Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Archive for May 2011

Planning, improvisation and the passage of time

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In an earlier post inspired by this paper, I discussed how planning and improvisation are contrasting yet complementary aspects of organizational work.  One of the key differences  between the two activities lies in how time is perceived by those involved in performing them: in the planning world  time is considered to be a resource that can be measured and apportioned out to achieve desired aims whereas improvisation takes place “outside of time”; it occurs instantaneously and (often) without any prior intimation. In this post I discuss these two contrasting views of time in greater detail and then look into some of their implications, both from the perspective of organizations and individuals who work in them.

The “planning view” of time

Organisational activities and events (like all human endeavours) are marked and measured by the flow of time. It is fair to say that concern for time – specifically, the way it is used – is one of the main preoccupations of those who run organisations. As Ciborra puts it:

Concern for time in any business organization is not new, nor rare. Think of concepts such as just in time or time based competition. In modern management, time is looked at as a fundamental business performance variable, even more important than money. Concepts such as lead time or time to market portray time as the cutting edge of competitive advantage.

In other words, time is viewed as a quantity that can be apportioned and allocated – budgeted – much like money.   This obsession with planning and controlling time is what leads businesses to implement procedures and processes intended to reduce unpredictability and improve business efficiency.   Improvisation is seen as undesirable because of its inherently unpredictable nature.

Planning anticipates future events and moves that will be made in response to them. However,  they can only be based on what is known and foreseen at the time of formulation. Plans are thus based on a mix of past experience and anticipation of what the future might look like.  Moreover, because an action cannot occur until all dependent prior actions are completed successfully, they implicitly assume that all planned actions will be completed. As Ciborra puts it:

Procedural planning anticipates moves and events as if already occurred and just translated on the other side of the “now”. That is, procedural planning arranges in front of the actor the past (actions thought of as accomplished and embedded into plans), so that in performing an action he/she can encounter “in the now” mileposts which prompt the actor to do the next move…

So, as paradoxical as it sounds, in the planning view, planned actions are seen as already accomplished in the future. In other words, plans assume that events and actions will evolve in an entirely predictable manner.  Note that although uncertainties may be factored in through risk analysis and the development of alternate scenarios, even these are treated as alternate branches of known futures.

The “improvisation view” of time

Improvisation is generally preceded by an “instantaneous” flash of insight in which apparently unconnected experiences and knowledge are brought to bear on the situation at hand. The process is inherently unpredictable: one does not know when a flash of insight that precipitates an improvised action will occur.  Since improvisation occurs on the spur of the moment, what is important is the cutting edge of time, the instant of action. In this sense, improvisation lies “outside of time.”  However, this does not mean that the past does not matter. On the contrary, improvisers draw upon past experiences, possibly even more than planners do.  However, they do so in ways that they are not consciously aware of before the moment of action.  As Ciborra tells us:

Improvisation is extemporaneous because it does not belong to an orderly distillation, formalization and transfer of past experience into future mileposts. Indeed, when encountering the future improvisation relies on the past, but it deploys it by retrieving (quickly according to ordinary time) domains of experience in a moment of vision during which vast regions of experience are brought to bear on the situation at hand, as interpreted at that very moment

Instead of attempting to envision what a future situation might look like and plan responses to it, improvisation interprets and reacts to “future” situations as they occur.  So, although the improviser draws upon the past, he or she is firmly focused on the present in which actions are formulated and carried out.  In such situations,  the improviser (who works outside of the plan) perceives time differently from others (who work by a plan)  – more on this in a moment.

Implications for organisations

Let’s take a brief look at a couple of implications of the different conceptions of time outlined above.

First, because improvisation cannot be foreseen, it cannot be placed on an objective timeline prior to the event. Those who make elaborate, detailed plans aimed at encouraging creativity (which generally involves improvisation) in their organisations will, more often than not, be disappointed. Any creative activity that occurs will be despite the plan, not because of it.

Second, since it is impossible to know how the future will unfold, planners should accept (and welcome!) that there will always be an element of improvisation to even the most carefully planned activity.  As a result of this, there will always be an irreducible element of uncertainty associated with any planned activity.

Third, it is important to keep in mind that although both planning and improvisation depend on the past, there is an important difference in the way the past is viewed in the two cases. As Ciborra states:

The two temporalities of routine (planned activity) and improvisation are characterized by the fact that in both the unfolding of the future “sucks in” the past, but they do so in distinct ways. In procedural planning, one meets the future by relying on “frozen”,  predigested bits of the past, lumps of experience that have been made explicit. During improvisation it is our being in the situation that comes to the fore. The past, in terms of who we are and how we read the world is recollected on the fly, in response to the situation at hand.

The implication here is that plans are (largely) based on, explicit knowledge whereas improvisation draws on both explicit and tacit knowledge. This is another reason why improvised solutions cannot be (explicitly) articulated before the fact.

The passage of time

The two conceptions of time are subjective in the sense that they describe how the flow of time is perceived by the person carrying out the planned or improvised act. In his book, The Labyrinth of Time, the philosopher Michael Lockwood mentions the example of the basketball player Michael Jordan, who once said that when maneuvering through a bunch of defenders (an improvised act), time seemed to slow down for him (though clearly not for the spectators and bemused defenders). Based on this, Lockwood suggests that:

…our impression of the flow of time, as it elapses, reflects the rate at which consciousness is being stimulated. It is counted out in a cerebral counterpart of the “baud rate”, instead of units of (objective) time, per se.

Based Lockwood’s idea, I suggest that since improvisers are more engaged with what they are doing (than those who perform planned acts) they operate at a higher mental “baud rate” than normal. Hence their actions and perceptions will seem quick – even instantaneous – to others who operate at a normal mental “baud rate.”  When people are truly engaged in an activity, time thus appears to slow down. However, clock time (or objective time) ticks on at its usual rate. So, when the improviser is done, he or she is often surprised at how much clock time has elapsed.  In contrast, a person not fully engaged in an activity has an “eye on the clock”, so to speak. Such a person’s perception of the passage of time would be pretty much in synch with objective time.

Summary and wrap-up

Improvisation and planning are based on two very different conceptions of time. Planning views the future in terms of a sequence of activities that have a clear relationship to each other. Specifically, any point in the future is seen as a milestone that serves to flag what comes next. Further, despite all contingency plans, the assumption is that the future will indeed unfold in one of the ways envisioned. Improvisation, on the other hand, views the future as open and “up for grabs”.  There is no conscious sequencing of activities; improvisers just do what feels right at the time. Although improvisers may anticipate events as consequences of their actions, there are no predefined milestones that mark out the flow of time.  Since organisational work consists of  a mix of planned and improvised activities, the upshot of the above is that time cannot be entirely planned out.

To end on a metaphorical note:  if one compares the flow of time to that of a river or stream, then  “planning time” is  a river flowing through a well defined  channel whereas  “improvisation time”  is more like a rain-fed  freshet gushing down any which way it can,  carving out new channels in the bargain.

Written by K

May 26, 2011 at 10:03 pm

On the meaning and interpretation of project documents

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Most projects generate reams of paperwork ranging from business cases to lessons learned documents. These are usually written with a specific audience in mind: business cases are intended for executive management whereas lessons learned docs are addressed to future project staff  (or the portfolio police…). In view of this,  such documents are intended to convey a specific message:  a business case aims to convince management that a project has strategic value while a  lessons learnt document offers future project teams experience-based advice.

Since the writer of a project document has a clear objective in mind, it is natural to expect that the result would be largely unambiguous. In this post, I look at the potential gap between the meaning of a project document (as intended by the author) and its interpretation (by a reader).  As we will see, it is far from clear that the two are the same  –  in fact, most often, they are not.    Note that the points I make apply to any kind of written or spoken communication, not just project documents. However, in keeping with the general theme of this blog, my  discussion will focus on the latter.

Meaning and truth

Let’s begin with an example. Consider the following statement taken from this sample business case:

ABC Company has an opportunity to save 260 hours of office labor annually by automating time-consuming and error-prone manual tasks.

Let’s ask ourselves: what is the meaning of this sentence?

On the face of it, the meaning of a sentence such as the one above is equivalent to knowing the condition(s) under which the claim it makes is true. For example, the statement above implies that if the company undertakes the project (condition) then it will save the stated hours of labour (claim).  This interpretation of meaning is called the truth-conditional model. Among other things, it assumes that the truth of a sentence has an objective meaning.

Most people have something like the truth-conditional model in mind when they are writing documents: they (try to) write in a way that makes the truth of their claims plausible or, better yet, evident.

Buehler’s model of language

At this point, it is helpful to look at a model of language proposed by the German linguist Karl Buehler in the 1930s. According to Buehler, language has three functions, not just one as in the truth-conditional model. The three functions are:

  1. Cognitive: representing an (objective) truth about the world. This is the same “truth” as in the truth-conditional model.
  2. Expressive:  expressing a point of view of the writer (or speaker).
  3. Appeal: making a request of the reader – or “appealing to” the reader.

A graphical representation of the model –sometimes called the organon model – is shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Buehler's organon model

The basic point Buehler makes is that focusing on the cognitive function alone cannot lead to a complete picture of meaning. One has to factor in the desires and intent of the writer (or speaker) and the predispositions of those who make up the audience. Ultimately, the meaning resides not in some idealized objective truth, but in how readers interpret the document.

Meaning and interpretation

Let’s look at the statement made in the previous section in the light of Buehler’s model.

First, the statement (and indeed the document) makes some claims regarding the external, objective world. This is essentially the same as the truth-conditional view mentioned in the previous section.

Second, from the viewpoint of the expressive function, the statement (and the entire business case, for that matter) selects facts that the writer believes will convince the reader. So, among other things, the writer claims that the company will save 260 hours of manual labour by automating time-consuming and error-prone tasks. The adjectives used imply that some tasks are not carried out efficiently.  The author chose to make this point; he or she could have made it another way or even not made it all.

Finally, executives who read the business case might interpret claim made in many different ways depending on:

  1. Their knowledge of the office environment (things such as the workload of office staff, scope for automation etc.) and the environment.  This corresponds to the cognitive function in Buehler’s model.
  2. Their own predispositions, intentions and desires and those that they impute to the author.  This corresponds to the appeal and expressive functions.

For instance, the statement might be viewed as irrelevant by an executive who believes that the existing office staff are perfectly capable of dealing with the workload (“They need to work smarter”, he might say).  On the other hand, if he knows that the business case has been written up by the IT department (who are currently looking to justify their budgets), he might well question the validity of the statement and ask for details of how the figure of 260 hours was arrived at. The point is: even a simple and seemingly unambiguous statement (from the point of view of the writer) might be interpreted in a host of unexpected ways.

More than just “sending and receiving”

The standard sender-receiver model of communication is simplistic. Among other things it assumes that interpretation is “just” a matter of interpreting a message correctly. The general assumption is that:

…If the requisite information has been properly packed in a message, only someone who is deficient could fail to get it out. This partitioning of responsibility between the sender and the recipient often results in reciprocal blaming for communication. (Quoted from Questions and Information: contrasting metaphors by Thomas Lauer)

Buehler’s model reminds us that any communication – as clear as it may seem to the sender – is open to being interpreted in a variety of different ways by the receiver. Moreover, the two parties need to understand each others  intent and motives, which are generally not open to view.

Wrapping up

The meaning of project documents isn’t as clear-cut as is usually assumed. This is so even for documents that are thought of as being unambiguous  (such as contracts or status reports).  Writers write from their point of view, which may differ considerably from that of their readers. Further, phrases and sentences which seem clear to a writer can be interpreted in a variety of ways by readers, depending on their situation and motivations. The bottom line is that the writer must not only strive for clarity of expression, but must also try to anticipate ways in which readers might interpret what’s written.

Written by K

May 19, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Why deliberation trumps standard decision-making methods

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Wikipedia defines decision analysis as the discipline comprising the philosophy, theory, methodology, and professional practice necessary to address important decisions in a formal manner.  Standard decision-making techniques generally involve the following steps:

  1. Identify available options.
  2. Develop criteria for rating options.
  3. Rate options according to criteria developed.
  4. Select the top-ranked option.

This sounds great in theory, but as Tim van Gelder points out in an article entitled the The Wise Delinquency of Decision Makers, formal methods of decision analysis are not used as often as textbooks and decision-theorists would have us believe.  This, he argues, isn’t due to ignorance:  even those trained in such methods often do not use them for decisions that really matter. Instead they resort to deliberation –    weighing up options in light of the arguments and evidence for and against them. He discusses why this is so, and also points out some problems with deliberative methods and what can be done do fix them. This post is a summary of the main points he makes in the article.

To begin with, formal methods aren’t suited to many decision-making problems encountered in the real world. For instance:

  1. Real-world options often cannot be quantified or rated in a meaningful way. Many of life’s dilemmas fall into this category. For example, a decision to accept or decline a job offer is rarely made on the basis of material gain alone.
  2. Even where ratings are possible, they can be highly subjective. For example, when considering a job offer, one candidate may give more importance to financial matters whereas another might consider lifestyle-related matters (flexi-hours, commuting distance etc.) to be paramount. Another complication here is that there may not be enough information to settle the matter conclusively. As an example, investment decisions are often made on the basis of quantitative information that is based on questionable assumptions.
  3. Finally, the problem may be wicked – i.e. complex, multi-faceted and difficult to analyse using formal decision making methods. Classic examples of wicked problems are climate change (so much so, that some say it is not even a problem) and city / town planning. Such problems cannot be forced into formal decision analysis frameworks in any meaningful way.

Rather than rating options and assigning scores, deliberation involves making arguments for and against each option and weighing them up in some consistent (but qualitative) way. In contrast to textbook methods of decision analysis, this is essentially an informal process; there is no prescribed method that one must follow. One could work through an arguments oneself or in conversation with others.  Because of the points listed above, deliberation is often better suited to deal with many of the decisions we are confronted with in our work and personal lives (see this post for a real-life example of deliberative decision making)

However, as Van Gelder points out,

The trouble is that deliberative decision making is still a very problematic business. Decisions go wrong all the time. Textbook decision methods were developed, in part, because it was widely recognized that our default or habitual decision making methods are very unreliable.

He  lists four problems with deliberative methods:

  1. Biases – Many poor decisions can be traced back to cognitive biaseserrors of judgement based on misperceptions of situations, data or evidence. A common example of such a bias is overconfidence in one’s own judgement. See this post for a discussion of how failures of high-profile projects may have been due to cognitive biases.
  2. Emotions – It is difficult, if not impossible, to be completely rational when making a decision – even a simple one.  However, emotions can cloud judgement and lead to decisions being made on the basis of pride, anger or envy rather than a clear-headed consideration of known options and their pros and cons.
  3. Tyranny of the group – Important decisions are often made by committees. Such decisions are subjected to collective biases such as groupthink – the tendency of group members to think alike and ignore external inputs so as to avoid internal conflicts. See this post for a discussion of groupthink in project environments. 
  4. Lack of training – People end up making poor decisions because they lack knowledge of informal logic and argumentation, skills that can be taught and then honed through practice.

Improvements in our ability to deliberate matters can be brought about by addressing the above. Clearly, it is difficult to be completely objective when confronted with tough decisions just as it is impossible to rid ourselves of our (individual and collective) biases.  That said, any technique that lays out all the options and arguments for and against them in a easy-to-understand way may help in making our biases and emotions (and those of others) obvious. Visual notations such as  IBIS (Issue-Based Information Systems) and  Argument Mapping do just that.  See this post for more on why it is better to represent reasoning visually than in prose.

The use of techniques such as the ones listed in the previous paragraph can lead to immediate improvements in corporate decision making. Firstly,  because gaps in logic and weaknesses in supporting evidence are made obvious, those responsible for formulating, say, a business case can focus on improving the their arguments prior to presenting them to senior managers. Secondly, decision makers can see the logic, supporting materials and the connections between them at a glance. In short: those formulating an argument and those making decisions based on it can focus on the essential points of the matter without having to wade through reams of documentation or tedious presentations.

To summarise: formal decision-making techniques are unsuited to complex problems  or those that have  options that cannot be quantified in a meaningful way. For such issues, deliberation –  supplemented by visual notations such as IBIS or Argument Mapping – offers a better alternative.

Written by K

May 13, 2011 at 5:32 am

Planning and improvisation – complementary facets of organizational work

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Cause-effect relationships in the business world are never clear cut. Yet, those who run business organisations hanker after predictability. Consequently, a great deal of effort is expended on planning – thinking out and organizing actions aimed at directing the course of the future.  In this “planning view”, time is seen as a commodity that can be divided, allocated and used to achieve organizational aims.  In this scheme of things, the future is seen as unfolding linearly, traversing the axis of time according to plan. Although (good) plans factor in uncertainties and unforeseen events, the emphasis is on predictability and it is generally assumed that things will go as foreseen.

In reality things rarely go according to plan. Stuff happens, things that aren’t foreseen – and what’s not foreseen cannot be planned for. People deal with this by improvising, taking extemporaneous actions that feel right at the time. In retrospect such actions often turn out to be right.  However, such actions are essentially unplanned; one cannot predict or allocate a particular time at which they will occur. In this sense they lie outside of normal (or planned) organizational time.

In a paper entitled Notes on improvisation and time in organisation (abstract only), Claudio Ciborra considered the nature of improvisation in organisations. Although the paper was written a while ago, primarily as a critique of Business Process Reengineering (BPR) and its negative side effects, many of the points he made are of wider relevance.  This post, inspired by Ciborra’s paper, is the first of a two-part series of posts in which I discuss the nature of improvisation and planning in organisations. In the present post I discuss the differences between the two and how they complement each other in practice. In a subsequent post I will talk about how the two lead to different notions of time in organisations.

Contrasting planning and improvisation

The table below summarises some of the key contrasting characteristics between planning and improvisation:



Follows procedures and processes; operates within clearly defined boundaries Idiosyncratic; boundaries are not well defined, or sometimes not defined at all.
Operates within organizational rules and decrees Often operates outside of organizational rules and norms.
Method of solution is assumed to be known. Method emerges via sensemaking and exploration.
Slow, deliberate decision-making Quick – almost instantaneous decision making
Planning attempts to predict and control (how events unfold in) time. Improvisation is extemporaneous – operates “outside of time”

In essence improvisation cannot be planned;  it is always surprising, even to improvisers.

Planning and improvisation coexist

Following Alfred Schutz, Ciborra notes that in planned work (such as projects) every action is carried out according to a view of a future in which it is already accomplished.  In other words, in projects we do things according to a plan because we expect those actions to lead to certain consequences – that is we expect our actions to achieve certain goals.  Schutz referred to such motives as in-order-to motives. These motives are embedded in the project and its rationale, and are often documented for all to see. However, in-order-to motives are only part of the story, and a small one at that. More important are the reasons for which the goals are thought to be worthwhile. Among other things, these involve factors relating history, environment and past experiences of the people who make up the organisation or project. Schutz referred to such motivations as because-of motives. These motives are usually tacit and remain so unless a conscious effort is made to surface them.

As Ciborra puts it:

The in-order-to project deals with the actor’s explicit and conscious meaning in solving a problematic situation while the because-of motives can explain why and how a situation has been perceived as problematic in the first place.

The because-of motives are tacit and lie in the background of the explicit project at hand. They fall outside the glance of rational, awake attention during the performance of the action. They could be inferred by an outsider, or made explicit by the actor, but only as a result of reflection after the fact.

(Note that although Ciborra uses the word project as referring to any future-directed action, it could just as well be applied to the kinds of projects you and I work on.)

Ciborra uses the metaphor of an iceberg to illustrate the coexistence of the two types of motives. The in-order-to motives are the tip of the iceberg, there for all to see. On the other hand, because-of motives, though more numerous, are hidden below the surface and can’t be seen unless one makes the effort to see them. Improvisation generally draws upon these tacit, because-of motives that are not visible.  Moreover, the very interpretation of formalized procedures and best practices involves these motives. Actions performed as a consequence of such interpretations are what bring procedures and practices to life in specific situations. As Ciborra puts it:

A formalized procedure embeds a set of explicit in-order-to’s, but the way these are actually interpreted and put to work strictly depends upon the actor’s in-order-to and because-of motives, his/her way of being in the world “next” to the procedure, the rule or the plan. In more radical terms what is at stake here is not “objects” or “artifacts” but human existence and experience. Procedure and method are just “dead objects”: they get situated in the flow of organizational life only thanks to a mélange of human motives and actions. One cannot cleanse human existence and experience from the ways of operating and use of artifacts.

In short, planning and improvisation are both necessary for a proper functioning of organizations.

Opposite, but complementary

Planning and improvisation are very different activities – the former is aimed at influencing the future through activities that are pre-organized whereas the latter involves actions that occur just-in-time.   Moreover, planning is a result of conscious thought and deliberation whereas improvisation is a result of tacit knowledge being brought to bear, in an instant, on  specific situations encountered in project (or other organizational) work. Nevertheless, despite their differences, both activities are important in organizations. Efforts aimed at planning the future down to the last detail are misguided and bound to fail. Contraria sunt complementa: planning and improvisation are opposites, but they are complementary.1


1 The phrase contraria sunt complementa means opposites are complementary. It appears on the physicist Niels Bohr’s coat of arms (he was knighted after he won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1922). Bohr formulated the complementarity principle, the best known manifestation of which is wave-particle duality – i.e. that in the atomic world, particles can display either wave or particle like characteristics,  depending on the experimental set up.

Written by K

May 5, 2011 at 10:12 pm

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