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The Risky Business of Restoring Order

Conventional wisdom asserts that when chaos reigns, the right move is to just act until you regain order. A strong voice in a time of chaos gives people a sense of comfort. Think Mayor Rudy Giuliani after 9/11. People in New York were on edge, we did whatever Mayor Giuliani said. But I wonder, is there another option? Instead of restoring order, could we hang in there with the chaos, and open up more possibilities?

In his widely respected work in Organizational Complexity, Dave Snowden, recommends in his Cynefin framework that when organizations are in Chaos, they should act, sense and respond, in that order. He says that the goal is not to find the pattern, there’s no time for that, you need to just stop the bleeding. Mr. Snowden also mentions that you can promote innovation during chaos because people are open to new ideas. You just need to run your innovation in parallel with decisive action.

The question is, how much does the Rudy Giuliani-style action actually change the situation? Sure, it makes us all feel good, but does it actually affect the outcome?

What if you act first? In the well-worn model, where we act first, people feel comfortable and the politician gets re-elected. But there are repercussions that need to be managed after the fact. A leader may overstep the boundaries of their power in a time of fear and chaos.

The other risk is that the action may make things worse. You have absolutely no idea what your action will produce, as compared to other options AND as compared to doing nothing.

What if you probe? If you borrow the Cynefin model for Complex contexts, you would probe, sense and respond. What if you probe during chaos instead of acting? Even in chaos, where there’s ‘no time to think’, probing is better than taking action. Since your action has a completely random chance of working, probing is better than random.

The pressure is that you must think and decide because we are in crisis. But what if you didn’t give in to the pressure, and instead probed for ways to open up new possibilities?

What if you do nothing? Your best option is to just go with the flow. Chaos suggests that you have no control over the outcome, so why try? Chaos also means that small factors have big impacts, and the system is going to do whatever it’s going to do until it reached equilibrium. Swim with the current, and manage to the horizon of predictability.

What if you create connections? Connection is not mentioned in the Cynefin model, and I could not find it in any of the literature on Organizational Chaos or Complexity. Since chaos is uncontrollable, unpredictable, and full of unknowns, what if we shifted from trying to control it, to trying to connect with each other? Build some empathy and connection and let the group’s creativity take form. Help the group see how the chaos fits into the whole system. What role do they play?

When we jump to action in the midst of chaos, we tend to take a polarizing stance. Instead of act, sense and respond, if we connect, sense the whole, and then respond, we open up new possibilities that weren’t available before.

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