Understanding Chaos Theory
From an organisational perspective, a key lesson from Chaos Theory is to differentiate the concepts of order versus control.
Chaos means the ‘state of disorder’ or, as the OED defines it, “something consisting of unrelated or disordered parts or elements; a confused mass or mixture”, or, in mathematics, “unpredictable, apparently random behaviour exhibited by a dynamical system governed by deterministic laws, typically considered to consist of frequent instability, aperiodicity, and the occurrence of widely diverging outcomes corresponding to small changes in the initial conditions of the systems” (OED 2019).
Chaos/complexity theory originates in nature; nature is complex and the only thing that we can know with any certainty is its unpredictability! It is a theory that could only have emerged from the second half of the twentieth century, given the advances in computational opportunities at the very beginning of the digital age. Although highly complex as a theory in its own right, it can be simply described as a mathematical sub-discipline that studies complex systems. A good introduction is provided in ‘chaos theory for beginners: an introduction’.
Although chaotic, there are underlying patterns, repetitions, feedback loops and self-organisation that can be identified. Examples of problems that chaos theory has helped in understanding are the earth’s weather system, the behaviour of water boiling on a stove and the migratory patterns of birds. Chaos is everywhere. It surrounds us as human beings living on our planet and as leaders in facing adaptive challenges.
Chaos Theory: The butterfly effect
Chaos theory is often described as the butterfly effect in which a butterfly causes a hurricane in China by flapping its wings in the US. It is argued that the effect is real although it will take a very long time. It thus relies very much on the interaction between space, time and – in many respects – mass. The gist of this effect is where a small change in one state of what is described as a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences at a later time and in a different place. Therefore, a very small change in initial conditions can create significantly different and major outcomes.
However, lest you think that we have found the holy grail of prediction, just as the first weather system originator discovered, we cannot predict with absolute certainty. One of the characteristics of chaos theory is that of ‘Self-similarity’; this is the repetition of a shape, form or behaviour on different levels of complexity. It is not about creating an identical copy, but a close – but always an approximate – variation of the same basic pattern.
The practical benefits of Chaos Theory to Leadership
Chaos theory has a practical application in both the study and the analysis of organisational behaviour. It allows us, as leaders, to take a step back from our day to day activities and explore how the organisation functions as a unified system, or not as the case may be!
An organisation represents just as much of a non-linear system as natural systems. In such cases, just as the butterfly flapping its wings, minor occurrences within the organisation or its networks have the potential to result in significant and turbulent change. Conversely, planned major change may not have an impact on the system at all!
In many respects, this is similar to Heifetz’s notion of getting on the balcony (described in a subsequent section) in order to get some distance between the leader and the organisation to view the bigger picture. The opportunity is present to observe how the shape of the organisation exists or could exist. This is about looking for organisational patterns that have the potential to shape or change behaviours within the organisation.
As with a number of aspects of traditional approaches to leadership applying the concept of chaos theory to organisations will not be preferred by managers who instead will prefer to use and apply the tried-and-tested approaches.
This is also akin to managers who face a ‘wicked problem’ but respond in a ‘tame’ way. A key lesson is to differentiate the concepts of order versus control. Organisations rely on structures and design and organisational charts often determine levels of accountability and role definitions. Business consultants will often subsume the organisation into smaller silos and examine the smallest of its parts.
A focus on the smallest of parts is likely to be detrimental to any changes that follow. A feature of chaos is that of self-organisation. This enables systems, which can include organisations, to develop and evolve naturally. Each part of the system remains consistent with itself and the system’s past. Innovation and creativity can emerge in support of the organisation’s overall vision and culture. Chaos theory can the support the development of effective leadership through the organisation vision, it’s shared values, the organisation’s beliefs and transparency in communication.
From the 1980s decision-making was considered within the concept of chaos theory. One example is the way in which high performing teams develop not because of changes of team members roles within the formal levels of authority and position but, rather, allowing leaders to emerge informally. Patterns can be determined in the relationships that exist between the organisation and its individual members rather than focusing on the individual parts and players within the organisation.
One of the most influential books that I read during the 1980s was the then groundbreaking work of Tom Peters who authored the bestselling ‘Thriving on Chaos”. His work focused on strategies to deal with the uncertainty of competitive markets. Patterns that could be determined positively included those of responsiveness both to clients and staff, encouragement of innovation through empowering team members and to acknowledge the need to work within an environment of constant change.
In his 1989 work Peters referred to the need to face up to a revolution in a world ‘turned upside down’. He said that we need to meet uncertainty:
… “by emphasising a set of new basics: world class quality and service, enhanced responsiveness through greatly increased flexibility, and continuous, short-cycle innovation and improvement aimed at creating new markets for both new and apparently mature products and services” (Peters, 1989, p.3)
Over 30 years later, this need for revolution still exists! We will now draw on other tools and techniques that can assist in responding to chaos.
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