Systems that are capable of adapting to complexity are naturally drawn to attractors. Think of putting a marble in a salad bowl. It will find a resting place in the bottom of the bowl – the space it is attracted to.

In Newtonian science, an attractor can be the resting point for a pendulum. Unlike traditional attractors in Newtonian science which are a fixed point or repeated rhythm (1), the attractors for a Complex Adaptive System may be “strange”. That is, they may have an overall shape and boundaries but one cannot predict exactly how or where the shape will form next. The attractor is a pattern or area that draws the energy of the system to it. It is a boundary of behaviour for the system. The system will operate within this boundary, but at a local level – we cannot predict where the system will be within this overall attractor. (2)

In human activity systems, values are critical as attractors. And conversations about what we value, such as the conversations around major hazards in an unsafe workplace, are an essential way of shaping systemic behaviours in the face of complexity.

Perhaps then we can understand how a new CEO can have such an effect on a system – creating a new centre of gravity in the enterprise by what is said – sometimes even before they arrive in the job. “A CAS may be sensitive to certain small changes in initial conditions. An apparently trivial difference in the beginning state of the system may result in enormously different outcomes. This phenomenon is sometimes called the butterfly effect…However, this sensitivity has to do with the exact path that the complex system follows into the future, rather than its general pattern.(3)

This, then, is why people can write like this about values:

“An authentic mission isn’t a bronze plaque in the office lobby; it’s an internal document. There is no harm if suppliers and customers see it. But its message is for the people who come into work every day. Typically, lobby plaques proclaim an organisation’s good intentions, the values by which it wishes to live. But an authentic mission… (identifies) hidden, positive root values that the organisation does live by. These “keel of boat” values exist beneath the surface. Yet, they set a company’s course. When an authentic mission captures these values, it captures a company’s soul.”(4)

Values turn out to have surprising power in surprising contexts – even in something once thought to be so “objective” and value free as science itself:

“Kuhn says that the criteria of choice between theories… “function not as rules, which determined choice, but as values, which influence it” (page 331). Most of his critics would agree even to this…” (5) Against this backdrop, we could understand the work of normal science as a set of conversations where “iteration will fill out the attractor in more and more detail.” (6). Note this– even science has its system activity defined by values.

For Stacey (Complexity and Group Processes), values are not just deep, but nonetheless “incidental”, patterns. They are in fact the source of organisational structure. In response to the question, “What is the social structure of purposeful enterprise?” Stacey would reply: “social structure is shared, repetitive and enduring values, beliefs, traditions, habits, routines and procedures. These are all social acts of a particular kind. They are couplings of gesture and response of a predictable highly repetitive kind. They do not exist in any meaningful way in a store anywhere but, rather, they are continually reproduced in the interaction between people.” (7)

For some theorists , the idea of values as strange attractors is an immense relief, because they haven’t known what to do with such subjective, fluffy things. Paradoxically, it means values become the determining master, instead of the dispensable servant. “The re-description of values as the strange attractors of certain complex systems, especially human ones, rather neatly solves many of the problems thinkers in various disciplines have had in identifying the nature of values–problems so severe that many have denied the existence of values altogether.” (8)

Turner goes on to raise the stakes even higher: “Meaning itself can be redefined in terms of the relationship of strange attractors to the physical processes they describe. Any nonlinear dynamical system, when triggered by a stimulus, will generate a sequence of unpredictable events, but those events will nevertheless be limited to their attractor, and further iteration will fill out the attractor in more and more detail. “ “Meaning itself” is my emphasis.

So conversation between ourselves to progress in the face of complexity truns out to rely on us clarifying and stating our values in a way that is anything but peripheral. It is not lip service, though it may be treated as such. Understanding and expressing our values has a critical role in complex situations – it creates a boundary to relevance.

This leads to some further interesting possibilities for reflections about the relationship between conversation and culture….

“Organisation culture is the emergent result of the continuing negotiations about values, meanings and proprieties between the members of that organisation and with its environment.

In other words, culture is the result of all the daily conversations and negotiations between the members of an organisation. They are continually agreeing (sometimes explicitly, usually tacitly) about the ‘proper’ way to do things and how to make meanings about the events of the world around them. If you want to change a culture you have to change all these conversations—or at least the majority of them. And changing conversations is not the focus of most change programmes, which tend to concentrate on organisational structures or reward systems or other large-scale interventions.” (9)

Implies a definite need to Change Conversation capability in our talk about values…

(1) see here for a beauty – watch for the (eventually) repeated pattern

(2) Health Care Organizations as Complex Adaptive SystemsJames W. Begun; Brenda Zimmerman; and Kevin Dooley. June 15, 2002.

(3) Begun, Zimmerman and Dooley 2003

(4) Linking purpose and people, Alan Cox, Training and development March 1996 p67-68

(5) Rorty, Richard 1979 Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature Princeton University Press p327

(6) Values and Strange AttractorsFrederick Turner, 10/7/01 [reprinted from the German, from Lettre International] ttp://

(7) Stacey Complexity and Group Processes 2003 p65

(8) Values and Strange AttractorsFrederick Turner

(9) Seel, R. (2006) ‘Emergence in Organisations’. Online. Available HTTP: <> (accessed August 2013).

David Jones

Changing the ways people talk to get work done.

New work? New conversation! Change Conversation.