Confusion, uncertainty, unexpected change and unpredictability are inherent in every entrepreneurial endeavor. There's the organizational chaos of testing new product or service ideas, measuring demand, and building a company brand. There's team chaos where membership is ambiguous, roles and responsibilities are anything but ironed out, and the team's mission waffles somewhere between clarity and utter confusion. And then--and this is my "favorite," which I mean with every ounce of sarcasm--there's the individual chaos you face yourself; the chaos of self-defeating beliefs and negative self-talk that holds you back from taking your next step and conquering the world.
The good news, however, is this: chaos affords opportunity.
If chaos suggests "the unexpected," something unpredictable, then it also connotes freedom--the freedom to create that which hasn't been created yet, and therefore, the freedom to learn.
If you're not learning, you're dying a slow (and painful death). Startups compete at the speed of adaptability but adapt at the speed of learning. How fast you're willing and able to ask--and answer--the difficult questions that ultimately define your brand, your purpose, your value proposition, and your distinctive competence is exactly what determines startup relevance or obsolescence.
It's easy to fall off the learning curve as your company grows. Don't. Companies that fail to learn, learn to fail very quickly. Just look at Blockbuster, Napster, PanAm Airlines (am I dating myself here?) or any of the other behemoths that fell from grace. They fell because they were rooted in the complacency of success--the belief that the "wins" of yesterday would encourage more "wins" tomorrow. But they didn't. They never do.
If you're wondering how to leverage chaos as opportunity--freedom--here are two strategies to begin with:
Design for curiosity.
Curiosity is the genesis of new ideas and, ultimately, new business. Can you think of a new company, product, or service that didn't start by asking a question? Didn't think so.
However, the challenge with curiosity is this: not everybody's curious. That's fine. Trying to "make" another person want something is an act in futility. In fact, it's the quickest route to a felony conviction. Instead, design the environment for curiosity to occur. What I mean is curiosity increases when there's a gap between what you know and what you need to know to accomplish a task, and the greater that curiosity is, the more work gets done. If you don't believe me (it's okay, you wouldn't be the first), maybe you'll believe researchers smarter than me...
One study observed two groups. Participants in the first group were placed in front of a computer screen with roughly 50 panels on the screen. Behind each panel was a different animal, such that once a user clicked on a panel a new animal was revealed. The participants quickly stopped because they knew that if they clicked on another panel, they would just see another boring animal. They stopped clicking.
The second group, however, was different. They faced a similar computer screen with the same panels, except this time, behind those 50 panels was the same animal. So, when a user in group two clicked on a panel, they saw a different portion of the same animal, such as dog's nose, its snout, the forehead, ears, so on. What happened? Users in group two continued clicking. They clicked all the way through because they wanted to see the bigger picture. Their curiosity was heightened--not because they'd never seen an animal before--but because they wanted to close their curiosity gap. They wanted to see the bigger picture--just like your employees.
Let everybody know.
The biggest problem of operating on a "need-to-know" basis is that nobody knows who needs to know, which means they don't know who to go to for questions or tasks. With knowledge hoarding comes silos, and silos prevent people from realizing how their work impacts the larger organization. Sony is a prime example. In 1999 Sony launched a digital music player aimed to revolutionize the music industry, much like they had done years prior with the Walkman. The only problem was, the digital music player they revealed on this particular day wasn't the only new product release. Another Sony department revealed the "memory stick walkman" on the same day designed for, well, the same purpose. What happened was Sony's internal silos weren't talking. As a result, they cannibalized themselves. Of course, it sure gave Steve Jobs a great idea.
With today's competitive environment becoming more complex every day, there's no time to rely on the familiar. In fact, that's how you self-select out of competitive advantage.
Chaos is freedom. It's the freedom to explore that which should be explored further. The freedom to test new limits and challenge conventional thinking about was previously believed impossible. I hate to tell you, folks, but chaos is freedom.