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In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.

Bhala Dalvi | VP of Technology, Expedia Group in Bellevue, Washington

As I was reflecting on my affinity to chaos, I was reminded of this quote.  It’s been around a while – Sun Tzu wrote it in his military treatise, The Art of War, between 771 and 476 BC.

While I’m not into the whole war thing, I do agree with Sun Tzu on this point.

We all experience chaos at least occasionally in our day-to-day lives. Many of us experience it daily. Most people don’t love it and often struggle with chaos when it shows up.

Let’s face it, we live in a chaotic world.  I realized this early on when, as a teenager, I worked on my family’s farm.  It was a microcosm of life on earth, chaos and all. There was always something going on with the farm and as I got older, I saw opportunities everywhere for automation.  I instinctively knew that automation would help reduce the chaos.  I loved finding ways to automate because it compensated for the heavy work and allowed me to focus on nurturing the plants for our customers.

Because of this upbringing, I grew up unafraid of chaos.  Being comfortable with, even preferring chaos, is at the core of who I am.

Fast forward a few years.  I’ve been a steelmaker, a software developer and, now, I am a technology leader.  Chaos has followed me along the way which has enabled me to learn how to work with it, how to eke out its gifts.

It would be nice if leading a family, a team or a company was predictable, slow-paced and packed with easy decisions, but it’s not.  Many people struggle when things are in disarray – so to be a good leader, I’ve learned that I must lead through chaos.  I hope to share with you some ideas that can help you better cope with or lead when things are in turmoil.

In times of uncertainty, we may be tempted to create structure and order, because it feels safe and predictable.  It will help our teams be less stressed, calmer and more productive, right?  Well, it’s also at these times that companies need to spur innovation.  Innovation is all about disruption, change, the new.  Innovation needs some chaos.  Operationalizing it isn’t going to help us innovate and, I’d argue, isn’t what our people really need.

Embrace it.

I think back to my time on the farm.  If we didn’t work every day, the farm would instantly start deteriorating. The land wanted to go back to its natural state, rather than maintain the structures we put in place.  Our planet is always innovating.

Just like the Earth, every growing organization experiences chaos. Anytime we’re doing or experiencing something new – rolling out a new vision, inventing something, transitioning leaders – there will be chaotic moments.  We outgrow systems, processes, and even people, which can cause chaotic moments.  It’s natural. Embrace it.

Chill out.

This may sound counter-intuitive but just because a situation is chaotic doesn’t mean you need to be chaotic.  In fact, leaders must demonstrate through our own behaviors that chaos is not the enemy.  Don’t panic when chaos rears its scary head.  Focus on the root of the chaos, not the fruit.

It’s easy to overreact when faced with what seems like utter confusion. And we can spend a lot of time and energy trying to address the “fruit.” Or we can let the “fruit” reveal the root cause of the chaos so that we can address it and lead our organizations into a new season of growth and prosperity.

Slow down.

Chaos is uncomfortable for many people and when something is uncomfortable, we tend to want to avoid it or get through it as fast as possible.  If leaders aren’t careful they can make hasty decisions that jeopardize the long-term health of the organization.

One of the things that makes this hard is the pace of change in business.  Change frequently causes chaos and, as they say, change is the only constant.  So how do we slow down in this environment?

The way I do it is by giving myself time to deal with issues as they come up.  Think of a doctor’s office and how they reserve time each day for patients who need same-day attention.  If I don’t need the time I’ve reserved to embrace some chaos, I can repurpose it for strategic or other work.

The point is: we need to give ourselves enough time to make sure we don’t make knee-jerk reactions that could ultimately harm the business.

So, if you want to find the opportunity in chaos:

  • Embrace it. Remember there’s opportunity in it.
  • Chill out. Don’t let organizational chaos push you into chaos yourself.
  • Slow down. Take your time to avoid knee-jerk decisions.

If we do these three things, chaos will become less of a challenge and more of an opportunity.