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  • Raghu Challapilla

Riding on the "Edge of Chaos"


"... well-structured noise can jolt a (social) system out of inferior equilibria and lead it toward superior ones, and choice mechanisms can be designed to introduce such noise in a decentralized way. This intuition is contrary to our usual way of thinking about such problems. Noise is usually considered to be a disruptive force in social systems, resulting in perturbations away from desirable equilibria rather than a means by which to attain them"

The above is an excerpt from the book Complex Adaptive Systems, written by John Miller and Scott Page. Complex adaptive systems have been a key component of Jeff Sutherland’s early research on Scrum. A well-structured noise introduces chaos in a system, taking it to a far-from-equilibrium condition! Here is an easy way to think about it:

Equilibrium = Order, Sustainability, Predictability.

Far from Equilibrium = Chaos, Noise, Creativity.

What does this have to do with Agile teams?

Most teams follow a certain path on their way to high performance. Psychologist, Bruce Tuckman put together a model to describe this path, popularly known as “forming, storming, norming, and performing.” (Ref: http://hrweb.mit.edu/learning-development/learning-topics/teams/articles/stages-development)

The storming phase is filled with creativity, new ideas, and better ways to work. It is a far-from-equilibrium condition. But as a team moves to a more cohesive norming phase, only a few of those ideas are retained, simply because they can’t have many ways of doing the same thing. The team settles with some superior ideas and some inferior ideas, locking into an equilibrium so that it can cohere and move into the performing phase.

What about Kaizen?

In order to continuously improve, a high-performing team should constantly be storming for new ideas. Most teams new to Scrum/Agile are often not very happy about all the changes happening around them, and they tend to seek comfort in a cozy equilibrium of norming. While an Agile coach might get frustrated at the team’s “inability” to continuously improve, locking into an equilibrium (a.k.a. norming) is both a natural tendency of social systems and a much-needed phase for teams to start performing.

Once a team reaches a threshold level of high performance, it can continually improve at a great pace. But how do teams get there in the first place?

Here is my recommendation to new Agile teams:

Once a team gets to the stage of performing, they should deliberately introduce structured noise to throw themselves back into a mini-storming phase.

I am not suggesting introduction of random noise. Well-structured noise can be something like: Retrospectives will be facilitated by a new team member each sprint. Team members decide that they pull stories/ tasks out of a hat to decide who will work on them.

Agile teams will experiment with new ideas (structured noise) every now and then in order to inspect the ideas, and then adapt as appropriate. The frequency with which they introduce such ideas will gradually increase as they get comfortable with it. Sprinting through a few cycles of storming, norming, and performing will help new Agile teams get to that threshold level of high performance where they start continuously improving.

How can leaders use this concept?

Leaders can introduce noise by playing with “Container,” “Differences,” and “Exchanges” and keep the teams in far-from-equilibrium conditions. This is the CDE model developed by Dr. Glenda Eoyang.

At an organizational level, executives and senior management can play a similar role by keeping the organization in far-from-equilibrium condition. As Jack Welch once said, “Willingness to change is a strength, even if it means plunging part of the company into total confusion for a while.

To conclude:

Equilibrium means order and sustainability. Far from equilibrium means chaos and creativity. Brilliant and mind-boggling innovations happen at the edge of chaos, a state that is chaotic enough to generate creativity but orderly enough to sustain and conclude such creativity.

Hyperproductive teams ride on the edge of chaos!


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