Searching for Chaos in the Chaordic Design Process

“Chaordic” is a term coined by Dee Hock to refer to the state of optimal equilibrium between chaos and order. Too much disorder (lack of rules, policies, procedures, etc.), and employees don’t know what they are supposed to do or how they are supposed to go about doing it. Too much structure, on the other hand, produces a rigidity that stifles creativity and initiative. Both are demoralizing for employees. Both squander talent and opportunity.

Hock recommends a “chaordic design” process that will establish this equilibrium and that will result in fostering a dynamic and thriving organizational ecosystem. That process goes like this:

  1. Everyone getting crystal clear about the purposes of the organization
  2. Establishing principles that will support those purposes, and which provide a framework for decision-making
  3. Identifying the participants/stakeholders who should be considered as a result of those purposes and principles.
  4. Determining and establishing the organizational concept [or structure and functions] that will best deliver on the purposes and principles.
  5. Establishing a constitution that embodies all of the above and which details everyone’s rights and duties and the nature of the relationship between participants.
  6. Develop the suite of practices to achieve the purposes of the organization.

Because everyone is participating in these exercises, and because they occur over long and/or intense stretches of time, Hock believes that they will produce a sense of internal coherence and trust that will produce the right environment for both cooperation and competition, for following the rules and exercising creativity and initiative.

In this blog I argue that the chaordic design process is really just a recommendation for an optimal ordering process. It does not contain any mechanism to sustain the tension between order and disorder over time, nor is there any test to know when that equilibrium has been lost, nor is there any corrective process for re-establishing that lost equilibrium.

  1. Both the purpose and principles are processes that bind employees into a unified and coherent direction. The principles are the criteria against which decisions are framed and action is judged. But principles are curious things. When they are highly entrenched it is less about coherence and more about conformance. And it is a more insidious kind of conformance than conformance to practice. Breaches to principles or values are far more serious because it is a threat against the purposes and collective meaning of the tribe. They are characterized less as performance errors and more as ethical shortcomings. They invite judgment and censure. Employees who question principles or who don’t observe them can become ostracized, stripped of career advancement opportunities, and/or terminated. This only drives deeper cultural conformance. It does not supply a space for plurality or eclecticism, and it does not legitimate the existence of constructive tensions.

When principles are mostly dormant and are not enforced, it may be because the organization recognizes complexity. Of the hundreds of principles and values that may be called upon to support “purpose,” it is unrealistic to think only a handful are sufficient, or that the decisions being made across the organization are not informed by myriad principles and values. The insistence of conformance to a handful of principles is also dangerous because it can legitimize a particular ideology or the appropriateness of ideological entrenchment.

In establishing a binding sense of purposes/principles, chaordic design provides for potent coherency and order, but it does not create conditions to nurture their opposites. Should there be a principle around questioning principles? Around drawing from other values or principles when the purpose calls for it? Or, when there are higher purposes that are greater than an organization’s purpose? Are the principles something to inform thinking or are they absolute? Should there be routines to regularly challenge/question them? Are there additional principles that should be swapped in or trialed? How do we know when the purpose or principles have become too dogmatic and restrictive? What do we do then? It can’t be simply about establishing a new set of principles or we are just making an adjustment to the ordering process.

  1. The constitution, organizational concepts and practices help to order operational processes in order to deliver on the purpose. They are about adding “the right kinds” of structure—policies, processes, functions, etc., that will serve the purpose pronounced by the collective. None of these processes introduce any inherently destabilizing mechanisms or functions; they are all about consolidation. In time, as it goes with organizations, there will be accretions of structure—more policies, more procedures, more roles, more codification of how the parts relate, more practice definition, etc.

The natural predilection of systems is towards order. Policies get written and amended, they don’t get unwritten. We add to our processes and procedures, we don’t eliminate them. We introduce more and more training regimens, communication protocols, and labour rules. Getting better is about getting clearer; it’s about consistent practice. It’s about saying more, not keeping quiet. Whatever the stated purpose and principles of organizations, the systems that underpin them have tacit values around predictability, consistency and control, and this is what they are driven to achieve. How else can the purpose be consistently and excellently achieved?

There is nothing intrinsic to Chaordic Design that answers this tendency. It speaks more to what sort of ordering process will give an organization a great start, but it fails to recognize the forces and currents that drive increasing order in systems, and it does not recommend measures to countervail them.

I like to use the analogy of an empty room to signify a start-up organization or project. The tendency is to fill it with functioning furniture (mission, purpose, values/principles, roles, policies, procedures, practices, etc.). Once you begin, three things happen: (1) the furniture has a rebound effect on setting the possibilities and culture of the space, (2) the furniture determines what other furniture is needed/missing—logical concomitants that reinforce the shape the organization or program will take, (3) the furniture keeps coming until the room gets too cluttered to move. I suspect this trend is unavoidable, but chaordic design does not slow the trend of cluttering the room, it doesn’t introduce random furniture that can provide creative tensions, it doesn’t recommend culling of the clutter that accumulates, and it doesn’t throw a switch that tells us the room is a disgrace and it’s time to start over in a new one.

It is interesting that to be human is to experience oneself as a contradiction. These contradictions lie at the heart of religions and the humanities. We are free and not free, divine and fallen, body and soul, animal and moral beings, etc. We have conflicting needs, desires and beliefs. The lack of a sense of a coherent self results in anxiety. How shall we act under such circumstances? Yet while these tensions are features of being human, we do not tolerate them in our human systems. They are emphatically resolved or ignored. This is probably why we see pendulum shifts in organizations, sectors and industries—because we cannot occupy the space in between. The trick, the greatest trick of all, will be legitimating angst in organizations. It will be about:

  • learning to erect enough structure, but not too much
  • providing the necessary clarity, but leaving behind the necessary ambiguity
  • everyone being a little unhappy and uncomfortable, but understanding why
  • managing through a combination of standards and curious conversations
  • having guides to one’s job but not instruction manuals
  • preserving the balance between techne and experiment.

Unfortunately, while “chaord” is a useful metaphor with which to think about organizational dynamics, and while it recognizes the need to sustain the tension between order and disorder, “chaordic design” does not supply that equilibrium. It doesn’t confront the ordering forces at work within human organizations and it doesn’t know how to guard against them. While ad hoc solutions may be proffered by some of the more thoughtful practitioners, they are not integral to the process.

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