Archive for the ‘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.
Since the 1980s, intangible assets, such as knowledge, have come to represent an ever-increasing proportion of an organisation’s net worth. One of the problems associated with treating knowledge as an asset is that it is difficult to codify in its entirety. This is largely because knowledge is context and skill dependent, and these are hard to convey by any means other than experience. This is the well-known tacit versus explicit knowledge problem that I have written about at length elsewhere (see this post and this one, for example). Although a recent development in knowledge management technology goes some way towards addressing the problem of context, it still looms large and is likely to for a while.
Although the problem mentioned above is well-known, it hasn’t stopped legions of consultants and professional organisations from attempting to codify and sell expertise: management consultancies and enterprise IT vendors being prime examples. This has given rise to the notion of a knowledge-intensive firm, an organization in which most work is said to be of an intellectual nature and where well-educated, qualified employees form the major part of the work force. However, the slipperiness of knowledge mentioned in the previous paragraph suggests that the notion of a knowledge intensive firm (and, by implication, expertise) is problematic. Basically, if it is true that knowledge itself is elusive, and hard-to-codify, it raises the question as to what exactly such firms (and their employees) sell.
In this post, I shed some light on this question by drawing on an interesting paper by Mats Alvesson entitled, Knowledge Work: Ambiguity, Image and Identity (abstract only), as well as my experiences in dealing with IT services and consulting firms.
Background: the notion of a knowledge-intensive firm
The first point to note is that the notion of a knowledge-intensive firm is not particularly precise. Based on the definition offered above, it is clear that a wide variety of organisations may be classified as knowledge intensive firms. For example, management consultancies and enterprise software companies would fall into this category, as would law, accounting and research & development firms. The same is true of the term knowledge work(er).
One of the implications of the vagueness of the term is that any claim to being a knowledge-intensive firm or knowledge worker can be contested. As Alvesson states:
It is difficult to substantiate knowledge-intensive companies and knowledge workers as distinct, uniform categories. The distinction between these and non- (or less) knowledge-intensive organization/non-knowledge workers is not self-evident, as all organizations and work involve “knowledge” and any evaluation of “intensiveness” is likely to be contestable. Nevertheless, there are, in many crucial respects, differences between many professional service and high-tech companies on the one hand, and more routinized service and industry companies on the other, e.g. in terms of broadly socially shared ideas about the significance of a long theoretical education and intellectual capacities for the work. It makes sense to refer to knowledge-intensive companies as a vague but meaningful category, with sufficient heuristic value to be useful. The category does not lend itself to precise definition or delimitation and it includes organizations which are neither unitary nor unique. Perhaps the claim to knowledge-intensiveness is one of the most distinguishing features…
The last line in the excerpt is particularly interesting to me because it resonates with my experience: having been through countless IT vendor and management consulting briefings on assorted products and services, it is clear that a large part of their pitch is aimed at establishing their credibility as experts in the field, even though they may not actually be so.
The ambiguity of knowledge work
Expertise in skill-based professions is generally unambiguous – an incompetent pilot will be exposed soon enough. In knowledge work, however, genuine expertise is often not so easily discernable. Alvesson highlights a number of factors that make this so.
Firstly, much of the day-to-day work of knowledge workers such as management consultants and IT experts involves routine matters – meetings, documentation etc. – that do not make great demands on their skills. Moreover, even when involved in one-off tasks such as projects, these workers are generally assigned tasks that they are familiar with. In general, therefore, the nature of their work requires them to follow already instituted processes and procedures. A somewhat unexpected consequence of this is that incompetence can remain hidden for a long time.
A second issue is that the quality of so-called knowledge work is often hard to evaluate – indeed evaluations may require the engagement of independent experts! This is true even of relatively mundane expertise-based work. As Alvesson states:
Comparisons of the decisions of expert and novice auditors indicate no relationship between the degree of expertise (as indicated by experience) and consensus; in high-risk and less standard situations, the experts’ consensus level was lower than that of novices. [An expert remarked that] “judging the quality of an audit is an extremely problematic exercise” and says that consumers of the audit service “have only a very limited insight into the quality of work undertaken by an audit firm”.
This is true of many different kinds of knowledge work. As Alvesson tells us:
How can anyone tell whether a headhunting firm has found and recruited the best possible candidates or not…or if an audit has been carried out in a high-quality way? Or if the proposal by strategic management consultants is optimal or even helpful, or not. Of course, sometimes one may observe whether something works or not (e.g. after the intervention of a plumber), but normally the issues concerned are not that simple in the context in which the concept of knowledge-intensiveness is frequently used. Here we are mainly dealing with complex and intangible phenomena. Even if something seems to work, it might have worked even better or the cost of the intervention been much lower if another professional or organization had carried out the task.
In view of the above, it is unlikely that market mechanisms would be effective in sorting out the competent from the incompetent. Indeed, my experience of dealing with major consulting firms (in IT) leads me believe that market mechanisms tend to make them clones of each other, at least in terms of their offerings and approach. This may be part of the reason why client firms tend to base their contracting decisions on the basis of cost or existing relationships – it makes sense to stick with the known, particularly when the alternatives offer choices akin to Pepsi vs Coke.
But that is not the whole story, experts are often hired for ulterior motives. On the one hand, they might be hired because they confer legitimacy – “no one ever got fired for hiring McKinsey” is a quote I’ve heard more than a few times in many workplaces. On the other hand, they also make convenient scapegoats when the proverbial stuff hits the fan.
One of the consequences of the ambiguity of knowledge-intensive work is that employees in such firms are forced to cultivate and maintain the image of being experts, and hence the stereotype of the suited, impeccably-groomed Big 4 consultant. As Alvesson points out, though, image cultivation goes beyond the individual employee:
This image must be managed on different levels: professional-industrial, corporate and individual. Image may be targeted in specific acts and arrangements, in visible symbols for public consumption but also in everyday behavior, within the organization and in interaction with others. Thus image is not just of importance in marketing and for attracting personnel but also in and after production. Size and a big name are therefore important for many knowledge-intensive companies – and here we perhaps have a major explanation for all the mergers and acquisitions in accounting, management consultancy and other professional service companies. A large size is reassuring. A well-known brand name substitutes for difficulties in establishing quality.
Another aspect of image cultivation is the use of rhetoric. Here are some examples taken from the websites of Big 4 consulting firms:
“No matter the challenge, we focus on delivering practical and enduring results, and equipping our clients to grow and lead.” —McKinsey
“We continue to redefine ourselves and set the bar higher to continually deliver quality for clients, our people, and the society in which we operate.” – Deloitte
“Cutting through complexity” – KPMG
“Creating value for our clients, people and communities in a changing world” – PWC
Some clients are savvy enough not to be taken in by the platitudinous statements listed above. However, the fact that knowledge-intensive firms continue to use second-rate rhetoric to attract custom suggests that there are many customers who are easily taken in by marketing slogans. These slogans are sometimes given an aura of plausibility via case-studies intended to back the claims made. However, more often than not the case studies are based on a selective presentation of facts that depict the firm in the best possible light.
A related point is that such firms often flaunt their current client list in order to attract new clientele. Lines like, “our client list includes 8 of top ten auto manufacturers in the world,” are not uncommon, the unstated implication being that if you are an auto manufacturer, you cannot afford not to engage us. The image cultivation process continues well after the consulting engagement is underway. Indeed, much of a consultant’s effort is directed at ensuring that the engagement will be extended.
Finally, it is important to point out the need to maintain an aura of specialness. Consultants and knowledge workers are valued for what they know. It is therefore in their interest to maintain a certain degree of exclusivity of knowledge. Guilds (such as the Project Management Institute) act as gatekeepers by endorsing the capabilities of knowledge workers through membership criteria based on experience and / or professional certification programs.
Maintaining the façade
Because knowledge workers deal with intangibles, they have to work harder to maintain their identities than those who have more practical skills. They are therefore more susceptible to the vagaries and arbitrariness of organisational life. As Alvesson notes,
Given the high level of ambiguity and the fluidity of organizational life and interactions with external actors, involving a strong dependence on somewhat arbitrary evaluations and opinions of others, many knowledge-intensive workers must struggle more for the accomplishment, maintenance and gradual change of self-identity, compared to workers whose competence and results are more materially grounded…Compared with people who invest less self- esteem in their work and who have lower expectations, people in knowledge-intensive companies are thus vulnerable to frustrations contingent upon ambiguity of performance and confirmation.
Knowledge workers are also more dependent on managerial confirmation of their competence and value. Indeed, unlike the case of the machinist or designer, a knowledge worker’s product rarely speaks for itself. It has to be “sold”, first to management and then (possibly) to the client and the wider world.
The previous paragraphs of this section dealt with individual identity. However, this is not the whole story because organisations also play a key role in regulating the identities of their employees. Indeed, this is how they develop their brand. Alvesson notes four ways in which organisations do this:
- Corporate identity – large consulting firms are good examples of this. They regulate the identities of their employees through comprehensive training and acculturation programs. As a board member remarked to me recently, “I like working with McKinsey people, because I was once one myself and I know their approach and thinking processes.”
- Cultural programs – these are the near-mandatory organisational culture initiatives in large organisations. Such programs are usually based on a set of “guiding principles” which are intended to inform employees on how they should conduct themselves as employees and representatives of the organisation. As Alvesson notes, these are often more effective than formal structures.
- Normalisation – these are the disciplinary mechanisms that are triggered when an employee violates an organisational norm. Examples of this include formal performance management or official reprimands. Typically, though, the underlying issue is rarely addressed. For example, a failed project might result in a reprimand or poor performance review for the project manager, but the underlying systemic causes of failure are unlikely to be addressed…or even acknowledged.
- Subjectification – This is where employees mould themselves to fit their roles or job descriptions. A good example of this is when job applicants project themselves as having certain skills and qualities in their resumes and in interviews. If selected, they may spend the first few months in learning and internalizing what is acceptable and what is not. In time, the new behaviours are internalized and become a part of their personalities.
It is clear from the above that maintaining the façade of expertise in knowledge work involves considerable effort and manipulation, and has little to do with genuine knowledge. Indeed, it is perhaps because genuine expertise is so hard to identify that people and organisations strive to maintain appearances.
The ambiguous nature of knowledge requires (and enables!) consultants and technology vendors to maintain a façade of expertise. This is done through a careful cultivation of image via the rhetoric of marketing, branding and impression management.The onus is therefore on buyers to figure out if there’s anything of substance behind words and appearances. The volume of business enjoyed by big consulting firms suggests that this does not happen as often as it should, leading us to the inescapable conclusion that decision-makers in organisations are all too easily deceived by the facade of expertise.
“You mean there’s a catch?”
“Sure there’s a catch”, Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions…” Joseph Heller, Catch-22
The term Catch-22 was coined by Joseph Heller in the eponymous satirical novel written in 1961. As the quote above illustrates, the term refers to a paradoxical situation caused by the application of contradictory rules. Catch-22 situations are common in large organisations of all kinds, not just the military (which was the setting of the novel). So much so that it is a theme that has attracted some scholarly attention over the half century since the novel was first published – see this paper or this one for example.
Although Heller uses Catch-22 situations to highlight the absurdities of bureaucracies in a humorous way, in real-life such situations can be deeply troubling for people who are caught up in them. In a paper published in 1956, the polymath Gregory Bateson and his colleagues suggested that these situations can cause people to behave in ways that are symptomatic of schizophrenia . The paper introduces the notion of a double-bind, which is a dilemma arising from an individual receiving two or more messages that contradict each other . In simple terms, then, a double-bind is a Catch-22.
In this post, I draw on Bateson’s double bind theory to get some insights into Catch-22 situations in organisations.
Double bind theory
The basic elements of a double bind situation are as follows:
- Two or more individuals, one of whom is a victim – i.e. the individual who experiences the dilemma described below.
- A primary rule which keeps the victim fearful of the consequences of doing (or not doing) something. This rule typically takes the form , “If you do x then you will be punished” or “If you do not do x then you will be punished. “
- A secondary rule that is in conflict with the primary rule, but at more abstract level. This rule, which is usually implicit, typically takes the form, “Do not question the rationale behind x.”
- A tertiary rule that prevents the victim from escaping from the situation.
- Repeated experiences of (1) and (2)
A simple example (quoted from this article) serves to illustrate the above in a real- life situation:
One example of double bind communication is a mother giving her child the message: “Be spontaneous” If the child acts spontaneously, he is not acting spontaneously because he is following his mother’s direction. It’s a no-win situation for the child. If a child is subjected to this kind of communication over a long period of time, it’s easy to see how he could become confused.
Here the injunction to “Be spontaneous” is contradicted by the more implicit rule that “one cannot be spontaneous on demand.” It is important to note that the primary and secondary (implicit) rules are at different logical levels – the first is about an action, whereas the second is about the nature of all such actions. This is typical of a double bind situation.
The paradoxical aspects of double binds can sometimes be useful as they can lead to creative solutions arising from the victim “stepping outside the situation”. The following example from Bateson’s paper illustrates the point:
The Zen Master attempts to bring about enlightenment in his pupil in various ways. One of the things he does is to hold a stick over the pupil’s head and say fiercely, “If you say this stick is real, I will strike you with it. If you say this stick is not real, I will strike you with it. If you don’t say anything, I will strike you with it.”… The Zen pupil might reach up and take the stick away from the Master–who might accept this response.
This is an important point which we’ll return to towards the end of this piece.
Double binds in organisations
Double bind situations are ubiquitous in organisations. I’ll illustrate this by drawing on a couple of examples I have written about earlier on this blog.
The paradox of learning organisations
This section draws on a post I wrote while ago. In the introduction to that post I stated that:
The term learning organisation refers to an organisation that continually modifies its processes based on observation and experience, thus adapting to changes in its internal and external environment. Ever since Peter Senge coined the term in his book, The Fifth Discipline, assorted consultants and academics have been telling us that although a learning organisation is an utopian ideal, it is one worth striving for. The reality, however, is that most organisations that undertake the journey actually end up in a place far removed from this ideal. Among other things, the journey may expose managerial hypocrisies that contradict the very notion of a learning organisation.
Starkly put, the problem arises from the fact that in a true learning organisation, employees will inevitably start to question things that management would rather they didn’t. Consider the following story, drawn from this paper on which the post is based:
…a multinational company intending to develop itself as a learning organization ran programmes to encourage managers to challenge received wisdom and to take an inquiring approach. Later, one participant attended an awayday, where the managing director of his division circulated among staff over dinner. The participant raised a question about the approach the MD had taken on a particular project; with hindsight, had that been the best strategy? `That was the way I did it’, said the MD. `But do you think there was a better way?’, asked the participant. `I don’t think you heard me’, replied the MD. `That was the way I did it’. `That I heard’, continued the participant, `but might there have been a better way?’. The MD fixed his gaze on the participants’ lapel badge, then looked him in the eye, saying coldly, `I will remember your name’, before walking away.
Of course, a certain kind of learning occurred here: the employee learnt that certain questions were taboo, in stark contrast to the openness that was being preached from the organisational pulpit. The double bind here is evident: feel free to question and challenge everything…except what management deems to be out of bounds. The takeaway for employees is that, despite all the rhetoric of organisational learning, certain things should not be challenged. I think it is safe to say that this was probably not the kind of learning that was intended by those who initiated the program.
The paradoxes of change
In a post on the paradoxes of organizational change, I wrote that:
An underappreciated facet of organizational change is that it is inherently paradoxical. For example, although it is well known that such changes inevitably have unintended consequences that are harmful, most organisations continue to implement change initiatives in a manner that assumes complete controllability with the certainty of achieving solely beneficial outcomes.
As pointed out in this paper, there are three types of paradoxes that can arise when an organisation is restructured. The first is that during the transition, people are caught between the demands of their old and new roles. This is exacerbated by the fact that transition periods are often much longer expected. This paradox of performing in turn leads to a paradox of belonging – people become uncertain about where their loyalties (ought to) lie.
Finally, there is a paradox of organising, which refers to the gap between the rhetoric and reality of change. The paper mentioned above has a couple of nice examples. One study described how,
“friendly banter in meetings and formal documentation [promoted] front-stage harmony, while more intimate conversations and unit meetings [intensified] backstage conflict.” Another spoke of a situation in which, “…change efforts aimed at increasing employee participation [can highlight] conflicting practices of empowerment and control. In particular, the rhetoric of participation may contradict engrained organizational practices such as limited access to information and hierarchical authority for decision making…
Indeed, the gap between the intent and actuality of change initiatives make double binds inevitable.
I suspect the situations described above will be familiar to people working in a corporate environment. The question is what can one do if one is on the receiving end of such a Catch 22?
The main thing is to realise that a double-bind arises because one perceives the situation to be so. That is, the person experiencing the situation has chosen to interpret it as a double bind. To be sure, there are usually factors that influence the choice – things such as job security, for example – but the fact is that it is a choice that can be changed if one sees things in a different light. Escaping the double bind is then a “simple” matter of reframing the situation.
Here is where the notion of mindfulness is particularly relevant. In brief, mindfulness is “the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment.” As the Zen pupil who takes the stick away from the Master, a calm non-judgemental appraisal of a double-bind situation might reveal possible courses of action that had been obscured because of one’s fears. Indeed, the realization that one has more choices than one thinks is in itself a liberating discovery.
It is important to emphasise that the actual course of action that one selects in the end matters less than the realisation that one’s reactions to such situations is largely under one’s own control.
In closing – reframe it!
Organisational life is rife with Catch 22s. Most of us cannot avoid being caught up in them, but we can choose how we react to them. This is largely a matter of reframing them in ways that open up new avenues for action, a point that brings to mind this paragraph from Catch-22 (the book):
“Why don’t you use some sense and try to be more like me? You might live to be a hundred and seven, too.”
“Because it’s better to die on one’s feet than live on one’s knees,” Nately retorted with triumphant and lofty conviction. “I guess you’ve heard that saying before.”
“Yes, I certainly have,” mused the treacherous old man, smiling again. “But I’m afraid you have it backward. It is better to live on one’s feet than die on one’s knees. That is the way the saying goes.”
“Are you sure?” Nately asked with sober confusion. “It seems to make more sense my way.”
“No, it makes more sense my way. Ask your friends.”
And that, I reckon, is as brilliant an example of reframing as I have ever come across.
The story of sociotechnical systems began a little over half a century ago, in a somewhat unlikely setting: the coalfields of Yorkshire.
The British coal industry had just been nationalised and new mechanised mining methods were being introduced in the mines. It was thought that nationalisation would sort out the chronic labour-management issues and mechanisation would address the issue of falling productivity.
…the newly nationalized industry was not doing well. Productivity failed to increase in step with increases in mechanization. Men were leaving the mines in large numbers for more attractive opportunities in the factory world. Among those who remained, absenteeism averaged 20%. Labour disputes were frequent despite improved conditions of employment. – excerpted from, The evolution of Socio-technical systems – a conceptual framework and an action research program, E. Trist (1980)
Trist and his colleagues were asked by the National Coal Board to come in and help. To this end, they did a comparative study of two mines that were similar except that one had high productivity and morale whereas the other suffered from low performance and had major labour issues.
Their job was far from easy: they were not welcome at the coalface because workers associated them with management and the Board.
Trist recounts that around the time the study started, there were a number of postgraduate fellows at the Tavistock Institute. One of them, Ken Bamforth, knew the coal industry well as he had been a miner himself. Postgraduate fellows who had worked in the mines were encouraged to visit their old workplaces after a year and write up their impressions, focusing on things that had changed since they had worked there. After one such visit, Bamforth reported back with news of a workplace innovation that had occurred at a newly opened seam at Haighmoor. Among other things, morale and productivity at this particular seam was high compared to other similar ones. The team’s way of working was entirely novel, a world away from the hierarchically organised set up that was standard in most mechanised mines at the time. In Trist’s words:
The work organization of the new seam was, to us, a novel phenomenon consisting of a set of relatively autonomous groups interchanging roles and shifts and regulating their affairs with a minimum of supervision. Cooperation between task groups was everywhere in evidence; personal commitment was obvious, absenteeism low, accidents infrequent, productivity high. The contrast was large between the atmosphere and arrangements on these faces and those in the conventional areas of the pit, where the negative features characteristic of the industry were glaringly apparent. Excerpted from the paper referenced above.
To appreciate the radical nature of practices at this seam, one needs to understand the backdrop against which they occurred. To this end, it is helpful to compare the mechanised work practices introduced in the post-war years with the older ones from the pre-mechanised era of mining.
In the days before mines were mechanised, miners would typically organise themselves into workgroups of six miners, who would cover three work shifts in teams of two. Each miner was able to do pretty much any job at the seam and so could pick up where his work-mates from the previous shift had left off. This was necessary in order to ensure continuity of work between shifts. The group negotiated the price of their mined coal directly with management and the amount received was shared equally amongst all members of the group.
This mode of working required strong cooperation and trust within the group, of course. However, as workgroups were reorganised from time to time due to attrition or other reasons, individual miners understood the importance of maintaining their individual reputations as reliable and trustworthy workmates. It was important to get into a good workgroup because such groups were more likely to get more productive seams to work on. Seams were assigned by bargaining, which was typically the job of the senior miner on the group. There was considerable competition for the best seams, but this was generally kept within bounds of civility via informal rules and rituals.
This traditional way of working could not survive mechanisation. For one, mechanised mines encouraged specialisation because they were organised like assembly lines, with clearly defined job roles each with different responsibilities and pay scales. Moreover, workers in a shift would perform only part of the extraction process leaving those from subsequent shifts to continue where work was left off.
As miners were paid by the job they did rather than the amount of coal they produced, no single group had end-to-end responsibility for the product. Delays due to unexpected events tended to get compounded as no one felt the need to make up time. As a result, it would often happen that work that was planned for a shift would not be completed. This meant that the next shift (which could well be composed of a group with completely different skills) could not or would not start their work because they did not see it as their job to finish the work of the earlier shift. Unsurprisingly, blame shifting and scapegoating was rife.
From a supervisor’s point of view, it was difficult to maintain the same level of oversight and control in underground mining work as was possible in an assembly line. The environment underground is simply not conducive to close supervision and is also more uncertain in that it is prone to unexpected events. Bureaucratic organisational structures are completely unsuited to dealing with these because decision-makers are too far removed from the coalface (literally!). This is perhaps the most important insight to come out of the Tavistock coal mining studies.
As Claudio Ciborra puts it in his classic book on teams:
Since the production process at any seam was much more prone to disorganisation than due to uncertainty and complexity of underground conditions, any ‘bureaucratic’ allocation of jobs could be easily disrupted. Coping with emergencies and coping with coping became part of worker’s and supervisors’ everyday activities. These activities would lead to stress, conflict and low productivity because they continually clashed with the technological arrangements and the way they were planned and subdivided around them.
Thus we see that the new assembly-line bureaucracy inspired work organisation was totally unsuited to the work environment because there was no end-to-end responsibility, and decision making was far removed from the action. In contrast, the traditional workgroup of six was able to deal with uncertainties and complexities of underground work because team members had a strong sense of responsibility for the performance of the team as a whole. Moreover, teams were uniquely placed to deal with unexpected events because they were actually living them as they occurred and could therefore decide on the best way to deal with them.
What Bamforth found at the Haighmoor seam was that it was possible to recapture the spirit of the old ways of working by adapting these to the larger specialised groups that were necessary in the mechanised mines. As Ciborra describes it in his book:
The new form of work organisation features forty one men who allocate themselves to tasks and shifts. Although tasks and shifts those of the conventional mechanised system, management and supervisors do not monitor, enforce and reward single task executions. The composite group takes over some of the managerial tasks, as it had in the pre-mechanised marrow group, such as the selection of group members and the informal monitoring of work…Cycle completion, not task execution becomes a common goal that allows for mutual learning and support…There is basic wage and a bonus linked to the overall productivity of the group throughout the whole cycle rather than a shift. The competition between shifts that plagued the conventional mechanised method is effectively eliminated…
Bamforth and Trist’s studies on Haighmoor convinced them that there were viable (and better!) alternatives to those that were typical of mid to late 20th century work places. Their work led them to the insight that the best work arrangements come out of seeking a match between technical and social elements of the modern day workplace, and thus was born the notion of sociotechnical systems.
Ever since the assembly-line management philosophies of Taylor and Ford, there has been an increasing trend towards division of labour, bureaucratisation and mechanisation / automation of work processes. Despite the early work of the Tavistock school and others who followed, this trend continues to dominate management practice, arguably even more so in recent years. The Haighmoor innovation described above was one of the earliest demonstrations that there is a better way. This message has since been echoed by many academics and thinkers, but remains largely under-appreciated or ignored by professional managers who have little idea – or have completely forgotten – what it is like to work at the coalface.
In this instalment of my sensemakers series, I chat with Dr. Neil Preston, an Organisational Psychologist based in Perth, about the very topical issue of organizational change. In a wide-ranging conversation, Neil draws interesting connections between myths that are deeply embedded in Western thought and the way we think about and implement change…and also how we could do it so much better.
KA: Hi Neil, thanks for being a guest on my ongoing series of interviews with sensemakers. You and I have corresponded for at least a year now via email, so it’s a real pleasure to finally meet you, albeit virtually. I’d like to kick things off by asking you to say a bit about yourself and your work.
NP: Well, I’m Dr. Neil Preston. I’m an organizational psychologist…what that means is that I’m specially registered in the area of organizational psychology, much like a clinical psychologist. My background professionally is that I originally worked in mental health, as a senior research psychologist. I’ve published 30 to 40 peer-reviewed papers in psychiatry, mental health and psychometrics, so I know my way around empirical psychology. My real love, however, has always been in organizational and industrial psychology, so in 2006 I decided to leave the Health Department of Western Australia and move into full time consulting.
Consulting work has led me mainly into infrastructure projects- these are very large, complex projects where organisations from both the private and public sector have to get together and create alliances in order to get the work done. My job on these projects – as I often put it to people – is to make the Addams Family look like the Brady Bunch [laughter]. The idea is to get different value systems and organizational cultures to align, with the aim of getting to a shared understanding of project goals and a shared commitment to achieving them.
My original approach was very diagnostic – which is the way psychologists are taught their trade – but as problems have become more complex, I’ve had to resort to dialogical (rather than diagnostic) approaches. As you well know, dialogue is more commensurate with complexity than diagnosis, so dialogical approaches are more appropriate for so-called wicked problems. This approach then led me to complex systems theory which in turn led to an area of work that Paul Culmsee, I and yourself are looking into: emergent design practices. (Editor’s note: This refers to a method of problem solving in which solutions are not imposed up front but emerge from dialogue between various stakeholders.)
KA: OK, so could you tell us a bit about the kinds of problems you get called in to tackle?
NP: Very broadly speaking, I’m generally called in when organisations have goals that are incommensurate with each other. For example: a billion dollar road that has to be on time and on budget…but, by the way, the alignment of the road also takes out a nesting site of a Carnaby White Tailed Cockatoo which triggers the environmental biodiversity protection act which in turn triggers issues with local councils and so on.
Complexity in projects often arises from situations like these, where the issue is not just about delivering on time and on budget, but also creating a sustainable habitat and ensuring alignment with local governments etc.
KA: So very broadly, I guess one could say that your work deals with the problems associated with change. The reason I put it in this way is that change is something that most people who work in organisations would have had to deal with – either as executives who initiate the change, managers who are charged with implementing it or employees who are on the receiving end of it. The one thing I’ve noticed through experience –initially as a consultant and then working in big organisations – is that change is formulated and implemented in a very prescriptive way. However, the end results are often less than satisfactory because there are many unintended consequences (loss of morale, drop in productivity etc.) – much like the unintended consequences of large infrastructure projects. I’ve long wondered about this is so: why, after decades of research and experience do we still get it so wrong?
NP: Let me give you an answer from a psychologist’s perspective. There are a couple of sub-disciplines of psychology called depth and archetypal psychology that look at myth. The kind of change management programs that we enact are driven by a (predominantly) Western myth of heroic intervention.
James Hillman, an archetypal psychologist once said that a myth is what is real. This is somewhat contrary to the usual sense in which the word is used because we usually think of a myth as being something that is not real. However, Hillman is right because a myth is really an archetype – an overarching way of seeing the world in a way that we believe to be true. The myth of the hero – the good guy overcoming all adversity to slay the bad guy – is essentially an interventionist one. It is based on the Graeco-Roman notion of the exercise of individual will. Does that make sense so far?
KA: Yeah absolutely. Please go on.
NP: OK, so this myth is dominant in the Western imagination. For example, any movie that a kid might go to see like, say, Star Wars is really about the exercise of the individual will. In much the same way, the paradigm in which your typical change management program operates is very much (individual) action and intervention oriented. Even going back to Homeric times – the Iliad and Odyssey are essentially stories about individuals exercising authority, power…and excellence is another word that crops up often too. The objective of all this of course is to effect dramatic, full-frontal change.
However, there is a problem with this myth, and it is that it assumes that things are not complex. It assumes that simple linear, cause-effect explanations hold – that if you do A then B will happen (if you restructure you will save costs, for example). Such models are convenient because they seem rational on the surface, perhaps because they are easy to understand. However, they overlook the little details that often trip things up. As a result, such change often has unforeseen consequences.
Unfortunately, much of the stuff that comes out of the Big 4 consultancies is based on this myth. The thing to note is that they do it not because it works but because it is in tune with the dominant myth of the Western business world.
KA: What you are saying definitely strikes a chord. What’s strange to me, however, is that there have been people challenging this for quite a while now. You mentioned the predominantly linear approach – A causes B sort of thinking – that change management practitioners tend to adopt. Now, as you well know, systems theorists and cyberneticists have proposed alternate approaches that are more cognizant of the multifaceted nature of change, and they have done so over fifty years ago! What happened to all that? When I read some of the papers, I see that they really speak to the problems we face now, but they seem to have been all but forgotten (Editor’s note: see this post that draws on work by the prominent cyberneticist, Heinz von Foerster, for example). One can’t help but wonder why that is so….
NP: Well that’s because myths are incredibly sticky. We are talking about an ancient myth of the exercise of the individual human will. And, by the way, it’s a very Western thing: I remember once hearing on the radio that the Western notion of the “squeaky wheel getting the grease” has an Eastern counterpart that goes something like, “the loudest goose is first to lose his head.” The point is, the two cultures have a very different way of looking at the world. That myth – the hero myth – is very much brought into the way we tell stories about organisations.
Now, why does that matter? Well, JR Hackman, an organizational psychologist said it quite brilliantly. He called our fixation on the hero myth (in the context of change) the leadership attribution error – he argues that we tend to over-attribute the success of a change process to the salient things that we can see – which is (usually) the leader. As a result we tend to overlook the hidden factors which give rise to the actual performance of the organization. These factors usually relate to the latent conditions present in the organization rather than specific causes like a leader’s actions.
So there are two types of change: planned change and emergent change. Planned change is the way organisations usually think about change. It is a causal view in which certain actions give rise to certain outcomes. But here is the problem: the causal approach focuses primarily on salient features, ignoring all the other things that might be going on.
Now, cybernetics and systems theory do a better job of taking into account features that are hidden. However, as you mentioned, they have not had much uptake. I think the reason for this is that myths are incredibly sticky…that is the best answer I can give.
KA: Hmm that’s interesting…I’d never thought of it that way – the stickiness of myths as blinding us to other viewpoints. Is there something in the nature of human thought or human minds that make us latch on to over-simplified explanations?
NP: Well, there’s this notion of cognitive bias – persistent biases in human perception or judgement (Editors’ Note: also see this post on the role of cognitive bias in project failure). The leadership attribution error is precisely such a bias. I should point out that these biases aren’t necessarily a problem; they just happen to be the way humans think. And there are good evolutionary reasons for the existence of biases: we can’t process every little bit of information that comes to us through our senses, and these biases offer a means to filter out what is unimportant. Unfortunately, sometimes they cause us to overlook what is important. They are heuristics and, like all heuristics, they don’t always work.
So in the case of leadership attribution bias – yes leadership does have an effect, but it is not as much as what people think. In fact, work done by Wageman (who worked with Hackman) shows that what is more important for team performance are the conditions in which the teams work rather than the qualities or abilities of the leader.
KA: From experience I would have to say that rings true: conditions trump causes any day as far as team performance is concerned.
NP: Yeah and there’s a good reason for it; and it is so simple that we often overlook it. Take the example of sending a rocket to the moon. If you set up the right conditions for the rocket – the right amount of fuel, the right load and so forth, then everything that is necessary for the performance of the rocket is already set up. The person who actually steers the rocket is not as critical to the performance as the conditions are. And the conditions are already present when the rocket is in flight.
Similarly, In the case of organizational change, we should not be looking for causes – be it leadership or planned actions or whatever– but the conditions that might give rise to emergent change.
KA: Yeah, but conditions are causes too, aren’t they.
NP: Yes they are, but the point is that they aren’t salient ones – that is, they aren’t immediately obvious. Moreover, and this is the important point: you do not know the exact outcomes of those causes except that they will in general be positive if the conditions are right and negative if they aren’t.
KA: That makes sense. Now I’d like to ask you about a related matter. When dealing with change or anything else, organisations invariably seem to operate at the limits of their capacity. Leaders always talk about “pushing ourselves” or “pushing the envelope” and so on. On the other hand, there’s also a great deal of talk about flexibility and the capacity for change, but we never seem to build this into our organisations. Is there a way one can do this?
NP: Yes, you can actually build in resilience. Organisations generally like to keep their systems and processes tightly coupled – that is, highly dependent on each other. This tends to make them fragile or prone to breakdown. So, one of the things organisations can do to build resilience is to keep systems and processes loosely coupled. (Editor’s note: for example, devolve decision-making authority to the lowest possible level in the organization. This increases flexibility and responsiveness while having the added benefit of reducing management overhead).
Conditions also play a role here. One of the things that organisations like to talk about is innovation. The point is you can’t put in place processes for innovation but you can create conditions that might foster it. You can’t ask people whether they “did their 15 minutes of innovation today” but you can give them the discretionary freedom to do things that have nothing to do with their work…and they just might do something that goes above and beyond their regular jobs. But of course what underpins all this is trust. Without trust you simply cannot build in flexibility or resilience.
KA: This really strikes a chord and let me tell you why. I read Taleb’s book a while ago. As you probably know, the book is about antifragility, which he defines as the ability to benefit from uncertainty rather than just being resilient to it. After I read the book I wrote a post on what an antifragile IT strategy might look like…and in an uncanny resonance with what you just said, I made the claim that trust would be the single important element of the strategy [laughter].
NP: Yeah, and trust is not something you receive as much as you give. So as a psychologist I know why it is so damaging to people. You know, “Et tu Brutus” – Caesar’s famous line – it was the betrayal of trust that was so damaging. Once trust is gone there’s nothing left.
KA: Indeed, I sometimes feel that the key job of a manager is to develop trust-based relationships with his or her peers and subordinates. However, what I see in the workplace is often (though definitely not always) the opposite: people simply do not trust their managers because managers are quick to pass the blame down (or even across) the hierarchy rather than absorbing it…which arguably, and ethically, is their job. They should be taking the heat so that people can get on with actual work. Unfortunately managers who do this are not as common as they should be.
NP: We’re getting into a complex area here, and it is one that I deal with at length in my masterclass on collaborative maturity and leadership. This is the old scapegoating mechanism at work, and it is related to the leadership attribution error and the hero myth. If the attribution is back to the individual, then the blame must also be attributable to an individual. In fact, I have this slide in one of my presentations that goes, “a scapegoat is almost as useful as the solution to a problem.” [laughter]
Now, there are two questions here. “The scapegoat” is the answer to the question “Who is responsible?” However, it is more important to look at conditions rather than causes, so the real question is, “How did this situation come about?” When you look at “Who” questions, you are immediately going into questions of character. It elicits responses like “Yeah, it’s Kailash’s fault because he is that kind of a guy…he is an INTP or whatever.” What’s happening here is that the problem is explained away because it is attributed to Kailash’s character. You see what is going on…and why it is so dangerous?
KA: Yeah, that’s really interesting.
NP: And you see, then they’ll say something like, “…so let’s take Kailash out and put Neil in”…but the point is that if the conditions remain the same, Neil will fall down the same hole.
KA: It’s interesting the way you tie both things back to the individual – the individual as hero and the individual as scapegoat.
NP: Yes, it’s two sides of the same coin. Followership acquiesces to leadership: Kailash will follow Neil, say, to the Promised Land. If we get there, Neil gets the credit but if we don’t, he gets the blame.
KA: Very interesting, but this brings up another question. Managers and leaders might turn around and say, “It’s all very well to criticize the way we operate, but the fact is that it is impossible to involve all stakeholders in determining, say, a strategy. So in a sense, we are forced to take on the role of “heroes,” as you put it.”
So my question is: are there some ways in which org are some of the ways in which organisations can address the difficulties associated with of collective decision-making?
NP: Of course, it is often impossible to include all stakeholders in a decision-making process, particularly around matters such as organisational strategy. What you have to do first is figure out who needs to be involved so that all interests are fairly represented. Second, I’m attracted to the whole idea of divergent (open-ended) and convergent (decisive) thinking. For example, if a problem is wicked or complex, there is no point attempting to use expert knowledge or analysis exclusively (Editor’s note: because no single expert holds the answers and there isn’t enough information for a sensible, unbiased analysis). Instead, one has to use collective intelligence or the wisdom of the crowd by seeking opinions from all groups of stakeholders who have a stake in the problem. This is divergent thinking.
However, there comes a time when one has to “make an incision in reality” – i.e. stop consultation and make the best possible decision based on data and ethics. – one has to use both IQ and EQ. This is the convergent side of the coin.
Another problem is that one often has the data one needs to make the right decision, but the decision does not get made for reasons of ideology. Then it becomes a question of power rather than collective intelligence: a solution is imposed rather than allowed to emerge.
KA: Well that happens often enough – this “short-circuiting” of the decision-making process by those in positions of power.
NP: Yes, and it is why I think deliberative decision-making which comes from the Western notion of deliberative democracy – i.e. decision-making based on dialogue and consultation is the best way forward but it can be a challenge to implement. Democracy is slow, but it is generally more accurate…
KA: Yes, that’s true, but it can also meander.
NP: Sure, everything is bound by certain limitations (like time) and that’s why you have to know when to intervene. One of the important things for a leader to have in this connection is negative capability – which is not “negative” in the usual sense of the word, but rather the ability to know how to be comfortable with ambiguity and be able to intervene in ambiguous situations in a way that gets some kind of useful outcome.
Of course, acting in such situations also means that one has to have good feedback mechanisms in place; one must know how things are actually working on the ground so that one can take corrective actions if needed. But, in the end, the success of this way of working depends critically on having the right conditions in place. If you don’t set up the right conditions, any intervention can have catastrophic consequences.
If I may talk politically for a minute – the current situation in the Middle East is a classic example of a planned intervention: direct, frontal, dramatic, causal, linear and supposedly rational. However, if the right conditions are not in place, such interventions can have unforeseen consequences that completely overshadow the alleged benefits. And that is exactly what we have seen.
In general I would say that emergent change is more likely to succeed than large-scale, direct, planned change. The example one hears all the time is that of continuous improvement – where small changes are put in place and then adjusted based on feedback on how they are working.
KA: This is a matter of some frustration for me: in general people will agree that collaboration and collective decision-making are good, but when the time comes, they revert to their old, top-down ways of working.
NP: Yes, well when I go into a consulting engagement on collaborative maturity, one of the first things I ask people is whether they want to use the collaborative process to inform people or to influence them. Often I find that they only want to use it to inform people. There is a big difference between the two: influencing is emergent, informing isn’t.
KA: This begs a question: say you walk into an organization where people say that they want to use collaborative processes to influence rather than inform, but you see that the culture is all wrong and it isn’t going to work. Do you actually tell them, “hey, this is not going to work in your organization?”
NP: Well if people don’t feel safe to speak their truth then it isn’t going to work. That’s why I’m so interested in Hackman’s work on conditions over causes. Coming to your question I don’t necessarily tell people that it’s not going to work because I believe it is more productive to invite them to explore the implications of doing things in a certain way. That way, they get to see for themselves how some of the things they are doing might actually be improved. One doesn’t preach but one hands things back to them.
In psychology there are these terms, transference and countertransference. In this context transference would be where a consultant thinks, “I’m a consultant so I’m going to assume a consultant persona by acting and behaving like I have all the answers”, and countertransference would be where the client reinforces this by saying something like, “you are the expert and you have all the answers.” Handing back stops this transference-countertransference cycle. So what we do is to get people to explore the consequences of their actions and thus see things that might have been hidden from their view. It is not to say “I told you so,” but rather “what are the implications of going down this path.” The idea is to appeal to the ethical or good side in human beings…and I believe that human beings are fundamentally good rather than not.
KA: I like your use of the word “ethical” here. I think that is really important and is what is often missing. One hears a lot about ethics in business these days, but it is most often taught and talked about in a very superficial way. The reality, however, is that the resolution of most wicked problems involves ethical considerations rather than logic and rationality…and this is something that many people do not understand. It isn’t about doing things right, rather it is about doing the right things.
NP: Yes, and this is related to what I call “meaning over motivation” – the idea being is that instead of attempting to motivate people to do something, try providing them with meaning. When you do this you will often find that change comes for free. And it is worth noting that meaning has both an emotional and rational component – or, put a little bit differently, an ethical and logical one. In one of his books, Daniel Pink makes the point that uncoupling ethics from profit can have catastrophic consequences…and we have good examples of that in recent history.
The broad lesson here is that if the conditions aren’t right then it is inevitable that unethical behavior will dominate.
KA: Yeah well human nature will ensure that won’t it?
NP: [laughs] Yeah, and you don’t need a psychologist to tell you that.
KA: [laughs] Indeed…and I think that would be a good note on which to bring this conversation to a close. Neil, thanks so much for your time and insights. It’s been a pleasure to chat with you and I look forward to catching up with you again…hopefully in person, in the not too distant future.
NP: Yeah, Singapore and Perth are not that far apart…