Feature of a system made up of several elements linked by multiple relations and cannot be understood only as the sum of its parts

Introduction to the notion

(From the Latin “complexus, complecti”, contain, source: le Grand Robert)

Source: Enterprise Transformation Manifesto; paragraphs 2.1.a and 5.1

Enterprise complexity stems from the range of its aspects, the large number of its component parts, the huge variety of its know-how and knowledge, as well as the autonomy of willingness and action of its component parts – which are themselves complex systems (paragraph 2.1.b). If we neglect this complexity, it can lead to the wrong decisions being made and can alter the functioning and very being of the Enterprise (paragraph 2.1.c).

The complexity of the Enterprise System is both a strength and a risk. Complexity is a risk insofar as it requires an increasing amount of resources or it leads to an unmanageable situation (paragraph 5.1.a). The irreducible complexity of the Enterprise System allows it to adapt to a changing environment and to respond to new situations. This can be a real advantage, provided that it is controlled (paragraph 5.1.b).


The first characteristic that comes to mind with regard to the enterprise is, without doubt, its complexity. This justifies applying a systemic approach to it. Why do we consider the enterprise as a complex object? Because, whatever its size or sector, it is made up of a large number of elements, particularly of a disparate type. The components are linked between themselves within a same category and between different categories. The relations between the components are part of the categories that must be specified. One essential factor that heightens the complexity lies with the autonomy of willingness and action of certain components – components which themselves can potentially be seen as complex systems.

Complexity is often perceived as a risk or, at least, a difficulty. It is also a strength: it shows the range of resources that the system has at its disposal. Its ability to invent and adapt is proportional to it. In the most advanced cases, the system has emerging properties that cannot be deduced from its composition. Does that mean that we should banish the expression “reduce complexity”? The complexity of a system, if it is real, is necessary and constitutes an asset that it should know how to take advantage of. Complexity should therefore be assumed by the system and respected by its designer.

To apprehend complexity, the traditional approach of top-down hierarchical decomposition (also known as Cartesian) is not the right solution. We opt for the systemic approach, which seeks the links between the separate elements and makes room for system-specific, emerging properties that are not possible to deduce from the sum of the parts. One characteristic often associated with complexity is uncertainty. The latter comes, in part, from the complexity itself and, to a greater extent sill, from the environment. We seek every possible means of reducing uncertainty, but we have to adapt the system and our action to an irreducible uncertainty, impossible to remove. Complexity is, moreover, an adaptive response to the uncertainty of the environment.

The result of complexity is to discourage action and generate resignation. The methodology appears exactly as the remedy to a failing imagination and abdication of will.

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