Sunday, April 3, 2011

Controlling chaos--really?

The April digital edition of PMnetwork has an article entitled "Controlling Chaos", a title meant to be provocative and eye catching, even if it is an oxymoron. After all, the mathematical or engineering definition of a system with chaotic properties is one with dynamic properties such that small changes in initial conditions render widely varying responses that are all but impossible to predict.

Some call this the 'butterfly effect', as illustrated by this recent example: A vegetable vendor in remote Tunisia sets himself on fire, and twelve weeks later a myriad of political events have transpired: two Arab governments have fallen and NATO bombs Libya.

So, now we learn there is a formula for chaos 'control'?

I don't think so.

Actually, the PMnetwork article had almost nothing to say about chaos, but focuses instead on possible but infrequent events, the so-called Black Swans.  Black swans and chaos are really not the same thing; the former could the outcome of the latter, but chaos is more about systemic responses.

But, the subject matter is timely, what with the Gulf oil spill last year, the earthquake et al in Japan, and the 'Arab spring', to name just a few recent events.

In the PMnetwork article, many managers give their advice: the universal black swan strategy seems to be to formalize a process of imagining the possible and then imagine the response. One manager recommended segregating Black Swans onto their own risk register.

That's advice I endorse. Effective management requires effective compartmentalization and affinity grouping. If you are going to walk and chew gum, it's best to have the gum separate from the walkway.

But here's my main point: if you can't practice, model, or simulate the response, or don't make the investment to do these these things, then you're probably just tilting at windmills. In some cases, given the complexity of some events, you might even have engage 'game theory' to evaluate responses.

What I'm saying is that atrophy sets in quickly in these one-off events. When you need it, response and responders are often unavailable, untrained, inoperable, rusty, or perhaps they don't even work as designed.

We learned last week that the blow-out protector for the Gulf oil well actually tried to do its job, but it didn't work as intended because designers didn't imagine that the well pipe might be bent by other calamities, like a gas explosion. Even worse, the performance shortfall may have been caused by a ubiquitous feature of the design.

Everyone it seems has their own black swan story.  Here's mine:
About ten years ago I was responsible for a business unit in Manila where I had 400 employees working in a downtown office building on the 4th and 5th floors. 

At the time, Manila, a city of 12M or more, was notorious for poor fire fighting response in the urban center.

There was only one small staircase for emergency exit.  I ordered my local managing director to organize and practice a fire drill.  Of course, the first issue was: "what is a fire drill?"

Second issue: no where to go. At first no other tenant, like the adjacent parking lot, would agree to let our evacuees assemble. [They wound up across the street in the mall]

A few weeks later I got an email in my office in Atlanta reporting the drill metric: 45 minutes to clear the two floors.  I called to find out why so long?  The answer: everyone was slowed down because they felt compelled to carry their desktop computers to safety!

The point: imagining the event [a fire] and the response [an orderly exit via the escape stairs] was not enough.  You have to invest in training, organization, and practice to have a workable black swan response!

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