Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Chaos, Complexity and Change

There are days as leaders when we are surrounded with complexity. Events happen that do not have any clear pattern. They seem like random occurrences. But, when complexity starts to feel chaotic, I know from experience, lots of strategic dialogues with very smart and talented people, plus a ton of reading that more likely we have encountered a complex adaptive situation.

Richard T. Pascale, Mark Millemann and Linda Gioja, in their superb book,. Surfing The Edge of Chaos: The Laws of Nature and the New Laws of Business, Three Rivers Press, 2000, note that humans tend to regard chaotic situations as those which they can not control. However, based on their study, “Nature is at its innovative best near the edge of chaos.” As they explain, “the edge of chaos is a condition, not a location.” It creates upheaval but not dissolution. It is not the abyss, but instead a sweet spot for productive change. As they point out, “innovations rarely emerge from systems high in order and stability.”

Andy Grove, retired chairman of the board at Intel explains it this way: “First, you must experiment and let chaos reign. That’s important because you’re not likely to successfully stumble on the answer at the first sign of trouble. Rather, you have to let the business units struggle and watch the dissonance grow in the company. As this unfolds, you enter the second phase of change, which I describe as the Valley of Death. Doing away with established practice and established people - tearing apart before you can put together something new - is not fun. Talking prematurely about changes that disrupt people’s lives and are not truly believed can undermine efforts before you really know what you’re doing. But once they are in place, it is essential for leadership to speak clearly about what to do. At this point, you are on the other side of of the Valley of Death and you can describe the future that lies ahead.”

As the aforementioned authors note and my own experience with clients confirms, “the trick is to navigate close to the edge of chaos without falling into it.” But to do this, we have to understand chaos better. The best place to start is to explore chaos theory.

Chaos theory is a field of study in applied mathematics with applications in several disciplines including physics, economics, biology and philosophy. Chaos theory studies the behavior of dynamic systems that are apparently disordered or unpredictable. But chaos theory is really about finding the underlying order in the apparently random elements of a system.

This came clear to me many years ago. When our children were younger and just getting into middle school band, we took them to a performance of the University of Iowa jazz band, concert band and marching band at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City, Iowa. The place was packed and the jazz bands and concert bands were nice. But we were all focused on the marching band performance given both sons were into drums and drumming.

Finally after the intermission, the drum line of the University of Iowa’s marching band came into the back of the auditorium and set the initial rhythm, the cadence. Then different groups of instruments came streaming in from all different parts of the stage. In the end, the place was filled with sound, rhythm and music. Over the course of their performance, different groups like the trombones or the tubas would spontaneously get up and do little dances of some sort of hand gestures while maintaining the song they were performing. One never knew who was going to do what next. I don’t think they even knew when they were going to do it. It just happened, often appearing randomly and not planned. The music was fantastic and for two young sons who were beginning drummers it was awe inspiring.

As we walked outside the auditorium, the UI marching band showed up again, and started an informal pep rally with the students and parents who had come to see them perform. After listening for a bit, we headed to our car to start the drive home. I turned to my oldest son during the walk and commented that it was a great concert, “total chaos but very delightful.”

He stopped in his tracks, turned to me and said, “It wasn’t total chaos, Dad. Just organized pandaemonium.” I smiled because he was completely right.

With experience and careful discernment, we as leaders can discover that there is order in chaos. Goals, a mission statement, core values and vision can create continuity in the midst of chaos. They can focus all involved in the bigger picture and the end goal. Culture, key people and clarity about expectations and roles can also help. In essence, chaos can be transformed into organized pandaemonium with the right elements in place.

Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257

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