Project Management

The Edge of Chaos: Missed it by that much...

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The Edge of Chaos: Missed it by that much...

Previously published on

As a child growing up in the sixties and early 1970's one of my favorite TV shows was "Get Smart" (1965-1970) with Don Adams as Maxwell Smart from Control. Max and Agent 99 were constantly fighting the villains from Chaos. Invariably Max's bungling led to losing the small battles along the way to Chaos after which he would utter the iconic phrase "missed it by that much!" By the end of most shows Max, Agent 99, and Control would win out over Chaos (actually it was mostly Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon) that outsmarted Chaos). 

It's a great metaphor for the world that most leaders and their organizations now find themselves in as they face the chaos of accelerating change coupled with ever increasing ambiguity and uncertainty. Some are trying to control the chaos from afar with multi-year plans while others are trying to exhibit control at the edge of chaos.

This concept is also at the heart of complex adaptive systems  (CAS) theory which states that in order to harness change with no anarchy, CAS strives to maintain a balance between the completely ordered, “frozen” regime and the completely disordered, chaotic regime, which is known as operating on the “edge of chaos” (McKelvey, 1999). 

The "edge of chaos" is also where we need to be in order to manage at the pace of change. Does this mean that we always should expect to be successful? Of course not.

In Agile we talk about the need to inspect and adapt which is based in empiricism - we adjust based on what we now know based on what we just did. When operating at the edge of chaos it is highly probable that we will miss the mark occasionally. We will, as Max Smart would say, have "missed it by that much!". And that's OK. 

In a prior post on Being a Servant Leader I talked about the role of a leader in creating a safe environment for their teams to experiment and try new things without fear. When operating at the edge of chaos failures will occasionally happen. It is not that they will happen, it is that how we react to them that matters.

Do we follow our Agile ways and inspect what happened and why and then adapt and adjust based on what we find or do we start apportioning blame? 

Based on the accelerating nature of change in the modern world can we afford to do anything else but inspect and adapt? To do otherwise would actually put us over the edge rather being on the edge. Inspect and adapt is one of the ways in which we can bring order to the edge of chaos.

Inspect and adapt does not mean pressing on in the face of overwhelming evidence that something is not working.

We don't know what we don't know. It is through doing that we uncover the things we don't know. In Agile we call this emergence. Most typically, emergence has been contextualized to the concepts emergent architecture or emergent design. But it also applies to the problem space as well - we devote Chapter 7 of our book to the different types of emergence. Inspect and adapt, when considered as part of an emerging understanding and clarity around the problem we are trying to solve, can enable us to respond in more considered ways to what we now know that we did not know previously.

This leads to the main point of this post. Leaders will often afford their teams the ability to fail and recover but not always themselves. This kind of bravado can be dangerous to both you and your organization.

So it is important that you also have the courage to acknowledge when you miss it by that much in front of your teams. This level of transparency, rather than leading to a perception of weakness, will actually embolden them to also operate at the edge of chaos. Your stature as a leader will increase if you do. 

Continuing to exhibit control at the edge of chaos by inspecting and adapting to your emergent understanding of the problem will enable you to eventually overcome the current chaos so you can move on to the next set of chaotic challenges. 

As a leader, do you allow yourself to fail and acknowledge it? Are you willing to say "I missed it by that much!"?

Posted on: April 28, 2016 07:57 PM | Permalink

Comments (3)

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Thomas Rice Operations Manager| EMCOR Facilities Services Glendale, Az, USA
Nice! Powerful article!

Lawrence Cooper Creator, Lean-Agile Strategy| AdaptiveOrg Inc. Kanata, Ontario, Canada
Thomas - thank you.

Mansoor Mustafa Senior PM| Government Department Rawalpindi Punjab, Pakistan
Interesting article

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