BL&T No. 018: Learning from Chaos

Personal Growth

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


"I know I can't control the ocean, but I can be a better swimmer."

Ramit Sethi


I'm grateful that the year is off to a positive start at Barrel. We've kicked off new projects, landed new clients, and onboarded promising new talent. The emphasis on new here is intentional.

New implies change. Positive or not, change is hard, especially within a system that impacts more than a handful of people. No matter how hard we try, we're bound to experience turmoil and moments that feel chaotic.

Despite the positive momentum, last week was full of these moments. New projects + new clients + new talent = allocating and re-allocating resources, coordinating schedules, onboarding, training, revisiting our processes, and the list goes on. It's not that any of these activities are new; we practice them daily. It's the change they require, all at once, that can result in stress and uneasiness among the team. The more I thought about it, though, this conclusion felt like an excuse, an easy way out. I searched for more understanding as I made my way through the week.

How might I be contributing to the disorder? What one factor might make the most difference?

On Friday, I met with a direct report for our weekly 1:1. We talked through the happenings of the week. We unpacked each situation together, refusing to accept obvious challenges as excuses (time, tools, experience), pushing ourselves to go deeper.

Within minutes of the meeting's end, my report said (I'm paraphrasing): "You know, I always appreciate it when you let me know that a situation is going to be messy or challenging. It makes me feel like we're in it together." A powerful lesson I learned the hard way. A simple, honest conversation with leadership can mean everything to a team, especially during turbulent times. Had we overlooked this with recent changes?

They continued, "Sometimes, I don't feel like the entire team is on the same page. Everyone is acting on their interpretations of change." This type of insight was just what I was hoping to surface. The connection between seemingly disconnected events suddenly became clear.

As a leadership team, we do our best to be deliberate in our decision making. We spend time with decisions before we make them and debrief on situations where we didn't. A luxury that the team doesn't have. We don't always agree, but it's this tension that keeps us going. We openly communicate with the team across several channels and are transparent about what's going on.

What became clear on Friday is that there are gaps. It doesn't matter what we say if the team doesn't receive the same message. It doesn't matter if we feel good about a plan if the team feels differently. It is these gaps that often lead to the chaos we work so hard to avoid.

A single action cannot fill these gaps. All that matters is that we can see clearly. We've already identified immediate opportunities for improvement. I am eager to give those a try and continue taking more informed steps forward.

Learning from Chaos Visualization by Lucas Ballasy

Lesson? Chaos opens the door for progress, but too often, we turn the other way. We choose to look at recent events for answers and make assumptions about how the chaos ensued, eager to bring order. We point fingers at the world around us, neglecting to acknowledge our part in the system and the many events that came before those most recent. If we approach chaos with the intent to learn, not only will the path toward order feel natural, but we'll grow through the process.

Thought Starter

When has my mindset become a hurdle for progress?

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