Laura Roelofs  

More Recent Trends in Understanding Organization Change: Complex Adaptive Systems and Appreciative Inquiry

Laura Roelofs
January 29, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

If you have read the about us area of this website, you know that our roots are with an organization that was founded by Paul R. Judy in 1994—the Symphony Orchestra Institute. As a successful businessman with a keen interest in music and symphony orchestras, Mr. Judy created the SOI with the particularly interest and dedication to improve the effectiveness of symphony orchestra organizations. His interest in organizational change led him to commission Laura Roelofs to write a series of eight articles for the web version of the SOI journal Harmony. The articles describe various approaches to understanding and implementing organization change.

Today Polyphonic begins presenting this series again, and will publish one article every two weeks. But to start us off, and since seven years have elapsed since Laura published the first article on the subject, we asked her to bring us up to date with recent trends in the field.

- Ramon Ricker

Seven years ago, I took a short detour from my career as a violinist and started work on a Master's degree in Organization Development, which I undertook with hopes of understanding and eventually helping transform the difficult dynamics of orchestra organizations. My own orchestra was going through a particularly rough time, so I had a very personal motivation. The ideas and frameworks I studied were intellectually stimulating, appealed to my idealism and allowed me to take a somewhat more objective view of the issues my orchestra and others were having.

I remained in the program for nearly two years before returning to the violin full-time; it was during that period that Paul Judy asked me to write a series of articles on organization change for the web version of the Symphony Orchestra Institute's journal Harmony. Those articles describe various approaches to understanding and implementing organization change.

In general, organizational theories have been slow to catch on. Ideas that have generated successful changes (documented with high-profile case studies) have become fashionable for a while; some have had a bright moment and fizzled out, still others have evolved quietly for years before coming into their own. Human organizations are so complicated that no single approach is adequate to understand them; new concepts tend to layer onto, rather than replace, older ones. Many of the ideas included in the 2001- 2002 Harmony series were between fifteen and fifty years old, and were still considered cutting-edge because relatively few organizations were actively trying to put them into practice. In this sequel to those earlier articles, I will be describing two theoretical frameworks: Complex Adaptive Systems and Appreciative Inquiry. Both are relatively new by the standards of the field but have attracted much wider attention during the past ten years.


From the beginning, organizational theorists looked to the natural sciences for principles that could explain the dynamics of organizations. Biologist Ludwig von Bertanlanffy's seminal writing on "universal principles applying to systems in general" was the most important influence on the development of Open Systems theory. According to this framework, organizations are considered "open systems" : they take in information and resources from the environment, process them, and in turn their outputs impact that environment, under the same general principles as an individual organism. In the 1990's, some theorists began refining this idea further, borrowing the concepts and language of a new interdisciplinary field called complexity science.

A complexity theorist would describe an orchestra organization, a flock of birds, or the stock market as complex adaptive systems. A CAS is defined as an entity made up of multiple individuals which continually adapts to its environment and self-organizes in orderly but unpredictable ways. Computer scientists have been quite successful modeling examples of complex adaptive systems. For instance, in a popular computer simulation called Boids, a group of randomly moving virtual birds create beautiful orderly flocking patterns given only a set of three simple steering rules. ( Link: There is no "grand plan"; the pattern self-organizes out of the balance between the Boids' individual freedom and the minimal specifications they are given. A slight change in one rule would change the pattern completely, perhaps even causing collisions or the disintegration of the group.

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