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  • michela henke cilenti

Forces of Chaos and Complexity: Embracing Uncertainty


In this second edition of Ready for Anything, our intention is to challenge and provoke both professionals and students to think differently about their experience as change leaders. We want to call into question their cherished assumptions about people and change and suggest new opportunities for making change. Since 2016, when the first edition was written, the role of change agent has become more complex. We reflect these changes both in our essays and in our comprehensive organizational development (OD) change cases.

This edition will continue to explore contextual factors and their influence on the practice of OD. Three notable examples are national culture, economics, and technology. The serious issues facing our country have become politicized in the extreme: the coronavirus outbreak, issues of race and class, the role of government, climate change, international trade, the country’s role in the global order, and the tenor of social discourse have all broken down along partisan lines. This introduction will examine each of the issues in detail, it is influence on OD and how it affects the leader in you. Importantly, we will demonstrate how the organizational system can both change and stay on track in the face of chaos and complexity.

A major change between the first and the second edition is that we have come to focus on differences in a radical way. Skill sets pertinent to the effective practice of our professional field—organizational development—are not even practiced at the highest levels of government. Active listening, seeking common ground, restraining aggressive impulses, and avoiding personal attacks seem like a quaint old set of practices no longer applicable to the three branches of the federal government (Rothwell et al., 2016) Even negotiation and voting, two of the structural elements of our republic, are used as bowling balls to up-end the rights of the other political party.

We no longer “reach across the aisle”; instead, we get stuck in our corners, determined to play hard ball! The keepers of law and order, the police, sometimes seem willing to act as tools of the repressive forces of government. Citizens wish to exercise their rights to protest, and their behavior is interpreted politically [the author’s interpretation of the news themes presented by PBS News Hour and the Wall Street Journal, from February 1, 2020, to the present]. This has affected the general level of goodwill we experience in our organizations and our willingness to be open and experimental. For example, the rapid development and commercialization of artificial intelligence has had a major impact on workforce development. Brynjolfsson et al. (2014) in their “the second machine age” predict that jobs will be displaced by technology and require continuous retooling as technological development explodes and pushes the limits of human adaptation. Effectiveness goes up as costs go down. Technology becomes the great enabler, with the speed of digital change in 2020 being quite like no other. Both private and public sector organizations will continue to eliminate jobs as a major capital expense.

There is, though, a major contradiction. As a result of this technological churn and the turnover or retooling of human capital, organizational disruptions will lead to continuing role conflict, role ambiguity, and burnout for people in the workplace. There are value questions at play: What matters more—the overall well-being of our people or the performance and profits of the corporate sector? Many of us would say both. If one works for a corporation or small business, one is both the people and the corporate sector. Politically, in the United States we have been treating it as a zero-sum game. It is not. It takes humans working with technology to produce product and process innovations leading to bottom-line results. It sometimes takes the federal government pouring money into the economy to bring both the people and the corporate sector back into balance as an economic system. This has happened twice in the 21st century (in 2008 and 2020).


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