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If there is a single sacred word in the culture of most of our organizations, that word is control. When we have it, we are in good shape, and in its absence disaster is a short step away.
As managers we have been trained to control, and control is the prime attribute designating high-quality management. The centrality of control is not usually stated so blatantly, but it is never far from the surface. According to the old dictum, the good manager makes the plan, manages to the plan, and meets the plan. And the essence of all of that is control. Close, tight control.
We presently find ourselves in rather strange circumstances. It remains relatively easy to make a plan, for after all we control the pen, paper, or computer. But ensuring that the plan, once made, will have any relevance past the drying of its ink, is no easy task. Sure as the sun rises, some unpredicted event will shatter our best efforts. These are hard days for plan makers, and all those other folks who place high value on being in control.
But what are the options? Somewhere along the line we came to the conclusion that the only alternative to control was being out of control. And we all know what that means. Chaos!
In the good old days (whenever they were), events moved at a stately pace, allowing us to make our plans with some reasonable hope of completion. And indeed, we often looked forward to a little chaos just for added spice. Chaos is no longer a little spice added to the organizational stew. It has become our daily bread and butter. As Mikhail Gorbachev said, "We are already in a state of chaos." (Washington Post, Fall 1990) Maybe someday we can return to normal.
SOMEDAY WILL NEVER COME
The hope for a return to normalcy is precluded by myriad factors. I will mention only two: first, the state of the planet; and second, the electronic connection.
The State of the Planet
It is not my intention to deliver an impassioned plea for ecological reform, although that is certainly in order. Rather I merely wish to point to the present sorry state of the planet as a prime factor precluding any possible return to normalcy. Take whatever list of ecological disasters you wish (present, imminent, or potential), and it is patently obvious to even the casual observer that the base system, upon which all other systems stand, is badly out of whack, and showing every sign of becoming more so. Acid rain, global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, destruction of the planetary lungs (rain forests), toxic wastes, are just examples of the many ecological problems; it seems almost pointless to count them. Each contributes, and all conspire, to create the conditions under which we will never return to normal, and business as usual. For it was "business as usual" that got us into this mess.
The productive capacity of the West—now spread around the world—has indeed been good business. However it is business as usual, which is about to put all of us out of business. Scientific studies documenting the appearance of the Greenhouse Effect combined with predictions of the ultimate outcomes are sufficient to give you nightmares. And the nightmare is quickly becoming a "daymare" as our once crystalline blue skies smudge over with the noxious fumes of millions of automobiles, factories, and power plants. Worse, an unsightly mess has become a genuine hazard to our health. In Bombay, Mexico City, Los Angeles, to say nothing of Washington, D.C., pollution alerts are now a way of life, and evacuations of the young and old a growing occurrence. Truly, it is getting hard to breathe, and as any business person understands full well, customers who stop breathing are rather unlikely to buy. In a word, getting back to normal, or returning to business as usual, is a one-way ticket to disaster. We really don't want to go there.
The Electronic Connection
Not terribly long ago, the notion that our planet was a small electronic cottage appeared "far out" and avant-garde. However, science fiction is now an everyday experience. We are all connected and virtually instantaneously. When something happens in a far corner of the planet, we know it, and react. What all of this has to do with the impossibility of returning to "normal" is quite simple. Our organizations and institutions, almost without exception, were designed for a much different era, and even those human systems designed most recently are apparently patterned on what has gone before.
The archetype for organization design emerged early in the 1900s, a classic period in the United States with the organization of General Motors, DuPont, Standard Oil of New Jersey, and Sears and Roebuck. Chronicled by Alfred Chandler these corporations manifested organizational charts of such complex precision as to boggle the mind. Presumably all of this worked, and certainly everything was most impressive on paper. But that was a slower, simpler day and we could afford to pursue the majestic process—up and down the organization chart. But control was optimized and order prevailed, or so it is said in the textbooks.
As we know all too well, such a majestic process is simply trashed when responsive decisions must be made in minutes and not months or years. The net result is that decisions are not made or are made poorly and late, or the participants simply gasp with exhaustion. Stress and burnout become a seemingly inescapable cost of doing business.
More recently the insanity of the situation has been acknowledged, and major efforts have been launched to reduce organizational layers, and thereby enhance the efficiency of the process. But the fundamental understanding of the nature of organization remains unchanged. To be sure, layers have been reduced, but the essential design remains the same. It is still made up of layers, albeit fewer of them.
It would seem that the lessons of chaos and complexity have yet to be learned. Or if they have been learned at a conceptual level, they are not yet assimilated at a deeper level, where a fundamental change in understanding takes place. The notion remains that someday, somehow, we will create the perfect structure that will ensure the continuance of control. Surely somebody is in charge, if only we could find the right person and the right structure. Lots of luck.
GUESS WHAT? THIS IS NORMAL. CHAOS IS A NATURAL PART OF LIFE
Slowly it is dawning on most of us: there is no going back, and what we now experience is normal. If this is so, then perhaps chaos is not antithetical to life, but rather a normal, natural, and possibly necessary aspect of what it means to be alive.
Not very long ago such a thought was pure heresy, for have we not all been taught that the lack of order is the end of productive existence? Science, at least as we learned it in school, had one basic message: the universe is an orderly place, thus the scientific method and prediction are possible. From Newton onward, we have lived in a clockwork universe with a time and place for everything, and everything in its peculiar time and place. Were things to get out of order, it was the role of science to put it back together. Maybe.
Of course, some other aspects of the scientific endeavor do not appear to play by the same rules. Subatomic physics, for example, has found itself in world of randomness where indeterminacy is the rule, if a rule can be indeterminate. However, this may all have been an aberration, and such a luminary as Albert Einstein boldly proclaimed, "God does not play dice." For Einstein, as for many of us, the thought of a fundamentally disorderly universe is appalling. Little storms and small disturbances to be sure—but chaos as a natural part of life?
A WORD FROM THE PAST
Actually, the thought that chaos is not only a natural aspect of life, but an essential and positive element, is not a new one. So far as I am aware, every major religious tradition has held this view. Of course, that does not make it true, but at least it may give us pause for thought.
For the Hindu, Shiva, the Lord of the Universe, is usually depicted with two faces. One of the faces is that of the creator. But the second is the face of destruction and chaos. The picture is relatively clear. The universe is the product of an alternation, or better, a synergy of forces: order and disorder, cosmos and chaos.
From a different part of the globe comes a similar thought. The Taoist tradition of China places much weight on the yin and the yang. While often thought of as male and female polarities, there is in fact a deeper meaning. The yin and the yang can equally refer to the light and the dark, the forces of order and the breakthrough of chaos. If life were all order, there could be no evolution. Were it all chaos, there could be no continuance. It is only in the dance between chaos and order that life progresses.
The interplay of the powers of chaos and order, as an expression of the divine intent, finds its place also in Judaism. The sacred history of the people of Israel may be read as a guided passage through chaos and on to New Creation (to use the phrase from Jeremiah). From Egypt, into the chaos of the Desert, and on to the Promised Land. But note: the Desert is the antechamber to the Promised Land. The prophet Isaiah puts the thought quite directly when he says (speaking for God),"I create the Light and make the Darkness. I create peace (shalom) and chaos (tohu w' bohu)."
In Christianity, the centrality of chaos in the process of existence is clearly stated through the stark symbolism of the cross. In the language of that faith, crucifixion stands as an intermediary between life and new life (Resurrection). Christmas, Good Friday, then Easter—that is the story.
Is all of this true? Who knows? But that is the story, and it is a story that has been told in the community of humanity with remarkable consistency for a very long time. It is only in the recent past (since the dawn of the scientific age) that we have attempted to tell a different story, in which disorder and chaos are banished from the universe as aberrant and fundamentally useless phenomena. Perhaps our new story is the aberrancy?
A WORD FROM THE PRESENT
History now seems to be repeating itself, or perhaps we are now remembering what we have tried very hard to forget. Science, or at least some scientific disciplines, has now rediscovered chaos. Within the past thirty years, from a very broad spectrum of scientific disciplines, there has emerged first a suspicion, and now something that looks remarkably like a coherent body of knowledge, all gathered under the umbrella of chaos theory. I leave it to James Gleick and others to describe the details, but in a nutshell, the chaos theorists are proposing that not only is there a pattern in chaos, but that chaos is useful.
The pattern emerges upon consideration of the life cycle of any natural, open system. Open systems are to be contrasted with closed systems, which turn out to be figments of our imagination, existing only as theoretical constructs, albeit useful ones for the conduct of science.
For example, if one were to seek some strange new electronic particle, it is essential to "wall out" interference from all other particles that might get in the way of the experiment. At a practical level, walls of lead and concrete are constructed to protect the experimental environment (close the system), but even with best efforts it is never quite possible to achieve the tight, hermetical seal that might be hoped for. The next part is an act of hope, and probably also faith. Everybody hopes that such elements that do break through will create a level of disturbance so low as might be disregarded. Thus even in the laboratory environment, where scientists do their best to "close the system" and thereby control the unwanted variables, something always seems to get through. It may just be an aberrant neutron, with an impact so small as to be forgettable, but something opens the can.
There is a lesson for managers in all of this scientific jargon. We have been treating our organizations as if they were closed systems, which we might fully control—all under the heading of scientific management. The truth of the matter is that all systems are open, and most especially our organizations. Is it any wonder that efforts to control inevitably meet with disappointment?
Now back to chaos. When you observe the process of a natural system, it is noted that the life cycle is punctuated by periods of order and chaos. Sometimes things go right, and sometimes we are in deep tapioca. There is no news here, but a definable, predictable pattern emerges. While one may not be able to say when this pattern will begin or end, that it will occur is assured.
The pattern divides into four stages. The first stage might be called Steady State with Development. Everything is going along fine, and getting better. The second stage is called Periodic Doubling, the meaning of which we will come to shortly. In the third stage, chaos appears, which means that all previous patterns are broken and predictability becomes a thing of the past. The final stage may have one of two forms: dissolution, or renewal at a higher order of complexity. The meaning of dissolution should be obvious: everything falls apart, and it is over.
Renewal at a higher order of complexity is the intriguing piece. Somehow this Open System gets itself back together, not as it was, but in a new (usually radically new) fashion, which is at the same time related to its past (it is still recognizably the same sort of thing), and in synergistic harmony with the new environment.
For example, suppose that our Open System is a population of deer. Each year the males and females do what they are supposed to do, and the herd increases. We might say that the herd is stable and getting better, and predictably, given sufficient water and food, things will only improve.
But one year a very strange thing happens. For absolutely no observable reason, the number of births doubles. The next year, the number of births is halved. And so it continues for a few years, doubling up and then doubling down (this is Periodic Doubling). After a time, and usually a very short time, any logic or rationale in the number of births totally disappears, and we have chaos. From that point on one of two possibilities will come to pass. Either the herd will disappear from the face of the earth, or it will restabilize in some new functional pattern, more conducive to living in its environment.
The critical point was the onset of Periodic Doubling, and the critical question is, why did it occur? Here we must introduce the butterfly. One of the most profound discoveries of the chaos theorists is that Open Systems have extreme sensitivity to early conditions. Translated, that means that sometime in the early life of the herd something happened or didn't happen. At the time, this happening would have appeared so trivial as to be inconsequential. But somehow the impact of this happening was carried along in the life of the herd in a dormant state. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the happening happens again, the balance is tripped, and Periodic Doubling commences. Now back to the butterfly. It is part of the folklore of chaos theorists that a butterfly flapping its wings in Thailand will affect the weather system of California. Who knows whether it is true, and it is doubtful that the butterfly will ever be caught in the act. But that is the story.
WHAT EARTHLY GOOD IS CHAOS?
If chaos has a place in the natural order of things, it seems pertinent to ask, does it do any good? Has it any use, and if so, what?
Arnold Mandell, quoted in Gleick's book, poses the question in an interesting and provocative manner. "Is it not possible that mathematical pathology, i.e., chaos, is health? And that mathematical health, which is predictability ... is disease?" He then says pointedly: "When you reach an equilibrium in biology, you're dead."
The suggestion is that chaos represents the growth point in any system. Or in a term that we will be using rather extensively, chaos creates the Open Space in which the new can emerge. Obviously there are no guarantees here, for chaos can equally mark the end—in fact it always does. The central question is not about ending, but rather the possibility of new beginning. Chaos may therefore be the essential precondition for all that is truly new. No chaos, nothing new.
Excerpted from The Power of Spirit by Harrison Owen Copyright © 2000 by Harrison Owen. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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