Strategy and The Storms of Chaos
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Sun Tzu quotes (Chinese General and Author, b.500 BC)
The world we live in is often chaotic and those who manage organizations may find it hard to forecast and understand the correct strategies for planning and budgeting. Because in a chaotically changing environment, one never knows what is going to happen next. Changes seem to happen in random patterns similar to waves on a body of water. In smaller markets, similar to smaller bodies of water (like a pond), these waves are easier to understand and forecast. However, in the largest markets, like larger bodies of water or an ocean, all the rules change and forecasting change becomes more difficult as chaos hits the organization from all sides.
The Ship in the Storm:
As storms often describe chaos, ships often describe organizations. One can think of an organization in a radically changing environment as a ship on the ocean during a storm. Probably, you have heard entire nations referred to as ships of state or large organizations described as ships. The metaphor is useful to describe how hard it is to turn those ships or for organizations to change course. A storm helps us to visualize the abstract concept of chaos and helps us to better plan our actions and manage change.
To illustrate chaos, I often explain how overwhelming and complicated life can become by using a very visible prop. I take a stack of papers and ask the audience to imagine that they are dreaming and in this dream they hold a similar stack of papers. Only their stack represents their life’s work. It symbolizes every piece of work they have ever produced for any reason, all on unnumbered sheets of paper. I ask the audience to imagine that all their assets and their life’s savings rely on delivering this report to the someone across town, maybe the IRS. They must use this stack to prove that they have earned their incomes. Then as they open the door to go outside to get into their cars, imagine that a mighty gust of wind takes this stack, tearing it from their hands and exploding it down their street for several blocks. As I throw my stack into the air – sheets fly in all different directions.
“Now what do we do?” The answers, “Cry,” “Run and Collect the Papers,” “Call for Help,” and so on. Then someone says, “Start categorizing the papers in manageable groups.” This is exactly what you do with chaos. Think about managing chaos in terms of collecting all the information we can and then categorizing it into manageable groups.
By adding the storm scenario, as in the picture of a ship on the ocean in the figure, we can build a more effective picture of strategy and organize strategy into five forces effecting our organization:
Group 1 – The Waves:
The waves represent the foreseeable future events. The waves represent trends we can see coming. The Y2K scare of the past was something we saw coming. Some thought it was going to sink everyone’s ship. We feverishly fought to prepare for the turning of the clock. This drove major changes in the most industries, the banking industry was practically effected. When the wave did hit, we were either well prepared or the wave turned out to be less than we expected. Like waves, one could actually see and steer into or prepare for these events.
Group 2 – The Lightning:
The lightning represents those unforeseeable events. Lightning is the unexpected. We all know lightning exist but few of us prepare for the strike. We never really know if or when it will strike. Lightning strikes may take the form of a key employee leaving at a bad time, a fire, an injury, or the terrorist attacks of 9/11. However, we can manage risk and prepare for emergencies.
Group 3 – The Actual Storm:
The storm represents the enemy. It is everything trying to sink your ship. The storm is everything working against us, holding the organization down. The storm is any threatening force keeping us from a successful mission. These enemy forces may include competition, negative (to us) societal and political forces, forces of war, taxes, the weather, or any other enemy force. The storm, like buoyancy, is in the eyes of the beholder. One organization’s storm could be another’s buoyancy. To fight the storm we must master the martial arts of business and competition.
Group 4 – The Buoyancy
The buoyancy represents the allied forces. Buoyancy represents everything keeping our ship afloat, all our supporting allies. Buoyancy is the supporting markets, cash flow, debt management, our families, friends, our church, those social norms in our favor, good politics in our favor, our supply chain, good customer relationships, and generally those things in our favor.
Group 5 – The Ship
The ship represents the organization. The other forces are mostly external, while the ship represents the organization. The ship gives us the framework for planning. Everything we can do revolves around the ship. To improve our organizational thrive-ability, we can train our sailors, plot our course, navigate our ship, use tactics, supply provisions, and build our ship for specific environments.
Two concepts important to the organization’s thrive-ability are (1) what the organization is designed to do (ride the ocean or a pond) and (2) its sea worthiness (structure, systems, leadership, staff preparedness, resources/provisions, etc.). One is more related to effectiveness and the other efficiency.
You only have control over your ship – you are the captain, so lead it.
Managing the Waves: Every wave has someone’s attention. We have to master communication with all our sailors. We have to listen to the gatekeepers of our organization. These are the people most keenly aware of their own areas of interest, closest to the different types of work, and most tapped into their own spears of influence. IT professionals are tracking IT trends, Accountants are tracking tax trends, etc. – forecasting tools are important, but expertise and relationships at every level are the most important assets.
Managing the Lightning: One prepares for lightning with risk management, emergency and contingency plans, security, insurance, back-up plans, training, empowerment, and building an organization to withstand loses.
Managing the Storm: One fights the storm by mastering competitive strategies, competing well, raising productivity and quality, and becoming politically and socially proactive.
Managing the Buoyancy: We must optimize our buoyancy. Remove those things that make us too heavy, build relationships, balance our lives, build good will, provide good service, build allies, support our employees relationships with their families, and improve cash flow.
We can apply a SWOT Analysis to the five forces of The Storm of Chaos Model. The SWOT Analysis is a simple tool that uses an acronym to spell out four strategic issues to address when planning
- Opportunities, and
The Opportunities and Threats are most often external but could also address internal issues. The Strengths and Weaknesses most often describe internal organizational conditions.
 Stevens, C.A.; Jim Nichols; Tawana M. Gardner; Joe Daily: “Step 1: Current Organizational Trends and A Basic Change Management Model,” American Society of Engineering Management, 21st National Conference Proceedings, October 4-7, 2000.