Does Chaos Really Work?

A Seven Minute Read

A recent trip led to a serious crisis of faith. After successfully dodging traffic in what passes for “crosswalks” in Mumbai, where scooters and motorcycles ignore traffic lights and cars toot horns to change lanes, I found myself in a late-night taxi heading from the Madgoan train station to the western coast of India.

As in the city, drivers prefer the middle of the road, presumably to avoid scooters and sleeping dogs. That is all swell, until someone coming the other way is doing the exact same thing.

It was, quite simply, the most terrifying ride I’d ever taken (until that point; a subsequent journey through Aurangabad topped it). I’ve been petrified on the world’s roadways before – dodging swarms of scooter-riding Taiwanese families (mom, dad, two kids), cutting across seven lanes of oncoming traffic and mounting a curb to get to a Chinese factory, driving across the Everglades in an oil-deprived VW Bug one Spring Break – but Indian driving is its own beast.

The road, barely two cars wide, twisted through rolling hills; on a dark narrow path, with less than 100 feet visibility, that “middle of the road” practice is problematic.

The most frightening was trying to pass a small red Hyundai, piloted by whom I can only believe was my driver’s arch-nemesis. We would pull in tight on his bumper, honk, and attempt a lurch to his side – even though he wouldn’t give up his middle “lane”. His leaning into hairpin turns provided our chance to strike; never mind the complete lack of visibility of and to oncoming traffic. We were thwarted several times; just as we would draw even with him, oncoming headlights would force us to slam on the brakes, downshift, and duck back behind the red car, just inches from the other vehicles.

This was all playing out between 80 and 100 km/hour, on a road posted for 50. I tried to distract myself by reading my iPad, but eventually put it back in my bag – in the inevitable head-on collision, I didn’t want anything made of glass in my lap.

It seems that every time James Bond is being chased, one of the pursuit vehicles dsc02293slams into a large, slower moving (or oncoming) truck, one usually filled with chickens or some other flocky mess. Turns out, that’s not just an overused trope – it really is a Thing. When we finally overtook the red Hyundai, and pulled back into our lane (narrowly missing oncoming scooters, of course), we immediately came upon a large delivery truck, puttering along at about 30 with no lights on. We slammed on the brakes, downshifted, upshifted, and passed – forcing the motorcycles going the other way to navigate around us.

We finally slowed when we approached a crossroad – traffic management consisted of two, staggered barricades that we needed to drive around (painted “Stop Goa Police”; I presume there was missing punctuation, and this wasn’t a protest).

I learned this was tame – a pleasant evening drive – compared to real daytime traffic, which added multiple lanes, buses, scooters merging from all sides, cricket-playing children, and stray cattle wandering through.

Needless to say, the “pucker factor”, on a scale of one to ten, hovered around 12. Worse, this felt like an affront to processes my process-centric brain: the noise and bedlam – the sheer anarchy –  should be untenable, right? There were a few things I did not see, though, at any point on my journeys: an accident of any kind; a vehicle on the side of the road; roadkill, or; vehicles with massive dents, scrapes or scratches. There was no evidence of road rage.

How could this be? How could there be such unmitigated chaos, and still appear to have satisfactory results? Are the skeptics right – it’s better to just let people do their own thing because “process” is unnecessary, only making getting things done bureaucratic and arduous?

So here I was, losing my religion in the backseat of an Aurangabadian taxi.

Does chaos actually work? When Tom Peters described how to “thrive” on chaos, he wasn’t advocating complete pandemonium, was he?

Chaos Defined

In general terms, “chaos” is rooted in uncertainty. When people talk about “the chaos of Brexit”, for example, they’re really describing an inability to predict what’s going to happen next. The “chaos” ensues when multiple people take action – but in fundamentally different ways, going in different directions, generating conflict and overloading their systems.

Chaos comes from poor planning: ambiguous goals, lack of clarity on how actions tie back to those goals, lack of accountability, incomplete or missing fallback plans, no self-correction mechanisms.

dsc02290None of this was happening on the roads – it was frenetic, and utterly incomprehensible. Yet I seemed to be the only one stressed. My drivers never once seemed to break a sweat.

“How do you manage to drive with all this traffic and not get in an accident?” I asked one of my drivers.

“Is there not traffic in America?” he replied.

“Not like this. When people leave their lanes, or enter from the sides, other cars tend to crash into them,” I said.

“You just have to understand,” he told me.

Diagnosing at the Right Level

Yes, it was utterly incomprehensible – to me, the outsider. To the person on the inside, the driver – really, the only relevant player – it made complete sense. He understood the “rules” such as they were, and he was confident that other drivers were operating from the same playbook; thus, he could predict how neighboring vehicles would behave, and could be as reactive or proactive as necessary. It was a matter of being flexible in his environment, not random – and not really chaotic.

I realized, too, that this was also a matter of perspective. Not just “inside” and “outside”, but from a holistic sense. Scientists who study Chaos Theory recognize this: the universe, looking at recent data, seems stable; however, over longer periods of time, the universe’s behavior is, almost literally, the textbook definition of chaos. “Weather” is chaotic, for instance, “climate” is not.

From where I sat, randomly watching scooters cut in from nowhere, cows strolling along the curb, and vehicles moving at a wide variety of speeds, it looked like chaos. The driver’s situational awareness was completely different – he was systematically watching his direct field of impact, a much more specific and controlled bubble of information. If you pulled back in a Michael Bay-crane shot and looked at the flow of traffic across several kilometers – the “30,000 foot view” – it would appear as a natural ebb and flow.

Part of diagnosing whether or not the process is efficient or effective is making sure you’re looking at it at the right level.

  • Where is value actually created?
  • What information is needed by the people acting in the process?
  • How appropriate is governance? (In other words, who are the backseat drivers?)
  • Are the measures, and necessary information, aligned at all levels?

Avoiding Chaos

The seemingly disorganized traffic practices of the subcontinent aren’t really a “process” as much as one task being executed, but in an overcrowded environment shared with others who have similar, though somewhat conflicting, goals. In other words, just like a day at the office.

Chaos often manifests at work when people are “busy” but not productive. They become so overwhelmed,dsc02394 they attempt to multitask – a quixotic endeavor– and distractedly flit from one activity to the next. More time and effort is spent re-engaging than is actually dedicated to achieving goals. They try to work without the information they need, or instead spend fruitless hours trying to learn what they should have known in the first place. Effort is wasted as people rework others’ efforts, either to make it look consistent with their work – or just to understand what has already happened. Under the false banner of “collaboration”, it becomes… well, chaos.

If work feels like sitting in the backseat of a shuddering tuk-tuk, hurtling randomly around a never-ending collection of (bovine and otherwise) obstacles, there are some things to do. It should stand to reason that one way to minimize confusion is transparency.

  • Objectives – and how they will be evaluated – should be clear and unambiguous to all of the relevant players
    • Further, these objectives should be relevant to those acting in the process (that is, while “minimizing customer fear” may be important, there are likely more relevant objectives to the driver)
  • How those objectives will be accomplished – that is, how people will do their jobs – needs to be communicated.
    • This goes beyond “training” and showing how and where roles intersect, and where the handoffs are (i.e., “the rules of the road”)
  • Risk needs to be understood, with proper contingency plans in place, so not only do people know how to react, but can predict how others will react

Parsing the difference between chaos and stable processes certainly didn’t eliminate my abject terror while speeding across a foreign republic, just as telling employees “it will be OK” won’t be too helpful for them. Making sure that there is a shared understanding and acceptance of goals, and how to accomplish them, can and will help.

Happy Motoring!