Graham Birkenhead, January 16 2024

The Edge of Chaos

Where process meets innovation

You don't build a business – you build people – and then people build the business.

Zig Ziglar

I was recently running a workshop for a client to address the way they worked (their processes and organisational structures) and they way they worked together (communications and culture). During the energised conversation, I was reminded once again of that Zig Ziglar quote - it is one of my favourites - and as far as I am concerned, an absolute truth.

 And when Peter Drucker said "culture eats strategy for breakfast" (another one of my favourite quotes) - he was also addressing the same phenomenon.  Creating the best environment in which your people can thrive will probably have a very positive outcome for the fortunes of the company.

 As companies grow, we tend to impose more and more processes, procedures, and policies all with the good intention of providing consistency, efficiency, and keeping people (who have a habit of being quite diverse) in line.  The alternative is the other extreme where there is no order or structure - it would seem great for creativity, but wouldn't chaos ensue?  However, there is an optimal balance point - a sort of holy grail of organisational design.  Here we have just sufficient framework so that people know what is expected of them, they know where the boundaries are, and have templates and procedures where they are needed to help with repetitive tasks, but also it allows people to do what they do best - be creative, apply judgement, and use their initiative.  At this point, people become their most engaged, productive, efficient, and creative; and they derive a high level of personal reward to boot.  This balance point is known as the 'edge of chaos'.

 And so, back to my workshop client - a group of employees were experiencing some issues with regard to the implementation of new processes resulting from the fast rate of growth of the company.  The company culture was such that they were encouraged to explore creative ways of solving the issues, they could experiment with ideas, they could challenge accepted approaches and ways of working.  And that is exactly what they were doing - and what was absolutely necessary for the company as it continued to grow.  The people were very engaged and determined to find a solution that was not only good for them (which by itself would likely be a sub-optimal solution), but good for the whole company.  You can feel the culture of a company through interaction with its people.

 No company is perfect or without issues.  The key is to build a culture that equally values process and innovation, where employees feel supported to exercise judgment and initiative.  And here, your people will drive hard to implement your strategy, identify and solve issues, and build your (and their) company.

 Are your people, and the culture that binds them, where they need to be to build the company?    Let me know if you want to chat about that.


Written by

Graham Birkenhead


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