If you want to observe the role of chaos in management theory, help run a sports program! A hockey player, I have helped run a few over the years. Yes, there’s lots about these programs that’s very orderly and top-down, with one exception.
Typically, hockey programs run on predictable schedules that are the same year-in, year-out. Decision-making is usually fact-based and easy to implement, with clear delegation to a hierarchy of coaches, managers, and staff. But there is always one factor that adds a dose of chaos—the human factor.
A committee might not have proper authority to make decisions; individuals have personal agendas; parents intervene; “referees suck;” and there’s always inappropriate personal relationships, feuds, and ill discipline.
Humans are messy—but in a sports program, authority tends to rest on the shoulders of a director. As long as everyone respects authority, he or she is able to decisively move forward on any issue, either by reference to policy, or experience, or industry standards.
However, according to management philosopher Meg Wheatley, “If you’re interested in creating sustainable growth, sustainable productivity, sustainable morale, you can’t do that through autocracy.”
Simply dictating behavior and outcomes doesn’t work in most cases these days. Well, maybe it does in a hockey program—but Wheatley says you’ll be surprised how self-correcting and complexly adaptable the Army is!
In this interview, Wheatley discusses chaos management theory. Of course, she doesn’t mean that sustainable organizations are anarchic; rather, they have the ability to turn seemingly random events (i.e. the human factor) into patterns that can help them learn and predict outcomes. The Army, notes Wheately, “studies history carefully” and “documents everything.”
But is this approach good for all businesses? Once a hockey coach introduced a new training regimen to my program—small group games—bringing to bear his experience and learning. Other coaches were easy to win over. But parents are results-oriented. They wanted full scrimmages, goals, wins. They resisted, until a collaborative approach was taken and the “whys” and “wherefores” were shared—opening up the learning experience to the parents, who self-corrected and adapted.
However, most organizations have more moving parts than a hockey program. And many have much less tolerance for risk and much greater need for process stability—think hospitals or nuclear power plants. Creating a chaotic state might guarantee change; however, its direction cannot be guaranteed.
On the other hand, organizations that thrive on creativity may be better suited for chaos management. Technology firms, for instance, may benefit from disruptive change because they require constant innovation to stay competitive.
And traditional companies may at times benefit from disruptive change for the sake of survival. The print industry is shrinking due to the adoption of dynamic media such as websites, and Kodak’s recent bankruptcy is an example of a print industry firm that failed because its change management was perhaps not disruptive enough.
If your change management job is to deliver an expected outcome, perhaps chaos is not the first arrow to reach for. Or it could be if its lessons in pattern-finding are brought to bear. Recall that one discovery of this science is the fractal, the idea that simple, repeatable, mathematical patterns are at the heart of some of nature’s most efficient designs, such as snail shells and leaves.
If chaos management can be used to observe what is occurring as events unfold, and if it can help us react rationally to those unfolding events, then we’re onto something.
Chaos theory also teaches us that events are interconnected, affected by minute external changes—the so-called “butterfly effect.” Perhaps chaos management can help us recognize this interconnectedness and let go of the search for control and certainty, embracing probability, prediction, and forecasting as key management tools.
Leaders, I think, make decisions most successfully when they fully understand the context of the organization—its complexity, risk climate, human behavior, external factors such as politics—and they are even more successful when they monitor responses and act appropriately based on what they learn.