Complexity and Simplicity in the Workplace

There’s an interesting paradox to be explored in organizations between complexity and simplicity in the workplace. Organizational life in the 21st century is definitely complex. Leadership guru Peter Vaill calls this new environment “permanent white water,” and with good reason. The pace and nature of change has both become increasingly rapid and increasingly complex. It’s enough to make anyone throw their hands up in despair. What I want to suggest to you is that out of that complexity and chaos can emerge some surprisingly simple rules to govern organizational behavior. In this sense, we need to act like birds and fish.


Have you ever stood in awe as you watch a huge flock of birds move together in synch? How about a large school of fish? They seem to move smoothly and seamlessly as a single unit, which seems impossible given the numbers involved. How can they do that? How can so many individuals synchronize their movements in such a way that order emerges? And wouldn’t it be nice to achieve that kind of singularity of purpose, that kind of cohesion in our organizations? It’s worth looking into.

Scientists who have examined the movements of birds in a flock have determined that they’re really just obeying the following three surprisingly simple rules:

  1. Separation: Steer to avoid crowding local flock-mates.
  2. Alignment: Steer toward the average heading of local flock-mates.
  3. Cohesion: Move toward the position of local flock-mates.

Similarly, the three simple rules that fish obey when swimming in a school are as follows:

  1. Move in the same direction as your neighbor.
  2. Remain close to your neighbors.
  3. Avoid collisions with your neighbors.

When it comes to geese flying in a V formation, which is how they’re able to accomplish such long migratory flights, the rules are slightly different, but still three simple rules as follows:

  1. Seek the proximity of the nearest bird (while avoiding collision).
  2. Find a position that offered an unobstructed longitudinal view (if the first rule was not applicable).
  3. Position yourself in the up-wash of a leading bird (to maximize lift and extend stamina).

It’s also worth noting the geese flying in the V formation also exhibit teamwork in terms of swapping out the lead position when one leader becomes tired and needs a break.

So how does all of this apply to our messy, chaotic organizations? I think there are some really interesting possibilities here, and my case in point has to do with how three simple rules transformed students at a junior high school.

This story comes from Margaret Wheatley, the organizational behavior expert who is famous for saying, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” She tells how the following three simple rules guide the decisions of students, faculty, and staff:

  1. Take care of yourself.
  2. Take care of others.
  3. Take care of this place.

One day the building had to be evacuated during a rain storm. Once given the all-clear, the principal was the last one to re-enter the building. To his utter delight, he walked in to find 800 pairs of shoes neatly lined up in the lobby. That was how the children had spontaneously decided to embody that third simple rule of taking care of that place.

I offer these examples as food for thought as you navigate your way through the seemingly chaotic and permanent white water of organizations today. Are there three simple rules like the ones above that could provide alignment and cohesion in your organization? I merely ask that you take some time to think about it.

February 2, 2015   Updated :March 14, 2015   complexity, Peter Vail, simplicity   

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