9. Chaos, Flow and Systems Thinking

In the film Jurassic Park, mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum, used chaos theory to predict that the theme park was a bad idea that would end in tears. The theory explores how systems, regardless of complexity, actually rely upon an underlying order and how very tiny changes become amplified with unpredictable consequences. The name, chaos theory, came from research by meteorologists in the early 1960s, which attempted to predict our planet’s weather. Even though they understood it, they simply couldn’t predict it, largely because our weather system is immensely sensitive and reliant on initial conditions. Back to Jurassic Park, and Goldblum’s character explained that all biology is inherently complex, unstable and unpredictable and the theory was quickly proved when, despite all precautions, a Tyrannosaurus Rex broke out of its compound and proceeded to eat anything that moved.

So what does chaos theory have to do with How to be Good at Work?

Simply that the neat, hierarchical organisational charts that some of us like to draw at work, are completely divorced from the realities of human behaviour and culture. The belief that people can be cleverly managed with predictable outcomes is a fallacy, even in the most totalitarian regimes. Or, to believe, as we discussed previously in Law, that we can and must have a rule, process or system for everything. It is also at odds with the notion that we can somehow control and predict financial performance a year or more ahead, when we are unable to predict our weather – still a much simpler system than humanity – more than a few hours ahead.

“In the information society, nobody thinks. We expected to banish paper, but we actually banished thought.” 

Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park

“To the disrupters go the spoils.” 

Heather Simmons, Reinventing Dell

Most experts did not predict Donald Trump winning the Republican presidential nomination, let alone the Presidency, or the outcome of the Brexit vote. In our world of work, who would have thought that Volkswagen, the iconic brand that owns Audi and promotes the excellence and certainty of “Vorsprung durch Technik” (Advancement through Technology) would contain within its precisely engineered organisation, a deception that has led to tens of thousands of premature, preventable deaths through respiratory disease, as well as the destruction of billions of euros of stockholder value?

We are highly evolved biological life-forms that are driven, not only by the visceral, reptilian impulses of T-Rex, but also by the empathic emotions and smart thinking common to many higher order animals. We are collaborative as well as competitive. We are imaginative and creative. We make mistakes and learn from them. We are an adaptive species. In evolutionary terms, species that thrive in a changing environment are those that adapt and collaborate. The systems we inhabit are far too complex and unpredictable for us to be able to make a rule for every possible outcome. When we try we get it wrong.

So, what is ‘systems thinking’ and how does it help us to be good at work?

As the name suggests, systems thinking doesn’t focus on breaking something down into component parts in order to improve how it works. That’s what we mean by analysis. Systems thinkers try to understand how a complex, living system works by understanding as much about the relationships between the parts, as the nature of the parts themselves. This is what we call ‘synthesis’.

For example, the human body cannot be understood by reducing it to its chemical components. We would simply end up with a muddy puddle! Each of us are a complex, adaptive system of about 37 trillion cells and are host to a similar number of other life forms such as bacteria, archaea, fungi, parasites and viruses. Each of us is a teeming eco-system of life. And, when we come to work, we interact with other complex ecosystems. And we wonder why the simplistic, hierarchical ego-systems designed by a narcissistic elite, end up suppressing our creativity, our empathy and our hope. We wonder why bad things happen when the brute force of nature messes up our neat corporate fantasies.

Systems thinking is an emerging skill on the business curriculum and a full understanding of this discipline is beyond the scope of this book; however, the references at the end of this episode might help. So too can this Sufi parable of the Blind Men and an Elephant. Read on or watch the great short video:

“Even nature; the restless waves, irregular trees and stars all out of line show that chaos can be beautiful!” 

Sophia McMaster, The Last Companion

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said, “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable.” So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake.” For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, “The elephant is a pillar like a tree trunk.” The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, “Elephant is a wall.” Another who felt its tail described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.

Each blind man’s description was correct, but they could only describe the one part of the elephant within their reach. In order to understand the whole, they needed to work together with curiosity, generosity, and humility.

The other aspect of systems thinking is to understand ‘flow’, as we find it in nature and the cosmos. Whether it is flow in our bloodstream, the tides, in a murmuration of starlings or the ballet of the planets. Flow reminds us that life isn’t static. It is never still or compartmentalised. So why do we continue to draw hierarchical organisation charts with people in top-down boxes? Why do we put so much effort and attach so much importance to the snapshot of business we call the annual report and accounts? It’s like trying to understand an entire movie by viewing a single frame.

If we are to be good at work, then we need to see the wood for the trees, the whole elephant, not just its trunk and we need to see each other as fellow travellers along an ever changing river of life at work as well as at home.

In the final episode I will summarise everything that I have learned into a manifesto for change that will help us all understand How to Be Good at Work, more and more of the time.

As Roger Federer so eloquently demonstrated, time away from work to refresh the mind and body makes us much more productive when we return. We’re taking a short break now and will be back with our next episode looking at the future for good work on Sunday, August 13. Happy days!

As well as drawing my own conclusions I read and research many papers, books, articles and essays on how we, as humans, go about our business. Discover a selection and read on within More Good Thinking and How Should Organisations Engage with their Employees? by Dr William Tate, The Institute for Systemic Leadership.