Help Your People Deal with Chaos

It’s been common, now, for many years, to run organizations with no available slack.

Everyone goes into the year fully loaded: there is no room for the unexpected.

The presumption that underlies this is that the unexpected will be handled by working extra hours. (I have seen some organizations that actually plan these extra hours, by expecting workloads of fifty to sixty hours a week from certain groups within the firm.)

I ask the question: when real chaos hits, where are you going to find the extra resources to deal with it, when you have loaded yourself “full” already?

The level of chaotic interruption — that which is not pre-considered — is likely to rise even further, as economic turmoil increases and emergency measures abound. Managers should anticipate the need to deal with this, even if they are unable to plan for what specifically needs to be done.

Time: An organization that is already running flat out has no capacity to take on anything new — and everything that is underway has its defenders.

The wise manager will therefore ensure that the year is planned and limited to a regular work week (one with some slack time built into it).

I are already seeing some organizations use the introduction of collaboration tools as a means for creating that future capability (requiring, for instance, as a part of performance evaluation, an hour or two be spent on reading blogs, commenting on them, creating them [if that suits the individual], adding to wiki documents, etc.). Here is a built-in time buffer for a moment of crisis, along with the currently-kept-free extra hours to meet a moment of crisis.

Consideration: Two different things matter to the enterprise in a time of chaos.

The first is early detection. Here, the provision of the slack time and the tools of collaboration actually help in circulating some of the early signs various employees may be picking up on.

Prompting questions as comments can aid in fleshing out what is going on while there is still time to respond with choices of action.

The second is problem solving, once the moment of crisis has emerged. Here the collaborative structure is turned over to discussion of the issue, and how to respond to it. This, incidentally, signals that other efforts might be suspended or delayed.

Deployment: A short period of extra hours may be required, but the goal should be to return to a normal work schedule (but one that accommodates whatever is required to meet the challenge) as quickly as possible.

If there is one norm for the years ahead, it is that crises will pile up one upon the other and thus the organization that can integrate the previous one most quickly and return to “normal” will have a tactical advantage in meeting the next one.

If you are a user of portfolio management, this is a good time to get people used to the notion of embedding “risk of disruption” into the analyses — and finding resources from amongst those efforts that can best withstand a disruption.

Changes & Stability: There’s a tendency in organizations to hold back on information just when openness is most needed.

Too many managers I talk to hold the belief that, in front of their subordinates, they must be “all knowing”: if they are uncertain, they stay silent, rather than later have to change direction.

In times of chaos and turbulence, unfortunately, this is an approach that digs even more deeply into productivity than proceeding to be open and share your uncertainty while asking for the staff’s views in return.

All change requires some stability against which to happen.

People simply shut down and wait for instructions when everything is in flux at once.

For that reason, one of management’s key roles at times like these is to create that oasis of stability.

Many try to do it by waiting the chaos out. The ones who turn chaos into productive change and overcome the adversity it brings are those who involve others in a recognizable process of identification, discovery, evaluation and direction-setting. The stability is then in how such events are handled, rather than in carrying out a plan.

Preparation: Use these early days to pre-plan for the emergence of events.

Structure your portfolio of activities for 2013 so that items stay off the agenda until the organization is ready to execute — then execute with dispatch, so as to again clear the agenda.

(Infrastructural functions for the organization — IT, HR, Finance — tend to be the worst at launching hundreds of projects for which not much happens from one week to the next: this weighs people down and makes any external change that much more traumatic.)

Prioritize to ensure returns: a single digit return on investment on a sure thing (e.g. facilities upgrades) would be far preferable to a double digit ROI coupled with a probability of disruption or “inappropriate response” if circumstances change — times of chaos and turbulence are times when real results matter more.

Begin to involve your team in your thinking early; set the ground work for collaboration; train yourself to be open and to “think out loud” or to “think together”.

These will come to serve you well when chaos erupts — and it will.


About passionateobserver

I am a passionate observer of our society, the economy, and politics. Mostly I don't like much of what I see, so I write as a concerned citizen. To the fray, I bring a background in the philosophy of history, a lifetime's reading, a work history in information technology management, consulting and education.
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2 Responses to Help Your People Deal with Chaos

  1. A case well made! I would add that organizations running with no slack actually bring on disruptions. With little time to reflect on the “out-of-ordinary,” the solution is to patch solutions or ignore the signal that something has changed. Patching solutions leads to greater complexity in internal processes and less free time. The lack of reflection increase the potential for unexpected disruptions. Time to think about the implications of the “out-of-ordinary” is critical in today’s fast changing world.

    John I. Todor, Ph.D., MindShift Innovation

    • Hello, John – your observation about increased complications due to patching and lack of time to reflect is something I share. Given how fast things are changing, I hope our various organizations put some ability to think back soon … it will definitely be needed. Thanks for commenting!

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