RESEARCH - Normal Chaos

[page last amended: 08 Jan 18]




These pages are for those kinds people who have offered to support the research needed in order to write my third book.  This book will be looking at the implications for management when we accept normal chaos as our basic paradigm rather than staying within the perfect world paradigm. I will expand these pages as our thoughts develop. Please note that phrases in italics are technical terms derived from academic literature and therefore imply much more than the words, in themselves, convey.


At this stage I must acknowledge the contribution of my friend and collaborative partner Hugo Marynissen without whom this work would not have been possible. Hugo is both the Academic Director of Antwerp Management School's Executive PhD programme and a director of PM (a crisis communication consultancy company). Although I may use the term "I" throughout these pages, for these are my claims, "we" would have been a fairer way to represent the effort put into this work. I stick to using I so that he bears no blame for the errors in the way our ideas are expressed on these pages!


In all that you might read in the following pages that, while complex offers great opportunities, we both look at the issues from the perspective of how it may disruptive our plans. We are asking how complexity may create risk and be the source of the next crisis. This concern fundamentally shapes and biases all our thinking an approach we call “constructive pessimism”; pessimism because we are always thinking about the unwanted occurrence that may happen and constructive because this, in our view, gives us a better chance of preventing or, at least, mitigating it.


What is the point of this Research?


In brief, what I am researching is exploring a new way of looking at issues in order to promote foresight. To me the essence of foresight is being able to prevent failures or crisis and, if we cannot prevent them, then ensuring that we are prepared as well as we can be to manage them. In this context I see foresight being delivered by what Wieck and Sutcliffe call Mindfulness. In more straight forward language this is about being aware what is actually happening to us and around us from moment to moment. I have already written about why we might not see the world as it actually is, now I am looking at way of helping us see the reality of what we face. The key underlying assumption of this work is that the better we understand the world the more likely it is that we can predict how event will develop; in the mean time the best we can do is muddle through on imperfect information using imperfect systems.


However, foresight requires more than just being in the moment. It also requires the practitioner to grapple with the issue of emergence.  Emergence concerns where a seemingly stable system throws out an unusual result. Emergence concerns situations where changes, even very small and apparently insignificant changes, can produce significantly different results. Now we are in the realm of needing to understand the techniques of Tetlock and Gardners’s super-forecasters (who can achieve up to 60% accuracy) and the hacker mindset as described by Tim Summers. Summer describe how "Skilled hackers perform at the edge of the unknown within poorly defined domains (where they have to) leverage knowledge, creativity, curiosity, expertise, and interpretive schemes.” Summers describes how hackers face problems  that are “poorly defined, ever-changing domains are many peculiar questions and issues that lack clarity and specification"; I would suggest that this is also a good description of the normal every day working environment of a business executive! For these executives the question must be one that is concerned with how well they leverage their knowledge, creativity, curiosity, expertise, and interpretive schemes.


So, I see the idea of normal chaos as a way to enhance foresight as it is a construct that is aligned with mindfulness, superforcasting and the “hacker’s mindset”. The work we are currently doing is designed to test this proposition.


Developing Thoughts


This research builds on my previous work that focused on whether it is realistic to assume that all failures of foresight can be avoided.  This has led me to the conclusion that this ambitious goal is unrealistic. This belief comes from the fact that the world we live in is so complex that unexpected outcomes appear from apparently normal interactions, that many of our actions have unintended consequences and factors that we might assume to be stable and consistent are not, they fluctuate  - and only if we are lucky - within set parameters. Given these factors, patterns of activities that we perceive may be illusory and where, in many cases, we cannot even perceive there being a pattern, might therefore justify our seeing the world around us as being chaotic. Here the term chaotic is as used in chaos theory (undetermined patterns) rather than in the common usage sense of "complete disorder and confusion". I described my rational for believing in Normal Chaos paradigm separating (See Normal Chaos)


Within the context of Normal Chaos, while we may still be able to create within the chaos small oases of order, these can vanish in a moment; hence this is why even high reliability organisations can suffer failures. As humans we find it difficult to cope with the uncertainty this chaos brings and so, in order to create "understanding", we create patterns where there may be none. These coping mechanisms range from blame and denial to religion. These mechanisms can be seen at work in the way inquiries by the judiciary or the press often reduce complex problems down to placing blame on those nearest to events; this habit is like blaming the driver of the last truck over a bridge before its collapse. (If you are interested in the detail you can read more about this phenomenon within the literature dedicated to illusions of control.) As I examine management systems I see that many management tools embrace these same delusions of control and stability. This has led me to examine the implications for management if we accept normal chaos as our working paradigm.


The idea at the heart of my current work is to examine how in our working lives our current management mechanism and tools enable or impede us from coping with the world we face.


My starting point will be to contrast the ideas of the perfect world paradigm and normal chaos. I first introduced these terms in my second book (still with my publisher). I have since expanded my thinking on both of these paradigms. As I will be using this research to develop these ideas further, I will not expand on them here; these ideas are not yet stable enough to present in a structured form. They will however be a key feature of all future discussions.  


In general terms then, rather than using perfect world paradigm, I have championed the use of the paradigm of normal chaos. Here the key idea is that the patterns of life that surround us all are too complex for the human mind to grasp; we therefore need to simplify the world we see in order to make sense of it which leaves us open to missing vital details that can have significant effect upon us… So how do we cope in reality?  




The context for this research is set out on a separate page: see Context


Previous Research Structure


My initial research structure was based on three strands.

  • Strand One looked to developed a case study based on Operation NEPTUNE (the landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944 that were part of Operation OVERLORD). The purpose of this strand is to look at the events of that day from another perspective in an attempt to shed light on how we actually cope with the chaos that surrounds us.

  • Strand Two and Strand Three had planned to examine this issue from the micro (individual) and the macro (organisational) levels. As discussions have developed this structure became difficult to sustain; the individual and organisational level are too intertwined to separate out.


Current Research Structure


The Structure of my research remains the same.

  • Strand One offered my starting point; it was from reading about Operation Overlord that my ideas start to form. My examination of the literature continues. There are still two main points of contention. The first is whether the Normandy operation was complicated or complex. A number of authors suggest it was merely complicated: I feel that this view demonstrates considerable hindsight bias. The second is that historian, as well as the legal system (see my first book), are infected by the perfect world paradigm. (See Strand One for details that have not changed.) At present this work is my second priority but I will return to it in due course.

  • Strand Two now looks at how we may cope with chaos. We accept that plans and rule-sets are overwhelmed by the natural fluctuations of the operating environment. The work will now look at whether we are able to estimate when plans or rule-sets may fail and then it looks at how we might provide guidance as the what on the spot amendments may be acceptable. (See Strand Two for details.) This work is taking the lead.




In the last year four papers (two journal articles and two books chapters) have been produced that describe various aspects of the idea.


  • The first was an article for the Journal of Contingency and Crisis Management titled "Normal chaos: a new research paradigm for understanding practice". It was published on line in October and is due out in print in January 2018. This paper place the concept of Normal Chaos in the contingency and crisis forum.

  • A second article titled "Normal chaos: Application of complexity and chaos to everyday practice" has been accepted by the same journal and expected to be in print by mid-2018. This paper shows how the ideas from Chaos Theory. For the outcome of this paper see Strand Two.

  • The first book chapter is for a book edited by Professor Darren Dalcher of Hertfordshire Business School on the subject of project management. This book was published in December 2017.

  • The second book chapter is for a book edited by Dr Laszlo Torjai of Cranfield Business School on the subject of leadership. This book is also due to be published in 2018.


Supporting The Research


I am now looking for organisations who would like to either just talk about these ideas or would like to take part as a case study. I see a number of possibilities for others joining in the conversation.


1. General discussion about what I say on these pages of my website. I would welcome any comment on these issues be they from either an academic or from a practitioner perspective. The issues covered might be such things as my interpretation of theory, its practical significance or the viability of the methodologies that I have suggested.

2. Theoretical discussion against a specific scenario; this would be a desk study. Here I am looking to test the methodologies. To do this I am looking for people who already have detailed data on a particular scenario that they are happy to discuss. I would look to use their knowledge of their data to examine the methodology and to see whether it provides new insight into the issue they raised.

3. Sponsor field work as a case study within Strand 2. Here I am looking to validate the practical utility of this whole package of work. I am looking for organisations who feel that this approach may help them gain a richer understanding of a particular practical issue. Here I would look to work with the organisation to collect and analyse the necessary new data. I would benefit from this work by seeing whether this approach works. The organisation should benefit from this relationship by gaining new insight as to the true elasticity of the their organisation and to be able to see more clearly where it may fail when stressed.


To really test the ideas, I am looking for a wide range of organisations to act as my test-bed: all are welcome.


Alto42 main banner
Risk Governance Management Specialists