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Chaos and Complexity:  What Can Science Teach?

Margaret J. Wheatley

The Big Idea 

Margaret (Meg) Wheatley has been an organizational development speaker and international consultant since 1973.  In this keynote conference address published in the Occupational Development Practitioner, she chides us for so willingly continuing to use 17th Century images of the universe in the 21st Century world.

For centuries, she argues, “we have been planning, predicting and analyzing the world . . . holding on to an intense belief of cause and effect and we’ve let numbers rule our lives.”  Her major concern is that we have become comfortable with a mechanical model of the world and have accordingly designed our organizations—our sporting organizations as well—to be resistant to change and challenge.  We have wrongly come to believe that we can control chaos and complexity.

Takeaways

  • There is nothing easy about developing organizations and systems, including sporting institutions.
  • Meg Wheatley believes we are laboring under a centuries-old way of thinking of organization, namely worshipping mechanical control over what more properly should be organic order.
  • Learning the difference between control and order requires seeing our world with new eyes.
  • But, besides the preference for a mechanical model of organizations, there are other collective assumptions that blind us to being open to order, such as defining people-roles as change-agents, or a belief that without our direct interference or intervention organizations and systems will fail.
  • But alas, there are truths that emerge by relaxing our grips: 1) that organizations are living, unpredictable, and dynamic systems; 2) that change is an inherent capacity of living systems; and 3) that order is inherent in the universe.
  • The quest for certainty is a fool’s errand since systems are in perpetual chaos.
  • Yet, in that chaos there is order: 1) you cannot see that order in chaos moment-to-moment; 2) yet this chaos breeds self-organization and creativity; and 3) that complexity arises from simplicity.
  • And finally, that information is not a resource to be used to control an organization and its people; rather information rightly understood produces richness, self-organization, and a living, organic system worthy of our valuing.

The Research

Like it or not, if we are to ever experience successful organizational development, Wheatley says, we must learn to lose our grip.  “If you’re not confused, you’re not thinking clearly,” says one chaos scientist.  Another says that all managers and leaders of organizations need to be “equilibrium busters.”  Wheatley herself believes organizations need “more messiness, greater confusion, and greater ambiguity.”

Our typical mistake in creating worth-our-while organizations, she believes, is that we instinctively substitute control for order.  The correction is to realize that the purpose of organizations is not to manage change, but to consent to seeing change as a perpetual generative force to be celebrated and known for what it is: life giving.

If we truly want to improve our organizations as life giving, she says, we need to see with new eyes.  This means we must identify our collective assumptions, discover organizational truths, seek the lessons of finding order in chaos, and use information for transformation, not for control.

Assumptions that hinder us

  • Assumption #1: Organizations are machines. She means by this that we see organizations as being lifeless.  We take them as we would a machine.  On them or by way of them we use techniques and tools, methods and mechanisms, hands-on applications and levers for control, engineering and re-engineering.  That’s how we create the well-oiled machine, isn’t it?  That’s how we understand new power structures and the centralizing of power within our organizations, isn’t it?
  • Assumption #2: Change happens because of external influences.  Don’t we speak of ourselves as change-agents or change-masters?  We say we make change happen; it is something we do impose as external influencers.  We call our actions interventions, or strategies for change.  We create training designs or impose quality controls.  We fondly think we make change happen.
  • Assumption #3: Things fall apart.  Largely misunderstanding the Second Law of Thermodynamics, we believe that everything will decline and die unless we impose our creative energy on the system or organization; kind of a search-and-rescue operation.  We come to believe that without our action, nothing will work right.  We refuse to let go of our control, fearing the world will come apart and us with it.

Truths that sets us free

  • Truth #1: Organizations are living, dynamic systems.  When we relax our urge to control, we discover the playfulness of seeing our organization as a breathing system with a life of its own.  Even if we really don’t understand these systems, we do discover an entirely different approach to them if we see them as alive, as organic, as full of wonder that they and us exist at all.
  • Truth #2: Change is an inherent capacity of living systems.  We sometimes say of ourselves that we are in the process of becoming a person.  So too with systems of organization.  Mere survival requires a deeply imbedded process of undergoing change as change demands—both for us and our communities.
  • Truth #3: Order is inherent in the universe.  We are witnesses to order in the universe, not the creators of it.

Finding order in chaos

Wheatley’s own journey towards finding a different lens through which to study organizational development, took her to studying what is called chaos science.  For her, it was a process of letting go of much of what she was professionally preaching about the way organizations evolve.  She quotes the French philosopher, Voltaire: “Doubt is not a very pleasant status, but certainty is a ridiculous one.”  In other words, she learned that the quest for certainty is a fool’s errand.

Looking at the world through the lens of chaos science and complexity theory is a shift in what we choose to be conscious of.  Order (Truth #3) is “for free” when one takes up the chaos stance.  While seemingly a contradiction, finding order in chaos is better understood as a paradox.  The word “paradox” literally means “beyond belief.”  Recognizing that systems are in perpetual chaos is the starting point for finding order; discoveries are unpredictable in such systems—but discoveries they are, nonetheless.  Wheatley believes such unpredictability teaches us important lessons.

  • Lesson #1: You cannot see order in chaos moment to moment. So, micromanagers beware!  Nonlinear equation plotting over time produce quite symmetrical patterns.  Scientists have named these patterns “strange attractors.”  These astonishing patterns are ordered, but without predictability.  The frustration is that what appears to us as randomness in the moment becomes ordered over time or distance.  And patterns emerge.
  • Lesson #2: Chaos breeds self-organization and creativity. In other words, chaos serves a function.  Self-organizing processes and creative moments feed on information that is new, surprising, maybe even disturbing.  Our initial urge is to discount such information because it is inconsistent with what we think we know.  The system or organization seemingly falls apart, only to reorganize itself into a more adaptive and healthier reconfiguration.  For Wheatley, organizations reform or transform themselves against a background of constant change.
  • Lesson #3: Complexity arises from simplicity. Wheatley argues that we are better off learning to manage patterns of organizations than managing people.  In the process of changing what we strive to understand—patterns over people—what emerges are simple patterns or rules of interaction which create heretofore unknown forms.  Something very close to this idea was discussed in a recent blog by James Vaughan, PDP’s director of research: “Simplicity vs. Complexity: A Guide to Training Session Design.”  In it he discusses the ideas of complexity and simplicity by way of re-visiting one of Johan Cruyff’s memorable quotes: “Football is simple, but the hardest thing is to play simple football.”

Transformation through information

This version of chaos and self-organization—transformation through information—was identified by the Japanese theorist, Ikujiro Nonaka.  This way of thinking reverses the most common way organizations use information.  Wheatley argues that most leaders see information as a resource to be used to maintain their sense of order in the organization.  But this use of information is for power.  With it we can control other people’s behavior in the organization.  With it we create strategic plans, develop goals, measure performance.  This common use of information is regulatory.  We use it as data to adjust or correct a pre-determined direction.

But it doesn’t transform.  It doesn’t create.  It isn’t chaotic in the least.  It is mostly for protection and preservation.

But chaos produces information richness—and self-organizing opportunities.  We are changed by it.  By way of self-organization, the structure will emerge to fit the situation.  If we have sufficient information, up-to-date knowledge, and a willingness to think creatively, the people in the organization will form around the information as the structure changes. And order arises out of unpredictability.