[Last amended: 16 Jun 16]


How do we Cope when Chaos is the Norm?


Basic Assumption


Basic assumptions at this point are:


that those engaged in this research already accept that Normal Chaos rather than the Perfect World is the accepted paradigm.

the purpose of the plans or rule-set is clear and agreed by those involved.


[What constitutes purpose may be more complex than we originally imagine. Dee Hock (the doyenne of chaordic organisations) has stated that "a purpose is not an objective, it's not a mission statement—a purpose is an unambiguous expression of that which people jointly wish to become." Initially we will therefore take an organisation's purpose as a given but as we review the principles we need to stay alert to the need to amend the given purpose.]




The world that confronts us is ever changing; to use a truism that has become a cliché, "the only certainty is uncertainty". Our ability to forecast the future has proved wholly inadequate and yet, the methods we use to run our lives and our organisation are based on creating certainty. This tactic manifests itself in the plans and rule sets that we use in an effort to control the world around us. Experience shows that such an approach is flawed.


Plans often fail to deliver the desired result and rules fail to provide a fool-proof way of avoiding the crisis or disaster. There is a general rule that the more senior the manager, the more time he or she spends resolving conflicts that arise due to the complex interaction taking place within their organisation. In these cases, the manager is forced to makes choices that constitute the least-worst rather than the best option.


My study of organisational failures of foresight has highlighted the almost universal issue that the world the organisation has designed itself to face is not the world that confronts it; what actually occurs exceeds the range of variation envisaged. To put this another way, instability of the operating environment (from strategic downwards) makes the durability of every assumption questionable. The issue therefore becomes the match between:


  • Stability assumed within a rule set (or plan).

  • Stability of the environment faced.


From a practical perspective the issue becomes the ability of any plan or rule-set to cope with environmental variations. This becomes critical to achieving the desired outcome. (This facility is labelled "operational flexibility") that results in organisational elasticity: see "Elasticity" for additional comment).  Given this consideration, the issue becomes one of identifying the point at which the effort of planning contingency options no longer offers reward sufficient to warrant the continuing planning effort. (For convenience this will be referred to as the point of diminishing returns.) At this point management needs to consider switching from one of planning the future to one of managing the emerging issues. This way of providing operational flexibility to management of emergent issues has been labelled "bricolage".


Bricolage (facility to provide "operational flexibility") can be divided into categories. While accepting that there is a large academic and practical literature that debates this subject at length, for the purpose of this debate I will use the categories of Robustness, Resilience or Agility as short-hand for three levels of operational flexibility:


  • Robustness covers the range of variations within the operational environment with which the plan or rule sets, as written, are designed to cope.

  • Resilience covers the full range of the variations in the operational environment with which the plan or rule sets, and contingency arrangement, are able to cope.

  • Agility covers the ability of the organisation to cope with unforeseen issues either with their existing capabilities or by providing new capabilities. Agility is likely to require established ways of operating to be circumvented as they no longer work.

The practical issue this raises is about how to and where to draw the line between our efforts to plan the future and our need to prepare to cope with events as they emerge. Within this paradigm planning and bricolage become a managing continuum rather than two competing philosophies. Within this paradigm we resist the Cyrene call of planning as offering an efficient use of resources as they are targeted at specific actions and accept the downside of bricolage that necessarily sets aside resources and capabilities in case they are required.


Research Purpose


The adoption of this management paradigm means that an organisation needs to manage while considering the environmental instability. This is done by the planned escalation of the bricolage. This raises two practical issues:


  • First, is planning the general escalation of the bricolage techniques from robustness through to agility. As the use of two parallel approaches (planning and bricolage) is seen as being far from the efficient ideal, the issue becomes deciding on a crossover point between the two parallel processes. This is no easy task.  A way needs to be sought to resolve this conundrum. (This is cover in more detail in Strand 1 Part 1.) 

  • Second, once we realise that we need to modify the plan or rule-set then we will need to have guidelines to ensure that any modification  remains consistent with their original spirit and purpose. In practice we will need to provide some guidance as to which modifications are acceptable and which are not, so that the  plans or rule-sets will be inadequate to cope with an ever evolving operating environment. (This is cover in more detail in Strand 1 Part 2.)


It is the purpose of my current research to find practical solutions to these issues. I have divided my work into two parts. The debate continues and my purpose here is to provide those involved with a summary of my current position within each part.

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