Leading When Surrounded by Chaos

October 30, 2010

The Infamous Change

Leaders live in a world today that is especially complex and chaotic. If you are a leader, what do you do when the company goes through a huge change? What do you do when a customer returns unhappy with a project and wants the infamous change? “With new technology, globalization in markets, and increased pressure for shareholder value, the tempo and thrust of change—and the way leaders must lead—have been forever altered…. Unless leaders understand the process people use in addressing transitions in their lives it is futile for them to think they can positively influence the outcome of important initiatives.”[1]

The Most Important Part

Despite a chaotic company, project or environment, at the end of the day everything revolves around people. Leaders are destined to help others become what they were meant to be by moving the complex obstacles. According to David T. Morgenthaler, founding partner of Morgenthaler Ventures—with $2.6 billion under management, a leader must implement 7 practices to lead people:

1. Have a clear vision and mission. If you cannot answer clearly what you are trying to do and what ought to work, you are not ready to start.

2. See that the right people are selected, and ensure they buy into the vision, mission and plan.

3. Stimulate extraordinary effort and results out of ordinary people. Involve everyone. A leader is most effective by setting a clear personal example.

4. Obtain the necessary resources. In newer companies, this is often a major personal task for the CEO.

5. Appraise performance accurately, and give people what they need on a timely basis — whether they need guidance, encouragement, or a strong kick in the rear. Replace those who cannot or will not perform to standards. Be fair but firm.

6. Communicate with your people. Do not let dissatisfaction and misunderstandings build up.

7. Reward fairly and keep all promises. Remember once mentioned is half promised.[2]

Lead with Agile

When the project(s) become overwhelming leaders may ask themselves, “How am I going to do this project when it is so complex?!” An empowering way to handle such a feat is agile project management. Mike Griffiths gives examples in his blog about the use of agile project management:

“At last year’s Agile Business Conference in London I learned about Nokia’s massive agile rollout where 1,800 software developers are using agile techniques to develop the Symbian mobile phone platform. This immensely complex endeavor is tightly coupled to quickly evolving hardware, divergent phone standards, and a variety of different cell providers worldwide. Using a variant of Dean Leffingwell’s “Agile Train” approach they are scaling agile to tackle a very complex domain and produce rapid, high quality results. 

 At this year’s PMI Global Congress last week Richard Spires CIO of the Department for Homeland Security (DHS) spoke about his role overseeing $6.5 billion of IT focused spending annually. He has 91 projects greater than $50M in his portfolio. So, how does he and his team manage it all? “With more and more adoption of agile methods” he said. It is the only way to keep up with the complexity and high rates of change required for this massive portfolio of projects”[3]

So, why lead with agile project management? The diagram below paints a great picture of how agile has the right ingredients to calm the storm and empower people to work together to produce excellent results.


Willing To Do What No One Else Will

There was a time period in my life where I really wanted to know how leaders became successful. I wanted to know how they overcame all of the chaos, complexities, failures, letdowns and heartaches. I read biographies and autobiographies of all of the great leaders this world has seen. The underlying factor that seemed to emerge most was his or her willingness to do what no one else would. The ability to lead when the company, project, scope and people are chaotic and complex is simple in words, but hard in action. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins says, “It didn’t matter whether the company was consumer or industrial, in crisis or steady state, offered services or products. It didn’t matter when the transition took place or how big the company. All the good-to-great companies had Level 5 leadership at the time of transition…a Level 5 leader is an individual who blends extreme humility with intense professional will.”[5] There are great examples of leaders that experienced crisis and overcame with their sheer will. John Maxwell, one of the great leadership educators, talks about will, but refers to it as perseverance. “The trials and pressures of life—and how we face them—often define us. Confronted by adversity, many people give up while others rise up. How do those who succeed do it? They persevere. They find the benefit to them personally that comes from any trial. And they recognize that the best thing about adversity is coming out on the other side of it.”[6] Bottom line, where there is a will, there is a way.

Leading the company, the project, and the people–when the environment and scope are chaotic or complex–can be done by embracing change, empowering people, using agile project management and having the will to do what no one else will do.

[1] Connor Daryl R. Leading at the Edge of Chaos: How to Create the Nimble Organization. New York, NY. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1998. pp.(vi-xi)

[2] Morgenthaler David T. “Managing Things and Leading People”. MIT Sloan Leadership Center. 22 Oct 2010 http://mitleadership.mit.edu/r-morgenthaler.php

[3] Griffiths, Mike. “Ultra Agile”. Leading Answers: Leadership and Agile Project Management Ideas, Observations and Links. 22 Oct 2010. http://leadinganswers.typepad.com/leading_answers/

[4] VersionOne, Inc. 22 Oct 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Agile-Software-Development-Poster-En.pdf

[5] Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and others don’t. 1st edition. New York, NY. HarperCollins Publishers. 2001. pp.(21-22)

[6] Maxwell, John C. Talent is Never Enough: Discover the Choices That Will Take You Beyond Your Talent. Nashville, TN. Thomas Nelson, Inc. 2007. pp(131-132)

3 Responses to “Leading When Surrounded by Chaos”

  1. Paul McGuire said

    Interesting take. I would ask the question is the author talking about the leadership roles in Agile, such as the Scrum Master? I can definitely see the parallels there. In short, leaders by definition require followers. If the Scrum Master is doing their job, then people follow. Whenever someone can clear roadblocks and empower others to manage on their own, people will naturally follow. The Agile cycle also allows many of the principles that the writer references from Morgenthaler to play out – clear vision, right people, communication, assessment and feedback, and empowerment. In today’s ever-changing world, people look to those who can bring clarity and focus. An effective Scrum Master can do just that.

  2. Phil Stilber said

    Excellent posting! Thanks for that David T Morgenthaler link, it’s a good read.

  3. Cheryl Johnson said

    Good post and very nice image. I think I still prefer the traditional method of project management though.

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