Does Organizational Chaos Work?

There seems to be a growing trend for some companies to seek “chaos,” justifying leaders to offer little direction, vision, and a fluid plan. I’ve heard this a few times in the past year, so I thought I’d dive into some research and see how others view this topic. At Winning Presence, we believe in performance communications, aligning your organization around a clear set of values, a business plan, and vision, then sharing measurements with your people along the way to illustrate progress or identify areas for improvement and growth. When employees know and feel engaged around a plan, they are more likely to do their part to execute and drive the plan. Further, when employees are rewarded for their actions, they are more likely to figure out a way to achieve those actions. Leaders are, as a result, more likely to achieve the outcomes and results they have outlined. So we advise outcomes-based, performance communications, and we have a long track record of this working quite well. This is why I’m interested in why leaders would want to take a different approach, and knowingly create chaos. I have heard some cite G.E. as a beacon for creating deliberate chaos without fully understanding what that company sought to achieve. It’s worth reading What Works for G.E. May Not Work for You: Using Human Systems Dynamics to Build a Culture of Process Improvement by authors Brenda Fake and Lawrence Solow before deciding whether G.E. is an example that can be replicated and broadly applied. Meanwhile, before we look into the “why,” let me add some more detail around what we’re hearing on this topic

  • One leader said, “I want the kind of employees who like chaos and can thrive in ambiguity … I shouldn’t need to give them a roadmap.” Further, “The kind of
    employees who rise to the top in that kind of environment are who we want for the future.”
  • Another leader told us recently, “I don’t buy into the idea that engaged employees deliver better results.”
  • Finally, a Fast Company article penned in 2012 cited a “rising number of job descriptions that include ‘tolerance for ambiguity’ as a necessary skill.” While it’s
    several years old, I’ve heard this article cited in more recent conversations on the topic.

So what do we know works when communicating within an organization?

We know there are informal and formal flows of information. The study of organizational communications has identified, in the most simplified terms, that communications can flow upward, downward, or horizontally. It also says there are typical types of information that fit into those flows. For instance, it’s most common for a business plan to be shared downward since it is generally designed by the organization leadership. Feedback from a subordinate to a superior would be an example of upward communication. Horizontal information is shared among peers, and might happen informally in a break room, in a group chat, or on social intranet. Over the years, many of us have adopted ways to influence and have some control over the informal communications channels. Ambassador programs and targeting information to mid-levels are two examples.

We also know that there are barriers to organizational communications. One example is leaders who use negative communication tactics, like intimidation. Other examples include lack of employee trust, too much information – or “clutter,” an overwhelming cadence, and managers offering different interpretations of the leaders’ message set. I suggest that chaos is also a barrier because, in a chaotic environment, people lack clear direction and understanding of how they play a role in the plan. Too much is left to chance. I liken it to a sports team. Great teams have athletic talent, but they are also sharply aligned around strategy. They know the plays to execute, and they have practiced and refined them. If a group of athletes takes the field without direction or a plan, they may be able to still play the game (depending on their level and years of experience), but they’ll have a harder time competing against those who share a common goal and know the roadmap to get there.

I do believe that driven individuals will seek out information not provided to them in order to achieve a goal. But to what loss of productivity? And does the company culture support searching for information that isn’t readily available? How employees are rewarded for their actions? Are they rewarded for failure when innovating, or are they punished for it? Do they possess the right skills and tools to participate in the plan? Think about it, we have all been students at some point. Can you imagine a parent or professor demanding you achieve an “A,” but not exploring any possible needs for tutoring or learning support? Drive is only one piece of success.

So I believe the conclusion is simple. Chaos is not the answer. As a leader, if you want to drive results in an organization, the predictable, proven route includes:

  1. Define the goal.
  2. Provide visibility to the plan, and offer insight on how employees play a role.
  3. Define gaps in skills, knowledge and abilities, then work with your HR teams to fill them.
  4. Understand your culture, and be realistic about what kind of behaviors it supports and doesn’t. (And evolve it if necessary)
  5. Incentivize the behaviors you want to see.
  6. Measure results, hold people accountable.


What Works for G.E. May Not Work for You: Using Human Systems Dynamics to Build a Culture of Process
Improvement, Brenda Fake and Lawrence Solow, c2010

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