Monday, August 26, 2013

Embrace the Chaos

Last week, I posted the following to Facebook:
My post was motivated by having encountered process breakdowns at both my daughter's school and in my work life.  Nothing terrible, but honest situations where clearly a codified workflow had resulted in a lack of action.

Most people would probably just label my experiences as "bureaucracy" and then forget the encounter.  Certainly, I was frustrated, but I felt the need to succinctly explain the source of my frustration. My post prompted an interesting exchange as well as further contemplation on my part.  First of all, let me say that having friends who are MUCH smarter than I am is a real treasure.  Second, I know from my experiences as an art lead and art manager, that "process" comes in many forms.

Reading my post, you might assume that I consider myself an enemy of process or that I advocate against it.  Quite the opposite.  As multiple commentators pointed out, process works in cases where the situation is common, simple and you are in pursuit of repeatable, quality results.  Processes are also very useful in preventing physical injury and ensuring safety standards.

I forget in which book I initially read this idea.  Regardless, I do agree that Henry Ford's greatest accomplishment was not the automobile but his continued refinement of process.  Ford didn't figure out one way of achieving something and then keep doing that until someone smarter improved the process.  Instead, Ford was fascinated by engineering and material sciences.

Most people would not think of line-work assembly as creative problem solving.  And, for the most part, they're right.  In this case, Ford's creativity was focused on the macro level, whereas the day-to-day construction simply required a clearly defined process that could be modified as macro level problems were resolved.

We, in the creative industries, are not so lucky.  We are not trying to make 100 copies of 1 thing.  We're just trying to make that 1 thing -- and make it the best it can be.  Our creativity challenge spans both macro and micro level problem solving.  So, how do we change our mental patterns and escape the feeling of being "stuck" with a problem.

It is for this reason that I encourage leaders to "embrace the chaos."  Experimentation is good.  It is healthy.  Granted, it is not always practical -- especially when deadlines loom.  However, as we employ the knowledge worker, it is incumbent upon us in leadership roles to ensure that moments of chaos are permitted (and encouraged when it makes sense).  Chaos is the catalyst for the "happy accident."  As with Ford, just because you've found a good process, that doesn't excuse your resistance to seeking out a better one.

If you're not sure where to begin, here are some starter assignments for the leader at work:
  • Mix up your teams.  Move people around and commit to "ride along" work.  You never know where one piece of institutional knowledge within one group could be of benefit to another.
  • Pass the challenging assignments around.  Every team has its "rock stars" or "up-and-comers."  Don't always rely on the same set of people; you're more likely to always get the same solutions.
  • Personal projects.  All projects experience points of drudgery.  Ensure that, during those times, individuals have side projects which require very little time but provide much-needed mental invigoration.
  • Get out of the office.  Inspiration is a beautiful thing.
These are all incredibly difficult to accomplish or get approved.  They fly in the face of traditional management practices.  They "break" processes.  And that's kinda the point.  You can't rebuild something to be better unless you're willing to break it down.  Most leaders will resist the risk -- I know I have at times.  But, in a creative environment, this is a philosophy well worth considering.

Consider some Chaos... even if you're cautious to embrace it.

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