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Graham Birkenhead, October 21 2021

Welcome To The Edge of Chaos

We humans are paradoxical creatures.  On the one hand, we like habits - good or bad - where we follow routines, and especially if we did something that worked really well, then we are quite happy to do the same again, and again, and keep doing it.   Eating the same things, at the same times, going to the same place for vacation year after year, and so on. 

On the other hand, we are well aware of the adage of 'work smarter - not harder' and one of the principal ways of doing that it to follow some sort of well-defined and hopefully well-designed process; something that would seem to be ideally suited to our habitual nature.  But when presented with a process, we often try not to follow it, or cut corners, or miss bits out.  Almost as if we are suddenly craving the variation that is counter to our nature. 

There is a happy place - a place where people are their most productive and their most creative - and it's known as the 'edge of chaos'.   In systems theory, there were traditionally 3 states that a system (such as a company - or an engine) could adopt:   1 - stasis, which means that it is completely inactive and nothing is happening; 2 - control, where an upper and lower boundary are set, and the system can operate and bounce around between those two limits; 3 - chaos at which point the system is out of control and could tend towards self-destruction. Organisations, especially as they grow, tend towards augmenting control and so build in polices, process and procedures to try to create some sort of consistency and order.  Makes sense. 

However, there is a fourth systems state (thanks to complexity theory), the 'Edge of Chaos', and it exists somewhere between control and chaos.  It is a bit of a holy grail of organizational design, but nevertheless, we can work towards it.  As much as we humans like routine and habit, when it comes to work, we are not actually very good at repetitive, high accuracy tasks which typically exist in very proceduralised environments - machines are good at this.  Humans, however, with our faulty memories constantly throwing random factors into our perceptions and recall, are actually very good at recognizing problems, seeing patterns, and finding solutions - otherwise known as creativity. We obviously don't want to descend into chaos, but at the edge of chaos, we have just enough structure around us (process, guidance, templates, tools, etc) that allows us to operate within bounds, but also allows us to use the randomness and creativity that our minds crave and can lead to breakthrough ideas and performance. 

Think of some of the many things that you do frequently and repetitively - and you’ll see that even those you do slightly different every time. 

Everybody is different, we all have our individual balance points, and those can vary from day to day.  However, we can move towards enabling more of this type of balance in our work places. 

What adjustments can you make to your practices and processes so as to provide only enough structure to get the job done while leaving enough leeway to fire up their full creative potential?  

Bye for now, Graham

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Written by

Graham Birkenhead

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