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The Illusion of Progress and Other Hidden Perils of Self-Created Chaos

We are smack dab in the middle of the holiday season and it’s got me thinking about The Chaos Theory. No, not the mathematical theory that focuses on underlying patterns of seemingly unrelated randomness that in all actuality have interconnectedness - ala The Butterfly Effect. Though I find that particular Chaos Theory fascinating, I’m talking about a completely different type of theory.

To better explain, let me paint the picture for you. In sticking with the holiday theme, given the time of year, we’re going to tell this story through the lens of the typical holiday movie on a channel that runs this positivity programming (that I happen to love!) 24-hours a day from October to January. This particular story revolves around a small business owner as the main character. This business owner, just like the majority of other business owners, has more tasks and challenges on their plate than hours in their day. With so many competing priorities, our main character struggles through the long list of to-do items only to find that the list never ends. In fact, the list somehow ends up longer at the end of the day leaving our business owner depleted, overwhelmed, and devoid of any holiday spirit. In this movie, the friends and family let our main character know that the business can’t come before the holidays, and after several interventions, a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future, and many holiday events in the Town Center, our main character decides enough is enough. The whole town rallies around the business owner tackling the “to-do” list just in time to save the business and embrace the main character in a proverbial “real meaning of the holiday season” bear hug. Just like that, everything is resolved and right. The list has been completed and it will never get out of hand again. The business owner has seen how damaging that can be and just like that, their behavior has dramatically shifted.

The reality is that we don’t live in that world, but we can empathize with the pain of the fictional business owner. We yearn for it to be that easy to fix which is why we escape into these shows. In real life, it just isn’t that simple. Lessons are hard learned, and we typically do not magically adjust troublesome behavior over a mug of hot chocolate and a tree trimming party. However, that stressful laundry list is relatable, and that is the focus of this theory on chaos.

When you own and/or operate a business, the list of priorities is long. Although not all things on the list hold the same level of urgency or importance, if we aren’t careful, that list becomes a business owner’s way of life. Day after day, we get up and start trying to tackle that list. Day after day that list ends up longer than it started. This is a vicious cycle, and it is really hard to break, but probably not for the reasons you might be thinking. It’s tough to break because it fulfills a need. It is a comfort zone. It provides a sense of purpose.

Now for the theory: many business owners trick themselves into living in a constant grind because not being in a state of overwhelm generates scary thoughts around failure that are even more uncomfortable than living in chaos. The big laundry list isn’t totally real. It feels and looks like it is, but it really isn’t.

Yes, according to my chaos theory, some of the to-do items that pop up on the list are manufactured to provide an artificial feeling of forward movement and success. It impersonates the feelings, signs, and challenges of growth, but actually works against progress and movement. Feeling overwhelmed and burnt out is arguably more comfortable (and accepted) than failure. This is a problem.

Surfacing problems in your business is important. I agree. Being able to pivot and remain agile is important. I agree. Creating storms within your business becomes problematic when it is done without a systematized and strategic approach. A few potential issues that may pop up as a result could be:

  1. Loss of Focus: Creating chaos leads to inefficiencies and wasted resources

  2. Employee Disengagement: continuous chaos can wear down the team, cause employee burnout, and decrease productivity

  3. Customer Dissatisfaction: constantly shifting priorities can confuse and frustrate customers

  4. Missed Opportunities: when busy focusing on putting out self-made fires, owners might miss the genuine growth opportunities

If any of this hits home, there are actions that can be taken to pull yourself out of this cycle. For starters:

  1. When you can, create a plan for every problem before you take action. Many times this action alone will be all that is needed for an owner to realize that there isn’t enough information to move forward.

  2. Have a documented list of future initiatives that actually gets discussed. This will allow even the busiest minds to quiet knowing that something won’t slip through the cracks if it doesn’t receive immediate attention.

  3. Review the strategic plan quarterly and ensure the team is making progress on planned initiatives. Celebrate wins and focus on all areas of growth.

  4. Focus. Stay connected to the strategic plan throughout the year. Get excited about any initiatives that are completed successfully. Solve problems and remove obstacles that are preventing progress with any planned initiatives. Do not get distracted and miss opportunities.

Give yourself and your team the biggest gift this holiday season; consistency, structure, and the ability to see initiatives through to completion. In order to do this without experiencing fear of missing a major issue within your business, Reverie would recommend that you add a process for this to your standard operating procedure. That way it is structured, trainable, and cohesive. The departments can prepare and plan without confusion. Effective communication by way of process adherence will replace frantic uncertainty. With 2024 right around the corner, let’s all resolve to truly start to prioritize peace over chaos and growth over fabricated busyness.

Lindsay Miller is the author of this month’s blog. A serial student and business book nerd, Lindsay is fascinated by causal and correlative relationships. She loves the opportunity to fully observe situations, interactions, and outcomes. Nothing brings Lindsay more joy than being able to invent a theory and then share it with others to prevent or resolve challenges. When she isn’t working on a client project, Lindsay can be found in the Reverie Lab developing the next OD hypothesis to put to the test.

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