How can being on the edge of chaos help you to get your change process right?

Chaos versus Order messages

Most of us in the public and voluntary and community sectors have been going through a period of change for some time – perhaps it seems continually. But how is change best thought of and implemented? This post discusses some of the underlying issues in any change process. Japanese language distinguishes between two types of change, horshin is sudden transformational change, which may be driven by internal or external events, and kaizen is smaller incremental change that happens more gradually. You will probably experience both in your organisation at different times.

Organisations are unpredictable

Complexity theory holds that organisations are dynamic and the outcomes of activities are unpredictable: small actions can produce large changes, different outcomes can occur from similar initiatives, the world and our organisations are rich and varied and cannot be explained through straightforward linear models, and we have influence but not control over people’s behaviour. Leaders cannot force change but can support organisations towards a state that has been described as “the edge of chaos” in order to create new possibilities and to enable change to happen organically. This may seem unsettling, but the theory holds that it is on the edge of chaos that real and meaningful change can happen. It is important to stay in this space long enough for new ideas to emerge rather than to rush for a solution that may not be the right one. It is the leader’s role to communicate a vision for change, gain the confidence of the workforce and other stakeholders, and “hold the space,” whilst giving people opportunities to participate in shaping the future.

Encouraging challenge

It is important to get internal culture right. It can be easy to see people who resist change or challenge systems as being “difficult”. For people particularly in the voluntary and community and public sectors who hold strong values and beliefs it can be particularly important to be able to express their views. Too strong a culture in an organisation can lead to “groupthink” and complacency, so differing views should be sought and discussed in an open way. There are various mechanisms that can be used to ensure that everyone is able to participate in conversations, and that all possibilities are fully explored before reaching a decision.

Empowering people to take advantage of opportunities that arise

Planning is important, and engaging people from across an organisation is vital, but often things don’t go to plan, so organisations and individuals need to be agile enough to take advantage of opportunities that arise for example by accident, coincidence or luck. How empowered are your workforce to spot and act on these occurrences? Many important changes happen at the “micro-level,” which are outside the direct control of managers.

Collaborating across your organisation

Undertaking collaborative inquiry across your organisation can surface interesting ideas either around a particular theme or asking general questions about improvement. For example this could be done through “quality circles” where a group from different parts of the organisation come together to discuss an issue; through online or actual “solution boxes”; through snowball interviewing, where people in the organisation interview each other and report back; or through larger scale events involving Open Space or World Café interventions (see my facilitation page for more details). Questions can be general or specific, “How could we improve our clients’ journeys?” “How can we better organise drop in sessions?” “What might funders say about our organisation?” “What gets in the way of you doing your work?”

How can we help?

Ideas to Impact can help you to think through how you want to approach different types of change in your organisation, provide suggestions and ideas and help you to develop and implement a plan. We can also help you to run or to set up workshops and collaborative inquiries within your organisation across a range of issues.

Contact Becky through the details or form at the bottom of the homepage for more information.