Surveyors Surfing the Edge of Chaos

Part 2 | Part 1
In part one (the November 2011 issue), the author discusses the theory from the book
Surfing the Edge of Chaos that in business, as in the natural world, you must evolve or you will perish. The profession of surveying is no different. Here he suggests how surveyors can find that sweet spot between the still waters of equilibrium and the chaos of change.

If you read part one of this article, I commend you for committing to explore a business topic that could change the way you do business and could have deepening, positive affects on our profession. I strongly urge you to read the book Surfing the Edge of Chaos, as it offers extensive insight into case studies of Sears, IBM, Amazon, Monsanto, Hewlett Packard, Intel, and others who have made a transformation or have experienced a revolution out of their control, but they responded, survived, and thrived.

So, is the edge of chaos a real place? It is a state of being, a place where order and disorder flow in tandem. There’s nothing finite about it. Getting yourself on the edge of chaos means you’re creating upheaval within your business, but not dissolving it. That’s why, as stated in the book, the edge is so important. “The edge is not the abyss. It’s the sweet spot for productive change.”

To understand this, think about fire ants that live and thrive in South America (again, stay with me here, it gets really interesting). In the mid-1930s, just before World War II, naturalist Richard Conniff documented more than 50 years of study on the survival rates of fire ants. He thought it was remarkable the species continued to thrive and prosper even when faced with extreme change and constant threats of eradication.

To date, from the fire ant population’s first initial entry in Miami, the species has proliferated to occupy 260 million acres in 11 states of our country. It is considered to be among the top 100 worst invasive alien species by the World Conservation Unit. Because of the painful sting of the ants’ venom and the ants’ swarming attack, toddlers have fallen into ant mounds and died of their stings. Packs of fire ants have been known to kill even large calves. They threaten entire colonies of living systems—no one is immune to their attacks. Thus, eradication efforts have been strong and swift.

How have these ants managed to multiply and thrive in the face of $172 million pesticide campaigns to eliminate them? It all comes down to our basic need for survival. The fire ant thrives on the edge of chaos.

The ant colonies have a set of rules—according to decades of research—that they quickly analyze and modify when a new threat emerges. The assaults by the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t thwart them. In fact, although their pesticide killed many of the ant colonies, it also eradicated other living systems around them (plants, insects, livestock, family pets, etc.). Quickly, the fire ants rebounded at alarming speed compared to other living systems equally affected. Why?

According to the book, “When the environment becomes outright hostile (that is, nearer to chaos), surviving colonies strive to rebuild their army of workers, which occasionally triggers warfare between colonies,” Pascale wrote. Weaker ant colonies join forces with stronger colonies, adapting their systems to the stronger group, but allowing it to become more powerful by shear force of numbers. Life on the edge of chaos is a way of fostering innovations, of keeping a species, or a profession, surviving.

“Human beings aren’t ants, and organizations aren’t ant colonies. But when productive agitation runs high, innovation often thrives and startling breakthroughs can come about. This elusive much-sought-after sweet spot is sometimes called ‘a burning platform.’ The living sciences call it the edge of chaos.”

Innovation does not emerge from stability. The edge of chaos is fertile ground to explore new ideas, break apart status-quo systems and rules, and re-vamp business models to explore new specialty niches. In surveying we often speak of the “ghost in the machine” when we refer to GPS technologies. The ghost in nature’s machine seems to always steer us toward the edge, to get us to see things in new and different ways—to make us better, stronger, a force to be reckoned with in our design professions.

“As long as one operates in the middle of things,” states science writer William Thompson, “one can never really know the nature in which one moves.” Like the edge of the horizon at sea, or the edge of a mountain cliff, or the edge of the danger our teenagers race toward every day, we as human beings are naturally drawn to chaos. It distinguishes our position in life. It grounds us so that we know the direction we’re looking toward. But we have to go the step farther, especially today as the digital world threatens our very existence, and learn how to navigate the edge without going over, but also without standing still.

As referenced in this book, President John F. Kennedy did not have any solutions to the problems posed by his desire to put a man on the moon. That wasn’t his point. He wanted the country to move toward the edge of a new future, to rally behind a new world of possibility and exploration. Once committed to that new goal, the armies of followers would create innovative ideas to get that vision accomplished.

Just like Kennedy, it will take us as leaders of businesses large and small to push the envelope of what we can accomplish, what we can do, and how we can do it better in order to create a new vision for the profession that propels us forward and along the way sparks fires inside the young generations of students to follow our lead, to follow in our footsteps.

As a leader, if you sense complacency within the field or in your personal business, if you sense dormancy in ideas or ways of working, then it is you who needs to grab your surfboard and head out to the waves and see what’s out there. The new material does not have to be invented. It’s already there—in our staff, our peers, our association, our profession. We have to mill these ideas, we have to challenge our ways of thinking, and we have to “shake the snow globe” a little to make sure we are always riding our edge.

There will be tension and there will most certainly be debate. But the “realm of uncertainty and discomfort maximizes our ability to awaken new ideas and unleash new potential.” It will be an amazing discovery, a life-changing experience, for all of us.

STEVE BODDECKER, PLS, is executive vice president of the New York State Association of Professional Land Surveyors and survey manager for Fisher Associates, Buffalo. He participated in a year-long executive leadership institute where Surfing the Edge of Chaos was a cornerstone of business thinking, discussions, and study.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the November 2010 issue of Empire State Surveyor, a publication of the NYSAPLS.

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