Organizational chaos or Conspiracy?

[Updated: This post was updated at 11pm Central to include the link to Matt Macowiacks tweet as a great example.]It’s easy to fallback on the current debacle in the US administration as a massive conspiracy. Conspiracies work for people who are afraid, and lack experience, conspiracy theory assumes someone is in charge.

Organization chaos theory was a big thing at the end of the 1980’s, Tom Peters book “Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution” blazed a path of revolution for the newly minted management consultants through the mid-1990’s. I’ve no idea what they teach in business schools these days, but it’s fallen out of favor. It would again be easy to ascribe the current administrations chaos to a few people with out of date ideas based on Peters chaos theory, especially since Peters ascribed a lot of the justification for chaos theory on a changing global economy and technology.

I’ve experienced organizational chaos. I worked on 12 corporate acquisition projects. Many went ahead, some didn’t make financial sense, and others just were not a good business fit. They included small and large, including a $2.4 billion dollar company with some 4,000 staff, to another with just 60 employees.

In many, especially startups, either before or during acquisition if it proceeded, the management and organization went into chaos meltdown. This could often be sensed by the lack of clarity from the top, either in CEO or in Management. They couldn’t quantify how they were going to achieve the goals and objectives they’d claimed, or the product or technology didn’t do what they claimed.

In the acquisition due diligence you could spot tell tale signs. They were spending too much time in meetings and staff briefings on handling things that had already happened. Insufficient resources were applied to actual problems, it seemed cheaper to deploy marketing to attempt to distract from the cause of the problem that admit the problem and put plans in place to fix it.

As I wrote in “How False Stories Spread And Why People Believe Them

Constantly making false or inaccurate claims, using false data, or more importantly watching something on cable news and then twisting it to fit your own agenda is a dangerous game.

What it appears is that rather than being a massive conspiracy in action, the administration is exhibiting all the classic symptoms of an organization in chaos. Not good chaos as described by Peters

An organization should go back to the core of their existence, review their vision and mission and work and adopt a more customer-responsive approach.

By being curious in doing business and dealing with problems creatively, they can survive in the chaos theory.

Instead in a purely chaotic way.

The President has fired or lost many key staff for the smooth running of any administration, let alone a new one. It’s not just the headline staff, it’s some of the key underlying staff, like Cory Louie, the White House’s now former chief cybersecurity officer.

Louie “was forced to resign,” according to an editor at The Atlantic, who was the first to report his exit, despite initially saying that he was a member of the Secret Service. The story was apparently corroborated by ZDNet, who spoke to unnamed sources on the matter. There are many other examples.

Losing key staff, combined to having a number of alpha male types in charge of entirely new departments, with ideas and a catalog of actions against the very departments they now head; combined with a leader who can articulate nothing more complex than grand but simple ideas, results in exactly what we see, chaos.

You can hope that Steve Bannon is really in charge on the conspiracy, but in reality, that probably isn’t happening. He is likely just another pillar of a collapsing system, wanting to do big things quickly and competing with other alpha males to get the attention they so desperately crave and causing chaos in their wake.

This tweet is a prime example. Mistakes were made, the amount of time spent covering up, debating, and otherwise obfuscating the mistake would be out of proportion to the initial mistake, it also sews distrust, and bolsters the conspiracy theorists.

Whatever you think of the current administration’s politics, policies and programs, so far they’ve done very little except sign a bunch of pandering political executive orders. The “muslim ban” was ineffective in implementation, and probably illegal. The worst thing about it was that it just picked on “easy” countries, least likely to fight back. The Wall, Healthcare reform and almost everything else is just hot air. None backed by actual legislation. By this time in the Obama and Bush administrations, they’d got both solid, published plans, or written, and in the case of Obama, actual approved legislation.

Let’s see what form the legislation takes and who it benefits before coming back to conspiracy theories.

The 3Minutementor, founded and run by former colleague and personal friend, Nigel Dessau, has a useful guide to why strategy fails. It’s a useful checklist to compare the administration’s actions.

Episode 130: Why do strategies fail? from The 3 Minute Mentor on Vimeo.

Finally, here are some useful references on organizational chaos and complexity.

  1. Applications and Limitations of Complexity Theory in Organization Theory and Strategy – David L. Levy, University of Massachusetts, Boston, Massachusetts 
  2. Chaos Theory and Organization – Raymond Thietart, École Supérieure des Sciences Economiques et Commerciales. Bernard_Forgues, EMLYON Business School