Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Archive for April 2015

Sherlock Holmes and the case of the management fetish

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As narrated by Dr. John Watson, M.D.

As my readers are undoubtedly aware,  my friend Sherlock Holmes is widely feted for his powers of logic and deduction.  With all due modesty, I can claim to have played a small part in publicizing his considerable talents, for I have a sense for what will catch the reading public’s fancy and, perhaps more important, what will not. Indeed, it could be argued  that his fame is in no small part due to the dramatic nature of the exploits which I have chosen to publicise.

Management consulting, though far more lucrative than criminal investigation, is not nearly as exciting.  Consequently my work has become that much harder since Holmes reinvented himself as a management expert.  Nevertheless, I am firmly of the opinion that the long-standing myths  exposed by  his  recent work more than make up for any lack of suspense or drama.

A little known fact is that many of Holmes’ insights into flawed management practices have come after the fact, by discerning common themes that emerged from different cases. Of course this makes perfect sense:  only after seeing the same (or similar) mistake occur in a variety of situations can one begin to perceive an underlying pattern.

The conversation I had with him last night  is an excellent illustration of this point.

We were having dinner at Holmes’ Baker Street abode  when, apropos of nothing, he remarked, “It’s a strange thing, Watson, that our lives are governed by routine. For instance, it is seven in the evening, and here we are having dinner, much like we would on any other day.”

“Yes, it is,” I said, intrigued by his remark.  Dabbing my mouth with a napkin, I put down my fork and waited for him to say more.

He smiled. “…and do you think that is a good thing?”

I thought about it for a minute before responding. “Well, we follow routine because we like…or need… regularity and predictability,” I said. “Indeed, as a medical man, I know well that our bodies have built in clocks that drive us to do things – such as eat and sleep – at regular intervals.  That apart, routines give us a sense of comfort and security in an unpredictable world. Even those who are adventurous have routines of their own. I don’t think we have a choice in the matter, it’s the way humans are wired.” I wondered where the conversation was going.

Holmes cocked an eyebrow. “Excellent, Watson!” he said. “Our propensity for routine is quite possibly a consequence of our need for security and comfort ….but what about the usefulness of routines – apart from the sense of security we get from them?”

“Hmmm…that’s an interesting question. I suppose a routine must have a benefit, or at least a perceived benefit…else it would not have been made into a routine.”

“Possibly,” said Holmes, “ but let me ask you another question.  You remember the case of the failed projects do you not?”

“Yes, I do,” I replied. Holmes’ abrupt conversational U-turns no longer disconcert me, I’ve become used to them over the years. I remembered the details of the case like it had happened yesterday…indeed I should, as it was I who wrote the narrative!

“Did anything about the case strike you as strange?” he inquired.

I mulled over the case, which (in hindsight) was straightforward enough. Here are the essential facts:

The organization suffered from a high rate of project failure (about 70% as I recall). The standard prescription – project post-mortems followed by changes in processes aimed at addressing the top issues revealed – had failed to resolve the issue. Holmes’ insightful diagnosis was that the postmortems identified symptoms, not causes.  Therefore the measures taken to fix the problems didn’t work because they did not address the underlying cause. Indeed, the measures were akin to using brain surgery to fix a headache.  In the end, Holmes concluded that the failures were a consequence of flawed organizational structures and norms.

Of course flawed structures and norms are beyond the purview of a mere project or  program manager. So Holmes’ diagnosis, though entirely correct, did not help Bryant (the manager who had consulted us).

Nothing struck me as unduly strange as  went over the facts mentally. No,” I replied, “but what on earth does that have to do with routine?”

He smiled. “I will explain presently, but I have yet another question for you before I do so.  Do you remember one of our earliest management consulting cases – the affair of the terminated PMO?”

I replied in the affirmative.

“Well then,  you see the common thread running through the two cases, don’t you?” Seeing my puzzled look, he added, “think about it for a minute, Watson, while I go and fetch dessert.”

He went into the kitchen, leaving me to ponder his question.

The only commonality I could see was the obvious one – both cases were related to the failure of PMOs. (Editor’s note: PMO = Project Management Office)

He returned with dessert a few minutes later. “So, Watson,” he said as he sat down, “have you come up with anything?

I told him what I thought.

“Capital, Watson! Then you will, no doubt, have asked yourself the obvious next question. ”

I saw what he was getting at. “Yes!  The question is: can this observation be generalised?  Do majority of PMOs fail? ”

“Brilliant, Watson.  You are getting better at this by the day.” I know Holmes  does not intend to sound condescending, but the sad fact is that he often does.  “Let me tell you,” he continued, “Research   suggests that 50% of PMOs fail within three years of being set up. My hypothesis is that failure rate would be considerably higher if the timeframe is increased to five or seven years. What’s even more interesting is that there is a single overriding complaint about PMOs:  the majority of stakeholders surveyed felt that their PMOs are overly bureaucratic, and generally hinder project work.”

“But isn’t that contrary to the aim of a  PMO – which, as I understand, is to facilitate project work?” I queried.

“Excellent, my dear Watson. You are getting close to the heart of the matter.

“I am?”  To be honest, I was a little lost.

“Ah Watson, don’t tell me you do not see it,” said Holmes exasperatedly.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to explain,” I replied curtly. Really, he could insufferable at times.

“I shall do my best. You see, there is a fundamental contradiction between the stated mission and actual operation of a typical PMO.  In theory, they are supposed to facilitate projects, but as far as executive management is concerned this is synonymous with overseeing and controlling projects. What this means is that in practice, PMOs inevitably end up policing project work rather than facilitating it.”

I wasn’t entirely convinced.  “May be the reason that  PMOs fail is that organisations do not implement them correctly,” I said.

“Ah, the famous escape clause used by purveyors of best practices – if our best practice doesn’t work, it means you aren’t implementing it correctly. Pardon me while I choke on my ale, because that is utter nonsense.”

“Why?”

“Well, one would expect after so many years, these so-called implementation errors would have been sorted out. Yet we see the same poor outcomes over and over again,” said Holmes.

“OK,  but then why are PMOs are still so popular with management?”

“Now we come to the crux of matter, Watson,” he said, a tad portentously, “They are popular for reasons we spoke of at the start of this conversation – comfort and security.”

“Comfort and security? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Let me try explaining this in another way,” he said. “When you were a small child, you must have had some object that you carried around everywhere…a toy, perhaps…did you not?”

“I’m not sure I should tell you this Holmes  but, yes, I had a blanket”

“A security blanket, I would never have guessed, Watson,” smiled Holmes. “…but as it happens that’s a perfect example because PMOs and the methodologies they enforce are  security blankets. They give executives and frontline managers a sense that they are doing something concrete and constructive to manage uncertainty…even though they actually aren’t.   PMOs are popular , not because they work (and indeed, we’ve seen they don’t)  but because they help managers contain their anxiety about whether things will turn out right. I would not be exaggerating if I said that  PMOs and the methodologies they evangelise are akin to lucky charms or fetishes.”

“That’s a strong a statement to make on rather slim grounds,” I said dubiously.

“Is it? Think about it, Watson,” he shot back, with a flash of irritation. “Many (though I should admit, not all) PMOs and methodologies prescribe excruciatingly detailed procedures to follow and templates to fill when managing projects. For many (though again, not all) project managers, managing a project is synonymous with following these rituals. Such managers attempt to force-fit  reality into standardised procedures and documents. But tell me, Watson – how can such project management by ritual work  when no two projects are the same?”

“Hmm….”

“That is not all, Watson,” he continued, before I could respond, “PMOs and methodologies enable people to live in a fantasy world where everything seems to be under control. Methodology fetishists will not see the gap between their fantasy world and reality, and will therefore miss opportunities to learn. They follow rituals that give them security and an illusion of efficiency, but at the price of a genuine engagement with people and projects.”

“ I’ll have to think about it,” I said.

“You do that,” he replied , as he pushed back his chair and started to clear the table. Unlike him, I had a lot more than dinner to digest. Nevertheless, I rose to help him as I do every day.

Evening conversations at 221B Baker Street are seldom boring. Last night was no exception.

Acknowledgement:

This tale was inspired David Wastell’s brilliant paper, The fetish of technique: methodology as social defence (abstract only).

Written by K

April 29, 2015 at 8:37 pm

From the coalface: an essay on the early history of sociotechnical systems

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The story of sociotechnical systems began a little over half a century ago, in a somewhat unlikely setting: the coalfields of Yorkshire.

The British coal industry had just been nationalised and new mechanised mining methods were being introduced in the mines. It was thought that nationalisation would sort out the chronic labour-management issues and mechanisation would address the issue of falling productivity.

But things weren’t going as planned. In the words of Eric Trist, one of the founders of the Tavistock Institute:

…the newly nationalized industry was not doing well. Productivity failed to increase in step with increases in mechanization. Men were leaving the mines in large numbers for more attractive opportunities in the factory world. Among those who remained, absenteeism averaged 20%. Labour disputes were frequent despite improved conditions of employment.   – excerpted from, The evolution of Socio-technical systems – a conceptual framework and an action research program, E. Trist (1980)

Trist and his colleagues were asked by the National Coal Board to come in and help. To this end, they did a comparative study of two mines that were similar except that one had high productivity and morale whereas the other suffered from low performance and had major labour issues.

Their job was far from easy: they were not welcome at the coalface because workers associated them with management and the Board.

Trist recounts that around the time the study started, there were a number of postgraduate fellows at the Tavistock Institute. One of them, Ken Bamforth, knew the coal industry well as he had been a miner himself.  Postgraduate fellows who had worked in the mines were encouraged to visit their old workplaces after  a year and  write up their impressions, focusing on things that had changed since they had worked there.   After one such visit, Bamforth reported back with news of a workplace innovation that had occurred at a newly opened seam at Haighmoor. Among other things, morale and productivity at this particular seam was high compared to other similar ones.  The team’s way of working was entirely novel, a world away from the hierarchically organised set up that was standard in most mechanised mines at the time. In Trist’s words:

The work organization of the new seam was, to us, a novel phenomenon consisting of a set of relatively autonomous groups interchanging roles and shifts and regulating their affairs with a minimum of supervision. Cooperation between task groups was everywhere in evidence; personal commitment was obvious, absenteeism low, accidents infrequent, productivity high. The contrast was large between the atmosphere and arrangements on these faces and those in the conventional areas of the pit, where the negative features characteristic of the industry were glaringly apparent. Excerpted from the paper referenced above.

To appreciate the radical nature of practices at this seam, one needs to understand the backdrop against which they occurred. To this end, it is helpful to compare the  mechanised work practices introduced in the post-war years with the older ones from the pre-mechanised era of mining.

In the days before mines were mechanised, miners would typically organise themselves into workgroups of six miners, who would cover three work shifts in teams of two. Each miner was able to do pretty much any job at the seam and so could pick up where his work-mates from the previous shift had left off. This was necessary in order to ensure continuity of work between shifts. The group negotiated the price of their mined coal directly with management and the amount received was shared equally amongst all members of the group.

This mode of working required strong cooperation and trust within the group, of course.  However, as workgroups were reorganised from time to time due to attrition or other reasons, individual miners understood the importance of maintaining their individual reputations as reliable and trustworthy workmates. It was important to get into a good workgroup because such groups were more likely to get more productive seams to work on. Seams were assigned by bargaining, which was typically the job of the senior miner on the group. There was considerable competition for the best seams, but this was generally kept within bounds of civility via informal rules and rituals.

This traditional way of working could not survive mechanisation. For one, mechanised mines encouraged specialisation because they were organised like assembly lines, with clearly defined job roles each with different responsibilities and pay scales. Moreover, workers in a shift would perform only part of the extraction process leaving those from subsequent shifts to continue where work was left off.

As miners were paid by the job they did rather than the amount of coal they produced, no single group had end-to-end responsibility for the product.   Delays due to unexpected events tended to get compounded as no one felt the need to make up time. As a result, it would often happen that work that was planned for a shift would not be completed. This meant that the next shift (which could well be composed of a group with completely different skills) could not or would not start their work because they did not see it as their job to finish the work of the earlier shift. Unsurprisingly, blame shifting and scapegoating was rife.

From a supervisor’s point of view, it was difficult to maintain the same level of oversight and control in underground mining work as was possible in an assembly line. The environment underground is simply not conducive to close supervision and is also more uncertain in that it is prone to unexpected events.  Bureaucratic organisational structures are completely unsuited to dealing with these because decision-makers are too far removed from the coalface (literally!).  This is perhaps the most important insight to come out of the Tavistock coal mining studies.

As Claudio Ciborra  puts it in his classic book on teams:

Since the production process at any seam was much more prone to disorganisation than due to uncertainty and complexity of underground conditions, any ‘bureaucratic’ allocation of jobs could be easily disrupted. Coping with emergencies and coping with coping became part of worker’s and supervisors’ everyday activities. These activities would lead to stress, conflict and low productivity because they continually clashed with the technological arrangements and the way they were planned and subdivided around them.

Thus we see that the new assembly-line bureaucracy inspired work organisation was totally unsuited to the work environment because there was no end-to-end responsibility, and decision making was far removed from the action. In contrast, the traditional workgroup of six was able to deal with uncertainties and complexities of underground work because team members had a strong sense of responsibility for the performance of the team as a whole. Moreover, teams were uniquely placed to deal with unexpected events because they were actually living them as they occurred and could therefore decide on the best way to deal with them.

What Bamforth found at the Haighmoor seam was that it was possible to recapture the spirit of the old ways of working by adapting these to the larger specialised groups that were necessary in the mechanised mines. As Ciborra describes it in his book:

The new form of work organisation features forty one men who allocate themselves to tasks and shifts. Although tasks and shifts those of the conventional mechanised system, management and supervisors do not monitor, enforce and reward single task executions. The composite group takes over some of the managerial tasks, as it had in the pre-mechanised marrow group, such as the selection of group members and the informal monitoring of work…Cycle completion, not task execution becomes a common goal that allows for mutual learning and support…There is basic wage and a bonus linked to the overall productivity of the group throughout the whole cycle rather than a shift.  The competition between shifts that plagued the conventional mechanised method is effectively eliminated…

Bamforth and Trist’s studies on Haighmoor convinced them that there were viable (and better!) alternatives to those that were typical of mid to late 20th century work places.  Their work led them to the insight that the best work arrangements come out of seeking a match between technical and social elements of the modern day workplace, and thus was born the notion of sociotechnical systems.

Ever since the assembly-line management philosophies of Taylor and Ford, there has been an increasing trend towards division of labour, bureaucratisation and mechanisation / automation of work processes.  Despite the early work of the Tavistock school and others who followed, this trend continues to dominate management practice, arguably even more so in recent years. The Haighmoor innovation described above was one of the earliest demonstrations that there is a better way.   This message has since been echoed by many academics and thinkers,  but remains largely under-appreciated or ignored by professional managers who have little idea – or have completely forgotten – what it is like to work at the coalface.

Written by K

April 7, 2015 at 10:30 pm

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