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Chaos 1, Order 0

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Image: Bob RosnerBefore Northwest Airlines became a memory following its merger with Delta Airlines, it offered a moment of brilliance. The company decided it would no longer board their planes by rows. You know, seating people in ten row clumps starting from the back of the plane.

Why would they end what is clearly the most orderly and effective way to board an airplane? Precisely because it wasn’t.

Instead, they decided to let first class customers, the disabled, the kids and frequent flyers board first. After that, first come, first served. Now here is the wild part. According to Northwest Airlines, letting people get on the plane randomly, instead of by row, would cut five to ten minutes from the boarding process. By boarding randomly, the airline expected to get 200 people on a plane in 20 to 25 minutes. If my math is correct (and since I’m a graduate of the New Jersey Public Schools, you should have your doubts), that could result in up to a 30% reduction in boarding time.

Think about it. Forcing people to go onto a plane section by section creates logjams in different parts of the plane. On the other hand, letting people on randomly spreads the logjams all over the plane.

Why is this important for those not in the airline industry? Because it’s my experience, reinforced by my emails for the last ten years, that the vast majority of corporations think like Northwest Airlines used to think. They like to command and they like to control. Even when involved with a creative project, organizations want to see plans, projections, reports and lots and lots of meetings.

This announcement reminds us that sometimes a little chaos can get us all where we need to go faster. Significantly faster.

So why do corporations value order so highly? Oddly enough it all comes from our experience in elementary school. A number of years ago I worked for former Army General turned Superintendent of Schools for Seattle, John Stanford. He observed that our school system was largely set up in the early part of this century to create factory workers. And it hasn’t changed from its earliest days. That’s why if you’re like me, you probably remember so much of an emphasis on discipline from your early years.

Factory workers. Obviously these days most of us are not on the line, but rather in jobs that require creativity and initiative. Yet, our brains were trained during the majority of our formative years to value order over all else.

I know what you’re thinking, that I’m taking one little example and getting totally carried away. Ironically, I’m going to accuse you—the corporate people reading this blog—of doing the very same thing. Stop embracing command and control at the expense of allowing pockets of chaos to thrive throughout your organization.

3M, widely seen as the corporation that consistently generates the most revenue from new products, allows each employee time to work on their pet projects during working hours. Sure they’ve got to finish their regular assignments, but they are given a little bit of leash to do something outside the scope of their jobs.

Which reminds me of the arch enemy of Maxwell Smart in the old TV show “Get Smart.” It was “Chaos.” All of our lives we’ve been told that chaos is the enemy. Make it your friend, like Northwest Airlines did, and you just might be surprised at how much more your organization will accomplish.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]


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How Things Really Get Done

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Image: Bob RosnerOne of the most creative bits of problem solving I’ve ever heard of came during Hurrican Katrina. In the French Quarter, Addie Hall and Zackery Bowen found an unusual way to make sure that police officers regularly patrolled their house. Ms. Hall, 28, a bartender, flashed her breasts at the police vehicles that passed by, ensuring a regular flow of traffic (from the New York Times).

I’m a fan of New Orleans. And let’s face it, if you had gone through the hell of hurricane Katrina, would you be able to draw on years of experience at Mardi Gras to get the police attention you needed? Ms. Hall, like so many residents of the Big Easy, has the most creative problem solving skills I’ve ever seen.

Ms. Hall also reminds us that there are the ways that things are supposed to get done and the ways that they actually get done. I’m not suggesting that flashing is a career enhancing move for most of us. But there are times at work, and in life, where creativity and bold action are not only called for, they’re a requirement.

This reminds me of a story that I heard as a graduate business student. Our professor told us that he wanted to talk to people who actually implemented programs in corporations. So he arranged a meeting with no consultants, authors or other hangers on. He only allowed corporate doers in the room. He asked them to tell success stories and he marveled at how the techniques for getting things done in the real world had little resemblance to what was being taught in MBA programs.

For example, there was the change agent who tried to get his program implemented for years with no success. He’d long since given up. Then one day he was having lunch with his friend, the company speechwriter. The topic of his failed program came up. He told the sad story of defeat after defeat on the corporate battlefield. Cut to the CEO two weeks later announcing his latest initiative, the change agent’s program. One conversation with the speechwriter breathed more life into his program than years of banging his head against the corporate hierarchy.

For every rule of how things should get done in organizations there are often at least two exceptions. That’s why it’s so important to get to know the network of doers in your organization. They’re in there, but chances are that they’re operating beneath the radar. So you’re going to have to go looking for them. Once you get their confidence, they’ll have many stories that will both surprise you and teach you new ways to get from point A to point B within your organization.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]


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