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Risk Governance Management Specialists

RESEARCH - Normal Chaos

[page last amended: 12 Oct 20]




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?  




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


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