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Leading an Organization in Chaos

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock

Paddock august

Imagine that you have been appointed to head an organization that recently had widespread negative publicity about misuse of funds, inappropriate personnel actions, insufficient resources, unsustainable performance requirements and incompetent service to clients. Your charge is to change the organization’s image and its performance. Great changes are called for, and managing those changes will be complex. Where would you begin?

You have taken on an organization in chaos. The changes that are required are many, varied and multifaceted. You must understand that your role is not to move the organization to order, control, uniformity and efficiency. Although it appears counterintuitive, your real role is to move the organization to being coordinated, accepting variability and encouraging effectiveness – to move it from chaos to being a chaordic organization.

Chaord, a word created by Dee Hock, is the blending of chaos and order, cooperation and competition. Chaordic leadership is creating order at the edge of chaos. Hock argues that chaordic organizations are most fit to meet the challenges of today’s global and electronic environment. Exercising chaordic leadership allows the organization as a whole to rise above the ability and skills of any one individual, supports networks and relationships within and outside the organization, and encourages ingenuity to take people out of the present moment into an imagined (and better) future. In the book Leading Beyond the Walls, Jim Collins notes that leaders support the building of mechanisms “of connection and commitment, rooted in freedom of choice rather than in coercion and control.”

Before initiating change, you must have an accurate assessment of what really is happening in the organization. You must be inquisitive and you should:

  • Assemble a group of trusted “advisors” who will meet as a group or individually to provide feedback.
  • Interview employees at all levels of the organization.
  • Review documents such as past performance reviews or disciplinary actions.
  • Use an established organizational assessment instrument such as McKinsey’s “Self-Assessment Grid” or the U.S. Army’s Command Climate.
  • Survey all employees, while understanding the limitations of any survey.
  • Be present – be seen in and about the organization, watching employees at work, engaging in informal conversations, sensing the organization’s climate.

In addition, you should ensure that any “messenger” delivering unwelcome news is listened to, and protected. This process will provide information on the organization’s purposes, strategies and plans, structure, management systems (rewards, incentives, communications, work processes), technologies, human resources, relationships, climate and leadership (both formal and informal).

This information will help you to establish a roadmap for change. While managers must understand the steps in change, establishing a sense of urgency is the first, and probably the most difficult step. You should find strategies to communicate that urgency. You must also recognize that in today’s organization information appears simultaneously in many places and in many ways, and plans are revised instantly – and, consequently, decision making should be a part of everyone’s job and decisions must be agile and responsive. You should support efforts to teach and practice decision-making, and assist others in evaluating all decisions.

Before you begin to manage others, you must manage yourself – your integrity, character, knowledge, wisdom, words and acts. You must be clear about what you must accomplish, but also be realistic and willing to push the limits and boundaries of the organization’s processes and procedures.

You must ensure that employees are cared for, practicing what may be termed “human due diligence.” In stressful or chaotic situations, employees must continue to meet expectations but may require special accommodations – the ability to work from home if travel is difficult, time to debrief with coworkers or engage in stress-reducing activities, for example, even at a time when the organization’s processes and performance are being scrutinized.

You must be unafraid of innovation. Chaos provides an opportunity to be creative. Normal times lead to business-as-usual; chaotic times call for innovation. Joel Barker, in his book The Power of Vision, urges managers to innovate “at the verge” where processes that appear to be different contribute to a new process that combines elements of both. John Varney suggests that people are more creative when they intentionally take breaks or engage in play (“Tapping Creativity” October 2009). New partners may lead to such innovation.

As you assume the leadership position, you will find an organization in chaos, where employees feel threatened, angry, frustrated or confused. Your task will be to understand the organization and to move it to being a chaordic organization that is owned by all employees at all levels of the organization. A community that distributes power and governance throughout the organization, embraces diversity and change and is both malleable and durable. A place where quite ordinary people can do extraordinary things. There is a great temptation to move toward order and predictability, to use the skills of control and efficiency taught in many administration classes and encouraged by political and appointed leadership. However, you will be most effective if you accept the challenge of living with the chaos and seeking to establish a nimble, chaordic organization.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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