Why business needs chaos to thrive

2020 has been nothing if not chaotic. Khaos was one of the first Greek primordial Gods, emerging at the dawn of creation. The word khaos means “gap” and, as such...

calendar icon
March 1, 2021
New York

Sticking with the English language, if you look for synonyms for the word chaos you get the following – disorder, confusion, turmoil, bedlam, lawlessness, pandemonium, or anarchy. They are all words that will make you feel something quite negative, out of control. And as humans we don’t like being out of control, quite the opposite, we crave control over our environment.

From Chaos to Creativity

The only problem is, we can’t control everything, and if we do try, then we end up living in a very grey world. Think of what the opposite of chaos is. Our thesaurus tells us its manner, method, mode, order, regularity, rule, system. Basically, predictability and order – good for some things but not for all.

A life without chaos would be a life without creativity and innovation, a life of the predictable. Which brings me to the point of writing today. 2020 was a year of chaos, socially, economically, politically, medically. The entire of humankind has spent the last 12 months trying to control a chaotic event, trying to predict when, and manipulate, its end.

More than a year ago, I fell from a two-storey roof to the concrete below, the 30-foot fall taking less than 2 chaotic seconds. The resulting brief paralysis, 31 bone fractures and fragments in my leg, spine and arm, hospital stays, multiple surgeries, wheelchair use, walking frame, crutches, external leg fixator, cast and physio was my own personal chaos journey. My 2020, aside from Covid, was always going to be a challenge.

Chaos Breeds New Perspective

But from that chaos has come amazing personal life-changing perception changes, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Chaos is something to be welcomed, embraced, and encouraged. Without it, all we are left with are the predictable outcomes. It is the difference between setting off to sail across the Atlantic or around in circles on a lake.

Chaos theory is a mathematical theory which seeks to explain complex systems, which may at first appear to behave in a random manner, but in fact there is an underlying order. It was first made popular in the 1960s by a meteorologist named Lorenz, explaining how seemingly complicated and random weather systems in fact had order. Remember chaos is the gap, the white space into which potential can flow.

A Chinese Butterfly

Most readers will be familiar with The Butterfly Effect. Say a butterfly flaps its wings in faraway China, but the tiny changes in air pressure have a cascading effect, causing significant wind disturbances, finally culminating in a hurricane in the US. It is a series of chaotic events, each following the next, of which our original butterfly has no knowledge. Perhaps we should re-title this The Bat Effect for a modern telling?

We have all been involved in multiple Butterfly Effect events personally in our lives. The things you have said and done, many of them small and insignificant, have gone on to influence others around you in significant ways, you will just never know. I can trace my decision to join the dramatic society in university to a specific comment of a stranger. It was to be the beginning of my lifelong passion for the stage, screen and performing.

Small Input, Significant Outcome

My key interest in chaos is this final, unpredictable butterfly effect. One of the key aspects of chaos theory is that the smallest of changes can ripple out and result in significant outcomes within the system. But our problem in fostering a culture of creativity and innovation within our businesses and organisations seems to be a paralysing fear of this same chaos.

Today’s mid-pandemic buzzwords are agility, pivoting, flexibility and adaption. Unless you can change your business model and approach, the rapidly altering trading environment you find yourself in will become your undoing.  Some businesses have chosen to play the waiting game, deciding to wait until things ‘go back to normal’. You might even be working in one of these organisations as you read this, adapting for now but only tactically. The wait is on for the chaos to subside. It is a dangerous wait.

Rik Vera, a speaker colleague of mine has a lovely way of putting this. He calls it ‘Freezing the Dinosaur’, putting it all on ice until you think it is time for a thawing. But the meteor strike didn’t kill the dinosaurs, it was the change in the environment that resulted in the extinction. Unfreezing your dinosaur after this is all over would only work if the consumer values and trading environment remained identical to the pre-pandemic times. And the step-jump in many behaviours across technical and social are never changing back.

Preparing For Chaos

But if we are to embrace chaos as a positive, how do you predict it? How do we prepare ourselves and our organisations for the meteor strike, for the tsunami, for the unknown? This is why most are terrified of chaos – the uncertainty, the lack of a plan.

I think one of our modern issues is how we structure our organisations and how we recruit talent.

Taylor and his scientific management approach is blamed for much of the process and silo driven structures we see today, stifling creativity and autonomy. Everyone plays their individual role, we repeat what has worked in the past, and on the machine turns. There was no room for chaos in Taylor’s approach or Ford’s assembly line. For repetitive mechanical tasks, this might make sense, but for todays knowledge economy it does not. Roles, silos and layers of responsibility slows everything down. Outputting the same as we did last year walks us another step closer to the crumbling cliff edge of relevance. We need some unpredictability built in to the system.

Release the Chaos Monkey

Netflix famously engineered what they termed ‘Chaos Monkeys’ within their data system (thereafter coining the phrase Chaos Engineering). To ensure that no matter what happened, they purposefully unleashed problems and issues into their data centres to see how the system would cope in continuing to deliver the service.  The Chaos Monkey term was coined to represent “the idea of unleashing a wild monkey with a weapon in your data centre to randomly shoot down instances and chew through cables”. It taught the system to always be ready, always reactive, always prepared for the worst.

To me that sounds a bit stressful, although I agree with the intent. But monkeys are mischievous and every time I’ve seen them at zoos and parks, they seem rather self-motivated. Which is why I’ve renamed my version as the Chaos Ninja.

The whole point about being a ninja is that you are somewhat covert, you were usually a hired agent, and your attacks were a surprise, perfect for being a chaos ambassador.

In modern recruitment, a question often posed is “will this person fit our company culture”? It is a trap that large bureaucratic companies fall into, as well as small start-ups. They recruit the people that will ‘fit’ their culture, automatically loading the dice for a system of conformity and inside the box thinking. Occasionally we should be doing the opposite, looking beyond what and who we think will fit in, and purposefully recruiting some Chaos Ninjas to challenge the system.

A Cookie Cutter Recruit

My first full-time job out of university was with Accenture (then Andersen Consulting as they had yet to rebrand post their sister company Andersen Accounting scandal … yes, I am that old). I was one of 7 new recruits to the Strategy Consulting Division of the UK/Ireland office. After our initial orientation over a number of weeks, I noticed something disturbing. We were all the same. Same broad over-achiever personalities, same entrepreneurship drive, same hobbies often, same life outlook. The recruitment process was long and arduous with personality testing at its core. The organisation was looking for a particular ‘type’ to be a strategy consultant, and they hired that same type repeatedly. The result was that on any given project, they had one way of thinking, one approach, one probable output.

That suited the way Andersen Consulting worked in the late 1990s – they wanted that same output to a given set of problems, the model was built that way, but it wouldn’t work today. But yet recruitment to a certain culture still is the norm.

So, to survive we need to inject more uncertainty into the system, different ways of thinking, more chaos, to let things emerge as opposed to control the outcome. The pushback is often that this will cause undesired complexity in the everyday and sometimes it might.

Take two customer experience examples of employee autonomy and complexity. In the grocery store Trader Joe’s, if you ever ask an employee if you can try something, they will open the box and let you, no questions asked. Does this add complexity to the everyday? Sure. Does it also build customer loyalty, experience and belonging beyond what competitors do? Absolutely. It also creates an informal feedback loop through employees who report customer feedback to those buying for the business.

Surprise a Customer

The Ritz Carlton are known for their giving employees a budget to spend on making customers happy, no questions asked. This is, by its very nature, unpredictable and so the management have no idea what the money is being spent on, but they trust that it will add to customer experience. Chaotic as an idea, or a genius way to ensure CX autonomy in a complex system?

Even traditional structures such as the military have recognised the importance of chaos in command. The old ways of working were no longer suited to the more ‘chaotic’ activity of the terrorist warfare they found themselves fighting. In his book ‘Team of Teams’, General Mcchrystal says that “ … the temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing … the leader acts as an “Eyes-On, Hands-Off” enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.”

The idea here is that you have to allow some element of chaos within your own system if you are to operate in a chaotic environment, able to adapt as change rains down.

Chaos is Jazz

So, what is chaos then? What does it look like? Where is the box to tick and the To Do list to achieve it? That is best answered by Louis Armstrong when he said “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”  Chaos Theory is similar.  It can’t be boiled down to easily understood scientific laws, great business book narratives, credentials or 8-step plans.  Similar to jazz, it is improvisational in nature.

Chaos works because of its unpredictability. It works by the fact that we don’t quite know how it might work. We can’t predict the outcome but we know there will be one. It is in the unplanned interactions that we might find that magic we seek. Steve Jobs famously designed the Apple Headquarters with narrow corridors, forcing you to bump into other colleagues you might not regularly work with, forcing interactivity and perhaps new collaborations or thinking.

This year is again all about chaos. But stop thinking of that as a negative thing. Embrace chaos, be excited about unpredictability. The best stories always start with “you’ll never guess what happened to me” and so it should be in business too. We need to recruit more creative people, talent to challenge norms and system-rules, we need to be open to new ways of looking at our world. This is the diversity argument but beyond gender or race. This is about spirit.

You can hire in some chaos ninjas, but better still, let your inner-chaos ninja out. If your boss asks why you are working from home dressed all in black with a red headband, send them this link.

This article is a repost from Ken Hughes’ personal website. Read the original version here.

Ken Hughes is one of the top speakers of nexxworks’ Mission CX program and considered one of the World’s leading virtual speakers on the subject of consumer values, organizational change, leadership and agility. His virtual keynotes are famous for their high-energy, thought provoking content as well as their impactful and inspiring delivery.

To let some chaos into your life (in a good way!) and to book Ken for your virtual event, click here.

Thanks to Rik Vera for his ‘Freeze the Dinosaur’ analogy and to Paul Millard for his inspiring essay entitled ‘Integrating Chaos’ from which some of the above examples are drawn.

Guest Contributor Ken Hughes
Guest Contributor Ken Hughes
See author page
Join us on our next experience
calendar icon
Get front row access to the latest scoop and new upcoming experiences, bundled into a monthly newsletter
You may opt-out any time. 
Read the .
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
calendar icon
March 1, 2021
New York