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Lessons in Chaos Theory: What We Can Learn from Jurassic Park

I’ve only just got around to reading Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. You know the story. An island off Costa Rica has been populated by dinosaurs, conceived in a laboratory by bits of DNA extracted from fossils. A bunch of visitors to the island is making an audit of its attractions and their safety prior to it being open to the public.

One of the visitors in this audit team is a mathematician and his speciality is game theory. The book introduces us to game theory in a way that is easy to understand. The mathematics we are taught at school is linear theory. For example, gravity can be proven in terms of mathematical equations because what goes up must come down in a linear sense. We like linear things. Maslow’s hierarchy is linear – you start at the bottom of the pyramid and fulfil a number of basic requirements before you can move up to higher levels. The AIDA framework similarly works in a straight line from awareness, interest and desire to action.

Game theory deals with things that aren’t linear – it deals with the unpredictable. Malcolm, the mathematician in Michael Crichton’s book explains. He tell us that if you hit a snooker ball against another ball you would think you would be able to predict exactly where it would go on repeated strokes if you input the same power and angles each time the ball is struck. However, small imperfections on the felt of the snooker table, differences in the way the snooker cue has been chalked and just the way the ball is hit will mean that in practice the result isn’t linear and balls will not end up in exactly the same position. Now think of something as variable as a weather forecast. Changes to air pressure, the jet stream, local temperatures and geographical variations mean that it’s very difficult to be precise about what will happen.

This understanding of predictability is important to the subject of frameworks. Frameworks are more akin to being chaotic than linear. They deal with situations where it is difficult to be mathematically precise about a result. Changes in the behaviour of customers, changes in behaviour of staff, changes in the behaviour of competitors and changes caused by unforeseen events mean that whatever framework we adopt, we can’t guarantee the exact outcome. We should recognise this and as a result continuously monitor what is happening as the framework progresses. There will be diversions from the expected trajectory. This doesn’t mean that we should constantly tinker with the framework changing the inputs all the time. However there will be occasions when the fluctuations around the trajectory are more than just minor variations and a course correction is required.

Course corrections are necessary in every walk of life. Sailing a boat across the ocean or sending a spacecraft to Mars needs regular tweaks of the rudder. It isn’t as if a mistake has been made, rather it is the unpredictability of the world we live in and the forces that direct us. The skill in course correction is deciding when to tweak the rudder, how to tweak it, and where to set the compass. These are skills that are essential to anyone in business and anyone using a framework.

We all know what happened in Jurassic Park. Mr Hammond, the founder of the park had not believed that things could go wrong. His dinosaurs were genealogically designed to not reproduce – but they did. His safety measures on the island were supposed to be fail proof but he hadn’t counted on someone messing with the computer system that supported them. And he hadn’t expected all this to happen at the same time as a tremendous storm.

The lesson to those of us who use frameworks is to use them to prepare for the best, and yet be aware that it isn’t going to work out exactly as we hoped and planned. With course correction we can ensure that the worst doesn’t happen and we don’t end up with a Jurassic Park disaster.


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