Tech Career Insights: Leading a Team - A Short Introduction to CHAOS

Leading a Team - A Short Introduction to CHAOS

By Thilo Muller

What makes a successful development team, and how do you lead it? I think it comes down to CHAOS: Communication, Having fun, Adaptation, Organized anarchy and Support. I’ve gone all the way from the excitement and fear of starting in my first leadership position to now having led many teams. Here’s why I believe CHAOS provides the pillars of a great team, and how I apply them.

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How I arrived at CHAOS

Ever since my first position in a leadership role, I have been interested in improving the working-life of myself and those around me. It has been my ultimate goal to get away from the dreary 9-to-5 job and enjoy the place where I spend a large chunk of my life. Throughout my career, this goal has stayed the same whether I have been leading single project teams, multi-project teams, office based teams, remote teams, small three member teams or large twenty member teams.

I have surrounded myself with people that have similar interests and many evenings have been spent with strangers, friends and family learning and sharing ideas. I have also done a lot of reading, listening, observing, discussing and even tried open experimentation, which is when the whole team agrees to test the value and usefulness of a new process or idea. All of this experience means that I have amassed a mountain of knowledge on leadership, and I have included a list of some of the resources that I found to be the most valuable at the end of the article.

It was while contemplating a TED talk by Ricardo Semler - How to run a company with (almost) no rules, that I started thinking of easier ways to share all of this knowledge with my team members. The result of this was CHAOS.

I knew that in order for CHAOS to be effective, I needed some sort of way to measure success. This has proven more difficult to explain than I had anticipated. I have found that success is a very personal matter. Each person has their own idea of success and for me this is more a feeling than a bunch of graphs and charts: It boils down to the happiness of the people around me. To me, the fact that more projects and tasks are completed on time (as indicated by graphs and charts) is a side effect of the team’s happiness.

Let’s now take a closer look at each of the five principles that comprise CHAOS and how they can get you on track to leading a happier and more successful team.

1. Communication: Make decisions with the team, not for them

Open any management or leadership book and you will see a section about communication. Unfortunately books, YouTube and Google can’t really explain communication (although they try). I think communication is something you need to experience in order to really get to grips with it. As a novice to leadership in my early thirties, I spent a lot of time being ‘The Boss’. This meant I spent my time making decisions for the team instead of with the team.

One incident that I will never forget was on a Friday morning when I got a message from a staff member saying that he was not feeling well and could not come in to work. I was depending on him to complete a particular task since I had a meeting with the client that afternoon. Because it was too late to ask someone else to complete the task, I made the decision to postpone the meeting. This reflected badly on both me and my team. As a result, Monday morning was spent shouting at each other with no positive outcome.

In hindsight, I could have handled this differently by asking and not telling someone else to complete the task. I could have then had a Monday morning coffee with the team member to discuss the problem, explain its implications and put a contingency plan in place. It turns out the team member had a chronic illness that I didn’t know about and my reaction was unfounded.

I was increasingly frustrated with my progress as a fledgling leader and was unable to figure out why I was not getting anywhere with my team. The turning point came late one afternoon. I was having a technical discussion with a team member about a particular task when the conversation turned towards team moral. Not long into the discussion, he blurted out, “You are screwing up!” (with the addition of a few descriptive words in between).

These words culminated in a long discussion that ran into the early hours of the morning. Many years later, I realized two things about this encounter: One, it was not a lecture but an open discussion and two, he had no experience leading a team and yet he knew more than I did. Since then, I have come to realize the importance of honesty, integrity, compassion and understanding when dealing with people.

So, how can you practice effective communication as a leader?

  • Provide team members with the necessary information they need to make informed decisions without having to consult ‘The Boss’ about every aspect of the project. Allowing open communication will enable you, the leader, to make decisions about what the team needs and not what you think the team needs.
  • Don’t keep secrets. If you do not provide people with answers to their questions, they will come up with their own ideas, which will most likely be based on paranoia.
  • Bear in mind that each member of the team has their own way of speaking which may at times appear disrespectful. It’s most likely not intended this way, so try and keep an open mind.

2. Having fun: Having the freedom to enjoy your work

Happiness means different things to different people. To me, being happy means that I wake up in the morning and look forward to a day in the office. Similarly, at the end of the day, I have a sense of accomplishment with abundant energy left to share with family and friends.

Communication is great but even your best efforts will fail if team members don’t want to be at work. One of a leader’s tasks is to ensure that the team is happy. This is not limited to bottomless beer and coffee — although that does help! Of the many teams I’ve led, one of the commonalities I’ve noticed amongst the more successful ones is that its members enjoyed their job. They relished the fact that they could do a bit of research, learn and play with new concepts between the more mundane tasks of testing and data capturing.

This was very obvious on one particular project for a privatised farmers coop. As leader of the development team, I found that the general attitude was that you worked because you had to pay the bills and not because you enjoyed your job or wanted to advance your career. Because of a poor company culture and a management team that didn’t want to listen to its employees, no one wanted to be there. However, when I went on to another project in the travel industry, I saw that the small team of developers were given the freedom to ‘get the job done’ in ways that the developers at the last company weren’t.

This team had no set working hours, and could work remotely if they wanted to. Their tasks were not dictated to them but rather, they were allowed to explore what interested them and work out their own ways to get projects done. This smaller, happier team completed more features in three months than the previous larger team had in six months.

So, how can you help your team be happier at work?

  • Allow team members the time to do the things they enjoy. On one of the projects I worked on, we set aside an hour every Friday morning where we could share what we had learnt with the rest of the team. This was great for team morale and often led to more advanced discussions where we found solutions to other technical issues we were having.
  • If a team member seems unhappy make a genuine effort to find out why. Sometimes this takes a bit of digging to uncover the real problem and a bit of communication goes a long way.
  • Trust your team members to get they work that they have been set done. Treating them like the adults that they are will show that you respect them, which can go a long way when it comes to motivation and morale.

3. Adaptability: Adopt a growth mindset

Being adaptable means the team has the ability to naturally adapt to environmental changes and stresses. Such changes and stresses may include revised project scope, new members joining the team, members leaving the team, change in upper management or even something as harmless as moving to a new office. Having an open mind is so important as a leader because as one person, you don’t know everything. Being set on one idea or one way of doing things will inevitably result in stagnation, which will adversely affect projects and teams.

One of the major problems we had on the travel project I mentioned earlier was the constant change in scope from management. This was understandable since at the time, industry changes were taking place faster than we could keep up with development-wise. There was not much we could do about it but we could minimise the negative impact it had on our development by adapting to these constant changes. One way we did this was by implementing a version control system so that we could use branches to ‘save’ work. This allowed us to reuse bits of code when we needed them or continue development of the feature at a later stage.

How can you keep an open mind as a leader and encourage your team to do the same?

  • Change is inevitable and as the leader of a team, you need to ensure that the team learns to accept it. Now that I am aware of how important this is, I make an effort to hear what my teammates have to say at all stages in a project. I don’t believe that any one person has the answers to everything: I am open to learning from my team and make it a point to check in with them regularly. Once this sense of openness has been achieved, it is easier for the team as a whole to manage a constantly changing environment.

4. Organized anarchy: Letting the team lead the way

This is the part that usually gets company executives twitching. Anarchy in the ranks is something that happens regularly within a team and on many projects. I’ve seen managers try and curb this by making a whole host of silly rules, including fixed tea/lunch breaks and non-flexible working hours.

I have seen that revolt can take any number of forms. On one project, I faced the problem of team members knocking off early on a Friday only to regroup at a local pub. It turns out the ‘revolt’ was the result of the hectic workload and waiting that extra hour was just too much to bear.

As I started thinking about the CHAOS pillars, I realised that organized anarchy could be closely tied to communication. If team members were given the freedom to vent frustrations in a controlled manner, these frustrations would surface early before they become problems. While I originally saw my team knocking off early as a problem since tasks still needed to be completed, I realised that they way I could resolve this was a lot simpler…I joined them. By doing this, I managed to use what would traditionally have been called ‘unproductive-time’ to just have some fun with the team. On many occasions, this helped me to better understand some of the issues that they were having.

How can you let your team lead the way?

  • Don’t make ridiculous rules. Instead, allow the team to create their own policies. In this way, the rules, which can then be better described as guidelines, become more natural to abide by and each member becomes personally invested in sticking to them.
  • Be willing to listen, whether you agree with what people are telling you or not. Either way, open yourself up to discussion and be prepared to substantiate your statements. Being open to hearing others’ ideas demonstrates respect and this is important in any collaborative environment.

5. Support: Be there for each other

The final piece of the puzzle is support. As the leader of a team, you need to make an effort to support your team on both a professional and personal level. You are the first line of defence against higher management and one of the unwritten tasks assigned to you is to have the team’s back. If you do your job well, you will be part of a strong team that looks out for each other.

Many years ago, when I was working on a large project, a new member joined our team. What I didn’t realize was that the new member’s salary was the same as that of a more experienced team member. Understandably, the experienced team member was upset about this but, being a shy person, didn’t say anything. It wasn’t long and I had other, more vocal team members knocking at my door on her behalf. This in turn led me to the doors of higher management where I eventually convinced them to give her a raise. The result of this was a stronger relationship with my colleague. She felt like she could trust me and regularly checked in with me about important happenings in both her career and her life.

How can you be supportive?

  • Think about how you want people to feel under your leadership. Being supportive is the most difficult pillar to implement in practice. Support is not something that can be faked: It’s not something that can be defined in a document, it has to come from within yourself. Its roots have to lie within your own moral fabric.
  • Be mindful of team members’ personal lives. Their personal lives affect their work and visa-versa. Be supportive and understanding in times of stress.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Although CHAOS is divided into five pillars and implementing each section can be useful, I have found that its true powers lie in enabling all its facets since each one compliments and strengthens the others.

CHAOS is by no means comprehensive. I’m sure you can think of many other aspects of team leadership that I have not mentioned. The five pillars that we have discussed in this article are what keep me sane and have guided me through making many difficult decisions. We should all remember that team leaders are human and as such they will make mistakes along the way. However, if you are part of a good team, with good structures guiding you, you will make less of these mistakes and if you do make them, you will be able to correct them quickly.

Further reading: Never stop learning

Ricardo Semler: How to run a company with (almost) no rules. This is a wide ranging and thought provoking TED talk, which, as I mentioned, inspired me to come up with CHAOS.

Tom Hulme: What we can learn from shortcuts. Although this TED talk is centered around design, it’s relevant to leadership because in many cases, ‘breaking rules’ is nothing more than a shortcut.

Richard Branson: Screw It, Let’s Do It. This book has many leadership lessons. In particular, I enjoyed Chapter 2: Have Fun!

Stephen Covey: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This is a difficult read but worth it. Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood, is an important but hard to implement lesson.

Dr. Spencer Johnson: Who Moved My Cheese? This is a quick and easy read that may sometimes appear…well, ‘cheesy’. However, it does convey an idea that all leaders should be aware of and that is that everyone is in charge of their own destiny.


Thilo Muller is a software developer with over 20 years of experience in various roles. He has done everything from programming to business analysis to managing operations. He is a strong supporter of using open communication and innovation to find solutions and believes that the word ‘Why?’ is not used enough in our daily lives.

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