Maximum viable chaos: a recipe for emerging organizations

When things are messy and unclear, most of us tend to want to tidy up. I of all people love to create structure and find it hard to resist the urge to organize everything around me. Could it ever make sense to purposefully maintain a status of chaos? One of the lessons that I have learned from being part of the “emergent” organization OuiShare is that chaos can actually be critical for an organization that wants to enable creative, innovative and entrepreneurial behaviors. And finding the right balance between chaos and order at the right time, is a real art.

This is part of a series of articles that unpack some key insights I have had from being part of the OuiShare network for the past 6 years.

When I first joined OuiShare, in 2012, there was a lot more excitement than structure. We had an association in France, a list of values and a guide on how to organize a “OuiShare Drink”. The Sharing Economy was about to become a very hyped topic, attracting the attention of many early adopters.

Because that was the core subject that OuiShare had emerged around, we found ourselves in the heart of the excitement, mobilizing dozens of self-organized groups that enabled us to run almost 200 OuiShare events in 75 cities less than two years into our existence.

There was an influx of excited people from all over the world who wanted to get involved, start new projects and local communities. There was so much creativity and energy, it was baffling.

Accompanying this growth and increasing level of activity was also a lack of clarity. How does work get done? Who makes decisions? Who can join, how? None of these questions were answered yet, which led to tension. It seemed like it was time to get more structured, quickly… or so we thought.

We embarked on a journey to “design OuiShare”. In the summer of 2013, a handful of active members secluded themselves for two months to go through an intense “organizations design process”. The outcome would be a clear manual with rules and processes for how we would work together. When the summer was over, the team came back with the first version of the OuiShare handbook, a 40 page document.

Unfortunately, it met the sad fate of many such documents, it ended up in a (virtual) drawer (the google drive), gathering dust. We did not use it, because it did not match the lived reality of how people behaved in the organization.

Yet the knowledge that certain rules now existed in OuiShare made many people feel constrained and less empowered to take initiative. Our attempt to create a structure that supported the work of our contributors almost destroyed the spontaneous and chaotic energy that had allowed us to be creative and innovative until then.

Clearly ahead of its time, the OuiShare handbook nevertheless created an important foundation of our current governance principles (we just established a new handbook a few months ago). Though we were probably right that OuiShare needed more structure at the time, we were trying to design a-priori. We had moved too far towards order on the chaos-order scale, too quickly.

“The best-run companies survive because they operate at the edge of chaos.” — Burnes, Bernard, in Complexity Theories and Organizational Change

The experience of the OuiShare organization design really changed my mindset from seeing chaos as something that needs to be eliminated under all circumstances, to a valuable resource. Like an engine blowing particles around when they get too static, the right level of chaos at the right time, can provide a fertile ground for behaviors to emerge organically.

To foster chaos in a productive way (which basically means becoming a complex adaptive system) in a world that demands a certain level of structure and bureaucracy, there are two elements that strike me as crucial and in need of further development.

Leadership to navigate a murky ocean

As I talked about in my last post, the nature of leadership is changing. In emergent organizations, leaders need a different skillset. While anyone working in an organization like OuiShare needs to have a high tolerance for chaos, there are a few things I have observed that leaders specifically need to be good at.

Firstly, recognize the positive energizing quality of chaos and then treat it as a resource in need of protection. However, it’s not only about fostering chaos, it’s about balance.

A new challenge for leaders is to enable chaos and order to co-exist in their organization.

To get things done, leaders can help create ‘spaces of clarity’ by pulling together resources in the organization to create a tangible action. I like to think of these spaces as islands in the middle of a wild, chaotic ocean. If OuiShare were the ocean, the individual projects such as a OuiShare Fest, a POC21, a research exploration would be the islands.

Project leaders are crystalizers that facilitate and hold space for a team to have a high level of focus and clarity in the midst of an ocean. Following the notion of sense and respond, they observe behaviors and then create the minimal necessary structures to support them. Like this, the role of OuiShare Connectors was created in a response to an emerging behavior of people taking on ambassador like activities by coordinating local communities.

Scaffolds that support emergence

The second crucial element that I think needs more development in a new world of work are the minimum viable structures for emergent organizations.

This includes both structures for internal organizing such as tools for communication, project management and collaborative decision-making, but also infrastructures that can act as intermediaries between more chaotic spaces and the real world. Opencollective is a great example of such an infrastructure.

They make it easy for loosely organized groups to grow and receive funds in a very lean way, by letting them operate through Opencollective’s legal “host” entity (instead of having to create their own). Encode and various new dynamic equity tools are creating structures to make it easier for holocratic and self-managed organizations to comply with legal structures and processes.

These are great starting points, but we still have such a long way to go. Organizations like OuiShare and Enspiral are trying to operate across borders and sectors, as well as outside of binary non-profit / for-profit categories, and the more we grow, the larger the pressure becomes to replace chaos with order to conform with the administrative and legal requirements of the various countries we operate in.

The more an organization grows, the larger the pressure to replace chaos with order

The question I have been asking myself is whether it is just a matter of time until the chaos has to end. Is this just another classic story of a new organization that goes from from its early innovative and agile phase to becoming rigid, slow and institutionalized? Or will we be able to resist the pressure and enable a different generation of organizations to thrive?

Because I believe the latter, I have decided to dedicate more of my time to join those building infrastructures for emergent, collaborative ways of working at scale. With my team at Greaterthan, we’re working in the area of infrastructures and practices for collaboration around finance, starting with the development of the collaborative budgeting tool Cobudget.

More coming soon about how my experience in OuiShare has led me to work more on collaborative finance.


To learn more about the inside of an emergent organization, go to opensource.ouishare.net. If you’re interested in applying these concepts to your organization, check out OuiShare’s services on rethink-remix.ouishare.net.


These thoughts are based on my personal anecdotal experience, not academic research. Though I am not an expert on it, research on how complex adaptive systems can be applied to organizational theory appear to be a fruitful line of further inquiry on this topic.

A special thanks to my editor, Bianca Pick.

Photo credits: Davidaltabev (1); MassiveKontent (2); wwarby (3)