Some eons ago, when I was at Mozilla, working with Mitchell Baker, Mozilla’s co-founder, I asked her how she would describe the overarching organizational principle under which we operate. She responded with something to the tune of “organized chaos”. Later I brought this concept up with John Lilly, our CEO – who introduced me to the work of Dee Hock, founder of VISA (the credit card payment system), who coined the term “chaordic systems” (or short: chaords). Since then I have been thinking about and working on the idea of designing robust, scalable systems based on Dee’s original work, which has strong connections to biological systems as well as complexity theory.
The other day I had a conversation with a leader who brought up the same idea, describing it as the difference between a beautifully manicured garden and a wild forest. The garden might look nice and function as long as it is carefully cared for, but the moment the gardener disappears, the garden falls into disarray. The forest on the other hand, self-organized and seemingly chaotic, not only has a much higher biodiversity but also continuously adapts to the changing environment and thus becomes highly resilient. Often not even the most dramatic external shocks (such as a wildfire, storm or flood) have a lasting effect on the forest – it simply adapts.
The very best organizations, dominating the landscape these days, have embraced their inner chaords. They might not call it that way but when you start to look, you can see it. AMAZON’s two pizza rule, Google’s 20% time, Apple’s freewheeling R&D – all signs of forests growing where other people try to maintain their gardens.
Look at your own organization (or the one you want to build) and ask yourself where you can embrace the chaos, apply just enough order to make sure you are moving toward your North Star and apply some of your very own chaordic principles.