On Managing Chaos

Attractor (source: Wikipedia)

Management is the art of creating order in situations that would otherwise become chaotic. Managers do this in various ways, most of which (at the lower rungs, at least) fall in the spectrum between micromanaging and letting employees manage themselves. No matter where you are between these two extremes, management goes against the second law of thermodynamics* stating that entropy can only increase, resulting in more chaos and consequently defining the arrow of time. This is true whether you are managing people, processes, or money; it is particularly true when managing free spirited knowledge workers.

The first approach – micromanagement with frequent course corrections – requires setting clear business rules and periodically nudging employees and middle managers toward what top management sees as the right direction. This often drives employees to resent and become increasingly disgruntled. On the other end of the spectrum is self organized chaos – an organization that strives to manage itself. Most startups operate this way, as do some larger companies – most notably Google. From the outside this may look like a mess, but the results speak for themselves. Self organized chaos is the best way to get groups of creative people to work toward a common goal. Management’s challenge is to let attractors form naturally rather than making them up by pretending to be able to tell the future. They only need to articulate long term business goals and make sure everyone understands them. Beyond that, it’s up to the employees to come up with innovative strategies and implementations.

The statement in the first paragraph is flawed, of course, as the second law of thermodynamics only applies in closed systems. The more closed a company is, the tighter management should be in order to control its natural tendency to become chaotic. Opening up your business to allow cross fertilization and transparency can lead to more effective self-management and greater stability. It allows for hands off management and self-organized teams that deliver winning solutions. The key to success is hiring the right people – smart, creative, and cooperative – who can make things happen. Building openness and freedom into your company’s DNA is the best way to ensure the second law of thermodynamics does not apply, requiring fewer managers and fostering real innovation.

* I knowingly stretch the meaning of some physical laws here; don’t sue me for that.

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