“It is an ancient political vehicle, held together by soft soap and hunger and with front-seat drivers and back-seat drivers contradicting each other in a bedlam of voices, shouting “go right” and “go left” at the same time.”
Adlai E. Stevenson
Ok. I never knew the origin of the word ‘bedlam’ which is The Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem <”bedlam”> in London in the mid late 1800’s. It was an asylum for the insane whose name shrunk in local dialect to Bedlam and eventually entered everyday language to describe chaos and confusion.
Now. I have never been in an asylum, but I sometimes believe a business can be like being in one.
To be clear. Most businesses are not in bedlam. There may be moments of chaos or feeling of bedlam, but they are usually capsules in time within an overall structured environment. The only exceptions may be start ups or young companies which can feel a little like barely corralled bedlam.
But individuals in business? Yes. There are certainly some who carry bedlam with them.
These are the people who hop into the vehicle as a front seat driver and, in a worst case business scenario, find similar back seat drivers and everyone starts espousing business bullshit in a bedlam of voices.
These are the people who actually lead us to actual bedlam.
To be sure, far too often business bedlam is created only because there is one or two people, in positions that matter, that always seem to have a blob of chaos that follows wherever they go.
Interestingly, they very often do so under the guise of simplicity.
Yup. Simplicity creating bedlam <did anyone ever imagine anyone ever writing that?>.
Business Truth 1.
Simple solutions do not, or rarely, exist in business organizations <which tend to be complex>.
Business Truth 2.
Doing one thing, usually stated under the guise of simplicity, does not, or rarely, create the necessary outcome within a complex system.
This simplicity style of management is maddening because successful complex systems tend to locate themselves at the edge of chaos, not in chaos, but on the edge. Therefore this bedlam manager steps in … stands close to the edge … “brings about simplicity” <which they state is needed to resolve whatever it is that is happening> and under the guise of simplicity, well, chaos & bedlam actually occurs. The successful complex organizational system has moved from the edge ultimately shifting directly within chaos. All because of some unrealistic direction of “lets break it down and make it simple for everyone.”
Everything then comes to a crashing grinding halt <albeit it looks like everything is still in movement>. It is just a stagnant blob of unproductive chaotic energy.
Which is too bad because successful systems are NOT simple, they are a complex combination of the semi-chaos, which generates innovation & fresh thinking to keep the system vibrant, dynamic and core structural stability that prevents dropping the organization into pure chaos & anarchy.
I say ‘beware.’
Beware the bastards who create business bedlam. These bastards can often be recognized because they are the ones who seem to state “this is simple” or worse “let’s simplify this to the most important thing to do” when stepping in to an organization’s natural healthy bedlam feel. They wield ‘simple’ or simplicity as an appealing looking ‘fix it tool.’ And because simple, when on the edge of bedlam, looks so frickin’ appealing people start lining up and grabbing it by the handful as if it will salve all pains.
Great businesses are rarely simple, great business systems are rarely simple … and doing ‘one important thing’ is rarely enough.
I know I read somewhere that within complex systems theory, turbulence is caused by the spontaneous interactions between parts of the system and the changing environment.
Turbulence is not chaos, but it still can create the random interruptions that businesses struggle with almost every day. And within that turbulence, if a business is not careful, it can begin to look an awful like chaos <although it is definitely not>. But I guarantee some snake oil salesman asshole in the organization will label it ‘sheer bedlam!’… ‘chaos!’ and say “bedlam is bad” … we need to fix it <and bring out all the ‘simplicity tools’>.
The snake oil simplicity salesman will fail.
The organization will suffer.
True bedlam will rear its ugly head.
Here is another business truth. Harmony in a great business organization almost always has hues of conflict and an uneasy ‘edge-of-chaos’ bedlam feel. Kind of like a strong energy that makes you feel like if you don’t hold on a little tighter you may go flying off into the distance, but at the same time it is productive and adaptive and energetic.
Complex systems theory suggests three aspects to a dynamic organization:
• Control – the ability to have some structure to the extent that the systems can efficiently maintain status quo success and yet respond to new circumstances
• Change – the ability to exploit successful patterns
Well. That seems to summarize a shitload of response & change. Uhm. That implies a relatively consistent flow of ‘transitional organization moments.’
Realistically <or maybe hypothetically?> bedlam should only occur in transition moments. And even then it may only have the appearance of bedlam because in reality it is simple functional organizational adaptation in real time speed to accommodate change <note: I have argued in the past successful business leadership & thinking is about successfully navigating liminal moments>.
Now. That doesn’t mean it looks pretty nor does it feel ‘efficient’ or even feel comfortable.
In fact, it can look an awful like organizational chaos. But you have to look very very closely at your business to be really sure if it is true bedlam or not — true bedlam occurs within true chaos versus bedlam feeling occurs in an organized chaos.
True bedlam is shifting priorities, unclear direction, inconsistent processes, unhappy or disengaged employees and an out-of-whack energy invested to outcome proposition. Once again, to be clear, most businesses have their shit together and don’t experience this.
Despite saying that — bedlam people are strewn within organizations. They see themselves as problem solvers and their role as ‘business as usual necessities.’ If an organization is not careful they begin, sadly, to see bedlam simply as a way of life and bedlam managers as necessary herders.
Actual bedlam is never a good thing for an organization. While there needs to be adaptability & flexibility it is no excuse for ambiguity and bedlam inside organizations. Solid construct is essential for a healthy energetic business which taps into that ‘bedlam feel’ but needs managers who don’t create the bedlam … they simply funnel the bedlam feel into a positive working environment.
Aspects of a bedlam feeling IS a good thing for an organization.
What do I mean?
I am not a huge proponent of ‘planned innovation’ or ‘collaborative ideation for the future.’ I tend to believe they create muted mediocre thinking & ideas. Creative innovation tends to be externally driven and therefore creates this bedlam like feeling <because it is not planned but has a sense of reactiveness to it>. This bedlam feel stimulates innovation, reduces employee complacency, and elevates attitudes & thinking & people to achieve new heights.
This type of bedlam is unavoidable within a dynamic organization and in swallowable doses is desirable <it creates a sense of effective ‘doing’>.
Lastly. Where bedlam people truly thrive <and create the most damage>.
All transformational moments <including when organization is adapting> but most especially within complex, large-scale transformational change. This is where the stakes are the highest, the bedlam the mostest <I made that word up> and with tremendous potential for ROI and cost failure.
Research consistently shows that most business transformations fail to return their desired ROI. The ones, the few that actually do succeed, inevitably have excellent change leadership skills at a variety of management levels <not just at the top>.
And this is where bedlam people thrive — in times of transformation. Any transformation is messy, often chaotic, and has serious impact on employees’ mental state <not just tasks>. In transformation, what you are attempting to create is typically very different than your current state of operation and often outcomes are unclear when you begin. This all means that numerous course corrections are required as you discover where you need to go and how to get there.
This process is nonlinear and full of surprises and requires a lot of flexibility and adaptability. It requires a shift of mindset, behavior, and culture to implement the new direction.
Bedlam people, tapping into the angst of employees and people, seek to offer simplicity platitudes to ‘cross the transformational chasm.’ And instead, because transformations are complex and naturally chaotic, it simply increases the bedlam and inefficiency and while short term there appears some ease in overall organization angst <because people grasp the simplicity platitudes as ‘doable’ , sigh, and relax> long term it fails the complexity of the system and transformation itself.
But even then bedlam managers succeed.
Bedlam people point to the point in time <in the past> that everyone relaxed and did stuff as ‘I know my shit.’
The net result? Bedlam people become more empowered <while actually having increased overall bedlam>.
Now. To be clear. There is a huge difference between taking a complex situation and in a simple way articulate what needs to be done and looking at a complex situation and articulating what needs to be done is simple.
The first is a skill.
The second is a lie.
Ok. I am done ranting. And all of this because I found the source of the word ‘bedlam.’
I honestly do not believe an organization is like a mental asylum. Most organizations are well thought out with well-intended managers or leaders. And most people in organizations do the best they can with best intentions.
My point is that most dynamic organizations, the really good ones, do have an underlying ‘bedlam feel’ that they can tap into. It verges on bedlam but very very rarely slips into actual bedlam.
They are the ones who shout go ‘right, go right’ <or ’left, go left’ if they said right the last time>from the back seat while the leader in the front seat is mapping out a multiple path plan of progress <at different speeds for different departments>.
Not all decisions are simple.
In fact … most good decisions are defined by visionary complexity — the ability to envision paths yet to be taken or even sometimes yet to be built.
In fact … most decisions are defined by a complex intertwining of simultaneous tasks.
Bedlam managers suck at those type of decisions and therefore create more bedlam under the guise of simplicity. And while my rant may seem, well, simplistic … it is an important discussion to be had.
Recently some guy at the Yale School of Management found that the average lifespan of an S&P company dropped from 67 years in the 1920s to 15 years today. He also found that on average an S&P company is now being replaced every two weeks as well estimates that 75% of the S&P 500 firms will be replaced by new firms by 2027.
FYI. Santa Fe Institute researchers note that these findings are different from what you would see in Europe and Japan <their business lifespan is much longer>. And while many of these ‘deaths’ are because of mergers or acquisitions the majority represent real death.
Businesses fail or implode.
This suggests someone, a person, is at fault.
All I ask is that maybe you just think about this topic.
And store away this bedlam thought:
Simplicity creates bedlam in business organizations.
That thought alone will create bedlam.
Originally published April 2015