Innovation in organizations from a complex adaptive systems perspective

Carlisle, Ysanne and McMillan, Elizabeth (2006). Innovation in organizations from a complex adaptive systems perspective. Emergence: Complexity and Organization, 8(1) pp. 2–9.



A case for a balanced strategic approach to innovation is argued in the literature. March (1991) identified both short term exploitation and longer term exploration as essential but potentially conflicting organizational activities. Many organizations are good at incremental innovation but less successful at radical innovation which may partly explain a recent stress on the latter. Learning is key to successful innovation. In stable conditions, it tends to be a narrowing and converging process of testing. In chaotic conditions it is a process of expansion, divergence and discovery (Cheng and Van de Ven, 1996). The latter facilitates radical innovation, the former incremental innovation. Is a balance between them needed?

Innovation ability is a key property of complex adaptive systems operating on ‘the edge of chaos’. This assists them survive over both long and short term futures. We consider how notions of organizations as complex adaptive systems can offer new insights into our understanding of learning and innovation.

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