The world we live and work in is complex and driven by forces that we often do not see, recognise or appreciate. Moreover, we live in a world of continuous change that thwarts our plans. Therefore, we are constantly forced to adapt them. These adaptive actions, we often describe as ‘management’ or ‘decision making’, do have consequences as all actions have both upsides and downsides whether they are obvious or not. Because we see the necessity to expect the unexpected, we put plans, procedures, and command and control systems in place that should prevent us from making mistakes that might eventually lead to sliding into a crisis situation. However, the question rises whether this will actually prevent organisational failure.

Over the last years we have been researching whether there is a different approach to managing complex situations. In an attempt to move from using complexity as a retrospective explanation to one that facilitates a more proactive approach to management, we changed its current cause and effect paradigm. We gave this new paradigm a name and called it ‘normal chaos’ to denote circumstances where the actual pattern of interactions within a dynamic system are too complex to be fully appreciated or understood and this, in turn, makes outcomes difficult to predict.

If we look at crisis from a normal chaos perspective, we recognize that there is very little stability of the environment, what often demands increased improvised management solutions. Hence, this makes us ask about what does effective crisis management look like in organizations that might face a complex crisis situation one day? In his book Overcomplicated, Samuel Arbesman (Penguin, 2016) illustrates the complexity of systems we currently deal with. This means that problems have multiple pathways that diminish the predictability of future outputs or outcomes and that this state of affairs also affects the ability to exert control over these events. Managers actually have less control than outsiders think or expect. These multiple pathways are riddled with uncertainty, disproportionality and emergent phenomena. Instability in its many forms is our constant companion.

Looking at a crisis from a normal chaos perspective, we recognize that there is little stability of the environment, what demands increased improvised management solutions

Linking this to the world’s interactive complexity we have to deal with, we have to acknowledge that our understanding of the problems we face will always be only partial. There are a couple of good reasons for that. First, because we often see things in patterns. Although this helps us to get our head around complex issues to make it more comprehensible, the flipside of the coin is that the patterns we observe are often temporary, dependent on the context and the scale of observation. Hence, these patterns may simply be illusionary. That is why we need to be cautious about basing our plans on them. Second, there are no ideal solutions to problems! All solutions are contingent on the circumstances to which they are applied. Third, our ability to actually control what happens to our organisation and to ourselves us is much more limited than is normally assumed. The idea that organizational processes can be made linear, and that management teams can adequately anticipate to crisis situations is a fallacy. In crisis, organizations deal with complexity, which verges on chaos.

Let illustrate this illusion of control with a practical example of crossing a street. You only have partial control of the situation in that you can control your own activities but not the activities of those around you. You can try to influence the other parties, like for example holding up a hand to ask a car to stop to let you cross. But they may ignore you. And they often do. Annually, more than 4 500 pedestrians are killed in traffic crashes in the United States. This averages to one crash-related pedestrian death every two hours. Additionally, more than 150 000 pedestrians were treated in US emergency departments for non-fatal crash-related injuries that year.

This shows the limitation of rules and command. Likewise, in organizations, leaders need followers, people to obey a command. In this case, you command the car to stop but it ignores you. Within any organizations there will be frequent occasions when commands and rules are either ignored or carried out in a way that was not intended by the person commanding or by the aim of the rule. Your ‘control’ of your own situation may also be partial if you misjudge the closing speed between you and the on-coming car leading to you getting out of its way just in time. You did not see the women with the pram that steps out from behind a bus that stops you reaching the safety of the pavement as you have planned. You can see crossing the road as a simple activity (by abstracting out much of what else is going on), or you can see it as just another manifestation of normal chaos.

Finding the optimal balance between using rules and regulations and relying on the interdependencies of autonomous teams in operations is key for anticipating complex situations

Given that, we see that having an effective planning process is more important than simply having a plan. However, this requires a mind shift, one that is willing to send the Utopian ‘perfect world paradigm’ (that says that we can manage crisis) to Perdition and accept that we actually have very little control. Therefore, we should see management as a mix of ‘intuitive skills’ alongside compliance with laws and regulations to cope with the prevailing uncertainty that surrounds us. Our research indicates that finding the optimal balance between using rules and regulations on one side and relying on the interdependencies of autonomous teams in operations at the other side is key for anticipating complex situations. Although they will never have ‘complete control’ within a set of given constraints, it will remarkably help teams to avoid the cause-and-effect trap, and focus on a few simple rules, principles or Critical Success Factors that will guide them through the crisis.