Brexit a positive sign of systems chaos

The stormy future of the Economic Union can learn a lot from American mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz. Back in 1961, Lorenz made history by proving in his computer lab that even the tiniest of change can lead to profound effects. Called “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” Lorenz’s finding is a key to understanding the science of Chaos Theory, which in simple terms, is an appreciation that things are continually changing but with no easily predicted pattern and certainly not in a linear fashion.

A close cousin of Chaos Theory is Complexity Science (complex adaptive systems) which views organizational life as being continually emergent with many networks of expanding and contracting connections, success coming from guiding rather than decreeing, and organizations being humanistic and organic rather than mechanistic and deterministic. Complex adaptive systems are an intertwined body of communication, collaboration, coordination, and distributed authority, answering to shifting internal and external environments through transformational systems of responsibility and accountability.

Brexit is a story of how a mechanistic “stay” campaign inevitably lost to the emergent and adaptive properties of the “leave” side. Here’s the analysis, and the prediction for EU member countries:

  • “EU Stay” embedded the following mechanistic and linear, straight-line thinking: 1) “Elites” such as politicians, business leaders, labour union bosses, and celebrities know what’s best; 2) What worked before will work again (heck, Brits voted to stay in 1975, so they will again); and 3) The intellectual arrogance of “facts” and data will override human emotions.
  • In contrast, “EU leave” displayed all the properties of an emergent, complex adaptive system. 1) Many players from a wide strata of socio-demographics gave the metaphorical and literal finger to elites; 2) Strong and visceral  emotions were quickly connected through social and news media; and 3) They collectively filled to overflowing the CORE needs of any organized endeavor to trigger change–they were Committed, Organized, Resourced, Respected, and both Experienced at driving change and Energized with emotion, particularly fear of the threats they perceived to their personal well being.
  • I submit that Brexit is just the start of rivets popping out of the EU. What Brexit shows is that elites, whether within Britain and Europe or in America (witness Donald Trump’s success) are demonstrating all the properties of emergence within a complex adaptive system. Consider the following:
  • An opinion poll released by the Ipsos organization (May 20-June 3, 2016) shows that 76% of those surveyed in France think their national government leader should be replaced, 65% think that in Italy, 78% in Spain and at the time of the survey, 61% in Great Britain. Even worse, only 28% of survey respondents in France thought their national government was “in touch with the mood of the people,” 32% in Italy, 32% in Spain, and at the time of the survey, 29% in Great Britain.

Recently Margit Liebhart and Lucia Garcia of the London School of Economics published a paper entitled Between Planned and Emergent Change: Decision Makers’ Perceptions of Managing Change in an Organization. They state in part:

“…to view organisations as non-linear systems requires also a reconceptualization of the role of leaders and decision makers (Burns, 2005:82). Leaders should no longer be considered…solely as initiators and implementers of pre-planned organisational change; nor should they be seen…solely as reactive agents to emergent change forces. Rather they should develop the ability to connect the two to create synergy.” (Livne-Tarandach and Bartunek, 2009:28).

It remains to be seen just how synergy-oriented European leaders will be in months ahead. Edward Lorenz’s work with chaos theory and “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” is often referred to as the “Butterfly Effect” based on his question, “If a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil will it create a tornado in Texas?” England has now flapped its wings.



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