Photo Belongs in the Public Domian Chaos Theory
(photo: public domain)

What is Chaos?

Chaos, defined as, "a state of utter confusion or disorder; a total lack of organization or order." (chaos) This is different than complexity, with which chaos is often confused. Our universe is complex but not chaotic, says Richard Pascale in Surfing the Edge of Chaos. Chaos Theory is based on the principles that; what appears chaotic inherently contains order; small changes cause varied outcomes due to iteration, also known as the Butterfly Effect; and the equations associated with prediction are dynamic, rather than linear.

Chaos vs. Complexity

"Humans tend to regard as chaotic that which they cannot control. (Pascale 6)" In reality, we are facing a complex universe in which mechanical metaphors no longer explain its workings. Scientists employing a reductionist method of inquiry—based on the Newtonian premise that systems are no more than the sum of their parts and that such systems can be understood by reduction to and study of those parts (reductionist)—fails to consider multiple causes, multiple effects, and the interrelationships. The relativley new science of complexity studies complex adaptive systems, known by these characteristics; members of the system act on their own while responding together, members can figure out how the environment works, and they adapt together by learning and changing. Pascale uses the African termite colony to illustrate an adaptive complex system. Based on a few genetically programmed rules, the termites know what to do in a variety of changing circumstances. Their twelve-foot-high mound is home to millions of termites and is, according to Naturalist Richard Connif, "...an architectural wonder," with complex passages, ventillation systems, and living quarters consistent with their social hierarchy. (Pascale 4-5) Humans have long sought stability and safety from the unpredictablility of nature. Complexity science and Chaos Theory come closer to explaining our universe, which we now know is much more complex and dynamic than a simple, linear machine. Pascale stresses that a "living system" is not a metaphor of our condition, (like the universe as machine,) but rather reality as we can best conceive of it at this point in our journey.

The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect refers to the idea that a force as small as the flapping of a butterfly's wings can change something as large as a weather pattern on the other side of the planet. Edward Lorenz, an MIT Meteorologist, was working with non-linear equations to predict weather patterns. In order to save time, (and also to go out for a cup of coffee,) he left his computer recalculating an equation that he'd already worked so he could check some of the details. However, instead of using six decimal points, he rounded it to three. Expecting similar results upon his return, he was shocked to find that a totally different pattern had emerged. He knew at this point that accurately predicting weather was nearly impossible. Because such a slight change could significantly affect the outcome, and because meteorolgy is a complex system with many causes, effects and relationships, it is difficult to identify all the parts of the system contributing to the actual weather. (Briggs 68-69)

Non-linear Equations

One of the differences between complexity and linearity is the kind of equation used to predict an outcome—in particular, an unexpected outcome. In Newtonian physics, small changes produce small outcomes. To arrive at a large outcome, many small, outcome-bearing changes must be added together. However, in the case of an explosion or an earthquake, a large and sudden event appears to happen out of nowhere. For "surprise" events such as these, a non-linear equation includes something called feedback, which is when a part of the loop is multiplied by itself, radically changing the balance of the equation. There are two types of feedback; positive and negative. Positive feedback isn't necessarily good, it just means that the process is amplified (in a positive or negative way,) such as in the case of my IRA. The longer I leave it in the market, the more money accrues which earns increasingly more interest. Negative feedback simply regulates a system, which can be illustrated by the HVAC system in my apartment. As the temperature in the dining room drops below 70˚ the thermostat tells the furnace to produce heat until the temperature gets back above 70˚ at which time the furnace stops blowing hot air into my apartment. Without the balancing, negative feedback, a system would not know how to act. (Briggs 23-26)

What Does Chaos Theory Have to do With Sustainable Leadership?

As has been stated by many thinkers in the field of organization and leadership, it is becoming clear to us that we are living systems and not machines, which challenges us to find a new way to be together and go about our business.

In organizaitons, we focused attention on structure and organzational design, on gathering extensive numerical data, and on making decisions using sophisticated mathematical formulas. We've spent years moving pieces around, building elaborate models, contemplating more variables, creating more precise forms of analysis. Until recently we really believed that we could study the parts, no matter how many of them there were, to arrive at knowledgte of the whole. We have reduced and described and separated things into cause and effect , and drawn the world in lines and boxes. (Wheatley 29)

Our Modern, Newtonian glasses have colored the way we think of everything. Even our Postmodern contact lenses fail to give us an accurate picture of the universe. Due to advances in science and technology, our discoveries are outrunning our ability to perceive the world as it is. And who knows how the world will look tomorrow. What is apparant is the need for flexibility and adaptability that is inherent in complex systems, and the ability to see ourselves as organic instead of man-made.Our environment is changing every day and the change is happening faster and faster.

Decentralization of leadership is an emerging expression of organizational adaptability, called to attention in The Starfish and the Spider, by Brafman and Beckstorm. Groups like Wikpedia (wiki means quick in Hawaiian,) Craig's List, and The Burning Man Project operate on a few norms that can be enacted by any member. This type of organization is started by a catalyst instead of a traditional, top-down leader, and the operations are handled mainly by the members, with solid structural support coming from the "owners." The advantage of a "starfish" organizaiton is its adaptatability to changing climates, its ability to continue running when part of it gets cut off (even the leader,) and the investment brought to the organization by each individual member. Of course, "starfish" systems generally don't make as much money as traditionally run "spider" organizations, but there is a longevity inherent and possibly worth more in the long run. (Brafman)

Equalibrium equals death. "Prolonged equilibrium dulls and organism's senses and saps its ability to arouse itself appropriately in the face of danger. (Pascale 21) The threat of death (based on Darwin's work) and the promise of sex (continued genetic diversity) are survival mechanisms built in to every living system. Moving away from equalibrium toward chaos provides the very circumstances needed to strengthen our survival skills. This is contrary to our understanding of a controllable and mechanistic universe. (Pascale 26) Procreation is, in a sense, the closest we humans come to pure creativity, which is also expressed in many other ways such as art, poetry, music, and ideas. The act of creativity, whether it take the form of a symphony or an unwanted pregnancy, requires that we be taken to the edge of chaos. Of The Burning Man Festival, Brafman says this:

When you put people in an open system, some of them will get high, dance all night long, and attack street signs. But most people will create elaborate art, share snow cones, and try as hard as they can—in thier own way—to contribute to the community. And Burning Man, though outside the mainstream, holds a crucial lesson for businesses. When you give people freedom, you get chaos, but you also get incredible creativity. Because everyone tries to contribute to the community you get a great variety of expression—everything from 20-foot giraffes to seminars on raw food, to free haircuts, to a five-star hotel-tent. (Brafman 80-81)