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Seven Life Lessons of Chaos

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Introducing Chaos

Introducing Chaos
Ziauddin Sardar and Iwona Abrams

View Introducing Chaos on AmazonThe ‘Introducing …’ titles are a series of books that provide an accessible and fun introduction to topics as diverse as Kant and Camus, Science and Sociology.

My exploration of the ideas of quality have led along a path in which quantum physics, uncertainty, chaos and complexity have almost mysteriously become topics of growing relevance. It is fitting then that this book introduced me to one of the features of chaos, the strange attractor, a mechanism that draws a system's behaviour towards particular ways of operating.

Books in this series can be read in a day. They use a mix of text and cartoon style graphics to convey the key ingredients of a subject in a concise and straightforward way. The challenge of describing chaos theory is not a trivial one. Though it may require a couple of re-reads, the book does a pretty impressive job of introducing the key figures in the development of chaos, its key concepts and how chaos affects our lives.

I was intrigued for example to find Ray Bradbury (Zen in the Art of Writing) mentioned as the author of ‘A Sound of Thunder’ a short story which predates the development of chaos theory.

At the heart of chaos is that complex systems, which meet a small number of criteria, will produce outcomes that are deterministic, but not predictable. This seems a paradox, and as Niels Bohr said

“How wonderful that we have met with a paradox.  Now we have some hope of making progress.” 

What is startling is that systems don’t have to be very complex to be classed as complex, and the criteria, such as non-linear feedback can be found in most systems. The result is that chaos is all around us. What is intriguing is that science, and our desire to understand has led us to simplify our models of the world in such a way that we’ve created an alternate chaos free world. When we try to understand we trim off the twiddly bits and treat systems as linear. So for example our geometry is based on straight lines, yet in nature everything is raggedy edged. The fractal, is a way of seeing and appreciating the raggedness of the world and this is explored further in a related title in the series, Introducing Fractal Geometry.

It seems that an understanding of chaos is an important ingredient for our understanding of organisational change if we are to create success in turbulent times. This volume provides an easily accessible introduction to what is I believe an important element of any real understanding of effective change processes,

Perhaps further evidence of a ‘strange attractor’ at work are the references in the final chapter to the inherent understanding of chaos within non-western cultures and belief systems such as Taoism, Buddhism Islam and Sufism. It even includes a picture of a symmetrical fractal decoration of the vestibule ceiling of the Chenar Bagh Madresseh School in Isfahan Iran. See ICQM Conference Iran.

To the hard nosed reader struggling to manage a change programme in a business, grappling with time pressures, resource constraints and disbelieving colleagues, chaos theory may seem to be a long way off-track, and an unwanted distraction from pragmatic issues. I guess I used to feel the same. However I now feel that it may be part of the key to turning well meaning but ultimately fruitless improvement effort into a really successful approach to change.

I know that it is going to be increasingly part of my thinking. You may wish to test whether it benefits yours.

Steve Unwin
August 2006

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