Planning & Organizing with Edgar Morin: Insights for Managing Emergencies

This series begins by exploring the familiar discussion of planning and organizing for adaptation from the perspective of French sociologist Edgar Morin.

Planning & Organizing with Edgar Morin: Insights for Managing Emergencies


This series begins by exploring the familiar discussion of planning and organizing for adaptation, this time from the perspective of French sociologist Edgar Morin. Morin introduces into the conversation new concepts and language for approaching the task of enabling teams and organizations as a whole to adapt when faced with change. It is interesting to note that Morin's writings on complexity largely predate the popularization of the term (Montuori, 2008).

The Theory

The theory at the core of this post comes from Morin's (2008) essay "Complexity and the Enterprise" found in his book On Complexity. The book provides an introduction to complexity as a concept, discusses the need for the integration of complex principles and thinking into science and everyday life, and provides an introduction to a portion of Morin's work. Morin seems to still be relatively unknown here in the U.S. due perhaps to the limited amount of translated material.

Morin (2008) writes that "we are in a universe from which we cannot exclude risk, uncertainty, and disorder. We have to live and deal with disorder" (p.62). The gravity of these words becomes clear when he states that "Organizations need order and they need disorder." (p.63). Morin defines disorder and order in the excerpts below.

"Order refers to everything that is repetition, constant, invariant, everything that can be put under the aegis of highly probable relation, framed within the dependence of a law" (Morin, 2008, p.62).
"Disorder refers to everything that is irregularity, deviation as regards to structure, random, unpredictability (Morin, 2008, p.63).

After he defines disorder, Morin (2008) goes on to say that in a universe of nothing but order there would be "no innovation, no creation, no evolution" (p.63). At the same time, he writes that a world of disorder would have no stability upon which an organization could be founded.

Leaving the conversation of order and disorder for a moment, Morin (2008) moves on to a discussion of planning where he introduces his opposing notions of program and strategy.

"A program is a sequence of predetermined actions that must function in circumstances that allow their completion" (Morin, 2008, p.63).
"Strategy, on the other hand, elaborates one of several scenarios. From the beginning, strategy prepares itself, if there is anything new or unexpected, to integrate, modify, or enrich its action" (Morin, 2008, p.63).

A slightly longer and more detailed definition of strategy is found in Morin and Kern (1999):

Strategy is the rational guidance of an action in a situation and context that is ill defined and perhaps dangerous. Strategies are elaborated according to goals and principles, consider various possible scripts for the unfolding action, and select the one that appears to be dictated by the situation. Sometimes the preferable script is that which lowers the risks as well as the opportunities, and sometimes it is that which heightens the opportunities, as well as the risks. Strategies change the script along the way according to the information, reactions, hazards, events, and the unexpected appearance or disappearance of obstacles, growing richer in experience as well as in ability to combat adversity (p.115).

In comparing both types of plans, Morin (2008) presents programs as the more efficient option as they take the thought out of action. All one has to do is follow and execute the plan without reflection or a need for innovation. Although efficient, if the expected conditions change the program stops or fails. In an earlier essay in the same book, he writes that programs are best suited for stable environments. This could be interpreted as an indication that programs function best when there is order outside of the organization.

Strategies on the other hand, are created as situational awareness is gained and continually refined as new information becomes available. For strategies to work, organizations need to create conditions where they can be used and depart from their typical function of creating and implementing programs. Yet, Morin (2008) cautions that not everyone in an organization should become a strategist as this would lead to total disorder. At the same time, he puts forth the idea that "imposing an unshakable disorder within an enterprise is not efficient "(Morin, 2008, p.64). He continues:

All instructions that require, the immediate shut down of the sector or the machine in event of a breakdown of unexpected incident are counter-efficient. Some initiative must be left to each level and to each individual"(Morin, 2008, p.64).

Seemingly, Morin (2008) is advocating for organizations to adopt the strategy planning method but stop short of naming everyone a chief strategist with the ability to define and shape plans. Balance is again needed. Still, organizational members must be allowed to take some degree of initiative for the sake of efficiency.

In the second to last section of the essay, Morin (2008) appears to argue that whether intended or not, disorder is found in all organizations even those conceived around order. He goes one step further and suggests, as others have, it is the disordered elements of an organization that enable the ordered parts to function effectively.

"Disorder constitutes the inevitable, necessary, and often fecund response to the sclerotic, schematic, abstract, and simplifying character of order"(Morin, 2008, p.65).

He provides three examples, one of which is from the company Renault (presumably  the car manufacturer). Morin (2008) explains that a former employee of the company described how in their division an "informal, secret, clandestine association" (p.64) formed against the ordered bureaucracy of the organization. This informal collaborative resistance allowed workers to gain the "autonomy and freedom" (Morin, 2008, p.54) necessary to get the job done.

Before moving on to the brief final section, Morin (2008) poses the important question of how can we strike an effective balance between order and disorder in practice. He begins to answer this question by saying that the "more an organization is complex, the more it tolerates disorder "(p.66). Given a larger reading of Morin's work, the complexity of an organization is determined by the number and variety of its members and the level of intricacy of the linkages joining them together and to the organization as a whole (Morin, 1999; Morin, 2008). In other words, according to Morin, an organization can be considered to be complex when it has diverse membership and there are multiple communication pathways joining members together across teams, departments, and divisions.

To Morin (2008), the more complex an organization is the better it can withstand needed disorder inside of it as well as challenges external to it. If an organization is sufficiently complex enough to allow for a degree of disorder, members are enabled to take initiative to solve problems without going through a centralized hierarchy. However, too much complexity and an organization will lose all needed structure unless there is a "deep solidarity between its members" (p.66). He writes that "lived solidarity is the only thing that allows an increase in complexity" (Morin, 2008, p.66).

The relationship between Organizational Complexity, Disorder, and Solidarity drawn in the stylings of Edgar Morin. Increases in one lead to increases in the other producing the outcome of further adaptive abilities. 


The Insights

Organizations will always have a degree of disorder. If properly leveraged, this disorder can increase adaptability. Throughout the essay, Morin (2008) advocates for a balance between order and disorder within an organization. On one hand, he states that too much order will curtail adaptation, creativity, and innovation and lead to inefficiency as all decisions need to run through a centralized hierarchy. On the other, too much disorder leads to a breakdown of the organization. Somewhere in the middle an organization can remain a coherent whole while also effectively addressing challenges through the use of malleable planning methods and allowing for initiative. Acknowledging informal networks and communication channels and giving them a formal space within the organization are steps toward working with disorder. By recognizing them, constraints can be set that prevent an abundance of disorder from being present. We are left to wonder if in someway codifying disorder will lead to it appearing in a new form within the organization.

Programs and strategies are ways of approaching planning that are useful at different times, regardless of how much change is taking place in the environment. Morin (2008) uses the words strategy in a new way within the context of emergency management and response. Rather than using it as a companion to the word tactics, Morin uses it to describe a method for planning that opposes programs. Programs are highly efficient, do not require innovative problem solving or significant reflection, and are easily executed. I will disagree slightly with Morin when I suggest that programs might often be needed or preferred in unstable environments. There are surely times when deviation from plan of action of action is not desirable (Snowden & Boone, 2007). What is important is that we align our expectations with the planning approach we have used. If we write plans as programs, we should expect they will be taken literally without deviation whereas if we write them as strategies we should expect to return to the site of work to find unexpected methods and possibly results depending on how "open" the strategy was.  

Strategies provided a different method that begins by first taking into account a situation characterized by uncertainty or risk (disorder) or other ambiguity, using goals or principles to imagine several ways forward, selecting one that best fits the context, and continually refining it as it is implemented. There are a few things that are important to highlight about strategies. First, goals and principles provide coherence to the continued adaptation of strategies so they are not "random" and without direction. The openness or vagueness of these goals and principles determines how much disorder (freedom and autonomy) can be exercised as it is implemented. Second, organizations need to transition from being designed to create and implement only programs to being able to produce and follow strategies as well. This involves increasing organizational complexity to allow for organizational members to make the decisions needed to select a course of action and modify it over time. A strategy approach to planning will not work unless an organization enables it to.

I think it is useful to consider Morin and Kern's (1999) discussion of opportunities and risks and the relationship between these two variables. Strategies or programs can be thought of in terms of the risk they generate by pursuing such opportunities as trying new methods such as strategy-based planning, applying new research toward a public awareness campaign, or supporting management teams as they direct resources to places of most potential.  Lastly, strategies may be useful outside of contexts where there is dynamic change such as in problem-solving processes where solutions have repeatedly failed, new problems are encountered, or a new method is desired. Increased risk may need to be incurred to pursue a new way of doing things.

A space to plot two important planning variables belonging to programs or strategies. A plan can be plotted as a whole using a single point or multiple giving a more detailed view of what has been created and the risk being incurred directly or transferred to others through the pursuit of opportunities. 

Morin's (2008) discussion of programs and strategies is somewhat mirrored in Rotanz's (2014) chapter in Emergency Management: Principles and Practice for Local Government:

"A crucial component of preparation is the development of a response strategy, such a strategy should focus on anticipated policy decisions - not how to run a shelter, but how to determine, for example, what constitutes an acceptable shelter and how long shelters will be open. A response strategy is typically more flexible than a response plan: it provides general guidance that leaves room for improvisation as circumstances change" (p.157).

Solidarity supports the organizational complexity required for constructive disorder that enables an organization to be "alive" and adapt to changing circumstances. A degree of disorder is needed for the implementation of strategies. Solidarity is defined as "unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group." This is something we as a community already know and build towards through objectives, core principles, moving through hardship, and mission and value statements. Morin (2008) suggests leveraging this existing solidarity toward increasing organizational complexity by distributing decision-making authority, recognizing informal communication channels and collaborative groups, and following a strategy instead of a program approach.

To Morin (2008), existing solidarity makes increasingly complex forms of organization and the disorder they entail possible. I once worked for a Hotshot Crew that embodied a high degree of disorder represented in substantial amounts of autonomy granted to teams and members, a loose communication structure, and distributed decision-making. Anarchy did not ensue. Our feeling of solidarity held the crew together and kept all members moving in the same direction. The key insight here is that increasing solidarity leads to increasingly complex forms of organization that are supported by and enable disorder and in turn increase adaptation, innovation, and creativity.


Montuori, A. (2008). Foreword. In E. Morin, On  complexity (pp. i-xIiv). Cresskill, NJ: New Hampton Press.

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

Morin, E. (1999). Organization and complexity. Annals  of the New York Academy of Sciences, 879(1), 115-221.  doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1999.tb10410.x

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

Rotanz, R. A. (2014). Applied response strategies. In W. L. Waugh Jr., & K. Tierney (Eds.), Emergency management: Principles and practice for local government (2nd ed., pp. 143-157). Washington, DC: ICMA.

Snowden, D. J., & Boone, M. E. (2007). A leader's framework for decision making. Harvard Business Review, 85(11), 68-76.