The world in which we live and work in is complex and driven by forces we often do not see, recognize or appreciate. Moreover, we live in a world of continuous change that thwarts our plans. Therefore, we are constantly forced to adapt them. These adaptive actions, which we often described as “management” or “decision making,” have consequences, as all actions have both upsides and downsides—whether these are obvious or not. Because we see the need to expect the unexpected, we put plans, procedures and command and control systems in place that should prevent us from making mistakes that could eventually lead to sliding into a crisis situation. However, the question of whether this will actually prevent organizational failure arises.

In recent years, we have been researching whether or not there is a different approach to managing complex situations. In an attempt to move from using complexity as a retrospective explanation to one that facilitates a more proactive management approach, we changed the current cause and effect paradigm and named it ‘normal chaos’ to denote circumstances where the daily pattern of interactions within a dynamic system are too complex to be fully appreciated or understood. This, in turn, makes outcomes difficult to predict.

If we look at a crisis from this perspective of normal chaos, we see there is very little stability in the environment, which often demands increased improvisations in management solutions

If we look at a crisis from this perspective of normal chaos, we see there is very little stability in the environment, which often demands increased improvisations in management solutions. This makes us ask what effective crisis management looks like in organizations that could one day face a complex crisis situation. In his book Overcomplicated (Penguin, 2016), Samuel Arbesman illustrates the complexity of systems we currently deal with. Problems have multiple pathways, diminishing the predictability of future outputs or outcomes. This state of affairs also affects the ability to exert control over these events. Managers actually have less control than outsiders think or expect. These multiple pathways are riddled with uncertainty, disproportionality and emergent phenomena. Instability, in its many forms, is our constant companion.

Linking this to the interactive complexity we have to deal with in today’s world, we must acknowledge our understanding of the problems we face will always be only partial. There are a couple of good reasons for that. First, we often see things in patterns. Though this helps us get our heads around complex issues to make them more comprehensible, the flipside of the coin is that the patterns we observe are often temporary, depending heavily on the context and scale of observation. Therefore, these patterns may simply be illusionary—that is why we need to be cautious about basing our plans on them. Second, there are no ideal solutions to problems! All solutions are contingent on the circumstances to which they are applied. Third, our ability to actually control what happens to our organization and to ourselves us is much more limited than normally assumed. The idea that organizational processes can be made linear and management teams can adequately anticipate crisis situations is a fallacy. In a crisis, organizations deal with complexity verging on chaos.

Let us illustrate this illusion of control with a practical example of crossing a street. You only have partial control of the situation, in that you can control your own activities but not those of the people around you. You can try to influence these other parties, such as by holding up a hand to ask a car to stop and let you cross, for example. But they may ignore you—and they often do. Annually, more than 4,500 pedestrians are killed in traffic accidents in the United States. This averages to one accident-related pedestrian death every two hours. Additionally, more than 150,000 pedestrians went to U.S. hospital emergency room for non-fatal crash-related injuries last year.

This shows the limitations of rules and commands. Likewise, in organizations, leaders need followers to obey their commands. In this case, you command a car to stop but it ignores you. In any organization, there are frequent occasions when commands and rules are either ignored or carried out in a way not intended by the leader, or that was not the aim of the rule. Your ‘control’ of your own situation may also be partial if you misjudge the closing speed between you and the oncoming car, leading to you getting out of its way just in time. You did not see the woman with the stroller that steps out from behind a bus, which stops you from reaching the safety of the pavement as you planned. You could see crossing the road as a simple activity (by abstracting much of what else is going on), or you could see it as just another manifestation of normal chaos.

Finding the optimal balance between using rules and regulations and relying on autonomous operations teams’ interdependencies is key to anticipating complex situations

Given that, we see having an effective planning process to be more important than simply having a plan. However, this requires a mental shift, one willing to send the Utopian ‘perfect world paradigm’ (which says we can manage a crises) to the fires below and accept that we actually have very little control. Therefore, we should start to see management as a mix of ‘intuitive skills’ and compliance with laws and regulations to cope with the prevailing uncertainty surrounding us. Our research indicates that finding the optimal balance between, on one end, using rules and regulations and, on the other, relying on autonomous operations teams’ interdependencies is key to anticipating complex situations. Although they will never have ‘complete control’ in a set of given constraints, it will greatly help teams avoid the cause-and-effect trap and focus on the few simple rules, principles or Critical Success Factors that will guide them through the crisis.