Don't Create Chaos

One of the most harmful behaviors I’ve observed in ineffective leadership is a tendency to add chaos when one enters a room. Chaos comes in many flavors: A decision was reached about an important architecture question weeks ago, but someone suddenly insists that you revisit the project’s fundamental goals at the 11th hour. An executive insists that their project is most important, and pushes it onto the roadmap. Or maybe you leave a productive meeting without concrete next steps, and are right back where you started in a week.

Great leaders vacuum up chaos

Tasmanian devil going crazy Nobody is excited when this guy enters the room

My litmus test for effective leadership: any room that you enter should have more certainty and a firmer plan by the time that you leave it. Good leaders can walk into a situation where people have lost track of their goals and get everyone aligned on a clear path forward. They remove unimportant details, distill complex situations to their essence, and get the right decision-maker to make a call – even if it’s not them. They’re able to not only stop bad plans before it’s too late, but get them moving again in the right direction.

Usually, chaos-causing behavior is unintentional and comes from a good place. Often people are just missing context, or haven’t developed a rhythm for making sure that projects and plans stay organized. In rare cases, it can arise for less savory reasons: someone wants to flex on others by diverting a conversation to a favorite topic or forcing a change of plans.

Be a source of stability

I’ve been guilty of causing my share of unnecessary chaos, and have always regretted it. However, I was fortunate enough to also have a number of teammates who weren’t shy about calling me out for this over the years. I’ve since built a grab bag of practices on how to be better:

  • Strive for measurable outcomes, and frequently reinforce the goals of what you’re working on even if it’s repetitive. For example, if you’re trying to increase conversions from your login page, be clear about why this is important and how you’ll measure success.
  • Insist that all meetings have agendas. Don’t overthink this – a single bullet like “decide what color to make the login button” is fine. A shocking proportion of seemingly simple meetings will wander without this, and it only takes 30 seconds. Don’t let people waste your time, or their own.
  • Confirm in-person decisions that were complicated, non-intuitive, or contentious in writing: “We decided the login button should be neon pink so that it really stands out from the blue page background.”
  • Use documents for complex decisions. It’s easier to catch when a document is off-track, because unlike a conversation you can see the entire arc of the discussion at once. The decision to make the login button pink should live in a document or ticket.
  • When in doubt, over-communicate. Say what you’re planning to do next, so that work doesn’t get duplicated: “I’m going to add this decision on the login button to our design document.” If you’re not going to do something, confirm that as well: “I’m not going to update our design mockups, so if anyone thinks that we’ll need that, speak up now.”
  • Avoid using power or appeals to authority to sidestep teams’ processes for prioritization. This is important for teams that you manage, and especially important when working with other teams. Good lightweight processes are one of the best ways to add efficiency to a team, and breaking them is akin to removing the oil from your car. If you must break processes, make sure to explain why.
  • If a plan seems strange, ask questions to understand “why” before asking anyone to change the course of action. If you think that you’re going to need to ask someone to change plans, try to ask at least one extra clarifying question or wait 5 minutes longer in the conversation before reacting.

And most importantly: The fancier your title, the more you must avoid causing chaos. If Bob the Intern frantically flip-flops on the plan for his summer project, people will patiently help him towards a good path and perhaps make sure he has less caffeine tomorrow. If Bob the CEO flip-flops on his strategy, people will capsize the ship trying to enact his will. Remove chaos and you and your team will be happier and more successful.