Normal chaos

October 19, 2017

How do you manage a crisis situation in a complex environment? How do you manage a situation with so many variables which makes it hard to understand ‘cause-and-effect’ relationships? These are very relevant questions in our domain – think about food safety issues.

Therefore, we have invited Dr. Hugo Marynissen to the 31st EFFoST International Conference to share his interesting ideas on crisis management! He will give a presentation and a workshop.

Dr. Hugo Marynissen is a crisis strategist who specializes in risk and crisis management for companies and governments. He is the Academic Director of the Executive PhD program at the ‘Antwerp Management School’ and lectures at various universities such as University of Antwerp (Belgium), Cranfield University (UK), Saïd Business School – University of Oxford (UK) and the University of Maryland College Park (MD, USA).


An important of part of Dr. Marynissen’s work centers around the question whether people – when it comes to managing risks and crises – are more productive when they pursue the so called ‘perfect world paradigm’ or the ‘normal chaos paradigm’. The ‘perfect world paradigm’ expects we produce errorless plans, supported by failure-free tools and managed by the best-possible rules and executed by expertly trained people in a mistake-free fashion. This paradigm is characterized by predictable creation of certainty and conformity to one or more best practices. Dr. Marynissen thinks this way of thinking has its flaws.


He is more of an advocate for, what he and others call, the ‘normal chaos’ paradigm. This perspective starts with the notion that there are situations where the variables and the cause-and-effect relationships are too complex for us humans to truly understand. Dr. Marynissen believes that such complex situations produce surprising and unexpected occurrences that negate our plans: “if practitioners always have to work in imperfect ways with imperfect tools, with imperfect understanding using imperfect information and within imperfect systems where the degree of control available is limited, how do they cope, managerially? Researchers, we believe the answer to that question is not known and, accordingly, we recommend a new research paradigm for understanding practice more generally. We call that paradigm ‘normal chaos’.[1]


However, ‘normal chaos’ should be seen as a catalyst to expand thinking about managing complexity and risks, rather than offering prescriptive solutions to problems. It provides a new fresh perspective through which to examine complexity and organizations. In a way, ‘normal chaos’ is about self reflection and admitting our own weaknesses:

  1. Our rationality is limited; in chaotic systems, patterns of success and failure may exist or emerge, but they are too complex for the human mind to comprehend and well beyond behavioral control.
  2. People tend to ‘satisfice’ and learn through ‘trial-and-error’. Our constructed processes are rarely optimal - we “muddle through” instead of “manage the situation”.
  3. The human mind abhors a vacuum or uncertainty and creates patterns to fill these voids to enable comprehension. The brain is constantly looking for patterns in things, whether or not they actually exist.

The application of normal chaos paradigm has practical implications for managers and organizations which should provoke deeper thinking about reliance on predetermined solutions, the actual degree of stability in which professionals operate and the operational dimensions in which practice takes place.


Dr. Marynissen will address these implications in his presentation and workshop at the 31st EFFoST International Conference, so make sure to attend these sessions! If you won’t attend the conference; this publication by Dr. Marynissen, Dr. Lauder and Dr. Summers examines the concept of ‘normal chaos’ and its implications in detail.


[1]Lauder MA, Marynissen H. Normal chaos: A new research paradigm for understanding practice. 2017.


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