[Last amended: 9 Jan 18]
How do we Cope when Chaos is the Norm?
Basic assumptions at this point are:
that those engaged in this research already accept that Normal Chaos rather than the Perfect World is the accepted paradigm.
the purpose of the plans or rule-set is clear and agreed by those involved.
[What constitutes purpose may be more complex than we originally imagine. Dee Hock (the doyenne of chaordic organisations) has stated that "a purpose is not an objective, it's not a mission statement—a purpose is an unambiguous expression of that which people jointly wish to become." Initially we will therefore take an organisation's purpose as a given but as we review the principles we need to stay alert to the need to amend the given purpose.]
The world that confronts us is ever changing; to use a truism that has become a cliché, "the only certainty is uncertainty". Our ability to forecast the future has proved wholly inadequate and yet, the methods we use to run our lives and our organisation are based on creating certainty. This tactic manifests itself in the plans and rule sets that we use in an effort to control the world around us. Experience shows that such an approach is flawed.
Plans often fail to deliver the desired result and rules fail to provide a fool-proof way of avoiding the crisis or disaster. There is a general rule that the more senior the manager, the more time he or she spends resolving conflicts that arise due to the complex interaction taking place within their organisation. In these cases, the manager is forced to makes choices that constitute the least-worst rather than the best option.
My study of organisational failures of foresight has highlighted the almost universal issue that the world the organisation has designed itself to face is not the world that confronts it; what actually occurs exceeds the range of our expectations and the variations envisaged. This is what we refer to a Normal Chaos.
Our work to date has enabled us to identified there being some significant implications of accepting the Normal Chaos paradigm. These implication that offer eleven assumptions about the world in which we live and work were identified by a Delphic discourse of those involved. They assumptions are:
1. The world we live and work in is complex and driven by forces that we often do not see, recognise or appreciate
2. All actions we take have consequences, and these actions have both upsides and downsides whether they are obvious or not.
3. We should always expect the unexpected and consider where unintended consequences of our actions might emerge.
4. We live in a world of continuous change that thwarts our plans; therefore we are constantly forced to adapt the plans.
5. Given that "no plan survives contact with the enemy", we should see that having an effective planning process is more important than having a good plan.
6. Due to the world's interactive complexity, our understanding of the problems we face will always be only partial.
7. The patterns we see in the world around us are often temporary, dependent on the context and the scale of observation. Hence, these patterns may simply be illusionary. That’s why we need to be cautious about basing our plans on them.
8. There are no “universal solutions” to problems! All solutions are contingent on the circumstances to which they are to be applied.
9. Management will always require a mix of “craft” (‘intuitive skills’) alongside compliance with laws and regulations to cope with the prevailing uncertainty that surrounds them.
10. Our ability to control what happens to us and our organisation is much more limited than is normally assumed.
11. Success is always relative rather than absolute.
The way these ideas align with mindfulness, superforecasting and the hacker’s mindset is described at …
Our second paper (which is currently under review for the Journal of Contingency and Crisis Management) produced a catalytic framework based on the ideas contained within chaos and complexity theory. Through an inductive process we have identified three categories of properties (Structure, Patterns and Energy) that we consider as having potential qualitative use (to stimulate discourse) in the context of normal chaos. Each category is seen as being made up of three parts: these parts being systems scope, interdependences, self-organising, illusions of stability, fractals, fitness landscape, attractors, energy flow and the edge of chaos. Each of this ideas embraces a rich mix of ideas and concepts that can be used to provoke a greater understanding of the issue and context of concern. For easy of conceptualisation the ideas are laid out as a network of ideas. However, it is important to remember that every item interacts with the others so that linkages are much more elaborate than can be set out clear in only a two dimensional format such as the one we have here.
As we work towards understanding of the practical utility of Normal Chaos, we have currently have four threads activity in train.
Thread One is a survey of practitioners to determine which of the assumptions set out above are easily adopted by them and which are seen as being more alien. The roll out of the survey started mid-December 2017. We hope to have initial results by May 2018. From these we will decide what to do next. The current intention is to conduct a series of follow up interviews to determine in more details of why individuals hold the views they do. It is planned to hold these interviews in mid-2018.
Thread Two is case studies that focus on both government agency and commercial organisations where the framework will be use to stimulate debate. In this study the researchers will facilitate the debate: the value of the intervention will be determined by the participants and their analysis of whether the debate enriched their understanding of the situation they face.
Thread Three is an examination of established contingency plans set against the actual situations they have faced. The aim of this research is to deliver a more efficient planning by determining the point of diminishing return; this is the point at which the benefit derived from additional planning effort does not justify the costs entailed. Participants for this research are currently being sought.
Thread Four is to discuss the application framework to the field of sustainability. We are currently in discussion with a university in the UK and one in Belgium as to how this research may be taken forward.