Bringing Chaos to Order: A Philosophy for Innovation

“Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.” -Henry Adams

Leaders are in a place of transition, not just in global power dynamics, but in technology as well. In this dangerous liminal space , leaders are looking for clarity and firm ground. Jeff DeGraff points out, we have absolutely zero data on the future. Leaders simply cannot have data on something that has not taken place yet. Of course leaders can anticipate, future cast, and sense-make, but in all honestly these are a guess, albeit an educated hypothesis, but best guesses nonetheless. This creates tension in a hard structure built on order as order provides certainty , because not knowing what is to come creates a threat to order resulting in – chaos. Yin and Yang come to mind time and time again. Yang represents order and the military thrives on order, but war is Yin and chaos. Innovation and creativity is Yin in the Yang world and this chaos is what the military needs to be persuaded to embrace.

Order and chaos are fundamental elements of any lived experience, in fact they are two of the most basic subdivisions of Being itself. According to Jordan Peterson, order is “the known.” Order is the eternal judge, ledger keeper, the dispenser of rewards and punishment. Order is the peacetime military, it is the political structure of institutions and governance , the corporate environment, the hierarchy, the system, the hard structure. Of course, order is not always positive—when pushed too far and imbalanced, order can manifest in destructive ways as seen in autocracy

Peterson goes on to point out chaos is the unknown and all new things are born of the unknown.  Chaos is required for creativity and innovation.  Chaos is possibility, the source of ideas, the mysterious realm where things gestate and are born. Chaos can also be dark, chaos is war, uncertainty and for many, it is something to be avoided at all costs.  The bureaucracy, the system, the hard structure shuns chaos and does not promote it.  Hence it should not be surprising the military, despite senior leaders calling for innovation with such phrases as “accelerate change or lose” does not appear to embrace the positive chaos of creativity and innovation.

Yin and Yang are fundamental elements of being and need to be in balance.  Chaos and order, as understood by the 3rd century BCE philosopher Zou Yan, are complementary forces and the Taoist path of The Middle Way, is where the leader, the innovator exists, right on the border between the two serpents.  The Middle Way is the path of proper Being.  Leaders and innovators must understand, they inhabit order but are surrounded by chaos.  Confident leaders innovate in the chaos, while at the same time, lead from a sense of order.  Leaders know that nothing new is born from order. Straddling this fundamental duality is the ultimate in balance.  Innovators by design strives in assisting leaders to have one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth, and adventure.  

Stability, security, and unchanging predicability is what bureaucracies strive for, yet today there are vital, new, and important things to learn and examine and this rips at the fabric of hard structures.  Or course this is understandable as too much chaos can overwhelm individuals ability to cope while learning what needs to be learned.  This is witnessed in any student pilot. There are so many new things to learn in a totally new environment, the student is easily overwhelmed.  Thus leaders must balance mastery of what makes for order and support creativity and innovation to lead to that which is not yet mastered.  Existing between chaos and order is where creative power lies because we do not yet fully understand the nature of chaos and its possibilities and this point is indeed where new meaning and possibilities are found. 

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