Chaos theory is the most significant scientific idea of the 20th century and has revolutionized our thinking in all disciplines – from the physical sciences and math (where it originated) to the fields of management and leadership.
Chaos theory is exciting because it opens up the possibility of simplifying complicated phenomena”; it is troubling in its challenge to traditional model-building; it is fascinating in its integration of math, science, and technology. “But above all, chaos is beautiful” (Ian Stewart, 1989).
Exciting, troubling, fascinating, beautiful…and the assertion that “the world is at once easier and yet more difficult to understand than we thought” (TJ Cartwright). We thought the world was like Newton’s model – predictable, controllable like a machine. Reality, however is that chaos is the organizing building block of the universe. It’s not Newton’s world. Our universe is fundamentally a nonlinear, quantum world, unpredictable and constantly in flux.
The implications for leadership theory and practice are profound. Cartwright’s (1991) article on the implications of chaos theory on urban planning applies to leadership. He contends that “chaos may make the world easier to understand, not more difficult” and that it is more appropriate to develop simple models or solutions to complex problems. This seems contradictory, that a complex problem or organization should demand a complex solution/plan. However, Cartwright persuasively argues that complicated models are still imprecise, don’t fit with reality (which is dynamic) and are hard to understand which means no one will use them. Simpler plans can also be abandoned if and when they are no longer useful.
Consider the investment of time, money, and energy spent on dense, complex, strategic plans that sit on the shelf, outgrow their relevance before their projected time (5 -10 years) and Cartwright’s words ring true. If strategic plans are taken off the shelf and used, they are unlikely to be challenged or abandoned because of the investment, even if conditions change and the plans no longer apply.
Cartwright also advises rethinking our deeply-rooted beliefs in order and predictability in light of the potential value of accepting the “new” reality of a world of disorder and chaos. If chaos is a more accurate picture of the world and our systems within the world, then accepting that and working within that framework ought to be less frustrating and more productive. Cartwright builds a case for the idea that humans may need chaos in their collective psyche to survive as finite beings in an infinite world.
The most important and possibly the most practical implication is the idea that system predictability is only local and incremental, not global or comprehensive. This is incredibly powerful applied to planning and change. The scope of an intervention ought to be as local as possible, narrower and focused on incremental steps, staying open to the need to adapt or make adaptations to the model, rather than following a blueprint step by step without question.
Theory & Implications
Chaos: Order without predictability (not total disorder, not external force swirling us into anarchy). Chaos has an invisible order. Not every aspect of world is chaotic, but many systems are. A few examples are weather, water (river currents), stock market, population). These systems are not subject to precise rules, nor are they predictable. They are shaped by environmental feedback and display discernible patterns but they are complex and cannot be controlled. Chaotic systems are inherently unpredictable and will never be completely understood.
Implication #1: Seek multiple partial solutions (Kelly, 1994) or develop an “ensemble of forecasts” (Cartwright, 1991) to organizational problems. Don’t waste time and energy on the myth of one best approach or solution. Single causes are rare, the only relevant approach is to develop multiple, partial solutions or forecasts that are easily adapted to changes or can be abandoned in order to follow the better path.
Implication #2: Place less emphasis on total control and total understanding because it will always be imprecise; spend energy and effort on observing, uncovering hidden patterns, adjusting expectations and adapting to change. This kind of thinking and communication requires the capacity to engage in Double Loop Learning (see entry).
Quantum world: We live in a world of wholes not disparate parts, nothing exists in isolation, energy and matter interact in fields, invisibly yet powerfully creating new energy or synergy – an outcome is greater than the sum of it parts -- 1 + 1 = more than 3, it can equal 100, depending on the level, type, intensity and amount of interactions between objects over time.
Implication: In order to understand the situation and its challenges (organizational, community, group level) study relationships among parts (people, tasks, context, other groups, organization) and design interventions that increase connections and therefore create synergy … more energy than a single entity can generate.
Strange Attractor (s): In a world that is dynamic and turbulent, organizations and systems operate in and around a “strange attractor”; the essence of this concept in an organization is the fundamental purpose and its core values. The strange attractor defines the “orbit” of behaviors within a system. The strange attractor is the magnetic force that draws people to the system and holds them there.
Implication: If the core purpose of the organization is different from the mission statement crafted for a strategic plan or marketing campaign, it will be revealed over time. The real purpose (the Strange Attractor) is revealed in patterns of behavior and practices. It is what the organization returns to over time. The importance of understanding the purpose cannot be underestimated. People come and go in response to the pull of the purpose on their lives. People may leave if the stated purpose is not the same as the actual or experienced purpose.
Self-organizing systems: Fill the chaotic world. Groups of living things form in response to the dynamic impact of the environment and actions of other living things. Groups constantly organize themselves. We cannot predict nor control how groups will organize because self-organizing systems are governed by the principle of strange attractors – magnetic pull.
Implication: Encourage self-organizing teams. Leaders should observe and look for self-organizing systems, find ways to equip, empower and encourage them to work in concert (alignment) with the core values and purpose, which is the primary Strange Attractor. Leaders need to be aware of cliques that operate outside the mission and pay attention to impact of influences (or “force fields” beyond the CEO or executive leadership) that shape individuals and teams, such as company reputation, market fluctuations, environment, peers etc.
Sensitivity to Initial Conditions or “butterfly effect”: Initial conditions guide and hold the system together through time and multiple feedback loops. Pay attention to beginnings because they determine ends. The slightest movement by one object within the system can alter the course of the whole system. A profound distance can develop between objects that were initially close due to the amplification of feedback loops over time. Edward Lorenz suggested that the movement of a butterfly’s wings in Tokyo could affect weather in New York two months later.
Implication: Leaders should give ample time and effort to beginnings and “firsts” like launches, new relationships, first meetings, new employee training, product introductions, groundbreaking, and attend to small details for great impact. In addition, they should observe relationships and factors that create distance over time as well as watch for mission drift between members or teams and the purpose of the organization.
Force Fields: Invisible fields that influence system and self-organizing processes. How information is disseminated throughout the system.
Implication: Leaders need to develop awareness of the impact of sounds, sights, even smells of the environment, what and how information is communicated.
-What does the signage, furniture, color, lighting, space reflect about the mission/purpose?
-What do the organizational structure, hiring practices, staff training, policies and procedures communicate to the whole?
Feedback Loops: Information looping back to the system from the environment enabling system to adapt and survive in response to new information/turbulent conditions. A system evaluates level of adaptation and change and seeks to maintain dynamic equilibrium.
Implication: Leaders need to acknowledge the critical role of openness to feedback from stakeholders, markets, peer organizations, consultants external to the organization as well as creating feedback loops, specific channels for individuals and teams to provide feedback to top management; creating feedback loops between teams; creating a “holding environment” for the organization when there is tension while new information and approaches are considered in the context of the ultimate mission.
Burns, J.S. (2002). Chaos theory and leadership studies: Exploring unchartered seas. Journal of Leadership and Organization Studies, 9(2),42-56.
Cartwright, T.J. (1991). Planning and chaos theory. Journal of the American Planning Association, 57 (1), 44-56.
Gleick, J. (1987). Chaos: Making a new science. New York: Viking.
Lorenz, E. (1963). Deterministic nonperiodic flow. Journal of Atmospheric Sciences, 20(2), 130-41.
Wheatley, M.J. (1999) Leadership and the new science. (2nd edition). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.