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Embrace the Chaos: Helping teams thrive in an unpredictable world

Our world is chaos – in a very literal sense. Chaos theory defines a system as chaotic if it is highly sensitive to inputs and responds to variables in a non-linear fashion [1]. As much as we like to think of our world as predictable and controlled, we very much teeter and mostly live in an unpredictable one. Most of the items we try to plan out in business will not be neatly pre-packaged or insulated from randomness with linear predictability – but instead, are engulfed sphere of unpredictability. Globalization, advances in technology, and an increased focus on collaboration (while positive) have only acted as levers to our systems (businesses/teams) by adding variables, sensitivities, and unknowns. The most famous example of chaos is often explained as the butterfly effect (a butterfly flapping its wings may trigger a hurricane across the globe). It is why no matter how hard we try to model the weather (and humans have tried hard), a weather forecast falls apart after just a few days – and has even limited accuracy within a day.

The butterfly effect very much applies to teams and businesses due to both internal and external variables. A competitor’s output – or even statements can change the trajectory of our own work. The constant delivery of new technologies and enablers changes the relative value of what we produce (and ultimately how we work). A single interaction between team members can impact team dynamics and ultimately a deliverable. Something as simple as team maturity/efficiency, which is often assumed to be linear (team performance improves linearly or proportionally to time), is much more likely to be modeled by chaos – with random oscillations caused by the smallest seemingly unrelated item. Everyday occurrences like getting sick, turnover, home relationships, traffic, and even luck experienced by each individual on a daily basis will impact your team’s dynamic

Steady projected team development (left) vs. chaotic reality (right)

Accepting that we live in a chaotic world is necessary to thrive in it. The path to success is not in trying to force our will or exert our energy to eliminate chaos but to re-think how we plan in the presence of chaos. Planning is no longer about predicting and listing a series of sequenced events. In a world of chaos, planning is more synonymous with positioning. A world sensitive to inputs outside of our control cannot be predicted – but it can be prepared for. By positioning, I specifically mean preserving options. If you are in a position that has options, you can adapt. This article examines how to achieve that with a combination of heuristic accounts and applicable lessons from chaos theory (don’t worry – no equations needed).

“Late is better than never, although never is often better than right now” – Zen of Python

Society often berates procrastination as a plague. The fact is that this instinct is a survival mechanism, and something far-worse is being pushed on businesses –a term behavioral economists call “pre-crastination”. To be clear procrastination can be harmful – this article refers to “mature procrastination” or what Lean principles call “deferring decisions to the last responsible moment”. When a decision is made options are taken off the table, there is not a reason to handcuff yourself before you must. Allowing time and chaos to play out allow you to execute the best option available when you reach the point that a decision must be made. There is a misconception that delivering fast is about working chaotically – it is about working purposefully in a chaotic world.

Preserving options while making progress requires non-standardization. It typically involves working in multiple ways toward a single destination until the paths diverge to the point that one “has to go”. Sometimes this is very early, and sometimes it is later in the game – but it boils down to a very common problem known as explore-exploit. When you work across multiple paths you are conducting exploration – when you take a path off the table it should be to exploit a superior one. Intricate planning upfront, which strips us of choices based on the assumption that we are ready to exploit is begging for pain. On the other hand, lighter, positional planning allows you take bad options away when your surroundings indicate they are not viable.

Perhaps no study better shows the cost of “pre-crastination” and “exploiting” too early than that of behavioral economists at Pennsylvania State University. In the experiment, subjects stood at a starting line next to a bucket while another bucket was placed halfway between the start and finish lines. Subjects were then asked to carry one bucket across the finish line – nearly every time participants grabbed the bucket immediately next to them (and carried a bucket twice the distance). Interestingly this even occurred when the bucket at the halfway mark was empty, and the one at the starting line was heavy (filled w/pennies) [2]. Taking the 1st option as soon as it presents itself will rarely give you a head start – it is likely to hold you back, however, when a better option presents itself.

T-Shaped team members have an area of strength, but are willing and able to reach across other areas.

Specialization is great – until it isn’t

Since the days of Henry Ford, there has been an increased push for specialization in hopes of reaching greater efficiency (think assembly lines). Implementing hyper-efficiency would provide great benefits in a stable and predictable environment. In a chaotic and unpredictable one, however, hyper-efficiency leads to fragility. Lack of redundancy means that any single point will eventually become a bottleneck or can even lead to catastrophic failure. Building in choice/optionality requires what would be deemed inefficient in a predictable world, but robustness and ultimately value in an unpredictable one. If you acknowledge that your world is chaos – you must be willing to sacrifice some level of efficiency to take advantage of unforeseen situations.

The best way to tackle this is to build a roster capable of flexibility. Instead of “technical specialists” find a blend of specialized generalists. These team members are often referred to as “T- shaped”. They may have an area where they have deeper knowledge but what sets them apart is that they are both capable and willing to do tasks required by the team – even if it is outside of their typical function. These team members may not be as deep in a specific area as a specialist but are avid learners and great team members to have in an uncertain environment. If you have the choice to pick one tool, picking a hammer will be great so long as the task never changes, but a swiss-army knife will let you survive if the task does (so which would you grab if you were about to go into the unpredictable wilderness?).

A generic view of agile and its feedback loops

A Note on Planning – Always Leverage Feedback Loops

If we can’t predict the future, we shouldn’t plan out further than we have too. A popular saying gives value to differentiating the forest from the trees. It values the capability of differentiating the details from the big picture. We should use the big picture as a guide and make a short-term plan (details) that takes us in that direction. At frequent intervals, the long-term plans should be re-evaluated and the next set of detailed short-term plans should be generated using the lessons learned. Ask yourself are you headed in the right direction? The “Forest vs. Trees” discussion doesn’t matter much if you are in the wrong forest.

The study of chaos led to the discovery of something called fractals (thanks Mandelbrot!) – or self-repeating shapes which can be used to create incredibly detailed and intricate patterns [3]. It helps make sense of what would otherwise seem random and impossibly complicated. It should not be surprising that fractals from chaos theory may be the key to planning in a seemingly chaotic and random world

The idea of do, learn, recalibrate, do is exemplified by agile methodologies. In a dynamic world, our long-term plans are a hypothesis. Using feedback loops lets us validate our hypothesis and make new ones as we learn more. Following outdated plans or pursuing an objective that has lost relevance will not lead you to success – regardless of the initial plan’s quality.

Agile uses feedback loops by doing work in short iterations or “sprints”. Each iteration leads to a minimally viable product or prototype. This incremental piece of a solution then gets the “rubber meets the road” test, which allows for pivoting and tweaks to the bigger picture. Agile has fractal patterns of feedback loops – as an iteration itself consists of several other feedback loops (daily stand-ups, sprint reviews, code reviews, automated tests, etc.) which have helped the methodology become a powerful lever in finding what the customer actually wants or needs quickly and effectively.

Summary

The key to thriving in an uncertain world is to freely accept that we know and control very little about the future and put ourselves in a position to succeed as the future shows us viable paths. It is not about over planning or moving too quickly (pre-crastination) – it is about moving purposefully to preserve options. This requires accepting inefficiencies, re-thinking how we build teams, and above all else incorporating feedback loops.

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  1. Gleick, J. (1987). Chaos: Making a new science.
  2. Christian, B., & Griffiths, T. (2016). Algorithms to Live By. New York: Henry Holat and Company LLC.
  3. Mandelbrot, B. (1982).

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