticipated but look like strokes of genius in hindsight.

We can’t help people become better predictors of success or failure, but what we can do is help people become more comfortable with uncertainty. This will help them work happier, which we already know makes for a more creative, productive workforce of real people.

Epoch Times: What are the advantages of thinking in terms of systems when it comes to designing and managing organizations?

Human Current: Systems thinking develops an understanding of how conditions and outcomes arise simultaneously. There’s more going on than you can predict. You learn to listen for feedback so you can make changes as locally and immediately as possible. You become adaptable, make changes on the fly.

You look at change, “noise” in the system, disruption, as an opportunity. And as you become more confident and adaptable, you shift your focus from avoidance of failure to flexibility and possibility. You understand that a culture develops not just from the top down, but from the bottom up. These are the real conditions for innovation. How do we create the conditions that help a workforce, a culture, an organization, become more adaptable?

Follow Human Current on Twitter at @LetsWorkHappy and online at human-current.com

“#LeadTheFuture” is an Epoch Times new series exploring the ideas that are shaping the future of how we do business.