The Paradox of Intervening in Complex Adaptive Systems; Comment on “Using Complexity and Network Concepts to Inform Healthcare Knowledge Translation”

Document Type : Commentary


Cochrane, London, UK


This commentary addresses two points raised by Kitson and colleagues’ article. First, increasing interest in applying the Complexity Theory lens in healthcare needs further systematic work to create some commonality between concepts used. Second, our need to adopt a better understanding of how these systems organise so we can change the systems overall behaviour, creates a paradox. We seek to manipulate systems that self-organise and follow their own internal rules. Although, our actions may impact and indeed meet some of our objectives, system behaviour will always emerge with unpredictable consequences. Likewise, outcomes at the aggregated level of the system never reaches an optimal point as defined by the ‘external controller.’ Kitson and colleagues’ theoretical model may struggle to resolve the paradox of gaining control over the multiple knowledge translation (KT) systems covered by the model, because theoretically these systems retain control under the principle of self-organisation. That is not to suggest that individual agents cannot influence system dynamics just that the desired outcome cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, for systems to change they will need strong incentives.


Main Subjects

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  • Receive Date: 20 October 2017
  • Revise Date: 13 January 2018
  • Accept Date: 13 January 2018
  • First Publish Date: 01 June 2018