Integrating Chaos: Building Resilient Organizations with Chaos Theory


Integrating Chaos: Building Resilient Organizations with Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory in Modern Organizations

Our imagination about what happens in the business world has become disconnected with reality and it all starts with an accepted narrative about the unstoppable power of Fredrick Taylor’s ideas

The narrative goes like this: Fredrick Taylor introduced managers to analytical methods and tools that helped them to dramatically improve productivity; however these efforts also kick-started a non-stop line of efforts that led to the inevitable over-optimization of human labor.

This over-simplification of Taylor is part of a narrative that has become entrenched and feeds a broad movement that says organizations are broken. The story says that organizations might be efficient, but at enormous cost – they destroy autonomy, stifle creativity and at worst, are systems that enable widespread verbal and physical abuse. All starting with Taylor of course.

Yet, as I’ll show you, this story is wrong, misses the context of Taylor’s time and ignores that a hyper-optimized mindset towards work did not take hold until the emergence of the “career path” in the 1960s. This coincided with the risk of “knowledge work” and this shift turned work into a performance, distracting many from the real mission of any organization: survival.

Instead of seeing organizations as broken, a more accurate starting point is to think of them as complex systems and instead of broken, as fragile. As the scale of business gets bigger, the hidden fragility of many organizations puts employees, customers and society at risk.

To address this fragility, I want to look at organizations as “complex adaptive systems”, an idea that emerged from a field called Chaos Theory in the 1970s and 1980s. I want to push for a broader adoption of these principles and encourage a new generation of “chaos managers” to become interested in the survival and success of our institutions.  

I first learned about chaos theory 13 years ago and have been thinking about it ever since.  During the ten years I spent in the corporate world and as a management consultant, I couldn’t escape the feeling that something was missing.  This is my first attempt to fill that gap and to give many other frustrated managers and leaders an additional lens to help them think about helping their organizations thrive.  

This essay will explore the following:

  • What we got wrong about Taylor
  • How the idea of the “career path” turned workers into performers
  • How organizations subsequently became complicated, not complex
  • Why chaos theory does not lead to anarchy
  • The implications of chaos theory on leadership
  • An actionable five-part guide for the modern “chaos manager”

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