Take a moment and conduct a quick pulse check of your organization. What is the climate like – calm, under control? Or chaotic – an environment of total madness?

The truth of the matter is that a lot of us prefer to live in the midst of chaos. In fact, we thrive in it. Perhaps you cannot imagine a day in your personal life without a constant state of stress, or months without ongoing change. Perhaps in your professional role, not one week passes without the need to put out a fire or mitigate a building crisis. Many of us have learned to adapt to such turmoil, and even thrive in it. And many of us are proud that we successfully navigate the waters of chaos on a daily basis.

We’ll unpack the concept of organizational chaos in this blog article, to help you better understand why chaos is unavoidable, how it can be managed, and when it is even healthy and productive.

Systems theory

Before we dive into chaos, here’s a little context from the field of systems theory. This transdisciplinary study of how certain independent entities are organized within a system investigates the factors common to all of the entities, and the models that can be used to describe them. Systems thinking is a subset of systems theory that applies particularly to organizations.

We talk about systems thinking a great deal at Brighter Strategies because we believe it is imperative for nonprofit leaders to understand how such thinking drives their organization’s outputs, results, and behavior. In a blog article posted earlier this year, we described systems thinking as “the process of understanding how various systems influence one another within a complete entity (or larger system).” In healthy organizations, the four major sub-systems – planning, people, processes, and performance – work together in alignment toward common goals.

Introducing chaos theory

Chaos theory takes systems theory to another level. In this context, chaos does not mean total confusion. Rather, it refers to the dynamics of a system that seem to have no pattern, but which in fact do operate with some underlying order. Because of the principles of chaos theory at work in your organization, small changes can cause very complex and disruptive shifts in the overall system. Does this sound familiar?

Navigating chaos in your organization is a lot like white water rafting. When you first place your raft in the turbulent river, it takes time to learn how to steer, shift your weight, and position your bow in the face of the rushing current. And few people survive all impending rapids without a spill or two. But soon, you begin to discover patterns in the current that you never noticed before. Eventually, with the help of your team, you learn how to guide your raft safely through the rapids by anticipating the impact of the chaotic waters around you.

In your nonprofit agency, a state of chaos is here to stay. Organizations are operating in a volatile, uncertain, ambiguous, and complex environment – if that doesn’t spell chaos, nothing will. But after you realize that such chaos is normal and learn to spot disruption before it hits, you can leverage such ongoing change to drive your organization to a new level of productivity and innovation.

Organization as a living entity

The latest thinking in the field of organizational psychology is the idea that an organization is a living entity, meaning it is dynamic and alive, not static nor mechanistic. This distinction is important because it illuminates the possibility of resilience when chaos and change disrupt your agency. Remember that your nonprofit is comprised of people. Without your leaders, stakeholders, employees, and customers, your organization would not exist. And human beings by their very nature are resilient – they have the instinct and ability to survive and thrive when faced with change.

Your organization, as a living system, has the same capabilities. Don’t fear chaos; instead, embrace it. Prepare for the impending rapids of change by growing a culture of resiliency. Study how your organization’s sub-systems operate. Are they siloed or integrated? Examine how chaos – both internal and external – affects these systems. Teach your employees to spot disruption as it approaches by learning from the past and anticipating the future. Finally, champion risk-taking and growth from failure, both hallmarks of resiliency and catalysts for innovation.

Do you need help navigating the waters of chaos and change in your organization? Contact Brighter Strategies today for customized products, resources, and consulting in change management.

Also, if you’re looking to network and share best practices with other area nonprofit leaders don’t forget to check out the Nonprofit Capacity Conference “Lessons in Leadership” workshop coming up in November! Click here for more details on how to get involved or registered to join us!  Hear what others have done to help clear up their organization’s chaos!