The Curriculum of Chaos

Perry Timms
5 min readApr 8, 2017


Learning Every Day #CIPDLDShow

Chaos theory is defined by Wikipedia as:
“a branch of mathematics focused on the behaviour of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. ‘Chaos’ is an interdisciplinary theory stating that within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, there are underlying patterns, constant feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals, self-organisation, and reliance on programming at the initial point known as sensitive dependence on initial conditions. The butterfly effect describes how a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state, e.g. a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas.”

It is “interdisciplinary theory stating that within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, there are underlying patterns, constant feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals, self-organisation” that fascinates me so much about this theory and the applied learning for adult humans in the world of work.

We appear to value and deliver the opposite of this as part of the corporate learning experience. We box (almost) everything up; regulate it; time it; control it; mechanise it; replicate it (pretty much) identically; and bring order to any form of learning chaotically.

Compared to my (now) existence outside of the corporate machine where my learning is hardly EVER like this — and so why do I feel MORE informed; MORE capable; MORE adept; MORE valuable; MORE passionate; and MORE committed to learning than ever before?

It is because I’m on the eternal MOOC (Massive Open Online Course — in case you’ve never come across this before) where the curriculum is chaos.

Not that I’m learning about chaos but I’m learning chaotically.

Of course, and to a degree, when I WAS in a corporate role, I did some of this but I also wrestled with the formal, boxed up stuff that — being brutally honest — rarely got me fired up and informed. It is a familiar tale of woe from many people in corporate environments and hard-pressed learning professionals that what they deliver just doesn’t do “it” — i.e. transfer knowledge, create skills and inspire people who will always now be better as a result of the learning done.

Learning everyday is a theme of the CIPD L&D Show on 10 and 11 May 2017 where I have the pleasure of being a part of the blog squad for the show — covering it on social media channels as part of, ironically, others curriculum of chaos I suppose. I’m also contributing this post to (@wildfigsolns) Helen Amery’s Carnival of Blogs . In itself, a virtualised gathering of digital content to help people learn and promote a conference all about learning. With no firmly defined mandate to what the content should be — other than the concept of Learning Everyday — this is also a mini-curriculum of chaos.

Someone will read something on one of these blogs like Michelle Parry-Slater’s Working in my Pyjamas or Rachel @burnhamLandD with Collaborative Learning and will take something, share it, do stuff in the workplace, in a conversation with another or pop it into a workshop or coaching conversation and will use it to not only learn themselves but teach/help others to learn from.

Not that those people were necessary looking for the content, but it inspired them to use it.

This is the curriculum of chaos. No pre-determined view on what you’re after but stumbling upon useful information that you learn with and then use in some way to be, do, think, say something better or with more impact.

You may learn by coming across a blog like Adam Grant’s about the feedback sandwich from May last year (that you may have missed) and in it, an elegant way of giving feedback upwardly.

Adam begins with a frame, then a connection between them and then an invitation to consider feedback:

I started by explaining why I was giving the feedback. “Your senior team all believes you’re the right guy to save this company, and I do too. I hope I’ve seen something that can help you do that.”

Next I took myself off a pedestal. “I see this as a two-way street — there’s a lot I can learn from you about leadership. Who are the leaders who have taught you the most in your career?”

He gave me a few examples, and one was a leader with a clear, compelling vision. I took the opening and asked if he wanted feedback: “Your team actually has some pretty consistent views on how you can deliver your vision. Do you want to hear them?”

It worked.

Anyway, I may have searched this and found it and used it. That’s not chaos that’s deliberate and focused search/retrieve.

I came across this today (despite being a year old) and have stored it for sometime possible use. I wasn’t looking for it. Someone found the year-old post, liked it, it popped into my timeline — I explored it (liking Adam Grant’s stuff helped me make that call) and I have now stored the blog into my Evernote folder. I might or might not use it but I suspect I will.

No curriculum at play here, just random browsing and curiosity.

No obvious use at the moment but it’ll come I know it.

A like from someone (butterfly wings) resulted in find, read and store for me that next time I’m trying to help an HR leader, might result in a shift that saves a lot of people from confusion and misdirected effort (tornado in Texas).

So that to me, is learning everyday. Allowing learning to emerge not because you want it, but because it appears, semi or totally randomly.

That’s why I feel like I’m on the Everlasting MOOC to learn through a curriculum of chaos. And far from it being a lesser version of learning to my former corporate offers, it’s more inspiring, pacy and useful to me.

So maybe next time you’re trying to design a calming state of learning, maybe throw in a bit of chaos and we might just excite our learners and ourselves as learning professionals. Just enough that we make learning stick better, transfer the learning more clearly and make a difference to someone in a way we can never imagine.

Oh, and there’s NEVER an ROI conversation needed for learning through chaos.

It might be ROC I suppose — a Return on Chaos.



Perry Timms

CEO PTHR |2x TEDx speaker | Author: Transformational HR + The Energized Workplace | HR Most Influential Thinker 2017–2021 | Soulboy + Northampton Town fan