Coping with Chaos:
Seven Simple Tools

Glenda H. Eoyang (Lagurno, 1997)

Complexity science and its application to managing human organizations are presented in this book as consisting of seven domains: butterfly effects, boundaries, transforming feedback loops, fractals, attractors, self-organization, and coupling. For each of these domains, there is an explanation of the phenomena, description of analogies between the phenomena and business, and suggested ways for a manager to improve business performance based on the per-spective of that domain. Usually, at least one case study is presented to demonstrate how a particular domain plays out in a business setting.

Beginning with “butterfly” effects, activities in business areas such as innovation, rumors, personal relationships, and physical work conditions are described as being sensitive to initial conditions. Suggestions are made for recognizing butterfly effects in a business setting and taking action as a manager for supporting positive butterfly effects and avoiding negative ones. These suggestions, while certainly useful, are primarily in the area of human communication and do not require an understanding of complexity science to support their understanding or implementation.

A variety of boundaries are said to exist in human organizations and the differences across boundaries drive change. It is not clear how objects such as hierarchical organization charts are impermeable boundaries in an analogous sense to examples from complexity science. Perhaps, the concept of a boundary is intended to give people a device for speaking about their differences. If so, the proposed eight-step process for improving business performance is a useful addition to other methods such as root-cause diagrams.

Transforming feedback loops are described as a form of communication that passes across the boundary between any two parts of a complex system and where those parts are capable of being mutually influenced. While feedback is classified correctly in the positive (reinforcing) and negative cases (limiting), the concept of goal-directed behavior in feedback systems would have been a valuable addition to the discussion. It seems that systems feedback is confused with the negative and positive emotional responses experienced by people during interpersonal communication.

The best chapter of the book makes a case for perceiving organizations as fractals and using that analogy to provide insight into performance. It is suggested that similar to using a nonlinear equation to generate a fractal, leaders can create an organization based on a basic principle such as customer focus. This analogy is demonstrated in some detail by using the author’s own business organization, which is founded on the basic principle of learning and teaching. It is proposed that all organizations are fractal as if it were obvious. This is difficult to accept without further explanation and, at the least, saying that organizations are fractal is confusing the explanatory principle with what is being explained.

Organizational analogues of point, periodic, and strange attractors are described. Assuming that a company is exhibiting unwanted behavior as represented by a particular attractor, the question arises as to how to change the company to exhibit desirable behavior as evidenced by a different attractor. The suggested approach is changing the seed of the attractor and introducing random shocks to the system. Guidelines are provided for identifying, using, and influencing each type of attractor. Whether the recommendations for influencing behavior in organizations are based on field experience remains unknown.

Self-organization is defined as people spontaneously responding to their environment and generating new structures for adaptation. This self-organization depends on system differentiation and transforming feedback loops. In a business context, differentiation is perceived differences between groups of people such as employees and customers. Similarly, active feedback consists in constructive conversations between workgroups. In particular, self-organization occurs when there is high differentiation and active feedback. The author provides tips for managing self-organization in both the differentiation and transforming feedback areas. Self-organization is demonstrated by a story about a multinational group of scientists and civil service bureaucrats developing a worldwide network of technology policy makers to address concerns about technology deployment in developing nations. For this case study, differentiation and transforming feedback loops could have been better defined for the reader’s understanding.

Three types of coupling are defined for complex systems: tight, loose, and uncoupled. The benefits and risks to organizations of these types of couples are explored. Either constructive or destructive adaptation can be exhibited by coupled systems. However, no criteria are provided for distinguishing between constructive and destructive adaptation. Experimenting with specific actions for producing tight, loose, or uncoupled systems is suggested. The assertion is made that if uncoupling exists between departments then uncoupling will be evident throughout the organization. The chapter closes with a business case that uses the coupling categorization to explain a major change project for a financial services company. It would have been useful to describe how using the concepts of boundary conditions and coupling would have resulted in a more effective and efficient process for this company.

In the Epilogue, “Chaos at Work,” a story is presented about Apple Computer’s purchase of an automated assembly line for manufacturing personal computers. The story is interpreted using the seven explanatory principles presented in the book. It traces the interaction of two groups of people, Apple and its Japanese vendor, and the successful delivery and operations of the assembly line. As the reader is taken through the story, people and their interactions with each other and their environment are described as butterflies, boundaries, transforming feedback loops, fractals, attractors, self-organization, and coupling. It is unclear whether the people on the Apple team were actually using complexity science concepts and terminology, such as self-similarity, or whether complexity science is being used to explain what happened after the fact.

This book makes a valiant attempt to describe behavior in human organizations in terms of complexity science. Unfortunately, poor writing and a lack of visual aids makes this book a difficult read. While the intention of the book is to introduce simple tools for improving productivity in organization, the recommendations proposed are in no way simple to implement. Coping with Chaos is, at best, an introductory explanation of organizational performance through the lens of complexity science.