Cover image for Innovation, Chaos & Order

Innovation, Chaos & Order

Ralph Montague
Architect, BIM consultant and director at ArcDox, Ireland’s leading BIM consultancy practice.
・3 min read

Some thoughts on Innovation for 2021. Innovation, is the discovery of new ways of things working. When it come to the way things work, there is “order”, that which is known (at least to some) and is predicable (at least to some degree). And then there is “Chaos”, that which is unknown, and needs to be “explored” and tested, to see if there is anything we can learn, to see if we can formulate some new understanding, a new “order” (something known) out of the “chaos” (that which is unknown). “Order”, doesn’t suggest that things we know work well. It only suggests we know, or understand how they work. “Order” also doesn’t suggest that everybody understands the way things work - there are obviously degrees of understanding and competency, but the outcomes are more or less predictable. But it is in “chaos” (or the unknown) where “innovation” operates, or occurs. When we discover something we didn’t know, and we are able to understand and shape that lesson into something that can be replicated in some more predicable way in the future, or a new “order”, to be useful for us. The goal of innovation is not purely about creating “order”. It’s about the constant exploring of the unknown, or “chaos”, to keep making improvements in our understanding of how things work, so that we can keep improving the outcomes, or our predications of those outcomes. You could say “innovation” is a journey, not a destination. Living life purely in “order”, would be boring, and predictable – never improving, or only improving very slowly. Living life purely in “chaos”, would be too unpredictable, uncomfortable, unsustainable, prone to some potential catastrophic failure. And so, the optimal space for “innovation” to thrive and occur, is at the boundary between “order” and “chaos”, between the known and unknown, stepping into the unknown in controlled and sustainable ways, that provide the challenge, testing and exploration of ideas that can inform a new order. You might wonder or journey into “chaos” willingly, or unintentionally, slowly, or suddenly, but the goal should be to learn something, and get back to some “order”. As they often say in software development, “fail often, and fail fast”. Journey into the unknown, Learn something quickly, and then come back to the known, or ordered world, and apply the lessons. Make improvements in understanding, predictability and outcomes. And then go and venture again, into the world of “chaos”, and explore and try again. In the ancient Chinese philosophy, “yin and yang”, there is a concept of “dualism”, describing how seemingly opposite or contrary forces (like order and chaos) may actually be complementary, interconnected, or interdependent, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate with one another. So “Innovation” occurs in the “interplay” between order and chaos. And the message is “Keep Innovating”.

In this short video below, Dave Snowden explains the “Cynefin Framework”, which he developed in 1999, when at IBM. It is a management tool to help “make sense” of the context you are operating in (order or chaos), and also to help make decisions on what to do. In the framework, “order” is divided into “simple” and “complicated” order, and between “chaos” and “order”, there is a “complex” state, where chaos can be brought to order. And lastly, he describes a state of “disorder”, which isn’t the same as chaos, but rather a place where you have not yet understood which domain of the framework you are operating in. Hope you find this useful. Happy 2021.

Discussion (5)

ralph_arcdox profile image
Ralph Montague Author

I’ve spent some more time researching this relationship between “innovation” and the “order” (known) and “chaos” (unknown).

Innovation is about “continuous improvement”, or “making things better”. There is probably nothing in life that couldn’t use some improvement (nothing is perfect). So “Innovation” is a continuous thing (a journey). It’s about moving from “where you are”, to “where you want to be”. It’s a “journey” towards a goal (or the ideal). It is probably a journey that never ends, because as you begin to reach one goal, other goals become possible or apparent (more possibilities and potential for further improvements become known).

You can’t simply classify “known” (order) as good, and “unknown” (chaos) as bad. There are elements of “known” that are good (stability, predictability, etc), but there are also elements of “known” that are bad (excessive authority, or stubborn bureaucracy, boredom, tyranny etc). Also, while the “unknown” is unpredictable and unstable (seemingly bad), it also represents the potential of new discovery or creative and adventurous innovation (ultimately good).

No “journey” is possible, if you don’t understand both, where you are, and where you want to go. You have to “plot a path” (a map). It probably won’t be a “direct” or straight path. More likely it will be a meandering path of “discovery” (with ups and downs), influenced by both the “known” and “unknown”.

Also, don’t forget, you have “history”. While you can’t change your “history” (the past, your culture, your biology etc), you can use the “wisdom” or lessons learned (by you, and/or by others) to help inform your “journey”. Your history doesn’t necessarily determine your journey – it only informs your journey.

You have to commit to, or “invest” in your idea (goal). You can’t just think about it, or talk about it. There has to be real “action” (time/effort). You may also have to “let go” of some things that are holding you back, or “give up” on some competing ideas or goals (become focussed). So there is a “sacrifice” in the present, for the potential future.

As you proceed along your “journey”, you will encounter both “tools” (people and things that help), and “obstacles” (people and things that hinder). The “tools” will encourage you (positive emotions), and the “obstacles” will discourage you (negative emotions). You must be prepared to deal with both (and learn from both).

You have to be able to remain “focused” within your “domain” (the part of the world you are interested in, where you want to make a difference), and not be too distracted by everything else that is happening in the bigger world (in the news, on social media etc). Focus on “what is relevant”, and understand “what is irrelevant”.

In the end, there will be people who try to make things better, or the “Heroes”, and people who simply accept things the way they are (allow things to naturally deteriorate), or even actively make things worse, or the “adversaries” or “villains”.

Innovators are the “Heroes”. (they strive to make things better).


ralph_arcdox profile image
Ralph Montague Author

Left-Brain, Right-Brain.
Innovation (discovery) occurs at the "boundary" between Order & Chaos, and this is the "optimum" place to exist.

ralph_arcdox profile image
Ralph Montague Author

Another Useful contribution to this topic is Simon Wardley, and his "Wardley Mapping" technique. (I highly recommend the video introduction below).
This strategy technique uses Sun Tzu’s Five Factors: purpose, landscape, climate, doctrine, and leadership, to make decisions. In that model, the "wise leader" has a moral imperative or purpose (a what and a why), understands the landscape or terrain (has a map), anticipates the patterns of the forces acting on the environment (climate), trains the organization in universally useful principles (doctrine) and makes smart decisions that lead to success.
Simon uses slightly different words to "chaos" & "order", but it is the same idea - he speaks about ideas evolving or progressing from "unchartered" to "industrialized", through 4 phases (genesis, custom, product & commodity). There is "movement", and there is also "inertia" (people or things that don't want progress to occur).

ralph_arcdox profile image
Ralph Montague Author

It is quite useful to understand that everyone's' "point-of-view" (including my own, and your own) is inherently wrong (as no-one has a full picture of the world), and that we can always "learn" more about the world from another "perspective". So we need to be "open" to new ideas, for innovation to occur.

alanmossman profile image
Alan Mossman

Good to see that Dave Snowden is already here! His work is very important.