Genetic and phenotypic heterogeneity contribute to the generation of diverse tumor cell populations, thus enhancing cancer aggressiveness and therapy resistance. Compared to genetic heterogeneity, a consequence of mutational events, phenotypic heterogeneity arises from dynamic, reversible cell state transitions in response to varying intracellular/extracellular signals. Such phenotypic plasticity enables rapid adaptive responses to various stressful conditions and can have a strong impact on cancer progression. Herein, we have reviewed relevant literature on mechanisms associated with dynamic phenotypic changes and cellular plasticity, such as epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT) and cancer stemness, which have been reported to facilitate cancer metastasis. We also discuss how non-cell-autonomous mechanisms such as cell–cell communication can lead to an emergent population-level response in tumors. The molecular mechanisms underlying the complexity of tumor systems are crucial for comprehending cancer progression, and may provide new avenues for designing therapeutic strategies.