Eight to Late

Ironies of enterprise information technology

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Introduction

On one of my random walks through Google Scholar, I stumbled on an interesting paper entitled, Ironies of Automation.  The main message of the paper is nicely summarized in its first few lines:

The classic aim of automation is to replace human manual control, planning and problem solving by automatic devices and computers.  However… even highly automated systems, such as electric power networks, need human beings for supervision, adjustment, maintenance, expansion and improvement. Therefore one can draw the paradoxical conclusion that    automated   systems   still   are man-machine systems, for which both technical and human factors are important. This paper suggests that the increased interest in human factors among engineers reflects the irony that the more advanced a control system is, so the more crucial may be the contribution of the human operator.

These lines were written over thirty years ago, but are ever more apt today – such paradoxes are rife, not only in automation, but in any field in which technology plays an important part. To illustrate my point, I highlight a couple of ironies drawn from a domain that is likely to be familiar to many readers of this blog: the world of enterprise IT. I also present a brief discussion of how these ironies of enterprise IT can be avoided.

Ironies of enterprise IT

In the last few decades information technology has found its way into diverse organisational functions. This trend has been accompanied by an explosive growth in new technologies. As a result of this, corporate IT infrastructures have become  ever more complex and the costs of maintaining them have burgeoned.  Quite naturally, the focus has thus turned to taming both complexity and cost. The favoured approaches to tackling this problem are standardisation and/or outsourcing. However, as I discuss below, both   often lead to ironic outcomes.

An  irony of standardisation

Enterprise IT environments tend to evolve rapidly, reflecting the many demands made on them by the organisational functions they support. This is good because it means that IT is doing what it should be doing: supporting the work of the parent organisation.  On the other hand, this can result in unwieldy environments that are difficult (not to mention, expensive) to maintain. One way to address this is to impose of standards relating to processes  (such as ITIL) and infrastructure (such as SAP or any enterprise application). 

The question is, how well does such standardisation work in practice?

In his book entitled, From Control to Drift, Claudio Ciborra pointed out that IT infrastuctures in organisations tend to drift – i.e. they escape processes, plans and standards, and take on a life of their own. The reason they drift is that they are subject to unpredictable forces within and outside the hosting organisation. The imposition of standards may slow the drift but cannot arrest it entirely. Infrastructures are therefore best seen as ever-evolving constructs consisting of systems, people and processes that interact with each other in often unforeseen ways.  As he put it:

Corporate information infrastructures are puzzles, or better collages, and so are the design and implementation processes that lead to their construction and operation. They are embedded in larger, contextual puzzles and collages. Interdependence, intricacy, and interweaving of people, systems, and processes are the culture bed of infrastructure. Patching, alignment of heterogeneous actors and making do are the most frequent approaches…irrespective of whether management [is] planning or strategy oriented, or inclined to react to contingencies.

The essential message here is that standards and processes overlook the fact that enterprises are complex social systems that are subject to internal and external influences which cannot always be foreseen.   Dealing with these, more often than not, entails the implementation of hacks and workarounds that violate the imposed standards and thus nullify the benefits of standardisation.

In summary, “standardised” IT environments often end up have a plethora of non-standard hacks and workarounds that are necessary, but are generally messy and expensive to maintain.

An irony of outsourcing

One of the main reasons for outsourcing IT is to reduce costs. Yes, I am aware that many decision-makers claim that their primary reason is to reduce complexity rather than cost, but the choices they make often belie their claims.  The irony is that in their eagerness to control costs, they often end up increasing them because they overlook hidden factors.  I explain this in brief below, drawing on my post on the transaction costs of outsourcing.

The basic idea is simple – it is that the upfront fee quoted by the vendor is but a fraction of  the total cost that will be incurred by the customer.  Some of the costs that are generally not included in upfront costs are:

  1. Search /selection costs: these are the costs associated with searching for and shortlisting vendors.
  2. Bargaining costs: these are costs associated with negotiations for a mutually acceptable contract.
  3. Costs of coordinating work: these are costs associated with coordinating external and internal work. This is particularly important in the case of software-as-a-service because the effort required to interface cloud applications with in-house systems is often underestimated.
  4. Costs of enforcement and change: These are costs associated with enforcing the terms of the contract and those associated with change.

The point to note is these costs are rarely if ever mentioned by the vendor, but almost always show up in one form or another. It is therefore important for the customer to try and get a handle on these before entering into any commercial agreements.  The problem is, some of these costs (particularly 3 and 4 above) are hard if not impossible to figure out upfront. For example, if the relationship turns sour the only solution might be to switch vendors. The cost associated with this is often significant and is borne entirely by the customer.  A lack of awareness of such costs associated with outsourcing will invariably result in ironical outcomes.

In summary: attempts to control costs by outsourcing IT can have the contrary effect of increasing them.

Avoiding ironical outcomes

So how does one avoid ironical outcomes?

I have only one piece of advice to offer here: when planning IT architectures or outsourcing initiatives, use an incremental or emergent approach that avoids big designs or commitments upfront. Using an emergent approach not only limits risk, it also provides opportunities for learning.  Most important, it enables one to verify that the envisaged benefits are not just wishful architect or manager-level thinking

Below I outline what such an approach might entail for the two ironies discussed earlier:

  1. For infrastructures/systems:   avoid grandiose system designs that attempt to span the “enterprise” – remember that one size will not fit all of your users. . Consequently, enterprise architectures and governance systems should provide guidelines, rather than detailed prescriptions.  As Anders Jensen-Waud  puts it in this post: they should foster resilience and adaptability rather than conformance,
  2. For outsourcing:  start small, possibly with a small project or system. This will help you get a sense for how outsourcing would work in your environment and help you figure out whether the vendor you have selected is really right for you.  Remember, no two environments are identical so others’ lessons learned may be considerably less useful than you think. Finally, if you’re going to the cloud, be sure to factor in costs and technical challenges associated with interfacing external apps with in-house ones.

Yes, there’s nothing particularly profound here, it is just common sense…but you know what they say about the commonality of common sense.

Conclusion

In this post I have highlighted some ironies of enterprise information systems and have briefly outlined an emergent approach to avoiding them. I believe but cannot prove that ironical outcomes are almost guaranteed if one takes a monolithic, enterprise-style approach or a let’s-outsource-it-all attitude to enterprise information technology. Such a view overlooks the messy little details and differences that trip up big designs and grandiose plans. In the end, the only way to avoid ironical outcomes is to start small, learn from experience and incorporate that learning in an incremental manner in whatever you’re building or doing. Yes, you might end up with something you did not envisage at the start, but you will have learnt much along the way. More important, perhaps, is that you will be able to rest assured that it works.

Written by K

August 26, 2014 at 8:40 pm

Heraclitus and Parmenides – a metalogue about organizational change

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Organizations are Heraclitian, but Parmenides is invariably in charge.” –Stafford Beer (paraphrased)

Heraclitus: Hello Parmenides, it’s been a while!  What have you been up to since we last met?

Parmenides: Heraclitus, it is good to see you my old friend. You’re not going to believe it, but I’ve been doing some consulting work on managing change in organizations.

Heraclitus:  [laughs] You’re right, that is beyond belief, particularly in view of your philosophical position on change. So, have you recanted? Have you now come around to the truth that everything changes and nothing stands still?

Parmenides: Ah, yes I am familiar with your views on change my friend, but I hate to disappoint you.  My position remains the same as before:  I still believe that the world is essentially unchanging. The key word here is “essentially” – by which I mean that the changes we see around us are superficial and that the essential properties of the world do not change. Indeed, as paradoxical as it may sound, understanding this unchanging essence enables us to manage superficial changes such as those that happen in organizations.

Heraclitus:  I’m not sure I understand what you mean by unchanging essence and superficial change...

Parmenides:  OK, let me try explaining this using an example. Let us consider the case of a physical law and a real world situation to which it applies. A concrete instance of this would be Newton’s Law of Gravitation and the motion of a spacecraft.  The former represents the unchanging essence while the latter represents one of its manifestations. The point is this:  the real world (as represented by a moving spacecraft) appears to be ever changing, but the underlying unity of the world (as represented by Newton’s law) does not change. If one understands the underlying unchanging laws then one has the power to predict or control the superficial changes.

Heraclitus:  Hmm….I don’t see how it relates to organizations.  Can you give me a more down to earth illustration from your work? For example: what is the “unchanging essence” in organizational change?

Parmenides:  That’s easy: the unchanging essence is the concept of an organization and the principles by which they evolve.  Consultants like me help organizations improve performance by influencing or adjusting certain aspects of their structure and interactions. However, the changes we facilitate do not affect the essence of the entities we work with. Organizations remain organizations, and they evolve according to universal laws despite the changes we wrought within them.

Heraclitus: Ah Parmenides, you are mistaken: concepts and principles evolve in time; they do not remain constant. Perhaps I can convince you of this by another means.  Tell me, when you go into an organization to do your thing, how do you know what to change?

Parmenides:  Well, we carry out a detailed study by talking to key stakeholders and then determine what needs to be done.  There are a host of change models that have come out of painstaking research and practice.  We use these to guide our actions.

Heraclitus: Are these models  akin to the physical laws you mentioned earlier?

Parmenides:  Yes, they are.

Heraclitus: But all such models are tentative; they are always being revised in the light of new knowledge. Theory building in organizational research (or any other area) is an ongoing process. Indeed, even physics, the most exact of sciences, has evolved dramatically over the last two millennia – consider how  our conception of the solar system has changed from Ptolemy to Copernicus. For that matter, even our understanding of gravity is no longer the same as it was in Newton’s time. The “unchanging essence” – as you call it – is but a figment of your imagination.

Parmenides:  I concede that our knowledge of the universe evolves over time. However, the principles that underlie its functioning don’t change.  Indeed, the primary rationale behind all scientific inquiry is to find those eternal principles or truths.

Heraclitus: It is far from clear that the principles are unchanging, even in a so-called exact discipline like physics.  For example, a recent proposal suggests that the laws of physics evolve in time.  This seems even more likely for social systems: the theory and practice of management in the early twentieth century is very different from what it is now, and with good reason too – contemporary organizations are nothing like those of a century ago.  In other words, the “laws” that were valid then (if one can call them that) are different from the ones in operation now.

Parmenides:   You’re seduced by superficial change – you must look beneath surface appearances!  As for the proposal that the laws of physics evolve in time, I must categorically state that it is a minority view that many physicists disagree with  (Editor’s note: see this rebuttal for example)

Heraclitus: I take your point about the laws of physics…but I should mention that history is replete with “minority views” that were later proven to be right.  However, I cannot agree with your argument about superficial change because it is beyond logic. You can always deem any change as being superficial, however deep it may be. So let me try to get my point across in yet another way. You had mentioned that you use management principles and models to guide your actions. Could you tell me a bit more about how this works in practice?

Parmenides:  Sure, let me tell you about an engagement that we recently did for a large organization. The problem they came to us with was that their manufacturing department was simply not delivering what their customers expected.  We did a series of interviews with senior and mid-level managers from the organisation as well as a wide spectrum of staff and customers and found that the problem was a systemic one – it had  more to do with the lack of proper communication channels across the organisation  rather than an issue with a specific department. Based on this we made some recommendations to restructure the organisation according to best practices drawn from organisational theory.  We then helped them implement our recommendations.

Heraclitus: So you determined the change that needed to be made and then implemented the change over a period of time. Is that right?

Parmenides: Well, yes…

Heraclitus: And would I be right in assuming that the change took many months to implement?

Parmenides: Yes, about a year actually…but why does that matter?

Heraclitus:  Bear with me for a minute. Were there any significant surprises along the way? There must have been things that happened that you did not anticipate.

Parmenides: Of course, that goes with the territory; one cannot foresee everything.

Heraclitus: Yet you persisted in implementing the changes you had originally envisioned them.

Parmenides: Naturally! We had determined what needed to be done, so we went ahead and did it. But what are you getting at?

Heraclitus: It’s quite simple really. The answer lies in a paradox formulated by your friend Zeno: you assumed that the organization remains static over the entire period over which you implemented your recommendations.

Parmenides:  I did not say that!

Heraclitus:  You did not say it, but you assumed it.  Your recommendations for restructuring were based on information that was gathered at a particular point in time – a snapshot so to speak. Such an approach completely overlooks the fact that organisations are dynamic entities that change in unforeseen ways that models and theories cannot predict. Indeed, by your own admission, there were significant but unanticipated events and changes that occurred along the way.  Now you might claim that those changes were superficial, but that won’t wash because you did not foresee those changes at the start and therefore could not have known whether they would be superficial or not.

Parmenides:   Well, I’m not sure I agree with your logic my dear Heraclitus. And in any case, my approach has the advantage of being easy to understand. I don’t think decision-makers would trust a consultant who refuses to take action because every little detail about the future cannot be predicted.

Heraclitus: Admitting ignorance about the future is the first step towards doing something about it.

Parmenides: Yes, but you need to have a coherent plan, despite an uncertain future.

Heraclitus: True, but a coherent plan can be incremental…or better, emergent –  where planned actions are adjusted in response to unexpected events that occur as one goes along. Such an approach is better than one based on a snapshot of an organisation at a particular point in time.

Parmenides:  Try selling that approach to a CEO, my friend!

Heraclitus: I know, organizations are ever-changing, but those who run them are intent on maintaining a certain status quo. So they preach change, but do not change the one thing that needs changing the most – themselves.

Parmenides: [shakes his head] Ah, Heraclitus, I do not wish to convert you to my way of thinking, but I should mention that our differences are not of theoretical interest alone:  they spell the difference between being a cashed-up consultant and a penurious philosopher.

Heraclitus: [laughs] At last we have something we can agree on.

Further reading:

Beer, Stafford (1997), “The culpabliss error: A calculus of ethics for a systemic world,” Systems Practice, Vol 10, No. 4. Pp. 365-380. Available online at: http://rd.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02557886

Note: the quote at the start of this piece is a paraphrasing of the following line from the paper: “Society is Heraclitian; but Parmenides is in charge.”

Written by K

August 14, 2014 at 7:52 pm

Scapegoats and systems: contrasting approaches to managing human error in organisations

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Much can be learnt about an organization by observing what management does when things go wrong.  One reaction is to hunt for a scapegoat, someone who can be held responsible for the mess.  The other is to take a systemic view that focuses on finding the root cause of the issue and figuring out what can be done in order to prevent it from recurring.  In a highly cited paper published in 2000, James Reason compared and contrasted the two approaches to error management in organisations. This post is an extensive summary of the paper.

The author gets to the point in the very first paragraph:

The human error problem can be viewed in two ways: the person approach and the system approach. Each has its model of error causation and each model gives rise to quite different philosophies of error management. Understanding these differences has important practical implications for coping with the ever present risk of mishaps in clinical practice.

Reason’s paper was published in the British Medical Journal and hence his focus on the practice of medicine. His arguments and conclusions, however, have a much wider relevance as evidenced by the diverse areas in which his paper has been cited.

The person approach – which, I think is more accurately called the scapegoat approach – is based on the belief that any errors can and should be traced back to an individual or a group, and that the party responsible should then be held to account for the error. This is the approach taken in organisations that are colloquially referred to as having a “blame culture.”

To an extent, looking around for a scapegoat is a natural emotional reaction to an error. The oft unstated reason behind scapegoating, however, is to avoid management responsibility.  As the author tells us:

People are viewed as free agents capable of choosing between safe and unsafe modes of behaviour.  If something goes wrong, it seems obvious that an individual (or group of individuals) must have been responsible. Seeking as far as possible to uncouple a person’s unsafe acts from any institutional responsibility is clearly in the interests of managers. It is also legally more convenient

However, the scapegoat approach has a couple of serious problems that hinder effective risk management.

Firstly, an organization depends on its frontline staff to report any problems or lapses. Clearly, staff will do so only if they feel that it is safe to do so – something that is simply not possible in an organization that takes scapegoat approach. The author suggests that the Chernobyl disaster can be attributed to the lack of a “reporting culture” within the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Secondly, and perhaps more important, is that the focus on a scapegoat leaves the underlying cause of the error unaddressed. As the author puts it, “by focusing on the individual origins of error it [the scapegoat approach] isolates unsafe acts from their system context.” As a consequence, the scapegoat approach overlooks systemic features of errors – for example, the empirical fact that the same kinds of errors tend to recur within a given system.

The system approach accepts that human errors will happen. However, in contrast to the scapegoat approach, it views these errors as being triggered by factors that are built into the system. So, when something goes wrong, the system approach focuses on the procedures that were used rather than the people who were executing them. This difference from the scapegoat approach makes a world of difference.

The system approach looks for generic reasons why errors or accidents occur. Organisations usually have a series of measures in place to prevent errors – e.g. alarms, procedures, checklists, trained staff etc. Each of these measures can be looked upon as a “defensive layer” against error. However, as the author notes, each defensive layer has holes which can let errors “pass through” (more on how the holes arise a bit later).  A good way to visualize this is as a series of slices of Swiss Cheese (see Figure 1).

The important point is that the holes on a given slice are not at a fixed position; they keep opening, closing and even shifting around, depending on the state of the organization.  An error occurs when the ephemeral holes on different layers temporarily line up to “let an error through”.

There are two reasons why holes arise in defensive layers:

  1. Active errors: These are unsafe acts committed by individuals. Active errors could be violations of set procedures or momentary lapses. The scapegoat approach focuses on identifying the active error and the person responsible for it. However, as the author points out, active errors are almost always caused by conditions built into the system, which brings us to…
  2. Latent conditions: These are flaws that are built into the system. The author uses the term resident pathogens to describe these – a nice metaphor that I have explored in a paper review I wrote some years ago. These “pathogens” are usually baked into the system by poor design decisions and flawed procedures on the one hand, and ill-thought-out management decisions on the other. Manifestations of the former include faulty alarms, unrealistic or inconsistent procedures or poorly designed equipment; manifestations of the latter include things such as unrealistic targets, overworked staff and the lack of  funding for appropriate equipment.

The important thing to note is that latent conditions can lie dormant for a long period before they are noticed. Typically a latent condition comes to light only when an error caused by it occurs…and only if the organization does a root cause analysis of the error – something that is simply not done in an organization takes a scapegoat approach.

The author draws a nice analogy that clarifies the link between active errors and latent conditions:

…active failures are like mosquitoes. They can be swatted one by one, but they still keep coming. The best remedies are to create more effective defences and to drain the swamps in which they breed. The swamps, in this case, are the ever present latent conditions.

“Draining the swamp” is not a simple task.  The author draws upon studies of high performance organisations (combat units, nuclear power plants and air traffic control centres) to understand how they minimised active errors by reducing system flaws. He notes that these organisations:

  1. Accept that errors will occur despite standardised procedures, and train their staff to deal with and learn from them.
  2. Practice responses to known error scenarios and try to imagine new ones on a regular basis.
  3. Delegate responsibility and authority, especially in crisis situations.
  4. Do a root cause analysis of any error that occurs and address the underlying problem by changing the system if needed.

In contrast, an organisation that takes a scapegoat approach assumes that standardisation will eliminate errors, ignores the possibility of novel errors occurring, centralises control and, above all, focuses on finding scapegoats instead of fixing the system.

Acknowledgement:

Figure 1 was taken from the Patient Safety Education website of Duke University Hospital.

Further reading:

The Swiss Cheese model was first proposed in 1991. It has since been applied in many areas. Here are a couple of recent applications and extensions of the model to project management:

  1. Stephen Duffield and Jon Whitty use the Swiss Cheese model as a basis for their model of Systemic Lessons Learned and Knowledge Captured (SLLKC model) in projects.
  2. In this post, Paul Culmsee extends the SLLKC model to incorporate aspects relating to teams and collaboration.

Written by K

July 29, 2014 at 8:43 pm

The dilemmas of enterprise IT

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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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Figure 1: Polarity map for centralised / autonomous IT dilemma

Figure 1: Polarity map for centralised / autonomous IT dilemma

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.

Wrapping up

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.

Written by K

July 2, 2014 at 9:52 pm

Making sense of sensemaking – a conversation with Paul Culmsee

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Introduction

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.

Framing questions

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.

Obliquity

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.

Written by K

June 18, 2014 at 7:31 am

Towards an antifragile IT strategy

with one comment

Introduction

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.

Decentralisation

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.

Agility

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Diversification

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. Set up small, low-cost skunkworks projects to explore technologies and ideas that have the potential to provide your business an edge.
  5. 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.

Summing up

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.

Written by K

June 3, 2014 at 8:59 pm

Making sense of project management – a conversation with Jon Whitty

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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?

KA: [laughs]

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.

Written by K

May 19, 2014 at 8:42 pm

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