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The Holy Grail Of Innovation: The Edge Of Chaos

  • Workplace Strategy

Justin Timmer is our In-House Researcher. Contact him via


Getting your organisation to the edge of chaos

Today’s world is highly dynamic. We see disruptive technologies, changes in hierarchic and social-economic structures, a rapidly changing climate, and accelerated shifts in ways of communication, transit, in buildings and the accompanying workplaces. While these changes might cause threats to you and your organisation, they also offer possibilities. Perceiving the relationship with the outside world in new ways results in different ways of coping with it. One could see it as a chance, and jump in the stream of change and innovation; being highly adaptive and influential in disrupting and changing the world.

Alternatively, one could also perceive it as a threat and focus on retaining existing structures. Neither of the extremes is good nor bad per se. It depends on the nature of your organisation and the way the strategy resonates across your organisation. On the one side of the spectrum, there is rigid order, which is more focused on the self and a strong internal connection making a robust solid structure. While on the other extreme, the focus is more on the environment, where the connections are loose making a more fluid dynamic structure. At the core, we talk about the organisation’s identity which is somewhere on this spectrum.

Organisational Identity

Using innovation and change that creates a positive impact requires highly adaptive strategies. These strategies is almost completely focused on the change of the environment and filling the holes which emerge and using these to create value for the market and the organisation. This strategy requires a highly dynamic organisation which could change roles, people, resources, and products rapidly. However, this strategy requires almost a loss of organisational identity and is thus hard to sustain over time. We all know that fluid start-ups come and go in a flinch.

On the other side, companies can also focus primarily on retaining their identity. People love stability as this gives a sense of certainty. Companies who have been around for decades often act like a solid rock within the stream of change. By doing this, they might even guide the stream of innovation. Through a strongly connected network, a structured organisation can make sustainable products that might even disrupt the market by itself. It depends a bit on your current position in the market which direction your organisation should take to grow and/or retain.

Ending up in the middle of order and chaos

Neither a highly dynamic or highly ordered organisation are guaranteed to make it in the long run. They both miss an essential quality of both extremes. An organisation that is too ordered could become too old-fashioned and might be overrun by innovative solutions. These innovative solutions might come from the dynamic companies, but might not sustain themselves because of the high dynamics in personal switching, and too little structure to cope with growth. Most successful organisations thrive somewhere in the middle between order and chaos. This place is known in science as the “Edge of chaos”. To reach this sweet spot, organisations need to go through continuous loops between order and chaos. When there is too much chaos, rules need to be applied to return to order, while with too much order, flexibility should be allowed again.

Getting to the sweet spot

But even when you have chosen your position, you are far from getting there. The direction of your organisation should be resonated across the minds of people, in the workplace, within the behavioural rules, and within the communication. Below we focus on a few techniques to change the organisation in all these facets. We focus on the extremes to provide a guide towards that direction. The table below depicts these extremes once more and gives an abstract focus.

Focus: Order and static

Focus: Disorder and dynamic

Organisational identity

Self-focused, retainment of identity, internal connection

Environment focused, growth and change, external connection



Focused on fixation, focused on structure and past

Focused on growth, change and future-orientated

Physical workplace


Ordered, structural, clear

Dynamic, chaotic, challenging


Hierarchic, planned meetings, strict policies, strong routines, bureaucratic, structured decision making

Bottom-up, Non-planned meetings, no policies, informal, Ad-hoc, snap decisions


Each worker also has tendencies for structure or chaos. Some workers might focus on change, wondering about the future and keeping up with the latest trends. Other workers might also linger in the past and search for causal relationships, using known successful techniques to replicate in the future. You could separate employees thinking styles in reductionist linear ways: focused on direct cause and effect, and prefer to categorise and structure their mind, loving order. In contrast, a more dynamic mindset might be a more “systems thinking” style, which is focused on complex relations, non-linear effects. These people love change. Both sides have preferences when it comes to categorising departments, functions, and complying with policies and other rules.

Carol Dweck made similar distinctions in her framework of the fixed mindset and growth mindset. The Growth mindset is more focused on change and adaptive minds while the Fixed mindset is more focused on retainment and limitations. There are several companies that can assist workers in changing their mindset. However, it is good to realise that different workers, have and need different mindsets when it comes to fixation and growth, just compare Research and development to HRM. But a mindset isn’t all there is to it, the physical organisation should also be facilitating the mind.

Physical workplace

The workplace facilitates workers to do their job and comes with a certain design. In highly structured workplaces, you might find more cubicles, clean desk policies, and symmetric design. Strong symmetry might be applied in terms of placement, use of art, and way-finding. Straight lines and highly geometric shapes in buildings and objects might be seen across the office. Strong colour contrasts and structured fonts might be used to clarify way-finding and room-use.

In comparison, you can find workplaces that are a complete chaotic mess, like some open floor plans tend to feel. One should find, once again, the sweet spot between order and chaos. Activity-based working is a workplace concept that holds some structure, but also includes behavioural freedom. But you can also find biophilic design with all its natural shapes on the edge of chaos. Patterns of nature are dynamic but also quite ordered. They have scientifically proven to be beneficial for employees a couple of times (source).


Communication can be internal from being ad-hoc and unstructured to strict policies. It’s not hard to relate policies to order. You can find strictly ordered policies in the required attendance on the workplace (like check-in clocks), in the booking of rooms, communication rules, desk assignments, and many more facets. Ordered policies also lead to more bureaucratic and internal “policy deliberation” to realise changes which often, if one endures this process, leads to long-lasting developments. More disorder organisations might have no, or more flexible policies when it comes to communication. People might just communicate through some medium whenever they desire to. Flexible policies might have less order and could rely more on trust like the application of self-organising policies. However, flexibility could also lead to less chaos and unequal treatment between employees (like allowing only a few employees to work from home). The following visual outlines this concept in simple terms:


If we consider the organisational identity at its core, an organisation needs employees, a workplace, and policies that align with this identity. Yet, dynamics might change the identity of the organisation requiring changes or different people, the workplace, and policies. On the other side, people, workplaces, and policies can directly influence identity as well. Luckily, all these facets can be categorised on the spectrum from order to disorder making them easier to align on this multi-dimensional spectrum. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that all these facets influence each other: policies make the people behave with their physical workplace. People influence policies and workplaces work best with certain policies. Misalignment between these facets might cause dynamics that quickly lead to chaotic patterns. Effective communication between these facets and the relation with the environment determines the identity of the organisation and thus the success of an organisation in this dynamic world.

Management for success

Management is the most important regulator in the structure of an organisation. However, it depends on the structure of an organisation, from order to chaos, who is that management and how the responsibilities are distributed. This choice makes your organisation shift from chaos to order or from order to chaos. The order makes you structured and able to retain yourself in the chaos of movement, while disorder makes you more dynamic and adaptive to user trends and opportunities. This direction of your organisation directly determines the success of your organisation.

To gather information on your employee’s preferences, Measuremen has created an app named Habital. It is an excellent tool to make the first step towards figuring out what your colleagues really want in the workplace. Find out more here or get in touch with us for more information!

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