Planning in Complex Systems- Is that possible?

Unlike other living creatures, humans can adapt to uncertainty. They can form hypotheses about situations marked by uncertainty and can anticipate their actions by planning. They can expect the unexpected and take precautions against it.            Dietrich Dorner (1990)

Complex environments are those in which there are numerous actors/variables interacting in a system fashion.  Each variable’s state or action is constantly responding to changes in the actions or states of all the other variables.  Therefore, the behavior of entire system changes as well.

In complex situations it is impossible to predict the future state of a single variable and, consequently, the future state of the system as a whole is uncertain.

Dorner , whose words introduce this essay, is the author of, The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and avoiding error in complex situations, published in English in 1997.  He conducted research using computerized simulations of planning scenarios in order to learn more about how people solve problems when faced with complex situations.  Results of his research can be found in his early writing.

He found that people who were able to achieve desirable results within experimental simulations employed the following strategies:

  • They first gathered information in order to observe changes in the situation and develop an overall picture of all aspects of the systems involved;
  • They generated hypotheses to explain the effect of change on the system;
  • They generated plans based upon the accuracy of their hypotheses;
  • They took action based upon their plans;
  • They continued to gather information frequently in order to evaluate their progress and identify unintended consequences of their actions;
  • They did not change their actions too quickly;
  • They used self-reflexive examination and critique of their own way of acting;
  • They adapted their way of acting to the specific situation;
  • They were flexible – able to forego lengthy planning and hypothesizing when 1) the situation was time critical, 2) the risk of error was low or 3) the needed information was impossible; and
  • They did not focus all their attention on current problems, but also considered long- term developments and side effects of the actions taken.

Dorner pointed out that those who achieved desirable outcomes from their planning shared certain characteristics.  They were agile.  They “…adapted their thinking to the situation.”  They “…used a lot of small ‘local’ rules, each of which is applicable in a limited area.” In other words, successful planners in complex situations did not have a single generic approach.  They observed, planned, took action, reflected on their actions and plans, changed as the situation changed and “…adapted to the given circumstances in the most sophisticated ways.”

Dorner’s research is enlightening but it appears a bit vague and even distant from the actual cognitive and psycho-motor tasks involved in planning for change in “real world” situations. Add to that the challenge of needing to work with others to plan change, and planning in complex situations becomes wickedly complex.

I found a toolkit that I believe can bring Dorner’s work into organizations where individuals and groups constantly deal with complex situations.  The toolkit was developed by Tom Wujec.

I first heard Wujec speak in a Ted Talk.  However, the approach he uses is not a new one. I was a member of a community planning group working the Philippines in the early 1990s.  We used a very similar approach to planning and others have modified that simple, but effective framework:  The early framework steps included:

  • Sharing the group’s concept of the problem or circumstance needing change;
  • Articulating and visually representing a shared vision of exactly what you want to achieve;
  • Taking a detailed inventory of the barriers to reaching the vision;
  • Developing specific strategies and tactics for removing the barriers;
  • Taking frequent measurements of successes and/or setbacks in removing the barriers; and
  • Repeating the steps until the vision is realized or revised…


Wujec’s method of shared conceptualization, reflection, creativity, and listening lends itself beautifully to planning in today’s complex organizations. Wujec’s toolkit is comprehensive, detailed, and comes with lots of examples of the method in action.

I think that planning for change in today’s complex environments can be overwhelming if it comes with an expectation that “failure” is not acceptable.  To avoid a sense of defeat when plans do not immediately result in desirable outcomes I believe we need to do the following:

  • Involve as many individuals and departments as possible when planning. The diversity, valuable insights, and energy resulting when representatives from throughout the system come together cannot be overemphasized.
  • Prioritize, taking into account the costs that come with planning for change.  Planning together in groups can be costly in time, energy, and resources.  Demands for change are accelerating and organizations cannot possibly address every needed change with equal intensity and allocation of resources.
  • Accept the possibility that success will be incremental and iterative. That is to say, when one approach does not achieve the goal, the process can continue until a satisfactory level of success is reached.
  • When necessary, build into the change process a “fail safe” plan. In other words, where safety and quality are of vital importance any plan for change should include an early warning system where unintended consequences can be identified and addressed rapidly.
  • Recognize that no change is ever permanent. Either the original need for change will shift or disappear, or the change that was effective at one point in time no longer achieves good results.
  • Make peace with the idea that change is not a sign of failure or malfunction. Rather, change is the new “steady state”.






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I am professor, emeritus, of nursing at Texas Woman's University, Denton, Texas

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