Working in a Perpetual State of Chaos

It was just another Monday morning roll call at the police department. Night shift was going off-duty after a long weekend; my day shift was coming on-duty after a string of days off.

Teasing a plainclothes cop because his black belt didn't match his brown shoes. One of the regulars got locked up...again. Bustin' on another cop who backed his black-and-white cruiser into a parked car. Hey, who's got court today? The deputy chief of patrol is on vacation this week. A young cop got "duped" by a street walker with a warrant for his arrest. Can you hang over for a couple hours for me on July's a Thursday? No one currently in lockup. One of my guys called in sick for today.  Did you see what the department posted on Facebook yesterday? Check out this bulletin...looks just like the guy we had last month....what was his name...? 

Then I caught a glimpse of a face in the room. The new kid. He graduated the police academy a couple days before. He was assigned to my team. Today was his first day as The Police.

His eyes were darting all over the room, trying to make sense of it all. He had the look on his face like my kids have when chasing fireflies after sunset...that over there....right here...where'd it go...I think I got one...nope.

Our roll call conversations lit up for a second, then moved onto something else. They flickered here and there. If you did not have a historical background, you'd be lost. You'd never catch a firefly. They moved and vanished too quickly.

As the conversations and laughter criss-crossed the squad room, I got the attention of the wildly confused new kid:
We operate in a perpetual state of chaos. And I'm not talking about out there. [motioning to the outside] I'm referring to what happens inside the station. This is your new normal. 
It wasn't a planned welcome message that some sergeants might script for their new kids. It was something that just sorta came to me while I stepped out of my role as oncoming watch commander and soaked in the environment of morning roll call. I saw his eyes and tried to imagine what it was like for him to walk into chaos. And how did this confirm or break from his expectations?

Well after roll call dissolved, I reflected on the phrase I used: perpetual state of chaos. Here are a few random thoughts:

Chaos is different from complexity.  Complexity is an environment where some of the variables are unknown, unknowable, interdependent, or in competion with each other. Complexity does not necessarily have a component of velocity. Chaos, however, does have a speed variable. Chaos is where things collide...and new variables emerge so quickly that our ability to process the changes are put to the test. It places a demand on our systems and mental bandwidth.

Supervision must be adaptive. Most organizations operate under an organizational chart, where bosses have bosses. These are not going away. As a supervisor, I have subordinates and I have a supervisor. Hierarchies are necessary aspects for responsibilities, accountability, discipline, authority, and delegation. But hierarchies are also necessary for empowerment. Operating under a formal hierarchy, we can still give our subordinates leeway and authority take action without the burden of asking permission or seeking approval.

Systems are vital. The question then arises on how tight are our structures. Do we have rigid enough constraints for the processes and applications that are consistent, repeatable, predictable? Do we have flexible enough guidelines for processes in situations that are complex, chaotic, unpredictable? We must resist the urge to over-structure every function in our organization. Different functions require different tolerances.

How do we nurture decision-making in our people? Are we telling them WHAT to think...or growing their mindset in HOW to think? Are we designing development programs (i.e. training) that harness and exploit the science of how humans learn and perform? Are we forcing our learning to be too formal and too structured...or is it too organic, too open-ended, and too free-flowing? Are we capturing the benefits of (buzzwords!) experiential, blended, problem-based, concept-based, and case study learning methods? Or are we stuck in repetitive, choreographed, overly-technical training formats?

To work in chaos, you must embrace chaos. You must embrace imperfection. You must shun checklists and permission for every decision. You must have a strong culture built on shared values, concepts, and principles. You must be a learning organization that seizes every possible opportunity to analyze, study, and grow from successes and failures.

What is your organization doing that develops people into those who embrace chaos, solve unpredictable problems, and catch more fireflies?


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr


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