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All models are wrong, some models are harmful

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Introduction

One of the ways in which we attempt to understand and explain natural and social phenomena is by building models of them.  A model is a representation of a real-world phenomenon, and since the real world is messy, models are generally based on a number of simplifying assumptions. It is worth noting that models may be mathematical but they do not have to be –  I present examples of both types of models in this article.

In this post I make two points:

  1. That all models are incomplete and are therefore wrong.
  2. That certain models  are not only wrong, but  can have harmful consequences if used thoughtlessly. In particular I will  discuss a model of human behaviour that is widely taught and used in management practice, much to the detriment of organisations.

Before going any further I should clarify  that I don’t “prove” that all models are wrong; that is likely an impossible task. Instead, I use an example to illustrate some general features of models which strongly suggest that no model can possibly account for all aspects of a phenomenon. Following that I discuss how models of human behaviour must be used with caution because they can have harmful consequences.

All models are wrong

Since models are based on simplifying assumptions, they can at best be only incomplete representations of reality.  It seems reasonable to expect  that all models will breakdown at some point because they are not reality. In this section, I illustrate this looking at a  real-world example  drawn from the king of natural sciences, physics.

Theoretical physicists build mathematical models that describe natural phenomena. Sir Isaac Newton was a theoretical physicist par excellence.  Among other things, he  hypothesized that the force that keeps the earth in orbit around the sun is the same as the one that keeps our feet firmly planted on the ground.  Based on observational inferences made by Johannes Kepler, Newton  also figured out that the force is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.  That is: if the distance between two bodies is doubled, the gravitational force between them decreases four-fold.   For those who are  interested, there is a nice explanation of Newton’s law of gravitation here.

Newton’s law tells us the precise nature of the force of attraction between two bodies.  It is universal in that it applies to all things that have a mass, regardless of the specific material they are made of. It’s utility is well established: among other things, it enables astronomers and engineers to predict the  trajectories of planets, satellites and spacecraft to extraordinary accuracy; on the flip side it also enables war mongers to compute the trajectories of missiles.  Newton’s law of gravitation has been tested innumerable times since it was proposed in the late 1700s, and it has passed with flying colours every time.

Yet, strictly speaking, it is wrong.

To understand why, we need to understand what it means to explain something. I’ll discuss this somewhat philosophical issue by sticking with gravity. Newton’s law enables us to predict the effects of gravity, but it does not tell us what gravity actually is. Yes, it’s a force, but what exactly is this force? How does it manifest itself? What is it that passes between two bodies to make them “aware” of each other’s existence?

Newton is silent on all these questions.

An explanation had to wait for a century and a half. In 1914 Einstein proposed that every body that has mass creates a distortion  of space (actually space and time) around it. He formalised this idea in his General Theory of Relativity which tells us that gravity is a consequence of the curvature of space-time.

This is difficult to visualise, so perhaps an analogy will help. Think of space-time as a flat rubber sheet. A marble on the sheet causes a depression (or curvature) in the vicinity of the marble. Another marble close enough would sense the curvature and would tend to roll towards the original marble.  To an observer who wasn’t aware of the curvature (imagine the rubber sheet to be invisible) the marbles would appear to be attracted to each other. Yet at a deeper level, the attraction is simply a consequence of geometry. In this sense then, Einstein’s theory “explains” gravity at a more fundamental level than Newton’s law does.

Now, one of the predictions of Einstein’s theory is that the force of gravitation is ever so slightly different from that predicted by Newton’s law.  This difference is so small that it is unnoticeable in the case of spacecraft or even planets, but it does make a difference in the case of dense, massive bodies such as black holes. Many experiments have confirmed that Einstein’s theory is more accurate than Newton’s.

So Newton was wrong.

However, the story doesn’t end there because  Einstein was wrong too.  It turns out, that Einstein’s theory of gravitation is not consistent with Quantum Mechanics, the theory that describes the microworld of atoms and elementary particles.  One of the open problems in theoretical physics is the development of a quantum theory of gravity. To be honest, I don’t know much at all about quantum gravity, so if you want to know more about this other  holy grail of physics,  I’ll refer you to Lee Smolin’s excellent book, Three Roads to Quantum Gravity.

Anyway, the point I wish to make is not that these luminaries were wrong but that the limitations of their models were in a sense inevitable. Why? Well, because our knowledge of the real world is never complete, it is forever work in progress. We build models based on what we know at a given time, which in turn is based on our current state of knowledge and the empirical data that supports it. The world, however, is much more complex than our limited powers of reasoning  and observation , even if these are enhanced by instruments. Consequently any models that we construct are necessarily incomplete – and therefore, wrong.

Some models are harmful

The foregoing brings me to the second point of this post.

There’s nothing wrong in being wrong, of course; especially if our understanding of the world is enhanced in the process.  I would be quite happy to leave it there if that was all there was to it. The problem is that there is something more insidious and dangerous: some models are not only wrong, they are positively harmful.

And no, I’m not referring to nuclear weapons; nuclear fission by itself is neither benign nor dangerous, it is what we do with it that makes it so. I’m referring to something far more commonplace, a model that underpins much of modern day management:  it is the notion that  humans are largely rational beings who make decisions based solely on their  narrow self-interest.  According to this view of humans as economic beings,  we are driven by material gain to the exclusion of  all other considerations. This is a narrow, one-dimensional view of humans  but is one that is legitimised by mainstream economics  and has been adopted enthusiastically  by many management schools and their alumni.

Among other things, those who subscribe to  this model believe that:

  1. Employees are inherently untrustworthy because they will act in their own personal interests, with no consideration of the greater good. Consequently their performance needs to be carefully “incentivised” and monitored.
  2. Management’s goals should be to maximise profits. Consequently they should be “incentivised”  by bonuses that are linked solely to profit earned.

These are harmful because

  1. Treating employees like potential shirkers who need to “motivated”  by a carrot and stick policy will only demotivate them.
  2. Linking senior management bonuses to financial performance alone encourages managers to follow strategies that boost short term profits regardless of the long term consequences.

The fact of the matter is that humans are not atoms or planets; they can (and will) change their behaviour depending on how they are treated.

To sum up

All models are wrong, but  some models – especially those relating to human behaviour – are harmful. The danger of taking models of human behaviour literally is that they tend become self fulfilling prophecies. As Eliyahu Goldratt once famously said, “Tell me how you measure me and I’ll tell you how I’ll behave.”  Measure managers by the profits they generate and they’ll  work to maximise  profits to the detriment of longer-term sustainability, treat employees  like soulless economic beings and they’ll end up behaving like the self-serving souls the organisation deserves.

Written by K

December 2, 2012 at 5:56 pm

The cloud and the grass – a business fable

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Once upon a time there was an expansive lawn that was of the lushest shade of green you can possibly imagine. It was so because it was tended by gardeners who took pride in the health and appearance of their lawn: they mowed it when it needed mowing and watered it when it needed watering. Moreover, they did so because they loved their work and got immense satisfaction out of seeing the beautiful results of their handiwork.

So spectacular was the lawn that people would come from far and wide to admire the green expanse – children would frolic on it  while their parents watched indulgently as they munched their way through the huge hampers they brought to picnic on. The children would tire themselves out playing while their elders did the same eating. They would all then lay themselves out on the velvety verdant-ness and drift away into dreamland, aided by the perfect afternoon sunshine.

As they drifted away into sweet slumber, many of them would think, “If there is a paradise, this must be pretty darn close to it…”

One day the owners of the lawn, the folks who paid the gardeners a not insubstantial sum per month were looking at their monthly accounts. They realized that their financial standing was not as healthy as it was prior to the GFC (Yes alas, even owners of paradise have been affected by the mess caused by the erstwhile Masters of the Universe). Their financial advisers suggested that they outsource the tending of the lawn to professionals who were experts at that  sort of thing.

“Don’t worry about a thing,” said the Adviser in Chief, “We know some consultants who are experts at this sort of thing.”

The Adviser-in-Chief was as good as his word – the next day, the owners got a visit from a guy in a suit who, for reasons of privacy, we shall call The Consultant.

The Consultant told the owners  not to worry, he had just the solution to their problem. “Forget these expensive and slow gardeners,” he said, “what you need is The Cloud.”

Now anyone who is anyone at all has heard of The Cloud  – and so had the owners. “The Cloud!” they exclaimed, “Yes, we have heard of The Cloud, but pray, tell us: how will it solve our problem?”

“It’s simple,” said the The Consultant, “The Cloud will water the lawn and thus tend to its wellbeing. You don’t need gardeners, The Cloud will look after your investment. But what’s really interesting for you is that The Cloud will cost you a fraction of what the gardeners cost.” Then, pulling out a slickly produced dossier, he continued, “Here’s an analysis done by an Independent Analyst.”

(As a pointless aside we note that the Independent Consultant’s name happened to rhyme with word “Gardener”).

The owners read the analysis and were duly impressed. They decided that this Cloud business was a great idea. It  would help them cut costs and maintain (hey, even improve!) the quality of their lawn. It sounded like a winning proposition.

There was a downsize though (editor’s note: I think he means downside):

The owners soon realized they would have to let the gardeners go. This would not be easy as the gardeners had been in their employ for many years. However, the owners prided themselves on being pragmatists – they had, after all, overseen a successful venture for many years. Now, to maintain it, they would have to change with the times. This was, after all, The Age of The Cloud.

Many Difficult Conversations ensued and eventually the gardeners were shown the gate (paradise has no doors, I’m told, but it does have a gate…of a somewhat pearly appearance.)

The Cloud thus took over the tending of the lawn. And as they say, all was well in paradise: the lawns were regularly watered and the grass grew…

…and it grew, and it grew. It grew to such an extent that visitors no longer found the lush greenness as welcoming. From kids perspective, it hard to frolic in grass that’s to tall and from a grown-up’s view, it is impossible to picnic in.

The owners complained to The Consultant. The Consultant brought along a legal expert who knew all about the services the owners had bought and (more importantly) those they had not. The expert affirmed that the package the owners had bought did not include any mowing services…only watering was included. The owners had not read the fine print.

(One can’t blame them – tell me, is it easy to read last two words of the previous line.)

Understandably, many acrimonious arguments ensued – words were said that shouldn’t have been said, things were thrown that shouldn’t have been thrown (although, at people who ought to have a few things thrown at them).

The owners thought about the good old days when the lawn was being looked after by people who had a stake in it, and who cared about it. The Cloud was an entity that was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Why would it care for a piddly patch of green?

The owners realized that the survival of the lawn was at stake. If they wanted the lawn to return to it original state of perfection, they would have to swallow their pride and admit they had made a mistake.

The question was: would they?

…and there I have to leave the story because I know not what they did.

There is a moral to this tale, however, and it is that clouds don’t give a damn about grass.

Written by K

November 5, 2012 at 9:30 pm

A consulting tragedy in five limericks

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The consultant said, “be assured,
my motives are totally pure.
I guarantee
my inflated fee
is well worth my ‘best practice’ cure.”

Although it was too much to pay,
this argument carried the day:
consultants hired
can always be fired
and assigned much of the blame.

After the contract was signed,
only then did the client find
the solution bought
would definitely not
help leave their troubles behind.

Cos’ the truth was plain to see,
the ‘best practice’ methodology
had only led
to the overhead
of a ponderous bureacracy.

The shock, the horror, the pain-
all that money and effort in vain,
but the tragedy
is the powers that be
would do it all over again.

Written by K

September 1, 2012 at 10:02 pm

A project manager’s dilemma in five limericks

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It is so very hard to cope
with such a platitudinous scope;
vague and unclear,
I’ll tell you right here,
of making it we have no hope.

The goal so very elastic,
based on claims fantastic.
Slick presentations,
and proclamations
couched in language bombastic.

I’ve deployed many dark arts.
Simulations and Gantt Charts.
All to no avail,
my project will fail.
I may as well be throwing darts.

My project, like shifting sand,
is starting to get out of hand.
Despite all attempts
it still makes no sense.
I really think it should be canned.

This truth spinning round in my head
is better left unsaid.
If I were to try it,
they’d only deny it
and give me the sack instead.

Written by K

July 28, 2012 at 11:58 am

On the unintended consequences of organisational change

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Introduction

Change, as the cliché goes, is the only constant.  At any given time, most organisations are either planning or implementing changes of some kind.  Perhaps because of its ubiquity, the rationale and results of change are not questioned as deeply as they ought to be.  In this post I describe some unintended effects of organisational change, drawing on Barbara Czarniawska’s book, A Theory of Organizing and other sources. I also briefly discuss some ways in which these side effects can be avoided.

I’ll begin with a few words about terminology.  In this article planned changes (also referred to as reforms) are changes instituted in order to achieve specific goals. The goals of reforms are referred to as planned effects – that is, planned effects are intended results of change. As I discuss below, although planned effects may eventually be achieved, change initiatives have a host of unforeseen but significant consequences. These are referred to as unplanned, unintended or side effects.

This article is organised as follows: I’ll begin by describing some of the positive and negative side effects of change, following which I’ll discuss why side effects come about and how they can be managed.

Advantageous side effects of change

Although, the term side effect has a negative connotation, some side effects of change can actually be advantageous.  These include:

  1. Questioning of the status quo: In most organisations, processes and structures are taken for granted, rarely is the status quo questioned. Organisational change presents an opportunity to pose those “How can we do this better?” type questions that challenge the way things are done. Such questioning is unplanned in that it generally occurs spontaneously.
  2. Opportunities for reflection: This is a consequence of the previous point: questioning the status quo can cause people to reflect on how things can be done better. Again, this is an unintended consequence of a reform, not part of its planned goals. Also, it should be noted that although opportunities for reflection arise often, they are generally ignored because of time pressures.
  3. Spontaneous inventions: Finally, questioning of and reflecting on the status quo can trigger ideas for improvement.

Most people would agree that the above points are indeed Good Things that ought to be encouraged.  However, the important point is that people who are in the throes of a planned change seldom have the time or motivation to pursue these opportunities.

Harmful side effects of change

The negative side effects of planned changes are insidious because they tend to occur as a result of inaction – i.e. by not taking corrective actions to counter the detrimental effects of change. The following side effects serve to illustrate this point:

  1. The aims of reform become cast in stone: The objectives of a change initiative are formulated based on an understanding of a situation as it exists at a particular point in time. Problem is, as time evolves the original objectives maybecome irrelevant or obsolete. Yet, in many (most?) change initiatives, objectives are rarely reviewed and adjusted.
  2. The means get confused with the ends: Following from the previous point, a change initiative becomes pointless when its objectives are no longer relevant.  However, a common reaction in such situations is to continue the initiative, justifying it as a worthwhile end in itself. For example, if the benefits of, say, a restructuring initiative become moot,  the  restructuring itself  becomes the objective rather than the benefits that were supposed to flow from it.  This helps save face as the project can be declared a success once the restructuring is completed, regardless of whether or not the promised benefits are realised.
  3. Improvisations and spontaneous inventions are suppressed: As I have discussed at length in this post, planning and improvisation are complementary but contradictory aspects of organizational work. A negative aspect of planned change initiatives is that they are inimical to improvisations: those responsible for overseeing the change tend to ignore, even suppress any improvisations that arise because they are seen as getting in the way of achieving the objectives of the primary change.

Planned change initiatives are generally implemented through programs or projects.  In fact, most major projects in organisations – restructurings, enterprise system implementations etc – are aimed at implementing reforms of some kind. However, although the raison d’etre of such projects is to achieve the planned objectives, many suffer from the negative side effects mentioned above.   In her book Czarniawska states, “Planned change rarely, if ever, leads to planned effects.”  Although this claim may be a tad exaggerated, the significant proportion of large projects that fail suggests there is at least a whiff of truth about it.

In the next two sections I take a brief look at why planned changes fail and what can be done about it.

The origin of the side effects of change

Most structures and processes within organisations have a complex, path-dependent history. Among other things, they develop in ways that are unique to an organisation and are often deeply intertwined with each other.  As a result, it is impossible to be certain about the consequences of changing processes or structures – there are just too many variables and dependencies involved.

There are two related points that flow from this:

Firstly, those who plan changes need to have a good understanding of legacy: the history of the issues that the change aims to fix and those that it may create in the future. The problem is most of the people involved in planning, initiating and executing reforms have little appreciation of such issues.

Secondly, most major changes are conceived by a small number of people who hold positions of authority within organisations. These folks have a tendency to gloss over complexities, and often fail to involve those who have a detailed knowledge of the affected processes and structures. Consequently, their plans overlook dependencies and possible knock-on effects that can arise from them. This results in the negative side effects discussed in the previous section.

..and what can be done about them

Czarniawska recommends the following informal rules for successful change:

  1. Be willing to modify the objectives of the change and your path to get there as your understanding of it evolves.
  2. Implement lightweight processes, avoid bureaucratic procedures.
  3. Be open to improvisations.

This is good advice as it goes, but how exactly does one use it?

In our recently published book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices, Paul Culmsee and I discuss how issues of legacy and lack of inclusiveness can be addressed.

Firstly, we suggest that apart from time, cost and scope (the classic iron triangle), project decision-makers would be well served by considering legacy as a separate variable in projects (also see this post on Paul’s blog for more on this point). More importantly, we describe techniques that can be used to surface hidden assumptions and aspects of history that could have a bearing on the project and those that might cause problems in the future.

Secondly, we discuss how one can work towards creating an environment in which a diverse group of stakeholders can air and reconcile their viewpoints. Such a discussion is a prerequisite to creating a plan that: a) considers as many viewpoints (variables) as possible and b) has the support of all stakeholders.  Without this, any implementation is bound to have side-effects because of overlooked variables and/or the actions (or non-actions) of stakeholders who do not support the plan.

Of course, inclusiveness sounds great but it can be difficult in practice, especially in large organisations. What can decision-makers do in such cases?  The answer comes from a slightly different, if rather obvious direction.

In his very illuminating book on decision-making, James March notes that organisations face messy and inconsistent environments. Given this, decisions made and implemented at lower levels have a better chance of success than those made in rarefied air of board-rooms.  Paraphrasing a statement from his book:

Since knowledge of local conditions and specialized competencies are both essential and more readily found in decentralized units, control over the details of policy implementation and adaptation of general policies to local conditions are [best] delegated to local units. From the standpoint of general management, the strategy is usually seen as one of gaining the informational and motivational advantages of using people with local involvement, [but] at the cost of accentuating problems of central coordination and control.

Indeed, most of the nasty side effects of planned change arise from over-centralisation of coordination and control.  The solution is to devolve control and decision-making authority down to the level at which the changes are to be implemented.

Conclusion

Planned change fails to achieve its goals because planners cannot foresee all the consequences of change or even know which factors may be important in determining these. Moreover, individuals will view changes through the lens of their background, biases and interests.  Since organisations consist of many individuals with different views, managing change is essentially a wicked problem.

To sum up, those who initiate large-scale changes should keep in mind the law of unintended consequencesany planned action will have consequences that are not intended, or even foreseen.  These consequences can be managed by getting a better appreciation of the factors that affect the processes and the structures to be changed.   One can gain an understanding of these factors through a consideration of legacy and/or via dialogue involving all those who work with the processes and structures that are to be changed. The simplest way to achieve both is by delegating decision making and implementation authority down to where it belongs – with the people who work at the coalface of the organisation.

Macrovisions and micromanagement

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Introduction

Much has been written about leadershipmanagement and the difference between them.   The former is associated with creating a shared vision and strategy for the future whereas the latter has administrative and bureaucratic connotations. Most organisations  celebrate leadership but consider management to be little more than an operational necessity.

In view of the exaggerated rhetoric regarding leadership it is of interest to ask how it is actually practiced on the ground.  This question was investigated by Mats Alvesson and Sven Sveningsson in a brilliant paper entitled, Good Visions, Bad Micro-management and Ugly Ambiguity: Contradictions of (Non-) Leadership in a Knowledge-Intensive Organization.  In this post I elaborate on one of their key conclusions:  that there is a gap between  the espoused view of leadership and its practice.

Leadership in theory

The emphasis on leadership in management theory  has lead to the widely accepted notion that leaders matter and that their actions can affect organizational performance and effect change in a positive way. Moreover it is also assumed that it is straightforward to identify leadership qualities in people as these manifest themselves through a set of well-defined behaviours and attitudes. In other words, leadership is a stable and robust concept. The main aim of the authors was to find out how well this theoretical conception of leadership holds up in the real world.

The case study and research methodology

The authors conducted a detailed study of how managers in a knowledge-intensive organisation viewed and practiced leadership.  The study consisted of extensive, multiple interviews with managers at different levels in the company (from the CEO to project managers) supplemented by observations made at management meetings.  Two rounds of interviews were conducted. In the first round, the authors asked the interviewees what their jobs entailed. Most responses centered on vision, leadership and strategy.  However, when asked to elaborate on their responses, most managers described their day-to-day work in terms of administrative and bureaucratic managerial procedures. This pointed to a gap between espoused leadership and how it is actually practiced. In the second round of interviews, the authors attempted to gain some insights into the reasons for the gap.

Macrovisions: the espoused view of leadership

The authors observed that when asked questions about their jobs, most managers spoke of leadership and how they practiced it. Big picture topics such as vision and strategy – what I call macrovisions –  were recurrent themes in their responses . Most managers claimed that their job was to articulate such macrovisions while leaving the details of day-to-day operations to their subordinates.  As examples, consider the following responses from interviewees:

A strongly knowledge intensive work as ours build on independent and active employees who has (sic)  the ability to take their own initiative.

This is consistent with modern themes of worker autonomy in decision, particularly in knowledge-intensive organisations such as information or biotechnology.  Reinforcing this, another manager said:

 I try not to interfere too much in operations. That would be wrong in every way, no one would benefit from that, but I am available if anyone has an operative question, otherwise it’s more me trying to make myself unavoidable in strategic issues but avoidable in operational issues.

Yet another manager spoke of macrovisions in the following way:

And if you provide the big picture, if there is a sense that these [minor decisions] are in the context of the wider strategy and it is not just, bang, bang [shooting with finger from the hip] we shoot this one and now we shoot that one, and now we gallop off in some other direction; if it fits a bigger picture, then I think we can manage. But that is where leadership comes in I think, we need to provide that context and the picture and the overall direction, to say “we are not here in the middle and you cannot [be allowed to] ride off in just any direction.

Macrovisions thus appeared to provide a broad framework within which employees had the freedom to make decisions that were broadly consistent with the organisation’s strategy.

Again, it is important to emphasise that managers were not specifically asked about visions, strategy or leadership, yet their responses invariably alluded to these themes.  The responses suggest that most managers in the company viewed leadership rather than management as their primary role.

This was consistent with the overall management vision set by senior executives.  As the authors put it:

The expectations formulated by higher-level senior managers and made explicit by the CEO on various occasions, is that managers should refrain from detailed management

Indeed, some managers spoke of managing details in derogatory terms. Consider the following response:

Requesting detail which is of no value to your personal job or position, and that can be detail about a specific office, budget thing through to really me going down to the project level and saying, “Well, how are we doing on that project and I really want to know”, so it is about the ability not to do that, and delegate and trust the people.

In short:  most managers felt that their work involved articulating and implementing macrovisions rather than practising micromanagement.

Micromanagement: the practice of “leadership”

A natural question arising from the above is: how did managers actually practice leadership? What are the things they did in their day-to-day work that exemplified leadership?

To answer this question, interviewees were asked what they did in their day-to-day work.  Strangely, most managers reverted to themes they had described in uncomplimentary terms. For example, when asked to elaborate on how he practiced leadership, one manager said:

There are many different ways of working. I think that as a manager here one has to implement significantly more directive ways of handling people, that is, that you say to people that you will spend the next month occupying yourself with this development, I want you to learn about this. I think that you have to have a much more directive way of handling of people in these operations.

This was not an isolated case;  another manager said:

I do get involved from a technical viewpoint, I expect, obviously my knowledge is still developing here, but I expect to understand quite consciously what the group is doing.

Yet another manager, when asked about the leadership tools that he used, referred to things such as budgets, recruitment etc. – things that are usually concerned bureaucratic, administrative procedures. There was little if any reference to activities that one might associate with leadership.

There is thus a clear gap between what the managers professed to practice and what they actually practiced. In the authors’ words:

…the responses brought forth aspects of managerial activities obviously quite far removed from most understandings of leadership in contemporary management literature and also from the more ‘grandiose’ ideas on the subject that they also claim to believe in and base their work on. Managers therefore talk of themselves as leaders without doing much that clearly and strongly refers to ‘leadership activities’. The case study exhibits the contrary: the activities of managers are more closely related to what is understood as micro-management…

Indeed this view was confirmed when the authors spoke with lower level managers. A project manager said:

Perhaps there’s a dialogue about that (leadership) that doesn’t really percolate down to those in production and it tends to become reactive. And micro-management, there’s a will to know too much in detail, when perhaps they should really be working with empowerment, that people are able to take responsibility, to send responsibility for the budget to me and have faith that I take responsibility for my colleagues, and all the positive talk such as “we are going to be the company of choice”, how are we going to realize all that, there’s too much administrative detail going through my superior.

…so much for all the talk of leadership.

The rhetoric and reality of leadership

From the above it is clear that we have a paradoxical situation:  managers believed they were being leaders when they are actually weren’t leading at all. The question is: why did this happen?

The authors offer a number of speculations for this, which I briefly outline below.

Firstly, leadership qualities are generally seen as desirable. Management literature and education tends to place leadership at the pinnacle of managerial practice. Consequently, there is considerable pressure on managers at the middle and senior levels to display these qualities.

Secondly, there is the issue of identity; how managers see themselves. Like those described in the case study, most managers would like to view what they do as leadership rather than “mere” management or administration. As a result, they may unconsciously describe what they do in the flattering language of leadership rather than the mundane terms of management.  However, as the authors stated in the paper, “Leadership talk and fantasies seem to leave a thin spray of grandiosity on the ‘leaders’” Clearly,  this may be of more use in bolstering managerial self-esteem than anything else.

Thirdly, managers often have to deal with conflicting agendas and requirements. In the case study managers were expected to display leader-like behaviour. However, at the same time, they were held responsible for specific and very tangible results. To deliver on the latter, they often felt they had to keep track of the details of what their teams were doing and step in when things were going wrong. There was a continual pressure to get involved in detail while maintaining the illusion of being leaders.

Another point that the authors do not mention explicitly is that middle and frontline managers are often expected to lead without being given the autonomy to do so.

It is likely that some or all of the above factors lead to a divergence between the rhetoric and reality of leadership.

Conclusion

The central message of the paper is that the concept of leadership is an idealization that is often compromised in practice.  Most people who work in organisations will not find this surprising: managers are generally  aware that their day-to-day work has little in common with the  rarefied notions of leadership promoted by management schools, while  others are likely to have worked with  micromanagers  who are masquerading as macrovisionaries.

Written by K

October 20, 2011 at 7:35 am

Planned failure – a project management paradox

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The other day a friend and I were talking about a failed process improvement initiative in his organisation.  The project had blown its budget and exceeded the allocated time by over 50%, which in itself was a problem. However, what I found more interesting was that the failure was in a sense planned – that is, given the way the initiative was structured, failure was almost inevitable. Consider the following:

  • Process owners had little or no input into the project plan. The “plan” was created by management and handed down to those at the coalface of processes. This made sense from management’s point of view – they had an audit deadline to meet. However, it alienated those involved from the outset.
  • The focus was on time, cost and scope; history was ignored. Legacy matters – as Paul Culmsee mentions in a recent post, “To me, considering time, cost and scope without legacy is delusional and plain dumb. Legacy informs time, cost and scope and challenges us to look beyond the visible symptoms of what we perceive as the problem to what’s really going on.This is an insightful observation – indeed, ignoring legacy is guaranteed to cause problems down the line.

The conversation with my friend got me thinking about planned failures in general. A feature that is common to many failed projects is that planning decisions are based on dubious assumptions.  Consider, for example, the following (rather common) assumptions made in project work:

  • Stakeholders have a shared understanding of project goals. That is, all those who matter are on the same page regarding the expected outcome of the project.
  • Key personnel will be available when needed and – more importantly – will be able to dedicate 100% of their committed time to the project.

The first assumption may be moot because stakeholders view a project in terms of their priorities and these may not coincide with those of other stakeholder groups. Hence the mismatch of expectations between, say, development and marketing groups in product development companies. The second assumption is problematic because key project personnel are often assigned more work than they can actually do.  Interestingly, this happens because of flawed organisational procedures rather than poor project planning or scheduling  – see my  post on the resource allocation syndrome for a detailed discussion of this issue.

Another factor that contributes to failure is that these and other such assumptions often come in to play during the early stages of a project. Decisions that are based on these assumptions thus affect all subsequent stages of the project. To make matters worse, their effects can be amplified as the project progresses.    I have discussed these and other problems  in my post on front-end decision making in projects.

What is relevant from the point of view of failure is that assumptions such as the ones above are rarely queried, which begs the question as to why they remain unchallenged.  There are many reasons for this, some of the more common ones are:

  1. Groupthink:  This   is the tendency of members of a group to think alike because of peer pressure and insulation from external opinions. Project groups are prone to falling into this trap, particularly when they are under pressure. See this post for more on groupthink in project environments and ways to address it.
  2. Cognitive bias: This term refers to a wide variety of errors in perception or judgement that humans often make (see this Wikipedia article for a comprehensive list of cognitive biases).  In contrast to groupthink, cognitive bias operates at the level of an individual.  A common example of cognitive bias at work in projects is when people underestimate the effort involved in a project task through a combination of anchoring and/or over-optimism  (see this post for a detailed discussion of these biases at work in a project situation). Further examples can be found in in my post on the role of cognitive biases in project failure,  which discusses how many high profile project failures can be attributed to systematic errors in perception and judgement.
  3. Fear of challenging authority:  Those who manage and work on projects are often reluctant to challenge assumptions made by those in positions of authority. As a result, they play along until the inevitable train wreck occurs.

So there is no paradox:  planned failures occur for reasons that we know and understand. However, knowledge is one thing,  acting on it quite another.  The paradox will live on because in real life it is not so easy to bell the cat.

Written by K

June 16, 2011 at 10:17 pm

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