[Last amended: 7 Oct 2020]
Structures concern the more tangible aspects of a system and discussion of these facets gives more form to the debate. Amongst their considerations of structures, analysts should consider scale, interdependencies and self-organisation.
Within academic work the issue of scale would be referred to as “level of analysis”. This requires the analysts to identify the part of the whole that is being discussed. It also requires them to recognise how this factor affects the debate and the shaping of recommendations (note the link back to double-loop learning). For example, where a text refers to an organisation, such as the "London Fire Brigade”, this term can be used to refer to the force overall, a particular group within the brigade, or an individual member of the brigade. In the later case the act reported is just one of the many (both inside and outside the organisation) implied by the statements that are needed for the desired outcome to be achieved. In turn, this provides an illusion that the system dynamics necessary to disseminate the information are much simpler than they actually are.
Discussion of interdependencies looks to identify the connections needed between parts of the whole (be they individuals or groups). This seeks to establish the connections that are needed between these interdependent parts. Here the normal chaos analyst also looks to establish linkages between the past and the present (often critical to the context of the debate), the power relationship between protagonists, whether the relationship is productive or dysfunctional and whether there is a willingness to understand another’s problem. These issues are critical in identifying the communications that are needed between these parts and their priority within the system as a whole.
Self-Organisation (or Self-Organising) recognises that roles played by impromptu, organic or informal reorganising is out of the control of management. This often occurs either where there are gaps in the formal structures or where the power structures are not aligned to the formal structures.
Patterns recognition is an important, if overlooked, part of the decision making process. The normal chaos framework therefore requires analysts to identify and assess the patterns of activity that are embedded within their systems. Amongst their considerations of patterns, the analysts should consider fractals, the fitness landscape and the role of illusions.
Fitness landscape concerns how organisations revise their strategy in order to pursue a “best fit” (or just a “better”) strategy when faced by circumstances rife with ambiguity and uncertainty. This approach accepts that “trial and error” or experimentation (complete with its potential for failure) might be the only way forward. The normal chaos framework therefore requires analysts to assess the robustness of the organisation’s current strategy and the cost of finding a potentially better fit
Fractals concern patterns that repeat themselves. In the case of normal chaos, the concern is whether such patterns actually repeat (whether across scales or horizontally across similar organisations) to the point that they form a dependable basis for decision making within the new context.
Anthropology clearly shows how societies use myths and legends (with their inherent falsehoods) in order to cope with life’s uncertainties. Psychology also provides warning that mankind is more comfortable applying certainties that are untrue than facing the unease caused by uncertainty. The normal chaos framework therefore requires analysts to assess that validity of “commonly held belief” to avoid comforting illusions. For example, based on Prigogine’s thinking, we need to question whether thinking that the world is ordered is an illusion
The concept of dynamics concerns trying to understand the forces that shape patterns and structures, their flow, their power to shape in the short and long term. It concerns how energy moves within the system, and when and how the control of this energy may be lost (here the metaphor of uncontrolled energy loss equates explosion to crisis and has been labelled “abnormal chaos”). For the analysts, the idea of dynamics is based on the idea that energy cannot be lost or created; if it is added to one facet, it must come from another. Therefore, based on this logic, the analyst is encouraged to think about “who pays if someone else gains?” and to look more broadly to see who or what is adversely affected when a benefit is accrued elsewhere in the system. Experience suggests that these unintended consequences are often the seed of the next crisis. Amongst their considerations of energy, the analysts should consider attractors, energy flow and the edge of chaos.
Energy flow concerns how, over time, the energy driving individual dynamics may change. Here the normal chaos analyst would consider how energy flows into, around and out of the system. In addition they would be encouraged to consider how this may change individual dynamics and the direction that the attractor might move the organisation overall.
Attractors can be seen as the accumulative effect of the many, often contradictory, dynamics that will push or pull an organisation in a particular direction. For normal chaos the analysts consideration of attractors is meant to prompt them to identify the overall heading of a system and then to identify the individual dynamics and the “energy” that are driving them. Once understood, action can be taken to change them as seen to be appropriate.
The edge of chaos concerns the identification of the “point” at which the system may fail. The paradox here is that just before this point, it is also at its most efficient. Here efficiency and vulnerability go hand in hand. The issue here is therefore to try to understand the shape of the failure curve and know the signals to look for (see for example the literature on ”Weak Signals” such as Lagadec (1993:47) who defines them as “warning signals very close to the normal background noise” or Vaughan (1997:87) who defined them as "one that was unclear, or one that, after analysis, seemed such an improbable event that working engineers believed there was little probability of it recurring". It should be noted that this is but part of a much wider literature on the subject of signals [wanting signs]).
The Normal Chaos Framework is designed to support decision-making in the context of complex, fast-moving, dynamic situations.
Structures identifies those components of the decision context that are likely to remain constant for the envisaged timeframe.
Dynamics considers those factors that are likely to play on, rearrange, and potentially change, those structural components.
Patterns looks to identify how the dynamics are likely or may possibly re-arrange the structures under consideration.