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Moving to the Edge of Chaos to Improve Productivity

Most people think of chaos as highly unproductive. While this sounds like sheer folly, there is some concrete evidence that intentionally moving an organization to the edge of chaos creates the condit...

Most people think of chaos as highly unproductive. While this sounds like sheer folly, there is some concrete evidence that intentionally moving an organization to the edge of chaos creates the conditions for breakthroughs to occur.

Traditional approaches to improving productivity typically result in theoretical improvements more than real bottom-line results. Why is this?

I spoke with Sharon King, CEO of Toronto-based Starfield Consulting (she can be contacted at sharon.king, who described what happens in traditional productivity projects: Typically the design of these changes is done by either a cross-functional group or the leadership team and then rolled out to the organization. This causes a disconnect between the people designing and the people affected by the change. This mechanical perspective assumes that if the design is right, then leadership can orchestrate the workforce to play their part – just like cogs in a machine. The result is that the change needs to be sold. People can be forced to comply, but there will be little if any true initiative.

Over the last 15 years approaches based on chaos theory have proven far more effective in achieving bottom-line productivity results, according to King. These approaches recognize that organizations are essentially living systems consisting of relationship networks that self-organize and self-correct in response to their environment. To achieve the results we want, we need to use approaches that work effectively with organic structures. Through self-organizing processes it is possible to bring an organization to the edge of chaos thereby tapping into the reservoir of potential energy that exists.

It sounds a bit crazy but it has worked for years in organizations that have stood the test of time, King asserts. Think of 3M – a company revered for its success. Its top two “rules” ensure self-organization. The 15% rule encourages technical people to spend up to 15% of their time on projects of their own choosing and initiative. The 30% rule requires each division to generate 30% of their revenue from new products. The company has created an environment so that within these rules leadership does not predict, control or manage the activities.

But can it work for everyday organizations?

More and more organizations are now achieving results by using similar approaches. Starfield has helped a highly unionized organization use self-organizing processes to double the productivity of their financial services area within a nine-month period. A 400-person department was able to rationalize and implement nine separate sets of manual processes into a single set within six months. A post-merger organization was able to streamline its order fulfillment process, reduce its inventory and achieve their sales targets for the first time in five years. Each of these achievements was realized with less than two weeks of consulting support.

This is how Starfield gets it done in a practical sense. It uses a three-step process it calls the Productivity Accelerator.

1. The first step involves defining a clear and measurable performance target, identifying the monetary, resource, policy and timing boundaries, and clarifying how the results will be developed and used. Attention here is directly related to the extent of the productivity breakthrough.

2. Next, it introduces chaos by challenging affected employees to achieve the target within the boundary specified. The process marries passion and responsibility and enables employees to productively engage in whatever parts of the solution interest them. Participants come away energized and committed to achieving the results, King says.

3. Finally, processes are implemented that maintain a sense of accountability. Initial commitment wanes if there is no sense of ongoing accountability. This final step ensures the workforce follows through on its commitments, according to King.

The trick is to manage the energy rather than the activities of the people who will be affected. By giving them space to participate where they have a natural interest, you are tapping into their reservoir of potential energy. You eliminate the time and energy involved in selling and orchestrating a pre-planned change and unleash a pride and sense of ownership that ensures success. By bringing the organization to the edge of chaos within defined boundaries, productivity escalates naturally.

Mark Borkowski is President of Mercantile Mergers & Acquisitions Corporation. He can be contacted at

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