We all know this list: COVID-19, uncertainty, rapid changes in the way we live, work, relate … It seems that lately, the world we have to navigate is turning increasingly more chaotic.
In a recent HBR article, I shared shocking data on the rate of change and the constant disruption we’re all experiencing. “In 2018, out of over 2,000 managers participating, 47 percent reported that in order to survive, they needed to reinvent their businesses every three years or less. Data from 2020 shows that the number has jumped to 60 percent.”
The speed of change means constant crisis for companies big and small. A 2017 PwC survey of CEOs concluded that crises are hitting with greater frequency, with 15 percent of CEOs facing five or more crises in the prior three years, and 30 percent anticipating more than one crisis in the following three years, including financial, legal, technological, operational, humanitarian, reputational, and human capital disruptions. By the end of those three years, the fears seemed well-justified. In the latest 2020 survey, the share of business leaders “very confident” in their 12-month growth prospects fell to 27 percent, the lowest level since 2009.
How can we not only survive the chaos, but learn to thrive in it?
To answer this question, to master chaos, we must get very clear what chaos is.
So, what comes to your mind when you hear the word?
Since the spring of 2020, I asked 1,016 students of Reinvention Academy — all business managers, owners, or consultants — this very question: “What comes to mind when you hear the word chaos?”
The answers were incredibly consistent: disorganization, anarchy, loss of control, craziness, darkness, mess, horror. One answer stood above all: lack of order.
Yet when you pose the same question to scientists, they paint a completely different picture. Look up “chaos” across the wide range of scientific publications, and you’ll see that as mathematicians Jonathan Borwein and Michael Rose put it, “Order and chaos are not always diametrically opposed. Chaotic systems are an intimate mix of the two. From the outside, they display unpredictable and chaotic behavior, but expose the inner workings, and you discover a perfectly deterministic set of equations ticking like clockwork.”
You’ll also discover Margaret Wheatley, who in her classic book “Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World” explains the relationship between chaos and order in this way: “These two forces are now understood as mirror images, two states that contain the other. A system can descend into chaos and unpredictability, yet within that state of chaos, the system is held within boundaries that are well-ordered and predictable. Without the partnering of these two great forces, no change or progress is possible. Chaos is necessary to new creative ordering.”
Perhaps the best illustration of what chaos is that I ever saw came from geneticist Bruce Lipton at one of his lectures about three years ago.
Remember the last time you were at a busy train station like Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Imagine you’re standing on the balcony looking down. You see hundreds of people moving in different directions, wedding pictures being taken, and people waiting to meet their loved ones.
It seems like a lack of order, but it’s not. This is actually chaos. Even though people are moving in very different directions and at different speeds, everyone in the building is not moving mindlessly or randomly. Everyone has a purpose, a direction, a logic for their actions — it’s just more than one set of purposes and logics present simultaneously in one environment.
What would a true lack of order look like? If I get a megaphone and scream “Fire!,” people will panic and run with no purpose or clear direction. That would be disorder indeed, but it has nothing to do with chaos.
Chaos isn’t a lack of order. Chaos is the presence of more than one order.
Chaos is having some of your customers’ yearning for a new car while others are seeing car ownership as “something boomers do,” and you still need to find a way to satisfy both. Chaos is having some of your suppliers betting with one type of technology and others choosing an alternative, and you still need to work with both. Chaos is noticing one country’s regulation is a complete opposite from another, and your company’s policy still needs to find room for both.
Chaos is a natural state of any complex system, the kind we’re living and working in today. Understanding this gives you the power to use chaos the way a sail uses the wind as a new and emerging reality rather than running or hiding from it.