This is where life lives, between the rigid death...

...of planned order and the degeneration of chaos. Too much change can get out of hand, and too many rules--even new rules--can lead to paralysis. The best systems have this living quality of few rules and near chaos. There is enough binding agreement between members that they don't fall into anarchy, yet redundancy, waste, incomplete communications, and inefficiency are rife.

My own involvement in groups that launched successful change, and my secondhand knowledge of many, many others involved in world-changing innovation, convinces me that all of these ensembles teetered on the brink of chaos at their peak performance. Whatever front they put up to the public or investors, behind the scenes most of the group ran around screaming "It's pathologically out of control here!" Every organization is dysfunctional to some degree, but innovative organizations, in their moment of glory, tend to slide toward uncoordinated communication, furious bouts of genius, and life-threatening disorganization. Everyone involved swears they will institute just enough structure to prevent flameout in the future, but I've never seen radical innovation emerge from an outfit that wasn't halfway to unraveling at the epicenter of change. Most of the studies of optimal evolution in complex systems confirm this view. The price for progressive change in maximum doses is a dangerous (and thrilling) ride to the edge of disruption.

Although many groups experience these grand moments when creativity flows and things get done well, the holy grail in business and life is to find ways to sustain these periods of supreme balance. Sustaining innovation is particularly tricky since it flows out of creative disequilibrium.



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This is a blog version of a book of mine first published in 1998. I am re-issuing it (two posts per week) unaltered on its 10th anniversary. Comments welcomed. More details here.
-- KK