Scientific “chaos” doesn’t refer to everyday mayhem. Executives, though, tend to attack the chaos in their companies as they do the chaos in their hall closets: through desperate attempts to order it. Traditional management logic emphasizes corporate control and convergent thinking. Goals are set, problems articulated, solutions presented and undertaken—all under one pre-formed philosophical roof titled “business as usual.” In this framework, commotion must be kept at a minimum: it strains managers, wastes time and resources, and wrecks any bottom-line predictability. The only way to prevent workplace disorder is top-down management that sets guidelines and deadlines all the way to the front lines.
Some companies—the lucky ones—escape the mayhem by hiding: they burrow into a comfortable niche, undaunted by the competition scurrying above them. Unfortunately, “creating a niche” is far too often synonymous with what Foster and Kaplan call “cultural lock-in.”2 The stages of a business’ development resemble the common shape of human life: youthful vision and excitement yield to the narrow-minded—albeit successful—tedium of old age. Niche-oriented companies pour resources into predictive strategies, and so drain any creative preparation for the future.
The result? Most companies are unable to adapt when the “outside world” crashes down on their heads—when a perky startup explodes the market; when stock prices unexpectedly plummet; or when innovation changes an entire industry. Next week I’ll share with you…what you should do about chaos.