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The two tributaries of time

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How time flies. Ten years ago this month, I wrote my first post on Eight to Late.  The anniversary gives me an excuse to post something a little different. When rummaging around in my drafts folder for something suitable, I came across this piece that I wrote some years ago (2013) but didn’t publish.   It’s about our strange relationship with time, which I thought makes it a perfect piece to mark the occasion.

Introduction

The metaphor of time as a river resonates well with our subjective experiences of time.  Everyday phrases that evoke this metaphor include the flow of time and time going by, or the somewhat more poetic currents of time.  As Heraclitus said, no [person] can step into the same river twice – and so it is that a particular instant in time …like right now…is ephemeral, receding into the past as we become aware of it.

On the other hand, organisations have to capture and quantify time because things have to get done within fixed periods, the financial year being a common example. Hence, key organisational activities such as projects, strategies and budgets are invariably time-bound affairs. This can be problematic because there is a mismatch between the ways in which organisations view time and individuals experience it.

Organisational time

The idea that time is an objective entity is most clearly embodied in the notion of a timeline: a graphical representation of a time period, punctuated by events. The best known of these is perhaps the ubiquitous Gantt Chart, loved (and perhaps equally, reviled) by managers the world over.

Timelines are interesting because, as Elaine Yakura states in this paper, “they seem to render time, the ultimate abstraction, visible and concrete.”   As a result, they can serve as boundary objects that make it possible to negotiate and communicate what is to be accomplished in the specified time period. They make this possible because they tell a story with a clear beginning, middle and end, a narrative of what is to come and when.

For the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph, timelines are often used to manage time-bound organisational initiatives. Through their use in scheduling and allocation, timelines serve to objectify time in such a way that it becomes a resource that can be measured and rationed, much like other resources such as money, labour etc.

At our workplaces we are governed by many overlapping timelines – workdays, budgeting cycles and project schedules being examples. From an individual perspective, each of these timelines are different representations of how one’s time is to be utilised, when an activity should be started and when it must be finished. Moreover, since we are generally committed to multiple timelines, we often find ourselves switching between them. They serve to remind us what we should be doing and when.

But there’s more: one of the key aims of developing a timeline is to enable all stakeholders to have a shared understanding of time as it pertains to the initiative. In this view, a timeline is a consensus representation of how a particular aspect of the future will unfold.  Timelines thus serve as coordinating mechanisms.

In terms of the metaphor, a timeline is akin to a map of the river of time. Along the map we can measure out and apportion it; we can even agree about way-stops at various points in time. However, we should always be aware that it remains a representation of time, for although we might treat a timeline as real, the fact is no one actually experiences time as it is depicted in a timeline. Mistaking one for the other is akin to confusing the map with the territory.

This may sound a little strange so I’ll try to clarify.  I’ll start with the observation that we experience time through events and processes – for example the successive chimes of a clock, the movement of the second hand of a watch (or the oscillations of a crystal), the passing of seasons or even the greying of one’s hair. Moreover, since these events and processes can be objectively agreed on by different observers, they can also be marked out on a timeline.  Yet the actual experience of living these events is unique to each individual.

Individual perception of time

As we have seen, organisations treat time as an objective commodity that can be represented, allocated and used much like any tangible resource.  On the other hand our experience of time is intensely personal.  For example, I’m sitting in a cafe as I write these lines. My perception of the flow of time depends rather crucially on my level of engagement in writing: slow when I’m struggling for words but zipping by when I’m deeply involved. This is familiar to us all: when we are deeply engaged in an activity, we lose all sense of time but when our involvement is superficial we are acutely aware of the clock.

This is true at work as well. When I’m engaged in any kind of activity at work, be it a group activity such as a meeting, or even an individual one such as developing a business case, my perception of time has little to do with the actual passage of seconds, minutes and hours on a clock. Sure, there are things that I will do habitually at a particular time – going to lunch, for example – but my perception of how fast the day goes is governed not by the clock but by the degree of engagement with my work.

I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that this is the case with most people. Though our work lives are supposedly governed by “objective” timelines, the way we actually live out our workdays depends on a host of things that have more to do with our inner lives than visible outer ones.  Specifically, they depend on things such as feelings, emotions, moods and motivations.

Flow and engagement

OK, so you may be wondering where I’m going with this. Surely, my subjective perception of my workday should not matter as long as I do what I’m required to do and meet my deadlines, right?

As a matter of fact, I think the answer to the above question is a qualified, “No”. The quality of the work we do depends on our level of commitment and engagement. Moreover, since a person’s perception of the passage of time depends rather sensitively on the degree of their involvement in a task, their subjective sense of time is a good indicator of their engagement in work.

In his book, Finding Flow, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi describes such engagement as an optimal experience in which a person is completely focused on the task at hand.  Most people would have experienced flow when engaged in activities that they really enjoy. As Anthony Reading states in his book, Hope and Despair: How Perceptions of the Future Shape Human Behaviour, “…most of what troubles us resides in our concerns about the past and our apprehensions about the future.”  People in flow are entirely focused on the present and are thus (temporarily) free from troubling thoughts. As Csikszentmihalyi puts it, for such people, “the sense of time is distorted; hours seem to pass by in minutes.”

All this may seem far removed from organisational concerns, but it is easy to see that it isn’t: a Google search on the phrase “increase employee engagement” will throw up many articles along the lines of “N ways to increase employee engagement.”  The sense in which the term is used in these articles is essentially the same as the one Csikszentmihalyi talks about: deep involvement in work.

So, the advice of management gurus and business school professors notwithstanding, the issue is less about employee engagement or motivation than about creating conditions that are conducive to flow.   All that is needed for the latter is a deep understanding how the particular organisation functions, the task at hand and (most importantly) the people who will be doing it.  The best managers I’ve worked with have grokked this, and were able to create the right conditions in a seemingly effortless and unobtrusive way. It is a skill that cannot be taught, but can be learnt by observing how such managers do what they do.

Time regained

Organisations tend to treat their employees’ time as though it were a commodity or resource that can be apportioned and allocated for various tasks. This view of time is epitomised by the timeline as depicted in a Gantt Chart or a resource-loaded project schedule.

In contrast, at an individual level, the perception of time depends rather critically on the level of engagement that a person feels with the task he or she is performing. Ideally organisations would (or ought to!) want their employees to be in that optimal zone of engagement that Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, at least when they are involved in creative work. However, like spontaneity, flow is a state that cannot be achieved by corporate decree; the best an organisation can do is to create the conditions that encourage it.

The organisational focus on timelines ought to be balanced by actions that are aimed at creating the conditions that are conducive to employee engagement and flow.  It may then be possible for those who work in organisation-land to experience, if only fleetingly, that Blakean state in which eternity is held in an hour.

Written by K

September 20, 2017 at 9:17 pm

Uncertainty, ambiguity and the art of decision making

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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:

  1. Identify available options.
  2. Develop criteria for rating options.
  3. Rate options according to criteria developed.
  4. 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:

  1. Uncertainty about decision options.
  2. Uncertainty about one’s preferences for options.
  3. Uncertainty about what criteria are relevant to evaluating the options.
  4. Uncertainty about what data is needed (data relevance).
  5. 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.

Quantifiable uncertainty

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.

Figure 1: Gantt Chart (courtesy Wikimedia)

Figure 1: Gantt Chart (courtesy Wikimedia)

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).

Figure 2: Task completion likelihood (3 point estimates)

Figure 2: Task completion likelihood (3 point estimates)

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.

Figure 3: Simple probability distribution based on the estimates in Figure 2

Figure 3: Simple probability distribution based on the estimates in Fig 2

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.

Introducing ambiguity

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 nonquantifiable 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

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.

Tackling ambiguity

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 Guides 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.

Wrapping up

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 at UTS. I’m co-teaching the subject in Autumn 2018 with Rory Angus and Alex Scriven.

Written by K

March 9, 2017 at 10:04 am

The Heretic’s Guide to Management – understanding ambiguity in the corporate world

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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.

A plain old Teddy

A Plain Teddy

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.

A Sith Teddy

A Sith Teddy

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.

A Jedi Teddy

A Jedi Teddy

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:

Amazon Kindle

Google Play

Kobo

For those who prefer paperbacks, the print version is available here.

Thanks for your support 🙂

Written by K

July 12, 2016 at 10:30 pm

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