Creative Chaos

IdeaConnection Interview with Joseph Roevens, Author of Systemic Constellations Work in Organizations and Co-author with Robin Rowley of Organize with Chaos
By Vern Burkhardt
"The ancient Greeks regarded Chaos as the source of all things. Everything emerged out of it."

VB: You teach at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences.

photo of Joseph RoevensJoseph Roevens: I teach several human resource management, cross-cultural understanding, and strategic change subjects in the Academies of Hotel Management and Facility Management. At the NHTV research Centre for Cross-cultural Understanding. Professor Vincent Platenkamp and I are exploring, amongst other things, modern ways of strategic cultural change.

VB: NHTV Breda's website refers to "problem-based learning." What is that?

Joseph Roevens: We want our students to deal with real life situations instead of only with theory. For example, if a business or public institution wants to find out how they can improve teamwork, we will have a group of students work on that specific case. They will have group sessions where they can exchange feedback, and theoretical courses will be plugged into the process. Rather than the professors giving students the theory, they have to find what will work in the case study they're working on and apply it.

VB: In your research work you are "exploring modern ways of strategic cultural change."

Joseph Roevens: It's using two methodologies. The first is organizing with chaos. We're working with a hospital in the Netherlands that is going through change. Instead of the common approaches we're using insights from chaos theory, which is very people based, and some aspects of thinking that is also called creating a learning organization.

And at the same time we're exploring something novel in Europe called systemic constellations work – it's also very new in the U.S. In the hospital example, while talking to a consultant of the hospital about his client, I would give him a number of objects to represent the people involved, and ask him to place them on the table. Then as we discuss the geometric form he created we get an idea of the system that is operating within the hospital. During this discussion we will mutually discover a possible next step for him to take with the client. This is in contrast to identifying the so-called 20 next 'rational' steps, and developing a detailed plan. By the time you've taken the first next step, your future has already changed and the next 19 steps may turn out to be a useless mental exercise.

It's about the moment of now, what shall we do tomorrow, or even in a few hours from now. We're even using this technique to help people make strategic directions and choices.

Systemic constellations are something you can do live with people, which is how it's often used, or with objects. We have to be a lot more focused on the here and now, on some sort of common intelligence. The question is how do we do this because we're always using our rational minds? Systemic constellations is one of the ways – not the only one – in which you can get to a common ground. I've heard of practitioners who are also applying the works of Peter Senge (Presence) and Otto Scharmer (Theory U).

The last time I was working with a manager I knew almost nothing about his situation, because I had done very little analysis or research about his company. He set up a constellation with objects I provided him – they look a lot like small stones, and are also called "Touchstones" by its inventor Ty Francis. Within a very few minutes of looking at the constellation I pointed and said, "I think this element has a lot more power than it should." This led to a conversation about the fact that some experts in the organization were claiming more power than appropriate, because many others were also pivotal to taking care of the customers.

It's a way to have a non-verbal, subconscious level of thought. It can happen because the manager and staff have a deep experience and understanding of their organization, even beyond their conscious knowledge of it. This is what we, and some others, are trying to explore.

VB: Do you and your students study David Bohm or the four fields of dialogue, the fourth field being Generative Dialogue with Synchronicity and Flow, in the Netherlands?

Joseph Roevens: We've read some of David Bohm's work, especially its application to participative dialoguing in hospitals in New Zealand.

At our university we're pioneers. We have a research center dedicated to Imagineering and to Cross-cultural Understanding. Our director, René Hermans, and his team have turned the youngest Academy of Hotel Management and Facility Management in Europe into a major player in just a few years!

VB: Can this deeper way of thinking and having dialogue happen through conversations using Skype on the Internet or do you have to physically be together for a deeper understanding to emerge?

Joseph Roevens: An Italian consultant that two of our students are studying uses the Touchstones we talked about earlier for systemic constellations when coaching clients using Skype, and he finds that after awhile you get accustomed to it. He's noticed in coaching sessions and even visualizations with people that the results are as effective as being physically in the same room.

In a way technology focuses your attention even more than when you are physically together.

VB: To what extent do your academies at NHTV University include studies of creativity and innovation?

Joseph Roevens: Our education is designed around competency-based learning with a large variety of pedagogical approaches. We are helping students to become professionals so their studies go beyond theory to include management skills and professional attitudes. Creativity & innovation can be found throughout their programs. Both our lecturers and coaching with students focus on it.

We also have Imagineering and an official Innovation Platform.

VB: Imagineering?

Joseph Roevens: "Imagineering" is a set of tools initiated by ALCOA in 1942, elaborated by Disney since 1957, and further developed and made an essential educational ingredient by our University since the 1990s. It is a way to discover the possibility of a new kind of convergence between consumers' desires, technological capabilities, and organizational innovations. Imagineering aims to give a holistic answer to new economic challenges such as transparency, sustainability, co-creation, and open innovation in a search for symbolic value. Our university has an Academy of Imagineering dedicated to this study. Since 2006 we have provided an accredited Master's program on this subject."

VB: What is an official "Innovation Platform?"

Joseph Roevens: It's an initiative in our school in which some of our lecturers are promoting innovation.

VB: I was recently listening to an interview with some analysts in Australia who said that increasingly the topic of innovation with Australian companies is a matter of "lip service" because they're cutting back on R & D and other activities related to innovation. Are you finding a similar situation in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe – that the topic of innovation is less "top of mind" with corporate executives?

Joseph Roevens: Today in the Netherlands and Belgium, the two countries I'm most familiar with, we have the same panic and downsizing that was going on in the late 80s or early 90s. Still the Dutch language HR magazine discussed systemic constellations work and solutions focus in its November issue. So there appears to be an appetite for people who are advising we shouldn't make the same mistakes of 15 or 30 years ago. We should do change differently.

VB: What is the essence of "chaos," and how can businesses use it as a creative resource?

Joseph Roevens: We use the scientific definition of chaos, namely a state that seems to be messy and disordered, but is actually a more complex form of order which we need to learn to perceive. When people say, "This place is a chaos," they mostly mean they can't understand, control, or deal with it. Most of the time there's nothing wrong with the place or situation, just our perception of it.

VB: Does this mean chaos is required for creativeness?

Joseph Roevens: It's about tolerating 'not knowing,"'to not go with a solution, but rather to just wait and let the solution arise or emerge as if 'out of the ground.' In social science research there's even a method called "grounded theory."

VB: Do your students generally grasp and use this approach?

Joseph Roevens: We notice that one of the unpleasant effects of today is that students and teachers as well – I must admit - can get overwhelmed by information that’s coming to them at the university and from other sources like the Internet, mobile phones, and many other inputs of data. To attain a quiet center in one’s mind in the midst of all this input, is a challenge. But the alternative is degeneration of the mind.

VB: In the transcript for the third edition of Organize with Chaos you say, "Today's chaos mostly comes from the customer." "Feeling the customer's level of satisfaction … provides a strategic point of common reference." Would you explain?

Joseph Roevens: Nowadays the economist's dream of consumers having access to almost total market information has come true. Customers are more demanding, and they know the price and service levels of your competitors.

We need to listen to our customers, and build our organization and its strategy around what we hear. In the book we write about how Ricardo Semler, CEO and majority owner of Semco SA in Brazil, has done just that.

VB: Do you agree with those who say you have to solve problems customers don't even know they have?

Joseph Roevens: Yes. It makes me think about my car mechanic, Ludwig. He's the kind that tells you about a possible engine-problem before it actually occurs. You stick with that guy!

VB: "Conflict is a sign of vitality." "Open healthy conflict builds trust."

Joseph Roevens: This is a cross-cultural issue. In certain countries, such as the Netherlands or Scandinavia, it's quite common for subordinates to question the ideas of their superiors. And this can go quite far and be rather explosive, compared to other countries where questioning your bosses authority or intelligence is simply not done.

Today it is just be too risky for top managers to pretend they have all the right answers about customers, competitors, and suppliers. They need the involved, caring eyes, ears, and mouths of everyone to lead the organization well. This is what we mean by healthy conflict.

VB: "Change, not stability, is actually what's normal." How does chaos relate to change?

Joseph Roevens: Everything is continuously going through phases of "order," we've done this before so we can repeat our behaviour. And then "chaos," we haven't done this before, how should we deal with this new situation?

Unfortunately, much of today's 'change' isn't really 'change'. It's the same dynamics wrapped in a new cloak. Real change is about entering the chaos phase bravely, and not knowing where you will come out. A lot of the planned change initiatives fail to realize that our current thinking and practice can't envision a future that will be new and different.

VB: Do you have any tips for how can we go about thinking up a future that will be new?

Joseph Roevens: Whether at work or on a personal level you deal with situations by thinking about them in the 'now' in terms of what's the right thing to do, which is always of common benefit.

We now face global warming – at least there's general agreement it's a situation. But rather than spending lot's of time creating possible future scenarios, perhaps it's a wiser thing to ask ourselves individually and in groups what actions can we take today. If we take good actions today then the chances our future will be good is probably better than operating under the old mindset, the old "delaying tactic" of trying to figure out the new thinking about the situation. Robin Rowley just wrote a song about it, the "Internet Butterfly."

VB: Can and should business chaos be encouraged within organizations?

Joseph Roevens: No, it is inherent to it. The title of our book is “Organize WITH Chaos”. It invites readers to understand the chaotic realities of organizations, AND manage their firms accordingly. We don’t suggest creating a mess.

VB: You say, "Insights and metaphors have been incorporated from modern Physics, Biology, World Philosophy and the new Psychologies of Choice, Entrepreneurship and Healing, because that's where the process of change is best understood today." Would you talk about the new Psychologies of Choice, Entrepreneurship and Healing?

Joseph Roevens: Since our first edition of Organize with Chaos back in 1997, there's been a coming together of both academic and more popular forms of knowing and knowledge. Our students have all watched Oprah, Dr. Phil, Deepak Chopra, What the Bleep Do We Know, or the likes. I'm not saying we should uncritically accept all this information. However, social science and psychology is now more a subject of everyday discussion than it was back in the 90s.

VB: Is organizing with chaos especially applicable today given the world economic recession, and the difficulties many businesses are having with survival, let alone thriving?

cover of Organize with ChaosJoseph Roevens: Organize with Chaos shows, amongst other things, that some form of empowered participative management is the most successful humane way to run businesses in a rapidly changing free market system. The days of top management taking the so-called' ‘expert strategic decisions', and deserving to earn a lot more than their subordinates aren't over yet, but on a macro-economical, a political and a human level, it’s just unacceptable.

VB: "…moving from one state to another, particularly from the problem state to the solved state." Is there ever such a thing as a "solved state" in a situation of chaos?

Joseph Roevens: Solved state – no.

There probably are moments in the life cycle of an organization where the way of doing things have settled down and stabilized. People may need more regularity before they can go back into the next wave of change. We describe this life cycle as: “Enhance to Perturb to Attract to Exite”. It’s the core of our book, so I won’t tell you more now!

VB: What message do you have for leaders who see their current business reality as in chaos, meaning they think of it as being mostly negative rather than offering opportunities for creativity and innovation?

Joseph Roevens: Understanding the reality of chaos could actually make your job easier.

VB: A lot of the advice you give has to do with attitude and one's perspective?

Joseph Roevens: Essentially, it doesn't matter whether you decide to use a vocabulary or a methodology of Reengineering, TQM, Six Sigma or any of the many other management methodologies for improvement and change. The “how” is not so important. What matters is the “who”, it’s about the people who are doing it and those who take responsibility.

VB: What is the role of the leader in organizing with chaos?

Joseph Roevens: Promoting a sense of entrepreneurship. Leaders know when its time to be a leader of specific projects, and when they're needed most. After awhile someone else takes on that role.

At Semco SA in Brazil every six months a board of seven CEOs decides who is going to be the next CEO. It involves a democratic process.

VB: "Management today must be considered a continuous experiment." What do you mean by this?

Joseph Roevens: It is the end of the "know-it-all" MBA. Managers today just don't know what the "right" decisions are, nor do their consultants. Even Bill Gates admits that Microsoft's choice to go full force on the Internet didn't come from him, but from some of his co-workers. "I don't know either, but let's discuss what we could do", will become the most honest, and effective management answer. This may take some time, and blows from the market, in companies that still have a high power distance culture.

VB: What is a high power distance culture?

Joseph Roevens: This is a term that sociologist Gerd Hofstede introduced when comparing cultures.

In high power distance cultures, it's considered that the manager knows it all and should make all the decisions. If you’re a general manager your employees may not respect you if you ask for their opinion. They would say, “Wait a minute, we’re not paid for that.”
In a low power distance culture, however, it's acceptable for employees to tell their managers that they have different opinions.

Fortunately, going from high to low power distance can be facilitated. Semco SA operates in Brazil, which is considered a relatively high power distance culture. Still its owner, Ricardo Semler, was able to turn the company around to operate as if in a low power distance culture. It only takes time and courage.

VB: How do you convince business leaders that the solution is not to merely downsize and cut back? Or as you say, "You don't cut for sustainable profits, you grow them."

Joseph Roevens: This depends on the specific situation. Sometimes cutting is the only option. But often it is a quick fix, focused on next quarter’s earnings, and not on the long term success of the organisation.

VB: You cite statistics from the U K and U.S. indicating de-layering, downsizing, business process re-engineering, and total quality management often don't live up to expectations. Is that experience also the case in other countries, including the Netherlands?

Joseph Roevens: Yes, research by Dr. Jaap Boonstra and Dr. Willem Mastenbroek, amongst others, shows that more than 75% of change initiatives over the last 20 years did not live up to the expectations of efficiency, increased growth… set up at the start.

VB: What needs to be done to reduce the risk of failure or increase the likelihood of success of change initiatives?

Joseph Roevens: I wish I knew…

VB: Does it come down to trust, respect, and shared accountabilities?

Joseph Roevens: There is a tendency amongst the current generation of students to engage in meaningful work. Unless they have to stay for economic reasons, if their organization doesn't treat them well most will leave and either start their own business or work for someone else.

VB: When you think of an entrepreneur, what characteristics are essential if they are to be highly successful?

Joseph Roevens: Have a high tolerance to failure and/or a strong desire to fulfill your dreams!

The actor Dustin Hoffman was on the verge of depression before he finally broke through with the movie “the Graduate”. He had auditioned for acting roles many times and for many years, and was often rejected. He said, “The only difference between me and some other actors who did not make it is that I hung in there.” It was Hoffman and Gene Hackman who, at some point, were sharing a flat, and they couldn’t afford the fuel to heat it. At night they had to lie close to each other to survive the New York winter. Those two actors made it because they kept at it until their breakthrough happened.

You also see that with entrepreneurs.

VB: What are some of the interesting projects you are working on?

I'm facilitating the Organize with Chaos change unit program for 4th year students at NHTV, and exploring a more democratic, bottom-up approach to teaching change through experience, self-responsibility and self-organization. I also teach Masters programs at Bremerhaven in Paris.

I'm helping a hospital near Rotterdam to facilitate change.

VB: How do you find the time for all you're involved in?

Joseph Roevens: I've begun to wonder about that question myself the last couple of days! I try to delegate as much as I can.

Authors Robin Rowley and Joseph Roevens set a lofty and admirable purpose for writing the book: "to reveal a new way for you to prospect your own organization for new levels of performance, commitment and innovation."

They advise that chaos is the rule, not the exception. Chaos is not a mess, disaster, unbridled anarchy, or pure randomness. It is "…the essence of all living systems, which actually need a degree of chaos and irregularity in order to stay healthy. It is ubiquitous and perfectly natural." They also advise, "The practical challenge for any executive today is not so much to try to fight and eliminate Chaos, but to learn to understand and to use it strategically, as a vital creative resource."

The authors identify some of the new environmental sources of modern business chaos as being:
  1. Higher customers expectations;

  2. Rapid technological innovation and obsolescence of existing products and services;

  3. Cross-cultural misunderstandings;

  4. Rapid organizational growth and extinctions in some business units;

  5. Talent bleeding and specific skill shortages;

  6. Volatile world stock markets; and

  7. Newtonian consultants.

Joseph Roevens' Bio:
Dr. Joseph Roevens is a lecturer at the NHTV- University of Applied Sciences in Breda, the Netherlands, and the Change Course Leader at Hochschule Bremerhaven Summer School.
Joseph Roevens has a Ph.D in Organizational Sciences from the Tilburg University, a Diploma in Advanced International Studies from The John Hopkins University – Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, and a bachelor's degree in Economics and Government from Cornell University.

He is the author of Systemic Constellations Work in Organizations (2008) and co-author with Robin Rowley of Organize with Chaos: Putting Modern Chaos Theory to Work in Your Own Organization(2007)."

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