“Today will be different” – how to achieve chaos resolution

Chaos surrounds Libby’s work. She dreams of order. Then a new manager arrives and claims he has a magic wand.

This is story of a chaos resolution.
It’s based on real events. Names have been changed, and simplifications have been made.

3 pages and commentary
Author: Adrian Cowderoy
Adobe stock photo of elegant business woman, used to illustrate "too many unknowns"
Adobe stock photo used to illustrate “Today will be different”

“Today will be different”

The car without headlights

By habit Libby avoided looking at the dashboard when driving fast. Dashboards were a distraction when there was so much happening. Better to slow down so that everything was in control. That was her philosophy on the road. But at work it wasn’t her who had her foot on the accelerator. The people at the top controlled the speed. Worse, they kept grasping at the steering wheel, and they’d also chosen to drive without headlights along a twisting road. It was chaos, madness.

Today will be different. The words went around Libby’s mind as she sat in her home office, close to the reclaimed pew from a church. The pew was home to a growing collection of furry toys, selected to irritate anyone on video calls who was being too serious. “Is that professional?” she had once been asked. “Yes,” she replied, “I’m an analyst and it’s important to keep my sense of perspective. Fluffy ears, there, will have a lot to tell me if I get it wrong.” She pointed to a pink bunny wearing a purple bowtie.

That had been weeks ago. Since then there was less laughter. Everyone had become too serious as the problems multiplied. There’d been lost sales on the website. Each time the senior management wanted an explanation, and they wanted it now. She spent more time answering their questions than she did on resolving problems. It was unmanaged chaos.

Today will be different, Libby repeated as she clicked to see her project dashboard. She had built the dashboard herself, so she could see what her colleagues were doing … and the things they were not doing. Unlike people who drove without lights and too fast, Libby could see the full picture of all the job tickets that needed her attention. There were dozens, half of which had red flags on them. There were three more than yesterday. And behind them, were more unknowns for that added to the chaos.

She dropped her head to the desk so that her forehead touched the surface. It had been like this for months. Tickets appeared, she tried to solve one or two a day, but more kept coming. Now everyone was so busy there wasn’t even time to prioritise the tickets.

The fluffy bunny with the bowtie watched unmoving. “What are you staring at?” Libby said to the rabbit. “Have you never seen an unprioritized backlog?” Talking to yourself had been important during the Covid-19 lockdown and its long periods of solitude. The habit had stayed with her.

Libby picked a ticket, chosen because it was an intellectual challenge that needed fresh early-morning thinking. It had also been irritating her for months. Solve this and one more, and it will make my day, she decided.

The tactic worked for a full hour, and then the car without headlights encountered a bend in the road and skidded into the mud. Urgent messages started flashing on her computer monitors. And the discussion areas clogged by comments as more people contributed. And now there was a flashing call for an “emergency” video call.

Today will not be different, Libby corrected herself. The fluffy rabbit with the bowtie had been useless, as usual. The pain just increased. And now the guys at the top were signing off a new project. More projects? Libby frowned deeply. We’ve already got unmanaged chaos.

Chaos manager

“What’s the emergency?” she asked as the familiar faces appeared on the screen. “The dialogue in our chat area says the website is showing the wrong images for some products.”

“Yes, the developers think they have a fix for it.” John was a new addition to the project, replacing someone who had been there for so long that she’d known every detail. John’s style was more laid back. His home background was also different, with swathes of books on a diverse range of subjects. Libby had never heard him criticise anyone, which was really irritating because some people deserved to be criticised.

“No!” Libby’s mouth dropped open. She regrouped. “Change anything around images and something else may break. There’s unmanaged chaos in that area.”

“Then we need to manage it.”

“You can’t manage chaos – that’s why it’s called chaos.”

“Nah! There’s ways out of chaos, if the conditions are right and one has a magic wand.”

“John, there’s no such thing as magic.”

John smiled like a boy with a new toy. “First,” he said, “we need a proper description of what the problem is, and who’s impacted by it. Then we go on to talk about what we know, and if we really understand what’s happening or we’re just conning ourselves. Then we can have fun analysing options and proposing solutions. And then we pass options to an exec who can take the responsibility for the choice.”

“That’s just one problem you’re talking about, not the whole lot. And it’s more work for me,” Libby complained. “You’re proposing to increase my workload instead of reducing it. John, we’ve still got worries from months ago, long before you joined us. We’re permanently fighting fires without making progress. I set myself two tickets a day. If I’m lucky I achieve that, but the new tickets arrive just as fast. There’s no end to it, and the size of our team is shrinking.”

John looked away from the camera in the direction that Libby presumed was his office window. Either he was thinking or he was watching the birds at their feeders under the tree. He turned back. “The new project is the answer.” “The new project? Don’t you get it? It’s already chaos. What do we call a state of existence beyond chaos?”

Day end – chaos resolution

John asked for fifteen minutes right at the end of the day. Libby was exhausted. She’d been interrupted repeatedly, her lunch break had been delayed, and she still needed an hour to finish her tasks.

There were four of them in the call. The sight of her colleagues brought a smile to Libby’s face. It was like seeing friends.

“Basic plot,” John said, “is we’ve got a huge backlog of tickets to resolve. It’s enough to keep us occupied for months.”

“It’ll be many months, given the new project starts soon.”

“Exactly. Loads of our worries could be resolved by that project. So my thought is, what if we shuffle everything we can into the new project, and just do the things that are genuinely urgent? These bits, for instance.” He switched to share his screen so he could display a list. “Then all we’re left with is a small list we can resolve, and the chaos will be finished.”

Libby frowned at the list. “There are bits here that are wrong. But, yes, the idea is right. We could get the chaos under control. What I don’t get is, this is breaking our promises. How do you plan to sell that to the senior management?”

“That’s the easy part. We can’t cope at the moment – that’s become obvious to everyone. They want a way out.”

Libby’s frown deepened. “We tried asking for a reduction in promises before you joined. We were thrown out the door.”

“In business, it’s all about timing. The timing was wrong before. Now it’s different because of the new project, and because the pain is bleeding obvious and a problem for the senior exec as well as us. It’s a very simple form of chaos resolution.”

Libby raised a paw – hers, not the rabbit’s. “I vote for today being different.” They looked confused. “Look, I can face resolving the last problems if there’s an end in sight.”

Commentary on chaos resolution

I was wrong when I originally wrote this story. It was written to illustrate how applying an intelligence mindset to project management could help people cope with multiple unknowns. It was only when I reviewed the story that I realised it’s addressing a broader issue: chaos resolution.

Chaos comes from external pressure from multiple unknowns, and internal obstacles from how we address the situation (working practices).

The discipline of “intelligence-led project management” addresses unknowns, in the same way that intelligence teams tackle complex ill-defined situations in war and conflict to make them manageable. So one form of addressing chaos is to use this method. In the context of this story, the project manager “John” got smart and used the situation as an opportunity to transfer a lot of unknowns away from his team. That was smart, but it’s not always possible.

Intelligence-led project management is an extension to agile project managements such as Kanban, Scrum, DSDM.

The same technique also applies to classic projects following systems such as Prince 2. The brief discussion above would have been followed by a short description of a project exception, to be approved by the steering committee. The snag for projects without agile disciplines, is that they seldom have the mechanisms and skills needed for the research and communications, so everything takes longer and costs more.

Intelligence-led project management is designed for worlds with too many unknowns.

This story was originally published 14th May 2023. It was revised on 26th May 2024 to tighten the storyline and focus on chaos resolution.