Chaos Theory in Organizational Development - Applications and Pitfalls

Applications and Pitfalls

The primary goal of an organizational development (OD) consultant is to initiate, facilitate, and support successful change in an organization. Using chaos theory as the sole model for change may be far too risky for any stakeholder buy-in. The concept of uncertainty on which chaos theory relies is not an appealing motive for change compared to many alternative "safer" models of organizational change which entail less risk. By careful planning and management of disorder a successful intervention is possible, but only with a truly dedicated arsenal of talented and creative resources. By permitting or actively forcing an organization to enter a chaotic state, change becomes inevitable and bifurcation imminent; but the question remains, "Will the new direction be the one intended?" In order to account for the direction of the new thrust, most planning attention should be focused on attractors instead of the initiation of disorder.

Although chaos eventually gives way to self-organization, how can we control the duration, intensity, and shape of its outcome? It seems that punctuating equilibrium and instilling disorder in an organization is risky business. Throwing an organization off balance could possibly send it in a downward spiral towards dissemination by ultimately compromising the structural integrity (i.e. identity) of the system to the point of no return. The only way to reap the benefits of chaos theory in OD while maintaining a sense of security is to adjust the organization towards a state of existence which lies “on the edge of chaos”.

By existing on the edge of chaos, organizations are forced to find new, creative ways to compete and stay ahead. Good examples of such learning organizations are found throughout the field of technology as well as the airline industry, namely organizations such as Southwest Airlines, which used re-invention not just for survival, but also to prosper in an otherwise dismal market. In contrast, there are organizations which, due to extended periods of equilibrium, find themselves struggling for survival. Telephone companies, for instance, were once solid and static entities that dominated the communication market. While the rest of the world was developing new communication technology, telephone companies did not creatively grow at the same rate. The result is an organization that is battling to stay alive unless they embrace the element of chaos due to crisis, and allow creative adaptability to function freely so that self-organization and re-invention can occur.

While organizations existing on the edge of chaos are known to be the most creative and adaptive of organizations, how do their members feel about constant evolution and re-invention? Is it possible to identify with, and stay loyal to, an organization that constantly changes shape? The short answer is yes. As long as the organization does not change its core essence; its identifiable, shared purpose, its members will still experience the organization as a developing system that changes shape but retains the same familiar face.

Perhaps the safest way to use chaos theory in OD is not in the instigation of organizational change, but in the use of its principles in dealing with issues that arise within the organization. By embracing organizational phenomena previously seen as dysfunctional, such as interpersonal conflict, and using it as a source for transformational change by applying principles found in chaos theory (Shelton, 2003), an organization can make "lemonade out of lemons" and become more responsive to change agents while continuously moving ahead and growing from the inside out without the fear of complete chaos.

Read more about this topic:  Chaos Theory In Organizational Development

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