Managing Through Chaos


I don’t know about you, but it feels to me as though we are in a new period, where things just don’t work like they used to . . . as if there has been some tectonic shift in the earth’s crust beneath our feet that has put all of us somehow off-balance.  The bull market evaporated, the financial sector fell into turmoil, our nation was attacked on 9/11, Congress seems more fixated on winning than solving, corporate earnings grow without jobs, trillions in so-called “stimulus” money don’t seem to stimulate, our young people seem more cynical, and so forth.

It feels as though we are victimized by all these things, or paralyzed like deer caught in the headlights.   We can feel frozen, unable to decide what to do.

I have written before about the topic of managing during times when everything is going wrong (see Leading When Everything’s Going Wrong”).

Jim Collins (remember Good to Great?) has completed a new book that has identified from an initial list of 20,400 companies, seven unique ones who seem to – as he puts it:  “. . . navigate this type of world exceptionally well. They don’t merely react; they create. They don’t merely survive; they prevail. They don’t merely succeed; they thrive. They build great enterprises that can endure. We do not believe that chaos, uncertainty, and instability are good.  Companies, leaders, organizations, and societies do not thrive on chaos. But they can thrive in chaos.”

Some of the companies include Southwest Airlines, and the medical equipment maker – Stryker.

Southwest pioneered the low-cost airline model, but from 1972 through 2002, the airline industry faced fuel crises, the terrorist attacks, labor strife, air traffic controller crisis, and accelerating deregulation.  Yet Southwest grew and thrived – in comparison to Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) which copied Southwest’s same business mode, yet still succumbed to bankruptcy during that same period.

So what is the differentiating factor – that made these seven companies stand out?  Was it vision, the willingness to take some bold risks, heroism, better strategic thinking, or just more luck?

Collins argues it has to do with the distinctive behaviors of their leaders.

One aspect is about having the ability to exert discipline – persistently pursuing main mission objectives – no matter what is happening around you.

“When John Brown became CEO of Stryker (SYK) in 1977, he deliberately set a performance benchmark to drive consistent progress: Stryker would achieve 20% net income growth every year. This was more than a mere target, or a wish, or a hope, or a dream, or a vision. It was, to use Brown’s own words, “the law.” He ingrained “the law” into the company’s culture, making it a way of life.”

It seems like Brown just doesn’t stop to consider the external turbulence – but challenges his organization to persist in pursuit of its goals by being more creative, innovative, and hard-working.

A second element is that these leaders seem to embrace a paradox of control and non-control. Sure there is uncertainty in the world, and there is often no way to predict or control it.  So having a mindset that isn’t about maintaining control seems helpful.   These leaders seldom waste their time complaining about that which they can’t control, choosing to focus instead on what they can influence.  And, if you think about it, you can influence quite a lot when you try.   Hallmarks of successful leaders in chaos, are those who seem to let a basic sense of optimism and of accepting full responsibility for one’s own fate – pervade their company culture.

The new Collins Book is called “Great by Choice”.   Here is a link to a recent Fortune article describing it.


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One response to “Managing Through Chaos

  1. Pingback: Leading in Turbulent Times | lenbrzozowski

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