We've seen that systems evolve from simple and uninteresting to complex, dynamic, and endlessly creative as the system's energy flow, degrees of freedom, and flexibility are all increased. Organizations likewise become more innovative and successful by implementing the peer-based practices that increase information flow, freedom in decision making, and the flexibility and responsiveness of the organization.
A strange attractor, simply put, is a system that appears chaotic but in fact possesses an amazing degree of order and creative potential. A key property of the strange attractor is its "stretch and fold" characteristic. Imagine taking some bread dough and placing two raisins in it side by side. If you stretch the dough, the two raisins move far apart, but when you fold the dough back in on itself, the two raisins once again are side by side. If you repeat this procedure again and again, you will notice how the two raisins wander randomly in the dough, with one stretch moving them away from each other and one fold moving them closer together, all the while not altering the general shape of the dough. If you think of the dough as the attractor of the system and the positions of the raisins as two different states of the system, you get a good picture of what happens in a chaotic system. At any one moment in the history of a dynamic system, two events or states are in close proximity, while in the very next moment they are unpredictably far apart. This is due to the nearly infinite degrees of freedom available in the strange attractor system.
Another way to explain this property of the strange attractor is to view the system as being formed by two antagonistic tendencies: (1) a tendency to converge, to fold, and (2) a tendency to diverge, to stretch. This makes the system incredibly resilient. Similarly, an organization in today's turbulent business environment, with its high rates of energy circulation, must be able to deal with both tension-expanding (stretch) and tension-compressing (fold) forces. Organizations need to be able to stretch to accommodate special needs and then to return to shape, or fold back. They must be able to deal with uncertainty by flexibly changing structure when necessary and then reconfiguring without breaking apart. The peer-based practices that we will discuss give an organization this responsiveness and flexibility. Rank-based thinking is inadequate in this "strange" world. It will break apart under the stress of uncertainty and turbulence. Companies need to develop the elasticity and the plasticity that is characteristic of the stretching and folding of the strange attractor. The implications of the strange attractor model for organizations, especially leaderless organizations, will be seen later in this chapter and in subsequent chapters.