Order Through Chaos
by Lawrence E. Wharton

Organizations must become more adaptive and creative. It's hard to argue with that statement as we look at the forces impacting organizations today. But becoming more adaptive and innovative requires fundamentally new ways of seeing and engaging the world, not merely applying the latest improvement model.

Perhaps the most critical and difficult part of any effort to improve adaptability is the need for the organization to have the simultaneous presence of balancing and growth systems, of stable and chaotic conditions all at once. It is important to keep in mind that in using the word chaos (or chaotic) we are not talking about the everyday definition, which conjures images of things falling apart and being in total disarray-usually a fairly bad thing. We are using chaos more in the scientific vein, which describes unstable conditions but with an underlying, integrating order.

A number of authors have spoken about the need to be at the "edge of chaos," where things are just about to fall apart but don't. This really is the zone of highest adaptability and creativity. But helping leaders understand what it looks like and how to bring it about is sadly neglected. Leaders are told how important it is to find this edge of chaos, but little is provided in the way of useful information about the methods or approaches. A deep inhibitor of creative and adaptive responses is a serious misunderstanding of the nature of paradox, particularly dealing with chaotic conditions.

Let's consider the nature of this paradox, of things being chaotic and stable at the same time. The simultaneous presence of apparent opposites is disturbing for many managers, who see paradox as something to be avoided and, in the end, to be "resolved" or eliminated. Resolution means accepting one side of the paradox and discarding the other, as in "we're either team-oriented or individual-oriented." But paradoxes don't simply arise; they are created by us through our framing of issues or problems. In fact, what appear to be irreconcilable opposites are in fact very often two critical aspects of the same underlying truth or picture.

Any organization, public or private, must provide goods or services as customers desire, without defect and on time. Employees want a stable payroll system, not one in which they may or may not get the right paycheck or even one at all. And certainly lenders want prompt payment of debts. These examples clearly require stability, with little or no variation from an ideal state. Statistical Process Control (SPC) and Process Redesign are examples of tools used successfully to reduce variation and maintain stability. There are many needed stability-seeking systems within every organization, regardless of size or industry.

At the same time, the organization needs to think about growth, innovation, improved productivity and operations, greater adaptability, and a host of other issues not served well by stability, which emphasizes keeping things on an even keel. In fact, improving how you do things is antithetical to stability. The introduction of conditions in which growth or improvements can occur requires acceptance of disorder, at least temporarily.

Consider learning to ride a bicycle when all you are used to is a tricycle. The idea is to grow to the next level of transportation effectiveness. New information in the form of the bicycle challenges the existing method of transportation and puts the child at a temporary disadvantage, as she spends much of her time falling down, being literally off balance, in a state of disequilibrium or disorder. If she persists, and maybe has a little help, she gets the hang of it and starts to ride. And the more she rides, the better she gets at it-her system of transportation becomes orderly once again.

The lesson is clear whether we are talking about learning to ride a bicycle, advancing to higher quality leadership, or becoming a learning organization: without the disorder that comes from trying new methods or approaches, growth or improvement cannot occur. Some level of chaotic conditions (disorder) is absolutely necessary to evolve or advance to the non-chaotic conditions (order) at the next level of performance. This is as true for an organization as it is for an individual or a team.

The bicycle illustration, in which there is temporary disorder and then the gradual appearance of order, really misrepresents things a bit. The learning process does not go so smoothly or easily. It is filled with small and large conditions of simultaneous order and disorder, often highly irregular and non-linear. In other words, learning anything does not proceed neatly and exactly. All sorts of disturbances and fits and starts occur, provoking many people to abort the learning process altogether after too many difficulties and setbacks.

Suppose a leader seeks to make quantum-leap improvements in customer service because it has been fragmented and non-responsive to customer needs and expectations. He or she must be very aware that there will be destabilizing conditions that will affect, probably badly, the folks providing service to customers. They will have to give up treasured ways of operating and relating to customers and to each other, and this creates disorder and stress. The leader cannot simply say that disorder is part of the process and expect the employees to deal with it. The leader must provide stability at the same time she or he is introducing disorder. The leader must contain the anxiety and uncertainty that will arise from instituting a new system, from the setbacks, errors, disappointments, and screw-ups that will inevitably happen. This means the leader must have a much different understanding of his or her role in the change process than is commonly the case.

Putting into play a "change initiative" does not mean merely telling everyone about the change with passion and commitment and then impressing them with how important the change is, although making those points is necessary. More importantly, it means engaging staff around issues they may find uncomfortable or outright disagreeable, such as the fact that higher levels of effectiveness, no matter how measured, are impossible without some degree of disorder and probably discomfort as well. It means finding a mix of order and disorder with an appropriate sense of timing for the changes. These actions help the leader in his or her "container" role.

We are not suggesting the leader attempt to protect employees or take away all stress. We are suggesting that a leader's failure to understand the dynamics of change around stress, fear, and disequilibrium and failure to act on those understandings will have bad results. Thus, clarity with staff about the need for disorder and what it means, about being off balance and making mistakes, and about what role the leader will play are what assist both the leader and staff enormously in finding higher levels of performance. And the leader must continue to engage staff about issues related to disorder while the change initiative is proceeding.

Not doing these steps well means the leader embarks on a change process only to see the system fail at least in part in its primary function-serving customers at some basic level-and certainly in the effort to improve the process. This generates great frustration on everyone's part, especially the leader's, as he or she saw a legitimate need for improvement and had high hopes for positive outcomes.

Improvements in operations, strategy, performance, or customer satisfaction can be planned. But the leverage (small, skillful actions producing large results) for these improvements is the type of staff interactions in which the outcomes are indeterminable, cannot be known, but will emerge from the conversations and deliberations. Leverage is in the hallway conversations and brainstorming sessions, in people voluntarily examining some aspect of work with peers and improving it. These spontaneous engagements are very disturbing to leaders who have high needs for order or control, as such activity is filled with unpredictable movements and outcomes, with considerable amounts of chaos and uncertainty. But precisely out of such interactions come high levels of creativity.

Consider the firm that wants a culture assessment to see how well things like trust, respect, mutual support, etc., are working. The firm's leaders get the results and decide to improve the weak spots. Certainly, planning how to train people and what kinds of committees to form might is wise and a common change-intervention strategy. But attempting to define precisely the form of every aspect of the change is singularly unwise. Such an approach fails to recognize that the best, the most adaptive responses to this challenge are likely to emerge unbidden and unpredictably from conversations within the organization. Leaders fearful of such disorder will sacrifice the disorder's benefits to their own need for order or control, no matter how helpful the outcomes of chaos may be.

The greatest work in organizations occurs in states of disorder. Think of the simple act of brainstorming. To a considerable degree, both the outcome and the process are entirely unpredictable, filled with disorder, yet the benefits can be outstanding, producing a temporary state of order. This non-linear movement from order to disorder to order ad infinitum is what real growth and improvement are all about.

A leader who wishes to improve her or his ability to be open and communicative with staff must go through personal dislocations and often distinctly disturbing feelings and experiences. Making such behavioral changes is usually far more difficult than making procedural or process changes. These are so difficult, so filled with disorder and the accompanying sense of anxiety and fear, that many leaders are unable to weather the journey. Some leaders are so fearful (usually unconsciously) of such changes that the idea never even occurs to them, no matter how beneficial a change in their behavior may be.

The lessons are clear: Leaders truly sincere about their desire to improve themselves and their organizations must understand the paradox of the simultaneous presence of order and disorder, and they must develop and encourage both. The results are often astonishing.

But these results do not occur merely because the leader wishes them to or because he or she is committed to and understands the concepts of chaos and order. In most cases, the rewards come to those leaders who radically change their own patterns of behavior. The rule is: If you want to change staff's behavior (and performance) at any level, you must first change the leader's behavior.

Like it or not, the organization's current ways of doing things have resulted from management's formal or informal reinforcement. In particular, the messages sent, intended or not, by the leader at the top are critical. Thus, the leader, prior to embarking on a new change initiative, must determine what her or his behavioral changes must be and then put those changes into effect. In addition, that leader must determine what behavioral changes are needed in associate managers, top to bottom, and ensure that those behaviors are appropriately reinforced. This effort is singularly difficult, filled as it is with considerable stress and disorientation-once again, the presence of chaos. Courage, patience, and perseverance are paramount. Breaking old behavioral patterns is very hard and often painful work and, like all learning, entails mistakes, disappointments, and setbacks.

So developing greater organizational performance requires a clear understanding and use of the principle of paradox, of seeing order and disorder as two sides to the same coin-you cannot have one without the other. Significantly enhanced performance demands leaders see that both stability and chaos are required and that they understand where and how those will become part of the organization's fabric of action.

© 2000,2001 Wharton & Roi

About the Author... Larry's work involves connecting behavioral competence and cultural re-alignment with strategic and operating success. He uses non-traditional methods and high leverage interventions as a way to assist leaders in changing their behavior to make the unit or organization more effective and efficient. www.wiseleadership.com or 520-577-0823. Reprinted with permission.

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