Positive Chaos and the Management of People

by Wally Hauck

“He that innovates and is lucky will take the market.”

W. Edwards Deming

Chaos is often thought to be negative. Chaos is confusing which makes it stressful. People like clarity and avoid forced change because they feel out of control. To achieve employee engagement leaders in our knowledge based economy must embrace chaos and make sure that the chaos is positive not negative. Positive chaos is an outcome of a clear set of principles which are embraced and acted upon. The use of clear principles that are aligned with natural law will determine that the chaos will be positive. The lack of clear principles (or the misunderstanding of them) creates negative chaos.

Negative chaos scares people. They don’t like to be changed and they don’t like to be told to change. This type of environment creates fear, less desire to take risk and therefore less innovation. The responsibility for change lies with the management or with the organizational development consultant who brings his or her process and set of rules. Senior leaders decide everyone must change and so a change initiative is born and often added on top of all the other work responsibilities people must juggle.

This is one reason why about 70% of planned change efforts fail to achieve the intended outcomes. Planned change efforts are often doomed from the beginning because the responsibility for creating change lies at that top and is forced on those who “must be changed.” The principles of this type of change communicate management knows best, people don’t know what they need (management does), people don’t like change and so they must be changed through bribes or threats. I believe these principles are contrary to natural law. These principles that are flawed and so people resist, feel confused, and feel stressed.

Positive chaos operates under a different set of principles. It embraces a high level of trust and clarity. Positive chaos means people are willing to adapt to change as it happens based on their own perceptions and decisions (experiments based on the learning cycle) to serve a higher purpose. They don’t have to be changed via threats, bribes of other controlling means. They willingly change their actions and procedures as needed because they understand why the change is needed and they have the ability to make those decisions. They have autonomy. They are trusted. They have the skills to match the challenges they face. They are given the choice about how to change to serve their internal and external customers. There is stress in positive chaos but the stress is positive because it stems from the desire to meet a challenge. The challenge is to accomplish what is best for the customer and the organization and employees are able to fully deploy their skills and their cognitive energy to meet these challenges.

In an organization that embraces Deming’s Theory of Profound Knowledge, employees have a greater probability of experiencing positive chaos. The employees are entrusted to follow specified processes. They understand the unambiguous connections to their customers and what their customers need. They continuously look for ways to make the pathway to their customer simple, direct and improved. Their actions for change are made in accordance with the learning cycle of plan, do, study, act. Knowing and utilizing this method fosters trust throughout the organization. Employees and management don’t always understand what changes are coming from their fellow employees but they can be certain the changes are consistent with principles which will deliver the best for the organization and the best for the customer. This is positive chaos in action.

Negative chaos means people are being asked, told, threatened, or bribed to change. Positive chaos means they are trusted to adapt as they see fit to serve a higher purpose (satisfy customer needs). They maintain control of their own decisions and they answer to their customer not to their manager (or to the management). Management supports their decisions because those decisions are made for the right reasons and with sound theory and practice.

In our world of accelerated change the only change that will endure is the one ruled by positive chaos. Only those principles of providing autonomy, trust, and expecting people to respond positively by applying their skills to the challenges they face will keep us competitive.

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