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Got Chaos? Your Organization May Be a NOCO!

Jack Skeels
Jul 3, 2018 · 4 min read

Feel like your business is borderline crazy, with people flying back and forth, priorities changing, work never done well enough, and clients never happy enough?

And do you, at the same time, almost improbably, find yourself loving the continuous challenge, juggling, and innovation required to keep the lights on, even though it’s hard to get home at a reasonable hour and the stress is wearing on your teams?

As paradoxical as that sounds, you’re not crazy, and you’re in good company. In the last seven years, I’ve worked closely with more than 100 creativity- or innovation-driven organizations, and all of them would say “That’s us!” There are all kinds of businesses out there in the world, but if there is one type that I find fascinating, it is this type, where chaos is king, where the chaos naturally occurs as a result of the style of business, the processes, the work products, the types of customers.

It’s what I call a NOCO, a Naturally Occurring Chaotic Organization.

If you are one, then you’re in good company…in many ways you are more like an advertising agency, NASA, a movie studio, or a pro football team than you are most “normal” businesses.

There are simple businesses that do just one thing, like a dry cleaner. And there are big businesses that do a lot of things, like General Electric, but when you zoom in, they are really a group of smaller businesses that basically do just one type of thing. There are highly repetitive businesses, like many manufacturing businesses. And there are adaptive businesses, where every client is different, but things are somewhat orderly, like a law office, or a consultancy. In all of these, if they feel crazy like yours, then something is not right…for them, chaos should not rule and generally means a management failure of sorts. Chaos is not part of their business model.

NOCOs are different. In a NOCO, chaos is not about bad management, but just signals the need for a different type of management. Is your organization a NOCO? Here is a simple quiz you can take — non-scientific, for sure, but it sounds pretty valid to all of our NOCO clients.

Take the Quiz

I suggest you score your organization on a 1-to10 scale, where 10 means “Yes, that is so unbelievably true…oh, was that you in our office the other day?”

There are three dimensions in which NOCO chaos grows faster than most businesses. The first dimension is what I call project-client complexity. You can substitute the word “stakeholder” for “client” if your organization serves primarily internal clients.

  • Do you have a multi-project operation, with multiple projects occurring at the same time?
  • Do you have multiple clients (usually very many) whom you regularly provide services or products to? Bonus points if these clients have multiple simultaneous projects or a complex approval structure.

Those are actually attributes common to many service organizations. We’re talking B2B here, so don’t start thinking McDonald’s. We’re talking about projects and client relationships that have strategic value and enduring, not purely transactional or commodity.

Now, let’s add another layer on. Let’s add delivery team complexity. The delivery team are the people who actually produce the work, or deliver the service.

  • Do you have multi-disciplinary teams working together on work of significant duration? Are multiple skills and roles used to deliver any given work item?
  • Do you have multi-allocated workers, where most workers have multiple clients and projects they work on?
  • Do most workers have fractionalized focus, working on multiple clients and projects in a single day or week, often shifting back and forth between work items, projects and clients?

Sounding familiar? If not, then yours is probably not a NOCO. But if the sum of your scores is starting to scare you (like a 35 or more), here are the graduate-level level questions, the dimension of work-stability and complexity.

  • Do your client (or stakeholder) needs change frequently or unpredictably, even after you think everything has been agreed to? Does your client often have a hard time understanding what they are buying or what you are delivering?
  • Do your teams produce unique, purpose-built, work? Where each project is unique, and better because of that? While you may have templates for some aspects, is doing it differently or from a new perspective valued more highly than doing “the same?”

Sounding Familiar?

If you scored 50 or above, then you’re probably a NOCO. And if you are, you likely suffer from a few disabling characteristics:

First, your organization will tend to have a high number of managers versus workers, like one manager (that’s a PM, client services or supervisor) for every four (or less) workers. You might have noticed that when you try to control the chaos by hiring more managers to coordinate — you can’t manage your way out of the chaos.

Second, there often is a low level of understanding of the work, or put another way, a high level of misunderstanding. Your people are working harder because they must rework things due to a misunderstood scope of work.

Third, workers feel like they don’t have enough “flow” time, time in which they can be truly productive. This problem usually is driven by the first two problems: a constant stream of interruptions from having too many managers per worker, and a lack of alignment on scope and priority.

There is Hope

What’s the remedy? Embrace the chaos instead of fighting it. Most NOCOs have plenty of room for improvement, becoming faster and be more innovative. Ad Week recently published an article of mine (now here on Medium) where we discussed some of the techniques that you can use to manage a NOCO better.

So embrace your NOCO-ness. In doing so, you may find that chaos is not only your friend, but can be part of your competitive advantage.

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