How to manage Chaos appropriately - a case study

My thanks to Mary Boone for highlighting this documentary as a learning tool for the Cynefin framework.

I was asked recently to provide an example of how to deal with problems in the Chaotic domain.  The attached  12 minute documentary* provides a vivid contemporary case study.

The video focuses on the use of watercraft to aid the removal of the hundreds of thousands of people stranded on Lower Manhattan at the time of the attack on the Twin Towers. Within less than an hour of the second plane crashing, none of the common commuter escape routes were available.  The subways, bridges and tunnels had all been closed and for office workers pushed to the extreme edges of Manhattan by collapsing buildings. Escape by water seemed the only option. 

For the first time in over a century, boats were the only way in to and out of Manhattan. But neither the carrying capacity nor the logistics were in place to deal with an incident of this dimension.  On a typical day, the Staten Island ferries, the largest commuting watercraft in the area, convey around 65,000 passengers. By 11:30hrs on Sept 11th, it was calculated that nearly 600,000 people were congregating around the waters edge of Lower Manhattan.  

The Cynefin framework suggests the response to a Chaotic situation is to Act, Sense and Respond. That is, the  leader’ must first actto establishorder, then sense where stability is present and where it is absent.  In the documentary, this action was undertaken by the local coastguard (5:45mins) who issued strong command and control orders to local watercraft. The Coast Guard sought no input; one-way directive actions were issued. 

Novel actions that break previous rules and conventions are sometimes required as part of the attempt to establish stability. The enforcers of rulers may temporarily become their breakers—“At that point, the Coast Guard asked, “not how many people are you allowed, but how many can you fit (7:45)?””

When the leader has sensed that some stability has been achieved, the next step is to respond by transforming the situation from chaos to complexity. During the enforced evacuation, the Coast Guard laid out broad guidelines on allocation of craft to the various embarking and debarking points. The participating boaters then started to self manage, broadcasting their destinations to potential passengers through the improvised use of bedsheets and spray cans (8:02).

The measure of this feat is quite extraordinary.  On September 11, nearly 500,000 civilians were rescued from Manhattan by boat. The whole activity took less than 9 hours.

As participants in the evacuation state, "none of this could have been planned for or practiced. (9:24mins)" 

You may not be able to plan for chaos but you can respond appropriately when it occurs.

1. Act to bring some stability quickly and decisively.

2. Sense to see if your actions are bringing stability

3. If some stability arises, respond by moving those activities as quickly as possible to the Complex domain.

 *This video is office friendly, but does contain some powerful images.