Organisational Values as “Attractors of Chaos”

An Emerging Cultural Change to Manage Organisational Complexity

Authors Shimon L. Dolan, Salvador Garcia, Samantha Diegoli & Alan Auerbach

Business organisations are excellent representations of what in physics and mathematics are designated “chaotic” systems. Because a culture of innovation will be vital for organisational survival in the 21st century, the present paper proposes that viewing organisations in terms of “complexity theory” may assist leaders in fine-tuning managerial philosophies that provide orderly management emphasizing stability within a culture of organised chaos, for it is on the “boundary of chaos” that the greatest creativity occurs. It is argued that 21st century companies, as chaotic social systems, will no longer be effectively managed by rigid objectives (MBO) nor by instructions (MBI). Their capacity for self-organisation will be derived essentially from how their members accept a shared set of values or principles for action (MBV).

Complexity theory deals with systems that show complex structures in time or space, often hiding simple deterministic rules. This theory holds that once these rules are found, it is possible to make effective predictions and even to control the apparent complexity. The state of chaos that self-organises, thanks to the appearance of the “strange attractor”, is the ideal basis for creativity and innovation in the company. In this self-organised state of chaos, members are not confined to narrow roles, and gradually develop their capacity for differentiation and relationships, growing continuously toward their maximum potential contribution to the efficiency of the organisation. In this way, values act as organisers or “attractors” of disorder, which in the theory of chaos are equations represented by unusually regular geometric configurations that predict the long-term behaviour of complex systems.

In business organisations (as in all kinds of social systems) the starting principles end up as the final principles in the long term. An attractor is a model representation of the behavioral results of a system. The attractor is not a force of attraction or a goal-oriented presence in the system; it simply depicts where the system is headed based on its rules of motion. Thus, in a culture that cultivates or shares values of autonomy, responsibility, independence, innovation, creativity, and proaction, the risk of short-term chaos is mitigated by an overall long-term sense of direction. A more suitable approach to manage the internal and external complexities that organisations are currently confronting is to alter their dominant culture under the principles of MBV.

After decades of intense efforts to ensure the successful future of our organisations, we’ve reached the point where we must admit that it’s not easy. But before conceding that it’s a futile objective, we should examine the paradigms and tools that we have been using to understand organisations. One conclusion emerging from this examination is that if we maintain the management theories of recent decades, we must accept that no significant advances have been made toward a comprehensive understanding of which organisations will succeed and why. But if we change our mind-set and view organisational reality through a new prism, we may find the essential answers.

Traditional visions of organisations (and of the world in general) have always searched for the easiest way to explain and predict natural phenomena. In this search, we have tried to understand the universe by examining and explaining its separate parts. But partial analyses, as opposed to global ones, yield partial solutions.

The importance of holistic perception is embodied in the folk-tale of four sightless people encountering an elephant for the first time. Each described the animal in terms of the part they happened to touch, and four totally disconnected theories about the nature of the elephant emerged. The same partial and distorted view of global reality applies to organisational theories of the past. Unfortunately, reality is not as simple as we would like. It has complex rules that can’t always be understood through their individual parts.

The term “complexity” does not explain only one kind of system behaviour; it means a set of characteristics that one can identify in most natural systems, including organisations and their processes. A complex system has many natural rules that influence its behaviour, and multiple intricacies for dealing with a turbulent environment. You can’t control these natural rules, but the present paper shows that you can at least guide them and lead them toward one defined direction. The formula requires the right tool—which we propose is the concept of Management by Values (Dolan & Garcia, 1999).

First, let’s look at Figure 1, which compares the parameters that characterize a complex environment (Lissak, 1996) with those of the traditional approach. Of the parameters outlined in the figure, we will concentrate on the concept of chaos as it applies to organisations. Chaos theory tries to understand the relation between chaos and order. In this way, it is possible to follow both directions, from order to chaos, or from chaos to achieve order.

Figure 1. Comparison between a Traditional and a Complex Approach

Traditional Approach

Complexity Approach


It is possible to predict any system’s future status or behaviour through a simple cause-effect equation. There’s no proportionality in cause-effect relations, the future is uncertain, the system reactions are unpredictable, evolution occurs not continuously but in spurts.
The whole is the sum of its parts. The complex whole is made of n-million interactions of a single pattern that is repeated in different scales.
Chaos is synonymous with disorder. It should be avoided by controlling the system as much as possible. There’s a tight relation between chaos and order, so much that one leads to another in a dynamic process. You don’t try to avoid chaos; instead, you use it to self-organise your system, through an “attractor”.
The system does not change in a sudden way. If it does, it’s because something went wrong; it had not been well controlled. One tiny influence can cause sudden, explosive changes inside a system.


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