Archive for the ‘General Management’ Category
A common myth about decision making in organisations is that it is, by and large, a rational process. The term rational refers to decision-making methods that are based on the following broad steps:
- Identify available options.
- Develop criteria for rating options.
- Rate options according to criteria developed.
- Select the top-ranked option.
Although this appears to be a logical way to proceed it is often difficult to put into practice, primarily because of uncertainty about matters relating to the decision.
Uncertainty can manifest itself in a variety of ways: one could be uncertain about facts, the available options, decision criteria or even one’s own preferences for options.
In this post, I discuss the role of uncertainty in decision making and, more importantly, how one can make well-informed decisions in such situations.
A bit about uncertainty
It is ironic that the term uncertainty is itself vague when used in the context of decision making. There are at least five distinct senses in which it is used:
- Uncertainty about decision options.
- Uncertainty about one’s preferences for options.
- Uncertainty about what criteria are relevant to evaluating the options.
- Uncertainty about what data is needed (data relevance).
- Uncertainty about the data itself (data accuracy).
Each of these is qualitatively different: uncertainty about data accuracy (item 5 above) is very different from uncertainty regarding decision options (item 1). The former can potentially be dealt with using statistics whereas the latter entails learning more about the decision problem and its context, ideally from different perspectives. Put another way, the item 5 is essentially a technical matter whereas item 1 is a deeper issue that may have social, political and – as we shall see – even behavioural dimensions. It is therefore reasonable to expect that the two situations call for vastly different approaches.
A common problem in project management is the estimation of task durations. In this case, what’s requested is a “best guess” time (in hours or days) it will take to complete a task. Many project schedules represent task durations by point estimates, i.e. by single numbers. The Gantt Chart shown in Figure 1 is a common example. In it, each task duration is represented by its expected duration. This is misleading because the single number conveys a sense of certainty that is unwarranted. It is far more accurate, not to mention safer, to quote a range of possible durations.
In general, quantifiable uncertainties, such as those conveyed in estimates, should always be quoted as ranges – something along the following lines: task A may take anywhere between 2 and 8 days, with a most likely completion time of 4 days (Figure 2).
In this example, aside from stating that the task will finish sometime between 2 and 4 days, the estimator implicitly asserts that the likelihood of finishing before 2 days or after 8 days is zero. Moreover, she also implies that some completion times are more likely than others. Although it may be difficult to quantify the likelihood exactly, one can begin by making simple (linear!) approximations as shown in Figure 3.
The key takeaway from the above is that quantifiable uncertainties are shapes rather than single numbers. See this post and this one for details for how far this kind of reasoning can take you. That said, one should always be aware of the assumptions underlying the approximations. Failure to do so can be hazardous to the credibility of estimators!
Although I haven’t explicitly said so, estimation as described above has a subjective element. Among other things, the quality of an estimate depends on the judgement and experience of the estimator. As such, it is prone to being affected by errors of judgement and cognitive biases. However, provided one keeps those caveats in mind, the probability-based approach described above is suited to situations in which uncertainties are quantifiable, at least in principle. That said, let’s move on to more complex situations in which uncertainties defy quantification.
The economist Frank Knight was possibly the first person to draw the distinction between quantifiable and unquantifiable uncertainties. To make things really confusing, he called the former risk and the latter uncertainty. In his doctoral thesis, published in 1921, wrote:
…it will appear that a measurable uncertainty, or “risk” proper, as we shall call the term, is so far different from an unmeasurable one that it is not in effect an uncertainty at all. We shall accordingly restrict the term “uncertainty” to cases of the non-quantitative type (p.20)
Terminology has moved on since Knight’s time, the term uncertainty means lots of different things, depending on context. In this piece, we’ll use the term uncertainty to refer to quantifiable uncertainty (as in the task estimate of the previous section) and use ambiguity to refer to non–quantifiable uncertainty. In essence, then, we’ll use the term uncertainty for situations where we know what we’re measuring (i.e. the facts) but are uncertain about its numerical or categorical values whereas we’ll use the word ambiguity to refer to situations in which we are uncertain about what the facts are or which facts are relevant.
As a test of understanding, you may want to classify each of the five points made in the second section of this post as either uncertain or ambiguous (Answers below)
Answer: 1 through 4 are ambiguous and 5 is uncertain.
How ambiguity manifests itself in decision problems
The distinction between uncertainty and ambiguity points to a problem with quantitative decision-making techniques such as cost-benefit analysis, multicriteria decision making methods or analytic hierarchy process. All these methods assume that decision makers are aware of all the available options, their preferences for them, the relevant evaluation criteria and the data needed. This is almost never the case for consequential decisions. To see why, let’s take a closer look at the different ways in which ambiguity can play out in the rational decision making process mentioned at the start of this article.
- The first step in the process is to identify available options. In the real world, however, options often cannot be enumerated or articulated fully. Furthermore, as options are articulated and explored, new options and sub-options tend to emerge. This is particularly true if the options depend on how future events unfold.
- The second step is to develop criteria for rating options. As anyone who has been involved in deciding on a contentious issue will confirm, it is extremely difficult to agree on a set of decision criteria for issues that affect different stakeholders in different ways. Building a new road might improve commute times for one set of stakeholders but result in increased traffic in a residential area for others. The two criteria will be seen very differently by the two groups. In this case, it is very difficult for the two groups to agree on the relative importance of the criteria or even their legitimacy. Indeed, what constitutes a legitimate criterion is a matter of opinion.
- The third step is to rate options. The problem here is that 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. Moreover, 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.
A key consequence of the above is that such ambiguous decision problems are socially complex – i.e. different stakeholders could have wildly different perspectives on the problem itself. One could say the ambiguity experienced by an individual is compounded by the group.
Before going on I should point out that acute versions of such ambiguous decision problems go by many different names in the management literature. For example:
- Horst Rittel called them wicked problems..
- Russell Ackoff referred to them as messes.
- Herbert Simon labelled them non-programmable problems.
All these terms are more or less synonymous: the root cause of the difficulty in every case is ambiguity (or unquantifiable uncertainty), which prevents a clear formulation of the problem.
Social complexity is hard enough to tackle as it is, but there’s another issue that makes things even harder: ambiguity invariably triggers negative emotions such as fear and anxiety in individuals who make up the group. Studies in neuroscience have shown that in contrast to uncertainty, which evokes logical responses in people, ambiguity tends to stir up negative emotions while simultaneously suppressing the ability to think logically. One can see this playing out in a group that is debating a contentious decision: stakeholders tend to get worked up over issues that touch on their values and identities, and this seems to limit their ability to look at the situation objectively.
Summarising the discussion thus far: rational decision making approaches are based on the assumption that stakeholders have a shared understanding of the decision problem as well as the facts and assumptions around it. These conditions are clearly violated in the case of ambiguous decision problems. Therefore, when confronted with a decision problem that has even a hint of ambiguity, the first order of the day is to help the group reach a shared understanding of the problem. This is essentially an exercise in sensemaking, the art of collaborative problem formulation. However, this is far from straightforward because ambiguity tends to evoke negative emotions and attendant defensive behaviours.
The upshot of all this is that any approach to tackle ambiguity must begin by taking the concerns of individual stakeholders seriously. Unless this is done, it will be impossible for the group to coalesce around a consensus decision. Indeed, ambiguity-laden decisions in organisations invariably fail when they overlook concerns of specific stakeholder groups. The high failure rate of organisational change initiatives (60-70% according to this Deloitte report) is largely attributable to this point
There are a number of techniques that one can use to gather and synthesise diverse stakeholder viewpoints and thus reach a shared understanding of a complex or ambiguous problem. These techniques are often referred to as problem structuring methods (PSMs). I won’t go into these in detail here; for an example check out Paul Culmsee’s articles on dialogue mapping and Barry Johnson’s introduction to polarity management. There are many more techniques in the PSM stable. All of them are intended to help a group reconcile different viewpoints and thus reach a common basis from which one can proceed to the next step (i.e., make a decision on what should be done). In other words, these techniques help reduce ambiguity.
But there’s more to it than a bunch of techniques. The main challenge is to create a holding environment that enables such techniques to work. I am sure readers have been involved in a meeting or situation where the outcome seems predetermined by management or has been undermined by self- interest. When stakeholders sense this, no amount of problem structuring is going to help. In such situations one needs to first create the conditions for open dialogue to occur. This is precisely what a holding environment provides.
Creating such a holding environment is difficult in today’s corporate world, but not impossible. Note that this is not an idealist’s call for an organisational utopia. Rather, it involves the application of a practical set of tools that address the diverse, emotion-laden reactions that people often have when confronted with ambiguity. It would take me too far afield to discuss PSMs and holding environments any further here. To find out more, check out my papers on holding environments and dialogue mapping in enterprise IT projects, and (for a lot more) the Heretic’s Guide series of books that I co-wrote with Paul Culmsee.
The point is simply this: in an ambiguous situation, a good decision – whatever it might be – is most likely to be reached by a consultative process that synthesises diverse viewpoints rather than by an individual or a clique. However, genuine participation (the hallmark of a holding environment) in such a process will occur only after participants’ fears have been addressed.
Standard approaches to decision making exhort managers and executives to begin with facts, and if none are available, to gather them diligently prior to making a decision. However, most real-life decisions are fraught with uncertainty so it may be best to begin with what one doesn’t know, and figure out how to make the possible decision under those “constraints of ignorance.” In this post I’ve attempted to outline what such an approach would entail. The key point is to figure out the kind uncertainty one is dealing with and choosing an approach that works for it. I’d argue that most decision making debacles stem from a failure to appreciate this point.
Of course, there’s a lot more to this approach than I can cover in the span of a post, but that’s a story for another time.
Note: This post is written as an introduction to the Data and Decision Making subject that is part of the core curriculum of the Master of Data Science and Innovation program, run by the Connected Intelligence Centre at UTS. I’m coordinating the subject this semester, and am honoured to be co-teaching it with my erstwhile colleague Sean Heffernan and my longtime collaborator Paul Culmsee.
I am delighted to announce that my new business book, The Heretic’s Guide to Management: The Art of Harnessing Ambiguity, is now available in e-book and print formats. The book, co-written with Paul Culmsee, is a loose sequel to our previous tome, The Heretics Guide to Best Practices.
Many reviewers liked the writing style of our first book, which combined rigour with humour. This book continues in the same vein, so if you enjoyed the first one we hope you might like this one too. The new book is half the size of the first one and I considerably less idealistic too. In terms of subject matter, I could say “Ambiguity, Teddy Bears and Fetishes” and leave it at that…but that might leave you thinking that it’s not the kind of book you would want anyone to see on your desk!
Rest assured, The Heretic’s Guide to Management is not a corporate version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Instead, it aims to delve into the complex but fascinating ways in which ambiguity affects human behaviour. More importantly, it discusses how ambiguity can be harnessed in ways that achieve positive outcomes. Most management techniques (ranging from strategic planning to operational budgeting) attempt to reduce ambiguity and thereby provide clarity. It is a profound irony of modern corporate life that they often end up doing the opposite: increasing ambiguity rather than reducing it.
On the surface, it is easy enough to understand why: organizations are complex entities so it is unreasonable to expect management models, such as those that fit neatly into a 2*2 matrix or a predetermined checklist, to work in the real world. In fact, expecting them to work as advertised is like colouring a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa, expecting to recreate Da Vinci’s masterpiece. Ambiguity therefore invariably remains untamed, and reality reimposes itself no matter how alluring the model is.
It turns out that most of us have a deep aversion to situations that involve even a hint of ambiguity. Recent research in neuroscience has revealed the reason for this: ambiguity is processed in the parts of the brain which regulate our emotional responses. As a result, many people associate it with feelings of anxiety. When kids feel anxious, they turn to transitional objects such as teddy bears or security blankets. These objects provide them with a sense of stability when situations or events seem overwhelming. In this book, we show that as grown-ups we don’t stop using teddy bears – it is just that the teddies we use take a different, more corporate, form. Drawing on research, we discuss how management models, fads and frameworks are actually akin to teddy bears. They provide the same sense of comfort and certainty to corporate managers and minions as real teddies do to distressed kids.
Most children usually outgrow their need for teddies as they mature and learn to cope with their childhood fears. However, if development is disrupted or arrested in some way, the transitional object can become a fetish – an object that is held on to with a pathological intensity, simply for the comfort that it offers in the face of ambiguity. The corporate reliance on simplistic solutions for the complex challenges faced is akin to little Johnny believing that everything will be OK provided he clings on to Teddy.
When this happens, the trick is finding ways to help Johnny overcome his fear of ambiguity.
Ambiguity is a primal force that drives much of our behaviour. It is typically viewed negatively, something to be avoided or to be controlled.
The truth, however, is that ambiguity is a force that can be used in positive ways too. The Force that gave the Dark Side their power in the Star Wars movies was harnessed by the Jedi in positive ways.
Our book shows you how ambiguity, so common in the corporate world, can be harnessed to achieve the results you want.
The e-book is available via popular online outlets. Here are links to some:
For those who prefer paperbacks, the print version is available here.
Thanks for your support 🙂
Managers display a range of attitudes towards planning for the future. In an essay entitled Systems, Messes and Interactive Planning, the management guru/philosopher Russell Ackoff classified attitudes to organizational planning into four distinct types which I describe in detail below. I suspect you may recognise examples of each of these in your organisation…indeed, you might even see shades of yourself 🙂
This attitude, as its name suggests, is characterized by a lack of meaningful action. Inactivism is often displayed by managers in organisations that favour the status quo. These organisations are happy with the way things are, and therefore see no need to change. However, lack of meaningful action does not mean lack of action. On the contrary, it often takes a great deal of effort to fend off change and keep things the way they are. As Ackoff states:
Inactive organizations require a great deal of activity to keep changes from being made. They accomplish nothing in a variety of ways. First, they require that all important decisions be made “at the top.” The route to the top is deliberately designed like an obstacle course. This keeps most recommendations for change from ever getting there. Those that do are likely to have been delayed enough to make them irrelevant when they reach their destination. Those proposals that reach the top are likely to be farther delayed, often by being sent back down or out for modification or evaluation. The organization thus behaves like a sponge and is about as active…
The inactive manager spends a lot of time and effort in ensuring that things remain the way they are. Hence they act only when a stituation forces them to. Ackoff puts it in his inimitable way by stating that, “Inactivist managers tend to want what they get rather than get what they want.”
Reactivist managers are a step worse than inactivists because they believe that disaster is already upon them. This is the type of manager who hankers after the “golden days of yore when things were much better than they are today.” As a result of their deep unease of where they are now, they may try to undo the status quo. As Ackoff points out, unlike inactivists, reactivists do not ride the tide but try to swim against it.
Typically reactivist managers are wary of technology and new concepts. Moreover, they tend to give more importance to seniority and experience rather than proven competence. They also tend to be fans of simplistic solutions to complex problems…like “solving” the problem of a behind-schedule software project by throwing more people at it.
Preactivists are the opposite of reactivists in that they believe the future is going to be better than the past. Consequently, their efforts are geared towards understanding what the future will look like and how they can prepare for it. Typically, preactive managers are concerned with facts, figures and forecasts; they are firm believers in scientific planning methods that they have learnt in management schools. As such, one might say that this is the most common species of manager in present day organisations. Those who are not natural preactivists will fly the preactivist flag when they’re asked for their opinions by their managers because it’s the expected answer.
A key characteristic of preactivist managers is that they tend to revel in creating plans rather than implementing them. As Ackoff puts it, “Preactivists see planning as a sequence of discrete steps which terminate with acceptance or rejection of their plans. What happens to their plans is the responsibility of others.”
Interactivists planners are not satisfied with the present, but unlike reactivists or preactivists, they do not hanker for the past, nor do they believe the future is automatically going to be better. They do want to make things better than they were or currently are, but they are continually adjusting their plans for the future by learning from and responding to events. In short, they believe they can shape the future by their actions.
Experimentation is the hallmark of interactivists. They are willing to try different approaches and learn from them. Although they believe in learning by experience, they do not want to wait for experiences to happen; they would rather induce them by (often small-scale) experimentation.
Ackoff labels interactivists as idealisers – people who pursue ideals they know cannot be achieved, but can be approximated or even reformulated in the light of new knowledge. As he puts it:
They treat ideals as relative absolutes: ultimate objectives whose formulation depends on our current knowledge and understanding of ourselves and our environment. Therefore, they require continuous reformulation in light of what we learn from approaching them.
To use a now fashionable term, interactivists are intrapreneurs.
Although Ackoff shows a clear bias towards interactivists in his article, he does mention that specific situations may call for other types of planners. As he puts it:
Despite my obvious bias in my characterization of these four postures, there are circumstances in which each is most appropriate. Put simply, if the internal and external dynamics of a system (the tide) are taking one where one wants to go and are doing so quickly enough, inactivism is appropriate. If the direction of change is right but the movement is too slow, preactivism is appropriate. If the change is taking one where one does not want to go and one prefers to stay where one is or was, reactivism is appropriate. However, if one is not willing to settle for the past, the present or the future that appears likely now, interactivism is appropriate.
The key point he makes is that inactivists and preactivists treat planning as a ritual because they see the future as something they cannot change. They can only plan for it (and hope for the best). Interactivists, on the other hand, look for opportunities to influence events and thus potentially change the future. Although both preactivists and interactivists are forward-looking, interactivists tend to be long-term thinkers as compared to preactivists who are more concerned about the short to medium term future.
Ackoff’s classification of planners in organisations is interesting because it highlights the kind of future-focused attitude that managers ought to take. The sad fact, though, is that a significant number of managers are myopic preactivists, focused on this year’s performance targets rather than what their organisations might look like five or even ten years down the line. This is not the fault of individuals, though. The blame for the undue prevalence of myopic preactivism can be laid squarely on the deep-seated management dogma that rewards short-termism.
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).
Much of the work that goes on in organisations is done by groups of people who work together in order to achieve shared objectives. Given this, it is no surprise that researchers have expended a great deal of effort in building theories about how teams work. However, as Richard Hackman noted in this paper, more than 70 years of research (of ever-increasing sophistication) has not resulted in a true understanding of the factors that give rise to high-performing teams. The main reason for this failure is that:
“…groups are social systems. They redefine objective reality, they create new realities (both for their members and in their system contexts), and they evolve their own purposes and strategies for pursuing those purposes. Groups are not mere assemblies of multiple cause–effect relationships; instead, they exhibit emergent and dynamic properties that are not well captured by standard causal models.”
Hackman had a particular interest in leadership as a causal factor in team performance. One of the things he established is that leadership matters a whole lot less than is believed…or, more correctly, it matters for reasons that are not immediately obvious. As he noted:
“…60 per cent of the difference in how well a group eventually does is determined by the quality of the condition-setting pre-work the leader does. 30 per cent is determined by how the initial launch of the group goes. And only 10 per cent is determined by what the leader does after the group is already underway with its work. This view stands in stark contrast to popular images of group leadership—the conductor waving a baton throughout a musical performance or an athletic coach shouting instructions from the sidelines during a game.”
Although the numbers quoted above can be contested, the fact is that as far as team performance is concerned, conditions matter more than the quality of leadership. In this post, I draw on Hackman’s paper as well as my work (done in collaboration with Paul Culmsee) to argue that the real work of leaders is not to lead (in the conventional sense of the word) but to create the conditions in which teams can thrive.
The fundamental attribution error
Poor performance of teams is often attributed to a failure of leadership. A common example of this is when the coach of a sporting team is fired after a below par season. On the flip side, CxOs can earn big-buck dollar bonuses when their companies make or exceed their financial targets because they are seen as being directly responsible for the result.
Attributing the blame or credit for the failure or success of a team to a specific individual is called the leadership attribution error. Hackman suggested that this error is a manifestation of a human tendency to assign greater causal priority to factors that are more visible than those that are not: leaders tend to be in the limelight more than their teams and are therefore seen as being responsible for their teams’ successes and failures.
This leader-as-hero (or villain!) perspective has fueled major research efforts aimed at pinning down those elusive leadership skills and qualities that can magically transform teams into super-performing ensembles. This has been accompanied by a burgeoning industry of executive training programmes to impart these “scientifically proven” skills to masses of managers. These programmes, often clothed in the doublespeak of organisation culture, are but subtle methods of control that serve to establish directive approaches to leadership. Such methods rarely (if ever) result in high-performing organisations or teams.
An alternate approach to understanding team performance
The failure to find direct causal relationships between such factors and team performance led Hackman to propose a perspective that focuses on structural conditions instead. The basic idea in this alternate approach is to focus on the organisational and social conditions that enable the team to perform well.
This notion of conditions over causes is relevant in other related areas too. Here are a couple of examples:
- Innovation: Most attempts to foster innovation focus on exhorting people to be creative and/or instituting innovation training programmes (causal approach). Such approaches usually result in innovation of an incremental kind at best. Instead, establishing a low pressure environment that enables people to think for themselves and follow-up on their ideas without fear of failure generally meets with more success (structural approach).
- Collaboration: Organisations generally recognise the importance of collaboration. Yet, they attempt to foster in the worst possible way: via the establishment of cross-functional teams without clear mandates or goals and/or forced team-building exercises that have the opposite effect to the one intended (causal approach). The alternate approach is to simplify reporting lines, encourage open communication across departments and generally make it easy for people from different specialisations to work together in informal groups (structural approach). A particularly vexing intra-departmental separation that I have come across recently is the artificial division of responsibilities between information systems development and delivery. Such a separation results in reduced collaboration and increased finger pointing.
That said, let’s take a look at Hackman’s advice on how to create an environment conducive to teamwork. Hackman identified the following five conditions that tend to correlate well with improved team performance:
- The group must be a real team– i.e. it must have clear boundaries (clarity as to who is a member and who isn’t), interdependence (the performance of every individual in the team must in some way depend on others in the team) and stability (membership of the team should be stable over time).
- Compelling direction– the team must have a goal that is clear and worth pursuing. Moreover, and this is important, the team must be allowed to determine how the goal is to be achieved – the end should be prescribed, not the means.
- The structure must enable teamwork– The team should be structured in a way that allows members to work together. This consists of a couple of factors: 1) The team must be of the right size – as small and diverse as possible (large, homogenous teams are found to be ineffective), and 2) There must be clear norms of conduct. Note that Hackman lists these two as separate points in his paper.
- Supportive organizational context– the team must have the organisational resources that enable it to carry out its work. For example, access to the information needed for the team to carry out its work and access to technical and subject matter experts. In addition, there should be a transparent reward system that provides recognition for good work.
- Coaching– the team must have access to a mentor or coach who understands and has the confidence of the team. Apart from helping team members tide over difficult situations, a good coach should be able to help them navigate organizational politics and identify emerging threats and opportunities that may not be obvious to them.
To reiterate, these are structural rather than causal factors in that they do not enhance team performance directly. Instead, when present, they tend to encourage behaviours that enhance team performance and suppress those that don’t.
Another interesting point is that some of these factors are more important than others. For example, Ruth Wageman found that team design (the constitution and structure of the team) is about four times more important than coaching in affecting the team’s ability to manage itself and forty times as powerful in affecting team performance (see this paper for details). Although the numbers should not be taken at face value, Wageman’s claim reiterates the main theme of this article: that structural factors matter more than causal ones.
The notion of a holding environment
One of the things I noticed when I first read Hackman’s approach is that it has some similarities to the one that Paul and I advocated in our book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices.
The Heretic’s Guide is largely about collaborative approaches to managing (as opposed to solving!) complex problems in organisations. Our claim is that the most intractable problems in organisations are consequences of social rather than technical issues. For example, the problem of determining the “right” strategy for an organisation cannot be settled on objective grounds because the individuals involved will have diverse opinions on what the organisation’s focus should be. The process of arriving at a consensual strategy is, therefore, more a matter of dealing with this diversity than reaching an objectively right outcome. In other words, it is largely about achieving a common view of what the strategy should be and then building a shared commitment to executing it.
The key point is that there is no set process for achieving a shared understanding of a problem. Rather, one needs to have the right environment (structure!) in which contentious issues can be discussed openly without fear. In our book we used the term holding environment to describe a safe space in which such open dialogue can take place.
The theory of communicative rationality formulated by the German philosopher, Juergen Habermas, outlines the norms that operate within a holding environment. It would be too long a detour to discuss Habermas’ work in any detail – see this paper or chapter 7 of our book to find out more. What is important to note is that an ideal holding environment has the following norms:
- Power neutrality
Problem is, some of these are easier to achieve than others. Inclusion, autonomy and power neutrality can be encouraged by putting in place appropriate organisational structures and rules. Empathy and transparency, however, are typically up to the individual. Nevertheless, conditions that enable the former will also encourage (though not guarantee) the latter.
In our book we discuss how such a holding environment can be approximated in multi-organisational settings such as large projects. It would take me too far afield to get into specifics of the approach here. The point I wish to make, however, is that the notion of a holding environment is in line with Hackman’s thoughts on the importance of environmental or structural factors.
Some will argue that this article merely sets up and tears down a straw man, and that modern managers are well aware of the pitfalls of a directive approach to leading teams. Granted, much has been written about the importance of setting the right conditions (such as autonomy)…and it is possible that many managers are aware of it too. The point I would make is that this awareness, if it exists at all, has not been translated into action often enough. As a result, the gap between the rhetoric and reality of leadership remains as wide as ever – managers talk the talk of leadership, but do not walk it.
Perhaps this is because many (most?) managers are reluctant let go the reins of control when they know they will be held responsible if things were to go belly-up. The few who manage to overcome their fears know that it requires the ability to trust others, as well as the courage and integrity to absorb the blame when things go wrong (as they inevitably will from time to time). These all too rare qualities are essential for the approach described here to truly take root and flourish. In conclusion, I think it is fair to say that the biggest challenges associated with building high-performance teams are ethical rather than technical ones.
The general image of management consultants in contemporary society is somewhat ambiguous. To take two rather extreme views: high achievers in universities may see management consulting as a challenging (and well paying!) profession that offers opportunities to make a positive difference to organisations, whereas those on the receiving end of a consultant-inspired restructure may see the profession as an embodiment of much that is wrong with the present-day corporate world.
The truth, as always, is not quite so black and white. In this post I explore this question by taking a look at the different types of consultants one may encounter in the wilds of the corporate jungle. My discussion is based on a typology of management consultants proposed by Mats Alvesson and Anders Johansson in a paper published in this book (see citation at the end of this post for the full reference).
There is a considerable body of research on management consulting, most of which is tucked away in the pages of management journals and academic texts that are rarely read by professionals. It would take me too far afield to do even a cursory review of this literature so I’ll not go there, except to point out that much of the work can be classified as either strongly pro- or anti-consultant. This in itself is revealing: academics are just as divided in their opinions about consultants as professionals are. Indeed, to see just how strong the opinions are, here’s a small list of paper / book titles from the pro and anti-consultant camps
“Management Consulting as a Developer of SMEs”
“Process Consultation, Vol 1: Its Role in Organization Development”
“The Management Guru as an Organizational Witch Doctor”
“The Violent Rhetoric of Re-engineering: Management Consultancy on the Offensive”
These titles have been taken from the reference list in Alvesson and Johansson’s paper. A quick search on Amazon will reveal many more.
The pro camp depicts consultants as rational, selfless experts who solve complex problems for their clients, sometimes at considerable personal cost. The anti camp portrays them as politically-motivated, self-interested individuals whose main aim is to build relationships that ensure future work. The classification proposed by Alvesson and Johansson puts these extreme views in perspective.
A classification of management consultants
Alvesson and Johansson classify consultants into the following categories based on consultants’ claims to professionalism and their preferred approaches to dealing with political issues:
These consultants typically offer high expertise in some specialized area. Some examples of these include IT consultants specializing in complex products (such as ERP systems) and tax experts who have specialized knowledge typically not possessed by those who work within business organisations. As one might expect, esoteric experts have strong claims to professionalism.
One might think that such consultants have little need to play political games as their skill/knowledge does not threaten anyone within organizations. However, this is not always so because esoteric experts may portray themselves as being experts when they actually aren’t. In such cases they would have to use their social and political skills to cover up for their shortcomings. Perhaps more important, esoteric experts may also play politics to secure future gigs.
Typical clients of esoteric experts are purchasers of large IT systems, small organisations in occasional need of specialized skills (lawyers, accountants etc.) and so on.
Brokers of meaning
Brokers of meaning are sense makers: they help clients make sense of difficult or ambiguous situations. Typically brokers of meaning act as facilitators, teachers or idea-generators, who work together with clients to produce meaning. They often do not have deep technical knowledge like esoteric experts, but instead have a good understanding of human nature and the socio-political forces within organizations.
Brokers of meaning typically do not indulge in overt politics as the success of their engagements depends largely on their ability to gain the trust of a wide spectrum of stakeholders within the organization. That said, such consultants, once they have gained trust of a large number of people within an organization, are often able to influence key stakeholders in particular directions. Another way in which brokers of meaning influence decisions is through the skillful use of language – for example, depending on how one wants to portray it, an employee taking the initiative can be called gung-ho (negative) or proactive (positive).
Typical clients of brokers of meaning are managers who are faced with complex decisions.
Traders in trouble
The archetypal trader in trouble is the hatchet-man who is employed by a senior executive who wants to reduce costs. Since the work of these consultants typically involves a great deal of organizational suffering, they are careful to cast their aims in neutral or objective language. Indeed, much of the corporate doublespeak around layoffs (e.g. rightsizing) and cost reduction initiatives (e.g. productivity improvements) originated from traders in trouble. Typical outcomes of such consulting engagements involve massive restructuring on an organization-wide scale, often resulting in a lot of pain for minimal gain.
The work of such consultants is necessarily political – they must support senior management at all costs. Indeed this is another reason that they go to great lengths to portray their proposed solutions as being rational. On the other hand, their claim to professional knowledge is ambiguous as they often have to (knowingly) forgo actions that may be more logical and (more important!) ethical.
Alvesson and Johansson summarise this by quoting from Robert Jackall’s brilliant ethnographical study of managers, Moral Mazes:
The further the consultant moves away from strictly technical issues – that is from being an expert in the ideal sense, a virtuoso of some institutionalized and valued skill – the more anomalous his status becomes. He becomes an expert who trades in others’ troubles. In managerial hierarchies, of course, troubles, like everything else, are socially defined. Consultants have to depend on some authority ‘s definition of what is troublesome in an organization and, in most cases, have to work on the problem as defined. As it happens, it is extremely rare that an executive declares himself or his own circle to be the problem; rather, other groups in the corporation are targeted to be ‘worked on.
A terrific summary of the typical trader in trouble!
Clients of such consultants tend to be senior managers who have been tasked with increasing “efficiency” or “productivity.”
Agents of anxiety (suppliers of security)
The agent of anxiety is a messiah who sells a “best practice” solution to his clients’ problems. This type of consultant can therefore also be described as a supplier of security who assures his clients that their troubles will vanish if they just follow his prescribed process. Common examples of agents of anxiety are purveyors of project management methodologies and frameworks (such as PRINCE2 or IPMA) or process improvement techniques (such as Six Sigma).
Although such consultants may seem to have a high claim to professional expertise, they actually aren’t experts. A good number of them are blind followers of the methods they sell; rarely, if ever, do they develop a critical perspective on those practices. Also, agents of anxiety do not have to be overtly political: once they are hired by senior managers in an organization, employees have no choice but to follow the “best practice” techniques that are promoted.
Clients of such consultants tend to be senior managers in organisations that are having trouble with specific aspects of their work – projects, for example. What such managers do not realize is that they would be better served by creating and fostering the right work environment rather than attempting to impose silver bullet solutions sold by suppliers of security.
Now that we are done with the classification, I should mention that most of the consultants I have come across cannot be boxed into a single category. This is no surprise: consultants, like the rest of humanity, display behaviours that vary from situation to situation. Many consultants will display characteristics from all four categories within a single engagement or, at the very least, exhibit both professional and political behaviours. As Alvesson and Johansson state:
Management consultancy work probably typically means some blending of these four types. Sometimes one or two of the types dominates in the same assignment. But few management consultants presumably operate without appealing to the management fashions signalling the needs for consultancy services; few altogether avoid trouble-shooting tasks; few can solely rely on a technocratic approach, and few can simply work with cooperative meaning making processes. The complexity and diversity of consultancy assignments requires that the consultant move back and forth between a professional area and a non-professional area, i.e. areas viewed as coherent with claims of professionalism, recognizing the highly floating boundaries between these areas and the constructed character also of technical and professional work. Professional work is mingled with, but can’t be reduced to, political or symbolic work.
Finally, I should also add that consultants sometimes hide their real objectives because they are required to: their duplicity simply reflects the duplicity of those who hire them. Whether consultants should choose to do such work is another matter altogether. As I have argued elsewhere, the hardest questions we have to deal with in our professional lives are ethical ones.
In this post I have described a typology of consultants. For sure, the four categories of consultants described are stereotypes. That said, although consultants may slip on different personas within a single engagement, most would fit into a single category based on the nature of their work and their overall approach. A knowledge of this classification is therefore helpful, not just for clients, but also for front-line employees who have to deal with consultants and those who hire them.
Alvesson, M. & Johansson, A.W. (2002). Professionalism and politics in management consultancy work. In R. Fincham & T. Clark (Eds), Critical consulting: New perspectives on the management advice industry. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 228–246.