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Working from our Best Selves amidst Chaos

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shutterstock 528653653“Unprecedented” is used so frequently in the news that living through a pandemic suggests we need a new word to describe the experience.

None of us had heard of “social distancing” until a couple of weeks ago. Three weeks ago, people were making jokes about a certain brand of adult beverage getting blamed for making people sick. Four weeks ago, the Coronavirus was a problem that was “over there” – starting to make disruptions, but not “here” yet.

This is a VUCA world pushed to an edge: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. Even if we were not experiencing the Five Frustrations before (Firefighting, Information, Process, Complexity, and Alone), we are now: responding to an external, inhuman threat that challenges everything at once.

If you’re anything like me, you are hoping that this all gets over quickly. As of today, “quickly” likely will be at least 8 weeks, if not longer, for the acute part of the crisis; the economic impacts will likely take much longer to recover from. There are things we can do to improve our outcomes, bring order out of the chaos, and adapt. The disorder of our current sense of things will tend to drive us to unconscious reactions. Those reactions will generally drive us toward poor outcomes. To work from the alternative, that is, to work from our clearest, best selves, will take some reflection. To help with that, this article will do the following:

  • Categorize our current experience according to the Five Frustrations
  • Use a sense-making model (Cynefin Framework) to help us discover what responses on our part have the best chances of working
  • Follow the recommendations of the model to put our best foot forward. (For those who want to skip to the very end, let’s chat online about how to do so!)

Let’s dive in.

Categorizing Our Experience

We’re experiencing Firefighting if we’re having to respond immediately to school closings, working remotely, reshuffling cash flow due to demand slowdowns, responding to emergency orders from public officials, or answering phones, e-mails, and walk-ins at unusual rates.

We’re experiencing Information frustration if we don’t have the information we need to make clear decisions – what is closing when, how virulent and transmissible the virus is, how long this will last, what impacts it will have on our business, our families, and our communities, and, unfortunately, whether we are getting the truth, bravado, or something in between from public officials, pundits, and news sources.

We’re experiencing Process frustration if things are falling through the cracks, piling up, just not working well, becoming highly inefficient, or getting cobbled together ad-hoc as the world moves to respond to pandemic.

We’re experiencing Complexity frustration if we are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of decisions that we must make, how those decisions interact with each other, the hiddenness of the knock-on effects of those decisions, and where the next challenge will emerge.

We’re experiencing the Alone frustration if we look around and see no one to help us figure this all out: with experts overtaxed and, frankly, making it up as they go, too; a sense that the weight of this is all on us; and perhaps even the actual personal isolation amidst a community-wide threat just starting to grind on us.

In all probability, we are experiencing all five of the Five Frustrations at this point: and this suggests we need a sense-making model in order to discover what is next.

The Cynefin Framework – A Sense-Making Model

CynefinFrameworkThe Cynefin Framework gives us a way to make sense of this all. Developed in 1999 by David Snowden, this model helps us understand what kind of situation we are in, and what response on our part is likely to give us the best results.

Here’s a video of Snowden explaining the system.

Snowden suggests we all start off in the center – Disorder. We don’t have a sense yet as to where we are. However, we all have our biases as to where we tend to operate. Best Practice people are in highly regulated or bureaucratic environments. These folks prefer dealing with “known knowns” as Snowden puts it. Good Practice people tend to operate in environments where there is no one best way to do something, but several paths will get you there. These folks work well in “known unknowns” environments. Emergent Practice people are the experimenters, the field commanders, the politicians, answering the question: “how do we get lots of people to contribute to get the best answer?” These folks deal with “unknown unknowns” regularly. Novel Practice people cut Gordian knots, act intuitively, and then make their next move. These folks just tend to act.

The challenge comes when something disruptive happens, and we have to act differently. It’s even more challenging when we have multiple domains in play at the same time.

  • Personal hygiene is in the Obvious domain, generally: handwashing, elbow-coughing, staying home if sick, and so on.
  • The WHO, CDC, and other medical/scientific units operate in the Complicated domain, generally: taking the time to analyze and then respond when the data allows. Government officials are often here, too, as they respond to the expertise of those agencies. The “flatten the curve” posts sit here, too, and then point us back to the Obvious domain.
  • Very few of us are in the Complex domain at the macro level right now – doing experiments to see what works and what doesn’t. On the operational level, however, many of us are experimenting with work formats and staffing reconfigurations that allow room for error and learning. Some government agencies are in a pseudo-experimental stance, experimenting with what actually works and what people are actually doing – and then falling back into a Complicated domain way of thinking and acting.
  • Most of us, then, when we move out of disorder, have found ourselves entering a Chaotic domain – one that requires us to act. Some state and local governments are there, enacting emergency orders to close schools and businesses in the face of minimal comprehensive guidance. Individual business leaders are here: feeling pressured to act, and act now. If we don’t act, we move back to Disorder, and find ourselves whirling around.

Putting the Best Foot Forward

We try to avoid Disorder and Chaos, moving into a proxy Complicated space, leaning on the experts to take one for the team: “Well, the WHO and the CDC are recommending… so we will …” This is more comfortable for most of us, since the blame can be distributed if things go wrong.

Our society tends to like things to stay in the Ordered domains. And science tends to push us there, too, with brief forays into Complex, experimental spaces.

But the Coronavirus itself? It’s chaotic. It’s invisible, and some people are infected (evidently) without symptoms.

The disruptions caused by actions in the other domains are chaotic, too: cash flow is tightening up, organizations and institutions are burning capital to keep basic operations going, and honestly, 6 to 8 weeks of shuttered operations for most thin-margin, low-reserve small- to medium-sized businesses is a potentially terminal crisis. On top of that, a lot of people who are self-employed, commissioned salespeople, hourly workers – they’re just not getting paid. That will have economic snowball effects – and starting soon. Since we are in a Chaotic domain, using the tools of Obvious, Complicated, or Complex domains will likely get us to the wrong place.

In Chaotic scenarios, the model suggests we act to stop the bleeding, then sense where we are seeing stability, and respond by driving toward more stability, while making sure nothing else is bleeding. This lends urgency to “acting” instead of “wait and see.”

In these scenarios, our muscle memory of experimenting, calling in experts, and going by-the-best-practice-book will actually call our response up short. As consultants, the L M Thomas Group has built our company on helping with those three things: establishing best practices, being the process experts, and helping you experiment. This Coronavirus, and our societal response to it, could put us in a Chaotic space, too. Our muscle memory is in the other three spaces – particularly the Complicated and Complex space.

But there’s one thing that we’ve committed to that will help us out of that Chaotic space and help those we serve: we are committed to empowering those we serve to act. We believe that leaders are creative, resourceful, and whole – and what they need to resolve a crisis is hidden inside and needs to be drawn out. That allows us to work in Chaotic situations and help leaders bring order out of the chaos – without having to be experts in that particular chaos. And leaders who believe that they, and those around them, are creative, resourceful, and whole will have the best outcomes, because they will act in the midst of chaos, and find their way forward.

The good news is that as Chaos subsides, it gives way to Complex space, which gives way to Complicated space. We may not see as much Obvious space for a while. But along the way, a lot of us will learn we are made of more than we think – in areas that surprise us – and that places where we have overdeveloped senses of grandeur will slip away.

One Final Note

In these articles, I avoid “making a sale” – while this is a business blog, the most I usually do is suggest we continue a conversation. I hate high-pressure sales tactics, and I don’t ever want to do that to anyone.

This time, though, I know we need to act, since time is not on our side in this Coronavirus response. Let’s sit down for a 30-minute free consultation, via videoconference, between now and April 17, 2020. If we determine we can help you, we can get started right away. We’ll allow you to delay payment on all fees (except the down payment) until the acute crisis has passed, financed through us, not a bank or credit agency. We’re in this together, folks.

How does that sound?

To book a meeting, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., call 217.552.1207, contact us on social media, or fill out the form below.




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Matthew M. Thomas

Matthew M. Thomas, EPC, is the President of the L M Thomas Group.

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