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How to survive in a chaotic environment


Chaotic environments are not as rare as one would think, and depending of who you are, it will be hard to go through the days without feeling discouraged or frustrated. There are some tips that may help you during those hard times, but please note that overall, a chaotic environment should be eliminated, it is by far the worst type of environment you could work in. Unless it’s a temporary situation to fight through, finding another place to work at may be your best option.

Types of chaotic environment

Different situations create the chaos, here are some of them:

  • New organization: Completely new organizations have much to plan and organize. What happens sometimes is the execution of project is being favored to make sure “things are getting done”, and organizing can “come after”. Unfortunately, there is no “after”, there is always work to do, and if the company’s services are any good, more work should be coming. This situation will only worsen as the company evolves, the lack of organization will become more and more apparent, and have a bigger impact, especially if the company gains bigger projects. As people join the team, things will get more and more chaotic as the impact will multiply.Another situation with a new organization may not be the lack of prioritization, but the lack of knowledge. People may not know how to properly build/manage a team or organize a company. The result will be the same, but in this situation, if newly added team members bring new knowledge, although it may be too late to apply it easily, at least management is less reluctant to making some important changes. This situation could be temporary, but may very well be permanent, making it hard for the organization to grow as much as it would want.
  • Rapidly growing organization: This is a risk with a good situation; when the opportunity for large projects or many small ones becomes available, and the team must double within a month. A plan to have a 20 member team VS a plan for 40 people team can be completely different. Therefore, the result may be that all of a sudden, no actual plan is available. Also, the new team members may have a different view of how to work compared to the already available team, and opinions may clash. This situation is normally temporary, people have to fight through, and the opportunities generally available can be worth it if the company keeps growing.
  • Poorly managed organization: This is an unfortunate situation but it can happen. When the top of the hierarchy does not know how to manage an organization or a team, it affects everyone under, no matter how hard-working they are. Even with the best of intentions, it will lead to disaster unless management learns to work differently, or management is changed.This situation could be temporary or permanent, and is the one that brings the most frustration out of the people who are the most invested in the company but cannot do much.

Certain signs

There are different signs of a chaotic environment, here are some amongst others:

  • Everyone working for themselves: The absence of teamwork is a very good sign. Everyone wants to do “their job” so they can leave at the end of the day, not caring for others, nor the projects. It’s like everyone is in “survival mode”. This will become very hard for the project manager as his job is to make sure the projects run smoothly, and it’s particularly hard when people are not committed, and stop caring.
  • Stress: A higher than normal stress level can be detected. That does depend of who you are, but if it does not affect you, you may notice it affects people around you. More stress means people will be unhappy, fatigued, and therefore the overall team’s health will lower with time. You may feel that higher than usual tension between colleagues is present.
  • Lack of resources: When resources are poorly organized, the work comes in, but it doesn’t come out. Another very hard situation for project managers that want their project to go forward. A very good sign here is the fact that projects are often under-sold just to keep work coming in, which results in no budget to find outside resources, making the situation even worst since you are dependant to the internal resources which are not available.
  • Overtime: This complements the point above. Overtime is part of our lives, and that’s fine; sometimes it’s even crucial for project deliverables. However, when overtime is part of a normal schedule, there is a problem. And if more work keeps coming in while everyone is already giving their 120%, then that’s definitely a sign that something is wrong.
  • Employee turnover: If you barely have time to learn people’s names that they already left, than that’s a good indicator that the workplace is not all that great or too hard. Although it does take some time to be noticeable, it’s an easy one to spot at some point. In this situation, people will stick around for a couple of months, but will rarely stay above six. How people leave will be an indicator too; for example, if an employee simply ‘disappears’ one morning, and you have to call him to find out he’s quitting, that’s not normal. I’ve actually witnessed a case like that!
  • Absence of client recurrence: You may think that your situation is known internally only, but the chaotic environment will give out a vibe to clients who pay attention, and they will also see a difference in the execution of their project. The result is that they will be less willing to work with you on a second project. What this does is that the company needs to find new clients all the time, which costs more than clients who come back for more. It makes it also harder to build a solid relationship with them, meaning that projects are a little tougher to manage since clients are always new.
  • Confusion: When everything is chaotic, and everyone is stressed as mentioned above, confusion rises. People will ask 3-4 times the same questions, or you will have to remind them several times to have a task done by tomorrow. A lot of information will be said but will get lost, many meetings will go on and on without anything constructive being decided, some people will receive requests from multiple people at the same time and you will cross your fingers that yours will be done as asked since they won’t know who to listen to or what’s important. It’s hard to spot this at first, and you may have a tendency to think it’s you who is confused, or that it’s a few isolated cases, but if you pay attention, or better yet, openly talk about it with your colleagues, you will find out that others feel the same way.

What can help

Here are some tips that can help you a little; if the situation is temporary, it will help you fight through it. Note that some tips may (or should) be applied even in other types of environment, they simply become even more important in this case.

  • Document/note everything: It’s a tip that should be applied in any situation while managing your projects, but here, go past any laziness or lack of motivation you may normally have. If you have your documents ready, you will avoid a lot on confusion, and you will develop a good habit of properly documenting your projects. Make them clear and efficient to avoid confusion.
  • Do only your best: The word “only” is key here. When someone is really invested in a company, he will try to do more and more, thinking that it’s never enough since it’s always chaotic. That added pressure will lead to more stress and eventually, a burnout. You cannot do more than your best, so don’t try it. Sometimes others may impose that pressure, so it’s important to say “no” accordingly. Read my article on the subject.
  • Prepare for the worst, hope for the best: The worst may often happen more than it should in chaotic environments. By always preparing for the worst, you’ll be ready for anything. It may take some extra time, but you won’t be sorry. It’s important to continue hoping for the best, it will keep you going, always stay positive! 🙂
  • Clarity: If you already read a couple of my articles, then you know I’m always saying to be clear. It’s twice as important to be clear when everyone is confused, and if people are bombarded by requests, they will be more tempted to execute what’s clear for them so you have a higher chance of having your tasks done, and your colleagues will appreciate it.
  • Share ideas: If people tend to work in silo, try to bring them together and share ideas on what could help. They may not be major changes, but anything can help in these situations. Plus, the added teamwork that is being done while sharing will help solidify the team through the chaos.

In conclusion

This type of environment is hard to work in, but if you fight through, great opportunities may arise. And also, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! Just be careful, pay attention to how you feel, don’t burn yourself out. If the chaos seems permanent, then looking elsewhere is your best bet.

Have you ever worked in a chaotic environment? Share your stories!

4 thoughts on “How to survive in a chaotic environment

  1. Hi Christian,

    Chaotic environments are well known by most project managers – that’s why I think this post is of extreme interest to project managers and that’s why I would like to republish it, in full, on PM Hut where many project managers will benefit from it.

    Please either email me or contact me through the contact us form on the PM Hut website in case you’re OK with this.

  2. CMMI, amongst many others, offers some guidelines to get out of the chaotic state

  3. i work at a new steal company and it is completely unorganized, they have spent millions on brand new everything, but the warehouse and the office are completely out of sync, its turning into a nightmare not a great job. we have only been in business 4 months, terribly understaffed and over worked, im guessing my view will be different in a year or two if i can last?

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