Chaos Theory

written by Kat Bair
10 · 25 · 22

Back to Normal

So much of the church dialogue of the past year or so has focused on “back to normal” – we wanted to go back to our pre-pandemic numbers, our pre-pandemic programming, and our pre-pandemic life. We wanted something that felt more stable and didn’t contain the persistent inconsistency of 2020 through much of 2022. I know that I am not alone in the feeling of dread every time I hear the words “pivot” and “unprecedented.” Like most church leaders, I hungered for same-old, same-old, for being able to make a six-month plan with a fraction of a hope that it might actually happen. 

Like most church leaders, I was eager to take all the new skills I had learned, all the muscles I had grown, and shelve them as soon as possible. 

Understanding Chaos

In recent years, there has been an emerging scientific interest in the role chaos and unpredictability play in so many of our biological, chemical, and even cosmological worlds. The discovery of quantum mechanics made it clear to scientists that the world was perhaps much messier than Newtonian physics had allowed. As physicists dug into the strange realities of particles which could be in several places at once and then nowhere at all, they provided insights that have been used across a wide variety of fields in a broader science known as complexity theory, emergence theory, or chaos theory. These new learnings have been used to explain things like hive mind in termites, the adaptive capacity of the nervous system, the behavior of proteins, and more. 

Chaos theory has also made its mark in social science as a way to describe self-organizing behavior in groups, economic forces, and more. In Surfing the Edge of Chaos: The Laws of Nature and the New Laws of Business, authors Richard Pascale, Mark Millemann, and Linda Goija carry those learnings to the business world, imagining each organization as a living organism of its own, subject to those same principles of chaos theory as every other molecule, society, and solar system.

The first principle of chaos theory outlined in Pascale, Millemann, and Goija’s book is easy enough to understand, even if we wish it weren’t true:

Equilibrium is a precursor to death. 

The Problem with Normal

In traditional organizational theory, there is a glorification of stability, of predictability, of a machine that can basically run itself. Unfortunately, for a system like that to succeed, it requires the world around it to never change. 

If the past two and a half years have been any lesson, that’s about the only thing we know won’t happen. Pascale et al. argue that an organization’s capacity to “surf the edge” of a chaotically changing world determines its success. Organizations that seek equilibrium, stability, and routine are less attuned to the shifts around them and therefore set themselves up for failure by ensuring that they will become out of touch or out of date.

Back to Chaos

Reading about chaos theory, I found myself thinking back to my hunger for normal. I remember those early months of the pandemic when we threw out the playbook every six weeks and started over. The communications team I worked with at the time reported that my department alone had tried 52 different programs between March 15th, 2020, and January 1st, 2021. It felt chaotic and exhausting and led to more rapid, unhindered innovation than at any other point in my ministry career. 

Could the most powerful thing we do for the future of our organizations be to learn to ride the edge of the chaos around us, to use those muscles so many of us unwillingly developed to try, crash, fail, and try again in the face of an ever-changing landscape? 

As we live into our new normal, may we make sure to keep pulling those skills off the shelf, to be willing to take the best parts of who chaos made us (creative, cooperative, resilient) and utilize them in our work, even in “normal” times. Equilibrium is comfortable, but it is actually the least stable state in our environment, and, exhausting as it is, learning to see chaos as the default and even value it, may be our best bet for embracing the future. 

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Kat Bair

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