Posts Tagged ‘Chaos’

Project Reality Check #11: Frame of Mind

by Gary Monti on March 1, 2011

“Everything is simple,” is one of my mantras. To hold true it depends upon two things. The first is greed, fear, rage, and ignorance are absent. The second is the right perspective, one’s frame of mind or point of view, is appropriate for the situation. Let’s take a look at the latter and how to establish a realistic point of view.

One Question

In line with “everything is simple,” one question is sufficient to determine what frame-of-mind or perspective is appropriate for a project. The question is,

“What happens when you follow the rules?”

There is a whole plethora of answers. They tend to fall into the following patterns:

  1. Things run like clockwork! When everyone in my group sticks to the rules and does what they are supposed to do then the work gets done and we can feel good at the end of the day.
  2. Reasonably well as long as our boss makes the right connections with the other bosses. We’ve been at this for a while and over time have accumulated a range of customers and products with different demands and requirements. We work it out, though, and keep the customer happy.
  3. It depends since some groups cooperate with us and others go their own way. We spend a lot of time “greasing the wheels” around here working to keep people connected to the project and stay on-task.
  4. Which rules are you talking about? The rules change from day-to-day and situation-to-situation. Oh, wait! They also change with who is in charge at any given time!  It puts a lot of stress on us in the trenches but we take pride in making things work out. Don’t get me wrong; it’s anything but perfect. We’ve had our share of snafus and paid dearly for them. But we learn and work to do better the next time.
  5. I honestly don’t know. This place is different now. I stick to the policies and procedures in our department and get along with those around me but we can’t predict how things will turn out. Some days are good, others aren’t. It’s wearing. You just can’t depend on things going like they used to.
  6. What rules? This place is a free-for-all. I am surprised we are still in business.

Interpretations

The frames-of-mind present are:

Simple for “1.” The rules are clear and concise and results are predictable. The methods work so a top-down approach to projects fits. The project needs primarily to be managed.

Complicated for “2.” There are multiple sets of rules present based on the history of the organization and adjustments are needed from product-to-product and client–to-client. Overall, though, no new demands are being made. A top-down approach still works.

Complex for “3.” And “4.” Work increasingly is getting done from the bottom-up. Solutions emerge from team members working across boundaries to establish day-to-day tactical connections that they hope will yield the desired strategic results. Facilitation would work here. Turn the workers loose to create the solution but hold them to the acceptance criteria. Failures are simply experiments that yielded unexpected results.

Chaotic applies to “5.” This is a dangerous situation since ups-and-downs occur for the organization but are unpredictable. People are putting in way too much effort in an attempt to get daily activities complete. Empowerment of employees to (re)build the organization works here. The leader’s focus is pointing to the goals that must be attained to survive and succeed. Honest, open feedback is critical and the encouragement of trust and building bonds among stakeholders and team members.

Random is at play with “6.” All signs of business intelligence have disappeared. It is just a matter of time before going out of business.  Do ANYTHING to get out of this state or just cancel the project and move on.

The Reality and the Challenge

The reality and challenge are the fact that all 6 frames-of-mind or some subset can be present on a given project. The goal, then, is to make sure the project terrain is gauged accordingly and the style(s) adapted are appropriate. In other words, you might be using top-down with a part of the project that is truly simple. A hands-off approach could be used with a part that has yet to have a solution emerge. Finally, scope may need to be cut with a third part of the project that is currently unrecoverable.

Remember, everything is simple (if you have the right frame of mind)

Chaos and Complexity #5: Chaos vs. Complexity

by Gary Monti on October 12, 2010

What is the difference between chaos and complexity? Many of the previous blogs have referred to both terms. While related, they are distinct. Here they will be differentiated.

Chaos vs Random

First, let’s look at what chaos is and isn’t. In everyday language chaos and randomness are considered synonyms. In chaos theory they are very different.

Random refers to a lack of structure at any level. No intelligence or pattern can be discerned.

Chaos does have observable patterns present. Chaos refers to the unpredictable behavior a deterministic (rules-driven) system displays. Chaotic systems are non-linear. This means small changes might produce a large change at certain times (tipping points). At other times a chaotic system can display remarkable robustness and remain intact when being hit with many, substantial impacts. There are other characteristics associated with chaotic systems, which we will explore in later blogs. For now, one more characteristic will be addressed which leads into the development of complex systems – emergence.

Emergence and Adaptation

Emergence is the appearance of patterns or intelligence arising from the interactions of components at a granular level. The most important distinction with emergence is the bottoms-up rather than top-down development of patterns. The resulting patterns can’t be predicted but they can be capitalized upon, amplified, and used to push adaption.

Adaptation is a transformative modification of the initial system, i.e., the system one ends up with can be different from the one started with. A good example of this is the map of Europe before and after World War II. The war began with England and France’s response to Germany’s invasion of Poland. The initial goal was the preservation of the sovereignty of Poland. In the end the German’s were defeated but Poland was lost behind the Iron Curtain. Notice how the adaption can have beneficial effects but may not necessarily result in the desired goals being met. This is a good example of the riskiness associated with working in the realm of chaotic systems. It still is better than trying to work in a deterministic fashion on a dancing terrain. Do you remember CompuServe? It had a chance to buy AOL, felt satisfied with being the big dog in business computing, stuck to a linear model, failed to adapt, got bought by MCI and now is a part of Verizon’s network.

Complexity

Complex systems are a special type of chaotic system. They display a very interesting type of emergent behavior called, logically enough, complex adaptive behavior. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. There’s a need to back up a bit and describe a fundamental behavior that occurs at the granular level and leads to complex adaptive behavior. It is self -organization.

Self Organization occurs when the individual components in a chaotic system come together to work as a team to achieve the desired goal. Remember the non-linear component of chaotic systems? This applies during self-organization and means teams may form, work for a while then fall apart and reconstitute in a different form when an obstacle is met to keep on moving forward.

Complex Adaptive Behavior is the name given to this forming-falling apart-reforming-falling apart-… behavior. Specifically it is defined as many agents working in parallel to accomplish a goal. It is conflict ridden, very fluid, and very positive. The hallmark of emergent, complex adaptive behavior is it brings about a change from the starting point that is not just different in degree but in kind. In biology a good example of this is the emergence of consciousness. Another example is the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb.

Back to Linearity

The development of a complex system within a chaotic situation has a big plus. Complex systems can cross over into predictability where the newly developed rules work, e.g., the actual development and delivery of the atomic bomb. Remember the equilibium-disequilibrium talked about in the previous blog?

We now have a good basis for moving forward. In future blogs we will draw upon both the vocabulary and frame-of-mind presented here to look at how one leads in chaotic situations.

Chaos and Complexity #1: Coyotes, Chaos and Complexity

by Gary Monti on September 14, 2010

In this series we will dive into the complexities of…well…chaos and complexity. Why? A possible first thought is they are the “in” topics today – flavors of the month. The answer and the reality are far simpler. We have to deal with them on a daily basis. And, we have to get good at it if we are to survive and thrive.

There is another important reason. It has to do with the uniqueness of the theories. Chaos and complexity have broad application across many apparently different aspects of life from heart arrhythmias to children playing on a playground to counterinsurgencies. The list goes on-and-on.

So, let’s get started. But where? A good place is basic definitions along with how the two are connected.

CHAOS vs RANDOM

A common misconception regarding chaos is viewing it as synonymous with “random.” While that can be true in everyday use the two words are quite different when looked at in terms of chaos theory.

In chaos theory “random” refers to complete lack of structure and patterns. A classic example is the motion of gas molecules at the microscopic level. Newton would be driven crazy trying to predict their trajectories. (If you’ve had some physics you might recall the challenge of working with three-bodied problems or a double pendulum.)

Chaos on the other hand is quite different. Specifically, it applies to any system which has definitive rules of operation but shows nonlinear behavior. Assuming that is about as clear as mud some explanation may help.

“Nonlinearity” has some specific criteria which appear when looking at the elements of a chaotic system :

  • A chaotic system comprises components connected through deterministic rules;
  • With a given starting point in time a chaotic system ends up behaving in ways the rules cannot predict. This is the nonlinearity. It is rather strange. In every day terms what this means is a given system can be started at the exact same point two different times and the results will be both unpredictable and different. Multiparty, parliamentary systems reflect this well. The rules for operating the system are fairly constant. Forming a coalition government can be quite the example of nonlinearity as can be seen in modern day Iraq.

This can be maddening. The rules are clear, the components of the system are thoroughly understood by everyone and yet it’s impossible to get consistent results. What makes it even crazier is a third component:

  • The rules work and outcomes can be predicted in the immediate vicinity of a few components when a very short time span is used.

An example might help right now.

All of the above is observable in efforts to eliminate coyotes. Individual coyotes have been killed. However, efforts to do this on a mass scale has produced some interesting results. In the mid-eighteenth century coyotes were west of the Mississippi in about 11 states. Efforts to eliminate them have failed spectacularly with coyotes being in all 48 contiguous states. They have  lost their shyness of man and now live in urban areas. (Ironically, while I was conducting a workshop on complexity in downtown Chicago, on the floor below a coyote walked in off the street, jumped into an empty juice cooler inside the hotel’s quick stop store, rested for 20 minutes and then took off! The security video made the national news.)

This ability to thrive in chaotic situations leads to complexity.

COMPLEXITY

Four characteristics define complexity:

  • Adaptability
  • Connection
  • Interdependence
  • Diversity

Complex systems are a subset of chaotic ones in that they are nonlinear. Decisions are made on a microlevel and bubble up to the macro. This is in stark contrast to social engineering where everything is top-down. Coyote social systems reflect all 4 components quite well. Faced with annihilation the coyotes branched out geographically and socially and tried new behaviors (diversity). If the changes worked they stuck (adaptability). The lesson spread quickly through the social structure (connection) with individual behavior graduating to coordinated social behavior (interdependence).

Packs now go through some neighborhoods hunting for pets. In some areas attacks on young children have been reported. The latter behavior is not as successful (adult supervision) as the former so there is less of it. Regardless, the coyotes keep changing their game plan at a tactical level to simply find out what works and the change migrates up the social ladder to become a pack strategy.

This bottom-up approach to change has been alluded to in a previous blog (Executive Map) and is a hallmark of a type of organizational structure essential for success in chaotic situations – complex adaptive systems.

That is enough for now. As the series progresses we will go through the looking glass and see things from a very different perspective: one that is both familiar and strange: familiar because, after all, you’ve made it this far; strange because it cuts against the grain of some commonly held beliefs taken as truth.