Chaos (n): the inherent unpredictability in the behaviour of a complex natural system

In 1961, a meteorologist by the name of Edward Lorenz made a profound discovery. Lorenz was utilising the new-found power of computers in an attempt to more accurately predict the weather. But in running two different analyses, one used 0.506, the original run had used the number 0.506127 with entirely different outcomes.

A difference of one part in a thousand: the same sort of difference that a flap of a butterfly’s wing might make to the breeze on your face. The starting weather conditions had been virtually identical. The two predictions were anything but.

At the centre of Chaos Theory is the fascinating idea that order and chaos are not always diametrically opposed. Chaotic systems are an intimate mix of the two: from the outside they display unpredictable and chaotic behaviour, but expose the inner workings and you discover a perfectly deterministic set of equations ticking like clockwork.

Some systems flip this premise around, with orderly effects emerging out of turbulent and chaotic causes.

So it is with most organisations. To those looking on from the outside all seems to be orderly. The organisation keeps on growing, goals keep on being achieved. But inside it is all turbulence and chaos. I remember many years ago, when working for the Wilderness Society, that one of the major national newspapers described the organisation (to paraphrase) as a rich, slick, well-oiled and well managed behemoth.

Those of us on the inside of the organisation simply laughed. We knew how close the organisation was to bankruptcy at any given hour. How it ran without any formal structures of any sort, dependent, simply, on the skills and commitment of a dozen or so inexperienced, if skilled individuals. How on any given day potential disaster was just around the next corner.

But this chaos is not unique to non-profits. Companies and Governments are equally chaotic and incoherent in most cases. For non-profits which are opposing large companies or Government it’s important to remember that they possess no special claim to efficiency or order – in fact it’s often worse inside business, simply because the powerful hubris of those leading them means that few people are prepared to challenge poor decisions.

Working on campaigns such as those to preserve the Franklin or protect the proposed stage 3 of Kakadu from mining at Coronation Hill, one could not but be struck by the extraordinary number of damaging campaign mistakes and/or media statements made by the Tasmanian Government or BHP, respectively¹.

Pig nosed turtle

The endangered Pig-nosed turtle – BHP ran adverts advocating that a gold, platinum and palladium mine was much more important than saving the endangered pig-nosed turtle.

Non-profit campaigning organisations, however, possess a special instability due to the fact that most are staffed or run by individuals whose entire life is about campaigning and resisting the status quo. Why would we expect them to campaign for change on the outside and not do so inside the organisations for which they work?

Those organisations are also poorly equipped to deal with internal opposition because the “leaders” are themselves often inherently incapable of resolving conflict via mediation or conciliation because not only are they, themselves, campaigners but because a large ego and the conviction that they are right often comes with the territory, for long-term campaigners.

Simple steps for better management:

  1. Differentiate between campaign and management skills and between project management and organisational management.
  2. Put in place ongoing conflict resolution processes with compulsory arbitration of conflict.
  3. Put in place independent complaints processes.
  4. Clear harassment and bullying guidelines.
  5. Complaints about staff  must to via their managers.
  6. Clear differentiation between Governance and management.
  7. Train boards and governance organisation in governance principles.
  8. Management training for managers.
  9. Simple internal structures with clear lines of responsibility.
  10. Managers must manage and coordinate not be absorbed by a thousand tasks that should be delegated to others.
  11. Provision of proper support, counselling, training and resources for staff.
  12. Staff welfare officer/provision for staff support.

An additional issue that non-profits face, especially campaigning ones, is the combination of loyalty and lack of management culture.

Management is often seen as a dirty word, smacking of hierarchy instead of a source of good organisational structure. Combine this with loyalty to long term campaigners and we consistently see campaigners with no management skills of any type and without even any predisposition to management being promoted into senior management positions or onto management committees or boards.

Instead of managing, the campaigners simply don a mantle of “super-campaigner” and keep on doing what they have always done except with an added sense of their own infallibility.

This inherent instability has effected almost every organisation for which I have ever worked with the sole exception of Greenpeace New Zealand – the absence of which, in that organisation, was solely down to good leadership from above.

Greenpeace International, other Greenpeace offices (in particular Greenpeace Australia), the Wilderness Society, the Greens and others all suffer or suffered from chronic organisational instability and, in some cases, internal chaos and appeared incapable of addressing the root causes.

This failure is partly because they rarely recognise the reasons for the instability and partly because the instinctive reaction of those running the organisations is to shoot the messenger. The siege mentality of many campaigning non-profits gives rise to a demand for absolutely loyalty and anyone questioning the modus operandi of those running those organisations is rarely tolerated.

The end result of this is that many campaigning non-profits could be much more successful than they are. They succeed despite themselves. Political parties of all hues are a classic example of this chaos theory.

They are constantly subject to internal division and conflict, usually have no strategy or capacity for resolving that conflict, are absolutely intolerant of criticism or perceived disloyalty and often have internal structures that deliberately or inadvertently mitigate against efficiency – often due to misplaced ideas of internal party democracy.

The Greens despite their sense of their own virtue are no exception to any of this as we have seen in recent conflicts over harassment in NSW, ACT and elsewhere, as is evidenced from the ongoing internal struggles in NSW and in the almost complete absence of effective strategies to mitigate or resolve any of these things.

The 2015 NSW state election campaign was a classic example of a campaign that was successful but could have been much more so if it were not for tensions created by internal structures that were completely nonsensical and conflicts created by MPs and candidates who possessed too much power and too little ability to put the good of the campaign before their own personal ambition.

Changes are, of course, afoot in some areas but truly, as of now, the Emperor is still naked.

¹ Some famous (and stupid) sayings by politicians and others:

Russell Ashton (Hydro Electric Commissioner, Tasmania: (1) “If the Parliament tries to work through popular decisions we’re doomed in this state and doomed everywhere” (Nationwide 19.6.81) (2) “What is the value of a wilderness that is never used? The landscape tends to be dull and repetitive and can only be improved by the addition of water” (National Times)

Doug Lowe (former Tasmanian Premier): “The proposal that there be no (hydro electric) scheme at all is totally untenable to the Government even if that were the wish of most of the public”

BHP (on Kakadu): Platinum, Palladium or the Pig-nosed turtle, which comes first?”