The Controlled Chaos Strategy

“Separate to live, unite to fight”
Napoleon Bonaparte 1769-1821

One glance at social media today will yield countless claims from people with purported privileged knowledge of, or control over, the silver bullet for success. Snake oil solutions though they may be, they are useful as demonstrative exemplars of broader tendencies found in legitimate and illegitimate strategies alike: Namely, the vast majority have some form of blueprint to which one must rigidly adhere in order to achieve success. One of the key lessons to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic has been instructive in the folly of strategic fragility: The more prescriptive the strategy, the bigger the challenge when the inevitable curve ball comes along.

At the beginning of 2020, most organisations had some kind of plan to help them achieve their objectives, dominate their market, and to generally perform strategic manoeuvres such as acquisitions, mergers, marketing campaigns etc. With a mind to caution, such plans are typically executed only after they have first been ‘endorsed’ by financial risk managers and forecasters.

Fast forward a few months and the era of purchased assurance/confidence has been replaced with the conditions of the pandemic, which has created chaos out of what were once relatively stable markets. The only certainty is uncertainty, and most, if not all, organisations have struggled to respond in a coherent and proactive way.

Dogmatically or ritualistically (i.e., uncritically) following conventional industry ‘best practices’ can no longer be assumed to be a reliable source for the same assurances after which they are named. On the contrary, following them can now instead put organisations at more risks than if they had instead chosen to develop their own path.

The secret to success may now be found in the development of strategies based on embracing or, to put a paradoxical spin on it, ‘control’ chaos. As intelligence experts, we believe there are a number of things corporate entities, governments and NGOs can learn from military strategies that will help improve survivability during this tumultuous time.

‘Controlled chaos strategy’ brings together elements from human intelligence, cyber sociology, military counterintelligence and a myriad of other disciplines to build an operational framework that organisations can use to reconfigure themselves to achieve continuous and sustainable positive outcomes, even in the midst of a pandemic.

So, how does controlled chaos strategy work? There are three steps:

  1.  Don’t follow the herd – if you take the same approaches to collating and analysing information, decision making and defensive strategies (e.g. cyber defence infrastructure and solutions) as everyone else, you not only lose your competitive edge in the market, the rigidity of your organisation becomes as fragile as everyone else’s, and will likely suffer a shared fate and shatter when hit with a curve ball.
  2. Develop multiple strategies – rather than focusing exclusively on one blueprint for success than can be thrown off track, you must have multiple and even redundant strategies. These should all be developed and maintained in parallel, and be prepared for actioning at any time.
  3. Create operational groups – Instead of a centralised organisational structure, break your personnel into semi-autonomous groups so that they are allowed to operate with a large degree of independence. These groups should obviously be aligned with the strategic direction of the company, but at an operational level should be organised around the unique strengths and beliefs of a group’s participants instead of the rigid top-down dictate of executive management. Organisational leadership is then free to concentrate on achieving executive outcomes and steering strategic direction rather than interfering with everyday operational tactics, which are instead left to individual group leaderships.

This concept draws from the military strategy of “Auftragstaktik “. Known as a cellular organisational structure, individual cells (or teams) within an organisation carry out the overall strategy of the organisation in their own ways. – organised around a network of self-managing teams/autonomous business units has unique affordances particularly well-suited to operating in unstable or uncertain environments.. If something happens which damages or disables the operational capacity of one cell, then the agility of a cellular organisational structure ensures that the impact is compartmentalised to just one business unit instead of the whole company. In this way, other operational groups are able to maintain momentum and the overall resilience of the organisation by operating in a multitude of different ways to deliver the overarching corporate strategy.

This post was written by Mario Bekes and Dr Patrick Scolyer-Gray edited by Nick Hill