Surviving Chaos

In the original “Jurassic Park” movie, mathematician Ian Malcolm warns the creator of the park that control is an illusion. Regardless of how many electric fences, backup systems and contingency plans are in place, there is ultimately no guarantee of safety in the park. “Life finds a way,” the chaos theoretician observes. As the dinosaurs run amok, Jurassic Park visitors are driven to survive by any means necessary.


For electrical contractors, 2017 is likely to feel equally chaotic and unpredictable, with new leadership in Washington, D.C., and global economic and political upheaval. Fear and anxiety can undermine the resilience that drives survival and the decisions that affect a company’s future. How do you navigate the uncertainty and survive the chaos?


In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote “A Theory of Motivation” in which he introduced the hierarchy of needs, a pyramid with several progressive steps. Physical survival needs, the base level, must be satisfied before a person can deal with safety and security needs, followed by the need to belong and form relationships. The highest levels, self-esteem and self-actualization, can only be reached once the more basic needs have been met.


Everyone—employees and customers included­—operates at some level of this hierarchy. An employee with financial problems is motivated to survive and will be less engaged than the one who feels confident in his or her value to the company. The customer whose project is teetering on the brink of financial ruin will be driven by fear and will be unlikely to prioritize the value of the business relationship.


The level at which a business owner operates affects the quality of his or her business decisions, as well. Fear and insecurity drive the worst deals. When your business needs a project to keep the lights on, it will seem nearly impossible to walk away from a bad contract or fight for fair treatment and prompt payment. Making financial decisions, formulating strategies and long-term plans, and protecting a company from risks are all methods of seeking the unobtainable goal of security.


That’s where the philosopher Alan Watts can help. In 1951, he wrote a book, “The Wisdom of Insecurity—A Message for an Age of Anxiety,” in which he described the folly of seeking security. 


“The desire for security and the fear of insecurity are the same thing,” Watts writes. “To hold your breath is to lose your breath.”


Using the metaphor of being caught in the current of a river, Watts outlined three options. If a person tries to fight the current, they will become exhausted and most likely drown. If they simply drift, they will have no direction and be carried against their will to an unknown destination. The optimal choice is to swim with the current, while gradually moving towards a chosen point on the shore. 


“The only way to make sense of change is to plunge into it, move with it and join the dance,” Watts writes.


If finding security is impossible, then chaos theoreticians, like the fictional Ian Malcolm, are also potential sources for guidance. Chaos theory first emerged in the 1800s but gained wider attention in the 1980s, with the idea that systems generate energy but without predictability or direction. 


A fundamental principle of chaos theory is the Butterfly Effect, the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo can affect weather patterns in Chicago. Credited to Edward Lorenz of MIT, it also can be applied to organizations. A small change that seems insignificant can have an unexpected and exponentially large effect throughout a business before anyone can react.


Managers who struggle with uncertainty in a world where innovation and change are highly prized may be confusing order with control. Accepting chaos means facing the fear of losing control and replacing that fear with trust. Trust your team to grow and evolve, and your employees to help create improvements in your systems. Trust your customer relationships to adapt to changing conditions. Replace the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy with an “If it ain’t broke, then break it” strategy and stride fearlessly into future.


Innovation and creativity are, by nature, chaotic. With a strong vision, open communication and shared values, businessowners and employees will be able to embrace the chaos that keeps a company adapting to the competitive environment.


Management guru Tom Peters says, “We must learn to love change, as much as we have hated it in the past.” Survival depends on embracing revolution. You may find that your company can create its own butterfly effect if you allow it to emerge from its cocoon of control, flap its wings and fly.

About the Author

Denise Norberg-Johnson

Financial Columnist
Denise Norberg-Johnson is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached at ddjohnson0336@sbcglobal.net .

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