The world is changing around us at an unprecedented rate. We sense it on a daily basis: from the impact of demographic shifts and increasing resource scarcity, to technology breakthroughs. Many organisations we work with in the private, not-for-profit and public sectors are feeling it in one way or another, and in most cases are struggling to adapt to the rapid pace of change.

Being in a constant state of flux creates uncertainty, which often stymies strategic decision making and the ability to act. This situation presents the paradox of needing to move forward, but needing to orientate oneself in a sea of chaos before being able to do so. For organisations in this situation, this is where I believe Chaos Theory, a branch of mathematics, can shed some light.

Chaos Theory, also known as the Butterfly Effect,  is sometimes used to predict the behaviour of complex systems by identifying ordered structures from apparent chaos. The key to unlocking these structures is measuring a starting location within a defined space, then observing how that point moves through this space and identifying its preferred set of behaviours. By teasing out these behavioural patterns, you then have some control over randomness and can turn uncertainty into an asset.

While I may have earned the scorn of mathematicians with this extremely condensed definition of Chaos Theory, I do believe it provides an insight for programs experiencing a state of flux. As with Chaos Theory, when embarking on a measurement system for your program, you need to identify a starting point. For program measurement, the starting point is clarifying the indicators for the outputs and short-term outcomes of that program.

When you are clear on the indicators for the outcomes you are trying to achieve, an ‘Agile’ approach can further help manage ambiguity. I first came across Agile from my time working in the information communications technology (ICT) sector. In the context of ICT, Agile refers to an iterative, incremental method of managing new software development, with the needs of the customer at the centre of the implementation. When Agile is applied to the measurement of social and environmental programs, the emphasis shifts from traditional retrospective evaluation focused on funders, to actionable information focused on present client needs.

The other complementary principle of an Agile approach to managing complexity and understanding behaviour, is fast feedback loops. This is the frequent collection of feedback at continuous stages that can rapidly inform decision making on how to proceed next. From the feedback evidence obtained, you can then learn how well you’re tracking towards the outcome you have set for yourself, make the appropriate decision based on the new information, then immediately adjust your resources and program activities.

This Agile principle, combined with the growing array of low cost information technologies and proliferation of mobile devices, now makes quality and frequent data more readily available for program decision making and delivery effectiveness.

By embracing and recognising how much chaos plays a part in our lives, we are better positioned to navigate a course through it. We also become more attuned to the subtle shifts in the present that might have larger implications in the future. Moreover, by revising our expected outcomes, in light of new evidence from our agile measurement tools, we are better able to adapt to a constantly changing environment.

Adrian Middleton – Director, Impact Logic