In The Chaos Imperative: How Chance and Disruption Increase Innovation, Effectiveness, and Success, bestselling author Ori Brafman takes on one of the most structured organizations on Earth, the US Army, and tries to infuse it with a little chaos. No, it’s not a new battlefield training exercise; introducing chaos into an organization can help new ideas and innovation bubble up, Brafman arugues. Through three key exercises—creating white space, involving “unusual suspects” and planning for serendipity—Brafman demonstrates how big organizations and mere individuals can use chaos to make great things happen. We caught up with him to ask a few questions.
Books for Better Living: If creating “white space” and disengaging from the connectedness of our modern life is so beneficial, why is it so hard for us to do? Can we train ourselves to be better at disengaging?
Ori Brafman: The thing to realize is that order and structure sneak up on us. It’s not that one day our lives became overly scheduled. Rather, the seemingly innocuous pursuit of trying to squeeze more efficiency out of our days eventually becomes suffocating. Efficiency comes with a price, and often it is having enough free space for unexpected conversations and for new ideas to emerge. Without realizing it, we’ve made a Faustian bargain and it’s time to invite back a little bit of chaos.
BBL: You focus mostly on business in the book, but it seems that creating a little chaos and white space could be helpful when we get overwhelmed in our personal lives as well. Any tips for doing that?
OB: Yes, creating white space in our lives actually makes us more productive. Studies have shown, for example, that even a few moments of recess turn kid into better students, and allowing ourselves to daydream taps into a hidden part of our minds that generates so called eureka moments. But with our busy schedules, it is tempting to over-schedule our days. Ironically, we can benefit from actually scheduling unstructured white space—be it a walk, leaning back in our chairs or daydreaming. We need to protect this bit of chaos, else we risk over-structuring it.
BBL: You talk about the importance of fostering serendipity. If you or your employees work remotely, that’s harder to achieve. How can we do this with today’s remote workforce?
OB: That is really hard because serendipity is about chance encounters and unexpected conversations. I have suggested to my clients that even occasional face-to-face interactions go a huge way to foster serendipity. There are collaboration tools out there, but until we live in a fully virtual world, these in-person interactions are a must.
BBL: Many tech companies follow your advice and give employees opportunities for unstructured time. This is great, but what about the rest of the corporate world. Are they catching on?
OB: Yes, even the US Army is recognizing that a little bit of chaos and a little bit of white space is necessary in fostering innovation. The way to do it is to instill contained chaos; it is not about removing all of the rules, it is about finding pockets.
BBL: What’s your favorite way to create chaos and white space in your own life?
OB: Even though I write about chaos, I need to constantly remind myself to not over-structure. When I feel stuck on a project I force myself to stop what I am doing and go on a walk or, better yet, sit quietly in a room. This is actually really counter-intuitive, but the more I force myself to take a long break or be off-task, the more productive I become in the long-run.
I also try to expose myself to unlikely conversations, give weird people a role in my life and actually block out time where chaos reigns. I like to leave part of my day open or attend events where I hope serendipity is likely to happen.