January 14, 2009
The edge of chaos
I love complexity. Strange, but true. Ask my friend Gillian and she will roll her eyes in desperation. Even the personality and strengths assessments I have been doing say so: "emphasizing complexity can be a motivating force" (Management Drives test), "focuses on developing complex ideas" (Enneagram profile -- "The Investigator"), "analyzes the world in depth" (Myers-Briggs personality type -- "The Architect"), creativity, ingenuity and originality (top strength with the Via Signature Strength Assessment used in positive psychology).
So, keeping this in mind, you can understand how excited I was to get to the last chapter of the book on my nightstand, "Evidence-Based Coaching Handbook: Putting Best Practices to Work for Your Clients" called Coaching from a Systemic Perspective: A Complex Adaptive Conversation. I nearly drooled in anticipation and I was not disappointed.
The article's author, Michael Cavanagh, starts with a definition of coaching as, "a journey in search of patterns". Love it (like the complex circular vector above). Then he gets into a branch of systems theory called complex adaptive systems, or complexity theory.
Don't worry, I won't explain it to you, just share a connection that came to mind as I read -- cultures are actually complex adaptive systems in that (like a human body) each part of the system is a system in its own right and they all interact in a way that makes the whole greater than the parts. It also explains why it is so hard for cultures to change, the parts keep adapting to maintain the integrity of the whole, and why it is so hard for our personal cultural systems to change as we adapt to new environments.
But I digress, what really struck me was the idea of living (and actually thriving) in a place called the "edge of chaos" -- the border between chaos and sameness in which just enough "openness" gives us just enough energy to push us out of sameness and the risk of entropy (disintegration), while not pushing us too far into receiving too much new information and diversity and finding ourselves in chaos (ie culture shock).
This made me reflect that the idea of life/work balance as an achievable perfect equilibrium is a myth. Complexity theorists would argue that steady-state functioning doesn't actually function very well. We live better in a state of "sustainable instability" or a kind of "dynamic equilibrium". Living on the edge of chaos is a "paradoxical state of unresolvable contradictory forces" and the tension between these forces "elicits creativity and innovation".
So, who wants to just live in balance when you can thrive on the edge of chaos.
Welcome to the wonderful world of complexity, and now that I think about it, the wonderful world of living and working in a new cultural environment -- certainly feels like the edge of chaos, especially in Rome traffic on a rainy day.
* the image is of a complex circular vector. In physics, this process seeks pattern recognition at the boundary of a closed figure when there are no distinct landmarks (and speaks to my coaching model).