"Fighting against chaos consumes energy.
If you use the chaos wisely, you create opportunities."
- Read the article that appeared in Bloovi (in Dutch) on November 15, 2023, here -
Chaos is a constant in today's world. Companies should not try to desperately control that chaos. Instead, they should embrace it and play with it, nimble as boxers who quickly turn the blows of their opponent to their advantage. That's the message from executive coach Debbie Baute, who helps leaders, teams, and organizations grow. "I am a scientist, I see companies as living ecosystems. You don't change them overnight."
On the afternoon of our interview, Debbie Baute has just finished a webinar titled 'Playing with Chaos.' Chaos is a constant theme in her work as a coach. "How did that theme come into my life? It has always been there, actually. A few weeks before my birth, my brother passed away. It was very difficult for my parents to reconcile: could they be happy with their daughter when their son had just died? The waves of grief were too much for our family, but they laid the foundation for my ability to deal with chaos. In my twenties, I did my PhD in Israel when the Second Intifada was raging. After the 9/11 attacks, we had to go out with a gas mask and an atropine syringe, as a precaution against a possible nerve gas attack. I could have easily gone back home at that time, but it never occurred to me. I thrive in chaos; it has become my second nature."
"But I quickly noticed that most people find it extremely difficult to deal with chaos. This morning, I asked the participants of my webinar which associations chaos brings to their minds. Perhaps two people saw opportunities in chaos. All others had purely negative associations. Chaos, for them, is the feeling of having no ground under their feet. The old rules no longer work, while new ones have not yet been made. Chaos overwhelms them with emotions. This is equally true for organizations. The greater the chaos they experience from the outside, the more they tend to fold in on themselves and shut out the external world."
"Of course, that's an illusion. You can look at the world around you in two ways. As a chaotic world with occasional peace and stability, or as a stable world that occasionally falls into chaos. I'm afraid that chaos will be a constant today and in the future. But I want to guide leaders, teams, and organizations to navigate chaos. Don't fight against it, don't try to control it; that's a mission impossible. No, accept the chaos, even embrace it, and play with it."
"I am a scientist, I see companies as living ecosystems.
You don't change them overnight."
Like a boxer
Playing with chaos, how should we see that? Baute uses the example of a boxer. "Most people react rigidly to chaos. But when a boxer is rigid, he reacts too slowly to his opponent. A boxer must be nimble; then he is able to react quickly to what comes his way and turn those blows to his advantage. This applies to individuals, as well as teams and organizations. If they are too rigid in trying to control chaos, they are no longer agile. They are not flexible enough and cannot adapt quickly enough to the changing context around them."
"Recently, I took my godson for his 18th birthday to one of those wind tunnels where you can skydive. The more you resist, the stranger the movements you make. The more you relax, the more stable you float through the air. I thought that was a beautiful metaphor for chaos. If you try to rigidly control that chaos, you only drift further away from your goal. If you accept the chaos, you can play with it and turn it into an opportunity."
"I recently had a coaching call with a client who moved to Asia for his job. Everything is new to him: his company, his team, his product. Pure chaos. He feels like he has to constantly put out fires. At such times, you need to step back and look at the organization as a whole. By integrating two teams under one leader, my client was able to bring back calm and motivation among his employees. You have to look for those small pockets of stability. You have to seek local balances and not have the illusion that you will suddenly stabilize the entire system."
"You can't suddenly turn a forest into a sea. You have to work with the system in front of you, with all its opportunities and flaws."
Companies are living ecosystems
Baute aims to maximize the energy of teams and organizations in her coaching sessions. "Chaos is one big energy leak. But in my experience, people don't experience stress or burnouts because of chaos itself. It's the constant struggle against that chaos that drains energy. I look at it as a scientist. What is the physical definition of energy? Very simple: the ability to do work. If you invest a lot of energy in chaos, you have less capacity to do work. You can't use that lost energy towards your products and services or towards making your customers happy."
"I view an organization as an ecosystem, as a collection of concentric circles. The innermost circle is the leader, the next circle is the team, surrounding that is the entire organization, and in the outermost circle is that organization in relation to its customers and other stakeholders. There's a system law that says what happens in one circle also has an impact on the other circles. If the leader constantly blames others, there's a good chance that the organization will also externalize problems instead of addressing them."
"Leaders often underestimate that such an ecosystem, and thus a company or any group of people, is a living system. You can't change it overnight. Sometimes, companies come to me to resolve a conflict in a team. They allocate half a day for it. When I ask how long the conflict has been going on, it turns out to have been lingering for ten years in some cases. You can't resolve a ten-year conflict in half a day. That's not how an ecosystem works. You can't suddenly turn a forest into a sea; you have to work with the system in front of you, with all its opportunities and flaws. I am very adamant about this. Behavioral change takes time, and you can't magically make a ten-year conflict disappear in a few hours. Don't believe the gurus who claim they can."
"If you accept the chaos,
then you can play with it and turn it into an opportunity."
Seize the momentum and let go
Debbie Baute - photographer: Airspace Indoor Skydiving Charleroi
Baute is convinced that a lot of energy is released when people collaborate effectively. "I studied sciences for ten years—chemistry, physics, quantum mechanics. All these disciplines teach you that everything is interconnected in nature. But when you stand in front of a group of people, you really feel that energy. You realize that what you've studied for so long isn't just theory but actually works in practice. That's also why I love doing this job so much."
"Change processes in companies usually progress slowly, but at a certain point, that ecosystem takes off. The group of people starts moving on its own. Witnessing that momentum happen is what it's all about. But then comes perhaps the most challenging part for me as a coach: I have to teach leaders to let go of their team and take a step back. It's like a child learning to ride a bike. Once it's on its way, you don't need to keep running after it. As difficult as it may be, at that moment, you have to let go and, at most, ensure that your child doesn't go off the rails."
If you want to find out how you can play with your chaos, send me an email and we will plan a free virtual coffee chat to discuss! firstname.lastname@example.org