Let Chaos Reign, then Rein in Chaos

Andy Grove

Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel
Photo Credit: Intel Free Press

I met Andy Grove many years ago when he was still CEO of Intel (sometime after this proto-hipster photo). “Only the paranoid survive” is perhaps his most well-known quote, which is also the title of his book.1 However, I don’t think is his best quote.  My favorite Andy quote is …

“Let chaos reign, then rein in chaos”

Profound… cleverly worded… timeless… and useful

I was teaching a course on complex adaptive systems with the Cynefin framework developed by David Snowden, and a participant reminded of this quote.  At the time, we were discussing the movement between the simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disordered domains.  “Let chaos reign, then rein in chaos” is a fantastic description for movement pattern between the complex and complicated domains.

"Let chaos reign, then rein in chaos" - Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel

“Let chaos reign, then rein in chaos” – Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel
Cynefin domain movements

Chaos is not always a bad thing.  Radical innovations often emerge from chaotic environments. One interpretation of “Letting chaos reign” is that we need to provide space or time for chaos to stimulate innovation and break down constraints or entrenched paradigms.  Chaos is a transitory state however.  Most things do not stay in chaos for long and tend to want to stabilize one way or another, death being one type of stabilization.  Eventually we have to “rein in chaos” by imposing boundaries and constraints. Stabilizing the beneficial emergent patterns allows us to begin to take advantage of and exploit the new innovations.  “Let chaos reign, then rein in chaos” was such a good match for this movement that I felt compelled to go back and re-read some of Andy’s earlier work for additional insights on complex systems theory.

Andy was a master of corporate strategy.  He had a solid grasp on the fact that leaders need to adjust the way strategic decisions are made based on the context.  I think his comments in the following quote from this article in Fortune2 reflect this.

“I’d like to borrow a concept from physics to describe the difference between two types of strategic actions. If the effect of a company’s strategic action changes only its own competitive position but not the environment, the action is linear. In contrast, a nonlinear strategic action sets off changes in the environment that the company as well as its competitors then have to cope with.”

Reflecting on how this quote could be mapped to the Cynefin framework, it sounds like the contrast between taking strategic actions in the complicated vs. the complex domains.  Complicated systems tend to be linear and predictable. Complex systems exhibit many non-linear effects and co-evolve with the identities operating within it.

Cynefin, complicated vs complex strategic actions

Cynefin, complicated vs complex strategic actions

Andy’s metaphor of a bowl of water vs a bowl cream also reminds me of the differences between complicated (or ordered) and complex.

“To see the difference, think of what happens when you stir a bowl of water vs. when you stir a bowl of cream. When you stir water, it starts swirling. The more vigorously you stir it, the faster it swirls–yet it remains water. By contrast, as you stir a bowl of cream, it gets thicker and thicker and eventually turns into butter. It becomes more and more difficult to stir, tiring you and causing you to slow down. The action affects the environment; the changed environment impacts further action.”

To paraphrase a similar metaphor I heard from Tony Quinlan, jet engines complicated and mayonnaise is complex.  You can tear down and rebuild a jet engine back to its original state, but you cannot unmake mayonnaise after it is made (or at least it is very difficult) – not unlike butter.

Andy frequently collaborated with Robert Burgelman, from Stanford Graduate School of Business, on corporate strategy. They co-authored some interesting work on these ideas. I’ll save that for a future post.


  1. Grove AS. 1996. Only the Paranoid Survive. DoubleDay:New York.
  2. Grove AS. 2003. “Churning things up.” Fortune,11 August: 114 – 118.

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