Chaos is not the problem - and 'excellence' is not the goal

Peter Coffee Profile picture for user Peter Coffee May 20, 2022
The opposite of chaos isn't excellence, argues Salesforce's Peter Coffee. Time to look at things differently.


In a single meeting earlier this month, I heard two successive speakers use the word 'chaos' as if it's something bad. They seemed to feel that 'chaos' was, without question, a label for a problem to be fixed.

Also on the agenda, though, and closely following those comments, was the question of creating a 'center of excellence' to support a newly introduced technology in that workplace: a phrase for which, all seemed to agree, there was not a warm fuzzy feeling.

Having those two words, 'chaos' and 'excellence', showing up in the same short session with neither of them being entirely welcome, triggered a combination of thoughts.

The first thought is,  why does chaos get such a bad rap, despite its honorable history as the state from which Everything As We Know It came to be? I suggest that it’s not chaos as such that’s the problem, but the fear that things will stay chaotic, so we won’t get our own organizations’ versions of lovely spiral galaxies, but just a disorderly fireworks of brief but spectacular brightness – leaving remnant black holes of disappointing returns.

What makes chaos a state of creation, rather than a sad prospect of confusion, are forces that focus mass and energy into useful objects and processes. The balance in the real world is more delicate than it may seem. There’s a short list of observable physical values, 'just six numbers' (the title of a book by astronomer Martin Rees), that he asserts constitute a ‘recipe’ for a universe. Rees continues:

Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any one of them were to be ‘untuned’, there would be no stars and no life.

Feel lucky.

For some time, I’ve urged Salesforce customers to overcome the apparent complexity of what’s going on in their world by seeing it as subject to just four driving and organizing forces:

  1. Connection - the capacity to move information.
  2. Collaboration - the behavior that creates new insight from connection.
  3. Acceleration - the frame of reference that drives need for more of the first two things.
  4. Ex machination - the least bad name that I’ve been able to invent for using computation, including the stuff often called “AI,” to make the other three things sustainable at massive scale.

The opposite of chaos

That leads to the second thought, which I credit to Tom Peters being willing to challenge some of his own most widely quoted work. Five years after co-authoring In Search of Excellence with Robert Waterman, Peters followed it with a book (that gets much less attention, and doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page) entitled Thriving on Chaos. In the early pages of Chaos, he actually apologizes for some of the defining themes of Excellence, and has often later recanted with variations of the statement that:

Excellent firms don’t believe in excellence – only in constant improvement and constant change.

Peters has made it quite clear that the title of his later book does not mean 'thriving in spite of chaos' or 'surviving until we get past the chaos'. It means acknowledging the ongoing, probably growing reality of chaos – and making one's superior ability to deal with that into a personal and organizational superpower.

There are two points I want to make. First, the opposite of “chaos” is not 'excellence'. The opposite of chaos is stasis. If you take the primordial soup, and squeeze out all the chaos, you might get a diamond (under extreme and challenging conditions) – but you're far more likely to get a lump of coal. Saying, 'We’re going to make order out of this chaos', isn’t guaranteed to get you to a place you’ll like.

Second, “chaos” implies potential for creation. 'Excellence' may often congratulate itself for solving yesterday's problem, perfectly – but if no one is injecting new chaotic energy into the evolution of an existing solution, it does not mean that the solution is still perfect. It’s at least as likely to mean that the solution has become so hopelessly irrelevant that no one takes the time to offer suggestions for its adaptation and improvement. The tool that no one bothers to criticize is probably a tool that’s not being used.

If one is looking for a name for something other than calling it a 'center of excellence', it might be reaching for the stars to seek buy-in for "center of chaos." Too few people will know why that’s not a rueful joke. Really, though, isn’t it often that case that “excellence” just sits there? Possibly getting no less “perfect” as defined by its original goals, but becoming less useful every time the world changes around it?

'Center of value' or 'center of co-creation' might not be the best we can do, but they might be better. Feel free to come up with something better still – but be prepared to change it.

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