Fostering Innovation through Complex Adaptive Systems Theory: A Case Study of an Engineering Organization

Hakimi, Rohan
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University of Guelph

During these times of rapid change many complex human systems struggle to be innovative and adaptive and as a result are under threat of decay and even collapse. Complex adaptive systems (CAS) theory describes the phenomena of adaptation and describes innovation as a central component of this process. The literature on CAS theory was explored in this study to better understand the processes of innovation and adaptation and their relationship to each other. A number of characteristics and dynamics (CDs) that describe the operation of a CAS were discovered and synthesized into a framework for innovation. Five of these CDs were identified as foundational to the process of adaptation, namely: open boundaries, diversity, distributed control, cyclical development and feedback. In this study, the author proposes that by fostering the foundational CDs a complex system can become more adaptive. The CAS framework was applied to an engineering organization in two case studies. In the first case study hierarchical process mapping was tested as a tool to analyze the organization in light of the framework. In this case study, nine areas where the foundational CDs could be strengthened to increase the adaptive capacity of the organization were identified. Of primary concern to the organization was the need to foster open boundaries. This would ensure a greater flow of information and knowledge into the organization and between its departments, one means of strengthening the potential for adaptation and innovation. In the second case study, the framework was used to guide an innovation process to bring about improvements to a polymer feed system, one of the organization’s products. An open, iterative approach was used to gather practical knowledge for product development. End-users were engaged in two iterations of semi-structured interviews. In the first iteration, nine ideas for technical improvement were identified, four of which were implemented immediately. Of the remaining ideas, the use of preheated water for polymer activation was identified as the most impactful. This idea was pursued further in the second iteration of interviews. Data indicated an estimated reduction of $4000 in monthly operating costs as a result. The innovation approach proved effective in this case study and was recommended to the organization for further use in product development. In this study, the CAS framework proved useful as a starting point to strengthen capacity for innovation and adaptation in the organization. Further effort to develop the foundational CDs is recommended to strengthen the organization and further test the effectiveness of the framework.

Innovation, Complex Adaptive Systems Theory, Engineering Innovation, Complexity, Adaptation