Managing Chaos: Use It to Your Advantage

By Stilwell, Jason | Public Management, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Managing Chaos: Use It to Your Advantage

Stilwell, Jason, Public Management

Use It Your Advantage

When you walk into the council chambers to prepare for the evening's open council meeting, you notice a group in the audience whom you do not recognize and whose members seem uninterested in the meeting for its own sake. Clearly, they are not there to improve their understanding of their community's government. The thought crosses your mind that this council meeting may not be as smooth as the agenda had led you to believe.

During the period for public comment, you realize that this group has a hot issue; until then, you had thought it was a minor one, already being addressed. The council agrees with the group that staff should immediately attend to the issue. At once, the course of the meeting, and your week, have changed.

What brought about this change? How could it have been planned for? Often, the events that lead to a change are unpredictable. As we know, our environments are always somewhat chaotic. Today's world of increasing service demands, decreasing budgets, and a faster pace has greatly contributed to this chaos. Managers face the challenge of having to estimate and forecast a multitude of variables before every decision. The manager is well aware of having to navigate in a chaotic environment. Chaos theory seeks to explain such an environment better.

Chaos and Management

Chaos theory was developed in the scientific world and has only recently been applied to management. A study of it can lead to a manager's appreciation of chaos and of times of uncertainty and stress in management.

Chaos theory is based on the notion that seemingly insignificant and unrelated events can affect actions. According to the theory, the events in the world are so complex and dynamic as to seem disordered, but in fact there is an underlying order to the chaos. Granted, this underlying order is difficult, if not impossible, to predict because of the myriad factors involved. But chaos theory discerns patterns of order in seemingly chaotic behaviors.

One example that is used to explain the workings of the theory is the "butterfly effect." A butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the globe potentially can alter weather patterns on the other side of the globe as the weather system twists and churns over time. The point of the butterfly effect, a metaphor that is a cornerstone of chaos theory, is that a small and seemingly unrelated action can alter and magnify patterns of change so as to cause great future upheaval.

This theory holds appeal for management. The manager knows that any of a variety of small events can greatly affect a manager's day. Two useful examples relate to the budget process and to council meetings.

Levels of Chaos

The budget process is chaotic in its very nature. Pieces of the budget flow to the budget analyst from all parts of the organization. Each part appears discrete and ordered, yet the pieces do not fit together and may seem incongruent in many respects - completely chaotic, in short. Not until the analyst begins to work with each part, trying to recognize a pattern, do the parts begin to come together. Eventually, a budget arises out of the many parts.

There are multiple levels of chaos. Organizations, no matter what their size, type, or mission, are filled with chaos. As described above, there can be discord among groups - staff, council, and public. There also is disagreement and confusion within each of these groups.

Council meeting agendas, therefore, are examples of chaotic events, though they demonstrate the underlying order expounded by chaos theory. When there is no set limit to agenda items, the number of items on the agenda can vary freely with each meeting.

The accompanying graph demonstrates the essential chaos of council meetings. It shows that the actual number of agenda items can vary randomly from meeting to meeting. For example, there is only one item on the agenda for the first meeting, three items scheduled for the second, five on the following, and so forth. …

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