The Role of Chaos in the Creation of Change

It has been said that “Success has many parents, but failure is an orphan.” When it comes to successful change, however, it seems to me that the same two partners get things going every time, namely Pain and Possibility. It is the belief of this author, that no significant change can take place in individuals, groups or larger organizations, regardless of the pain and possibility present, without a passage through Chaos, the world’s birthing center, where fundamental change and innovation come into being. 

When I say chaos, I am referring to that space where none of the old rules work anymore and where there is a partial or complete breakdown of the basic concepts and principles defining things. Tom Peters has written at length about the need for innovation in industry and the openness managers need to have to the chaos, which accompanies it. It may well be a good and necessary thing to be in chaos, but how does it contribute to fundamental change? This article explores that question.


The Father of Change

Pain is the only motivator that I trust. Too many times I have seen well-meaning managers and their people get scared at the moment of truth and revert to the old way. The people and systems who are able to create and sustain fundamental change are usually in the grip of some kind of organizational, financial, and/or emotional pain.

By the word “pain” I mean the aware-ness of an unacceptable disequilibrium, or a significant discrepancy between the way things ARE and the way they COULD BE.

This pain manifests itself in various ways. In one client system it showed up as a consequence of an impending failure of a major part of the enterprise. In another, a severe drop in both productivity and quality. In another, increased customer dissatisfaction in service and lost sales. In one individual situation, it was the strain of unresolved conflict with a colleague, and in another, a breakdown in communication with a spouse and a teenage son. 

But pain by itself is seldom enough. The “pain” of being overweight, for instance, may or may not lead to a new body shape. The “pain” which comes from the realization that a marriage is not working may or may not result in positive change. The “pain” a work team or organization experiences in the face of some kind of failure may or may not lead to breakthrough.

When Pain Is Not Enough 

A small professional services firm with whom we had worked had been teetering on the brink of financial disaster for several weeks. The situation seemed clear to me as an external consultant: major unresolved conflict between the two senior partners was sapping the business of its strength. Employees were polarized, and prospective clients could sense the firm’s trouble. The owner’s, however, would not–they said they could not–move to make the changes needed, and they had a raft of sensible reasons why nothing fundamentally new or different could be done. The senior partner could not get beyond his fear, or retribution, or failure, or community embarrassment to do what was needed. The result: the two split in an acrimonious series of scenes, and the senior partner eventually filed for bankruptcy. The emotional and psychic pain this man experienced before the firm broke apart was indescribable, one would think unbearable. Yet he was not sufficiently moved early enough to act decisively to fundamentally change the situation. What was missing? 


The Mother of Change 

There is another ingredient. The pain must be accompanied by an awareness of an existing gap between the way things are and the way they could be. With the pain must come a possibility, something not believed to be achievable before. The overweight person must actually see him/herself as leaner and healthier. The work team or organization must see the possibility of the situation resolved, productivity at peak levels, the crisis yielding to breakthrough. Without this directional vector, there is no change, only pain. 

Possibility not only provides the direction for change; it also defines the space within which the change occurs. The greater the possibility, the more fundamental change is likely. People at a seminar who are there as if their life of job depended on what happens will be more likely to leave changed than people who are there because the boss sent them. The size of the possibility defines the space within which the change occurs. Small possibility, small change. Big possibility, big change.

What Blocks Possibility? 

There are conscious and unconscious forces at work in all human systems, from the individual to the largest corporation, which function to maintain homeostasis, keeping things as they are. When we think and perceive the world within a closed system, we are doing “inside-the-box thinking.” Standing inside the box, there is no real possibility for fundamental change. There might be change, but inside-the-box change is really only more of the same. 

Many of the clients who are asking help in creating positive change have this kind of superficial work in mind. They may say they want real change, but they want it to happen without having to change anything they are attached to! They want to stay inside the box and still have thins change. Fundamental change, or breakthrough, takes place only when the client is outside the box, which is usually preceded by a breakdown. 

Both pain and possibility need to be present and acknowledged fully for breakthrough to take place. I call this convergence point in time a breakdown. Jesse Watson, creative change consultant and colleague, talks about a flat tire as a fitting metaphor for breakdown. “Just having a flat tire on your car doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re having a breakdown,” he says. “You have to be going somewhere!” If your car is sitting in the garage and hasn’t been used for ages, all the tires can be flat and you won’t experience the situation as a breakdown. Breakdown consists of at least two essential components: going somewhere (possibility) and not getting there (pain). For fundamental change to take place, the people involved must feel some pain, want a new possibility, be willing to admit that they do not really know what to do, and be committed to discovering a new way of thinking about it all, opening up to the possibility of transformation. “Transformation” is a complete and fundamental change in the basic form of something. It is not a modification of anything that already is. It is bringing into existence something that was not a moment before. It is an act of pure creation, ex nihilo, ” out of nothing.” This place of nothingness, from which creation comes, is called chaos.


The Birth Passage for Creative Change

First order, or superficial change, can occur in any situation with relatively little pain, since it represents a moving around or modification of what is already present. Second order, or what I am calling creative change, is by definition impossible. It represents a bringing forth of something totally new which was not there before and which could not have been predicted on the basis of what was already there. 

For transformation to occur, the existing mental box must fall away like the discarded skin on a molting snake. The operating pattern must be broken down. We must find ourselves released from the grip of the old context. This leaves us, no with a new pattern immediately, but with an empty space within which a new pattern (creation) can occur. In other words, we must find ourselves in a chaotic void, without any life jacket or props or ideas about how to proceed, with nothing to hold onto, no way to save ourselves. In that instant, we are open to what could show up, which could not have shown up as long as we were holding onto anything we thought would “work” to save us from the experience of being in an empty space. 

In the creation myths of the world’s oldest religions, the ancients knew the same basic truth about creation: some kind of emptiness preceded the birth of the world. Several of these myths actually speak of chaos, but in every case there is the absence of anything familiar of known. The world came out of the unknown. Nor was chaos only the birthing context for the origin of the world; it was also seen by the ancient sages to play a central role in bringing about the kind of fundamental change or conversion or salvation or sartori or enlightenment sought by individual believers themselves. For personal transformation to take place, there must be that space of nothingness or emptiness, that “dying to be alive,” that “emptying of the mind so that new life can be poured in.”

A Scientist’s View of Disequilibrium

Several years ago Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine startled the scientific world with his theories on the thermodynamics of non-equilibrium systems. While traditionalist colleagues in chemistry were still being influenced by thinking from the Age of the Machine, emphasizing order, predictability, stability, and equilibrium in a world which was essentially a closed system operating with linear cause and effect relationships, Prigogine and his students in Brussels School were focusing their attention on the disorder, apparent randomness, instability and disequilibrium of non-linear relationships they found in chemical reactions. A central idea he put forward was that new order and organization can arise spontaneously out of chaos in systems which are “far from equilibrium” through a process called self-organization:

 When a molecule’s implicate (existing) order starts to fall apart, the entity faces a moment of choice, the “bifurcation point.” It can either go out of existence, or reorganize itself at a higher level to accommodate the new variables.

If Prigogine is correct, the potential for innovation or radical change is directly proportional to the lack of order present in the structures holding or defining the situation. 

Social scientists have taken Prigogine’s work to heart and applied his principles to human systems. The potential for deep change in any social system, from the individual to the latest organization or society, is directly related to the breaking down of those basic concepts which have held things together in the past (homeostasis) and are now, usually inadvertently, holding back the movement to a higher level of organization. When things look darkest, that’s the moment when the system is most open to a new configuration. New order comes out of braving and moving through the emptiness and chaos. 

But what a frightening prospect! Does this mean we have to be driven into a world of chaos where all our treasured operating principles crumble in front of us before any kind of fundamental change can take place? If Prigogine and the ancients are right, the answer may be yes. Every transformational human being, from Jesus and the Budda to Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr., has operated from this position: that the current basic concepts must be let go, especially those which have kept us from seeing what was really there, before creative change, innovation or transformation has a chance. This is some apparent relief, however. What breaks down is not reality, but our concept of reality. It is our illusions, which need to be let go of, so that we might see reality uncovered as it really is. It’s our current map of the way things are we have to drop, not life itself. We must end up essentially lost and now knowing what to do. The instant we let go of the one piece we “know” we can count on, and act as if we do not know, we are open to the breakthrough!

Chaos and Consulting

Facilitating Change in the Real World

We have now identified the antecedents to fundamental change: pain and possibility converging in a moment of breakdown, held in the context of chaos or confused emptiness, where the past and present offer no useful guidance, and an act of pure creation is required.

But even all that may not be enough. Many, maybe most, people and organizations, finding themselves in that situation, simply become resigned to the way things are or settle for superficial change which doesn’t make any real difference. Managers and their organizations are rewarded for not being lost and not knowing what to do, or at least acting as if they do. When they become lost and confused and, like the atom under pressure, face annihilation or breakthrough, they frequently go out of existence–that is, out of business or out of a job.

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