Controlling Chaos: 6 Agile Steps To Finding Sanity

Have you lost control of your day? Is the pace of everything getting faster and faster, so that you just can’t get done what you need to? Do you feel like your projects are spiraling into chaos? Finding ways to maintain one’s sanity while managing large, fast-moving projects is a creative dance. Recently, while teaching a course on “Managing Projects in e-Business,” one of my students asked me how I controlled chaos on my projects. My answer: “I plan for it!”

chaosMy job as the Project Leader is to keep the project moving forward; to meet deadlines, budget constraints, ensure performance, and most of all to manage the client’s expectations. I know better than to think that I can ever ‘really’ control things, so I put processes and procedures in place to make sure that maybe the roof won’t blow off when the tornado comes through (if you get what I mean), and to know what I might do if, and when, it does. I have been managing chaos for years (long before there was Agile PM), with solid planning,  a deep understanding of my team and client, and with a nimble attitude.

What is Chaos Anyway?

On a project, especially in today’s complex and dynamic environments, chaos can be defined as “a state of the (project) system where the future development of the system is not predictable, or only poorly predictable.” (Avoiding and Managing Chaos in (Construction) Projects, Sven Bertelsen and Lauri Koskela, 11th Annual Conference on Lean Construction – Denmark, 2009  ) Basically,  a small unpredictable event, like the delayed arrival of key resource materials, may seem like nothing more than a nuisance when it happens, but the cumulative effect of many deliveries not taking place over many months can delay you to the point of no return. When you are dealing with complex projects, you are sitting on the edge of chaos most of the time. If you plan accordingly, it is less likely that you will be overtaken by events. (How to Save a Failing Project: Chaos to Control, Ralph R. Young, Steven M. Brady, & Dennis C. Nagle, Jr.. Management Concepts, Inc., VA, 2009)

Sanity = Practicing Good Project Management

  1. PLAN:  Make a plan, work the plan, and update the plan continuously. Do you have a Project Management Plan (PMP)? If you don’t have a roadmap, how do you know where you are going? You don’t have to document a tome of stuff, but as Agile Modeling tells us, “keep your plan simple enough, but not too simple.”
  2. TRACK: Know where you want to end up and keep your focus there. Stay on track. Do you have a Project Charter? Knowing what you are sponsored to deliver is critical to getting there.
  3. MONITOR: Have a metric by which you know how to check the health of your project. Do you have an analytics dashboard? How do you know you’re on track if you can’t show it in a graph somehow?
  4. PREDICT:  You need to know what your mitigation strategy is because something will go wrong. What is your Plan B? Do you have a Risk Management Plan? Chaos management is really just risk management. You may not know what is going to happen but you can plan how you will fix it when it does.
  5. FIX: Prevent everything you can from going sideways. You do this by a continuous (iterative) review. Do you have a Change Management process? Remember to change the easiest things first and get them going in the right direction. Repeat after me:  CHANGE IS GOOD when it gets you closer to your goal. Little changes along the way are a lot easier than a big change near the end. (It’s that cumulative thing again.)
  6. DANCE: Be agile in approach and attitude. You need to be open to alternatives when you need them. Stay close to your client and your sponsor so that you can make decisions when they are needed in the moment.


I know it may sound oversimplified, but most of the battle of controlling chaos is staying calm and practicing good project management.  What dance steps have worked for you?

Laid Off? 5 Attitude Adjustments To Make

change“To up the odds of survival, leaders at all levels, must become obsessive about change.”  “Change must become our norm, not a cause for alarm.”- Tom Peters, Thriving On Chaos, 1987

These were the opening lines of a speech I gave in 1988 on Change.  Funny, I must not have been listening to my own words.

I pride myself on being an innovator, a thought leader: of seeing where transformations are needed and helping others through their change process.  But, I, like so many of my colleagues, have gotten caught in this whirlwind of economic downturn.  I could rant here and say “why me?”  But, truthfully, it is not about me.  It is… just business as usual.  An expected norm.

Tom Peter’s said that being excellent is no longer enough; that companies people (my word change) need to be perpetually ready to innovate. They must be willing to make continual improvements because the business environment is so competitive. Rather than focusing on cost-cutting efficiencies, these improvements must stress providing customers with value. He predicted, in 1987, that this rapidly changing world – fueled by new technology – would be unpredictable, so companies people must learn how to “thrive on chaos” to survive the turbulent times ahead.  And he was right and these are those times.

As I have just learned on Wednesday, even when you do the ‘right’ things, make those constant improvements, show your value, and keep innovating, you can still get caught up in the undertow of corporate unpredictability.  So this Social Butterfly, me, has now been tossed aside, or given freedom, depending on how I chose to look at it, from my corporate parent after almost 18 years of service.  Ah, the lessons.

Though a constant change agent in my work, I question maybe I was not bold enough, loud enough, social enough, or something, to be of right value to the corporate machine.  Every day, in every way, I challenged my coworkers, my company, and myself, to move forward, just like Peter’s told me too. But the truth is, it had very little to do with me.  I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Once the shock and the fuzziness of being laid off subsides (it has only been a couple days but I am not the wallowing type so I hope it is soon), I will get grounded and get going. So, let’s look at several steps I plan on taking over the next week:


1.  Don’t lose focus

Remember that ‘it is just business, to them.’  Yes, it ticks me off!  But it is true. In most cases, when laid off, it is not personal. (That sounds so stupid doesn’t it? Because it sure feels that way right now.)  In my case, I think it is about the stock price and how they balance bad sales numbers – they’ve cut and cut everything else, so now all that is left to cut are the workers. There is absolutely nothing I can do about a corporate strategy from where I sit.  It is what it is. My job moved to a lower cost country and now, I need to move forward for me.

I need to really get down to the nitty gritty activities that are going to move me into my future and not wait until the dust settles.  I think that the key to staying focused is to create a very detailed ‘to do’ list that provides me with practical details and priorities.  Spending time every day designing my future is now my priority.  That IS my job (and shame on me, it always should have been.)

2.  Talk about it

That’s right.  It may be embarassing, but I can’t get caught in what the psyhcologist’s call “the dance of denial.”  Luckily, I have some trusted friends to listen to me.  It is important to engage in conversations with others in similar situations (heck, we don’t know the real numbers but there are about 6,000 of us just this week).  Be social. Seek out support both on and off line. (30 Websites to Visit When You Get Laid Off)  Find ‘healthy’ vehicles for catharsis, whether exercise, gardening, walking the dogs (that is mine).  I think it is best to focus on MY feelings about the lay off and not rant on about the ‘bad’ company (though that is easy to fall into).  This needs to be about me – not them.  Burning bridges, because of being upset or angry, is not the best path to the future – especially when you are a blogger.  Having an outlet is critical to moving on though.  This is a loss, it takes time to get over that: anger, fear, depression even, are all normal reactions.  I need to be gentle with myself (which isn’t easy for me).

3.  Let go of the past as quickly as possible

Generate small, success assured activities, even if it is just grocery shopping.  Right now, my self esteem is rocky.  I need to know that I can get stuff done.  I just read in some magazine that Sheryl Sandberg (Miss Lean In) writes down her  ‘to dos’ on a sheet of paper and then when done, tears it out of the notebook and throws it away.  I like that, because it is a physical act that celebrates completeness.  It is important to create rituals and celebrate closure on things so that I can start to embrace a new future.  Just keep putting energy into the future state (this may be a ‘fake it, until you make it’ statement, but I can do it, I have to do it!)

4.  Push the limits

Truthfully, I just lost my job and things (other than health) don’t get much worse than that for bread winners.  So why not experiment.  Identify next steps and go for them.  I need to find my moxie, my guts, and push myself to envision that which I really want.  Now is the time that I have to forge in a new direction: go back to school or maybe get The Digital Attitude consulting business off the ground ?  If not now – when?  If not me – who?  This could be a great gift – right?  As Dorie Clark says in her book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future, ” To survive and thrive, you have to reinvent yourself and move on.”  Which takes me to my last point…

Shift-Happens-You-Are-The-Key-To-Change-300x2335.  Reflect and then move on

The one thing we know for sure is change is going to keep coming.  I will look back for a moment, do my lessons learned and move on.  Integrating this experience into the fabric of my life.  Give myself the time and space to reflect and review all the things that got me here and then articulate my vision for what will get me there.

How have you dealt with some of life’s major changes?  Any advice?


Keep up the good attitude. See you next blog.

– Lorian




(All the Social Butterfly’s views are her own)


Thriving On Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution, Tom Peters, Harper Books, 1987

Life Changes: A Guide to the 7 Stages of Personal Growth, Adams and Spencer. Paraview Press (November 12, 2002)

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sanberg, Knopf; First Edition edition (March 11, 2013)

Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future, Dorie Clark, Harvard Business Review Press (April 9, 2013)