A good deal of my time is spent helping people bring order out of chaos.
As I spend a great deal of time around chaos, I’ve become sensitive to its various nuances. I’ve concluded that there are two types of chaos: controlled chaos and uncontrolled chaos. Understanding the differences and knowing how each should be dealt with can have a profound impact on your success and the success of the people in your organization.
Controlled chaos is “good chaos ” or at worst it is benign or neutral. Controlled chaos affects but does not dictate outcomes. In these environments, people use their creativity and flexibility to accomplish their goals.
My work takes me to any number of different industries where good chaos is a fact of life.
One world where controlled chaos can be observed is in the food service industry.
The restaurant environment contains two realities separated by a swinging door.
In the dining room couples are laughing and conversing while waiters quietly interject to see if they can be of additional service. A few feet away is the kitchen. Open that door and wham! – chaos! Orders are flying through the air. Pots and pans are clanging. People are scurrying to and fro. It’s chaotic but there is a flow to it, a rhythm. Chaotic but also controlled.
Another world where chaos is the order of the day is the construction and building industry. People are constantly reacting to everything from the weather to the reliability of venders to the price of materials. Project managers and superintendents have a time frame in which they need to finish a job but they often “react” their way to the successful completion of a project.
They live in a chaotic environment, but there is definitely a method to their madness.
Uncontrolled chaos is “bad chaos.” It is a reactive environment where people are affected by events but are unable to effect events. It is a world of blame and victims.
I recently had a wonderful opportunity to watch uncontrolled chaos at work.
Last month we began receiving calls from our local video store. It seems we were not returning our videos on time—except we were. On two different occasions, we would get the call. “Your video is overdue,” the salesperson would say. “No it isn’t. Go look on the shelf and you’ll find it,” would be our reply. Each time they would look and there it would be. The third call was the best. First came the “you didn’t return the video” call.
This was followed by the “yes we did go look on the shelf” call. As with the previous two incidents, we received the inevitable “never mind we found it” call. This time they decided to add a new wrinkle. After telling us we had returned the video, they decided to change their mind and tell us now we hadn’t returned it. This was followed two days later with a “never mind, you really did return it” call!
By now I thought it would be good to have a little chat with the manager. I explained to her that I understood she worked in a chaotic environment. Hundreds of videos are left every day and hundreds of videos come back every day. Lots of items in motion.
I explained to the manager the roles each of us played in this very “complicated” exchange. My job was to drop the video in the little slot. Her job was to scan the video bar code into the computer and put it on the shelf with other videos that looked just like the one she would be holding. “How” I asked, “could we work together so each of us could get what we wanted?”
The solution she said was to hand deliver the video each time, wait while the salesperson scanned it, and watch as they put it on the shelf. I thanked her without telling her that she would soon be starring in my next article.
Clearly the store manager saw her staff and herself as victims of their chaotic environment. She believed that chaos was inevitable and could not be controlled. She concluded that she and I were both helpless in the face of this chaos and the only solution was for me to be inconvenienced and for the store to change its return and re-shelving policy.
Chaos will occasionally visit all of us. As hard as some of us may try, we simply cannot control or anticipate every problem. Our challenge then is to react in such a way that we control chaos rather than letting chaos control us.