Chaos and Complexity Theory: Insights for Managing Emergencies

An overview of chaos and complexity theory with discussion of how both theories might be used in managing emergencies.

Chaos and Complexity Theory: Insights for Managing Emergencies


I was recently asked to write about chaos and complexity theory and discuss their implications for emergency management practice. Only after did I realize I had also created this new blog post for my "Insight for Managing Emergencies" series. While the form of this post deviates slightly from those that came before it, the goals of introducing theory and discussing how it might be used are still accomplished.

In what follows, a very cursory look at complexity and chaos theory is provided. Each theory deserves far more attention than I was able to provide here due to time and space constraints of the original purpose. Nonetheless, I do hope you will find it as an interesting introduction to both theories. I have woven into the discussion implications of both theories within the context of emergency management practice, though they apply elsewhere as well. Chaos and complexity theory both have the capacity to transform how emergency management is approached and understood to the benefit of creating new levels of awareness, more adaptive practices, and methods for coping with turbulence.

Chaos Theory and some Insights

From the perspective I am most familiar with, chaos is a state a system can enter into where it loses its coherence as a system, and the constitutive elements become unpredictable, unstable, and relationships among them break up as soon as they are formed. While the system as a coherent whole is lost, patterns may be visible if the elements – teams, resources, individuals – can be observed over a long enough time span and from a great enough distance (Waldrop,  1992; Wheatley, 2006). Chaos can be used in emergency management as a method to foster innovation, describe and understand operating context, and as an approach to managing the emergency environment.

The literature surrounding the Cynefin Framework suggests moving into chaos intentionally can inspire innovation (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003). A temporary chaotic state is achieved by removing the constraints that typically govern a system such as an organization or a team (Snowden, 2017). By doing so, relationships, workgroups, and beliefs are disrupted, and the system moves into chaos. In an emergency management setting, an intentional dive into chaos could be conducted in a discussion-based exercise by forming attendees into new groups, suspending beliefs (what if “x” wasn’t true?), moving beyond policies (what if “y” wasn’t in place?), and by proposing long-term transformative goals. In a less abstract setting, a brief intentional move into chaos could be achieved during an operations-based exercise by removing central leadership and enabling others to fill the gaps. In either case, the intent is to disrupt the system just enough that novelty can emerge, whether it be new knowledge, new approaches, or new relationships.

Chaos can also be used to understand and describe operating context. From at least one perspective, chaos is a state of total turbulence where nothing forms (Waldrop, 1992). In an emergency management context, this might appear as resources “going rogue” in the absence of a coherent strategy. According to the Cynefin Framework, this is not a desirable state and it should be left quickly by establishing order through proposing and implementing a plan (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003). In this way, chaos is understood as a something one should quickly get out of once it is realized they are in it. Beyond Cynefin, a general knowledge of chaos is of use to emergency managers as it provides an understanding of where one is in the present on the spectrum of order and chaos and suggests what action to take. While Cynefin suggests leaving chaos expediently, emergency management might not always have the option.

Lastly, chaos theory might also be leveraged toward managing responses that cannot easily be moved down the gradient to order. In cases of high turbulence, chaos theory indicates that even in the absence of a coherent system, patterns known as attractors may still be visible if enough data can be gathered over a long enough time frame or perhaps if the right set of eyes looks at the situation. While a response might look incoherent over shorter time spans, coherence might be found over time even in the absence of a bounded system. Working with chaos rather than trying to move it toward order may be a significant opportunity for emergency management as the field finds itself situated on an increasingly dynamic landscape (Wheatley, 2006).

Complexity Theory and some Insights

I have come to understand complexity theory primarily as the study of complex adaptive systems (Waldrop, 1992). Complex Adaptive Systems, or CAS, exist on the edge of chaos where they embody a dynamic balance of order and total turbulence. A CAS’s balance of order and chaos is expressed in an internal environment where transitory islands of stability are formed among a sea of dynamic change (Waldrop, 1992). Within their boundaries, everything in a CAS is entangled so that changes at one element produce changes in others. The entangled relationships between the parts are also nonlinear, meaning that changes at one element can lead to disproportionate effects in other distant elements long after the initial cause (Cilliers, 1998). CAS are also continuously evolving as their constitutive elements interact and adapt with one another and the external environment. This evolutionary trajectory is unpredictable in the long term, and not headed towards a stable, global optimum as the relationships among the elements and the elements themselves are always changing (Holland, 2014). Complexity theory has multiple uses in emergency management, but there are two that stand out. In emergency management, complexity theory can be used as a lens for understanding ourselves and a target state for managing operations and interventions.

Like with chaos, a knowledge of complexity is valuable to emergency management. While it places a waypoint on the gradient between order and chaos, complexity also offers new insight into how emergency management understands itself. We exist in systems that tend to be found towards the ordered end of the spectrum of order and chaos in domains such as “complicated” or “simple” as a result of our decisions to structure them that way (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003). The first realization is that ordered systems are not a natural state but a product of our own design, while CAS are naturally occurring (Holland, 2014). Routinized aspects of emergency management should be maintained towards the ordered end as they do not require innovation or adaptation and provide stability (Donaldson, 2001). For those that do require quick responses to changing conditions and finding new ways to do things, complexity offers a new way for us to understand ourselves, what we could become, and what normal is.

If we take the steps such as using complexity as a basis for managing and planning, we can transition into a CAS. Once we find ourselves at the edge of chaos, we can come to understand ourselves as elements creating conditions for emergence. The role of emergency management then becomes understood as more of a central node in a vast network distributing information and resources and less of a central authority figure (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003; Wheatley, 2006). In this setting, teams, approaches, strategy, and tactics are enabled to emerge from the interactions of the elements and the elements with their environment rather than from solely centralized decision-making. Still of influence, leadership intervenes when necessary to support desirable emerging patterns and discourage undesirable ones (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003). It will also likely be found that there is ongoing movement within the system owed to the balance of order and chaos. This will require a change in expectations as there will be some degree of instability surrounding stability. If understood this is part of the way we are, we may unlock new potential both from the areas of stability and the instability that surrounds them.

If emergency management organizations understand that they have the capacity to thrive at the boundary of chaos, it may become an ideal target state for operations across the emergency cycle. The dynamic balance between order and chaos embodied by CAS makes them alive enough to innovate and adapt without falling off the cliff into chaos or becoming overly constrained by order. In an emergency environment, a CAS can leverage a distributed power structure toward responding to emerging needs, new information, and shifting priorities (Cilliers, 1998).

Whether considering emergency operations or a new effort to enhance community resilience, CAS can provide a theoretical foundation. Core to CAS is the idea of not being able to forecast how a plan of action will unfold over time. “Time” in this instance could be as short as an operational period. Planning from a CAS perspective emphasizes sense-making, includes methods to stop action, enables continual adaptation, and aims towards goals or principles. If the plan stops being effective, it is changed in place. A key element of this approach is that those who are implementing the plan are given the authority to make decisions to modify it over time and incorporate new information. This creates a local feedback loop between action and information not delayed by organizational layers (Morin , 2008; Morin & Kern, 1999). By making these and other changes, and reflecting them in the attitudes of management, a CAS may be able to emerge from a formerly ordered system.


Chaos and complexity theory both offer to emergency management new foundations for all areas of practice. Instead of working to eliminate disorder, both theories offer pathways toward working effectively with instability and even using it advantageously to cope with turbulence, inspire innovation, and enable adaptation.


Cilliers, P.   (1998). Complexity & postmodernism: Understanding complex systems.  London: Routledge.

Donaldson, L.   (2001). The contingency theory of organization. Thousand Oaks: Sage   Publications Inc.

Holland, J. H.   (1992). Complex adaptive systems. Daedalus, 121(1), 17-30.

Holland, J. H.   (2014). Signals and boundaries: Building blocks for complex adaptive   systems. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kurtz, C. F.,   & Snowden, D. J. (2003). The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a   complex and complicated. IBM Systems Journal, 42(3), 462-483.

Morin , E. (2008).   On complexity. (R. Postel, Trans.) Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Morin, E., &   Kern, A. B. (1999). Homeland earth: A manifesto for the new millenium.  (S. M. Kelly, & R. LaPointe, Trans.) Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press .

Snowden, D.   (2017). Liminal Cynefin: The final cut? Retrieved from

Waldrop, M. M.   (1992). The emerging science at the edge of order and chaos. New York,   NY: Touchstone.

Wheatley, M. J.   (2006). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic   world. San Francisco, California : Berrett-Koehler.