Archive for the ‘Business Fables’ Category
It is well-known that data-driven stories are a great way to convey results of data science initiatives. What is perhaps not as well-known is that data science projects often have to begin with stories too. Without this “story before the story” there will be no project, no results and no data-driven stories to tell….
For those who prefer to read, here’s a transcript of the video in full:
In the beginning there is no data, let alone results…but there are ideas. So, long before we tell stories about data or results, we have to tell stories about our ideas. The aim of these stories is to get people to care about our ideas as much as we do and, more important, invest in them. Without their interest or investment there will be no results and no further stories to tell.
So one of the first things one has to do is craft a story about the idea…or the story before the story.
Once upon a time there was a CRM system. The system captured every customer interaction that occurred, whether it was by phone, email or face to face conversation. Many quantitative details of interactions were recorded, time, duration, type. And if the interaction led to a sale, the details of the sale were recorded too.
Almost as an aside, the system also gave sales people the opportunity to record their qualitative impressions as free text notes. As you might imagine, this information, though potentially valuable, was never analysed. Sure managers looked at notes in isolation from time to time when referring.to specific customer interactions, but there was no systematic analysis of the corpus as a whole. Nobody had thought it worthwhile to do this, possibly because it is difficult if not quite impossible to analyse unstructured information in the world of relational databases and SQL.
One day, an analyst was browsing data randomly in the system, as good analysts sometimes do. He came across a note that to him seemed like the epitome of a good note…it described what the interaction was about, the customer’s reactions and potential next steps all in a logical fashion.
This gave him an idea. Wouldn’t it be cool, he thought, if we could measure the quality of notes? Not only would this tell us something about the customer and the interaction, it may tell us something about the sales person as well.
The analyst was mega excited…but he realised he’d need help. He was an IT guy and as we all know, business folks in big corporations stopped listening to their IT guys long ago. So our IT guy had his work cut out for him.
After much cogitation, he decided to enlist the help of his friend, a strategic business analyst in the marketing department. This lady, who worked in marketing had the trust of the head of marketing. If she liked the idea, she might be able to help sell it to the head of marketing.
As it turned out, the business analyst loved the idea…more important, since she knew what the sales people do on a day to day basis, she could give the IT guy more ideas on how he could build quantitative measures of the quality of notes. For example, she suggested looking for emotion-laden words or mentions of competitor’s products and so on. The IT guy now had some concrete things to work on. The initial results gave them even more ideas, and soon they had more than enough to make a convincing pitch to the head of marketing.
It would take us too far afield to discuss details of the pitch, but what we will say is this: they avoided technical details, instead focusing on the strategic and innovative aspects of the work.
The marketing head liked the idea…what was there not to like? He agreed to support the effort, and the idea became a project….
…and yes, within months the project resulted in new insights into customer behaviour. But that is another story.
The Head of Data Management was a troubled man. The phrase “Big Data” had cropped up more than a few times in a lunch conversation with Jack, a senior manager from Marketing.
Jack had pointedly asked what the data management team was doing about “Big Data”…or whether they were still stuck in a data time warp. This comment had put the Head of Data Management on the defensive. He’d mumbled something about a proof of concept with vendors specializing in Big Data solutions being on the drawing board.
He spent the afternoon dialing various vendors in his contact list, setting up appointments to talk about what they could offer. His words were music to the vendors’ ears; he had no trouble getting them to bite.
The meetings went well. He was soon able to get a couple of vendors to agree to doing proofs of concept, which amounted to setting up trial versions of their software on the organisation’s servers, thus giving IT staff an opportunity to test-drive and compare the vendors’ offerings.
The software was duly installed and the concept duly proven.
…but the Head of Data Management was still a troubled man.
He had sought an appointment with Jack to inform him about the successful proof of concept. Jack had listened to his spiel, but instead of being impressed had asked a simple question that had the Head of Data Management stumped.
“What has your proof of concept proved?” Jack asked.
“What do…do you mean?” stammered the Head of Data Management.
“I don’t think I can put it any clearer than I already have. What have you proved by doing this so-called proof of concept?”
“Umm… we have proved that the technology works,” came the uncertain reply.
“Surely we know that the technology works,” said Jack, a tad exasperated.
“Ah, but we don’t know that it works for us,” shot back the Head of Data Management.
“Look, I’m just a marketing guy, I know very little about IT,” said Jack, “but I do know a thing or two about product development and marketing. I can say with some confidence that the technology– whatever it is – does what it is supposed to do. You don’t need to run a proof of concept to prove that it works. I’m sure the vendors would have done that before they put their product on the market. So, my question remains: what has your proof of concept proved?”
“Well we’ve proved that it does work for us…:
“Proved it works for what??” asked Jack, exasperation mounting. “Let me put it as clearly as I can – what business problem have you solved that you could not address earlier.”
“Well we’ve taken some of the data from our largest databases – the sales database, from your area of work, and loaded it into the Big Data infrastructure.”
“…and then what?”
“Well that’s about it…for now.”
“So, all you have is another database. You haven’t actually done anything that cannot be done on our existing databases. You haven’t tackled a business problem using your new toy,” said Jack.
“Yes, but this is just the start. We’ll now start doing analytics and all that other stuff we were talking about.”
“I’m sorry to say, this is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse,” said Jack, shaking his head in disbelief.
“How so?” challenged the Head of Data Management.
“Should be obvious but may be it isn’t, so let me spell it out. You’ve jumped to a solution – the technology you’ve installed – without taking the time to define the business problems that the technology should address.”
“…but…but you talked about Big Data when we had lunch the other day.”
“Indeed I did. And what I expected was the start of a dialogue between your people and mine about the kinds of problem we would like to address. We know our problems well, you guys know the technology; but the problems should always drive the solution. What you’ve done now is akin to a solution in search of a problem, a cart before a horse”
“I see,” said the Head of Data Management slowly.
And Jack could only hope that he really did see.
This is a work of fiction. It could never happen in real life 😉
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.”
“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?”
“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.
This tale was inspired David Wastell’s brilliant paper, The fetish of technique: methodology as social defence (abstract only).
I’d greatly appreciate your feedback. Please be gentle though, this is a first attempt 🙂
PS: I’ve just realised this is the shortest post I’ve ever written.
….as narrated by Dr. John H. Watson M. D.
Of all the problems which had been submitted to my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, for consideration during the years of our friendship, there has been one that stands out for the sheer simplicity of its resolution. I have (until now) been loath to disclose details of the case as I felt the resolution to be so trivial as to not merit mention.
So why bring it up after all these years?
Truth be told, I am increasingly of the mind that Holmes’ diagnosis in the Case of the Failed Projects (as I have chosen to call this narrative), though absolutely correct, has been widely ignored. Indeed, the writings of Lord Standish and others from the business press have convinced me that the real lesson from his diagnosis is yet to be learnt by those who really matter: i.e. executives and managers.
As Holmes might have said, this is symptomatic of a larger malaise: that of a widespread ignorance of elementary logic and causality.
A final word before I get into the story. As most readers know, my friend is better known for his work on criminal cases. The present case, though far more mundane in its details, is in my opinion perhaps his most important because of its remarkable implications. The story has, I believe, been told at least once before but, like all such narratives, its effect is much less striking when set forth en bloc in a single half-column of print than when the facts slowly emerge before one’s own eyes.
So, without further ado, then, here is the tale…
Holmes was going through a lean patch that summer, and it seemed that the only cases that came his way had to do with pilfered pets or suspicious spouses. Such work, if one can call it that, held little allure for him.
He was fed up to the point that he was contemplating a foray into management consulting. Indeed, he was certain he could do as well, if not better than the likes of Baron McKinsey and Lord Gartner (who seemed to be doing well enough). Moreover his success with the case of the terminated PMO had given him some credibility in management circles. As it turned out, it was that very case that led Mr. Bryant (not his real name) to invite us to his office that April morning.
As you may have surmised, Holmes accepted the invitation with alacrity.
The basic facts of the issue, as related by Bryant, were simple enough: his organization, which I shall call Big Enterprise, was suffering from an unduly high rate of project failure. I do not recall the exact number but offhand, it was around 70%.
Yes, that’s right: 7 out of every 10 projects that Big Enterprise undertook were over-budget, late or did not fulfil business expectations!
Shocking, you say… yet entirely consistent with the figures presented by Lord Standish and others.
Upon hearing the facts and figures, Holmes asked the obvious question about what Big Enterprise had done to figure out why the failure rate was so high.
“I was coming to that,” said Bryant, “typically after every project we hold a post-mortem. The PMO (which, as you know,I manage) requires this. As a result, we have a pretty comprehensive record of ‘things that went well’ on our projects and things that didn’t. We analysed the data from failed projects and found that there were three main reasons for failure: lack of adequate user input, incomplete or changing user requirements and inadequate executive support.”
“….but these aren’t the root cause,” said Holmes.
“You’re right, they aren’t” said Bryant, somewhat surprised at Holmes’ interjection. “Indeed, we did an exhaustive analysis of each of the projects and even interviewed some of the key team members. We concluded that the root cause of the failures was inadequate governance on the PMO’s part,” said Bryant.
“I don’t understand. Hadn’t you established governance processes prior to the problem? That is after all the raison d’etre of a PMO…”
“Yes we had, but our diagnosis implied those processes weren’t working. They needed to be tightened up.”
“I see,” said Holmes shortly. “I’ll return to that in due course. Please do go on and tell me what you did to address the issue of poor…or inadequate governance, as you put it.”
“Yes, so we put in place processes to address these problems. Specifically, we took the following actions. For the lack of user input, we recommended getting a sign-off from business managers as to how much time their people would commit to the project. For the second issue – incomplete or changing requirements – we recommended that in the short term, more attention be paid to initial requirement gathering, and that this be supported by a stricter change management regime. In the longer term, we recommended that the organization look into the possibility of implementing Agile approaches. For the third point, lack of executive support, we suggested that the problem be presented to the management board and CEO, requesting that they reinforce the importance of supporting project work to senior and middle management.”
Done with his explanation, he looked at the two of us to check if we needed any clarification. “Does this make sense?” he enquired, after a brief pause.
Holmes shook his head, “No Mr. Bryant the actions don’t make sense at all. When faced with problems, the kneejerk reaction is to resort to more control. I submit that your focus on control misled you.”
“Misled? What do you mean?”
“Well, it didn’t work did it? Projects in Big Enterprise continue to fail, which is why we are having this meeting today. The reason your prescription did not work is that you misdiagnosed the issue. The problem is not governance, but something deeper.”
Bryant wore a thoughtful expression as he attempted to digest this. “I do not understand, Mr. Holmes,” he said after a brief pause. “Why don’t you just tell me what the problem is and how can I fix it? Management is breathing down my neck and I have to do something about it soon.”
“To be honest, the diagnosis is obvious, and I am rather surprised you missed it,” said Holmes, “I shall give you a hint: it is bigger, much bigger, than the PMO and its governance processes.”
“I’m lost, Mr. Holmes. I have thought about it long enough but have not been able to come up with anything. You will have to tell me,” said Bryant with a tone that conveyed both irritation and desperation.
“It is elementary, Mr. Bryant, when one has eliminated the other causes, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Your prior actions have all but established that the problem is not the PMO, but something bigger. So let me ask the simple question: what is the PMO a part of?”
“That’s obvious,” said Bryant, “it’s the organization, of course.”
“Exactly, Mr. Bryant: the problem lies in Big Enterprise’s organisational structures, rules and norms. It’s the entire system that’s the problem, not the PMO per se.”
Bryant looked at him dubiously. “I do not understand how the three points I made earlier – inadequate user involvement, changing requirements and lack executive sponsorship – are due to Big Enterprise’s structures, rules and norms. “
“It’s obvious,” said Holmes, as he proceeded to elaborate how lack of input was a consequence of users having to juggle their involvement in projects with their regular responsibilities. Changes in scope and incomplete requirements were but a manifestation of the fact that users’ regular work pressures permitted only limited opportunities for interaction between users and the project team – and that it was impossible to gather all requirements…or build trust through infrequent interactions between the two parties. And as for lack of executive sponsorship – that was simply a reflection of the fact that the executives could not stay focused on a small number of tasks because they had a number of things that competed for their attention…and these often changed from day to day. This resulted in a reactive management style rather than a proactive or interactive one. Each of these issues was an organizational problem that was well beyond the PMO.
“I see,” said Bryant, somewhat overwhelmed as he realized the magnitude of the problem, “…but this is so much bigger than me. How do I even begin to address it?”
“Well, you are the Head of the PMO, aren’t you? It behooves you to explain this to your management.”
“I can’t do that!” exclaimed Bryant. “I could lose my job for stating these sorts of things, Mr. Holmes – however true they may be. Moreover, I would need incontrovertible evidence…facts demonstrating exactly how each failure was a consequence of organizational structures and norms, and was therefore out of the PMO’s control.”
Holmes chuckled sardonically. “I don’t think facts or ‘incontrovertible proof’ will help you Mr. Bryant. Whatever you say would be refuted using specious arguments…or simply laughed off. In the end, I don’t know what to tell you except that it is a matter for your conscience; you must do as you see fit.”
We left it at that; there wasn’t much else to say. I felt sorry for Bryant. He had come to Holmes for a solution, only to find that solving the problem might involve unacceptable sacrifices.
We bid him farewell, leaving him to ponder his difficult choices.
Shortly after our meeting with him, I heard that Bryant had left Big Enterprise. I don’t know what prompted his departure, but I can’t help but wonder if our conversation and his subsequent actions had something to do with it.
…and I think it is pretty clear why Lord Standish and others of his ilk still bemoan the unduly high rate of project failure.
- Sherlock Holmes aficionados may have noted that the foreword to this story bears some resemblance to the first paragraph of the Conan Doyle classic, The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb.
- See my post entitled Symptoms not causes, a systems perspective on project failure for a more detailed version of the argument outlined in this story.
- For insight into the vexed question of governance, check out this post by Paul Culmsee and the book I co-authored with him.
Sean yawned as he powered down his computer and stretched out in his chair. It was nearly 3 am and he had just finished proofreading his presentation for later that day. He didn’t remember ever being this tired; a great deal of effort had been expended over the last three months but it had been worth it. Now, finally, he was done.
He gazed down at the beautifully bound document on his desk with a fondness that lesser mortals might bestow on their progeny.
“That’s a fine looking document you have there,” said an oddly familiar voice from right behind his chair.
“Wha..,” squeaked Sean, shooting out of his chair, upending his coffee mug in the process.
He grabbed a couple of tissues and dabbed ineffectually at the coffee stain that was spreading rapidly across the front of his brand new chinos. “Damn,” he cursed as he looked up to find himself face-to-face with someone who looked just like him – right down to the Ralph Lauren shirt and Chinos (minus the unseemly stain).
“Pardon me,” sputtered the apparition, giving in to a fit of laughter. “That’s funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time, a scene worthy of million YouTube hits. You should’ve seen yourself jump out the chair and…”
“Pardon my rudeness, but who the f**k are you?” interrupted Sean, a tad testily. Who did this guy think he was anyway? (Lest you get the wrong idea, Sean didn’t normally use expletives, but he reckoned the situation merited it.)
“Don’t swear at me,” said the double, “because I am you…well, your conscience actually. But, in the end I’m still you.”
“Bah,” replied Sean. He figured this had to be a prank hatched by one of his workmates. “Tell me which one of my smartarse colleagues put you up to this?” he demanded, “Let me guess; it is either Mal or Liz.”
“You don’t believe me, do you? No one put me up to this. Well actually, if anyone did, it was you!”
“That’s nonsense,” spat Sean, his blood pressure rising a notch, “I have no idea who you are.”
“Ah, now we get to the nub of the matter,” said the apparition, “You have no idea who I am, and that is precisely why I’m here: to remind you that I exist and that you should listen to me from time to time. I usually start to bother you when you’re are about to do something stupid or unethical.”
“Me? Stupid? Unethical? I have no idea what you’re on about,” contested Sean.
“It appears I need to spell out for you. Well here’s the executive summary: I think you need to revise that document you’ve been working on. I’m your conscience, and I think I can help.”
“I… don’t… need… your… help,” said Sean enunciating each word exaggeratedly for emphasis, “you probably do not know this, but I have completed the biggest and most ambitious design I’ve ever done: a comprehensive systems architecture for Big Enterprise. I’m confident of what I have proposed because it is backed by solid research and industry best practice.”
“I know what you have done,” said the doppelganger, “I’m your conscience, after all.” He paused to clear his throat. “And I’m sure you believe what you have written, “he continued, “but that doesn’t make it right.”
“It is impeccably researched! You know, I’ve cited over 800 references, yeah eight hundred,” said Sean with pride. “That’s over two references per page, and most of these are to works written by acknowledged experts in the field.”
“I do not doubt your knowledge or diligence, my friend,” said the doppelganger with a smile, “what I worry about is your judgement.”
Sean was ready to blow a fuse, but was also confused (intrigued?) by the double’s choice of words. “Judgement?” he blurted, “WTF do you mean by ‘judgement?” He picked up the tome and waved it in front of the doppelganger imperiously…but then spoilt the effect by almost spraining his wrist in the process. He put the book down hurriedly saying, “this is an objective evaluation; the facts speak for themselves.”
“Do they?” queried the apparition. Sure, you’ve collected all this information and have fashioned into a coherent report. However, your recommendations, which appear to be based on facts, are in truth based on unverifiable assumptions, even opinions.”
“That’s nonsense,” dismissed Sean. “You haven’t even read the report, so you’re in no position to judge.”
“I have. I’m your conscience, remember?”
“OK, so tell me what you did and how you did it,” said the apparition evenly.
Sean held forth for a few minutes, describing how he researched various frameworks, read case studies about them and then performed an evaluation based on criteria recommended by experts.
“I concede you that you truly believe you are right, but the sad fact is that you probably aren’t,” said the double, “and worse, you refuse to entertain that possibility.”
“That’s hogwash! If you’re so sure then prove it,” countered Sean.
“Hmmm, you are thicker than I thought, let me see if I can get my point across in a different way,” said the double. “You’re doing something that will influence the future of technology in your organisation for a long time to come. That is an immense responsibility…”
“I’m aware of that, thank you,” interrupted Sean, raising his voice. He’d had enough of this presumptuous, insulting clown.
“If you say so,” said the doppelganger, “but, to be honest, I sense no doubts and see no caveats in your report.”
“That’s because I have none! I believe in and stand by what I have done,” shouted Sean.
“I have no doubt that you believe in what you have done. The question is, do others, will others?”
“I’m not stupid,” said Sean, “I’ve kept my managers and other key stakeholders in the loop throughout. They know what my recommendations are, and they are good with them.”
“How many stakeholders, and where are they located?”
“Over ten important stakeholders, senior managers, all of them, and all seated right here in the corporate head office,” said Sean. He made to pick up the tome again, but a twinge in his wrist reminded him that it might not be wise to do so. “Let me tell you that the feedback I have from them is that this is a fantastic piece of work,” he continued, emphasizing his point by rapping on the wrist-spraining tome with his knuckles. “So please go away and leave me to finish up my work.”
“Yeah, I’ll go, it seems you have no need of me,” said the double, “but allow me a couple of questions before I go. I am your conscience after all!”
“Ok, what is it?” said Sean impatiently. He couldn’t wait to see the back of the guy.
“You’re working in a multinational right? But you’ve spoken to a few stakeholders all of whom are sitting right here, in this very building. Have you travelled around and spoken with staff in other countries – say in Asia and Europe – and gotten to know their problems before proposing your all-embracing architecture?”
“Look,” said Sean, “it is impossible to talk to everyone, so, I have done the best I can: I have proposed a design that adheres to best practices, and that means my design is fundamentally sound,” asserted Sean. “Moreover, the steering committee has reviewed it, and has indicated that it will be approved.”
“I have no doubt that it will be approved,” said the apparition patiently, “the question is: what then? Think about it, you have proposed an architecture for your enterprise without consulting the most important stakeholders – the people who will actually live it and work with it. Would you have an architect build your house that way? And how would you react to one who insisted on doing things his or her way because it is “best practice” to do so?”
“That’s a completely inappropriate comparison,” said Sean.
“No it isn’t, and you know it too” said the doppelganger. “But look, I’ve nothing more to add. I’ve said what I wanted to say. Besides, I’m sure you’re keen to see the back of me…most people are.”
…and pfft…just like that, the apparition vanished, leaving a bemused architect and a rapidly drying coffee stain in its wake.
It felt like a homecoming. That characteristic university smell (books, spearmint gum and a hint of cologne) permeated the hallway. It brought back memories of his student days: the cut and thrust of classroom debates, all-nighters before exams and near-all-nighters at Harry’s Bar on the weekends. He was amazed at how evocative that smell was.
Rich checked the directory near the noticeboard and found that the prof was still in the same shoe-box office that he was ten years ago. He headed down the hallway wondering why the best teachers seemed to get the least desirable offices. Perhaps it was inevitable in a university system that rated grantsmanship over teaching.
It was good of the prof to see him at short notice. He had taken a chance really, calling on impulse because he had a few hours to kill before his flight home. There was too much travel in this job, but he couldn’t complain: he knew what he was getting into when he signed up. No, his problem was deeper. He no longer believed in what he did. The advice he gave and the impressive, highly polished reports he wrote for clients were useless…no, worse, they were dangerous.
He knew he was at a crossroad. Maybe, just maybe, the prof would be able to point him in the right direction.
Nevertheless, he was assailed by doubt as he approached the prof’s office. He didn’t have any right to burden the prof with his problems …he could still call and make an excuse for not showing up. Should he leave?
He shook his head. No, now that he was here he might as well at least say hello. He knocked on the door.
“Come in,” said the familiar voice.
He went in.
“Ah, Rich, it is good to see you after all these years. You’re looking well,” said the prof, getting up and shaking his hand warmly.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries, he asked Rich to take a seat.
“Just give me a minute, I’m down to the last paper in this pile,” said the prof, gesturing at a heap of term papers in front of him. “If I don’t do it now, I never will.”
“Take your time prof,” said Rich, as he sat down.
Rich cast his eye over the bookshelf behind the prof’s desk. The titles on the shelf reflected the prof’s main interest: twentieth century philosophy. A title by Habermas caught his eye.
Rich recalled a class in which the prof had talked about Habermas’ work on communicative rationality and its utility in making sense of ambiguous issues in management. It was in that lecture that the prof had introduced them to the evocative term that captured ambiguity in management (and other fields) so well, wicked problems.
There were many things the prof spoke of, but ambiguity and uncertainty were his overarching themes. His lectures stood in stark contrast to those of his more illustrious peers: the prof dealt with reality in all its messiness, the other guys lived in a fantasy world in which their neat models worked and things went according to plan.
Rich had learnt from the prof that philosophy was not an arcane subject, but one that held important lessons for everyone (including hotshot managers!). Much of what he learnt in that single term of philosophy had stayed with him. Indeed, it was what had brought him back to the prof’s door after all these years.
“All done,” said the prof, putting his pen down and flicking the marked paper into the pile in front of him. He looked up at Rich: “Tell you what, let’s go to the café. The air-conditioning there is so much better,” he added, somewhat apologetically.
As they walked out of the prof’s office, Rich couldn’t help but wonder why the prof stuck around in a place where he remained unrecognized and unappreciated.
The café was busy. Though it was only mid-afternoon, the crowd was already in Friday evening mode. Rich and the prof ordered their coffees and found a spot at the quieter end of the cafe.
After some small talk, the prof looked him and said, “Pardon my saying so, Rich, but you seem preoccupied. Is there something you want to talk about?”
“Yes, there is…well, there was, but I’m not so sure now.”
“You might as well ask,” said the prof. “My time is not billable….unlike yours.” His face crinkled into a smile that said, no offence intended.
“Well, as I mentioned when I called you this morning, I’m a management consultant with Big Consulting. By all measures, I’m doing quite well: excellent pay, good ratings from my managers and clients, promotions etc. The problem is, over the last month or so I’ve been feeling like a faker who plays on clients’ insecurities, selling them advice and solutions that are simplistic and cause more problems than they solve,” said Rich.
“Hmmm,” said the prof, “I’m curious. What triggered these thoughts after a decade in the game?”
“Well, I reckon it was an engagement that I completed a couple of months ago. I was the principal consultant for a big change management initiative at a multinational. It was my first gig as a lead consultant for a change program this size. I was responsible for managing all aspects of the engagement – right from the initial discussions with the client, to advising them on the change process and finally implementing it.” He folded his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair as he continued, “In theory I’m supposed to offer independent advice. In reality, though, there is considerable pressure to use our standard, trademarked solutions. Have you heard of our 5 X Model of Change Management?”
“Yes, I have,” nodded the prof.
“Well, I could see that the prescriptions of 5 X would not work for that organization. But, as I said, I had no choice in the matter.”
“Uh-huh, and then?”
“As I had foreseen,” said Rich, “the change was a painful, messy one for the organization. It even hit their bottom line significantly. They are trying to cover it up, but everyone in the organization knows that the change is the real reason for the drop in earnings. Despite this, Big Consulting has emerged unscathed. A bunch of middle managers on the client’s side have taken the rap.” He shook his head ruefully. “They were asked to leave,” he said.
“That’s terrible,” said the prof, “I can well understand how you feel.”
“Yes, I should not have prescribed 5 X. It is a lemon. The question is: what should I do now?” queried Rich.
“That’s for you to decide. You can’t change the past, but you might be able to influence the future,” said the prof with a smile.
“I was hoping you could advise me.”
“I have no doubt that you have reflected on the experience. What did you conclude?”
“That I should get out of this line of work,” said Rich vehemently.
“What would that achieve?” asked the prof gently.
“Well, at least I won’t be put into such situations again. I’m not worried about finding work, I’m sure I can find a job with the Big Consulting name on my resume,” said Rich.
“That’s true,” said the prof, “but is that all there is to it? There are other things to consider. For instance, Big Consulting will continue selling snake oil. How would you feel about that?”
“Yeah, that is a problem – damned if I do, damned if I don’t,” replied Rich. “You know, when I was sitting in your office, I recalled that you had spoken about such dilemmas in one of your classes. You said that the difficulty with such wicked issues is that they cannot be decided based on facts alone, because the facts themselves are either scarce or contested…or both!”
“That’s right,” said the prof, “and this is a wicked problem of a kind that is very common, not just in professional work but also in life. Even relatively mundane issues such as whether or not to switch jobs have wicked elements. What we forget sometimes, though, is that our decisions on such matters or rather, our consequent actions, might also affect others.”
“So you’re saying I’m not the only stakeholder (if I can use that term) in my problem. Is that right?”
“That’s right, there are other people to consider,” said the prof, “but the problem is you don’t know who they are .They are all the people who will be affected in the future by the decision you make now. If you quit, Big Consulting will go on selling this solution and many more people might be adversely affected. On the other hand, if you stay, you could try to influence the future direction of Big Consulting, but that might involve some discomfort for yourself. This makes your wicked problem an ethical one. I suspect this is why you’re having a hard time going with the “quit” option.”
There was a brief silence. The prof could see that Rich was thinking things through.
“Prof, I’ve got to hand it to you,” said Rich shaking his head with a smile, “I was so absorbed by the quit/don’t quit dilemma from my personal perspective that I didn’t realize there are other angles to consider. Thanks, you’ve helped immensely. I’m not sure what I will do, but I do know that what you have just said will help me make a more considered choice. Thank you!”
“You’re welcome, Rich”
…And as he boarded his flight later that evening, Rich finally understood why the prof continued to teach at a place where he remained unrecognized and unappreciated