Book 7: Coping With Chaos


Here is book 7 in the #EmptyShelf Challenge! I’ve been looking forward to reading this because it is about one of my favorite topics: chaos theory.

Title: Coping with Chaos: Seven Simple Tools
Author: Glenda H. Eoyang, Ph. D.
Publisher: Lagumo (2009)

What the book is about

Coping with Chaos explores all the major elements of chaos theory, providing clear and understandable explanations. Eoyang did an excellent job showing how these apply to organizations and provides very usable strategies and real-world examples in every chapter. The main topics include boundaries, feedback loops, fractals, attractors, self-organizing systems, and coupling.

Why I read this book

Chaos theory and complexity has been one of my favorite subjects of study since I was first introduced to it through T. Irene Sanders’ excellent book Strategic Thinking and the New Science (Free Press, 1998). I’ve found chaos and complexity to be much more helpful to understanding organizational systems than any hard science approach.

Favorite idea

Eoyang did a wonderful job explaining how organizations (and sub-parts) have the potential to be self-organizing under the right conditions. Her discussion of this subject provides a very practical and simple tool to help leaders understand when this is likely to occur, when it is not, and how to encourage it.

Do I recommend this book?

I recommend Coping with Chaos for all leaders as well as managers with responsibility over personnel. It is a fast read (I did so in one evening) and it contains very practical strategies. The book is a bit dated, though. The copyright is 2009, but there is no reference to anything in the book beyond the mid-90s. Nevertheless, the principles are timeless and useful.

(Click here to learn more about the #EmptyShelf Challenge.)

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

10 thoughts on “Book 7: Coping With Chaos

  1. I had to laugh when I read this recommendation. I deal with chaos on a daily basis, brought about by a full schedule, young children, and clutter in my home! I, too, purchased a book with varied suggestions on dealing with or eliminating chaos. The difference is that I have not read my book. It is lost among the clutter! If I ever find it, I will read it! I need to! 🙂

    • That is funny. Chaos theory experts will tell us that we can’t eliminate chaos.Instead we need to look for new, emerging patterns in the chaos. I’m not sure how well that will work in a home environment. That’s a challenging thought!

    • Anthony,
      Thanks for the question. It’s a very good question. I’ll reply with some questions for you. What has been your experience with opposing and eliminating chaos? As a leader, what must you do to eliminate chaos and how does that work for leading the organization? Conversely, what has been your experience with embracing and managing chaos? What must you do as a leader to manage chaos and what is the effect of that on leading the organization?

      If you don’t have personal experience with either of these, think back through various leaders that you’ve worked with and for. What was their approach to dealing with chaos? Was it effective? What was the impact on the organization?

      Thank for the query! Very thoughtful.

      • Hi Scott,

        Two specific examples.

        Chaos may be present in the views of different people within a team or committee on the best way forward, or how to make a particular decision. I think it is better to not try and control the chaos of the different views expressed. By allowing diversity of views to be expressed this will lead to the best outcome. The leader should focus their energy on the process of how meetings and discussion will be conducted and how decisions will ultimately be made – not the content of discussions or views. This should be a transparent process as well. So in this sense the diversity of opinion may represent chaos, but this should be embraced and encouraged, rather than opposed or shut down.

        My second example relates to trying to perfect a chaotic system. This could be team unit or department within a company. A manager could stay up all night answering emails, completing paperwork and other jobs to give him or her the feeling that all chaos has been removed from the system. Alternatively before they go on holiday they could spend late nights on the week before they go on leave tying up loose ends, and anticipating problems that may occur. This often eats into the Saturday, and sometime Sunday before they go away or on leave (speaking from experience here). This type of work load is not sustainable. A more relaxed approach is needed. Perhaps a reliance on the 20:80 system – that 20 per cent of the tasks will achieve 80 % of outcome (Pareto Principle). Or alternatively some system of ordering tasks that need to be done urgently, and others that can wait. The higher order tasks are more likely to impact on the chaotic system to make it move in the direction you want, but won’t necessarily remove the chaos.

        So rather than trying to remove chaos, or control chaos, one learns to manage chaos?


        • Anthony, you’ve got a great handle on these things!

          Controlling chaos is almost always a sure loser. Managing and embracing chaos are viable options. What, though, does it mean to “embrace” chaos?

          I think the difference between managing and embracing chaos is similar to the difference between managing and leading an organization.

          Consider the parallels there and see what insights you can generate about “embracing chaos.”

  2. Good thoughts. Have you written any brief articles on the difference between management and leadership, or can you recommend some?

      • Thanks … I will have a look at these. Just saw something on Facebook that helps .. courtesy of “The Manager’s Diary”.

        Leaders – instil an inspiring vision
        Managers – instil good operating processes
        and Both Leaders and Managers – Get important things done.

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