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Ready or not, the millennium is coming. Will your organization look like chaos? Dee Hock - thinker, rancher, organizational visionary, founder and CEO Emeritus of VISA - hopes so.
Wait. Don't turn the page. The chaos Hock would like to see is not the collapse that he believes threatens organizations today, but the complex, unpredictable, and eminently orderly disorder that mystics for centuries (and scientists fairly recently) recognize as nature's way.
But first, a brief tutorial on chaos theory: Chaos, as science refers to it, is a revolution in our understanding of the way the world works. Its revelations have overturned Newton's law-abiding universe and replaced it with a world of infinite complexity, in which everything is connected in a vast and ever-evolving web.
One of the first connections chaos made was among the disciplines of science. Traditionally, mathematicians and physicists, not to mention mystics, had little to say to each other. They worked within the sacrosanct walls of their own intellectual castles, guns on the turrets aimed at the contrary opinions of others.
In the 1960s, however, certain meteorologists, mathematicians, physicists, and biologists began to find, and gradually exchange, undeniable evidence that caused them a range of chagrin, excitement, awe, and even anger. Nature can't behave in the way they were seeing, could it?
According to their experiments, nature's behavior seemed unpredictable, forming random and complex patterns described by equations that would not resolve into straight lines but that bifurcated at odd points and had their way with preconceived notions. Clouds. Lightning. Bubbles at the foot of a waterfall. Weather. Population. Those last bastions of nature's secrets finally, under scientists' insistent probing, yielded a shocking truth: Mother Nature is erratic. Not at all what science since the Middle Ages has wished her to be: a rational and eminently orderly extrapolation of the human mind. Not at all what Descartes declared she was: spiritless matter whose whole could be grasped by analysis of her parts. Not even what Newton assured us she was: a well-behaved machine set in motion by God and driven by laws that, if we just found them all, would deliver her to our control.
No. Our sun may rise daily, but nature does not run like dockwork. Nor is nature a summary of physical parts. Nature is complexity itself: chaos.
The paradox of chaos
Chaos. The word is deceptive. The band of baffled, chagrined, disbelieving, and sometimes almost evangelical scientists that first recognized it had a hard time settling on a name, for there was a paradox involved. At the edge of chaos, on a very narrow band, lives a kind of sublime order.
Picture a snowflake: a bit of moisture drifting to the ground and crystallizing into a unique, unrepeatable form distinct from every other snowflake. Yet, a snowflake is always recognizable. We see one and know right away what it is. Order in chaos, chaos in order.
Dee Hock, who works to bring organizations into harmony with nature and life, resolves the paradox linguistically and philosophically by joining the opposites and by calling the situation and organizational model he draws from it, "chaordic."
What does a chaordic system look like? I ask Hock, knowing that he won't describe a traditional organizational pattern. Still, I'm surprised when he says, "Look out the window!" with a sweeping gesture past the serene stacks in his library toward the tangled hillside beyond.
"Show me the chairman of the board of the forest," he says. "Show me the chief financial fish of the pond. Show me (tapping his head) the chief executive neuron of the brain!"
"In chaordic systems," Hock says with enthusiasm and wonder, "order emerges. Structure evolves. Life is recognizable pattern within infinite diversity."
Keep thinking about snowflakes. Patterned idiosyncratically by the turbulence through which they drift, snowflakes and other chaordic organizations exhibit what scientists call, "sensitive dependence on initial conditions." That means that unlike the linear idea of cause and effect - which you can visualize as a set of falling dominoes - in a chaordic system, a tiny change early on can create vast and unpredictable changes down the road - a road never straight but endlessly branching, like the pattern of a ganglion or lightning across a western sky.
"If it is truly chaordic," Hock says, "it won't look like anything else. But there will be a pattern you can recognize, coherence and cohesion within infinite diversity. Nature has never repeated a single human being, yet we know one when we see one."
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