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How effective is Shopify’s ‘chaos monkey’ approach to change management?

The ecommerce giant recently imposed a moratorium on meetings in a deliberately ‘fast and chaotic’ move. It’s a risky tactic on several counts, warn experts in organisational behaviour and employment law
Three colourful monkeys cheekily press a button which will turn off a computer

Thousands of Shopify employees returned to work after the festive break to find their calendars stripped bare of recurring meetings. Those who took to messaging platform Slack to discuss the change found that their conversational options had been curtailed there too, with group conversations deleted or restricted.

This was not a technical glitch, but a new company-wide policy. Justifying its abrupt move, the firm’s leadership team argued that group meetings and “bloated” chats on Slack had been harming both productivity and morale.

Whatever people think about the merits of a low-meeting culture, what’s particularly striking in this case is how the changes were implemented: imposed on the whole organisation from on high without warning, let alone consultation. “Chaos monkey” is the term that the Ottawa-based company has used to describe its unconventional approach.

What is chaos monkey?

The term is well known in software engineering. It refers to the practice of randomly breaking parts of a system to test its overall resilience. For instance, Netflix has created a program that turns off its production servers at random. The idea is to expose the company’s engineers to failure more often, encouraging them to build more robust systems.

In Shopify’s case, the leadership team wanted to avoid a “long, slow burn”, opting instead to impose a short period of intense discomfort that employees should, in theory, recover from more quickly.

“We can either go slow and deliberate or go fast and chaotic. We are going fast and chaotic,” explained COO Kaz Nejatian in an email to staff. “While we know this will feel chaotic, that’s the point. Intentional chaos is more than OK, and it’s part of working and thriving at Shopify.”

Sudden changes can pile on stress

Can this approach ever be an effective way to enact lasting cultural changes in organisations?

It’s a risky gambit, warns Dr Alexandra Dobra-Kiel, innovation and strategy director at the Behave consultancy. She argues that chaotic transitions can trigger unnecessary stress among the people affected. This can be particularly acute if such changes have an impact on their habitual behaviour, such as daily chats on Slack. 

The irony is that, when we’re put under stress, our brains want us to default back to familiar habits to compensate for all the energy they’re expending on figuring out what to do, Dobra-Kiel says. “In this case, because you can’t revert back to those habits, the stress is prolonged. That affects your cognitive capacity and memory, so you become less productive as a consequence.”

‘Prolonged stress affects your cognitive capacity and memory, so you become less productive’

Fern Miller, executive strategy director at advertising agency R/GA, agrees. “Research into workplace stress has repeatedly found that the biggest driver is the amount of control that employees feel they have over their day-to-day practice,” she says. 

Finding that a core working practice has been removed overnight will only increase that pressure, according to Miller, who adds: “I can only imagine that the fact that this is all part of a publicity-friendly social experiment won’t make that any easier.”

Indeed, several Shopify employees have said that the changes will make their jobs harder. One told businessinsider.com that adjusting to working without a group Slack channel could take them months, for instance. Others are worried about the negative cultural impact on the company and have raised concerns about potential disruption to product launches.

Dobra-Kiel points to recent large-scale redundancies in the tech sector and other industries – including Shopify, which laid off 10% of its workforce last July – as an aggravating factor that could lead to a growth in “paranoia” among workers. 

“Even if your job isn’t at risk, you’ll feel additional pressure to show your value and perform even better than before,” she says.

Employers considering sowing some chaos of their own should also consider the potential legal ramifications. Katie Hodson, partner and head of employment at law firm SAS Daniels, notes that imposing sudden blanket changes to people’s working conditions without consultation could leave companies open to discrimination claims.

“As this policy was implemented across the board, it would potentially affect disabled people or those with mental health issues in a stronger way than anyone else,” she explains. 

A remote worker struggling with depression could find being separated from social communication channels harder than anyone else to cope with, for instance.

“This could result in claims of constructive unfair dismissal,” Hodson warns. “Employers have to be careful not to forget their obligation to their employees’ health and safety – and that includes mental health.” 

Giving employees permission to change 

Professor Nick Kemsley, director of the centre for HR development at Henley Business School, believes that the application of “managed chaos” to enact change can be beneficial. 

“We tend to walk blindfolded into a new culture without realising,” he argues. “You need to give employees a sense of permission to change habits they’ve got stuck in, because these will simply continue otherwise. People can’t unilaterally decide to clear their diaries.”

‘You need to give employees a sense of permission to change habits they’ve got stuck in’

This is exactly the attitude shift that Shopify’s leaders are hoping to encourage. Although meetings will be allowed again after two weeks, staff are urged to be more protective of their time and decline as many calendar invitations as they see fit.

Kemsley adds that the fact the message comes from the top is constructive. It prevents different parts of the business from adopting different solutions to problems such as meeting overload – a situation that can itself become chaotic.

“It’s fine to say to certain layers of the organisation: ‘It’s up to you to decide how you work.’ But there are parts of the organisation where that level of ambiguity will create capability or even anxiety issues,” he says. “Some people just want to be told what they need to do.”

Hybrid working presents a double-edged sword

Kemsley believes that this issue highlights the catch-22 affecting many employers with respect to hybrid and remote working. Workers in white-collar industries have developed strong and often opposing preferences: some want to work from home without interruptions forever, while others are champing at the bit to return to the office five days a week.

The decisions their employers take on working arrangements will have an impact on recruitment and retention, he says. “It’s hard to find any kind of organisation-wide solution that doesn’t have a dark side. Whatever policy an organisation adopts, some people aren’t going to like it and might vote with their feet.”

What’s the best way for a company to enact a significant change without alienating a significant proportion of its workforce? For Dobra-Kiel, effective communication is the key. This doesn’t mean giving everyone a say on every decision. But, at the very least, employees should be given fair warning of what’s coming. 

Transparency helps to build a positive company culture characterised by “psychological safety”, she says. “It’s much easier to implement radical change if you have a good base of psychological safety and trust at a team level. It creates a mindset of being excited about change and embracing it, not dreading it. It is possible to create new habits through fear, but is that the right sort of culture for your company? Probably not.”