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Riding on the "Edge of Chaos"

The importance of "well-structured noise" in Agile teams

8 August 2014

" . . . [W]ell-structured noise can jolt a [social] system out of inferior equilibria and lead it toward superior ones, and choice mechanisms can be designed to introduce such noise in a decentralized way. This intuition is contrary to our usual way of thinking about such problems. Noise is usually considered to be a disruptive force in social systems, resulting in perturbations away from desirable equilibria rather than a means by which to attain them."

The excerpt above is from the book Complex Adaptive Systems, written by John Miller and Scott Page. (Complex adaptive systems have been a key component of Jeff Sutherland's early research on Scrum.) The concept of "well-structured noise" is interesting. It introduces chaos in a system, taking it to a "far from equilibrium" condition!

Here is an easy way to think about it:

Equilibrium = Order, Sustainability, Predictability
Far from Equilibrium = Chaos, Noise, Creativity

Now let's look into a model put together by psychologist Bruce Tuckman, popularly known as "forming, storming, norming, and performing," which is used to describe the path that most teams follow on their way to high performance. (If you aren't familiar with this model, please read this article by Judith Stein: The "storming" phase is filled with creativity, new ideas, and better ways to work. It is a "far from equilibrium" condition. But as a team moves to the "norming" phase, only a few of those are retained in the system, because we can't have many ways of doing the same thing (since cohesion is important). The social system (team) settles with some superior ideas and some inferior ideas. What we are seeing is a social system locking into an equilibrium, so that it can cohere and move into the "performing" phase. This is important. But at the same time, in order to improve (kaizen), a high-performing team should constantly be in a "storming" mode.

While we all know that high-performing teams continuously improve, we also know that teams that are new to Scrum/Agile often are not very happy about so much change, and they tend to seek a cozy equilibrium (norming). While an Agile coach might get frustrated at the team's "inability" to continuously improve, locking into an equilibrium (norming) is both a natural tendency of social systems and a much-needed phase in order for teams to start performing.

Once a team reaches a threshold level of high performance, it can continually improve at a great pace. But how do teams get there in the first place?

This is my recommendation to new Agile teams:

Once teams have spent enough time performing, they should deliberately introduce "structured noise" to throw themselves back into a storming phase. This way they will go through cycles of storming, norming, and performing until they become comfortable being in a "far from equilibrium" condition.

I am not suggesting an introduction of random noise. Well-structured noise can be something like a Scrum team member suggesting that they pull stories out of a hat to force cross-training. This may or may not be well-structured noise, though it sure seems to be one example. The only way to find out is to "inspect" it by doing it.

Agile teams will experiment with new ideas (structured noise) every now and then in order to inspect the ideas, and then adapt as appropriate. The frequency of the introduction of noise will gradually increase as they get comfortable with it. Sprinting through a few cycles of storming, norming, and performing helps new Agile teams get to that threshold level of high performance where they start continuously improving.

Leaders can also play a very important role in introducing well-structured noise. They can introduce noise by playing with "Container," "Differences," and "Exchanges" and keep the teams in far-from-equilibrium conditions. This is the CDE model developed by Dr. Glenda Eoyang. Mike Cohn has beautifully described its use in Agile transformation in his book Succeeding with Agile.

At an organizational level, executive and senior management play a similar role by keeping the organization in far-from-equilibrium condition. As Jack Welch said, "Willingness to change is a strength, even if it means plunging part of the company into total confusion for a while."

To conclude:

Equilibrium means order and sustainability. Far from equilibrium means chaos and creativity. Brilliant and mind-boggling innovations happen at the "edge of chaos," a state that is chaotic enough to generate creativity but orderly enough to sustain and conclude such creativity.

Hyperproductive teams ride on the edge of chaos!

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 5 (3 ratings)


Robert Day, CSM, 8/8/2014 4:28:40 AM
An interesting concept, introducing random elements and uncertainty to maintain creativity. It's a little reminiscent of something that happens in Photoshop, where if you've edited an image by airbrushing in pure colour, it's then necessary to actually add picture noise (the digital equivalent of film grain) to match the airbrushed area with the texture and noise levels of the original image.
Raghu Challapilla, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 8/14/2014 4:42:41 PM
Hey Robert, thanks for reading. Great analogy!! One comment I would make is that the noise is well-structured noise, and not random. Just like the picture noise.
Jay Sadhu, CSM,CSPO, 9/9/2014 10:05:00 AM
Some disruptions are viable some are not - the key is to get cut drama, cut unpredictability, de-risk, and reduce variables that are disruptive to the reaching cadence.

The proposal is intriguing and almost opposed to traditionally how we approach transformation - I'm curious if you've seen this work in practice and had any data points to share on how the productivity and outcome-achievement improved with this practice.

"Hyper productive teams ride on the edge of chaos" - I'd like to quote CMMI - Level 1 Maturity - "Success in these organizations depends on the competence and heroics of the people in the organization and not on the use of proven processes" -I think it’s a fine line between Heroics to handle entropy vs Hyper productivity to handle chaos!

Great post - forces you to think outside the box!
Tom Henricksen, CSM, 9/23/2014 8:00:38 AM
"Leaders can also play a very important role in introducing well-structured noise." Yes the leaders need to sometimes push the team to get them to achieve more than they believe they can.
Thanks for sharing Raghu!

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