Simply Complexity: A Clear Guide to Complexity Theory by Neil Johnson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I now understand more about complexity theory, but am less interested in it.

I had hoped that this would be about complexity in human organisations, with examples linked to the workplace, exploring issues such as change management, systems thinking, and game theory … but oh no, there was none of that!

Fair enough, it doesn’t have to be laser-focussed on my own interests, but I grew weary of repeated examples of traffic systems and stock exchanges, and even when the theories are applied to things I care about – like whether to go out to a crowded bar or not – the theory felt lifeless in the hands of such lame examples. It felt like it was over-complicating simple decision-making for the fun of doing so – and hey, I love over-complicating things, so you’d think this would be right up my street, but it felt less like a useful tool for understanding the world, and more like an odd academic plaything of little practical value.

I know that’s not the case.


Complexity theory is, as far as I understand it, the study of the whole rather than the sum of the parts. Instead of the typical reductionist view of science – where it’s all about getting to the smallest possible building blocks – it’s about going the other way, to the whole, and understand how crowds differ from individuals, for example, or how complex systems like wars follow predictable patterns.

The later chapters in the book step through some of these more real-world examples such as cancer tumour growth, quantum physics, and patterns seen in wars – this was interesting, but as complexity science is so young, there was a lot of talk of potential, but not a lot of progress.

This isn’t a criticism of the book, it only tries to be a simple introduction, but I had hopes I would be able to use this to deepen my understanding of organisations as part of my role as an L&D person and leadership development expert, but I think if I started banging on about traffic jams and stock prices, I’d be in serious danger of losing the room – so, not really for me, or anyone else with similar interests, is what I’m trying to say.


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