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Dancing on the Edge of Chaos is Being Agile

This one is for Jen!

“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.” -Carl Jung

During a round table phone conference of agilists that I participated in recently, a questions was asked by the moderator, “At what point is the maximum efficiency and effectiveness in agile methods achieved?” After listening to several answers, such as, “Maximum efficiency is never achieved, it is an ever moving goal.” I responded that, “Maximum effectiveness and efficiency (I like to call E)[1] was achieved when dancing on the edge of chaos[2].” Of course, as soon as I said this, chaos immediately ensued, as everyone began to speak at once and argue the point.

After the free-for-all settled down, I explained the context of my statement. Agile is all about adapting to the demands and opportunities of changing circumstances. The environment, all of us operate in, is constantly altering based on technology, business and sociological evolution. Successfully exploiting these transformations leads to more finely tuned and in demand produces and services delivered with better price points and superior quality. Those who can adapt better than the competition have an enormous advantage. It is the ultimate game of one-upmanship!

At some point, however, you spend more time and effort adapting to all the variations than is beneficial to the productive purpose of your initiative. That is the event horizon that marks the threshold of chaos. Those who can operate successfully just before this boundary are “Dancing on the edge of chaos.” I like to use the following graphic to explain this concept:

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Note that inertia due to bureaucracy, company politics, command and control chains of commands decreases as you move to chaos. In the same respect, creativity, team empowerment and customer satisfaction increase proportionately. What is not shown on the diagram are costs and time (effort). This shocks most agilists because agile is often a more economical way of operating. Unfortunately, adopting change is never entirely smooth and transparent even for experienced, expert teams. There are always anomalies that can temporarily drive up costs and require more effort. In the long run, however, they pay for themselves many times over.

Management stuck in the old theories of management, that is based on greater levels of command and control by automating the stringent enforcement of rules through software are doomed to fail. People are not automatons and should not be treated as such. Often there is considerably more knowledge in how the job should be done that resides in the workforce than there is in the management layer that is determined to control it.

As your teams begin to inculcate themselves and accept work, they will find their own sweet spot where they can maximize their adaptability and productivity without loosing control. This area will shift and expand and contract over time, based on changes to the team, the initiatives underway and the operational environment. The team’s dancing ability will constantly improve and the enterprise will enjoy waltzing its way to success! Till next time – keep agile!


[1] My inside tribute to Einstein and his famous equation E=MC

[2] The phrase edge of chaos, originated with Doyne Farmer. He used it to describe the transition phenomenon discovered by Christopher Langton. In the sciences, it has taken on the meaning of physical, biological, economic and social systems that operate in a region between order and complete randomness or chaos. Stuart Kauffman has studied mathematical models of evolving systems in which the rate of evolution is maximized near the edge of chaos.

About Brian Lucas

Consultant, lecturer, project manager, business manager, and software architect who has been with Computer Aid, Inc. since its inception over 25 years ago.

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