AI Ain’t Disruptive: Complexity Science Is!

AI has been called a disruptive technology. It will disrupt jobs, it will disrupt processes, it will disrupt relationships.  It will definitely be on your clients’ agendas.  Ok, AI is disruptive, but it’s not the most disruptive technology.  The most disruptive technology is likely something that you do not even know exists; even though it’s existed since the beginning of time. That technology is the science of complexity, and as a consultant, you and your clients can either embrace it or be steamrolled by it. 

Complexity is a phenomena that exists whenever there are agents (think individuals, an office clique, a company in an industry, or even a whole economy for that matter) that can interact (talk face to face, interact over social media, read a news story – fake or real, simply observe the actions of others) and adapt, (change their mind, change their strategy, change their hairstyle).  

The elements of complexity produce “emergence”.  Emergence occurs when seemingly random events combine to produce outcomes that have observable patterns but are leaderless, unpredictable and can’t be reproduced identically.  Viral videos, consumer fads, office politics, and even stock market valuations are all examples of outcomes that are best explained by emergence and complexity science. 

Complexity science has been a transformational element in the physical and biological sciences since the 1970’s.  However, only in the last decade has the relevance of complexity science to business begun to be appreciated in full. The applications to business and to business thinking is profound, and in many ways counterintuitive.  As AI starts to revolutionize business processes and business thinking, it makes a knowledge of complexity science and its implications all the more important. 

Complex systems are best understood when contrasted with complicated systems.  Complicated systems are those that work according to a set of rules or laws that are completely reproducible.  In a complicated system, doing the exact same thing will get you the exact same result each and every time.  For instance, the login on your smart phone is a complicated process.  If you punch in the correct code, you get access to your phone; anything else and you remain locked out.  What you say on your phone, and how you say it will vary in content and tone according to your mood, context, the importance of the message, and whom you are communicating with. Communication is a complex event; the smart phone technology is complicated. 

AI is taking over many of the complicated tasks that humans perform.  The list is long, well-known and increasing daily.  From journalism to surgery to self-driving transport trucks, AI has the power, knowledge and reliability to deal with complicated processes.  Alexa and Siri have made knowledge a commodity.  And guess what – AI will turn your consulting practice into a bot as well if it is based solely on providing solutions that are rooted in solving complicated rather than complex problems. 

Understanding and embracing complexity science is a paradigm shift for most managers and consultants, but it is an essential change because it ensures that humans will always have a valuable place in business and that the business can continue to create value.  Complexity is what consultants bring that provides a long-term sustainable relationship; complicated thinking is a “one and done” knowledge transfer. 

Developing an appreciation for, and a knowledge of complexity science and its tools is not difficult.  It is a paradigm shift, and it does require counter-intuitive thinking.  However, complexity is the future of consulting, and the future of business success.  That seems like a very worthwhile investment.  And it all begins with the simple recognition that it’s not complicated.

Rick Nason & Douglas Reid


About the Author - Rick Nason, PhD, CFA

As an international consultant and founding partner with RSD Solutions Inc., Dr Nason has advised and developed programs on complexity, valuation, risk measurement, risk management and risk strategy for major global corporations, international financial institutions, government agencies and several academic institutions with global reach. He has conducted research within these organizations and is retained as an expert witness by Federal Tribunals and as a commentator by the media in derivatives, risk management, investments and finance.

He has authored many articles, book chapters and co-authored the textbook "Financial Management: Theory and Practice", 1st Canadian Edition (Nelson 2011). He has written or cowritten a series of three books on risk management for Business Experts Press including Rethinking Risk Management: Critically Examining Old Ideas and New Concepts. His book on complexity, It’s Not Complicated: The Art and Science of Complexity in Business, published by University of Toronto Press has been widely acclaimed. Learn more.

About the Author - Douglas Reid, PhD

Douglas Reid has worked as an advisor to companies and corporate managers since 1985. In 1998 he joined the faculty of the business school at Queen’s University. He has worked across Canada, the US, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Today his efforts focus on helping busy executives translate evidence into action by combining innovative educational experiences with one-on-one development – all grounded in management research about what works in practice.

Prior to joining Queen’s, Douglas Reid was vice president of an international consulting firm. There, he supervised complex corporate issues management and change projects in their Toronto and Ottawa offices. He has also worked for a former Premier of Ontario, and as a Chief of Staff to a provincial Cabinet Minister. Learn more.