This post explores my perspectives on the distinctions and connections between chaos and uncertainty.
In the OD field, uncertainty seems to be used much less that terms such as risk, complexity, instability, and chaos. Yet when I think about the various articles using these more frequently used terms I get the sense that the authors are really thinking about uncertainty.
Chaos is a very interesting notion to me as it evokes considerable ideas. Wikipedia describes chaos as having two key attributes: complete disorder and confusion. Confusion I can more easily see in the context of what people are talking about. But, complete disorder, not so much. Disorder evokes ideas about anarchy, being within the front lines of civil unrest or war, and other very traumatic inducing circumstances. We also know that physics considers the time just after the big bang as a time of disorder. Clearly OD practioners are not talking about such events or circumstances. They are most often talking about how leaders need to deal with confusion within their business environments. There seems to be a strong tendency to claim that such confusion is worse now than it has been historically and will likely get more so in the future.
Uncertainty, is describe by wikipedia as having the attribute of lack of knowledge. In the context of risk, uncertainty lacks a sense of likelihood (so we could not/did not expect it). Some like the economist Knight think of risk as “measured” uncertainty. Others like Nassim Taleb think of uncertainty as the result of randomness that exists within systems. The more complex the system the more opportunity for uncertainty to arise. This is due to the lack of knowledge and understanding on how these systems work and the potential variations in their outcomes can arise.
From the perspective outlined above, chaos interns of disorder and confusion can contribute to uncertainty existing and arising. Disorder is an underlying statement of how things exist relative to each other (metaphysical in other words). Confusion related to someone’s cognitive limits. Yet confusion can exist where there is no underlying disorder. Systems can be complex enough such that we lose our ability to truly understand them. These systems may be quite orderly in nature, it’s just that the dependent and independent variable relationships is beyond our understanding. Also systems can contribute to confusion because they embody elements of randomness in them. Anyone who has done a Monte Carlo simulation understands that randomness can be a core feature of the system, game or simulation. In terms of natural systems (ones not involving people or sentient life) we may look to quantum physics to give us insights into how randomness can be present in systems that in one sense or other are orderly.
Social systems have their own unique sources of randomness: people can change their minds and act “seemingly” inconsistently. I say seemingly, because this inconsistency in others may only appear to be so from an observer’s perspective. In my mind I may be acting quite consistently, using decision references that are not entirely understood (Ah! That notion again) by someone else. Or I may indeed be doing so intentionally or unknowingly. This for me at least is why I consider social systems as having the most latent uncertainty within them.
From a population perspective (like statisticians like to look at us) we often behave in very predictable ways. But at the individual level this is no so. The parallel in physics again is that large systems physics such as celestial physics behaves in ways that are in large part predictable (N.B. though much is not understood yet). However, at the quantum physics level (small particle physics) the notion of uncertainty is integral (although the notion of uncertainty is quite different than we normally use it). Individual particles can and apparently act quite randomly.
In practical terms, this means when we do strategy, planning, living our lives, etc. we acre continuously interacting with social systems and those in them. We have all experienced the randomness with such systems. Some years ago we were building a house and we had to deal with different building inspectors throughout the project. The building codes were pretty clear, the construction standards and practices were pretty clear. Yet we had quite different experiences when one of the inspectors went on vacation and a colleague of his came out to our construction site. One was very helpful and supportive 9while upholding the building codes), the other was very officious and used the code to expose minutia variances that were deemed violations. One laughable (while I cry and die) was he did not like how the roofing system looked. This was an engineered roofing system so it had been signed. He was not impressed, and he knew that we were dealing with dealings for other trades being able to come on the job site. So a compromise was reached. The contextual system that both inspectors operated in was the same and clear. Yet the individual behaviours varied markedly. This was clearly a case of randomness arising in this system and impacting us.
There was no chaos in the system as such. No disorder as such. Confusion only arose when we were facing inconsistency in behaviour between two individuals with the very same job and task. This happens frequently in our lives, we expect it, we often just know exactly when, where, with who, over what.
So for me, the notion of chaos, is mainly hypothetical (rarely happens for most of us in many parts of the world). but uncertainty is something we are exposed to daily. Fortunately it usually comes in small doses involving other individuals in ways that can be both irritating, frustrating but also filled humour.