Are you ever surprised when things that were recently running fine, seem to suddenly get out of control? You have all your ducks in a row, and just when you think they are all following you along, one of the little fluff-bombs waddles off and disrupts the whole journey. What is going on?
We live in an imperfect world and there are demons among us causing chaos… sometimes big chaos, like the covid pandemic. We ignorantly enjoyed a daily routine of commuting to work, doing email, working with a great team in an office, going to meetings, etc. and then, bam! The demons of chaos rose and shook us all into a new awakening. Overnight, covid forced us from our happy routines to confusion, uncertainty, and learning.
We experience these demons of chaos in frequent, smaller ways too… The app you’ve been using for weeks suddenly freezes up and you can’t get that project updated while you eat breakfast … the microphone we just bought for better virtual meetings flips a bug and generates disrupting noises. The tire on your car (now sitting in your garage more than it did) slowly, almost imperceptibly, goes flat … the team member that was once highly engaged and participative unexpectedly decides to leave.
But on the other side of darkness, there is light. To every villain, there is a hero the leader can employ to keep chaos at bay.
Demons of Chaos and the heroes to battle them
I’ve experienced the demons of chaos in organizations… and without constant vigilance, we essentially invite them in. We allow them to bustle about in our organizations because we have not put the heroes in place to battle them and preferably, keep them outside the gates.
Atrophy is when muscles lose their mass due to inactivity. I broke my foot in the fall of 2019 and it took nearly six months to heal (google ‘non-union’). My once-well-toned calf muscle shriveled like a flabby drumstick. Atrophy is an insidiously powerful demon because it is ‘working’ whenever we are resting.
The same thing can happen to a team. I had the privilege of leading a mechanical product design team who in any given period, would be developing dozens of varied, precision products for the aerospace industry. The skills for each kind of design are very different and there would often be a large time lapse between similar types of projects – and the ‘muscles’ (job skills) weakened. The design muscles for that new project had atrophied and the engineer would have to relearn and build their muscles again. This creates chaos as we ramp up to meet customer needs.
Countering atrophy requires consistent, regular, vigorous training, exercise, and practice.
Like getting my calf and leg muscles back in shape, I had to exercise regularly, consistently. The practice routines and daily discipline of training and exercise, to sustain performance at a high level, is paramount. In our teams, we can keep members focused on their strengths and skills – and continue to hone their abilities to become more efficient and stronger over time.
To keep atrophy in check we must be disciplined to exercise our teamwork muscles every day. Use daily huddles and weekly team power hours to stay strong as a team and focused on process performance and improvement. Use continuous learning methods to keep skills sharp, quiz each other, make it a game, monitor how your processes perform over time – look for those muscles that have not been exercised lately.
Entropy represents the degree of disorder or randomness in a system, and every system has variation or disorder. It is this lack of order that permits a gradual decline. And, without a way to regenerate the system, entropy is always increasing. Like atrophy, it is always at work against us… and the more the disorder, the more decay.
Left alone, a machine will wear out. Lubrication breaks down and the bearing fails. Electronics corrode and send faulty signals. Springs under load for long periods of time lose their resilience.
In my experience, teams will get worn out too if neglected. Enthusiasm will wane, interest, and engagement fades. Team unity breaks down. People get confused and frustrated.
Regular Maintenance and Care
NOT doing preventative maintenance is like having some sand in your shorts. It may not be a big deal right now but after a bit of time it will cause damage and pain.
I served in the US Army as an aviation officer. My best experience was as a commander of an Aviation Unit Maintenance company. Our mission was to maintain a fleet of 30 helicopters. I learned quickly that the most effective way to achieve that goal was to properly perform regular preventative maintenance. Routine lubrications, cleaning, checks, and inspections (that could identify pending failures) kept us ahead of the natural wear and tear and avoided costly un-planned down-time and risky component failures. The demon of entropy is not allowed on helicopters.
People need regular, routine maintenance and care too. Leaders must provide reinforcement and corrective feedback to each of the team members, encouraging and acknowledging them in their work. Coaching and training team mates to standard work and performance combats confusion, frustration, and fatigue.
Complacency occurs when we stop caring about progress and growth. This demon is adept at distracting us and telling us to compare ourselves to others, making us believe there is no hope… that we are unworthy… that striving for improvement is not worth it and points out all the thorns and snaggles that might be on the path towards our goal… he scares us into inaction. He is a great liar.
Our teams fall victim to complacency when we think everything is going swell. “There are no problems here” they say. “We are doing fine!” … but the demon blinds us to a better way, and keeps us, blissfully, ignorantly, stuck in the status quo. We don’t even know how good things could be.
“Challenge” is a long-standing lean leadership value, synonymous with vision. The leader must give the team a challenge – and articulate why this challenge is worthy of pursuing. This becomes the spark to disrupt the status quo, because to achieve the challenge, the team will have to identify and breach the obstacles that stand in the way and question long-held beliefs.
Without a challenge – a statement of a better, positive future – the team may be unknowingly ‘happy’ in their regular grind and griping. Optimization and improvement require a stimulus to disrupt the status quo.
Success breeds overconfidence. Without strong guardrails, one of the most dangerous things that can happen to a team or organization is wild success. Unchecked, it can breed an infectious attitude of hubris.
Fat cats don’t hunt.
I worked with a company that had wild success in recent years before I started working with them. Revenues and profits were up, way up, despite the lack of attention to process and people development – market and unique financial circumstances catapulted them to record earnings. Although the leaders knew their success was mostly due to special circumstances, they still lacked the authentic, serious desire to improve the flow of value to the customer.
Humility is the art of putting others first and thinking of ourselves less. And it’s a tricky thing because confidence is necessary to take bold actions and disrupt the status quo. But not because we think WE are the hero… and NOT because we think we deserve special treatment.
I have observed confident, humble leaders – and they are massively effective. They are courageous and know that their skills, experiences, and training ARE valuable and needed, but they also train their focus on the principle of humble service to others.
How often have we witnessed someone being treated unfairly, or something out of order and we don’t give it more than a fraction of a thought? … Like the shopping cart someone left in a parking space… the coffee maker out of water… an abandoned driver alongside the road …
The demon of indifference is particularly devilish. He tells us that we don’t have enough time, energy, or power to make any real difference. He tells us… “Don’t worry about it” … “Stay in our lane” … “You don’t need to be concerned about that” … “Someone else will handle it” … and, worse, the demon of indifference labels others to keep us justified in our thinking.
The opposite of courage and love is not cowardice or hate… but indifference. Think about this… if I wanted to do something of value that seems risky, uncertain, or dangerous, I would have to REALLY CARE about that thing, or the people that it would benefit. Without a purpose or passion about something, we hardly need any courage to think or act on it, because we just don’t care.
The more we know, the more we care. What do we really know about the issues our representatives are debating? What sorts of pressures do the executives of my company struggle with? What is the story about that old lady down the street? And why is that inspector so darned picky… what is driving him? If we can take a minute and first seek to understand – and develop a relationship – then maybe, we can see through the veil of indifference and find a connection to our purpose.
I am a lean leadership and transformation coach. I am honored and privileged to help leaders and their teams do their work better. The work is serious, but we approach it with a spirit of joy.
We were made for adventure, purpose, passion, discomfort, and problem solving. If we first start with an attitude of JOY, we will find the discipline necessary to combat the demons and breach obstacles that leads to our full purpose.
SO, gather your team – get real about where you are, how you are going to work together. Create a vision of excellence that you can strive toward together. And pick up the spirit of Serious Joy and start climbing… It’s demon repellent.
Keep Smiling. Keep Striving.