Creating space for Initiative in a Crowded, Chaotic World

May 31, 2019 • ILE LAB • Boaz Tamir

A System Dragged into Chaos

The information and technology (IT) unit at “Waterfall” (not the company’s real name) was flooded with demands for development of new products.  A long line of projects was waiting at the IT “Projects Gate”, which serves as a center for selection and triage.  The manager of the gate was able to slow the pace down a bit, but the line at the entrance continued to grow longer as the demand for technological developments persisted.

Helpless, the IT product development (PD) manager faced his fellow-managers.  The loss of business opportunities due to the inability to respond to market demand and to provide the customer with a product on time is painful, but it is even more frustrating to discover that the excessive demand for development was actually slowing down the planned rate of production.  As the pressure grows, stakeholders look for ways to bypass the gate; eventually, they are able to tear down the fence surrounding the development unit.  The overcrowding at the entrance gate explodes into a flood of projects, and the work environment of the development system turns into one huge traffic jam.

The PD managers tried to gain control of the situation by transferring development personnel from projects that had not yet been completed to more urgent projects, but the desperate attempts to put out the local fires caused multi-dimensional damage: development of new products stops the progress of existing projects, dramatically lowers the efficiency of working teams, increases work in progress, slows down the rate of flow and, in the end, clogs up all movement.  Even the new projects pushed into the line will not be finished on time – if ever.

The space for the work of the PD teams at Waterfall came to resemble a traffic jam on a major highway:  After someone breaks through the fence, even the road shoulders become filled with cars trying to push into the open lane.  Motorcyclists (the smaller projects) have trouble finding even a crevice through which escape the jam, and the drivers (project managers) simply shrug their shoulders when they hear the ambulances and police cars since they can’t move out of their way.  Every decision or action makes the sense of chaos even worse.

First Steps in a Chaotic Environment

At Waterfall, the space for development is flooded with works in progress (WIP); this threatens to overwhelm the company’s activities and is dictating management’s agency.  The most urgent actions (the immediate need) pushes the more important (strategic) considerations aside.

Waterfall is in need of experience in and tools for movement in a chaotic environment – and for this, they must deliberately stop, look around, and internalize the situation.  Things can be turned around by replacing the tension with a release:  Instead of a demand for additional resources, the company must come to realize that it is suffering from a surfeit of works in progress that have overtaken the bulk of the organizational resources.  Freeing up the resources dedicated to projects and tasks that are stuck in the pipeline is better than adding addition resources to development in a vain attempt to develop new products that actually will never come to fruition.

In contrast to a complicated environment, in a complex (chaotic) environment, it is impossible to predict either the future or the actual results of planned processes. In a complex-chaotic environment, it is necessary to decentralize and delegate control to the area in which small, experimental, interactive steps can be taken by the development staff and the workers on the line, who will become the strategic principle. This requires a change in perspective and mindset.

It’s not easy to change habits and mindsets.  Attention to root problems begins only when the crisis is palpable.  Waterfall’s management decided to take immediate action to open the space up and allow for flexible movement.  For instance: they gave priority to projects that were near completion, while simultaneously blocking others’ access to the jammed lanes; and this was done far enough down the line that vehicles could be directed into alternative routes.

Project Management in a Chaotic Environment (See “The Tension of Complexity and opportunity”)

When walking through a chaotic environment, ready-made prescriptions and pre-prepared solutions won’t help.  To cope with the new situation, one must begin with observation, continue on to a change in mindset, and, ultimately, replace the old tool box:  instead of using old maps and focusing on Key Performance Indicators, it is necessary to rebuild the resilience management operating system.

Inspirational purpose will enable the workers to focus, allow for a definition of priorities and help to dissolve the divisions between disciplines, units and professions.  Creation of multi-professional teams, composed of marketing, business, technological development and service will create shared understandings and work processes that lead to value that suits the community of customers.  In the final analysis, these processes will lead to work-flow and a dramatic reduction in WIP by opening up space that allows for movement flow and growth of new initiatives that will lead to controlled and sustainable growth.

Boaz Tamir, ILE.

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