Friday, December 02, 2005

Chaos vs. Complexity

I spent some time with my brother recently and the discussion turned to 2x2’s. Specifically, we talked about Chaos vs. Complexity. Without a doubt, complexity drives chaos. The more complex your home life or work or project is, the more likely that it will spin into chaos.

My brother lives on the frontier of chaos and complexity. He is an architect in NYC and spends several days a week on the road. My sister-in-law manages the home and 3 kids, plus she performs and teaches violin around the tri-state region. His life is complex – managing multiple large architecture projects, and his life is chaotic. And his place on the 2x2 is very different than mine – far less complex and chaotic.

It turns out that chaos has some serious heritage. Not only does it make an extreme case of confusion or unpredictability, but it also has a deep base in mythology. In Greek mythology, Chaos or Khaos is the primeval state of existence from which the first gods appeared.

Chaos Theory is a mathematical concept best represented by the butterfly effect: The idea is that small variations in the initial conditions of a dynamical system produce large variations in the long term behavior of the system. Aka: Can a butterfly flapping it’s wings in the Amazon cause Hurricane Katrina? (See Ray Bradbury's 1952 story "A Sound of Thunder")

Butterfly effect. (2005, November 29). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 05:33, December 3, 2005 from

But sometimes there are incredible anomalies to this 2x2. Great tasks like the Apollo program or building a skyscraper or running a trauma center or my friend Brian who has 8 kids – they seem to have the ability to manage major complexity without the accompanying chaos. What strategies have they employed that the rest of us don’t know about?

One of the guru’s of personal success, Stephen Covey, has spent his life studying this question. He translates Chaos vs. Complexity into his famous 2x2: Urgent vs. Import. By categorizing tasks and tackling them based on their importance first and urgency second, chaos can be reduced – especially in complex environments. There is much to learn from Covey's 7 habits - especially as they apply to managing Chaos.


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