The Minding Organization: Chapter 5

Chaos to Order to Chaos : Embracing Uncertainty

Chaos can be deliberate or emergent. When it is emergent, it is unexpected and may require anticipated action in the form of improvisation. Often, the emergent chaos is simply the result of a question that should have been asked in the beginning to avoid undoing and redoing what had been done already in progressing from chaos to order. We have then a choice between two general models: moving from deliberate chaos to emergent order or from deliberate order to emergent chaos.

chaos1The model of emergent chaos calls for problem-solving as problems emerge. The model of deliberate chaos calls for creating  chaos deliberately, up front, in the beginning by raising questions that may surface later, by focusing on problem seeking; identifying potential problems before they occur so that they can be eliminated, mitigated, or solved with adequate advanced preparation.  The models of chaos to order and order to chaos can be described as deliberate problem seeking, as contrasted with emergent problem solving. If we do more of the former, there will be less need to do the latter.  It also follows that the cycle time (that is, the time from the inception of an idea to its successful implementation), is shorter when we progress from deliberate chaos to order than when we proceed from an erroneous perception of order to emergent chaos.


From Order to Emergent Chaos

[tweaked to fit the plane model]Let us illustrate the model by an example. Consider the design of a new plane. We follow hypothetically the stages from inception of the idea to the release of the plane to the market, first with the model of order to emergent chaos.

The design department spends a few months on conceptual designs. Once they settle on a design, they send it to engineering. The engineers may ask questions about the shape because the flow of air around the plane may cause excessive drag, requiring a larger engine to maintain speed. The design may have to be undone and redone. New problems that emerge are settled and the engineering department proceeds with their own specifications and requirements. They then hand the design to manufacturing. At this stage, new questions and resulting problem emerge regarding manufacturing. These questions were not raise in the design and engineering phases. To deal with the manufacturing issues, the engineering and possibly the design may  have to be undone and redone. More time elapses, lengthening the cycle time. Next, suppliers of parts are brought in. Then, the assembly of a prototype take place. The assembly may bring to light new questions leading to the emergence of new problems that require more changes. Again, work must be undone and redone.  The cycle time to market continues to be delayed. Finally, the car is released to the market, with mechanics asking why it is so difficult to replace a broken washer. The answer lies partly in the fact the design was not perceived with a view for maintenance and repair.

From Deliberate Chaos to Order

Let us now follow hypothetically the stages from the inception of the idea to the release of market for the same idea using the model of deliberate chaos to order.  Representatives from design, engineering, manufacturing, assembly, finance, marketing, sales, suppliers, users, and any others that may be involved at some future time, such as maintenance and repair, are all brought together in the beginning to meet in one group.  The leader of the group outlines the general and possibly some what vague ideas. Questions may be raised for clarification and possible future elaboration. Next, the design group takes a few day to conceive a number of configurations, considering issues raised in the first meeting. A second meeting is called before the design department makes its choice, so that the designers are receptive to changes and open to input. While the designers are at work, all the group members are mobilized to look for ideas and possibilities, see problems before they emerge, and explore new ways in their areas of expertise.

Most creativity and innovation, the driving forces of productivity, lie in the minds of those closest to the work. When the alternative designs are presented to the group, issues in engineering, manufacturing, assembly, maintenance, repair, safety, customer perception of safety, comfort, and so on should all be raised. The discussion should focus on sharing perceptions. All is open and in a state of flux. If a member of the group thinks of something new or different when not in the meeting, it should be brought to the attention of the other members. As time goes on, the group coalesces and become a team bound by a common goal, and what is most important, more and more shared perceptions.  Each team member has a heightened perception of what he or she must do in the light of sharing (not filtering and blocking) the perceptions of the other team members. Problems are found and addressed more quickly than in the linear model of order to chaos, in which the activities are performed in sequence rather than in parallel, or concurrently. There is more chaos here, more experimentation and change occur at the beginning, fewer problems need to be solved, and fewer changes need to be introduced at the end when the cost in time, money , ego, and reputation (and in customers) is high.

Chaos3The thick curve shows that more effort expended early, on problem finding, results in less effort required for problem solving later on. This is the model of deliberate chaos to emergent order. The thin curve shows the results of a narrow focus on order early on and emergent chaos at the end. In this case, little effort is expended in the beginning on problem-solving effort at the end.

When changes are made early on, the cycle time to completion of a project shorter. Costs of change become higher later in the project. Therefore, the model of chaos to order is far superior to the model of order to chaos.

Relentless Improvement

The model of deliberate chaos to order is a single link, or time cycle, in a chain that keeps us moving from order to new chaos by choice, not by default or neglect.  Going from chaos to order and from order to chaos, and then from chaos to order all over again, as a way of life, is a commitment to relentless improvement. It is a commitment to lifelong learning. The model of relentless improvement represents a balance between chaos and order. We do not persist in either mode too long. We begin with deliberate chaos and move to reasonable order in the form of reasonable answers to our questions; however, we never close the door to new questions and potential improvement to the answer we already have. That is why the inclined lines in the figure do not converge and meet at a point at the end of cycle from chaos to order. The gap between the lines at the state of reasonable order is symbolic; it signifies that there is always room for improvement. As individuals, when we reach a certain stage of knowledge at the end of a learning cycle, such as the first course in a field, we move to the next cycle by taking the next course.


We discussed attitude to error earlier, but let us emphasize again that there is no learning without practice, without trail and error. It is important to realize, however, that errors are easier to fix and less costly in time, money, and frustration the earlier they occur in the cycles from the inception of the idea to its implementation. They cost the least at the stage of looking and seeing, more at the thinking and planning stages, and the most at the acting stage. Namely, the cost of error increases as we progress from chaos to order, and is very high at the final stage of perceived order.


In an organization committed to creativity and innovation, employees strive to make their present jobs obsolete and go on to new assignments that require new opportunities to move from chaos to order.

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