Information technology (IT) is an integral part of any modern day business. Indeed, as Bill Gates once put it, “Information technology and business are becoming inextricably interwoven. I don’t think anybody can talk meaningfully about one without the talking about the other.” Although this is true, decision makers often display ambivalent, even contradictory attitudes towards enterprise IT. For example, depending on the context, an executive might view IT as a cost of doing business or as a strategic advantage: the former view is common when budgets are being drawn up whereas the latter may come to the fore when a bold new e-marketing initiative is being discussed.
In this post I discuss some of these dilemmas of IT and show how the opposing viewpoints embodied in them need to be managed rather than resolved. I illustrate my point by describing one way in which this can be done.
The dilemmas in brief
Many of the dilemmas of IT are consequences of conflicting views of what IT is and/or how it should be managed. I’ll describe some of these in brief below, leaving a discussion of their implications to the next section:
- IT as a cost of doing business versus IT as strategic asset: This distinction highlights the ambivalent attitudes that senior executives have towards IT. On the one hand, IT is seen as offering strategic advantages to the organization (for example a custom built application for customer segmentation). On the other, it is seen as an operational necessity (for example, core banking systems in the financial industry).
- Centralised IT versus Autonomous IT: This refers to the debate about whether an organisation’s IT environment should be tightly controlled from head office or whether subsidiaries should be given a degree of autonomy. This is essentially a debate between top-down versus bottom-up approaches to IT planning.
- Planning versus Improvisation: This refers to the tension between the structure offered by a plan and process-driven approach to IT and the necessity to step outside of plans and processes in order to come up with improvised solutions suited to the situation at hand. I have written about this paradox in a post on planning and improvisation.
There are other dilemmas – for example, technology driven IT versus business driven IT. However, for the purpose of this discussion the three listed above will suffice.
The poles of a dilemma
In his book entitled Polarity Management, Barry Johnson described how complex organizational issues can often be analysed in terms of their mutually contradictory facets. He termed these facets poles or polarities. In this and the next section, I elaborate on Johnson’s notion of polarity and show how it offers a means to understand and manage the dilemmas of enterprise IT.
The key features of poles are as follows:
Each pole has associated positives and negatives. For example, the up side of viewing IT as a cost is that the organisation focuses on IT efficiency and value for money; the downside is that exploration and experimentation that is necessary for IT innovation would likely be seen as risky. On the other hand, the positive side of IT as a strategic asset is that it is seen as a means to enable an organisation’s growth and development; the negative is that it can encourage unproven technologies (since new technologies are more likely to offer competitive advantages) and uncontrolled experimentation along with their attendant costs.
Most organisations oscillate between poles. At any given time the organisation will be “living” in one pole. In such situations, some stakeholders will perceive the negatives of that pole strongly and will thus see the other pole as being more desirable (the “grass is greener on the other” side syndrome). Johnson labels such stakeholders crusaders” – those who want to rush off into the new world. On the other hand, there are tradition bearers, those who want to stay put. When an organisation has spent a fair bit of time in one pole, the influence of crusaders tends wax while that of the tradition bearers weakens because the negatives become apparent to more and more people.
A concrete example may help clarify this point:
Consider a situation where all subsidiaries of a multinational have autonomous IT units (and have had these for a while). The main benefits of such a model are responsiveness and relevance: local IT units will able to respond quickly to local needs and will also be able to deliver solutions that are tailored to the specific needs of the local business. However, this model has many negative aspects: for example, high costs, duplication of effort, massive software portfolio and attendant costs, high cost of interfacing between subsidiaries etc.
When the model has been in operation for a while, it is quite likely that IT decision makers will perceive the negatives of this pole more clearly than they see the positives. They will then initiate a reform to centralize IT because they perceive the positives of that pole –i.e. low costs, centralization of services etc. – as being worth striving for. However, when the new world is in place and has been operating for a while, the organisation will begin to see its downside: bureaucracy, lack of flexibility, applications that don’t meet specific local business needs etc. They will then start to delegate responsibility back to the subsidiaries…and thus goes the polarity merry-go-round.
Managing enterprise IT dilemmas
As discussed above, any option will have its supporters and detractors. For example, finance folks may see IT as a cost of doing business whereas those in IT will consider it to be a strategic asset. What’s important, however, is that most organisations “resolve” such contradictions by taking sides. That is, one side “wins” and their point of view gets implemented as a “solution.” The concerns of the “losing” side are overlooked entirely.
Although such a “solution” appears to solve the problem, it does not take long for the negative aspects of the other pole to manifest itself; the rumbles of discontent from those whose concerns have been ignored grow louder with time. In this sense, issues that can be defined in terms of polarities are wicked problems – they are perceived in different ways by different stakeholders and so are difficult to define, let alone solve.
As we have seen above, however, the poles of a dilemma are but different facets of a single reality. Hence, the first step towards managing a dilemma lies in realizing that it cannot be resolved definitively; regardless of the path chosen, there will always be a group whose concerns remain unaddressed. The best one can do is to be aware of the positives and negatives of each pole and ensure that the entire spectrum of stakeholders is aware of these. A shared awareness can help the group in figuring out ways to mitigate the worst effects of the negatives.
One which this can be done is via a facilitated session, involving people who represent the two sides of the issue. To begin with, the facilitator helps the group identify the poles. She then helps the group create a polarity map which shows the contradictory aspects of the issue along with their positives and negatives. A rudimentary polarity map for the autonomous/centralized IT dilemma is shown in Figure 1 below.
To ensure completeness of the map, the group must include stakeholders who represent both sides of the dilemma (and also those who hold views that lie between).
As mentioned in the previous section, organisations are not static, they oscillate between poles. Moreover, Johnson claimed that they follow a specific path in the map. Quoting from the book I wrote with Paul Culmsee:
According to Johnson, organisations tended to oscillate between poles. If you accept the notion of a wicked problem as a polarity, the overall pattern traced as one moves between these poles resembles an infinity symbol. The typical path is L- to R+, to R-, across to L+ and Johnson argued that the trajectory could not be avoided. All we can do is focus on minimizing our time spent in the lower quadrants.
Again, it is worth emphasizing that the conflict between the two groups of stakeholders cannot be resolved definitively. The best one can do is to get the two sides to understand each other’s’ point of view and hence attempt to minimize the downsides of each option.
Finally, polarity management is but one way to manage the dilemmas associate with enterprise IT or any other organizational decision. There are many others – and <advertisement> I highly recommend my book if you’re interested in finding out more about these </advertisement>. In the end, though, the point I wished to make in this post is less about any particular technique and more about the need to air and acknowledge differing perspectives on issues pertaining to enterprise IT or any other decision with organization-wide implications.
The dilemmas of enterprise IT are essentially consequences of mutually contradictory, yet equally valid perspectives. Is IT a cost of doing business or is it a strategic asset? The answer depends on the perspective one takes…and there is no objectively right or wrong answer. Given this, it is important to be aware of both the up and down side of each perspective (or pole) before one makes a decision. Unfortunately, most often decisions are made on the basis of the up side of one option and the down side of the other. As should be evident now, a decision that is based on such a selective consideration of viewpoints invariably invites conflict and leads to undesirable outcomes.
Welcome to the second post in my conversations series. This time around I chat with my friend and long-time collaborator Paul Culmsee who, among many other things, is a skilled facilitator and a master of the craft of dialogue mapping (more on that below).
In an hour-long conversation recorded a couple of weeks ago, Paul and I talked about the art of sensemaking. (Editor’s note: the conversation has been lightly edited for clarity)
What is sensemaking?
KA: Hi Paul, in this conversation I wanted to focus on sensemaking. From our association over the years, I know that’s a specialty of yours. Incidentally, I checked out your LinkedIn profile and saw that you announce yourself as an IT veteran of many years and a sensemaker. So, to begin with, could you tell us what sensemaking is?
PC: [Laughs] First up, thanks for stalking me on LinkedIn. Well the “IT veteran” part is easy – it’s is what I’ve been doing ever since I left university in 1989. Sensemaking came a while later.
In a nutshell, sensemaking is about helping groups make sense of complex situations that might otherwise lead them into tense or adversarial conditions. A lot of projects exhibit such situations from time to time. Sensemaking seeks to help groups develop a shared understanding of these sorts of situations.
KA: OK, so what I’m hearing is that it is about helping people get clarity on an ambiguous situation or may be, even define what the problem is.
PC: Yeah absolutely…and we alluded to this in our Heretic’s book. It is staggering when one realizes how many teams and individuals (in teams and in organisations) spend a stack of money and time without being aligned on the problem that they’re solving. Often this lack of alignment becomes evident only in the wash, long after anything can be done. In some ways it beggars belief that that could happen; that a project or initiative could go on for long without alignment, but it does happen quite often. Sensemaking seeks to eliminate that up front.
There are various tools, techniques and collaborative approaches that one can use to bring people together to air and reconcile different viewpoints. Of course, this assumes that people genuinely want to see things improve, and in my experience this is often the case. A lot of the time, therefore, sensemaking is simply about helping groups reach a shared understanding so that subsequent actions can be taken with full commitment from everybody concerned.
KA: All that sounds very reasonable, even obvious. Why do you think this has been neglected for so long? Why have people overlooked this?
PC: Mate, I’m glad we’re having beers as we talk about this [takes a swig].
Look I think it is often seen as an excuse to have a talk-fest, and I think that criticism is actually quite fair. I think organisations…or, rather, the people within them…tend to have a very strong drive to move to action. The idea of stopping and thinking is seen as not being a particularly productive use of time.
Actually, if you delve into it, sensemaking has been around for years and years. In fact, pretty much anyone who is a facilitator is a sensemaker as well in that he or she seeks to help people [overcome an issue that they’re facing as a group]. The problem is that a lot of the techniques used in sensemaking are rooted in theories or philosophies that aren’t seen as being particularly practical. To a certain extent, the theories themselves are to blame. For example, the first time I heard about soft systems theory, I had no idea what the person was talking about. (Editor’s note: a theory that underlies many facilitation techniques)
KA: Yes, that’s absolutely right. Systems theory itself has been around for a long time….since the 1950s I think. It’s also been resurrected in various guises ever since, but has always had this reputation (perhaps unfair) of being somewhat impractical. So, I’m curious as to how you actually get around that. How do you sell what you do? (Editor’s note: Systems theory is the precursor of soft systems theory)
PC: By example. It’s really as simple as that. If you take the example of dialogue mapping, which is a practical facilitation approach involving the visual capture of rationale using a graphical notation. Even that…which is a practical tool…is much easier to show by example than to explain conceptually. If I were to try to explain what it is in words, I’d have to say something like “I sit in a room and get paid to draw maps. I map the conversations and facilitate at the same time.” People might then say, “What’s that? Is it like mind mapping?” Then I have no choice but to say, “Well, yeah…but there’s a lot more to it than that.”
So I’ve long since given up on explaining it to people conceptually; it’s much easier to just show them. Moreover, in a lot of the situations where I do engagements for clients, I discourage the sponsor from making a big deal about the technique. I’d rather just let the technique “sell itself”.
KA: Yeah that rings true. You know, I was trying to write a blog post once on dialogue mapping, and realized it would be much better to tell it through a story (Editor’s note: …and the result was this post).
OK, so you’ve told us a bit about dialogue mapping, and I know it is a mainstay of your practice. Could you tell us a bit about how you came to it and what it has done for you?
PC: Oh, it’s changed my career. In terms of what it’s done for me – well, where I am now is a direct result of my taking up that craft. And I call it a craft because it took a damn lot of practice. It is not something where you can read a book and go “Oh that makes sense,” and then expect to facilitate a group of twenty people or anything like that.
How I came to it was as follows: I had come off a large failed project and was asking myself what I could have done differently. In hindsight, the problem was pretty obvious: there were times when things were said by certain stakeholders and I should have gone, “Right, stop!” But I didn’t. Of course, such mistakes are part of a learning journey. I subsequently did some research on techniques that might have helped resolve such issues and came to dialogue mapping directly as a result of that research.
Then, through sheer luck I got to apply the technique in areas other than my discipline. As I said earlier, I’m an IT guy and have been in IT for a long time, but I was lucky to get an early opportunity to use dialogue mapping in an area that was very different from IT (Urban planning to be precise). I sucked at it completely in that first engagement, but did enough that the client got value out of it and asked me back.
That engagement was a sink or swim situation, and I managed to do just enough to stay afloat. I should also say that the group I worked with really wanted to succeed: even though they were deadlocked, the group as a whole had a genuine intent to address the problem. Fortunately we were able to make a small breakthrough in the first session. We ended up doing six more sessions and had a really good outcome for the organisation.
KA: That’s interesting…but also a little bit scary. A lot of people would find a situation like that quite daunting to facilitate. In particular, when you walk into a situation where you know a group has been grappling with a problem for a long time, you first need to make sense of it yourself. How do you do that?
PC: Yeah, well as you do it more of it, you gain experience of different situations and domains – for example, not-for-profit organizations, executives of a business, public sector or what have you. You then begin to notice that the patterns behind complex problems are actually quite similar across different areas. Although I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly I do, I would say that it is largely about “listening to the situation” and “asking the right questions”.
When Jeff Conklin teaches dialogue mapping, he talks about the seven different question types (Editor’s note: Jeff Conklin is the inventor of dialogue mapping. See this post for more on his question types). He really gets you to think about the questions you’re going to ask. It took me a while to realize just how important that is: the power of asking questions in the right way or framing them appropriately. Indeed, the real learning for me began when I realized this, and it happened long after I had mastered the notation.
The fact is: each situation is unique. I approach strategic planning, team development or business analysis in completely different ways. I can’t give you a generic answer on the approach, but certainly nowadays when I’m presented with a scenario, I find that there is not much that is unfamiliar. I’ve seen most of the territory now, perhaps.
KA: So it’s almost like you’ve got a “library” of patterns which you can find a match to the situation you’re in
PC: Yes that’s right…and I should also mention that the guys I worked with in my early days of using the craft were also sensitive to this, even though they did not practice dialogue mapping. One of my earliest gigs was to develop a procurement strategy for a major infrastructure project. We spent half a day – from 8:30 in the morning to 1:00 in the afternoon – just trying to figure out what the first question should be. It’s conversations like that in the early days, followed by trial and error in actual facilitation scenarios that aided my learning.
KA: That’s interesting, and I’d like to pick up on what you said earlier about the power of asking the right questions. Jeff Conklin has his seven question types which he elaborates at length in his book (and we also talk about them in the Heretic’s Guide). However, since then, I know that your thinking on this has advanced considerably. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
PC: Yeah, if we ever do a second edition of the Heretic’s Guide, I’ll definitely be covering this kind of stuff. But, let me try to explain some of the ideas here in brief.
To set the context, I’ll start with one of Jeff’s question types. An important question type is the deontic question, which is a question that a lot of maps start with. A deontic question asks “What ought to be done?” – for example, “What should we do about X?” The aim of such a question is to open up a conversation.
However, deontic questions can be poorly framed. To take a concrete example, say if one were to ask, “What should we do about increasing X?” – well such a question implicitly suggests a course of action – i.e. one that increases X. A well framed deontic question doesn’t do that. It solicits information in a neutral or open way. (Editor’s Note: For example, a well-framed alternative to the foregoing question would be, “What should we do about X?”)
All that is well and good, and is something I teach in my dialogue mapping courses as does Jeff in his. However, I once taught dialogue mapping to a bunch of business analysts, and of course told them about the importance of asking deontic questions. Some of the guys told me that they intended to use it at work the following week. Well, I saw them again a few weeks later and naturally asked, “So how did it go?” They said, “Hey that the deontic question just didn’t work!”
I kind of realized then, and in fact I had mentioned to them (but may be not stressed it enough), that questions need to be framed to suit the situation. You can ask an open deontic question in a really bad way… or even lead at the wrong time with the wrong question.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are patterns to [framing] questions. In other words, there are ways of asking questions that will lead to better outcomes. As an example, a deontic question might be, “What should our success indicators be on this project?” This is a perfectly valid open question (as per Conklin’s question types). However, in a workshop setting this is probably not a good question to ask because the conversation will go all over the place without reaching any consensus. Moreover, people who don’t have tolerance for ambiguity would be uncomfortable with a question like that.
A better option would be to reframe the question and ask something like, “If this initiative were highly successful and we look back on it after, say 2 years, how would things be different to now?” With that question what you’re saying to people is: let’s not even worry about problem definition, context, criteria and all that stuff that comes with a deontic question; instead you’re asking them to tell you about the difference between now and an aspirational future. This is easier to answer. A lot of people will say things like – we’ll have more of X and less of Y and so on.
On a related note, if you want to understand the long-term implications of “more of X” or “less of Y”, it is not helpful to ask a question like, “What do you think will happen in the long-term?” People won’t intuitively understand that, so you won’t get a useful answer. Instead it is better to ask a question like, “What behaviours do you think will change if we do all this sort of stuff?” Now, if you think about it, the immediate outcomes of projects are things like “increased awareness of something “or “better access to something”, but over time you’re looking for changes in behaviours because that’s when you know that the changes wrought by an initiative have really taken root.
Subtle reframings of this kind yield richer answers that are more meaningful to people. Moreover, when you solicit responses from a group in this manner, you’ll start to see common themes emerge. These are the sorts of subtleties I have come to understand and appreciate through my practice of sensemaking.
KA: That’s fascinating. So what you’re saying is that rather than asking a direct question it is better to ask an oblique one. Is that right?
PC: Yes, and I think that point is worth elaborating. You used the word “oblique” and I know you’re using it deliberately because we’ve talked about this in the past. Essentially I think the “law of asking questions” is that the more direct question, the less likely it is that you will get a useful answer.
Seriously, asking a question like “What should our vision be?” is a completely brainless way of getting to a vision. You’re more likely to get a useful answer from a question like “What would our organization look like three years from now, if we achieved all we are setting out to do?” The themes that come out of the answers to these kinds of question help in answering the direct question.
I’ve learnt that the question that everyone wants answered is never the one you start with. If you start with the direct question, the conversation will meander over all kinds of weird places.
I came across the notion of obliquity in an article (…and I think it was one of the rare times I sent you something instead of the other way around). In the article, the author (John Kay) made the observation that organisations that chased KPIs like earnings per share (for example) generally did not do as well as organisations that had a more holistic vision (Editor’s note: I also recommend Kay’s book on obliquity). One example Kay gives is that of Microsoft whose objective in the 90s wanted “a PC on every desk in the world.” Microsoft achieved the earnings per share alright, but it was pursued via an oblique goal.
Organisations that chase earnings per share or other financial metrics tend to be like the folks who “seek happiness” directly instead of trying to find it by, say, immersing themselves in activities that they enjoy. I guess I observed that the principle of obliquity – that things are best achieved indirectly – also applies to the art of asking questions.
KA: That makes a lot of sense. Indeed, after we exchanged notes on the article and Kay’s book, I’ve noticed this idea of obliquity popping up in all different kinds of contexts. I’m not sure why this is, but I think it has something to do with the fact that we don’t really know how the future is going to unfold, and obliquity helps open our minds up to possibilities that we would overlook if we took a “straight line from A to B” kind of approach.
PC: Yep, and that brings up an interesting aspect to oblique questions as well. You know, some people – especially those trained in a standard business school curriculum will be surprised if you ask them an oblique question because it seemingly makes no sense. They might say, “Well, why would you ask that? What we really want to answer is this”
Well, I’ve found a way to deal with this, and I learnt this from working with a facilitator who is a professor at one of the business schools here (in Perth). This was in a strategic planning workshop that we co-facilitated. Before starting, she walked up to the whiteboard and sketched out a very simple strategic planning model – literally a diagram that said here’s our vision, and the vision leads to a mission, which leads to areas of focus which, in turn, lead to processes…a simple causal diagram with a few boxes connected by arrows.
She spent only a minute or so explaining this model; she didn’t do it in any detail. Then she pointed to a particular box and said, “We’re going to talk about this particular one now.” And I don’t know why this is, but when you present a little model like that (which is familiar to the audience) and say that you’re going to focus on a particular aspect of it, people seem to become more receptive to ambiguity, and you can then get as oblique as you like. Perhaps this is because the narrative is then aligned with a mental model that is familiar to them.
What I’ve learnt, in effect, is that you can’t talk about the wonders of complex systems theory to a bunch of rational project managers. Conversely, when I’m dealing with a group of facilitators (who love all that systems theory stuff) I would never draw a management model going from vision to mission to execution. But when dealing with the corporate world, I will often use a model like that. Not to educate them – they already know the model – but purely to reduce their anxiety. After that I can ask them the questions I really want to ask. It’s a subtle trick: you put things in a familiar frame and then, once you have done that, you can get as oblique as you like.
Tying this back to a question you asked earlier about how I prepare for a facilitation session. Well, I usually try to figure out audience first. If I’m dealing with the public sector I might set the stage by talking about wicked problems, whereas with corporate clients I might start with a Strategic Planning 101 sort of presentation. Either way, I find a frame that is familiar to them and then – almost like a sleight of hand – I switch to the questions I really want to ask. Does that make sense?
KA: Yeah, so to summarise: you give them a security blanket and then scare the hell out of them [laughs]
PC: That’s actually pretty well summarized [laughs]; I like where you’re going with that…but I’d put it slightly differently. It’s actually a bit like when you’re trying to get little kids to eat something they don’t want to eat – you go, “see here’s the choo-choo train” or something like that, and then get them to have a spoonful while their focusing on that. In a way it’s like creating a distraction. But the aim is really to couch things in such a ways as to get to a point where you can start to have a productive dialogue. And the dialogue itself is driven by powerful questions.
From obliquity to directness
KA: By powerful, I guess you mean oblique…
PC: Yeah, the oblique aspect of questions is a common thread that runs through much of what I do now. Mind you, I don’t stay oblique all the way through a session. I start obliquely because I want to unpack a problem. Eventually, though, as people start to get insights and themes begin to emerge, I become more direct; I start to ask things such as who, when etc…putting names and dates down on the map.
KA: So you get more direct in your questioning as the group starts to reach a common understanding of a problem.
PC: That’s exactly right. But there’s the other side to it (and by the way, you should have a conversation with my colleague Neil on this kind of stuff): you typically have a mixed audience, the “left-brainers” who are rational engineer types as well as the “hippies” (the so-called “right-brainers”) who want to stay out in conceptual-land. Both groups like to stay in their comfort zone: the engineers don’t like moving to conceptual-land because they see it as a waste of time; on the other hand conceptual people don’t like moving to action because the conceptual world feels safer to them. So I sort of trick the engineers into doing conceptual stuff while also pushing conceptual guys into answering more direct questions.
Other techniques and skills
KA: Interesting. Let’s talk a bit about techniques – I know dialogue mapping is a mainstay of much of what you do. What are some of the other techniques you use [to draw people out of their comfort zones]? You mentioned soft systems theory and a few others; you seem to have quite a tool-chest of techniques to draw upon.
PC: Yeah well, when I got into mapping, I also looked at other techniques. I was interested in what else you could do, so I looked at various gamestorming techniques, graphic facilitation and, of course, many methods based on the principles of soft systems and related theories.
I use techniques from both the right-brained and left-brained ends of the spectrum…and by the way, I apologize to any neuroscientists who might be reading/listening to this because I know they hate the term left/right brained. However, I do find it useful sometimes.
Anyway, a popular technique on the right-brained end of the spectrum is Open Space, which operates almost entirely in conceptual-land. It relies on the wisdom of the crowd; there is no preset agenda, just a theme. People sit in a circle, there’s a Tibetan bell…an on the surface it all seems quite hippy. However, I’ve actually done it in construction projects where you have folks who have come off a building site, dressed in their safety gear – hard hats and all – and participated in such situations. And it does work, despite its touchy-feely, hippy image.
On the other hand, once you’ve conceptualized a project you need to get down to hard work of getting stuff done. One of the first questions that comes up is, “How do we measure success?” This usually boils down to defining KPIs. Now, I would never dialogue map or open space a conversation on KPIs. You might get a few themes from dialogue mapping, but definitely not enough detail. Instead, one of the things I often do is go to an online KPI library (like http://kpilibrary.com which has over 7000 KPIs) in which you can find KPIs relating to any area you can think of, ranging from project management to customer service to quality or sustainability. I’ll then print relevant ones on cards and then use a card-sorting technique in which I put people in different groups and ask them to look at specific focus areas [that emerged from the conceptualization phase], and figure out which KPIs are relevant to it.
Why do I do that? Not because I think they will find the KPI. They probably won’t. It’s more because such a process avoids those inevitable epic arguments on what a KPI actually is.
A very effective technique is to spend half a day unpacking a problem via dialogue mapping and get key themes to emerge. This “conceptualization phase” is done with the whole group. Then, when you want to drill down into detailed actions action, it helps to use a divide and conquer approach. This is why I split people up into smaller groups and get them to go off and work on themes that emerged from the conceptualization phase. The aim is to get them to come up with concrete KPIs or even actions. If I’m feeling really evil, when there’s only 10 minutes left, I’ll tell them that they can present only their top four actions or KPIs. This forces them to prioritise things according to value. It’s a bit like a Delphi technique really. Finally, the groups come back together and present all their findings, which I then dialogue map. Once that is done, the larger group (together) will turn to the map and synthesise the outputs of what the smaller groups have done. This example is quite typical of the kind of stuff that I do.
Another example: I did some strategic planning work for local government – this was in the area of urban planning. Now, we did not want them to just copy someone else’s community development plan and “cookie cutter” it. So the very first thing we did was a dialogue mapping session geared towards answering a couple of questions: 1) if the community development plan for this organization was highly successful, how would things be different from how they are now? And, 2) what is unique about this particular area (shire)?
Then, in the second workshop we got some of the best community development plans from around Australia and put each one at a different table. We split people up into groups and got them to spend time at each table. Their job was to note down, on flipcharts, the pros and cons of each plan. The first iteration took about half an hour – presumably because this was the first time many of them were reading a development plan. Once the first iteration was done, people moved to the next table and so on, in round robin fashion.
By the end of that exercise, everyone was a world expert in reading community development plans. By the time people got to their third plan, they were flicking through the pages pretty fast, noting down the things they agreed or disagreed with. Then they came back together and did a synthesis of the common themes were – what was good, what was bad and so on.
Finally, we dialogue mapped again, and this time the question was, “Given what we have seen in all of the other plans, what are we going to do differently to mitigate the issues we have seen with some of them?” That pretty much nailed what they were going to do with their plan.
The need to improvise
KA: From what you’re saying it seems that almost every situation you walk into is different, and you almost have to design your approach as you go along. I suppose you would make a guess or some tentative plans based on your knowledge of the make-up of the audience, but wouldn’t you also have to adjust a lot on-the-fly?
PC: Oh yeah, all the time. And in fact, that is more a help than a hindrance. I’ll tell you why…by example again.
Often groups will tell you what they aspire to do. They might say, “as a general principle, we will do this” or something along those lines. For me that’s gold because I can use it on them [laughs].
In fact, I did this a couple days ago in a workshop. Earlier in the workshop they had said, “It’s OK to make mistakes as long as we are honest with each other and upfront about it.” I totally used that on them towards the end of the workshop when I said, “Given that you guys are honest with each other, the question I’d like you to answer is – what keeps you up at night with this project?”
My colleague uses the phrase, “hang them by their own petard” when we do this kind of stuff [laughter]. I guess what we’re doing, though, is calling them out on what they espouse, and getting them to live it. If you can do that in a workshop, it is brilliant. So I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to improvise like that, particularly when it is a matter of (espoused) principle.
There are many times when I’ve been in workshops where the corporate values are hanging on a wall – in a boardroom, right - and I’m witnessing them get completely trashed in the conversation that’s happening. So I like to hold people to account to what’s stated…and these are sneaky little subtle ways in which one can do that.
KA: I’m sure you come across situations where a certain approach doesn’t go down very well – may be people start to get defensive or even question the approach. Does that happen, and how do you deal with that?
PC: I’ve never had a situation where people question the approach I use. I guess that’s because we’re able to deal with that as it happens. For example, if I’m going a bit too “hippie” on a group and I see that they need more structure then I’ll change my approach to suit the group and then gently nudge them back to where I want them to be.
I also co-facilitate with other people…and sometimes they’re the ones who design the workshops, or I co-design it with them. Often it is their tolerance for ambiguity that can be a roadblock. One facilitator I work with loves emergence. This is my crass generalization, but anyone who thinks complex systems theory is just it will be happy to let a group get mired in ambiguity. The group might be struggling, but as far as the facilitator is concerned that’s OK because he or she believes that ambiguity is necessary for an emergent outcome. What they forget is that not everyone has the same level of tolerance for ambiguity.
On the other hand, I also work with highly structured facilitators who follow a set path – “we’ll do this, then we’ll do that and so on”. This approach might not go so well with people who prefer more open-ended approaches.
These sorts of experiences have been handy. When designing my own workshops, I’m the ultimate bower bird: I cherry pick whatever I need and improvise on the fly. So I tend not to worry about the risks of people not finding the workshop of value. That probably comes from a level of confidence too: we’re reasonably confident that we know our craft and have enough experience to deal with unexpected situations.
Coda – capturing organisational knowledge
KA: Thanks for the insights into sensemaking. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to switch tack and talk about something that your organization – Seven Sigma – is currently involved in. I know you guys started out as a SharePoint outfit, and you’ve been doing some interesting things in SharePoint relating to knowledge management. Could you tell us a bit about that before we wrap up?
PC: Sure. To begin with, dialogue maps are a pretty good knowledge artifact. Anyone who has used the Compendium software will know this (Editor’s note: Compendium is a free software tool that can be used for dialogue mapping). I’ve used it extensively for the last five years and have an “encyclopedia of conversations” that I have mapped. When I go and look at them, they’re as vivid to me as on the day I mapped them. So I’ve always been fascinated by the power of dialogue maps as a visceral way to capture the wisdom of a group at a point in time.
Now SharePoint is a collaborative platform that’s often used for intranets, project portals, knowledge management portal and so forth. It’s a fairly versatile platform. The Compendium software on the other hand, is not a multi-user, collaborative platform. It’s more like Photoshop or Word in that you use it to create an artefact – a map – but if someone else wants to see the map then he or she has to install Compendium. And it can be a bit of a pain in the butt to install Compendium as it is a freebie, open source product that doesn’t really fit in an enterprise environment. We’ve therefore always wanted to have the ability to import maps into SharePoint and my colleague Chris [Tomich] had already started writing some code to do that around the time we first got into dialogue mapping.
However, my own Aha moment came later; and come to think of it, the fact that we’re having beers in this conversation is relevant to this story…
I was dialogue mapping a group of executives about 4-5 years ago; it was a team-building exercise built around a lessons learned workshop. The purpose of the workshop was to improve the collaborative and team maturity of this group. [As a part of this exercise] the group was reviewing some old projects, doing a sort of retrospective lessons learned. We got to this one project, and someone complained about an organisational policy that had caused an issue on the project. Now as it happened, there was this guy in the group who knew how this policy had come about (I knew this guy, by the way, and I also knew that he was about to retire). He said, “Oh yeah, well that happened about 30 years ago, and it was on so-and-so project.” He then proceeded to elaborate on it.
Well, I knew this guy was about to retire. I also knew that the organization does this “phased retirement” thing, where people who are about to retire write documentation about what they do, mentor their successors etc. before they leave. I remember thinking to myself, “there’s no way in hell that he would have written that down in his documentation.” I just knew it: he had to be in that particular conversation for him to have remembered this.
Then my next thought…and as I’m mapping, I’m having this thought … “man, someone just ought to give him a beer, sit him down, and ask him about these kinds of old projects. I could map that video…how hard could that be? If one can map live conversations then surely one can map videos.” In fact, videos should be simpler because you can pause them, which is something you can’t do with live conversations.
So that was literally the little spark. It started with me thinking about how great it would be if this guy could spend even half his time recording his reflections…and this could take different forms, may be it could be a grad asking him questions in a mentoring scenario, or it could be another person he has worked with for years and they could reminisce over various projects. The possibilities were endless. But the basic idea was simple: it was to try to capture those sorts of water cooler or pub conversations, or those that you have in conferences. That’s where we get many of our insights – it’s the stories, the war stories through which we learn. That kind of stuff never gets into the manuals or knowledge-base articles.
Indeed, stories are the key to those unwritten insights about, say, when it is OK to break the rules. That kind of stuff can never be captured in the processes, manuals or procedures. One of your pieces highlights this beautifully – it’s one of the parables you’ve written I think, where an experienced project manager suggested to the novice that he should be listening to the stories rather than focusing on the body of knowledge he was studying. And that is completely true.
So that was, to coin a pun, the “glimmer of an idea” – because the product is called Glyma. The idea was to capture expert knowledge by mapping it and storing the map in SharePoint. SharePoint has a great search engine and we already knew that dialogue maps are a great way to capture conversations in a way that makes it easy to understand and navigate rationale (or the logic of a conversation). If we could do dialogue maps live, then we sure as hell could map videos. Moreover SharePoint also offers the possibility of tagging, adding feeds etc. – the kinds of things that portals these days are good at. It occurred to us that no one had really done that before.
Sure, there are plenty of story captures, say where people capture reflections on video. But because the resulting videos tend to be quite big, they are usually edited down to 15 minute “elevator pitch” type presentation. But then all the good stuff is gone; indeed, you and I have had many of these brief conversations where you’re summarising something terrific you’ve read and I’ll go, “Yeah well, that doesn’t sound so interesting to me.” The point is: you can’t compress insight into a convenient 10 minute video with nice music. So our idea was – well, don’t do that; take the video as it is and map it. Then, if you click on a node – say an idea node or a question node –Glyma will play the video from the point in time where the idea or question came up. You don’t have to sit through the entire thing. Moreover, when you do a search and get a series of results, you can click on a result and it plays that bit straight away.
So that was really the inspiration for Glyma…and it will see the light of day very soon.
Actually we’ll be putting a beta site out early next week (Editor’s note: the site has since gone live; I urge you to check it out). By the way, Glyma has been four years in the making. One of last things on our bucket list of things to do while running a consultancy was to put an innovative new product out and to see if people like it. So that’s where we are going with that.
KA: That’s sounds very interesting. The timing should work out well because this conversation will be posted out in a week or two as well. I wish you luck with Glyma; I’ve seen some early versions of it and it looks really good. I look forward to seeing how it does in the market place and what sort of reception it receives. I certainly hope it gets the reception it deserves because it is a tremendous idea.
PC: Well thank you; I appreciate your saying that…and we’ll see if you still say that once you’ve mapped this video because that might be your homework. [laughs]
KA: [laughs] Alright, great mate. Well, thanks for your time. I think that’s been a really interesting conversation. We’ll chat about Glyma further after it’s been out for a while.
PC: Yeah absolutely.
KA: Cheers mate.
PC: See ya.
In his thought-provoking book on antifragility, Nassim Taleb makes the point that the opposite of fragility is not robustness or resilience, rather it is the ability to thrive on or benefit from uncertainty. There is no word in the English language to describe such behavior, and that is what led him to coin the term antifragile.
Nature is an excellent example of an antifragile system: whenever subjected to a cataclysmic event (like this one that occurred ~66 million years ago), nature manages not only to recover, but does so in novel and arguably better ways. Unlike nature, however, most human-made systems tend to be fragile. An example that Taleb highlights is the global financial system , not just prior to the 2008 financial crisis but even now.
The broader lesson to be learnt from the financial crisis is that it is impossible to predict the future in any detail. Systems should therefore be designed to cope with (if not take advantage of) the irreducible uncertainty associated with this lack of predictability. Human-made systems that overlook this inescapable fact tend to be brittle by design.
The above is true not only of systems, but also of future-directed activities such as strategic planning. Overlooking the role of irreducible uncertainty in planning invariably locks an organization into an inflexible course of action. Unfortunately, this is not always appreciated by those who run organisations. As Taleb puts it:
Corporations are in love with the idea of the strategic plan. They need to pay to figure out where they are going. Yet there is no evidence that strategic planning works —we even seem to have evidence against it. A management scholar, William Starbuck, has published a few papers debunking the effectiveness of planning [see this paper, for example]—it makes the corporation option-blind, as it gets locked into a non-opportunistic course of action.
The trick, as Taleb hints in the above passage (and elaborates on in his book), is to plan in such a way as to take advantage of options that we are unaware of now, but might emerge in the future.
That, of course, is easier said than done.
In this post, I draw on Taleb’s book and my own experiences to discuss how one can formulate an IT strategy that thrives on uncertainty. Although my focus is primarily on IT, the points discussed have a wider applicability to strategic planning in general.
Towards an antifragile IT strategy
Before we get into antifragility, it is useful to take a brief look at how IT strategy is usually formulated.
Although some IT leaders will contest this point, a good majority of organisations tend to view IT as a cost rather than a strategic focus area. As a consequence, the objectives of an IT strategy are generally geared towards cost reduction and increased efficiency. The obvious ways in which to do this are through strict governance, standardization and/or outsourcing. Unfortunately, these actions tend to make organisations less flexible and hence more susceptible to uncertainty…and thus more fragile.
So, the key to an antifragile strategy is flexibility…but what exactly is flexibility?
The best definition of flexibility I have come across is the one proposed by Gregory Bateson who defined it as uncommitted potential for change (see this post for more on Bateson’s definition of flexibility). Only if one is flexible in this sense can one take advantage of unexpected events when they occur. The problem of formulating an antifragile IT (or any other!) strategy thus boils down to finding ways in which one can increase one’s flexibility. With that in mind, here are some suggestions.
This one is going to raise some eyebrows because the general trend in the world of corporate IT is to move in exactly the opposite direction – i.e. towards greater centralisation. The drive to centralisation manifests itself in many different ways: from top-down decision-making to the deployment of standardized processes and pan-organisational “enterprise” applications (single instance ERP systems being an extreme example).
The justification offered by advocates of centralisation is that it increases efficiency and reduces cost by using a one-size-fits-all approach. In reality, however, such an approach almost always has undesirable features. For example:
- It overlooks the unique features of different structural units of the organization (subsidiaries in different countries, for example). Indeed, this is precisely at platform standardization fail – see my post entitled, The ERP paradox for more on this point.
- It increases coupling between different structural units. Since systems and processes have a global reach, an unexpected glitch in any of these will affect all structural units within the organization.
Decentralisation basically amounts to giving structural units the autonomy they need in order to make decisions and choices that affect them. To be sure, this must be balanced with some oversight and direction from a central authority, but the overall aim should be a federal structure rather than a centralized one. A few examples of things that can be controlled centrally include network infrastructure, security…and possibly even things such as preferred vendors, especially from the perspective of getting volume discounts on pricing. There is no black and white here: choices need to be made judiciously and revisited if they don’t work.
I use the term agile here in the sense of adaptability rather than as a reference to the slew of methodologies that go under the banner of Agile. Indeed, agility in the sense I use it here is more about a mindset than a methodology: if you are adapting to a shifting environment by changing your approach and priorities appropriately, then you are being agile in the sense of adaptability.
So, what does agility entail? Here are some things I see as being important:
- Responding to changes within and outside the organization…but only after determining that they need to be responded to. The qualifier is important: one must be able to distinguish between changes that merit a response and those that don’t. Moreover, any change should be instituted in a gradual or incremental fashion so that one can adjust one’s approach and take corrective actions if needed. Agility does not imply rapid, large-scale change.
- Sensing (or even creating!) new opportunities and taking advantage of them. The term intrapreneurial is often used to describe such a mindset. Many IT leaders are aware of the need to do this, but don’t always know how. In my experience, instituting a dedicated innovation group isn’t the best way to go about it. Instead, it may be better to focus on creating an environment in which people feel inspired to try new things. One of the ways to do this is to actively encourage staff to learn by experimenting on company time – say, one Friday afternoon per month - with no expectation of useful outcomes.
- Building flexibility into your external contracts so that you can respond to changes that weren’t foreseen when the contract was drawn up. Essentially this amounts to building a trust-based relationship with your vendors (see the last point in the present post for more on this) and factoring in transaction costs in your outsourcing deals.
An agile mindset is unlikely to thrive in an IT department that is bogged down by overly onerous rules and procedures. To be sure, rules and processes are necessary, but not at the expense of flexibility.
One of the keys to being antifragile in financial investing is to spread one’s investments over a range of different products. In analogy, one of the best ways towards developing an antifragile IT strategy is to diversify elements of your IT environment, especially those things that are likely to be negatively affected by uncertainty.
Here are some examples:
- For coverage in times of trouble, ensure that your team consists of people with overlapping sets of skills. This should be reinforced by periodic cross-training of staff in all key technologies that are used within your organisation.
- Hire people with different thinking styles. Your teams should contain a mix of people with analytic and synthetic approaches to problem solving. Most uncertain situations require both types of approaches.
- Diversify your vendor base. Among other things this means do not…and I repeat, do not…tie yourself to a single vendor by signing a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract!
- Set up small, low-cost skunkworks projects to explore technologies and ideas that have the potential to provide your business an edge.
- Seek to understand diverse viewpoints. Any important decision should be made only after soliciting and understanding viewpoints that are different from yours. Such an understanding will lead to better decisions than those made by relying on gut instinct or advice from a single source.
…and I’m sure there are many other possibilities.
Creating an environment of trust
I kept this for the last because it is possibly the hardest to put into practice. An antifragile IT strategy will only work if there is a mutual trust between all parties involved in a business relationship – be they managers and employees or IT folks and the businesses they serve. Although much has been written and spoken about trust, the fact is that it is conspicuous by its absence in the present day corporate world. Indeed, use of the word in corporate circles tends to evoke cynical reactions from the rank and file; it is seen as platitude rather than a word of significance.
Why is trust important?
Elinor Ostrom’s prize winning work established that trust is one of the core relationships that promote cooperation (see this post for more on this point). In situations of uncertainty, those who work in a high-trust environment would generally be willing to step outside their regular roles and work with others to fix the problem. In contrast those in a low-trust environment are likely to switch off or worse, start apportioning blame. On another note, people are more likely to share their ideas in a high-trust environment rather than in one that is riven by mistrust and unhealthy competition. I’m pretty sure that most readers would have experience of low-trust environments and would know from experience that such work environments are fragile in that they simply fall apart under stress.
It should be noted that that trust is also important in external relationships, such as those with vendors. Although purchasing and legal departments are quick to advise us about the importance of rock-solid contracts, in my experience it is far better to rely on trust. Indeed, it has been suggested that contracts can destroy trust!
Finally, just in case it is not clear: the onus for creating an environment of trust lies with management rather than the rank and file.
I offer the above as some suggestions aimed at making your IT environment less susceptible, even responsive, to unexpected external or internal events. Indeed, I believe that in times of uncertainty, they are likely to work much better than some of the well-worn but discredited command and control approaches that are inexplicably popular.
To sum up: IT strategy is usually focused on reducing improving efficiency and reducing cost. Typical ways to address this issue is through tighter governance and outsourcing, usually implemented in ways that reduce flexibility. As a result most IT strategies do not make any provision to deal with, let alone benefit from uncertainty. In this post I have outlined some of the key elements of an antifragile IT strategy that can correct this oversight.
When I reviewed this piece just prior to posting it, I was struck by the fact that the points I have mentioned have more to do with social or ethical matters than technology. This reminded me of Heinz von Foerster’s ethical imperative:
“Act always so as to increase the number of choices.”
And that, quite possibly, is the perfect one-line summary of an antifragile strategy.
I’ve long been thinking about initiating an ongoing series of conversations with sensemakers – a term I define, very broadly, as people who help us make sense of the things we do at work. So I’m absolutely delighted to kick-off the series with Dr. Jon Whitty, who teaches project management at the University of Southern Queensland.
In an hour-long conversation, Jon shared his unique perspective on project management, seasoning his insights with anecdotes ranging from the Simpsons to medieval rituals and fairs.
Intrigued? Then read on…
KA: Good morning, Jon! It’s great to have you as the first guest on my sensemakers series. To get things going, please tell us a bit about yourself.
JW: Thanks for that – I’m always glad to be a guinea pig [laughs]
Actually, I see myself as being a little selfish because much of what I do is about explaining stuff to myself. Then I realise that if I write it down, other people might find it useful too. But largely it’s about me trying to solve problems and explain stuff to myself.
Specifically, one of the things I find myself doing is looking at topics like project or program management using an evolutionary approach, which is a Darwinian framework in which one looks at things through the lens of competition, adaptation and selection, and see how they play out in the real world.
KA: Your paper on the memetic paradigm of project management exemplifies this approach. Incidentally, that was the first work of yours that I read and it completely blew me away. Among other things, one of the things that struck me when I read it is that a project should be treated as a system – you can’t treat parts of it in isolation. (Editor’s note: see this article for a summary of Jon’s paper)
JW: Yeah, that’s very much in my way of thinking. One of the things about taking an evolutionary view is that you can’t “half swallow the pill” – you’ve got to swallow the whole thing. And when you look at the whole thing, what strikes you is that it is actually rather meaningless; meaning is something we impose on it.
This might sound somewhat radical so let me elaborate by drawing on the great philosopher Homer…I mean Homer Simpson, of course…
I think it’s in the episode in which he donates blood for Mr. Burns. Towards the end of the show Mr. Burns gives him a gift, and it’s this big carved stone head (something like an Easter Island statue). So you have this head is sitting in the Simpsons’ lounge, and they’re all trying to make sense out of it. Marge goes through all the possible morals that one can get out of the episode – may be it is this and may be it’s that and so on. So, there is much debate but no consensus. Finally, Homer interrupts and says, “Marge, there is no purpose to any of this…it’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.”
(Editor’s note: The Simpson episode is The Blood Feud)
That really goes to the heart of the evolutionary framework – which is, to see things as they actually happen, without any presumption of purpose. As soon as you start putting purpose in there, you start clouding your perception of what is going on. What you have to look at instead is the notion of selection. Some people criticize the evolutionary framework because they see it as randomness. Although there is an element of randomness to it, it is selection that is the key.
So you have this system, as you put it, and there are all these people caught up in it – project managers, teams, sponsors etc. –interacting with each other and also with various artefacts (Gantt charts, status reports, plans etc.). The point is, stakeholders and artefacts all have different purposes: artefacts aren’t there because they work, and neither are people there because they are committed to the objective. Purposes and meanings differ. The utility of the evolutionary framework is that it exposes the system for what it really is, without being clouded by the meanings that are imposed upon projects by standards and frameworks.
(Editor’s note: for example, a project manager may craft a status report in such a way as to reassure a sponsor (actual purpose) rather than reveal the real status of a project (espoused purpose). As another, a team member may be in a project because she wants to improve his skills (actual purpose), not because she’s interested in the objective of the project (espoused purpose)).
As another example, take the iron triangle – you know, the time, cost, quality triple constraint. It’s been around for a long time, so people say, “if it didn’t work, it wouldn’t still be around, would it?”
The answer to that is, “That depends on what you mean by, ‘it works’!”
In reality, the triple constraint is a good answer to a very specific question, which is: “what are the major variables or drivers of a project?” As an answer, you can even draw a really simple diagram to explain what it’s about. It survives because of its simplicity, rather than its correctness or utility.
KA: This challenges basic, taken-for-granted concepts in project management, and I think it is why your work resonates with practitioners. However, I’m curious about the kind of reaction you get from standards bodies and institutions when you talk about things such as these.
JW: Hate mail…no, not that [laughs]. Look, they have trouble inviting me to events. I’m not on their list of mainstream invitees. However, I still manage to get invited to PMI-run conferences because people I know often coordinate these events and invite me to them.
Going back to what you said– that some of what I said resonates with practitioners. I think it resonates because some people find it hard to figure out how something that they are reading in a textbook or learning in the classroom can be relevant in real projects.
KA: That’s true…it’s the issue of the practical utility of concepts. For example, what use is the iron triangle, apart from being a pat answer to a question? Many of the things found in texts are formulaic concepts that are trotted out in class or in training courses, but are not so useful in the day-to-day running of projects.
In my experience, the day-to-day work of a project manager is largely about reacting to stuff that happens on the ground. It’s about improvisation rather than planning. I see it all the time in real-life projects – all this stuff you do at the start, scoping planning etc. is useful, but when you are thrust into the nitty-gritty of a project, you have to make decisions on the fly, react to things that you hadn’t anticipated and so on. To me, that’s an equally real, and perhaps more fascinating part of project management…but nobody ever talks about it. No textbook does at any rate. Philosophers do delve into this kind of stuff, but definitely not project management academics or professionals!
JW: Well, this is where books like yours, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices, help. They help people look behind the façade – the false shells of ideas about things. You know, people really beat themselves up about this kind of stuff.
One of the things I do is I run postgrad workshops where I bring in high flier PMs from industry – the kind of people who build big hospitals, infrastructure etc. Many of them are from the construction industry, but not all. So these people come in and tell us their war stories, and often I notice that they say things like, “We got a quality control system in place” or “We have a change management system in place” and so on. Then they add, almost apologetically, “It’s not like it is in the books, but we are trying…” And I’m always thinking to myself, “Why do they feel like they have to apologize for that?”
What they do not understand is that the things described in the PMBOK and other guides are “stick man-like” idealisations. Someone probably looked at 20 different ways to do something, found a common theme and then made up a model. The problem is that the model is just a high-level abstraction; you won’t actually find it anywhere because it doesn’t exist. So all these poor guys are working towards something that doesn’t exist and probably doesn’t work!
KA: Yes, that is definitely the case. I like to use the map versus territory metaphor when talking about this with practicing PMs. Textbook knowledge of PM is a bit like the knowledge that a map conveys. When you’re working on a project, however, you’re actually in the territory. When I explain it to people in this way, they often go, “Yeah, that makes sense: so the PMBOK is actually a map.” Then I warn them, “It is, but beware for it may not be as accurate as you think, so you’ve got to be careful”
JW: Yeah, that’s the point: you’re helping people I suppose. Most project managers simply do not have the time to think about these kinds of things. What they end up doing instead, is joining some kind of PM institution – the APM or PMI or whatever. They then keep getting this information that is pushed out to them through these bodies, and the hidden theme running through all of it is that they (the PMs) somehow aren’t “doing it right.”
I wrote a paper on this a while ago, talking about the almost Puritan influence that these institutions have on their members. There is this Jeremiad type story telling that goes on in professional PM circles. The message is: you shouldn’t do this and you shouldn’t do that; and if you strive, one day you may be as good as us. This sort of talk doesn’t make people feel good about themselves at all.
I see this in another context, when people talk to me as an academic, they sometimes feel like they have to apologize for not doing things “by the book.” As if I’ve got this Golden Book that has all the “right answers”…
KA: I’d like to change tack here a bit, if I may. Over the last few years, PMI and other standards bodies have sort of embraced Agile methodologies and have attempted to bring them into their fold. What are your thoughts on this?
JW: Well, I like to think of it as domestication – they’ve domesticated Agile. Indeed, the PMI and other bodies have no choice; they have to embrace Agile. The Agile community is big and is more cooperative and will continue to adapt and change with the times. They frankly couldn’t care less about the PMI and what it thinks. The standards bodies can’t just stand by and do nothing, they have to grab on to this movement somehow, and that’s what they’ve done. And I say, watch out; as the Agile folks move up the PMI hierarchy, there could be further disruptions on the way.
KA: So, the institutes have to adapt too, in order to survive…
JW: Indeed, and they do it in many ways. Let me tell you about something else that is going on: the lead project management body in UK, the APM, is trying to get chartered status. If that happens, it would mean that a PM could work towards a Chartered Project Manager qualification. In my opinion that would be a dangerous development because it would, in effect, force people to go for the APM qualification. Any freedom for a practitioner to get any other certification would be lost.
KA: That’s true, but someone might counter that by saying, “We have Chartered Engineers and Chartered Accountants, so why not Chartered Project Managers?” I think I know the answer to that, but I’d like to hear your view on it [laughs]
JW: [laughs]…and I think my answer would be the same as yours. The engineering and accountancy “body of knowledge,” if one can call it that, is evidence-based. The same is true of medicine. In comparison, project management (and management in general) is stuck in the medieval era.
For instance, I could claim that a success factor for a project is this bag of lavender – you know, you sort twirl it around three times, lay it on the floor and jump over it. It’s almost at the level that people were at when they cooked up rituals to stave off the Black Death. If the project succeeds, I attribute success to the bag of lavender ritual, if it fails, well… I can always attribute the failure to something else.
KA: [laughs] I’ve got to use that bag of lavender for my next kickoff meeting…
JW: Seriously, this is where we are…all those things that are in various bodies of knowledge are like that. One person actually said to me, “Ah well, wait a minute Jon, the APM’s body of knowledge isn’t a body of knowledge at all – it is a glossary of terms.”
So I said, “Why on earth didn’t you call it that!”
Well, I suppose they couldn’t because you can’t well ask people to get a certification on a glossary of terms now, can you? For crying out loud, this is ridiculous isn’t it?? I guess my point is that these are all good reasons why the profession shouldn’t be chartered.
What we really need to do is start looking at how projects are managed across different domains instead of looking for a lowest common denominator. This is far more than research based on a survey of a small bunch of people, written up for publication in an academic journal.
Most academic articles are written in impenetrable academic language for a small bunch of people to read. And to be honest, most people don’t even read them. In most cases, if you read them carefully and take them apart, however, you realize that they are based on not very much at all.
KA: Yes, I’ve noticed…
JW: …and you know, it is actually worse than that. I started teaching a good number of years ago, and I started out as an electronics instructor. It’s a very practical domain where physics and maths come together in a physical device.
One of the things I used to teach was TV repair – in the days when you could actually repair TVs yourself. The thing about TV repair is that you can’t sit around and discuss whether a TV’s been repaired, it isn’t a matter of opinion; you simply switch it on and see if it works. You can see where I’m going with this…
You were talking about how the map’s an abstraction of the territory. The dangerous thing is that one can get caught up in abstractions that never make contact with reality. This happens in maths quite a bit: mathematicians invent new concepts – multidimensional spaces etc. – and spend their entire working lives in these abstractions. That may be OK for maths, but it’s not OK for management.
The problem is, many management academics are actually specialists in abstractions. Moreover, this is what they teach in their courses because it is all they know. So now you have all these senior managers who’ve been through an MBA; they have a wealth of abstract knowledge, but they can’t actually do anything. They have no practical skills at all. This is why there is a gap between strategy development and strategy implementation.
KA: Yeah, I’ve read some interesting work by William Starbuck on the gap between strategy formulation and implementation (Editor’s note: see this paper for example). So I think this issue is recognized in academia. The problem is that strategy is usually in terms of causal models: if we do this, then that will happen. The real world is complicated and isn’t straightforward to figure out what causes what. Instead, managers need to develop certain sensibilities – like being attuned to what’s actually happening in their organisations. To use a term I’ve used before, it is about developing a systemic view. But how do you teach that?
JW: I could actually think of some practical ways in which one could teach that. Every university ought to have a couple of corner shops or even blacksmithing shops, say. Students should be asked to run these. If you reckon you can run a multi-million dollar business then surely you can run a corner shop, right? We don’t do that because it costs and it’s difficult to do. But more important, you can’t sell an MBA based on corner shops, although I think students would learn a lot more from it.
As a result people walk out with MBAs they can’t use. And academia becomes more and more detached. We’ve made a commodity out of education, particularly in management because we can get away with it. You can’t get away with this kind of thing in engineering schools.
KA: I think you’re absolutely right. There’s this big con trick pulled by business schools over the last so many years about selling model-based learning.
I think a lot of influential management academics have lamented this over the last decade or so – Warren Bennis, for example – but nothing seems to have changed.
JW: Changing this would destroy the business model of all these schools, so nobody’s going to volunteer to be the first to do this. They’d be wiped out.
Let me give you an example. The PMI accredits universities. Effectively, this amounts to you paying them to advertise your courses in their literature. They’re not really accrediting you; all they check is whether you’re using their name and materials in your courses. Once they are satisfied that you are doing that, you pay the fee and you are accredited. Schools have to go along because if they don’t, their competitors will, and they’ll get all the students.
So we all end up playing this ridiculous education “arms” race. You can’t opt out even if you want to.
KA: Yes, you can’t opt out. However, the one thing I’ve realized is that the best way to challenge the system is from within…and you certainly do that through your writing.
JW: Yeah, and I’m sure you must’ve got some feedback on your work as well. I think your book would have resonated well with practitioners because it speaks to the kinds of things that people actually do. There is a sort of “self-help” aspect to it.
KA: It’s interesting you put it that way, because that’s exactly what a few people have said to me after reading it…although I should add that I don’t particularly like the term “self- help” [laughs]
Seriously, though, the feedback has been the most gratifying part of the whole thing. We really had no idea what kind of reception we’d get so it’s been absolutely fantastic to hear from some folks that the book has made a difference to the way they look at things.
JW: I don’t know if there’s anything more in the pipeline, but I would suggest that a continuation in that sort of light would be useful. That is what I mean by self-help – in that it is helpful. Even if it is not helpful in actual practice, it might be helpful in the way they think and feel about their practice.
KA: Yes, well it’s been a couple of years now. Over the last year or so Paul and I have been talking and thinking about what comes next. The ideas and material are there, and there’s at least a couple of directions in which we can take them. Paul has developed a bunch of practical techniques through his consultancy work, and I’ve gained some insights through experience and my somewhat random reading on topics from management to philosophy. It’s really a question of finding the time to put it all together in a book that people will find interesting and useful.
JW: That reminds me of what you said before: that many of these things aren’t dealt with in management texts, but philosophers do have something useful to say about them. That is why I spend some of my time looking back to those works, because they are incredibly insightful about human practice. I also get some of my postgrads to read these works, so as to challenge the way they look at things.
There’s a book chapter I wrote entitled, “Thinking in slow motion about project management.” It deals with thinking about thinking about project management. That is, to question the way we actually think about the discipline. It is about questioning the the [tacit] assumptions we make when we think about projects.
Here’s an example: one of my students wrote to me the other day saying that he’d sketched out a couple of papers on thinking critically (see note below) about project management – the kind of work done by Damian Hodgson and others. One of the major themes underlying critical work in project management is project failure – you know, why projects fail etc. If one “thinks about this thinking” one realizes that there is a tacit assumption here that failure is a bad thing. However, from an evolutionary point of view, failure occurs more often than success does!
(Editor’s note: Jon uses the word critical in a technical sense here. As per my understanding, critical studies are aimed at critiquing a practice (project management, in this case) with the aim of changing it in such a way that it benefits the largest number of people possible. See this paper review for an example of a critical study in project management.)
KA: Yes, that’s true. However, one can also see the rationale for focusing on failure. There is an economic driver here; one can’t go to a project sponsor and say, “this project failed because of evolution.” I can’t see that going down too well [laughs]
JW: True, but then again it’s about selecting the stories we tell. When you look at the personal development literature, it’s not put together to describe success stories, but to describe strategies that people have used to overcome failure. So, if we were to try and put together a set of stories about how failures or potential failures were overcome by evidence based means – that is, not by using rituals such as bags of lavender [laughs] – then people would be more comfortable about talking about failure.
Indeed, if you look at the great stories of management, they are all about how adversity was overcome or how innovations arose from failures. People say, “Yes we failed, but we learnt something from it. We now know how to do it better.” And that’s a lesson that won’t be forgotten.
KA: That’s absolutely right, and it brings to mind a related point. The fortunate thing for those who work in information technology is that it is relatively easy to fail quickly and learn something from it. Indeed that’s what Agile is largely about – flushing out the difficulties early in the game. And even if one does not use the full machinery of an Agile methodology, it is easy enough to work in an incremental way: you know, do a quick prototype and run it past the business to flush out hidden requirements.
JW: Yes, but it’s not just in IT; one can do it in customer service or even construction – things like role-playing, building a façade, these kinds of things are in fact agile approaches relevant to those domains. One doesn’t have to wait for feedback from real customers or commission an architect to do these kinds of things. So the idea of mistaking-making and overcoming mistakes is actually a process of building new knowledge about how things work in that domain. These are the sorts of stories we should be sharing more and telling more.
KA: Yes, you’re right…and one could even get people to think about what could go wrong by asking questions like, “what could come back to bite us if we did this?” The advantage is that this can be done by simply thinking through scenarios with a group of people, prior to problems actually occurring.
JW: Yes, but the trouble is that it is difficult capture any intellectual property around this kind of thinking. If you want to build a critical mass around these sorts of ideas, you have to be able write them down and market them. The problem is, they change from domain to domain and they are difficult to write down into something like a BOK. The PMI, on the other hand, have a well-defined product which they can build branding around. . They have the stories to tell as to why you should become a member- all the great benefits you would enjoy and so forth.
It’s a bit like the atheists versus the church: one side has the full machinery of religion the other has nothing. You know, I’m an atheist, but I could go into Notre Dame cathedral on a late afternoon when the sun is shining through that massive window, and lighting up all those dust particles in that spectacular way, with the guy playing the organ the background. I take all that in and think to myself, “You know, there might be something in this.”
KA: [laughs] Yes, that’s an excellent point.
JW: Yeah, the whole structure around you can make you feel as though, “Hey, I can for a moment entertain the thought of being a part of this.” Now, when you’re at a PMI meeting, with all those people in suits and ties and those badges with their names and titles on, you could well think that there is something in it. But when I’m in a supermarket, pushing a trolley around, I simply can’t entertain such a thought.
KA: You know, I think it is more of a security blanket than anything else. One thinks that by joining a professional organization and getting a certification, one somehow becomes more professional. There is this myth (or idea) floating around that certifications are good because employers like them. I don’t know how true that is, I haven’t really tested that; but right now, in this tight job market, people will do whatever they think will give them an edge.
JW: Yes, and the evolutionary framework would see this as a device to get selected – to keep your job (or get a new one)…and also to feel good about yourself.
There is this wonderful medieval fete that takes place in Queensland every year. It’s an event that takes place in this huge field. People come from all over; they descend for a week and set up this medieval camp. It’s like a scene out of a Harry Potter film or a camp in King Alfred’s time – and with all those tents, smoky ambience from fires, people walking around in armour and costumes etc, one can really get immersed in the scene and feel that one is actually there.
Now, just towards the end of the camp there’s a set of stalls – trading stalls – there’s the blacksmith, for example and others. Then there is a stall that sells replica medieval weapons and costumes. When I was there, I was thinking to myself that if I were really in a medieval setting, I would actually have to buy a weapon to protect myself. And then I realized that this is precisely what the exhibition hall in the PMI Global Congress is like, right?
JW: Seriously, that’s exactly what is going on. On the one side you have people selling certifications, university degrees or books like “55 Ways to get Certified in 35 Seconds”, and on the other you have practitioners who feel they must choose a certification, university or a book. All the vendors and universities claim that their “weapons” are better than the other ones on the market.
However, these vendors will never show you how to actually use their “weapons.” If they were to show you how to use them, you’d probably find out that they don’t work… and that won’t do at all, would it? Nevertheless, you are made to feel that you must have these “weapons” because you know you will be up against others who have them.
KA: [laughs] That’s brilliant!
JW: When I go to these chapter and branch meetings, I’m always amazed at how oblivious some project managers are about what’s going on here (and I don’t mean this in an unkind way at all). They see themselves as active participants in this group that they have joined, whereas really what they are is simply a market for the standards and the institutions. They are somebody to sell to.
KA: Yes, they’re somebody to sell to, and somebody to propagate the message.
JW: You know what I would really like to do? Well, one of the ways of undermining what the standards bodies are doing is through humour. One way to do this is through cartooning scenarios that highlight some of the ludicrous things that happen in the project management workplace. Dilbert is an excellent example. I’d really like to explore this way of getting people to look at project management through an evolutionary lens because I think it would be much more effective and useful than writing for an academic audience.
KA: Yes, a “Dilbert for PM.” I like that!
JW: I think this would help engage project managers. Actually, in some ways it is a bit like what you’re doing with your blog.
KA: Yes, but humour and satire are so much better; there’s no better way to undermine over-seriousness and pompousness.
JW: Yeah, there’s a long history to that kind of stuff – Voltaire for instance. But you’ve written a bit along those lines, haven’t you?
KA: Yes, I’ve written a few satirical pieces (Editor’s note: see this piece, for example). Unfortunately, that kind of writing doesn’t come naturally to me. It is a surprise even for me when I come up with something like that.
JW: One of the things I’m going to try and do is to push this “bag of lavender” metaphor further; I haven’t exercised it fully as yet. I think I’ll do a short blog post on it soon. (Editor’s note: This conversation was recorded a few days before Jon published his brilliant post on medieval management balms. Don’t miss it!)
KA: Ah, that idea’s got great potential. I look forward to reading it, Jon.
Well, I think I’d better let you go back to your work now…we’ve been talking for over an hour. Thanks so much Jon, it’s been wonderful talking to you.
JW: It was good, and I hope there’s something useful in there.
KA: There’s plenty, all I have to do now is transcribe it! I look forward to chatting with you again sometime in the near future. Thanks again.
JW: No worries; always good to chat.
The general image of management consultants in contemporary society is somewhat ambiguous. To take two rather extreme views: high achievers in universities may see management consulting as a challenging (and well paying!) profession that offers opportunities to make a positive difference to organisations, whereas those on the receiving end of a consultant-inspired restructure may see the profession as an embodiment of much that is wrong with the present-day corporate world.
The truth, as always, is not quite so black and white. In this post I explore this question by taking a look at the different types of consultants one may encounter in the wilds of the corporate jungle. My discussion is based on a typology of management consultants proposed by Mats Alvesson and Anders Johansson in a paper published in this book (see citation at the end of this post for the full reference).
There is a considerable body of research on management consulting, most of which is tucked away in the pages of management journals and academic texts that are rarely read by professionals. It would take me too far afield to do even a cursory review of this literature so I’ll not go there, except to point out that much of the work can be classified as either strongly pro- or anti-consultant. This in itself is revealing: academics are just as divided in their opinions about consultants as professionals are. Indeed, to see just how strong the opinions are, here’s a small list of paper / book titles from the pro and anti-consultant camps
“Management Consulting as a Developer of SMEs”
“Process Consultation, Vol 1: Its Role in Organization Development”
“The Management Guru as an Organizational Witch Doctor”
“The Violent Rhetoric of Re-engineering: Management Consultancy on the Offensive”
These titles have been taken from the reference list in Alvesson and Johansson’s paper. A quick search on Amazon will reveal many more.
The pro camp depicts consultants as rational, selfless experts who solve complex problems for their clients, sometimes at considerable personal cost. The anti camp portrays them as politically-motivated, self-interested individuals whose main aim is to build relationships that ensure future work. The classification proposed by Alvesson and Johansson puts these extreme views in perspective.
A classification of management consultants
Alvesson and Johansson classify consultants into the following categories based on consultants’ claims to professionalism and their preferred approaches to dealing with political issues:
These consultants typically offer high expertise in some specialized area. Some examples of these include IT consultants specializing in complex products (such as ERP systems) and tax experts who have specialized knowledge typically not possessed by those who work within business organisations. As one might expect, esoteric experts have strong claims to professionalism.
One might think that such consultants have little need to play political games as their skill/knowledge does not threaten anyone within organizations. However, this is not always so because esoteric experts may portray themselves as being experts when they actually aren’t. In such cases they would have to use their social and political skills to cover up for their shortcomings. Perhaps more important, esoteric experts may also play politics to secure future gigs.
Typical clients of esoteric experts are purchasers of large IT systems, small organisations in occasional need of specialized skills (lawyers, accountants etc.) and so on.
Brokers of meaning
Brokers of meaning are sense makers: they help clients make sense of difficult or ambiguous situations. Typically brokers of meaning act as facilitators, teachers or idea-generators, who work together with clients to produce meaning. They often do not have deep technical knowledge like esoteric experts, but instead have a good understanding of human nature and the socio-political forces within organizations.
Brokers of meaning typically do not indulge in overt politics as the success of their engagements depends largely on their ability to gain the trust of a wide spectrum of stakeholders within the organization. That said, such consultants, once they have gained trust of a large number of people within an organization, are often able to influence key stakeholders in particular directions. Another way in which brokers of meaning influence decisions is through the skillful use of language – for example, depending on how one wants to portray it, an employee taking the initiative can be called gung-ho (negative) or proactive (positive).
Typical clients of brokers of meaning are managers who are faced with complex decisions.
Traders in trouble
The archetypal trader in trouble is the hatchet-man who is employed by a senior executive who wants to reduce costs. Since the work of these consultants typically involves a great deal of organizational suffering, they are careful to cast their aims in neutral or objective language. Indeed, much of the corporate doublespeak around layoffs (e.g. rightsizing) and cost reduction initiatives (e.g. productivity improvements) originated from traders in trouble. Typical outcomes of such consulting engagements involve massive restructuring on an organization-wide scale, often resulting in a lot of pain for minimal gain.
The work of such consultants is necessarily political – they must support senior management at all costs. Indeed this is another reason that they go to great lengths to portray their proposed solutions as being rational. On the other hand, their claim to professional knowledge is ambiguous as they often have to (knowingly) forgo actions that may be more logical and (more important!) ethical.
Alvesson and Johansson summarise this by quoting from Robert Jackall’s brilliant ethnographical study of managers, Moral Mazes:
The further the consultant moves away from strictly technical issues – that is from being an expert in the ideal sense, a virtuoso of some institutionalized and valued skill – the more anomalous his status becomes. He becomes an expert who trades in others’ troubles. In managerial hierarchies, of course, troubles, like everything else, are socially defined. Consultants have to depend on some authority ‘s definition of what is troublesome in an organization and, in most cases, have to work on the problem as defined. As it happens, it is extremely rare that an executive declares himself or his own circle to be the problem; rather, other groups in the corporation are targeted to be ‘worked on.
A terrific summary of the typical trader in trouble!
Clients of such consultants tend to be senior managers who have been tasked with increasing “efficiency” or “productivity.”
Agents of anxiety (suppliers of security)
The agent of anxiety is a messiah who sells a “best practice” solution to his clients’ problems. This type of consultant can therefore also be described as a supplier of security who assures his clients that their troubles will vanish if they just follow his prescribed process. Common examples of agents of anxiety are purveyors of project management methodologies and frameworks (such as PRINCE2 or IPMA) or process improvement techniques (such as Six Sigma).
Although such consultants may seem to have a high claim to professional expertise, they actually aren’t experts. A good number of them are blind followers of the methods they sell; rarely, if ever, do they develop a critical perspective on those practices. Also, agents of anxiety do not have to be overtly political: once they are hired by senior managers in an organization, employees have no choice but to follow the “best practice” techniques that are promoted.
Clients of such consultants tend to be senior managers in organisations that are having trouble with specific aspects of their work – projects, for example. What such managers do not realize is that they would be better served by creating and fostering the right work environment rather than attempting to impose silver bullet solutions sold by suppliers of security.
Now that we are done with the classification, I should mention that most of the consultants I have come across cannot be boxed into a single category. This is no surprise: consultants, like the rest of humanity, display behaviours that vary from situation to situation. Many consultants will display characteristics from all four categories within a single engagement or, at the very least, exhibit both professional and political behaviours. As Alvesson and Johansson state:
Management consultancy work probably typically means some blending of these four types. Sometimes one or two of the types dominates in the same assignment. But few management consultants presumably operate without appealing to the management fashions signalling the needs for consultancy services; few altogether avoid trouble-shooting tasks; few can solely rely on a technocratic approach, and few can simply work with cooperative meaning making processes. The complexity and diversity of consultancy assignments requires that the consultant move back and forth between a professional area and a non-professional area, i.e. areas viewed as coherent with claims of professionalism, recognizing the highly floating boundaries between these areas and the constructed character also of technical and professional work. Professional work is mingled with, but can’t be reduced to, political or symbolic work.
Finally, I should also add that consultants sometimes hide their real objectives because they are required to: their duplicity simply reflects the duplicity of those who hire them. Whether consultants should choose to do such work is another matter altogether. As I have argued elsewhere, the hardest questions we have to deal with in our professional lives are ethical ones.
In this post I have described a typology of consultants. For sure, the four categories of consultants described are stereotypes. That said, although consultants may slip on different personas within a single engagement, most would fit into a single category based on the nature of their work and their overall approach. A knowledge of this classification is therefore helpful, not just for clients, but also for front-line employees who have to deal with consultants and those who hire them.
Alvesson, M. & Johansson, A.W. (2002). Professionalism and politics in management consultancy work. In R. Fincham & T. Clark (Eds), Critical consulting: New perspectives on the management advice industry. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 228–246.
….as narrated by Dr. John H. Watson M. D.
Of all the problems which had been submitted to my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, for consideration during the years of our friendship, there has been one that stands out for the sheer simplicity of its resolution. I have (until now) been loath to disclose details of the case as I felt the resolution to be so trivial as to not merit mention.
So why bring it up after all these years?
Truth be told, I am increasingly of the mind that Holmes’ diagnosis in the Case of the Failed Projects (as I have chosen to call this narrative), though absolutely correct, has been widely ignored. Indeed, the writings of Lord Standish and others from the business press have convinced me that the real lesson from his diagnosis is yet to be learnt by those who really matter: i.e. executives and managers.
As Holmes might have said, this is symptomatic of a larger malaise: that of a widespread ignorance of elementary logic and causality.
A final word before I get into the story. As most readers know, my friend is better known for his work on criminal cases. The present case, though far more mundane in its details, is in my opinion perhaps his most important because of its remarkable implications. The story has, I believe, been told at least once before but, like all such narratives, its effect is much less striking when set forth en bloc in a single half-column of print than when the facts slowly emerge before one’s own eyes.
So, without further ado, then, here is the tale…
Holmes was going through a lean patch that summer, and it seemed that the only cases that came his way had to do with pilfered pets or suspicious spouses. Such work, if one can call it that, held little allure for him.
He was fed up to the point that he was contemplating a foray into management consulting. Indeed, he was certain he could do as well, if not better than the likes of Baron McKinsey and Lord Gartner (who seemed to be doing well enough). Moreover his success with the case of the terminated PMO had given him some credibility in management circles. As it turned out, it was that very case that led Mr. Bryant (not his real name) to invite us to his office that April morning.
As you may have surmised, Holmes accepted the invitation with alacrity.
The basic facts of the issue, as related by Bryant, were simple enough: his organization, which I shall call Big Enterprise, was suffering from an unduly high rate of project failure. I do not recall the exact number but offhand, it was around 70%.
Yes, that’s right: 7 out of every 10 projects that Big Enterprise undertook were over-budget, late or did not fulfil business expectations!
Shocking, you say… yet entirely consistent with the figures presented by Lord Standish and others.
Upon hearing the facts and figures, Holmes asked the obvious question about what Big Enterprise had done to figure out why the failure rate was so high.
“I was coming to that,” said Bryant, “typically after every project we hold a post-mortem. The PMO (which, as you know,I manage) requires this. As a result, we have a pretty comprehensive record of ‘things that went well’ on our projects and things that didn’t. We analysed the data from failed projects and found that there were three main reasons for failure: lack of adequate user input, incomplete or changing user requirements and inadequate executive support.”
“….but these aren’t the root cause,” said Holmes.
“You’re right, they aren’t” said Bryant, somewhat surprised at Holmes’ interjection. “Indeed, we did an exhaustive analysis of each of the projects and even interviewed some of the key team members. We concluded that the root cause of the failures was inadequate governance on the PMO’s part,” said Bryant.
“I don’t understand. Hadn’t you established governance processes prior to the problem? That is after all the raison d’etre of a PMO…”
“Yes we had, but our diagnosis implied those processes weren’t working. They needed to be tightened up.”
“I see,” said Holmes shortly. “I’ll return to that in due course. Please do go on and tell me what you did to address the issue of poor…or inadequate governance, as you put it.”
“Yes, so we put in place processes to address these problems. Specifically, we took the following actions. For the lack of user input, we recommended getting a sign-off from business managers as to how much time their people would commit to the project. For the second issue – incomplete or changing requirements – we recommended that in the short term, more attention be paid to initial requirement gathering, and that this be supported by a stricter change management regime. In the longer term, we recommended that the organization look into the possibility of implementing Agile approaches. For the third point, lack of executive support, we suggested that the problem be presented to the management board and CEO, requesting that they reinforce the importance of supporting project work to senior and middle management.”
Done with his explanation, he looked at the two of us to check if we needed any clarification. “Does this make sense?” he enquired, after a brief pause.
Holmes shook his head, “No Mr. Bryant the actions don’t make sense at all. When faced with problems, the kneejerk reaction is to resort to more control. I submit that your focus on control misled you.”
“Misled? What do you mean?”
“Well, it didn’t work did it? Projects in Big Enterprise continue to fail, which is why we are having this meeting today. The reason your prescription did not work is that you misdiagnosed the issue. The problem is not governance, but something deeper.”
Bryant wore a thoughtful expression as he attempted to digest this. “I do not understand, Mr. Holmes,” he said after a brief pause. “Why don’t you just tell me what the problem is and how can I fix it? Management is breathing down my neck and I have to do something about it soon.”
“To be honest, the diagnosis is obvious, and I am rather surprised you missed it,” said Holmes, “I shall give you a hint: it is bigger, much bigger, than the PMO and its governance processes.”
“I’m lost, Mr. Holmes. I have thought about it long enough but have not been able to come up with anything. You will have to tell me,” said Bryant with a tone that conveyed both irritation and desperation.
“It is elementary, Mr. Bryant, when one has eliminated the other causes, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Your prior actions have all but established that the problem is not the PMO, but something bigger. So let me ask the simple question: what is the PMO a part of?”
“That’s obvious,” said Bryant, “it’s the organization, of course.”
“Exactly, Mr. Bryant: the problem lies in Big Enterprise’s organisational structures, rules and norms. It’s the entire system that’s the problem, not the PMO per se.”
Bryant looked at him dubiously. “I do not understand how the three points I made earlier – inadequate user involvement, changing requirements and lack executive sponsorship – are due to Big Enterprise’s structures, rules and norms. “
“It’s obvious,” said Holmes, as he proceeded to elaborate how lack of input was a consequence of users having to juggle their involvement in projects with their regular responsibilities. Changes in scope and incomplete requirements were but a manifestation of the fact that users’ regular work pressures permitted only limited opportunities for interaction between users and the project team – and that it was impossible to gather all requirements…or build trust through infrequent interactions between the two parties. And as for lack of executive sponsorship – that was simply a reflection of the fact that the executives could not stay focused on a small number of tasks because they had a number of things that competed for their attention…and these often changed from day to day. This resulted in a reactive management style rather than a proactive or interactive one. Each of these issues was an organizational problem that was well beyond the PMO.
“I see,” said Bryant, somewhat overwhelmed as he realized the magnitude of the problem, “…but this is so much bigger than me. How do I even begin to address it?”
“Well, you are the Head of the PMO, aren’t you? It behooves you to explain this to your management.”
“I can’t do that!” exclaimed Bryant. “I could lose my job for stating these sorts of things, Mr. Holmes – however true they may be. Moreover, I would need incontrovertible evidence…facts demonstrating exactly how each failure was a consequence of organizational structures and norms, and was therefore out of the PMO’s control.”
Holmes chuckled sardonically. “I don’t think facts or ‘incontrovertible proof’ will help you Mr. Bryant. Whatever you say would be refuted using specious arguments…or simply laughed off. In the end, I don’t know what to tell you except that it is a matter for your conscience; you must do as you see fit.”
We left it at that; there wasn’t much else to say. I felt sorry for Bryant. He had come to Holmes for a solution, only to find that solving the problem might involve unacceptable sacrifices.
We bid him farewell, leaving him to ponder his difficult choices.
Shortly after our meeting with him, I heard that Bryant had left Big Enterprise. I don’t know what prompted his departure, but I can’t help but wonder if our conversation and his subsequent actions had something to do with it.
…and I think it is pretty clear why Lord Standish and others of his ilk still bemoan the unduly high rate of project failure.
- Sherlock Holmes aficionados may have noted that the foreword to this story bears some resemblance to the first paragraph of the Conan Doyle classic, The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb.
- See my post entitled Symptoms not causes, a systems perspective on project failure for a more detailed version of the argument outlined in this story.
- For insight into the vexed question of governance, check out this post by Paul Culmsee and the book I co-authored with him.
What is business intelligence?
I recently asked a few acquaintances to answer this question without referring to that great single point of truth in the cloud. They duly came up with a variety of responses ranging from data warehousing and the names of specific business intelligence tools to particular functions such as reporting or decision support.
After receiving their responses, I did what I asked my respondents not to: I googled the term. Here are a few samples of what I found:
According to CIO magazine, Business intelligence is an umbrella term that refers to a variety of software applications used to analyze an organization’s raw data.
Wikipedia, on the other hand, tells us that BI is a set of theories, methodologies, architectures, and technologies that transform raw data into meaningful and useful information for business purposes.
Finally, Webopedia, tell us that BI [refers to] the tools and systems that play a key role in the strategic planning process of the corporation.
What’s interesting about the above responses and definitions is that they focus largely on processes and methodologies or tools and techniques. Now, without downplaying the importance of either, I think that many of the problems of business intelligence practice come from taking a perspective that is overly focused on methodology and technique. In this post, I attempt to broaden this perspective by making some potentially controversial statements –or heresies – that challenge this view. My aim is not so much to criticize current practice as to encourage – or provoke – business intelligence professionals to take a closer look at some of the assumptions underlie their practices.
Without further ado, here are my six heresies for business intelligence practice (in no particular order).
A single point of truth is a mirage
Many organisations embark on ambitious programs to build enterprise data warehouses – unified data repositories that serve as a single source of truth for all business-relevant data. Leaving aside the technical and business issues associated with establishing definitive data sources and harmonizing data, there is the more fundamental question of what is meant by truth.
The most commonly accepted notion of truth is that information (or data in a particular context) is true if it describes something as it actually is. A major issue with this viewpoint is that data (or information) can never fully describe a real-world object or event. For example, when a sales rep records a customer call, he or she notes down only what is required by the customer management system. Other data that may well be more important is not captured or is relegated to a “Notes” or “Comments” field that is rarely if ever searched or accessed. Indeed, data represents only a fraction of the truth, however one chooses to define it – more on this below.
Some might say that it is naïve to expect our databases to capture all aspects of reality, and that what is needed is a broad consensus between all relevant stakeholders as to what constitutes the truth. The problem with this is that such a consensus is often achieved by means that are not democratic. For example, a KPI definition chosen by a manager may be hotly contested by an employee. Nevertheless, the employee has to accept it because that is the way (many) organisations work. Another significant issue is that the notion of relevant stakeholders is itself problematic because it is often difficult to come up with clear criterion by which to define relevance.
There are other ways to approach the notion of truth: for example, one might say that a piece of data is true as long as it is practically useful to deem it so. Such a viewpoint, though common, is flawed because utility is in the eye of the beholder: a sales manager may think it useful to believe a particular KPI whereas a sales rep might disagree (particularly if the KPI portrays the rep in a bad light!).
These varied interpretations of what constitute a truth have implications for the notion of a single point of truth. For one, the various interpretations are incommensurate – they cannot be judged by the same standard. Further, different people may interpret the same piece of data differently. This is something that BI professionals have likely come across – say when attempting to come up with a harmonized definition for a customer record.
In short: the notion of a single point of truth is problematic because there is a great deal of ambiguity about what constitutes a truth.
There is no such thing as raw data
In his book, Memory Practices in the Sciences, Geoffrey Bowker wrote, “Raw data is both an oxymoron and a bad idea; to the contrary, data should be cooked with care.” I love this quote because it tells a great truth (!) about so-called “raw” data.
To elaborate: raw data is never unprocessed. Firstly, the data collector always makes a choice as to what data will be collected and what will not. So in this sense, data already has meaning imposed on it. Second, and perhaps more important, the method of collection affects the data. For example, responses to a survey depend on how the questions are framed and how the survey itself is carried out (anonymous, face-to-face etc.). This is also true for more “objective” data such as costs and expenses. In both cases, the actual numbers depend on specific accounting practices used in the organization. So, raw data is an oxymoron because data is never raw, and as Bowker tells us, we need to ensure that the filters we apply and the methods of collection we use are such that the resulting data is “cooked with care.”
In short: data is never raw, it is always “cooked.”
There are no best practices for business intelligence, only appropriate ones
Many software shops and consultancies devise frameworks and methodologies for business intelligence which they claim are based on best or proven practices. However, those who swallow that line and attempt to implement the practices often find that the results obtained are far from best.
I have discussed the shortcomings of best practices in a general context in an earlier article, and (at greater length) in my book. A problem with best practice approaches is that they assume a universal yardstick of what is best. As a corollary, this also suggest that practices can be transplanted from one organization to another in a wholesale manner, without extensive customisation. This overlooks the fact that organisations are unique, and what works in one may not work in another.
A deeper issue is that much of the knowledge pertaining to best practices is tacit – that is, it cannot be codified in written form. Indeed, what differentiates good business intelligence developers or architects from great ones is not what they learnt from a textbook (or in a training course), but how they actually practice their craft. These consist of things that they do instinctively and would find hard to put into words.
So, instead of looking to import best practices from your favourite vendor, it is better to focus on understanding what goes on in your environment. A critical examination of your environment and processes will reveal opportunities for improvement. These incremental improvements will cumulatively add up to your very own, customized “best practices.”
In short: develop your own business intelligence best practices rather than copying those peddled by “experts.”
Business intelligence does not support strategic decision-making
One of the stated aims of business intelligence systems is to support better business decision making in organisations (see the Wikipedia article, for example). It is true that business intelligence systems are perfectly adequate – even indispensable – for certain decision-making situations. Examples of these include, financial reporting (when done right!) and other operational reporting (inventory, logistics etc). These generally tend to be routine situations with clear cut decision criteria and well-defined processes – i.e. decisions that can be programmed.
In contrast, decisions pertaining to strategic matters cannot be programmed. Examples of such decisions include: dealing with an uncertain business environment, responding to a new competitor etc. The reason such decisions cannot be programmed is that they depend on a host of factors other than data and are generally made in situations that are ambiguous. Typically people use deliberative methods – i.e. methods based on argumentation – to arrive at decisions on such matters. The sad fact is that all the major business tools in the market lack support for deliberative decision-making. Check out this post for more on what can be done about this.
In short: business intelligence does not support strategic decision-making .
Big data is not the panacea it is trumpeted to be
One of the more recent trends in business intelligence is the move towards analyzing increasingly large, diverse, rapidly changing datasets – what goes under the umbrella term big data. Analysing these datasets entails the use of new technologies (e.g. Hadoop and NoSQL) as well as statistical techniques that are not familiar to many mainstream business intelligence professionals.
Much has been claimed for big data; in fact, one might say too much. In this article Tim Harford (aka the Undercover Economist) summarises the four main claims of “big data cheerleaders” as follows (the four phrases below are quoted directly from the article):
- Data analysis produces uncannily accurate results.
- Every single data point can be captured, making old statistical sampling techniques obsolete.
- It is passé to fret about what causes what, because statistical correlation tells us what we need to know.
- Scientific or statistical models aren’t needed.
The problem, as Harford points out, is that all of these claims are incorrect.
Firstly, the accuracy of the results that come out of a big data analysis depend critically on how the analysis is formulated. However, even analyses based on well-founded assumptions can get it wrong, as is illustrated in this article about Google Flu Trends.
Secondly, it is pretty obvious that it is impossible to capture every single data point (also relevant here is the discussion on raw data above – i.e. how data is selected for inclusion).
The third claim is simply absurd. The fact is detecting a correlation is not the same as understanding what is going on – a point made rather nicely by Dilbert. Enough said, I think.
Fourthly, the claim that scientific or statistical models aren’t needed is simply ill-informed. As any big data practitioner will tell you, big data analysis relies on statistics. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, a correlation-based understanding is no understanding at all – it cannot be reliably extrapolated to related situations without the help of hypotheses and (possibly tentative) models of how the phenomenon under study works.
Finally, as Danah Boyd and Kate Crawford point out in this paper , big data changes the meaning of what it means to know something….and it is highly debatable as to whether these changes are for the better. See the paper for more on this point. (Acknowledgement: the title of this post is inspired by the title of the Boyd-Crawford paper).
In short: business intelligence practitioners should not uncritically accept the pronouncements of big data evangelists and vendors.
Business intelligence has ethical implications
This heresy applies to much more than business intelligence: any human activity that affects other people has an ethical dimension. Many IT professionals tend to overlook this facet of their work because they are unaware of it – and sometimes prefer to remain so. Fact is, the decisions business intelligence professionals make with respect to usability, display, testing etc. have a potential impact on the people who use their applications. The impact may be as trivial as having to click a button or filter too many before they get their report, to something more significant, like a data error that leads to a poor business decision.
In short: business intelligence professionals ought to consider how their artefacts and applications affect their users.
This brings me to the end of my heresies for business intelligence. I suspect there will be a few practitioners who agree with me and (possibly many) others who don’t…and some of the latter may even find specific statements provocative. If so, I consider my job done, for my intent was to get business intelligence practitioners to question a few unquestioned tenets of their profession.