Flying high in business all the time isn’t easy nor, arguably, sustainable, in a fast-moving world. To thrive companies, need to walk in the jungle treading a line between order and chaos continually. Like ancient wisdom, I like to think of this as the yin and the yang, respectively, whereby chaos (the yang) provides a source of potential for growth and order (the yin) is what is needed to deliver on that potential.
It might seem counterintuitive, in what feels like an increasingly complex and unfathomable world, but companies and industries need the creative power that the chaos and yang bring. Relying solely on order and yin in the way of their current capabilities isn’t enough for long-term success. True, it has its structure and predictability, aka ‘comfort,’ but it’s too much rooted in the past and doomed to malfunction as tomorrow’s reality unfolds.
To win, companies and the employees within them need to become Masters of Chaos, dipping into the ocean of chaos, reflected in the subjective experiences, for feedback and fresh ideas.
Chaos in business is nothing new
As far back as 1907, the American historian Henry Adams said: “Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit.” Then, how come we don’t see more of this around us? It’s simply because achieving this balance is not easy, particularly for established businesses. Here’s what I see as some of the main reasons why:
- People might be restricted by the company culture, with an over-reliance on risk-aversion.
- People don’t feel they have the time to reflect and explore with their hands full of fires to put down.
- People might simply be afraid to do so! After all, it could prove that everything they currently do is wrong and needs to be rebuilt from scratch.
- Organizations don’t have a systemic approach to balancing order and chaos. Pockets of excellence might exist here and there, but it’s not pervasive as a way of working.
- For us humans, it’s often more comfortable to sit at our desks and keep on repeating the old and deeply rooted truths. Self-preservation within ’teams’ is a strong genetic trait, and it doesn’t really encourage exploration.
Curiosity is a pre-requisite to success
Success requires companies and their people to step out of the fortress and explore the world around them. It is about building an endless curiosity towards human experiences turned into tangible insights. Many companies understand this. In the Deloitte 2019 Human Capital Trends study, 86% of respondents said they “must reinvent their ability to learn.” However, understanding it is one thing, whereas making it happen is something totally different. How can companies overcome these challenges to become Masters of Chaos?
Taking the first steps on a ’transformative path’
Naturally, as with all things new, it can appear daunting. After all, 4% of innovation projects succeed, and the remaining 96% fail, according to some statistics. Perhaps the best and most practical place to start is by unpicking a typical organizational development process and how that successfully combines the yin and the yang.
I like to think of this as a journey of transformation, which usually supports everything from launching a new product or service to improving how you operate. Sometimes it is well established and explicit, but at times could be more intuitive and implicit. They may have different names, but a typical process has four key stages within it.
Here’s how embracing chaos could work for each stage:
1. Understand (as much as possible)
Rather than simply assuming you know what needs to be done, leverage direct feedback from your customers as well as your organization. Use their personal experiences to identify real requirements, like current bottlenecks, repeating issues, or fresh ideas.
Dig deeper to aid your understanding. Don’t settle for initial or easy answers, but reframe your questions over and over again to drill down. And, use data to your advantage to validate your findings before moving on in the process!
2. Ideate (to innovate)
Engage teams and customers to help you find alternative solutions for the problems judged worthy of further investigation. Don’t rely on a narrow group of people to come up with brilliant solutions. Expand your reach and remember that in this phase, the quantity trumps quality.
3. Test (test and test again)
Too many solutions see daylight based on a single idea and no testing whatsoever. The idea is, of course, first to materialize the most promising of your ideas, preferably roughly, and predispose them for trial and review.
Actively involve users and test thoroughly to gain genuine feedback about what works and what doesn’t from your solution. Listen and incorporate their feedback as you go. Only this way, your ideas will start to find their true form that meets market demand.
4. Implement (with your ear to the ground)
Sorry to say, but don’t assume that because user testing went well, everything is on track. Even during the product, service, or process rollout, don’t lose your ears. Engage with customers and the team. Be especially wary about signals that may question some of your fundamental assumptions about viability, desirability, or feasibility. It’s never too late to pivot if the facts turn against you.
Moreover, use data to understand what is working and what needs improving. Continually listen, analyze, and iterate. This should be ongoing, rather than a one-off exercise. As a rule of thumb, only 10% of the work happens before launch; the heavy lifting comes afterward. And so, prepare yourself for the feedback and improvement loop!
Too much yin, not enough yang
In reality, too many organizations focus on the yin side of these processes. For example, they may well define requirements shallowly or pick one idea (rather than ideating widely; the yang). Then skip the user testing and analysis or iteration phases altogether (more of the yang).
For example, take an HR team that decides it needs an employee well-being program to, in part, improve the employee experience. The best approach would be to work with the employees themselves to define their needs and help them to ideate solutions. Then, prototype, test, build, deploy, and refine (continually). Instead, more often than not, an off the shelf solution is bought and rolled out without listening to employees. Organizations miss the opportunity to engage with users in co-creation actively. Predictably take-up is poor, and it fails – yet no-one learns why!
The steps to becoming a Master of Chaos
As industry disruption becomes business as usual, ‘traditional’ companies are starting to grasp the need for chaos as a survival tactic. Take Ikea: it has just opened its first, smaller city center store in Paris and says it will offer furniture rentals – all steps designed to appeal to changing consumer tastes. This shows that you don’t need to be a startup or tech company to pick the signals in the chaos and use them to your advantage.
We live in turbulent times, which is precisely why businesses and their people need to move forward down the road to becoming Masters of Chaos. As the academic Jordan B. Peterson says, “Your current knowledge has neither made you perfect nor kept you safe. So, it is insufficient, by definition—radically, fatally insufficient.” Your future success, therefore, requires you to act now and embrace chaos, listening, and feedback, balancing the yin with a good dose of experience data (aka the yang).