6 things you need to combat chaos at work

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I have spent a lifetime on teams. Except I never called them teams. 

The word team has a bit a sports feel to it and I was in the music world.  So the “teams” I worked with were bands, ensembles, orchestras, theatre companies, gamelans, quartets, quintets.

Same idea though- they were groups – groups of people working towards a common goal. 

Bosses, coaches, managers go to great lengths to assemble “teams” of people that they think will win i.e.  - bring in the most profits, make sales, solve a problem, help them reach that goal.

But we know that despite the best efforts of those folks not all teams are created equal. 

 So whenever I come across one that is working really well, I like to explore how they do it.

Recently I came across a team that did do what they were supposed to do in a very unlikely part of the world and in a very challenging situation. 

First, think of this situation:


You’re in a restaurant. It’s busy. You wait for a waiter to take your order. Finally, after you manage to place your order, the food seems to take forever despite everyone rushing around. And then, just when you’ve had enough of waiting and are about ready to call it quits, the wrong food comes or something is prepared incorrectly.  You’re hungry and already late so you eat the food in front of you and vow never to go there again.

Where did things go wrong?  Was it in the kitchen? Was it the ordering system?  Was it the waiters? (Btw -  if you interested in what I learned from a waiter about happiness click here.)

This doesn’t just happen in restaurants; it can happen in your business too! 

You know it’s happening when things feel chaotic; when deadlines are coming too fast; when mistakes are happening too frequently; when you feel that not everyone is on the same page.


It might be difficult to know exactly what’s wrong, but a great way to find out is to compare your business to one that has got it figured out, a business that can handle the chaos.


The Grotto

My story starts on a beautiful day.

My wife, who may have missed her calling as a travel agent, had us up at the crack of dawn to have a 3-hour boat tour around the Island of Capri in Italy. The tour included a stop at the famed Blue Grotto. (Btw - there were no professors, movie stars, doctors, millionaires or their wives, so we were safe.) Note: to learn about life lessons from Gilligan’s Island please click here.

For those who haven’t been, the Blue Grotto is a relatively famous sea cave whose 2-metre-by-1-metre opening burrows into the high limestone coastline. The Grotto was once the private swimming hole for the Emperor Tiberius back in 27 AD.  It is famous for the altered light that created in the cave due to the openings, and the effects that has. It is quite magical, I assure you.

The trouble with such places is that they are very popular with tourists. So you get yourself there and then wait… and wait...and wait. We were there fairly early but by no means first in line.


Within the 45 or so minutes we sat there bobbing up and down, I began to the see boat after boat arrive.

There were the large double-decker tour boats carrying dozens of people, the small tour company boats that fit groups of 4 to 10. There was even a large private yacht that had no shame about trying to barge into the fray as its staff yelled with accompanying hand gestures. I felt this whole thing was recipe for chaos. There was no sense of order to my eye. Boats were everywhere, people were everywhere, yet surprisingly, things were running quite smoothly.

That’s when I began to notice the men with all the power and all the control in handling the situation: the oarsmen. 

A Neapolitan oarsman/tour guide captained each tiny rowboat. (The rowboats had to be tiny to fit through the Grotto’s opening.)

Most, if not all, of the oarsmen had well-tanned skin and extra large hands that seemed to be sized perfectly for gripping the two large oars they used. Some even had a look of modern day bearded pirates with a handkerchief tied on their heads. There may have been about 10 or 15 of them to deal with the growing mob.

What I found interesting was that when I looked at those oarsmen, there was no sense of panic. They went from boat to boat to get the few people they could fit in their boat, and took them to the floating cash register. (Yes, I said floating cash register.) They then rowed them into the Grotto and back to their boat.

It was just another day at the office for them.

The one thing I saw for sure was the constant conversation, sometimes with the captains of the tour boats and often with the other oarsmen. Sometimes it seemed heated but I think that was just how they talked to each other. (Having married into an Italian family, I have some insight here).

I began to realize that despite the crowd of boats, this was all working so well.



Here’s what I noticed.

1) They all had the right skills.  I saw no weak links among them. While the situation seemed over the top to me, this was their day-to-day. They could stand up in a boat for hours at a time, they could speak a little bit of many languages, and they could sing Italian songs.  Personally I wouldn’t last the day standing in a boat ferrying tourists around.

2) They were good communicators.

They were talking all the time as they passed each other on the water.


3) They kept the end in mind.

No worries about employee engagement here. My impression was they all worked for a tour company, (judging by the branding on their clothes) - that would be the company that had the floating cash register.  The rowboat drivers are all paid a small wage but their big money was in the Euros they received from their appreciative guests. (And yes, they took advantage of that.  What would you expect? When has any tourist trap been a good deal?)  The more people they served, the bigger their haul, but doing this day after day just taught them that slow and steady wins the race. No need for panic.


4) They had respect for each other. 

I’m sure there was some competition among the drivers. (Not a bad thing right?) While there might have been some jockeying for clients, at the end of the day, these boat drivers had to work with each other every day.  So they needed to play nice. As I said, there might have been the odd squabble but generally, they worked it out fast and were respectful of each other. They were all there to make a living.    

5) They were used to “crazy”.

Perhaps a first day on the job at the Grotto for a new hire would be challenging, but not as much as it would be for us. These oarsmen were people who all grew up in the crazy busy environment of Naples. This made them used to large crowds of people trying to get somewhere at the same time.  They were used to negotiating for things constantly.  That’s just how business is done there.

In the end, this was a well-chosen team that could meet the challenges they saw each day in this crazy environment.

6) They had a system in place

I think there was a lot going in terms of their relationships to the drivers of the larger boats.  But unlike a restaurant, it was all in the open. These drivers were part of the oarsmen’s supply chain, the people who they saw often and who brought them business. I imagine some relationships were deeper than others and like everywhere, connections matter.



Building a team? Maybe you need to copy their model.

It seems simple but we all know organizations that struggle to build the right team.

The Blue Grotto had these things right.

1) They had a system in place that was working.

2) They had the right people with the right skill set to implement the system.


While those are simple to say, you know that both are very hard to achieve. You can’t very well just fire everyone and start over. You could start by trying to make your team more cohesive, or get them to stop being so competitive with each other, or maybe you need to build trust.

The Grotto was a great example of a well-chosen team centered on the goal of getting tourists in and out of the cave in a timely and enjoyable manner, thereby, maximizing client enjoyment and company profits.

No, they weren’t a musical group or a sports team. They were a group. (They may have even been in slight competition with each other, like any sales team).  But they were a group of people working together to achieve a common goal, and pulling it off.

So if your organization feels more like the over-whelmed restaurant than the Blue Grotto, I would suggest starting by examining the things I mentioned above.

And just like the musical ensembles I played in, if you can have all the right players in the right place with the right skills all communicating together, the chaos is no big deal.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments.