Order and Chaos

Posted on 11th Sep 2019

We generally don’t like chaos. It’s confusing, unpredictable, and frequently destructive. We much prefer order, especially in business. We make plans, execute them, and expect to achieve measurable results. The more controllable and predictable, the better.

But as Scottish poet Robert Burns once wrote, “The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.” Or as we might say today, “Shit happens.”

Why? Is it because we don’t plan well enough? We don’t communicate effectively so the plans are carried out? We don’t select, train, or incentivize our employees well enough? We don’t hold people accountable, including ourselves? We get overextended pursuing opportunities? We miss opportunities because we don’t extend ourselves enough? We’re under-resourced? We lack effective leadership?

These are the usual suspects and all of them happen. But the underlying reason the best laid plans oft go astray is simply this: Nature dictates both order and chaos. We’re part of nature, so there’s no escaping it.

You may be familiar with Chaos Theory and its first cousin Complexity Theory. Without getting into the details on these theories, they explain how stable, orderly systems of any kind and size can fall apart - a pond fills with silt and becomes a meadow, a business fails to meet market demands and goes under, a civilization grows too large and collapses.

They also explain how unstable, chaotic units of any kind and size can organize into coherent entities - a large mass of warm air becomes a hurricane, the wild ideas of college friends become a company, military conflicts result in new national borders.

It’s fascinating to look at the many underlying principles of Chaos Theory and Complexity Theory. Unfortunately, few high schools present these theories in science class even though they offer new ways of understanding how things work. Sir Isaac Newton’s physical science – which we do study in school – explains the world in terms of cause and effect. This works well in most applications, but not with complex systems comprised of millions of variables. The newer science of Chaos/Complexity Theory offers a new set of rules for understanding complex interactions – and they work, or we wouldn’t have computers, cardiac pacemakers, and increasingly accurate weather forecasts.

The most well-known illustration of Chaos Theory is the Butterfly Effect, i.e., a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can influence a chain of events resulting in a tornado in Texas. Everything is interrelated so very small initial conditions can affect much larger outcomes. This children’s rhyme puts in another way:

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.

For want of a horse, the rider was lost.

For want of a rider, the battle was lost.

For want of a battle, the war was lost.

For want of a war, the nation was lost

And all for the want of a nail.

So back to order and chaos. All the millions of interactions comprising a business – every conversation, email, phone call, and document – combine to form order out of chaos but also chaos out of order. We can influence the degree of order and predictability by putting certain conditions in place – a policy or procedure, a new office manager, or an infusion of cash from a business loan. But we’re constantly “surfing” the border between order and chaos. An effective leader is a great surfer who keeps the company in the creative “sweet spot” by avoiding over-control that stifles innovation and by avoiding under-control that saps efficiency and productivity.       

To thrive, an organization needs to grow not just in terms of top line revenue, cost containment, or bottom line results. These standard metrics obscure the underlying importance of such “order vs. chaos” factors as an innovative mindset, the pursuit of opportunistic risks, the balancing of employee stress and joy, and staff buy-in to new procedures.

And no matter how hard we plan and work to achieve our objectives, chaos is always working its way into every facet of our organization , e.g., out-of-the blue problems, lack of follow-through, unintentional bad hires, burnout, or being spread too thin to keep up.

Fortunately, order and growth are just as omnipresent. In fact, chaos relies on order and order relies on chaos.

So here’s something interesting. You’ve heard, of course, that every snowflake is unique. It may seem impossible given the gazillions of snowflakes that have fallen and will fall. However, scientists affirm that it’s true. You know what else is true? Everything is unique. Every person, every leaf, every drop of water, every grain of sand. Though entities may share the same basic template – a person, a leaf, a droplet, a mineral grain – no two are alike anywhere in the universe, and they never will be. Why? Chaos/Complexity Theory tells us no two starting points (moments of creation) are the same so the subsequent series of influences shaping the lifespan of the entity can never be the same. Similar, yes. The same, never.

When you pause to think about it, that’s astonishing.

But why mention it in a business article? Because it’s rocket fuel for knowing how the world works and, therefore, how business works.

There is no steady state. There’s always change because order inevitably descends into chaos and chaos inevitably gives rise to new and unique forms of order. We can depend on it – but can we harness it?

Yes – to an extent. Obviously we don’t control the full flow of events in our lives or the lives of those around us. We do have the ability, however, to look for those situations or outcomes we want to nourish and grow, as well as those we want to actively stop or let die out. Interestingly, we may see how to grow at times of the greatest stress and chaos. We may also see how to change at times of order and predictability. And there’s plenty of order and disorder to choose from at any point in time. It just keeps coming in understandable patterns with unique features again and again.

As the Byrds sang years ago  . . .

To everything - turn, turn, turn
There is a season - turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

Just figure out the purpose and go for it – or wait for it, or dismantle other things to get to it. But no matter what you do, you’ll have another choice a moment later.



                                                                                                                                              Gregory Powell, Ph.D., 2019