HR in chaos

Agi Kertynska suggests that chaos theory may be a good way of understanding how to manage change effectively.
The last few weeks seemed to be particularly unsettling in the world outside. I found myself wondering how to react and speak about matters which were emotionally charged. I went back to history to see how academics and thinkers reacted to political and social upheavals in the past. It got me to research the life of Erasmus of Rotterdam and his attitude to Reformation.
On the one hand it was the time of enlightenment. On the other hand it was a dramatic moment of emergence of a new doctrine which resulted in bloody conflicts. In a way it reminded me of our current times. Erasmus had a great regard for reformation and Lutheran revolution but refused to commit to the movement. He wanted to stay independent and lead the effort for pure scholarship, and through this influence the reform of a religion. It was a hard place to be. One can feel quite lonely there. This is the place where HR professionals sometimes find themselves; navigating the complexity of organisations and being the bridge between two strong powers: the frontline staff and senior leaders.
At the moment I’m also choosing the ‘Erasmus’ approach of being an observer and trying to reflect the system on to itself, largely because I’m a relative beginner in the world of OD. While doing it I’m getting comfort from exploring such concepts as chaos theory, which is closely related to systems theory – one of the essential foundations of OD. How elements of a system interact is unpredictable. They combine without direction in various configurations which means the system is never the same.  The only constant is boundaries, within which the capacity for infinite possibilities exists. The need to know answers is replaced with acceptance that unpredictability requires from us patience, humility and often risk taking.
The chaos theory has a few applications in how organisations can operate. Management can use it when they want to understand what patterns lead to different kinds of organisational behaviour. This requires taking a step away from day-to-day duties and looking at the organisation from a distance. Companies can become more effective also by allowing staff some autonomy to organise themselves in different configurations to identify the best ways of working. This potentially is a particularly appropriate when fast-paced innovation and responsiveness to change is needed (Peters, 1987).
In other words, if you accept and adapt to the laws of chaos you are more likely to manage change effectively.  According to Wheatley (2001) this often goes against the management practices which aim for control by creating organisation’s charts, job descriptions and strategic plans. The challenge is how to reconcile the two competing tendencies. The chaos theory approach suggests that the firm boundaries which need to remain are the organisation’s vision and culture. What’s needed is effective leadership, strong values and open communication.
I suppose the question is where the boundaries are in our more and more integrated care organisations. How can we identify them? How can we help leaders to be open to self-organisation? And how far can we go?
Agi Kertynska, Organisational Development Practitioner, Camden and Islington NHS Foundation
Peters, Tom (1987). Thriving on Chaos. New York: HarperCollins.
Wheatley, Margaret J. (2001). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World Revised. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


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