Every year my wife and I sit down and have a think about what we would like to achieve in the next 12 months. We talk about goals for our family, our personal stuff as well as our business interests. We also look back and see what we achieved in the previous year. It’s always a good, mostly fun and occasionally confronting exercise.

A few years ago we had a stellar year on every front and our plan for the next 12 months was for more of the same. We were excited and hopeful and probably a little bit complacent too. Almost immediately however we learnt how quickly things can change.

The unexpected death of a close friend of mine and the rapid decline of a business in front of our eyes turned what we hoped was to be the best year of our lives into one that suddenly looked a lot less promising. A period of prosperity had transformed itself into one of chaos. Thankfully, the business turned around quickly but I still recall how desperate the times were.

What I learned is that you can’t really control as much as you want to no matter how hard you try. The world is a complex place and random events will occur that will sometimes delight you and at other times devastate you. What is important is the ability to operate effectively in the midst of this chaos and confusion.  You can’t fall to pieces in the bad times and you can’t pat yourself on the back (for too long) in the good times. Both are temporary situations and you will encounter both as you move through life.

To operate effectively in chaos there are a couple of important pre-conditions that must be in place, in my view. The first one is stability. Whether in your personal or business life the underlying internal environment that you operate in must be stable. In business, this means that the internal behaviour of an organisation (and its people) must be predictable – i.e. predictability about how risks and opportunities are assessed and how work is prioritised and completed. Even in the darkest times predictable internal behaviour provides a safe haven to allow a business to rapidly deploy resources to begin fixing whatever needs to be fixed.

The second condition is that within this environment of stability people need to be given freedom (and autonomy) to operate and more importantly to make decisions recognising that they will sometimes make mistakes. Expecting people to show initiative won’t happen unless they are given not only freedom to operate but also the support base to encourage them to find the very best solution every time without fear of recrimination.

One thing that should be avoided is to tell people that their “balls are on the line so you better not screw up.” This will certainly produce predictable behaviour but it will be risk-averse or too risky – both of which are less than optimal. It’s hard enough to operate in chaos without worrying that no-one has your back and your job is on the line. It’s better to join hands and fight the battles together.

When unexpected events occur it’s important to move quickly to understand what has happened (and why) and to quickly assess what your options are. Getting used to operating in a more chaotic, uncertain environment will become increasingly important in the future and speed of action will be your greatest defence. So, strap your helmets on because chaos is here to stay…

Featured image by Giga Kobidze