Are You Able To Embrace Chaos?
Interview with Peggy Holman
Does your team feel exhausted from trying to keep up with the pace of change in your workplace? Just when you’re settling down from the last change, another innovation — whether it be a new technology, a new structure, or a new market opportunity — that challenges the status quo seems to disrupt everything and demand more changes. So should you be putting your energies into creating islands of certainty and control, or stand back and let the chaos unfold?
“When you are transforming a system for innovation, you have to step into the unknown,” explained Peggy Holman, author of the award-winning book, Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity, when I interviewed her recently. “So while you can’t eliminate the unpredictable, you can work with it more effectively if you know something about its patterns and what to expect.”
Unfortunately, our often-Newtonian view of the world generally prioritizes reason and the search for cause and effect at all costs. When you view the world and the systems within it as machines in which every piece knows its place, where individual components can be figured out and controlled, and where numbers hold the answer to all questions, your tendency is to try and eliminate uncertainty so that everything can run like clockwork.
In reality, however, our world, our organizations and the people within them are much more complex. Rather than being closed machines that are at risk of breaking or wearing down, workplaces are adaptive living systems that are wired to enable the continuous exchange of energy between networks of relationships that when left to self-organize enable our systems to grow and become more resilient over time.
Let’s be honest though, these disruptions often feel far more uncomfortable — as things fall apart or die away — than positive. However, Peggy suggests that rather than trying to control or ignore these catalysts for change, by directing your energy into understanding what’s happening and engaging with it, you are more likely to emerge on the other side stronger than before.
“When you recognize disruption as a doorway to possibility,” said Peggy, “You can enter through that door with compassion and curiosity so when things begin to fall apart you can be open to the opportunity and experimentation this offers.”
So how can you help create positive disruptions?
Peggy has found that the most effective strategy is to engage others in conversations that allow them to interact creatively around complex important issues that generate new ideas and connections, and inspire a collective commitment to act on emerging shared aspirations.
Peggy shared three ways for creating ‘a container’ for working through disruption with compassion and curiosity:
- Focus on possibilities — by asking generative questions that point you in the direction of what you want for the future. A useful general question can be: “Given all that has happened, what is possible now?” This style of appreciative question can help you bridge the gap between chaos and creativity. They can generate positive actions by helping you envision your dreams and aspirations. Such positive images generate positive actions.
- Invite others in — consider who the players are in your system that may have something to contribute. While it can be easy to sometimes blame ‘others’ for disruption, if you want innovation you may need to invite those who you perceive are the source. Tensions can surface creatively when you bring together those who care to explore positive possibilities. A helpful frame for considering who’s part of your organization’s system is the Future Search acronym AREIN — that is people with Authority, Resources, Expertise, Information, and Need.
- Welcome who and what shows up — once you’ve set the context of entering into disruption through focusing on generative questions and inviting the diversity of the system, encourage people to express their own authentic truth about what really matters and connects them with others. Welcome the disturbance of diverse perspectives. What you may find is that what is most deeply personal can also be universal. Creating images of yourself as part of a larger system, so you cease to think just as ‘I’ and begin to also think in terms of ‘we’, can be a turning point for new ideas to emerge. There are many different ways you can generate this, such as Open Space Technology to help you connect, create, innovate and inspire. Open Space works best when the work to be done is complex, the people and ideas involved are diverse, the passion for resolution (and potential for conflict) are high, and the time to get it done was yesterday.
What can you do to step up and take responsibility for what you love in your organization?