In my daily routine, and although Skroutz is not a startup anymore, I frequently have to deal with chaos. If you are a part of a high growth tech business chances are you are dealing with chaos as well, whether an individual contributor or a manager. Below I share my thoughts on why you need to embrace chaos and how.
Human beings evolved to avoid chaos. Throughout our evolution, the neocortex, the external part of our brain responsible for intelligence and consciousness, further increased our repulsion to chaos. In the final act, science and education set absolute boundaries on each and everyone’s definition of structure and chaos, boundaries that are so deeply engraved in our biology that even the description of a chaotic image can cause our hormones to react leading to stress.
Structure and knowledge has led to so many great things from well organized societies to medicine and space exploration. Our ability to function under complex conditions and continue pushing humanity forward can be attributed to our inner urge to replace chaos with structure. There are times though, where chaos is not only useful, but necessary.
When exploring the unknown or prototyping, there is no structure, only chaos. Yet every cell in our body is resisting half solutions, unfinished or duplicate work, unpolished outcomes: we want it perfect, well thought out, greatly engineered and perfectly executed, it is after all what we have been taught to do. But exploration implies unknown, uncharted territory. It implies having no idea what the right approach is or even if you are going in the right direction. Exploring requires accepting chaos.
We can all see the problem here: while we are wired to avoid chaos we also need to embrace it every now and then. Whatever our expertise, one day we need to strive for perfection, the other day we must accept messy, temporary solutions. There is a form of mental hackery that can help anyone navigate this cognitive dissonance: it is called changing the narrative.
I want to share a story where a simple narrative change helped me transform an experience I was struggling to cope with to a pleasant one.
Being a geek dad, I used to buy all sorts of build kits: Lego, LittleBits, Kiwico, MEL Science, you name it. While these are built for children they do follow the same science principles I have been educated to. And they also have specific build plans and instructions you need to follow to complete the build. Fun times, right? Well, kids are not particularly fond of build plans nor do they have any specific urge to do things the proper way. You can already imagine what my engineering self felt like while watching my son connect pieces in every possible, but completely wrong, way or deciding to build a submarine out of a helicopter kit. I was completely frustrated when I had to build the same component over and over because junior wanted to see if it could fly. And how I had to react to ideas that defied gravity or other universally accepted laws of physics. It was obvious that I wasn’t having fun during an activity that was supposed to be lots of it. So I changed the narrative from “Building a kit with my children” to “Spending time with my children”. This simple narrative change made me go from “Why do I have to build this again” to “Spending time with them, this is awesome, let me see if I can get them to learn a thing or two”. I could now accept chaos because the narrative change made it irrelevant.
Going back to business and product, the same mental hack of changing the narrative, can do wonders when we have to follow a messy route. The narrative “Build feature X”, can be changed to “Learn if consumers are interested in feature X” or “Examine how merchants will react to feature Y”. This different narrative moves attention away from how we are building a feature to why we are building it in the first place. From how this is going to be perfect to how soon we can get feedback and adjust accordingly. From how chaotic and messy the prototype is to how much valuable feedback we got early on leading to less unnecessary debates and less work being throw away as being irrelevant.
We come across such cases all the time in our daily routines. We never wanted to build three versions of Skroutz Plus, our loyalty program, and have to go through messy update processes, sending upgrade emails, replying to customer complaints and so on. But there was no other way of understanding user behavior nor any scientific way to determine the proper structure for our unit economics to work. What seemed plausible during our early day analysis was changed by consumer reality.
This is not to say that we need to stick with chaos indefinitely, we just have to accept it long enough to draw our conclusions and build a large degree of certainty in our approach. As soon as the exploration phase ends we can always revisit and put as much effort as possible into getting it perfect.
What narrative can you change today? How can you better embrace chaos?