Establishing orderly chaos

Friday, October 19, 2012, Vol. 36, No. 42

Have you ever accidentally, or perhaps purposely, kicked the top off an anthill? If you have, you have some idea of what it would look like if you could visit New York City and somehow magically lift Madison Square Garden and observe what’s going on below it.

You see, located directly under The Garden is the busiest train station in North America – New York’s Pennsylvania Station, commonly known as Penn Station. On a typical day, over 300,000 people meander like ants through the Penn Station terminal building. To a casual observer, things probably appear quite chaotic. However, it’s actually more of what you might call ordered chaos.

Years ago I finished up a client engagement in New York and headed to Penn Station to catch a train out to Long Island to visit family members for the weekend. It was an especially hectic day in New York and when I entered the station my first thought was, “What a mess!” People were rushing about, weaving in, out, and around each other and occasionally bumping into each other. I wasn’t in a big hurry, so I decided to relax and enjoy a little people watching.

Here’s what I observed that was quite interesting. After a few minutes I sensed I was watching a very orderly form of chaos, if there is such a thing. Occasionally a terminal employee would announce a track change over the PA system. Soon after each announcement, there were subtle shifts in the flow of the crowd away from the old track and toward the new track. No one seemed frustrated and no one seemed confused. People simply adjusted their walking trajectory and went about the business of finding their way to the new track. The track change didn’t seem to create any significant problems for the meandering passengers. I don’t believe it caused any problems for anyone because everyone seemed to know exactly where they were headed; they knew their ultimate destination.

It doesn’t take a lot of brainpower to convert this into a valuable lesson for people trying to conduct a successful business. If your employees have a pretty good idea of where the business is headed, changes in plans and even little detours probably won’t create significant problems. That’s just the way life works.

Suppose you are in East Memphis and you want to go to Downtown Memphis. Are you going to wait until every light between your point of departure and your destination are simultaneously green before heading out on your trip? No, that’s not the way things work and that is not the way to accomplish your goal of getting downtown. You’ll catch a few green lights, you’ll have to stop at some red lights, and you might even have to take some detours. But none of that is really a big deal if you know where you are headed and stay focused on getting there.

What do your employees need to know about where you business is headed?

Chris Crouch is CEO of DME Training and Consulting and author of several books on improving productivity. Contact him through