Is Chaos a Good Thing?

Nov 01, 1993

Contrary to what pop management “guru” Tom Peters may say, no architecture, consulting engineering or environmental consulting firm really “thrives on chaos.” Some companies may do well temporarily, but not many are able to “reinvent themselves” (another hip buzzterm) fast enough to thrive over the long haul unless they control the chaos. With so much chaos in the external environment that you can’t control, it’s counter-productive to put up with chaos inside your firm that you can control. In my travels, I have seen disorganized firms of all types. In fact more firms are disorganized than are organized. While admittedly, environmental consultants are probably the worst— followed by architects— there are also plenty of consulting engineers that seem to live in a constant state of chaos. Why is that? Some people like chaos. Believe it or not, there are people out there who actually like having problems to deal with. Solving problems gives them something to do, makes them feel like a hero, and virtually ensures that the day that passes by quickly. Facing a problem and coming up with a solution for it under pressure makes these people feel good. Some people think chaos leads to creativity. I once had the president of a prominent architectural firm tell me that he wanted a chaotic organization structure, one without strict lines of authority and accountability. He had made the company that way on purpose because he thought it led to greater design creativity from the staff. Some people are simply “anti-establishment.” To steal a term from the 1960s, there are design and environmental consulting professionals out there who do not like anything to do with business or organization, just because they are against it. The CEO of an old-line design firm once told me how he had grown up in the company under a predecessor, a former military officer who had established a rigid, hierarchical corporate culture. The CEO always swore to himself that he would do things differently, and when he did finally get into the firm’s top post, he kept his promise, tearing down and eliminating all rules, regulations, policies, and procedures. Some people don’t know how to control chaos. A/E and environmental consulting firms tend to be populated with an abundance of capable “doers.” And they usually have at least one or two pie-in-the-sky dreamers. What they often don’t have are people who can think strategically about systems and processes, and who can get that good stuff up and running in the organization. So, if you come to grips with the fact that chaos is not good, that it may contribute to inefficiency and lack of profitability, what areas of your business should you be looking at? Project initiation procedures. You can’t manage projects without budgets, so every job should have a budget before time can be charged to it. And don’t let just anyone commit the firm to a job— contracting authority limits should be clearly defined so you are not making commitments you shouldn’t be. Project management reporting. More information is not always better. Too much data makes it hard to find the valuable nuggets. Who gets what information on what schedule is critical to controlling chaos. Organization structure. Every person should have one and only one boss. That’s called “unity of command.” Too many A/E and environmental firms violate this law of management with unnecessarily complicated matrix organization structures. I can’t tell you how many firms I go into where the people don’t even know who they report to! Administrative procedures. You should not have to tell the word processor to enter something to a project file— that should happen automatically. Ditto for all incoming project-related correspondence. Originals should be copied and automatically filed upon receipt. Marketing processes. The entire marketing effort should be a consistent and sustained set of activities that is carried out over time— not something that you start to think about when you need a project. Marketing efforts that are kicked off by a need for work are doomed to failure. The office environment as a whole. I recently worked with an environmental firm whose president had such a messy office there was only one 8.5” x 11” spot on his desk to put whatever he was working on— the rest of the desk was piled with stuff. No one is going to tell me that living in that kind of squalor makes you more productive— I just don’t buy it. A/E and environmental consulting firms should continuously be on the lookout for ways to control chaos, not encourage it. Chaos does not improve creativity, morale, or productivity. Do all that you can within your control so you are ready for those unanticipated events that you can’t. Originally published 11/01/1993.

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