What is an attractor?

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 25, 2005
Filed in Culture

Managers can apply complexity science as a metaphor to better understand their organisation. Like all metaphors, they are only a partial description and will always break down. For example, you might describe a colleague as a veritable tiger to illustrate his ferociousness, agility and willingness to attack, but he is unlikely to have a long tail and stripy fur coat.

When managers apply complexity ideas they invariably encounter the concept of ‘attractors’. Unfortunately there is considerable confusion about what is meant by an ‘attractor’ and therefore is usefulness can be diminished.

The confusion arises from the meaning the term ‘attractor’ has for a complexity scientist and its colloquial meaning. For example, if you ask anyone without a background in complexity science, ‘what is an attractor?’ their likely response is: ‘anything that attracts.’ A complexity scientist, however, might say: “an attractor is the pattern which forms from the interaction of many connected entities.” The attractor for a complexity scientist is the result not the cause.

Cohen and Stewart (1995) provide a useful description that illustrates the complexity science view of attractors. Imagine a beach. At one end is a pier and the other is a rocky point. Two ice cream vendors arrive to sell their wares and decide to locate themselves so they are equidistant from the pier, the point and one another. By pure chance, vendor A gets the first group of customers. So as not to miss out on business, vendor B moves a bit closer to vendor A. Now vendor B has customers, so vendor A decides to move closer to vendor B. Over time they creep toward each other until they are both side by side. The resulting cluster is called the attractor. They are not attracted to a particular grain of sand in the middle of the beach. Rather, their interaction results in the attractor pattern forming.

From a management practice perspective both views of an attractor are useful and we should avoid being dogmatic about which is right or wrong. Perhaps a way to explain attractors to those people wishing to use this concept is to describe two types of attractor: those that attract a behaviour, such as people, events, rituals and communities (this is how Cynefin describes attractors); and those that emerge from the behaviours of people interacting.

The key point to remember is, regardless of how we define attractors they are simply a metaphor to help us better understand how organisations work. Our next challenge is to understand the other often quoted complexity concept: strange attractors.

Any ideas?

Cohen, Jack, and Ian Stewart. 1995. The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World: Penguin.

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About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. I like the beach description, but to me the most striking aspect is not the attractor. It is how it shows how market forces fail to satisfy the needs of all, providers/vendors and customers. Assume that the number of vendors (2) and the number of customers (let’s assume 100) stays constant. Assume that the customers are equally distributed along the coastline. In the starting condition, the average distance a customer has to walk to get to the vendor is 1/6th of the lenght of the beach. At the end, they have to walk further, 1/4 of the length, so some might not want to do it, and they all lose: customers have a longer way to walk, vendors sell less.
    Apart from that: the me, attractors are not pure metaphor. Still, I’m struggeling to find a really good explanation for the uninitiated ;-).

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