The Red Queen

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

                                     -Red Queen to Alice in Lewis Carrol’s Through the Looking Glass


Last week, a long-time friend and client shared her frustration with me. “My team is running round in circles.  We think we make progress, then something happens, and we have to start again. Too many things are all changing at the same time. We are working harder than ever, but it seems like we aren’t making any progress. I don’t know how long we can keep it up.”

She isn’t the first person to see this challenge. My mother used to say, “The faster I run the behinder I get.” You, too, have days when boundaries disappear, success gets redefined, and relationships pull you in many directions. In complex systems science, this is called the Red Queen Syndrome . You may meet the Queen in team dynamics, project management, innovation, executive management, product development, strategy, customer service, or any other place where complex requirements meet changing demands. She comes to visit whenever the energy and disruption in the system are more than the existing structures, rules, and regulations can handle. You will know when she arrives because you feel out of control, overwhelmed, ineffective, and exhausted. Human systems dynamics doesn’t just name the Red Queen, it helps you deal with her. It gives you hints about how to slow things down, focus your energies, and tame even the most crazy Red Queen. Try some of these tricks before you surrender to her the next time she shows up on your doorstep.

Chunk it. The raging chaos of the Red Queen may seem like a barrage of random stuff, but maybe it isn’t. Can you find similarities to help you cluster ideas or events together so you can deal with the same number of shocks but collected into fewer bundles? For example, after a bit of reflection, my friend realized that her problems were coming from three primary sources: Personal relationships of team members; expectations from upper management; and shifts in the market driven by technology. Suddenly she wasn’t dealing with twenty different issues a day but with three kinds of concerns, and the Red Queen lost some of her power.  

Ignore the unknowable. In complex times, we get concerned about all the unavoidable unknowables.  What might happen? How will “this” affect “that” in the future? Given the complex realities of the world today, uncertainty is a way of life, and the known and unknown are overshadowed by the unknowable. The Red Queen thrives on unknowables and uncertainties. My friend realized that she and her team spent part of every meeting worrying and wondering about the things they could not predict or control. Not only was this a waste of time and energy, but it made them feel even more helpless and hopeless. She put the Queen in a box at her next meeting. The group brainstormed all the things they could think of that were important, but unknowable. She wrote them on a flipchart page and folded it up. She will post it at every meeting, and the group will consider what to add (new unknowables) and what to remove (resolved or now knowable). Not only did the list release them from the ever-and-always complaining, but it took some air out of the Red Queen’s balloon. 

Keep a sense of humor. The Red Queen can be threatening, but only if you let her. Very often, she is also totally absurd. When things are changing at an inhuman pace, and you and your team are exhausted, take a moment to recognize how simply impossible the situation is. When you share this realization of unreal reality, it becomes much easier to cope and to support each other in coping. My friend began a little Red Queen ritual. On the way home from work every day, she would reflect on all of the insane and absurd things she had seen, heard, or felt during the day. Rather than feeling frustrated and angry, she was able to laugh at herself and the crazy world around her. 

Don’t blame yourself or others. Patterns of the Red Queen are nobody’s fault. They are systemic results that emerge when too many people are dealing with too many things in too short a time. Blame and shame suck even more energy out of the system and degrade the adaptive capacity of individuals and groups. Put the blame where it belongs—on the system dynamics. Then take systemic action, what we call Adaptive Action, to shift the patterns toward more coherence and clarity. My friend found that when she released herself and others from blame, she had lots more energy to invest in productive work.   

Look for and reinforce patterns. Even in the most disrupted group, patterns form quickly. Of course in the presence of the Red Queen, those patterns often disappear as soon as they begin to form. Keep your eyes open for emerging patterns, and reinforce the ones that are most fit for function. Tell stories, express appreciation, capture a good idea, shift policies or practices to strengthen effective patterns and to erase destructive ones. My friend resurrected an old rewards and recognition system to reinforce anti-Red Queen patterns when she could find them.    

Use Adaptive Action. You can never be too confused for Adaptive Action. It is the best weapon against the Red Queen. Nothing is simpler or more powerful than asking the three Adaptive Action questions:  What?  So what?  Now what? When confronted with these questions, the Red Queen abandons the playing field, and you are free to get on with your game. 

The next time the Red Queen visits you with her overwhelming confusion and disruption, be prepared. Meet her on her own terms and build your Adaptive Capacity to beat her at her own game. It worked for my friend, and I’m sure it can work for you. Let us know how it goes!


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