My husband and I spent this Summer putting out fires. Illness, injury, cancelled vacations, unexpected bumps and bruises, a death, disappointment in some relationships and clarity on many things that truly matter. All of this made for a Summer we’ll be glad to kiss goodbye. It wasn’t the carefree or super social Summer we anticipated but it left some impressions on us that are valuable. We decided, while swimming in this chaos that we might as well read a few books and I stumbled upon one that lit a few fires in me. The concepts apply, as do many of the concepts that attract me, to both professional and personal life.
In “Leadership and the New Science” , Margaret Wheatley compares organizational systems to science systems. Entrepreneurs of the industrial age applied Newtonian concepts to build industries. Wheatley compares the typical organization to seventeenth century concepts of order and mechanics by Newton and Descartes (laws of motion, cause and effect etc). “The room is adrift in flip-chart paper, clouds of lists, issues, schedules, plans and accountabilities crudely taped to the wall. They will drift into our calendars and onto individual ‘to do’ lists, already fogged with confusion and inertia” (Weatley, p. 27). Haven’t we all been a part of such a system? Sir Isaac Newton’s universe was mechanical, predictable and clockwork. The order of that universe became the order of our workplaces as structure and organizational design were emphasized. We SWOT every organizational challenge and separated things into cause and effect. Newton would be proud but Newtonian concepts no longer work as well in a quantum age.
Clock problems are now cloud problems and information not only informs us but forms us too. “Our culture is presently journeying through chaos. The old ways are dissolving…we must engage with one another differently, as explorers and discoverers” (Wheatley, p. 191). Wheatley compares the new science of leadership to the 20th century science of chaos theory. I’m no physicist, I’m a journalist, but I’m fan of physics like those who can’t play an instrument admiring their favorite band. In short, Chaos theory refers to an apparent lack of order in a system, that nevertheless, develops patterns that are not predictable (sorry Newton). Physicist Henri Poincare figured out that chaos can be an essential process in natural systems allowing them to renew and revitalize themselves. Wheatley applies this concept to how organizations and leaders can get more imaginative and innovative outcomes. “We fear chaos and see it as a loss of control, but you can’t get to the feelings of peace and greater creativity unless you’re willing to surrender to it”. Chaos creates new levels of order and understanding because the system develops within the organization instead of being imposed on the organization.
Application of chaos theory in an organizations takes leadership willing to set a few ground rules and set people loose into the chaos. As organizations we have to agree on what we’re trying to accomplish, our shared values (or our “why” statement) and then be open to a wide range of behaviors as employees develop the “how”. There are always those made anxious by ambiguity but I love this quote by Wheatley, ” We are waves of potential moving though the space of our organizations and when we meet up with another person, or event or thought, it evokes something and brings forth our potential”. The systems will develop naturally from within instead of being imposed on the organization.
For evidence of chaos theory at work, you could study physics…or, just watch a jazz band jam. The sound starts chaotic but eventually, you start to hear patterns emerge as each player is influenced, and inspired by the player next to him. It can work this way in the workplace as well if we have workspaces that don’t compartmentalize us, trapping information our colleagues need to inspire the next big idea. Information is everything.
I’m still waiting for the systems to emerge from a personally chaotic summer. I can see glimmers of patterns developing that are giving rise to new ways of thinking and new insights. Much of what is swirling is still not taking shape but until it does, I embrace the chaos and have faith that with more information and more interaction, will come not only understanding but resilience and renewal.