Complexity and Transformation

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

(This is the final post in a four-part series on how growing complexity is transforming our lives.)

Continuous Transformation:

The common lament these days is that the pace of change is on an exponential trajectory. We struggle to keep up. Knowledge (and of course data) is increasing by leaps and bounds every second. All facets of our lives are being changed by information technology, artificial intelligence applications, biological discoveries, genetic insights—just about every STEM area is contributing to the growing complexity.


“Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, she became a butterfly.”

—Barbara Haines Howett

Individuals and organizations are now required to practice continuous transformation in order to survive. There is no standing still. If you are not progressing, you are dying.

Right Track

As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, “Even if you’re on the right track, you have to be moving fast enough to stay ahead of the train of technology change or you will be run over!” This is true for our organizations and for us as individuals. Transformation is not easy. It takes us out of our comfort zone.

The train analogy works on several levels. Technology is the engine enabling and thus driving discovery in almost all fields of science. The train is on a fixed track and will not be deterred or easily change directions or slow down. The resulting discovery payload has driven and will continue to drive transformation in our lives. Some people and organizations are able to make the requisite changes and some are not.


We used to have time to plan and to execute on those plans. The change was slow. We could look at a fair distance ahead and plan on a career. I was lucky and fell into electronics. Even for me, in the beginning, things were moving at a reasonable pace. Brisk maybe, but not a sprint. As Moore’s law started really kicking in, the rate of change became a trot, then a run, then a sprint and now changes at internet speeds. And change is soon to be moving at light speed.

There is no planning as usual in this environment. The only possible plan is to be flexible, be vigilant, and be willing to transform yourself as a leader and as an organization.

There is a Taoist saying that (to paraphrase one interpretation):

A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap,
At their death they are withered and dry.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the principle of death.
The gentle and yielding is the principle of life.

—The Middle Way

I think that this, then, is the plan from now on. We must be flexible, yielding, and gentle with ourselves and others. A hard, fixed view about the way things are—which almost always means the way things used to be or the way we wish things to be—means we will inevitably be run over by the train of technological progress. We cannot go back. We cannot slow down. We cannot rest on our laurels.

What’s Next?

I believe what’s next is more and faster change. I don’t need to make a list of all the pending disruptive changes within the very near future. You see a list of them every day and experience in your own lives the impact they’ve had. Predicting the future is a fool’s game now more than ever. Yet we can see the broad trends shaping up. Hopefully, we can plan to be flexible. We can plan to throw out old economic models as need be in order to face the future. We can plan to be flexible in our world views. I see flexibility, a bias toward change, as the only way we will survive and thrive in the very exciting future we are creating for ourselves.

Related Posts:

Learning to See Complexity

Complexity and Forecasting

Complexity and Decisions