Complexity, Chaos, and Contentment

–Complexity and Adaptation in a Chaotic World

Complexity theory has been defined by words like nested coevolution, nonlinear behavior, agents with schemata (a plan), self-organizing networks, importing energy, coevolution at the edge of chaos, and complex adaptive systems. So, the world is a complex place, we know this, and the business world is no different.  For organizations and their systems however to navigate and perform at their best in this world they must match this complexity chess move for chess move. furthermore, if they want to survive into tomorrow, they must also learn to adapt in it, making the first move ahead of it.

This is the secret that allows some complex, “adaptive” companies to thrive and harness complexity vs become overpowered by it.

In scientific terms, some systems in nature are defined as complex, while others are also adaptive but it’s important to note that not all systems are both complex and adaptive systems (CAS), this is the place you and your organization want to be.  The distinctive difference with complex adaptive systems is that unlike nonadaptive systems they code their internal environments into many schemata (individual operating patterns, structures, and frameworks) and these frameworks naturally compete with one another internally.   Considering the ambidextrous organization (AO) as a complex adaptive system (CAS) with its dual exploitative and explorative behavior, it’s easy to see how competing schemata would naturally reside among the exploitative and explorative components within an AO, competing for precious resources, execution, and prominence.  From ambidexterity research we know that exploitation drives out exploration, as we learn to perform something well, we have a tendency to want to continue doing that thing, and we stop exploring and learning new things.  But in the ambidextrous organizations, specific behaviors allow the tensions of competing schemata to coexist and regulate in a self-balancing and continually changing dance.  This is the secret that allows some complex, “adaptive” companies to thrive and harness complexity vs become overpowered by it.


One day while working on this original article I had a serendipitous discussion with a smart software engineer coworker at a company luncheon.  I was explaining ambidextrous organizational structures to him when he brought up the subject of chaos and chaos theory, a concept used in disciplines such as mathematics, economics, sociology, and philosophy to describe the sometime disorder, sometime randomness, and sometime unpredictability of behavior in otherwise predictable deterministic systems. As I listened to him talk, I began to get excited, looking around anxiously for a dry erase marker and whiteboard to capture the thoughts our dialogue was producing in my mind.  Not finding any, I grabbed the nearest paper napkin (the proverbial “bar napkin” prototype) and a pen and created the ambidextrous chaos model.

The Ambidextrous Chaos Model

The ambidexterity chaos model (Zabiegalski, 2020)

The chaos model is designed to depict the sometimes disorder and randomness (chaos) which inevitably occur in organizations, defined as any new or unexpected behaviors or processes outside of expected or prescribed norms. Emergent patterns (phenomena) ultimately surface frequently in every organization but are usually ignored or driven back because the prevailing dominant structure can’t make sense of it or fear it (or both).  This is a tragic notion by the way because emergent patterns occur when an enormously more efficient way of doing something or gaining information is discovered without having to go to the substrate of that thing, back to its ontology, it’s the universe throwing you a major short-cut!

In the ambidextrous structure model I created, the vertical axis (a) of this model represents a vertical structure and its norms, values, processes, and artifacts which might be present within an organization while the horizontal axis (b) represents a horizontal structure with its own unique culture and behaviors.  It’s important to note that the explanation of this model is predicated upon the organization having both a vertical business structure (as in a military unit for example) and a horizontal structure as in an innovative tech start-up.   The idea that AO’s (ambidextrous organizations) contain both vertical (a), and horizontal (b) structural pathways in leadership, management, processes, and behaviors as this model depicts illustrates this AO mindset and gives it the unique ability to pivot in both exploitive and explorative ways as the environment changes and warrants different structural approach.  The ability to meet and support rapid transition with a shift from one structure (axis) to the other to mirror environmental market changes with corresponding behavioral changes gives AOs a distinct advantage over less adaptive (non-AO) systems.

Chaotic behavior in this environment is seen as less threatening and can be more comfortably allowed to emerge and be studied.

In science, chaos theory says that even though some systems may be considered deterministic, meaning their future behavior is determined by their initial conditions, this is only true so long as no random elements are introduced. To put it another way, the deterministic nature of a deterministic system does not make it predictable due to the randomness and disorder (chaos) which may inevitably creep in driving behavior to the left and right of predicted outcomes in a hierarchical (vertical) organizational model or above and below predicted outcomes in a flat (horizontal) model as depicted.  Furthermore, when chaos is introduced into our AO model (represented by the squiggly line), the AO is at a clear advantage.  Chaotic behavior in this environment is seen as less threatening and can be more comfortably allowed to emerge and be studied.  Even though this behavior might stray from one or the other axis (a or b) it is still identifiable as potentially productive as it can be found and interpreted in relation to the other axis as moving away from one axis moves it towards the other, it is now bound somewhere within the borders of one of the two-axis (depicted by the dotted line) in a grid-like pattern.  Chaos allowed to ensue within framed borders in this manner is invaluable to the AO and represents the source of its learning power, providing new insights, revolutionary learning opportunities, innovation, and ultimately higher performance and productivity than other non-adaptive organizational systems.  Because of the AOs reinforced dual structure, emergent chaos is made better sense of, more easily harnessed, and appears less threatening and more positively interpreted.  An AO can lasso an unexpected lightning bolt and ride it vs take cover or run.  Whether or not chaos can be completely controlled is a matter for debate however such a model helps chaos to be welcomed and, at least more seemingly, controlled enough to be productive within the edges of the imaginary boundary drawn around the axis.

In this way, ambidextrous organizations are superior at managing processes to, and at the edge of chaos interpreting, supporting, and potentially leveraging unpredicted behavior which strays from current or acceptable norms.  Chaos tolerated in this fashion also provides strong reinforcing value in the form of innovation, new learning, and to culture. Here’s a foot-stomper for organizations.  In physics and biology systems are optimally efficient and robust when they can maintain themselves at the edge of chaos, insert wink face here. Still don’t get it? Hire me to consult for you and we’ll walk through it together in a plan.

The important question for organizations is clear, when should behaviors or processes be managed at the edge of chaos and when should we demand perfection, uniformity, and control along with a preordained plan?

Perhaps more importantly how do we manage the fear of possibly flying too close to the Sun?

A Cautionary Tale Half Told

These days, it seems as if organizations have taken the Greek myth of Icarus to heart, but they only remember half of the story.  As the legend goes Icarus, son of Daedalus was made a pair of wings by his father which he could use to escape prison.  Before he gave his son the wings however Daedalus offered a warning, “don’t fly too close to the sun” he said, or the wax holding the wings together will melt.  Icarus, ignoring his father’s warning flew too close to the sun anyway and sure enough, his wings disintegrated, plummeting him to his death.  This cautionary tale we’ve heard so many times and taken into our DNA warns us against taking risks, reaching too far, or too high.  What’s curiously missing from this story however is that this was only half of Daedalus’ warning.  Daedalus also told his son not to fly too low, doing so he said would cause the spray from the sea to saturate his wings, also dragging him to his death.  Why do organizations try to eliminate risk and put constraining governors on their employees?  And given the chance would employees behave as cautiously as leaders and managers often do or would they go for the sun?

Governors and Go-Carts

When I was a kid, I spent many a summer evening at my favorite go-cart track with my friends.  While at the track, one of us, sometimes more than one, would invariably come equipped with a flat-headed (slotted) screwdriver in their back pocket.  On the go-carts engine there was a mechanical device called a governor and on the governor was a slotted spring screw.  We learned early on that by either backing the screw out with the screwdriver, or tightening it down you could decrease, or increase, the speed of the engine, adjusting peak performance and speed on the go-cart.  We knew the go-cart track owner had “de-tuned” all the engines before we ran out to jump behind the wheel,” backing off” the governor screw, and the minute his back was turned one of us would run from cart to cart asking the other racers if they wanted us to “tune-up” their engine for them.  What I remember most about those experiences was that no kid, ever, refused an offer to make their cart go faster much less ask to have it made to go slower.

Achieving Contentment Together               

What’s the point of all this, dealing with complexity, adapting to real-time changes, managing chaos, and pushing boundaries?  It’s this, governors can come from many places; the brain is a natural governor for the body as our mind “mentally” sets our body’s physical limits.  Maxwell Maltz noted in his book Psycho Cybernetics that it’s rare for people to actually “use-up” all their physical energy, our bodies can muster much more endurance than we think, think about the hormone adrenaline.  Governors can also be imposed by others and therefore sometimes feel real.  I don’t know if governors in organizations filter down from leadership, middle managers, or are dispensed by fellow employees and an established culture, or perhaps all of it.  And I’m not sure of the reasons why we impose governors, do we wish to protect each other, protect ourselves, or keep others from harming or exceeding us?  Whatever the reason we need to occasionally reflect on questions like these, be aware, and be careful and deliberate in our actions.  Educator Fred Rogers once said, “the worst thing a person can do to another is diminish them”. I believe this and would add, our only job in life should be to encourage one another daily to watch out for the ground and keep reaching for the sun!

Dr. Zabiegalski is available to talk to your organization or venue about this ground-breaking research or speak informatively and eloquently about organizational culture, leadership, strategy, learning, complexity, neuroscience in business, creativity, mindfulness, talent management, personal success, emotional intelligence, and Action Learning. Contact Eric Today.


Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski is a graduate of George Washington University in Human and Organizational Learning and has been researching and studying leadership, learning, and change for over 20 years. Eric has been on all sides of the leadership fence from leader and manager to employee and servant and has practiced leadership and served leaders in some of the most coveted and challenging places in the world. With an early professional history as a technical expert, Eric has gone from being a technical SME (subject matter expert) to being a people SME and considers the human mind, human behavior, and consciousness to be the next great frontier for discovery. It is in this realm where he combines his technical subject matter expertise with his human sociological and organizational expertise for the betterment of individuals, organizations, their processes, and humanity. With additional interests in emotional intelligence or "EQ", servant leadership and followership, neuroscience, complexity science, creativity and ambidextrous organizations, Eric has been driven to finding the right balance of qualities, efforts and behaviors in order to not only build better high performing and learning teams but also create a better world in which to live, love, and grow. Eric lives on the Western shore of the Chesapeake Bay close to Washington DC with his wife, daughter, and Chow dog Wamu. Eric is the author of The Rise of the Ambidextrous Organization and Leading Ambidextrous Organizations, Part 1,2,3 (E-Books).

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  1. Oh my Dr. Eric Zabiegalski …

    I don’t have a whiteboard by my side right now but the chaos You have described is run by none other than the “algorithm”..

    When You combine the algorithm with Wall Street the caveat like flying to close to the ☀️ is what we are encountering at the moment..

    Thank You for another thoughtful and timely insight..