Using Chaotic Situations to Create Opportunities for Innovation

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Happy families might all be the same, according to Tolstoy, but even they are only a step away from the unique mess of unhappiness. And as divorce lawyers can easily attest, even the most stable relationships can devolve into chaos.

If the family, that most basic unit of society, can prove to be so unpredictable, what more even larger units of organization? It’s a question that seems particularly relevant amid the uncertainty posed by the pandemic. Businesses seeking to stabilize in the face of such turbulence might feel like they’re pouring water out of a boat using a leaky bucket.

But chaos itself isn’t all about the downside. You can turn an unpredictable and chaotic scenario into an opportunity generator. The secret lies in improving the way you approach emerging change and innovation.

A better thought process

Critical thinking is a highly rated attribute in the modern workplace. It’s an essential human skill that can improve anybody’s career prospects. Yet not everyone has the fundamental training in this aspect, and even that foundation can be incomplete.

Schools teach us to think logically. This is a combination of deductive and inductive thinking. We deduce from the general to the specific. We infer tentatively from scientific studies, being careful to limit our conclusions to what the evidence supports.

Those components require a third element: abductive reasoning. It’s what enables us to make the best prediction from incomplete information. And in the majority of complex, real-world situations, you’re never going to have complete information.

Train yourself to think using all three components. Learn to move forward based on good predictive ability, but don’t blindly trust your gut. Complement intuition with sound logic.

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Deep diving into failures

Nobody enjoys failure. But in an unpredictable world, we’re all bound to fail with regularity. Individuals can’t get caught up in the pursuit of perfection. Organizations, in particular, must develop a certain tolerance for failure in order to move on.

Yet failures also represent a huge potential for learning. Analysis of past failures can give us better insight into what works and what doesn’t, and how these could extend into future endeavors.

The study of failure can also help to avert a crisis. Complex systems are prone to large-scale catastrophes. By designating a person, or training a team, to handle the task of envisioning the factors that could lead to failure, you build awareness of danger. It helps the organization respond to near-misses and mitigate the downsides of chaos.

Analyzing factors driving success

Just as failures are an unpleasant experience that gives us the opportunity to learn, we should also look beyond mere success. Instead of simply celebrating when our predictions turn out correctly, we need to understand why.

Seek out the underlying factors and interdependencies that might have contributed to your success. Can they be scaled? Will the relationship still hold true at that level, or with other variables thrown into the equation?

Figuring this out will mean that success isn’t a one-off event or a matter of luck. It becomes repeatable and improves your chances of translating that success to other scenarios.

Sharing information over time

The previous components are mostly a matter of mindset for both individuals and organizations. Adopting these elements will help people build the right mentality for dealing with chaos and uncertainty.

But if your goal is to foster innovation and create opportunities to thrive, you need to optimize structural elements. Innovation arises from the effective sharing of emerging ideas.

This often requires multiple actors with access to well-dispersed information through a network. These actors need to form collaborative relationships in an ‘innovation ecosystem.’

None of this is entirely new to experienced business leaders. It’s one reason why interpersonal skills, which enable effective collaboration, are valuable in the modern workplace. But what most companies are missing is the key ingredient of time.

Rich networks of relationships and information exchange only grow over time. Innovating actors need to persist within the system to reap the benefits of accrued, cross-disciplinary insight.

These things don’t combine well with the typical business mentality of judging value with high event-time pacing. We think in terms of quarterly results, judge performance by year-to-year metrics. Leaders don’t hesitate to change direction or even cut jobs from units deemed non-essential or returning subpar performance numbers.

If you want to drive innovation in an organization, find another way to evaluate progress over time. It’s an unpredictable process. Don’t expect it to adhere to arbitrary standards of growth and cost-effectiveness.