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Monday, August 31, 2009

Principle 1: Organic Order: The Problem of Chaotic Order

Dear Reader,

Chaos is not what most people think it is.

To begin with, I'm not using the mathematical term, which sweeps up areas of mathematics outside the traditional disciplines to show there's mathematical order beyond that we usually consider. Although an interesting subject, it's only metaphorically related to true organizational chaos. I'm using the other meaning for chaos: the results of a complete lack of planning, the outcome feared by planners and managers everywhere.

With that in mind, I must next emphasize that chaos isn't the absence of patterns. On the contrary, even fully random processes produce emergent patterns. That kind of patternless chaos people imagine actually takes quite a bit of planning and control to pull off. True chaos always generates two kinds of patterns: accidental and intrinsic.

First, even the chaotic results of random processes produce both statistical ones (like bell curves) and specific ones (like the constellations among the stars) as a normal and expected result of the lack of planning. These macro- and micro-patterns can be used as the seeds for future organization.

Second, when living things are involved (intelligent or otherwise), their needs drive them to produce nonrandom patterns of behavior and organization so they can live and thrive. Firstly, the forces within living things aren't random but instead will lead them to organize their lives in ways that meet their needs - like returning to rivers to drink (or to hunt the drinkers) on a regular schedule. Secondly, living things inhabit ecosystems whose powers and forces reward and punish their behavior, leading living things to adapt in common ways to common forces. For example, even such different life forms as fish, reptiles, and mammals will gradually evolve into the same shapes if they occupy the same ecological niches because the same forces will work upon them over their generations. This is why the tuna, the ichthyosaur, and the dolphin end up closely resembling each other despite very different origins - they converge on the only viable solution to the pressures they're under.

Advocates of imposed order usually underestimate the value of these forms of chaotic order. A great deal of useful order can be achieved without imposition, simply because of people's intrinsic need for order. For example, despite all the screaming and panicking shown in disaster movies, which help to train into us a terror of chaos and of other people (and an artificial craving for imposed leadership that is well understood by juntas when they execute their coups d'etat), during and after disasters people frequently organize themselves to help out family, friends, and neighbors, without any leadership at all - not always, but more often than fearmongers would have us believe.

Advocates of chaotic order, such as anarchists, point to this kind of natural collaboration and contrast it with the inevitable evils of totalitarian order to argue their position that any form of central organization is both unnecessary and unwanted. Anyone who's bothered to study Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, or who's thought long and hard about how readily republics loose their democratic bonds to become fascist empires, or who's observed how the disturbing trend toward decreasing personal freedom and privacy changes our culture more and more toward the dystopia of Orwell's novel 1984, has to give this position more than a moment's consideration. There are serious points raised by advocates of chaotic order, and we must do justice to those issues or suffer the consequences of those who fail to learn from history.

Nevertheless, I'm not persuaded, and you shouldn't be either.

There are two excellent reasons why chaotic order is not sufficient.

1) The order produced in chaotic systems is generally offset by the disorder also produced by chaotic systems. Without central coordination, some enclaves will self-organize into more or less peaceful communities, true, but others will devolve into internicine feuds (Internet flame-wars, anyone?), and still others will become predatory. Just as I'll not grant advocates of totalitarian order their insistence on the absence of order within chaos, so I'll also not grant the advocates of chaotic order the absence of destructive consequences.

2) Chaotic order is almost always local, almost never universal. That's enough to solve certain categories of problems but not others, not problems beyond a certain scale. As a VISTA theorist, I am particularly bothered by this reason, because the complete VISTA lifecycle requires that (a) a great number of specialists be given the time and focus needed to master their chosen parts of VISTA, (b) a large number of autonomous teams follow a common culture to ensure that what they produce is compatible, that it creates a living whole, and (c) people not only act with good intentions but also actually do the right thing, since lives and privacy are at stake. These things require more than local or temporary order. These requirements unfortunately fall into chaotic order's demonstrated weaknesses, making it a poor choice of approaches for developing VISTA.

But beyond two there is an even better third reason to reject it for VISTA: it is predicated on a false dilemma, namely that one must choose between totalitarian order and chaos, or some compromise between them. As Alexander argues and I'll explore in this weblog, natural order represents a superior alternative to either of these dysfunctional approaches.

That is, since we already have a model for a system of organic order for managing VISTA development, we don't need to pay the price of chaotic order's weaknesses in order to gain its benefits.

Nevertheless, we're going to return repeatedly to the subject of chaotic order, because in management terms (and now for the punchline) chaos is just a pejorative term for freedom, reflecting a deep unacknowledged terror in all of us. Until we examine our ambivalent relationship to freedom, any cost-benefit analysis of chaotic order is at best highly suspect.

Yours truly,

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