Some people believe that all development should have an apparent order and structure. Others (like me) believe that chaos is the natural order of the universe and can be “controlled” by a manager to achieve the results that business requires. Chaos can mean different things to different people, both from a definition point of view and from an end result net effect.

I once had a manager who required that all developers be clean-cut and clean-shaven. This same manager also insisted that a messy desk was indicative of a messy, unorganized, and chaotic mind. I was young and didn’t know any better and listened to that objective for a while. In time, I grew a beard, my hair, and turned my office space into a cluttered mess of paper, discarded peripherals, and toys from the local fast-food establishment. In that same period of time, I ended up replacing that particular manager and created an entirely new division of the company based on development that I had spearheaded, despite my chaotic appearance and environment. My definition of chaos and how to harness it was somewhat different from that of my former manager.

What is chaos from a management point of view?
Chaos can encompass that which is unplanned or does not conform to plan, plans that go wildly astray, tight deadlines, understaffed environments, runaway costs, critical system failures, and similar situations generally considered negative. Chaos, in one simple definition, is the opposite of order—or, at least, it doesn’t show any obvious order or structure. Chaos from a manager’s point of view may also be simply defined as that which is not being managed. A manager’s job is to manage. How can you do your job if the underlying fundamentals are chaotic—by definition, without order?

Different types of chaos
The first step in dealing with chaos is to understand that there are different types of chaos. Not all chaos is necessarily bad, and not all of it is necessarily unmanageable to a positive net effect. Chaos may exist in your environment in a number of forms, including:

  • Personality: Included here are staff members who don’t conform, don’t work well in a team, have messy work areas, etc. I define personality chaos as that which pertains to any unplanned, unorganized personality situations or individuals that inhabit your environment.
  • Communication: In today’s world, information travels at the speed of light across our networks. Why then does one part of your team not know what the other is doing? I define communication chaos as a lack of accurate, timely, and orderly communication in an environment.
  • Development: Unmanaged development expectations, lack of proper version control, unimplemented change requests, and missed timelines are all components of development chaos.

How to harness “good chaos”
In order to harness “good chaos,” you must be willing to embrace change. Certain personality, communication, and development chaos may be the result of a broken process that requires change (or a new process that is naturally occurring that you should consider part of a new master plan).

Sometimes managers confuse out-of-the-box thinking with chaos and disorganization. It could very well be a manifestation of creativity and an opportunity to create change. Identifying the difference between an opportunity to change and negative chaos is not always an easy thing to do. You need to analyze and ask questions, including:

  • Is the chaos attempting to break from an established process plan or policy?
  • If there wasn’t a plan, should there be one?
  • If there is a plan, why wasn’t it followed, and should it be changed?
  • What is the net effect of the chaos? Was the final result better than originally intended or was it more flawed?

Ask your team; have a staff meeting and talk about chaos issues. Find out, for example, if the chaos is a manifestation of a desire for change.

Managing the unmanageable: Chaos D-day
So far in this article, I’ve sugarcoated chaos, looking for something positive or an underlying opportunity to create change; that’s my nature and part of a healthy approach to continuous improvement. As part of that approach, you also need to learn to manage the unmanageable. How do you deal with chaos issues that do not have a positive net effect? How do you prevent them from ever happening (if this is even possible)?

That’s a large topic that can’t be covered in any great detail in this particular article. Managing negative chaos involves setting priorities and making tough decisions under pressure. It cuts to the very heart of modern business management best practices and theory. (The American Management Association is currently holding full day seminars on this topic.)

As a manager, you must always be vigilant about chaos in your environment. Do what you can to keep things as predictable as possible. A strong commitment to regular and accurate communication will keep you on your guard. In those communications, never forget to ask, “What if…?” A prudent approach is to always be as prepared as possible for multiple outcomes. Be sure to plan, reevaluate the plan, and revise the plan. You shouldn’t be afraid of chaos. You should prepare for it and deal with it. You should recognize it for what it is—an opportunity to improve.

How do you deal with chaos in your environment?

Tell us about your experiences with managing chaos. Post a message in the discussion board below.