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People + values/creative chaos = sustainability

Sandra Bass, Associate Dean and Director UC Berkeley Public Service Center | February 16, 2016

Every now and again my curiosity and limited ability to focus pays off. Back in graduate school, when I was praying to be hit by a lightening bolt of clarity to help me make sense of my dissertation research, I met a scholar who stalked disasters. Within hours of hearing about an earthquake, tsunami, or catastrophic flood, Louise Comfort would be on a plane and then on the ground observing and documenting how the multiplicity of independent organizations tasked with coordinating disaster response were functioning in an environment of crisis and chaos.

Her work was grounded in complexity theory, a theoretical framework for understanding how complex systems adapt and self organize in response to uncertainty and environmental changes. Louise’s glamorous, globe-hopping lifestyle and fascinating research subject were just the delicious distraction I sought, and so I spent a good month or two enamored by the elegant language of complexity theory. And while I’ve forgotten more about complexity than I’ve remembered, words and concepts like emergence, interdependence, space of possibilities, and co-evolution continue to resonate in my work with and in organizations.

When I was a program officer at a large foundation one way I would torture prospective grantees was by asking them to produce a sustainability plan. The purpose of the sustainability plan was to demonstrate how whatever work the foundation was supporting could survive and thrive without additional dollars from said foundation. These were odd conversations because it was clear that many sustainability plans were hopeful predictions based on a cursory reading of the tea leaves within an increasingly chaotic and challenging environment.

Even though these organizations operated in complex and changing systems, the unspoken expectation was that their plans would be linear, logical, and often singularly focused on the continuation of projects and programs. The question of sustainability was force fit into the frame of ensuring how the organization could keep doing what it was doing for the foreseeable future, rather than acknowledging that the future was largely unforeseeable, and therefore the right question was how could the organization adapt, thrive, and stay on mission given that uncertainty?

Plans rarely if ever spoke to the needs of the organization as a whole or its people. And yet, we know that an organization’s health, functionality, resilience, and sustainability is grounded in the people who work there; their relationships, shared values, and commitment to the organization’s mission.

Change is not only inevitable, it is essential for creating the shifts and cracks in the status quo that allow new things to emerge. The point of power lies not in tea leaf predictions or false certainties, but in investing in our capacity to navigate chaotic creative moments while staying on course towards our own true North.

I offer no answers. But as I think on this current moment and reflect upon those few weeks when chaos and complexity occupied my time, I am inspired to ask new questions.

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