embracing chaos or nimble light organizing?

chaos slide, by me as fotogail at flickr

I had a lovely time at CommunityNext, at Stanford. Kudos to the producers, sponsors, speakers and attendees. I enjoyed meeting some people I know only from their sites or blogs, and seeing some old pals from Online Community Summit, too.

Since this was one of the few things I photographed, maybe I should start by talking about Tara Hunt‘s presentation. Her blog’s often terrific. I imagine that she is a mindblowing speaker in the context of commercial sites with traditional image and message control concerns, and quite useful.

However, I had a skeptical take on this slide: “embrace the chaos” she said. She was talking about bar camp as a reaction to foo camp, as an example of embracing chaos. I think of that as a powerful example of almost the opposite: of nimble light organizing. Of innovation in realizing that a small group already had the needed organizing skills from having organized and observed many other events. Of collaborating, barnraising and clue-sharing.

Is this because of my knowledge and use of organizing in a political context? Maybe so, Maybe it’s a cultural gap.

But to me, putting together a framework for a simple, inexpensive and relatively open event means creating a light simple structure, essential for collaboration. More like navigating tumultuous waters with a light craft, with a strong element of “bring your own paddle” in the swift preparation, rather than embracing them with no strategy or skills at all.

Maybe it’s a petty distinction. It was a useful line of thought for me, however. That’s why to go to f2f conferences. Thoughts, drifts and counterpoint to be continued…


3 thoughts on “embracing chaos or nimble light organizing?

  1. Good point, Gail. The only thing is, well, that the organizers actually tell the story of how they saw it as ’embracing the chaos’ themselves. It may also be nimble, light organizing, but instead of fearing failure, they dismissed that and did it anyway. I suppose that was the point that I didn’t get across.

    I have a couple of other stories that I usually tell for that point, but I was down to 25 minutes versus 50 minutes, so I cut them out. One of them is the story of Buckminster Fuller, who, broke, desperate and having faced all sorts of tragedies, stood on the shores of Lake Michigan, ready to throw himself in when he realized that: “His life belonged to the universe.” It was not his to throw away. He decided to let go of his feeling of helplessness and make his life about being one big experiment in how far a nobody with nothing could go and what he could accomplish. His story is pretty amazing. He would put together various events and projects…no money…no resources…no people (much like BarCamp) and usually, at the 11th hour, something would come through to make it happy. Sometimes not.

    As well, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a BarCamp, but there is no pre-scheduling. Just a blank grid. Many of the subsequent BarCamp planners from around the world get concerned about this and try to fill in the blanks ahead of time…and it rarely works. So, Chris or Tantek tell them, “Dude, you’ve got to embrace the chaos and let what happens happen”

    Anyway, I see what you are saying. Anne Zalenka tells an amazing story about her journey with Embracing the Chaos: http://annezelenka.com/2007/01/the-reality-of-embracing-chaos

    The comments are pretty enlightening, too. It seems to be a ‘hot’ subject for many. :)

  2. I think it may be a couple of layers we need to dig in to. First, shared meaning about chaos. Is it chaos or complexity? What the hell is chaos? Is it the opposite of an over organized controlled event? Or is that openness?

    Second, we might distinguish between “the feeling of chaos” at a personal level and true chaos.

    One of the things that working with Open Space Facilitation has taught me is to trust the process. It is not chaos at all, but there are moments when it sure as hell FEELs like it. And if I mess with it, it might become chaos, but it is not chaos. It is a system working through what it needs to work through with people taking responsibility for their piece of the action. Not me controlling them like puppets.

    Thus for me, “embrace the chaos” could me “accept the feeling I am feeling when I am not in control.” It could mean let go of my attachment to (the illusion of ) control.

    Sort of chaos as a metaphor, more than chaos as chaos. Does that make any sense?

  3. Yeah, when you say “trust the process” I think of that as nimbly navigating. It’s a nomenclature thing. Thanks, Nancy.

    I sure agree that sometimes the best course is off the known path, and that you can’t control or anticipate — to one degree or another — in any situations involving groups of people. For me, that’s about finding a way to organize to maximize signal and minimize noise without introducing unneeded overhead. For me, that’s not the same as embracing chaos, but if that works for other people as a slogan, so be it.

    I reacted to the story of organizing Bar Camp primarily via my own experiences in doing new things very quickly. That takes me back to my background in improv theater and grassroots politics way back before I got into internet community stuff. My thought is that pulling together sponsors and a space and the idea that there is to be that facilitator and a blank grid for the people to fill in is a successful act of creating a nimble structure for organizing a collaboration. Maybe I’m just being more granular. I also think bringing people together via established social networks — even informal ones — makes it less than purely chaotic, too.

    Is that important? I don’t know. I think being able to determine how you are dampening chaos and noisy randomness is helpful, and I think learning the patterns of organization — even very gentle, subtle and flexible ones — serves us all.

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