The Power of Chaos
Excerpts from a conversation with
Meg Wheatley

by Joe Flower

  • Introduction
  • Wheatley:
  • Words
  • Resources
  • This article originally appeared in The Healthcare Forum Journal, vol. 36, 1993. International Copyright 1993 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved
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    About one lifetime ago, astronomer and physicist J.B.S. Haldane remarked, "The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose."

    In recent years, science has begun to turn itself inside out in fascinating investigations of that basic strangeness of the universe. Since its very beginnings, one of the basic assumptions of science has been a deterministic, clockwork-like model of the universe. Nature was obviously more complex than the straight lines and simple forces of Euclid's geometry and Newton's physics -- but eventually (it was assumed), if we got enough information together, and got down to the right level of detail, we would find that everything was predictable.

    In the first half of this century, quantum mechanics (which held, among other things, that whether light is made of particles or waves depends on what question you ask), Kurt Gödel's principle of incompleteness (which demonstrated that every mathematical system contains theorems that are true -- but unprovable without enlarging the system), and Werner Heisenberg's theory of uncertainty (which held that you can discover the speed of an atomic particle, or its location -- but not both at once), began to chip away at this deterministic assumption.

    Systems thinking, which arose out of studies of communication in World War II, greatly increased our ability to think about how complex, active, interactive systems work, but it remained weakest in dealing with "mess," turbulence, and traumatic change.

    How do things fall apart?
    And then what happens?

    How do things fall apart? And then what happens?

    Some of the people working on communications theory focused not on the message, but on the garbage in between -- the static. Others began thinking about dripping faucets, clouds, coastlines, and the formation of bubbles in water that was about to boil. Just as systems theory, born in communications theory, proved helpful in dealing with all sorts of things, from organizations and family interactions to economic problems and the design of lawnmowers, perhaps a study of turbulance and chaos would be relevant to such messy things as landslides, rush-hour traffic, epileptic seizures, and organizations going through traumatic change.

    The resulting "chaos theory" has hit its stride only in the past decade -- and only now is it beginning to leak into other applications, as theorists begin to apply its insights to discontinuous, transforming change in a great many fields. At the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, historian Robert Artigiani has even applied it to analyses of the the U.S. Constitution, the rise and fall of Greek civilization, and the success of Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar.

    Meg Wheatley, Ed.D., has begun to try chaos theory in a field that has intimate experience with the realities of chaos: the management of organizations. With a doctorate from Harvard and a masters from New York University, Wheatley began her consulting career as a founding member of Rosabeth Moss Kanter's firm, Goodmeasure, Inc. Wheatley is now an associate professor of management at Brigham Young University, and a principal in KRW, Inc. Industry Week named her book, Leadership and the New Science: Learning About Organization from an Orderly Universe "Best Management Book of 1992." She is founder and president of the Berkana Institute, which sponsors an ongoing series of dialogues about the "new science," and how it applies to re-thinking the life of organizations.

    Our conversation with her took a shape much like the organizational changes that so fascinate her: nonlinear, surprising, and self-organizing.


    There is a simpler way to lead organizations.

    In order to find that simpler way we need to look for very different lenses by which to see into the organization. Until now, our predominant lens has been the lens that sees organizations as machines, and human beings as machines or parts of machines -- which is all good 17th century Newtonian imagery.

    When you switch to thinking about organizations as complex living systems, you get to see a lot of processes that could work in your behalf, as a leader. We can take our management metaphor, not from machines, but from the ways living systems organize and reorganize and manage themselves.

    At one level we are already switching our focus to a deeper understanding of organizations as living systems. If you look at the language by which we are now trying to describe organizations, a lot of it describes living systems. We talk about "learning organizations." We are looking for resiliency, for dynamic qualities. We are looking more at relationships and how relationships work in organizations.


    Once we make that switch then we have to start looking at the processes by which living systems grow and thrive. And one of those is a periodic plunge into the darker forces of chaos. Chaos seems to be a critical part of the process by which living systems constantly re-create themselves in their environment.

    We have been afraid. As managers and leaders, and as consultants, we have been terrified of chaos. Whenever a group is confused, whenever people are really uncomfortable not knowing what to do, most of us take that as a signal that we have failed them somehow. The model we have is that organizations should work smoothly, that we as leaders should feel in control all the time. Chaos, of course, is a loss of control. So the minute chaos erupts, we back off from it. We rush in to save the group from confusion.

    We tend to think that is our job. But that's only true if you think of your organization as a machine, because machines cannot tolerate great variance. Machines are established to run in certain environments. They have no flexibility or resiliency to deal with extraordinary levels of change. If you think of an organization as a living system then hopefully you can structure it so that it has the capacity for great flexibility and resiliency, and the ability to adapt, to change, and to grow.


    We can't get out of the messes we are in without developing a much longer time parameter, without having a new kind of patience for the development of order. Strange attractors reveal the order that is inherent in certain kinds of chaotic systems. You can't see that order until you are able to watch the system evolve over a good period of time. When you look moment to moment at a system in chaos, all you see is chaos, total unpredictability. When you are able to watch the system develop over time, you can see the order that emerges out of the chaos.

    T.J. Cartwright, a planning expert, has given a definition of chaos that I love: "order without predictability." This is a very enticing paradox for us.

    Yet in today's organizations we are seeking more and more control as things get more and more crazy. You can ask any top leader or administrator that you know and they will tell you that they are barely hanging on. It is a sign of health for a leader now to admit that he or she does not know what works. In admitting that the old approaches don't work, they are opening themselves up to the possiblity of radically different ways of thinking about their organizations.

    No cookie cutters:

    I got in trouble with my academic colleagues recently when I was quoted as saying, "The idea that expertise can be transmitted needs to be abandoned." They said "Then why have graduate programs?" I was trying to say that the belief that any particular model or any particular body of knowledge transfers whole from one system to another is erroneous. Knowledge, models, and expertise are co-created by thinking people working in and with their environment. Since that environment is different for every organization, it doesn't work to take something that has been developed in one place and just transfer it wholesale to another place.

    We have tried that. We have tried it with program after program, and we have generated a well-earned cynicism among our work force as they watch these programs come and go without creating the desired change. We have to do something different. We have to engage the whole system of the organization in figuring out what makes sense for that particular system.

    The answers, the expertise, need to be created by the system that needs the expertise. Certainly, some people have expert knowledge, but the way to use that knowledge, these days, is to give people particular frameworks and ideas to play with -- realizing that as they play with them they are creating new knowledge. They are not taking something that's tried and true and just applying it in cookie-cutter fashion. If they are making it work, they are creating new knowledge.


    I use the word "chaos" to describe those times in an organization when people are confused, don't know what to do, and feel overwhelmed by information that they can't make sense of. If we recognize chaos as a potentially generative force in our organization, then the first task, when chaos erupts, is not to shut it down, not to reach for early closure, not to immediately move back to our past comfort level. At those moments, what people do not need is for someone else to come in and make sense of it all for them. Nor do they need the other normal strategy, which is to back away from all of this information and just work a piece of it. What they need instead are processes by which they can stay with the discomfort of that information long enough that they get knocked off their certainty, long enough for them to reach the clarity that they no longer know what works, that their model, their frame for organizing this problem or this organization doesn't work any more.

    That's what I call chaos, when people move into such deep confusion that they let go of their present conceptions of how to solve a problem. When they move into that place of not knowing, and stay there for a while, what happens is that the process of "self organization" kicks in.

    Living systems, when confronted with change, have the capacity to fall apart so that they can reorganize themselves to be better adapted to their current environment. We always knew that things fell apart, we didn't know that organisms have the capacity to reorganize, to self-organize. We didn't know this until the Noble-Prize-winning work of Ilya Prigogine in the late 1970's.

    You can't self-organize,
    you can't transform,
    you can't get to bold new answers
    unless you are willing
    to move into that place
    of confusion and not-knowing
    which I call chaos.

    But you can't self-organize, you can't transform, you can't get to bold new answers unless you are willing to move into that place of confusion and not-knowing which I call chaos.

    In my work I find that you can create intentional chaos by overloading people with important and relevant information that they can't make sense of.

    We help people generate information that finally overwhelms them. The information has to be relevant, and it has to be important. It has to deal with big questions.

    People get scared and frustrated, and they want to problem-solve their way out of the chaos. But we don't let them. We keep them generating even more information. Finally they let go. Once they let go, they have the capacity to come up with bold solutions that integrate all of the information. At the other side of chaos you get a new kind of order, an order that is adaptive, that is transforming, that is all the things we want in an organization to be.

    That is an intentional use of chaos. The chaos that seems rampant in our organizations today needs to be resolved in the same way. When people are feeling confused and overwhelmed, instead of shutting down information, we need to create more processes for looking at the information, and even generating even more information.

    Information, in organizations, is usually handled with an attitude of control and parsimony. But when we do that, we are taking information, which is the vital organizing force of the universe, and using it in a way that creates more loss of control.

    We need organizations in which information is open and abundant, in which information that is relevant to the life of the organization is just there for people to use as they require. You get order through creating information and making it available. That is an enormously paradoxical concept for managers who have been trained to see information as power, as something that has to be carefully controlled and conserved and fed to people in little doses.

    The science of self organizing systems says that if you want order you need a free flow of information, because information is what living systems use to transform themselves.

    "Who are we?"

    In order to make sense of this information, an organization needs a strong core identity that is clear to everyone involved. It needs filters that help people recognize information that is critical for the organization. We have not attended seriously enough, yet, to issues of the identity and purpose of organizations. We talk about values, visions, and missions. I am starting to talk about the core identity.

    "Why does this organization exist? What is its purpose? What is it trying to achieve? Why do we bother working together?" These questions need to be answered. The answers need to come out of the whole organization.

    We need to have processes in which the whole organization is engaged in weaving its story.

    An organization needs to know who it is in order to make sense of a chaotic environment. Otherwise you are just buffeted in all different directions. We need to do much more work in organizations in making a really vibrant core, the core values.

    One of the lessons we can learn from the new science is that once you have formed a strong core identity you can then trust people to organize their own behavior around that identity, instead of organizing by policies and procedures. The behavior will look very different from person to person. And that will be okay, because (and this is one of the great lessons of chaos) you then stand back and look, not at those individual behaviors but at the pattern. Then you will be able to see the true pattern of the organization.


    This can be very scary for managers. It asks them to act like adults, and to believe that they have adults working for them. Not everyone will be able to do this. Some American managers will be able to behave like adults and change their life posture. Some of them won't.

    Those who don't, who are already leading lives of increasing stress, will simply not be able to survive, either professionally or in their personal lives.

    I don't think we have a choice. And I don't believe that we will find a simpler way to lead complex organizations just by doing the old approaches faster and better.

    There is a simpler way to manage, and it feels very strange, even foreign to us. But time and stress are on the side of change. We simply can't keep doing it the way we have been doing it.


    As managers and as consultants, we have always been interested in that big question: how do you motivate people. But the real answer is simple -- you don't. Instead, you trust that they are self organizing systems who come with their own desire to thrive. They will make adjustments and do what is necessary for them to flourish. In an organization, you don't have to "incentify" anybody. You have to create the conditions under which they can thrive.

    Among the things that human beings naturally seek are the ability to contribute and to make a difference, and to be ability to be involved in satisfying social relationships. Those criteria show up at the top of every study I have ever looked at on why people work. If you design your organization around these criteria, it will have to be one in which people are not boxed into roles, in which they feel that they can continue to grow, learn, and develop, and in which a variety of relationships are available to them.

    When you box people in, when you see only a few of their attributes, you kill them. Then, in order to make them work, you start adding on all of these incentive programs and other external motivators. The pay and incentive system could be much simpler. People do not need these intricate structures. The reason they need them now is that we don't allow them to work in an environment which satisfies them. We need to be more creative than that.

    Once we've created organizations which really support people's contributions, then I don't think people are looking for complex rewards. I think they are looking for straightforward pay that feels fair. They are looking for pay that reflects their contribution (or their team's contribution) to the whole.

    Just as this is scary for managers to use the energy of chaos, and to survive without so much structure, it's also scary for the people being managed, until they experience it. It's a little less scary the second time. By the third, fourth, or fifth time that you have been through a process which includes chaos and letting go, you realize that this works and that it has enormous potential.

    I recently completed work with an organization that decided to engage all 900 of its employees in creating a vision. The process was messy and ambiguous. It was a process that did not allow anyone to nail down a vision for anybody else. We finally got to a place where a lot of people in the organization understood that even vision is a process. That they don't need to have something clearly written down. That, having gone through the process of working together, and illuminating what they wanted the vision to be, the vision is in their guts, in their hearts. They don't need it up on a wall.

    To get to that point of clarity -- that vision itself is a process -- they went through a series of very large conferences which included moments of deep, intentional chaos, and on-going periods in which we simply would not let people become concrete. They didn't like it at all. But they liked what they got. They liked where it ended up. Now they have a little faith in this very different process.

    Play and laughter

    People have to be more playful. Once we accept the fact that we can't just import solutions that will work for our own organization, that we have to make it up, then we have to ask, "What are the circumstances that help people be thoughtful and creative, that help them come up with answers that work?"

    What helps people be creative is experimentation -- seeing what works by doing it. We need to create an atmosphere in which experimentation is welcome, and that means an atmosphere in which we don't take everything so incredibly seriously. We need to be much more forgiving, we need to be much more compassionate, we need to be in deeper relationships with one another.

    Play is a quality that leads to good experimentation. Sometimes that means not having the answer right away. We need to realize that it's okay to say "That's interesting, I don't know the answer, let's just think about it. Let's play with it for awhile."

    One plays by not killing people for making mistakes, and by going back to some vague memory that work should be fun, that when work is fun, it can still be very hard, but it has a whole different quality to it.

    We need more laughter in management. Lewis Thomas explains that he could tell something important was going on in an experimental laboratory by the laughter. He says, "Whenever you can hear laughter, and somebody saying, `But that's preposterous' -- you can tell things are going well and that something probably worth looking at has begun to happen in the lab."

    Contrast that to the sort of quintessential management maxim, which is, "Don't surprise me. I want to know ahead of time, I can't be caught looking like I didn't know what was going on everywhere in the organization." That's an incredibly restrictive maxim. It insures that you will stay exactly where you are.

    All this process

    People ask how we can possibly do all this process at the very time that we are trying to be more nimble. But how can we possibly be more nimble if we are not willing to engage all the time -- thinking together, figuring things out, coming up with solutions that work for a while, that are temporarily adaptive?

    We tend to think of process as a "touchy feely" thing. In fact, quantum physics says that process is the basic building block of the whole universe. The universe is energy fields coming into relationship with one another, forming something temporarily.


    Information only has value when it is in relationship to the current need. And the current need is forever changing.

    This notion of life as a fluid, as a changing process, needs to get imbedded in our organizational thinking. We have failed in things like quality in this country by failing to see that what makes the quality process work is the attention to process itself, to the fact of people being in new relationships in which they are generating new and useful information. Instead we have thought of quality management as a technique or a tool. That is why so many of these processes have failed -- we see them as a technique to get to a particular outcome, rather than a way of building a quality of relationships that generates critical information continually.

    Of course, this greatly affects the way you do your planning. You can't do simple cause and effect linear projections anymore. But you can set a very clear direction in which you intend to go. You can set a clear intention about the kinds of markets in which you believe your core skills work best.

    You probably will not get there exactly, but the process of trying to create probabilities about what the organization and its environment can achieve together is very important. We need to create, as part of the planning function, much better information-sensing devices, generating information that then gets fed to all parts of the organization, so that the organization can continuously adapt and change as that information requires. That's different from saying, "This our five-year plan."

    You can still say, "In five years, this is who we want to be, who we want to be serving, what markets we'll be in, what will characterize us and what will make us different."

    Focusing on a strategy is critical. But the question is: Who gets to do it? If the 12 top managers come up with a brilliant strategy, the rest of the organization is going to say, "So what? We already know this."

    All of us who have worked with this know from our experience that we get a lot of "So whats" if people are not involved. Even things like the strategy of the organization should come from the organization. You can't "self-organize" from the outside. You can't have 12 people decide how a whole group of a thousand or 20 thousand should self-organize.

    Creating meaning

    We need to find processes by which we can engage the whole system in developing its future, creating meaning, creating purpose, creating clarity about what it is that we are capable of accomplishing as an entity.

    The guys who sweep the halls will have something to say about it, and so will the customers and the suppliers -- all of the stakeholders. There is a great deal of talent and expertise available both within our organizations and in those outside stakeholders, that we just need to start using.

    I don't work with any processes now that start with the assumption that a few people can design something that will be of benefit for the rest of the organization. Only the organization itself can design the processes and outcomes of which it is capable. So the real challenge is creating these processes that engage greater and greater numbers of the organization. That is a real challenge, it is a fundamental rethinking of leadership, but I think it is the right challenge to be involved with.

    People are open to the challenge because of their own loss of confidence in what they have done in the past. And, at some deeper level, they know that this stuff makes sense, because we are all of us self-organizing systems. People recognize it from their own experience of life.

    We already have a lot of examples of the principles that come from this new science at work in successful organizations. We just haven't had the language to talk about, and the lens to look at, what was making sense.

    They have seemed to be the exceptions, the sort of odd things that shouldn't work. But now, instead of being the exceptions or the oddballs, we can see that they are the forerunners of a whole new way of working.


    Strange attractor: Think of a planet's orbit. The dynamics of the solar system -- the interaction of the planet's mass and speed with the mass of the sun -- cause the planet to act as though it is "attracted" to a particular line in space, which we call its orbit. In this simple, mechanical, deterministic system, it's not hard to plot where the planet will be tomorrow or 15 years from now. On the other hand, think of the movement of clouds, the growth of trees, the swirling motion of a liquid. These systems seem "chaotic," without any predictability. But in fact, theorists of chaotic systems have discovered that they also have "attractors" akin to a planet's orbit; that is, their movements have an internal structure. When various measurements of their movements are plotted onto two- or three-dimensional "phase space" graphs, they do not fall into random glops, nor into simple orbits, but into strange and beautiful shapes reminiscent of taffy in a pulling machine, filigrees of coral, or the rings of Saturn. These shapes of probability showing the complex, self-organizing structures of chaotic systems, have been dubbed "strange attractors."

    Chaos: We think we know chaos. It's a "mess," a pile of rubble, a condition without form or meaning. But as Nobelist Ilya Prigogine showed in his book, Order Out of Chaos, there are, in fact, two kinds of chaos. One is low-energy randomness, like a shuffled deck of cards. Without the addition of more energy (like some poker players), such a system is not going to organize itself. But high-energy, turbulent chaos is quite something else -- its disorder contains the seeds of order.

    As Wheatley puts it, chaos is "the final state in a system's move away from order. Not all systems move into chaos, but if a system is dislodged from its stable state, it moves first into a period of oscillation, swinging back and forth between different states. If it moves from this oscillation, the next state is full chaos, a period of total unpredictability. But in the realm of chaos, where everything should fall apart, the strange attractor comes into play" -- and a new kind of order emerges from the chaos.


    For further reading on the "new science:"

    Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.

    Briggs, John, and F. David Peat. Turbulent Mirror: An Illustrated Guide To Chaos Theory and the Science of Wholeness. New York: Harper and Row, 1989. The easiest layman's guide.

    Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics. New York: Bantam Books, 1976. Also, The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.

    Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Viking, 1987.

    Jantsch, Erich. The Self-Organizing Universe. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1980.

    Peters, Tom. Thriving on Chaos. New York: Knopf, 1987.

    Prigogine, Ilya, and Isabelle Stengers. Order Out of Chaos. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.

    Zukav, Gary. The Dancing Wu Li Masters. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.

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