Distributed Leadership Resources Index

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CAS Summary

Complex adaptive systems (CAS) are dynamic, open, and self-organizing systems without constraints or boundaries that interact with feedback mechanisms to become adaptive. CASs are dynamic, continuously learn to adapt to external forces, and emerge to new states when necessary to meet unique environmental needs.

CAS Explanation

Several social systems have been described as being a complex adaptive system. For example, CASs can include entrepreneurship, governments, organizations, teams, and even societies.

CAS Characteristics

Complex adaptive systems include the following characteristics:

  1. They are path dependent.
  2. The systems have a history.
  3. They are nonlinear.
  4. They include emergent outcomes.
  5. Their processes are irreducible.
  6. They are adaptive.
  7. They operate between order and chaos.
  8. They are self-organizing. (Turner & Baker, 2019)

CAS Definitions

Complex adaptive systems function in open and boundless environments as opposed to those in closed systems. Examples of the former include our brain or the universe, with the latter being a car’s engine or a manufacturing facility.

Because complex adaptive systems function in open environments, they often have multiple interacting agents involving countless feedback mechanisms.

CASs are capable of learning in response to external threats.

It is also possible for a CAS to emerge into new variations of itself due to its ability to learn, self-organize, and adapt when necessary.

CASs are defined by Mitchell (2009) as being:

A system in which large networks of components with no central control and simple rules of operation give rise to complex collective behavior, sophisticated information processing, and adaptation via learning or evolution. (p. 13)

Participant Workbook (CAS Part 1)

Example Definitions

The following table (Table 1) provides the definitions for each of the eight characteristics of CAS. After each of these definitions, there is a space for you to provide an example from your own experience for each characteristic.

Table 1 CAS Characteristics, Definitions, and Common Components
(Turner & Baker, 2020)

CAS Definitions (Table 1)Provide an Example
Path Dependent: Systems tend to be sensitive to their initial conditions. The same force might affect systems differently (Lindberg & Schneider, 2013).
Systems have a history: The future behavior of a system depends on its initial starting point and subsequent history (Boal & Schultz, 2007).

Nonlinearity: React disproportionately to environment perturbations. Outcomes differ from those of simple systems (Lindberg & Schneider, 2013; Luoma, 2006).
Emergence: Each system’s internal dynamics affects its ability to change in a manner that might be quite different from other systems (Lindberg & Schneider, 2013).
Irreducible: Irreversible process transformations (e.g., lower level state to a higher level state) cannot be reduced back to its original state (Borzillo & Kaminska-Labbe, 2011).
Adaptive: Systems that are simultaneously ordered and disordered are more adaptable and resilient (Lindberg & Schneider, 2013).

Operates between order and chaos: Adaptive tension emerges from the energy differential between the system and its environment…. Sandwiched between the edge of order and the edge of chaos (Borzillo & Kaminska-Labbe, 2011).
Self-organizing: Systems are composed of interdependency, interactions of its parts, and diversity in the system (Lindberg & Schneider, 2013).

Participant Workbook (CAS Part 2)

Self-Coaching Reflection

Reflecting on your self-coaching responses in the Cynefin framework workbook and contrasting it with the above insights regarding Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), please answer the following questions:

Self Reflection Question (Table 2)Your Response
What evidence may indicate that your organization is a complex adaptive system?

Identify the simple rules of your complex adaptive system? 

Identify a specific issue or problem that you are experiencing in your organization to answer the following reflection questions. Describe this issue/problem here.
Describe in your own words what path dependent is.

Path dependent: Identify a decision that was planned to result in a big change but only produced a small change. Identify a small change that resulted in a big change. 
Describe in your own words the characteristic of systems that have a history.

In your own experience of systems that have a history, what were the initial starting points for this issue, and how did it evolve over time?

Describe in your own words nonlinearity.

Nonlinearity: Explain how the above issue is nonlinear (planned input results in unexpected outcomes).

Describe emergence in your own words.

Emergence: Provide an example of how the issue resulted in the system or part of the system within your organization (system can be individuals, teams, groups) emerging into a new and different entity.
Describe irreducible in your own words.

Irreducible: Identify a transformation that cannot be reverted to its original state due to the circumstances around this issue.

Describe adaptive using your own words.

Adaptive: Identify a system that has shown to be adaptive and explain how it meets this characteristic.

Describe the characteristic of “operates between order and chaos” in your own words.

Operates between order and chaos: Provide an example in which the issue causes systems to operate between order and in a chaotic state.

Describe self-organizing in your own words.

Self-organizing: Identify a system that functioned using self-organizing capabilities to combat the threats from the issue/problem.

Participant Workbook (CAS Part 3)

Connecting The Helixes

Connect the Helixes (Table 3)Your Answer
Select a scenario or problem that would include a complex adaptive system.

Identify three methods from distributed leadership that could work with a complex adaptive system and give a brief description about how they complement one another.
DL Method 1:
DL Method 2:
DL Method 3:
Identify three methods from the team science helix that could work with a complex adaptive system and give a brief description about how they complement one another.
TS Method 1:
TS Method 2:
TS Method 3:
Provide a description explaining which methods from each of the three helixes (with complex adaptive systems being the CT method) work best for the scenario/problem identified earlier. 


Boal, K. B., & Schultz, P. L. (2007, Aug). Storytelling, time, and evolution: The role of strategic leadership in complex adaptive systems. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(4), 411–428. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2007.04.008

Borzillo, S., & Kaminska-Labbe, R. (2011, Dec). Unravelling the dynamics of knowledge creation in communities of practice though complexity theory lenses. Knowledge Management Research & Practice, 9, 353–366. https://doi.org/10.1057/kmrp.2011.13

Lindberg, C., & Schneider, M. (2013, May). Combating infections at Maine Medical Center: Insights into complexity-informed leadership from positive deviance. Leadership, 9(2), 229–253. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715012468784

Luoma, M. (2006, Mar). A play of four arenas – How complexity can serve management development. Management Learning, 37, 101–123. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350507606058136

Mitchell, M. (2009). Complexity: A guided tour. Oxford University Press. Google Books

Turner, J. R., & Baker, R. (2019). Complexity theory: An overview with potential applications for the social sciences. systems, 7(4), 23. https://doi.org/10.3390/systems7010004

Turner, J. R., & Baker, R. (2020). Just doing the do: A case study testing creativity and innovative processes as complex adaptive systems. New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, 32(2 ). https://doi.org/10.1002/nha3.20283


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