Continuing Education

Social Innovation and Leadership for Complex Challenges

A Continuing Education course through Lakehead University

 Course Outline


Class meetings: 8:30 to 11:30am for 7 alternating Friday mornings beginning January 31 and ending April 25, 2014

Location: Conference Room A and Fireside Lounge, Bartley Residence

Course Description:

The executive leadership of today’s social-benefit organization is faced with an increasingly complex environment. In order to make people’s lives better and to address community issues, more of the same-old solutions are no longer adequate. Leaders are being called upon to mobilize engagement through all levels of their organizations, identify and grow innovation, adapt quickly to change, and collaborate across sectors to enhance the resilience of their organization and the community as a whole. These requirements demand a unique set of capacities and a mindset that embraces complexity. In this course, community leaders and university faculty with expertise in complexity science will work together to build understanding of the complex dynamics of organizations and communities. Through conversational learning techniques and practical exercises we will develop the capacities to perceive, reason, and manage within complexity, to nurture an ecology of innovation, and to discover the simple solutions that often lie on the other side of complex problems.

Learning Objectives:

Upon completion of this course, you will gain:

  • An understanding of the dynamics of organizations and communities as complex systems.
  • An understanding of how communities and organizations can show resilience while undergoing transformation, responding adaptively and proactively to internal and external change.
  • The capacity to nurture and grow an ecology of innovation within your organization.
  • The skills to lead a complex organization in a complex environment.

Each class will include lecture, discussion, reflection, and activities that include case study analysis and experience with each of 7 liberating structures. Liberating structures are fun group learning techniques that can be brought back to your organization in order to enhance innovation, bring a complexity lens to entrenched problems, and support collaboration. Two short textbooks will be assigned as part of the course, and discussion will incorporate material from the readings. There will also be an attached list of recommended readings and resources that include on-line videos. A course D2L website will be available for easy access to readings and resources, and to continue discussions beyond the class meetings.


  • Goldstein, J., Hazy, J.K., & Lichtenstein, B.B. (2011). Complexity and the nexus of leadership: Leveraging nonlinear science to create ecologies of innovation.
  • Meadows, D.H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. London, UK: Earthscan.


  • Dr. Connie Nelson, School of Social work and the Food Security Research Network
  • Dr. Mirella Stroink, Department of Psychology and the Food Security Research Network

Connie and Mirella have been sharing a journey through complexity science since 2010, when a conversation about teaching, learning and community resilience culminated in a joint presentation at the Resilience 2011 conference, an international gathering of scholars in complexity. Since then, both have brought the framework of complex adaptive systems theory and innovation to their research, teaching, community and organizational development work. They have written 5 papers applying complex adaptive systems theory to community issues, and have presented the ideas at several conferences. Both are deeply involved with the Food Security Research Network, which bases its approach and organization on complexity principles, and they have co-facilitated a university seminar on complexity science for 3 years. Mirella is an associate professor of social and community psychology at Lakehead University. Connie is a professor of social work at Lakehead University, with a background in organizational behaviour.

Outline of topics:

1. January 31, 2014 

Simple, complicated, and complex problems. We will introduce the perspective of complexity science by distinguishing among simple, complicated, and complex problems. Drawing on this understanding we will explore and discuss complex or “wicked” problems that arise in participants’ organizations. Through discussion and case examples we will build understanding of the nature of complex systems and identify the various complex systems at work in our own lives. Connection is an important concept in complexity science, and we will build connection within the class by adopting a stance of curiosity as we focus our shared attention on the problems we want to solve in an exercise called Impromptu Networking. Liberating structure and homework assignment: Wicked Problem Analysis.

2. February 14, 2014 

Complexity science and Innovation. We will introduce complexity science and explore emergence and innovation from this perspective. Understanding how patterns of behaviour or outcome emerge through the dynamic interactions of complex systems offers a new perspective on entrenched and complex challenges, and can often reveal the simplicity on the other side of the complexity.  Through case studies and discussion we will explore the workings of innovation in a complexity lens. Liberating structure and homework assignment: 25/10 Crowd Sourcing

3. February 28, 2014 

Adaptive cycle: We will study the 4 phases of the adaptive cycle and discuss how individuals, organizations, communities, and societies undergo these 4 phases. Discussion will include case studies and examples from participants’ organizations. Insights may include how to nurture an “ecology of innovation,” the periodic need to release structure, and tips to avoid common “traps.” Liberating structure and homework assignment: TRIZ & Discovery & Action Dialogue, Ecocycle Planning

4. March 14, 2014 

Panarchy: We will work together to identify how the systems we populate are nested within one another at higher and lower scales, and how each of these levels or scales has adaptive cycles of their own, moving at faster and slower paces. In this way, learners will be able to visualize how challenges and opportunities in their organizations emerge through the dynamics of cycles operating at different scales.  The way in which innovation can spread and how interacting systems can co-evolve, at times resulting in surprises(!) will be revealed. Liberating structure and homework assignment: Panarchy

5.  March 28, 2014 

Resilience: Building on our growing understanding of complex systems we will explore the concept of resilience. Discussion and activity will focus on how to prepare oneself and one’s organization to respond quickly to threat and change and to handle uncertainty. This includes a core capacity of actively shaping the complex system of one’s organization, being able to see different futures unfolding and acting in a distributed fashion. One advanced insight may be that when viewed within the panarchy, resilience at different scales or levels can be either healthy or unhealthy for the overall system, and the resilience of each level varies in response to changes happening at other levels. Liberating structure and homework assignment: Critical Uncertainties

6. April 11, 2014 

Transformation and Change: Sometimes the most adaptive thing for a system is transformation. We will discuss the distinction between adaptation and transformation and how both are important to the overall resilience of a system. At times an organization, department, program, or even a whole civilization needs to be allowed to collapse so that the new may emerge. We will discuss complexity concepts such as attractors and regime-shift and will explore through discussion and activity how to navigate a system through an intentional and creative transformation while steering clear of two critical traps. Through our earlier discussions and case studies we will identify an entrenched system that would benefit from transformation and role-play strategies for bringing about positive change. Liberating structure and homework assignment: TBA

7. April 25, 2014 

Ecology of Innovation: In this concluding session we will summarize critical skills and capacities for leadership and innovation in the social benefit sector. An overview of complexity-inspired applications such as social entrepreneurship, social finance, and crowd-funding will be provided. Activities allowing for the practice of these critical skills will be conducted, and an ongoing homework assignment that can be a springboard for innovation at your own organization will be offered. Celebratory lunch is included.