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Complexity theory in nursing

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Complexity theory, as a way of understanding organisations and communities, has been considered as an approach within healthcare management rather than as a nursing tool.

This article introduces the field of complexity science, what it means in practice, and in the experience of others, and myself in applying complexity theory to improving health. It concludes by offering suggestions to colleagues who would like to address complex challenges using this approach.

The term complexity theory is often used interchangeably with other terms, most notably complex adaptive systems. Plsek1 defines complexity theory as 'a collection of individual agents who are free to act in ways that are not totally predictable and whose actions are interconnected, such that one agent's actions change the context for other agents.'

Our view of the world is often shaped by scientific metaphors, such as the machine metaphor, proposed in Taylorism.2 This says that by understanding all the component parts and how they work, the whole engine can be understood and made to work efficiently. However, communities and organisations are not machines and there is often not one best way. The culture of an organisation is often far stronger, leading to the old adage 'culture eats strategy for breakfast'.

In contrast, complexity theory in human systems is adapted from those in the sciences: examples include understanding how bees swarm, how the stock market


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