Let's actually experience how complexity works, and what makes interventions in complex systems difficult.


  • Large empty room


Physical contact
There could be physical contact, so make sure people have enough room to play.

How to play

Round one

Setup: Define a sufficiently large playing field without obstacles.

  1. Let the participants walk freely and randomly around in the empty space. If necessary indicate the limits of the playing field, e.g. furniture, plants.
  2. When the participants are fairly well distributed across the field:
    • „Stop. Do not turn. Memorize one other person that you can see in front of you. If there is no-one, turn a bit until you see one.“
    • „Now turn by 180°. Memorize one other person you can see in front of you. If there is no-one, turn a bit until you see one. “
    • „We are now creating a complex system with one simple rule: Without leaving the playing field, place yourself in such a way that both people you have memorized form a equidistant or isosceles triangle, i.e. they form a triangle with you where both of them are in equal distance to you.“
  3. While they are rearranging themselves: „Observe what is happening. This is a complex self-organizing system based on a simple rule.“
  4. When they are settled, define 2-3 people as managers:
    • “Whatever the mangers do, the rule of the triangles still applies. If you don’t have the two people in your triangle, you correct your position accordingly. This instruction overrules everything else.”
  5. Now you instruct the managers:
    • „Your job is to move everyone in such a way that they are all on one side of the invisible line (you indicate a line dividing the field in two equal halves). The way you can do this is to take them one by one by their shoulders and move them to the desired place. In order to do so, you no longer need to keep your own triangle. But everybody else who is connected to the manager and to everybody else, remains connected.”
  6. If appropriate, you can interrupt the activity, and ask everyone to propose possible actions to the managers.
  7. When everybody has understood what is happening, stop the game – even if the objective has not been achieved yet.
  8. An alternative (but a bit tedious): The managers are to analyse the system, then make a plan, and then execute according to the plan.

Round two

Experience how complexity can form spontaneous order out of chaos

  1. Let everybody walk around again. Stop.
    • “Select one person. This person is your enemy.”
    • “Turn around. Select another person. This person is your friend.”
    • “Place yourself in such a way that the friend is between you and the enemy.”
  2. What you can observe is spontaneous formation of order (people form a straight line, although nobody had that overall objective), and sometimes a homeostat: a dynamic balance of people running in a circle because they cannot find a position that fits them all.
  3. Once it has happened, change the rule:
    • “Now you will protect your friend: place yourself between your friend and the enemy.”
  4. What happens is that immediately the system shrinks to a very close huddle of people.

Debriefing the game

Here are some questions for debriefing. They can be given to groups, or you let the plenary dictate to you:

  1. “You have behaved as a complex system. How did the complexity show?”
  2. “How difficult was it to set up something that governs a complex system?”
  3. “What has made the manager’s interventions difficult? “ Possible responses – if necessary probe for them:
    1. No full understanding of the system
    2. No co-ordination between managers
    3. No awareness that people are connected to managers: Side-effects of their interventions. They are not outside of the system.
  4. “Does it make sense for the managers to try to understand all connections?”
  5. “Does it make sense for the managers to try to understand some of the connections?”
  6. “What helped the managers?” Possible responses – if necessary probe for them:
    1. Trial and error
    2. Accept partial understanding of the system
    3. Co-ordinate
    4. Constant observation of what’s happening
    5. Delegation: Use the self-organizing capability of the system to deal with the complexity in the system.
  7. “In the second round: What was different?”
  8. “What created order in the second round?”
  9. If appropriate: “What can we tell about the sub-groups that never came to rest?”
  10. “What is similar to situations in real professional life?”

Main take-aways

  • Complexity is the intricate interdependency of elements.
  • Simple rules can create complex systems.
  • Linear interventions don’t work well in complex systems. There are many unpredicted side-effects.
  • If you let complexity manage complexity, i.e. through delegation and self-organization, this helps.
  • Complex systems can spontaneously form order and stability.
  • A homeostat is a sub-system which keeps in constant motion, but if you can close it off, it doesn’t affect the rest of your system.