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To think, to be, to act

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It would have been sometime in late 2013. I was in the midst of exploring the possibility of setting up an analytics development centre for a large, somewhat conservative organization. The location of the centre had yet to be determined, but it was clear it would be a continent and a world away from headquarters.

A senior IT executive from headquarters was visiting our subsidiary. I knew him quite well and we had a good working relationship. He frowned as he caught sight of me across our big open plan area and gestured that he wanted to talk.

Uh oh.

I nodded and walked over to a vacant meeting room on my side.  He followed shortly and closed the door behind him.

Brief pleasantries done, he got to the point. “What’s this I hear about a development centre? What the hell are you up to?”

–x–

Despite out best-laid plans, the lives of our projects and the projects of our lives tend to hinge on minor events that we have little control over. Robert Chia stresses this point in his book Strategy without Design:

“Ambitious strategic plans, the ‘big picture’ approach that seeks a lasting solution or competitive advantage through large-scale transformations, often end up undermining their own potential effectiveness because they overlook the fine details of everyday happenings at ‘ground zero’ level.

At one level we know this, yet we act out a large part of our personal and work lives as though this were not so.

–x–

In business (and life!) we are exhorted to think before doing. My boss tells me I need to think about my team’s workplan for next year; my wife tells me I need to think about the future. Thinking is at the center of our strategies, blueprints, plans – the things that supposedly propel our lives into an imagined future.  

In brief, we are exhorted to make detailed plans of what we are going to do; we are encouraged not to act without thinking.

As Descartes famously wrote, cogito ergo sum, our thinking establishes our being.

But is that really so?

–x–

Gregory Bateson noted the following in his book, Angels Fear:

There is a discrepancy of logical type between “think” and “be”. Descartes is trying to jump from the frying pan of thought, ideas, images, opinions, arguments etc., into the fire of existence and action. But that jump itself is unmapped. Between two such contrasting universes there can be no “ergo” – no totally self-evident link. There is no looking before leaping from “cogito” to “sum”.

The gap between our plans and reality is analogous to the gap between thought and action. There is ample advice on how to think but very little on how to act in difficult situations.

As Bateson wrote elsewhere:

What is lacking is a theory of action within large complex systems, where the active agent is himself a part and a product of the system.

He then goes on to say that Kant’s categorical imperative – “act so to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, always as an end and never as only a means – might provide a starting point for such a theory.”

So far, so unsurprising.

But in the very next line, Bateson says something truly intriguing:

It seems also that great teachers and therapists avoid all direct attempts to influence the action of others and, instead, try to provide the settings or contexts in which some (usually imperfectly specified) change may occur.

This line resonated deeply when I read it first because it spelt out something that I had learnt through experience but had not found the words to articulate.

–x–

In contentious discussions, it is difficult to change minds using facts and figures alone. Indeed, the current reluctance to be vaccinated against Covid is a case in point (see this article, for example).What one needs in such situations is to reframe the terms of the discussion. In the Covid case that might be to focus on relative risks in terms that people can understand rather than absolute numbers of people who have suffered serious side-effects of the vaccine.

In general, reframing is about changing the way in which people perceive the problematic issue.  The best way to describe how it works is via an example. Here’s one from Paul Watzlawick’s classic book on change

A police officer with a special ability for resolving sticky situations in unusual ways, often involving a disarming use of humour, was in the process of issuing a citation for a minor traffic violation when a hostile crowd began to gather around him. By the time he had given the offender his ticket, the mood of the crowd was ugly and the sergeant was not certain that he would be able to get back to the relative safety of his patrol car. It then occurred to him to announce in a loud voice: “You have just witnessed the issuance of a traffic ticket by a member of your Oakland Police Department” And while the bystanders were busy trying to fathom the deeper meaning of this all too obvious communique, he got into his cruiser and drove off.

The specifics of what one might do depends on the situation, but the general idea is to appreciate the situation from the viewpoint of the other party and act in a way that helps shift that perspective in an indirect or oblique manner.

This is one of the key principles of emergent design – and more about that in a forthcoming piece.

–x–

Back to the story I started with:

I realized instinctively that much hinged on what I said and – more importantly – how I said. My interlocutor was clearly upset, and I had to ensure that my words did not infuriate him further. He had the power to stop my fledgling project in its tracks with a word or two in the right ears.

“There is no plan to set up a development centre,” I said, looking him in the eye. “All we have done is hire a couple of people here to help with the workload at headquarters.”

“Who has requested help?”

I told him who. He knew that person well and thought highly of him.

“Where do you plan to go from here?” he demanded.

“Like I said, there is no plan. This is just a pilot to see if we can help improve productivity. The idea is to free people in headquarters so that they can focus on the strategic stuff.”

“Just make sure it doesn’t turn into something bigger.”

“Absolutely,” I responded, mustering what I hoped was a reassuring smile.

“OK,” he nodded and walked out. 

I breathed easier; he seemed to be OK with it for now. But even if not, the conversation was still open. More importantly, I had bought myself some time to pay greater attention to the politics of the project over the coming weeks.

–x–

It was only in retrospect that I realized that the interaction described here was pivotal to the success of the project. How so is a story to be told later. For now, the point I wish to make is that the projects of our lives can be planned down to great detail, but their outcomes are often determined by the unplanned micro-actions we take while doing them.

–x–x–

(no identity – courtesy HaPe Gera https://www.flickr.com/photos/hape_gera/2929195528)

Written by K

June 1, 2021 at 6:51 am

Making sense of management – a conversation with Richard Claydon

with one comment

KA 

Hi there. I’m restarting a series of conversations that I’d kicked off in 2014 but discontinued a year later for a variety of reasons. At that time, I’d interviewed a few interesting people who have a somewhat heretical view on things managers tend to take for granted. I thought there’s no better way to restart the series than to speak with Dr. Richard Claydon, who I have known for a few years.  Richard calls himself a management ironist and organisational misbehaviorist. Instead of going on and risking misrepresenting what he does, let me get him to jump in and tell you himself.

Welcome Richard, tell us a bit about what you do.

RC  

I position myself as having a pragmatic, realistic take on management. Most business schools have a very positivistic take on the subject, a “do A and get B” approach. On the other hand, you have a minority of academics – the critical theorists – who say, well actually if you do A, you might get B, but you also get C, D, E, F, G.  This is actually a more realistic take. However, critical management theory is full of jargon and deep theory so it’s very complex to understand. I try to position myself in the middle, between the two perspectives, because real life is actually messier than either side would like to admit.

I like to call myself a misbehaviourist because the mess in the middle is largely about misbehaviours – real but more often, perceived. Indeed, good behaviours are often misperceived as bad and bad behaviours misperceived as good. I should emphasise that my work is not about getting rid of the bad apples or performance managing people. Rather it’s about working out what people are doing and more importantly, why. And from that, probing the system and seeing if one can start effecting changes in behaviours and outcomes.

KA 

Interesting! What kind of reception do you get? In particular, is there an appetite for this kind of work – open ended with no guarantee of a results?

RC 

Six of one half a dozen or the other. I’ve noticed a greater appetite for what I do now than there was six or seven years ago. It might be that I’ve made what I do more digestible and more intelligible to people in the management space. Or it might be that people are actually recognising that what they’re currently doing isn’t working in the complex world we live in today. It’s probably a bit of both.

That said, I definitely think the shift in thinking has been accelerated by the pandemic. It’s sort of, we can’t carry on doing this anymore because it is not really helping us move forward. So, I am finding a larger proportion of people willing to explore new approaches.

KA 

Tell us a bit about the approaches you use.

RC 

As an example, I’ve used narrative analytics –   collecting micro narratives at massive scale across an organisation and then analysing them, akin to the stuff Dave Snowden does.  Basically, we collect stories across the organisation, cluster them using machine learning techniques, and then get a team of people with different perspectives to look at the clusters. This gives us multiple readings on meaning. So, the team could consist of someone with leadership expertise, someone with expertise in mental health and wellbeing, someone with a behavioural background etc.

We also use social network analysis to find how information flows within a organisation. The aim here is to identify three very different types of characters: a) blockers – those who stop information from flowing, b) facilitators of information flow, c) connectors – information hubs, the go-to people in the organisation and d) mavericks, those who are thinking differently. And if you do that, you can start identifying where interesting things are happening, where different thinking is manifesting itself, and who’s carrying that thinking across the organisation.

KA 

Interesting! What sort of scale do you do this at?

RC 

Oh, we can scale to 1000s of people – organisations that have 35000 to 40,000 people – well beyond the scale at which one can wander around and do the ethnography oneself.

KA 

How do you elicit these micro-narratives?

RC 

I’ll give you an example. For a study we did on remote working during COVID we simply wrote, when it comes to working from home in COVID, I like dot dot, dot, I don’t like dot dot, dot, I wish dot dot, dot, I wonder dot dot dot,  plus some metadata to slice and dice – age bands, gender etc.  Essentially, we try to ask a very open set of questions, to get people into a more reflective stance. That’s where you begin to get some really interesting stuff.

KA 

Can you tell us about some of the interesting things you found from this study?  The more, I guess, interesting and surprising things that you’ve seen that are  perhaps not so obvious from a cursory glance,

RC 

The one thing that was very clear from the COVID studies was that the organisation’s perception of work from home was the key to whether it actually worked or not. If management gives the impression that work from home is somehow not quite proper work, then you’re going to get a poor work from home experience for all. If management isn’t trusting a person to work from home, or isn’t trusting a team to work from home then you’ve got a problem with your management, not with your people. The bigger the trust gap, the worse the experience. Employees in such environments feel more overwhelmed, more isolated, and generally more limited and restricted in their lives. That was the really interesting finding that came out of this piece of work. 

KA 

That’s fascinating…but I guess should not be surprising in hindsight. Management attitudes play a large role in determining employee behaviours and attitudes, and one would expect this to be even more the case when there is less face-to-face interaction. This is also a nice segue into another area I’d like to get you to talk about:  the notion of organisational culture.  Could you tell us about your take on the concept?

RC 

How cynical do you want me to be?

KA 

Very, I expect nothing less!

RC 

Well, if you go back into why culture became such a big thing, the first person who talked about culture in organisations was Elliott Jaques, way back in the 50s. But it didn’t really catch on then. It became a thing in the early 80s. And how it did is a very interesting story.

Up until the early 70s, you had – in America at least – a sort of an American Dream being lived underpinned by the illusion of continuous growth.  Then came the challenges of the 70s, the oil crisis and numerous other challenges that resulted in a dramatic loss of confidence in the American system. At the same time, you had the Japanese miracle, where a country that had two nuclear bombs dropped on it thirty years earlier was, by the 1970s, the second biggest economy in the world. And there was this sort of frenzy of interest in what the Japanese were doing to create this economic miracle and, more important, what America could learn from it. There were legions of consultants and academics going back and forth between the two countries.

One of the groups that was trying to learn from the Japanese was McKinsey. But this wasn’t really helping build confidence in the US. On the contrary, this approach seemed to imply that the Japanese were in some way better, which didn’t go down particularly well with the local audience. There was certainly interest in the developments around continuous improvement,  The Toyota Way etc – around getting the workers involved with the innovation of products and processes, as well as the cultural notions around loyalty to the organisation etc.  However, that was not enough to excite an American audience.

The spark came from Peters and Waterman’s  book, In Search of  Excellence, which highlighted examples of American companies that were doing well.  The book summarised eight features that these companies had in common – these were labelled principles of a good culture and that’s where the Mckinsey Seven S model came from. It was a kind of mix of ideas pulled in from Peters/Waterman, the Japanese continuous improvement and culture stuff, all knocked together really quite quickly.  In a fortunate (for Peters and Waterman) coincidence, the US economy turned the corner at around the time that this book was published and sales took off. That said, it’s a very well written book. The first half of In Search of Excellence is stunning. If you read it you’ll see that the questions they asked then are relevant questions even today. Anyway, the book came out at exactly the right time: the economy had turned the corner, McKinsey had a Seven S model to sell and then two universities jumped into the game, Stanford and Harvard… and lo behold, organisational culture became a management buzz-phrase, and  remains so to this day.  Indeed, the idea that special cultures are driving performance has bubbled up again in recent years, especially in the tech sector. In the end, though, the notion of culture  is very much a halo effect, in that the proponents of culture tend to attribute  performance to certain characteristics (i.e. culture). The truth is that success may give rise to a culture, but there is no causal effect the other way round.

KA 

Thanks for that historical perspective. In my experience in large multinationals, I’ve found that the people who talked about culture the most were from HR. And, they were mostly concerned about enforcing a certain uniformity of thought across the organisation.  That was around that time I came across the work of some critical management scholars who you alluded to at the start of this conversation. In particular, Hugh Willmott’s, wonderful critique of organisational culture : strength is ignorance; slavery is freedom. I thought that was a brilliant take on why people tend to push back on HR driven efforts to enforce a culture mindset- the  workshops and stuff that are held to promote it. I’m surprised that people in high places continue to be enamoured by this concept when they really should know better, having come up through the ranks themselves.

RC 

Yea, the question is whether they have come through the ranks themselves. A lot of them have come through MBA programmes or have been parachuted in. This is why, when I teach in the MBA, I try to teach this wider appreciation of culture because I know what the positivists are teaching – they are telling their students that culture is a good lever to get the kind of desirable behaviours that managers want.

KA 

Totally agree, the solution is to teach diverse perspectives instead of the standard positivist party line. I try to do the same in my MBA decision-making class – that is, I challenge the positivistic mindset by drawing students’ attention to the fact that in real life, problems are not given but have to be taken from complex situations (to paraphrase Russell Ackoff). Moreover, how one frames the problem determines the kind of answer one will get. Analytical decision-making tools assume the decision problem is given, but one is never given a problem in real life. So, I spend a lot of time teaching sensemaking approaches that can help students extract problems from complex situations by building context around the situation.

Anyway, we’ve been going for quite a bit, there’s one thing I absolutely must touch upon before we close this conversation – the use of irony in management. I know, your PhD work was around this concept, and it’s kind of an unusual take. I’m sure my readers would be very interested to hear more about your take on irony and why it’s useful in management.

RC 

I think we’ve set the stage quite nicely in terms of the cultural discussion. So what I was looking at in my PhD was a massive cultural change in an Australian company, a steelworks. We had unfettered access to the company for six and a half years, which is kind of unheard of. So anyway, one of the interesting things we noticed during our fieldwork was that everybody was identifying the same group of people as being the ones that were giving them the best information, were the easiest to talk, had the most  useful data sources, etc.

We then noticed that these people seemed to have an ironic sensibility. What does that mean? Well, they poked fun at themselves, their teammates, managers and the organisation…and indeed, even our research, but in very subtle ways. However, these people were also doing their work exceptionally well: they had more knowledge about what the hell was going on than anybody else in the company. Everybody liked them, everybody wanted to work with them, everybody was coming to them as problem solvers. You know, they had all of this interesting stuff happening around them.

So, what does it mean to have an ironic stance or an ironic sensibility in the midst of a shifting culture while doing quite complex work in challenging conditions? Well, there are three elements to it, firstly there’s there’s a perspective that you take, secondly there’s a performance that you give, and thirdly there’s a personality or character you develop.

The ironic perspective is that you see the gap between the rhetoric and reality, you see the gaps that most others do not. Then you’ve got this feeling that maybe it’s only you that sees the gap, and that can be quite scary. Especially if you’re trying to transmit that there’s a gap to powerful people who haven’t seen it,  and may even think everything’s going well.

How do you do this without losing your head?  And I mean that both literally (as in going crazy) and metaphorically as in losing your job.

That’s where the ironic performance comes in  – you say one thing while actually meaning something else. You’re trying to get people to deconstruct your message and work out where the gap is for themselves rather than confronting them with it and saying, “look, here is the gap”. So, this is where all the witticisms and the play on words and the humour come in. These are devices through which this message is transmitted in a way that helps the ironist keep her head – both metaphorically and in terms of her own sanity. These people are critical to the organisation because they call things out in a way that is acceptable. Moreover, since such people also tend to be good at what they do, they tend to have an outsized influence on their peers as well as on management.

So, our argument was that these folks with an ironic sensibility, they’re not just useful to have around they’re absolutely vital, and you should do everything you can to find them and look after them in the contemporary organisation.

KA 

So, there’s a clear distinction between a cynical and an ironic personality, because the cynic will call it out quite bluntly, in a way that puts people off. The ironists get away with it because they call it out in a very subtle way that could be even construed as not calling it out. It requires a certain skill and talent to do that.

RC 

Yes, and there’s a different emotional response as well. The cynic calls it out and hates it; the ironist expects it and takes joy in its absurdity.

KA 

So, the ironist is a bit like the court jester of yore: given licence to call out bullshit in palatable, even entertaining ways.

RC 

I like that. The original ironist was Socrates – pretending to be this bumbling fool but actually ridiculously sharp. The pretence is aimed at exposing an inconsistency in the others’ thinking, and to start a dialogue about it. That’s the role the ironist plays in achieving change.

KA 

That’s fascinating because it ties in with something I’ve noticed in my travels through various organisations. I do a lot of dialogic work with groups – trying to use conversations to frame different perspectives on complex situations. When doing so I’ve often found that the people with the most interesting things to say will have this ironic sensibility – they are able to call out bullshit using a memorable one-liner or gentle humour, in a way that doesn’t kill a conversation but actually encourages it.  There is this important dialogic element to irony.

RC 

It’s what they call the soft irony of Socrates – the witticisms and the elegance that keeps a difficult conversation going for long enough to surface different perspectives. The thing is you can keep going because in a complex situation there isn’t a single truth or just one right way of acting.

KA 

It gets to a possible way of acting. In complex situations there are multiple viable paths and the aim of dialogue is to open up different perspectives so that these different paths become apparent. I see that irony can be used to draw attention to these in a memorable way.  These ironists are revolutionaries of sorts, they have a gift of the gab, they’re charismatic, they are fun to talk to. People open up to them and engage with them, in contrast to cynics whose bitterness tends to shut down dialogue completely.

RC 

Yeah, and the conversation can continue even when the ironists depart. As an extreme example, Socrates chose to die in the final, ironic act of his life. Sure he was old and his time was coming anyway, but the way he chose to go highlighted the gap between principles and practice in Athens in an emphatic way. So emphatic that we talk about it now, millenia later.   

The roll call is long:  Socrates drank hemlock, Cicero was murdered, Voltaire was exiled, Oscar Wilde went to jail, Jonathan Swift was sent to a parish in the middle of Ireland – and so on. All were silenced so that they wouldn’t cause any more trouble. So there’s always a risk that however witty, however elegant your rhetoric, and however hard you try to keep these conversations going and get people to see the gap, there’s always a risk that a sword will be plunged into your abdomen.

KA 

The system will get you in the end, but the conversation will continue! I think that’s a great note on which to conclude our chat.  Thanks very much for your time, Richard.  I really enjoyed the conversation and learnt a few things, as I always do when chatting with you.

RC 

It’s been a pleasure, always wonderful to talk to you.

Written by K

March 29, 2021 at 7:35 pm

The elusive notion of context

with 13 comments

It would have been my second or third day in this country. There was a lot going in my head at the time: the worry of a small bank balance, the tension of finding a job, the assorted insecurities of finding one’s way in a strange land. I was walking back to my motel in the evening, lost in thought  when, quite unexpectedly, I caught the unmistakable aroma of eucalyptus and wattle, a scent I had grown up with in my childhood years in the Nilgiri Hills.

A view of the Niligiri Hills (Wikimedia)

It was strangely comforting. A place that felt unfamiliar moments earlier seemed much less so, a small step towards a sense of belonging…

–x–

A few years later, I was working on a research problem relating to a phenomenon that is easily demonstrated in a kitchen sink. If you are interested, make your way to the nearest sink and do the following:

Turn the tap on slowly until water starts to flow out as a cylindrical jet. You will notice that the jet breaks up into near spherical droplets a short distance from the mouth of the tap.

This phenomenon is called jet breakup. Instead of describing it further, I will follow the advice that a picture is worth several words.

Jet breakup

 

The problem of jet breakup was first studied by Lord Rayleigh in 1878 but had enjoyed a renaissance in the 1970s and 80s due to applications such as inkjet printing. My project was to apply the principle to the production of shot from jets of molten metal. I was not too enthused by the problem as it was, at best, a minor variation of a theme that had already been done to death. However, I was being paid to do research so I worked on it as diligently as I could, making desultory progress.

One October evening, about two years into my project, I was washing up after dinner when I noticed a curious wave-like structure on the thin jet that emerged from the kitchen sink tap and fell onto a plate an inch or two below the tap (the dishes had piled up that day). The wave pattern was stationary and rather striking.

Stationary waves on a water jet

The phenomenon is one that countless folks have seen. Indeed, I had noticed it before but never paid it much attention until that October evening when I saw the phenomenon with new eyes.  Being familiar with the work of Rayleigh and others, I realised, at once, that the pattern had the same underlying cause as jet breakup. Wondering if anyone had published papers on it, I dashed off to the library to do a literature search (Google Scholar and decent search engines were still a few years away). Within a few hours I realised I’d stumbled on a new context that would change the direction of my research.

–x–

Years and a couple of career changes later, I was working in a large multinational. Through sheer luck of being at the right place at the right time, I got to do some well-regarded work in business intelligence and analytics.  One of the things I realized during these projects is that the technical aspects of the work are the easiest. The hardest part is figuring out what to do…and this is hard because of people, not technology.

It was my first encounter with problem wickedness, the notion that problems involving diverse groups of individuals are socially complex. I started reading and thinking about practical ways to deal with social complexity in organizations, an effort that led to my collaborative work with Paul Culmsee. The key point, elaborated at length in our work, is that progress on tackling such problems depends critically on building a common context, one that all stakeholder groups can relate to.

–x–

There is a lot of published nonsense about building productive teams, much of it circulating on the internet. I will refrain from singling out specific articles because there are so many, but you can find them for yourself using search phrases such as “building teams”.   The fact of the matter is that there are no special levers one can pull to make good teams. As JR Hackman, a well-known researcher on team behaviour stated in a review article entitled, From causes to conditions in group research:

Influences on group behavior and performance do not come in separate, distinguishable packages. They come, instead, in complex tangles of redundant features and forces. To try to partial out and assess the causal effects of each component can be an exercise in frustration because each ingredient of what may be a spicy stew loses its zest when studied separately from the others.

Hackman urges researchers (and by implication, practitioners) to forget about causes and focus on creating the right conditions for a team to do good work. The real work of a leader is to set the right context and get out of the way. As David Snowden tells us in this talk, “Leadership is a property of the way you interact with people, not a property of status or training…[it] is about creating the right context for good things to happen.”

 If you are interested in finding out more about building context, check out David Snowden’s writings on the Cognitive Edge blog or the books I have linked to above. For a much longer and very enlightening series of discourses on the importance of context, I highly recommend Gregory Bateson’s magnum opus, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. The work is a collection of writings that deal with things far removed from management and organisations, but you will slowly start to see its relevance as you digest his many-splendoured essays on anthropology, evolution, animal behaviour, art, psychology, information, communication and more.

–x–

David Snowden’s Cynefin Framework offers a useful way to think about organizational problems. As an example, I have found the complicated / complex distinction useful in triaging problems frequently encountered in organizational settings.  In brief, complex problems tend to have a much higher degree of social complexity compared to complicated problems. They are, in other words, wicked problems. Most organizational problems that matter are complex, not complicated. 

Quite apart from the utility of the framework, I find the origin of the name Cynefin enlightening. The term is commonly (and poorly) translated as habitat. A better translation is the phrase, a place of belonging.  This resonates with the following passage excerpted from a paper Snowden wrote about the origins of the term:

For Christmas 1998 my parents followed a long tradition of giving me a book related to Welsh culture. That year it was The Land and the Sea, a collection of the works of Kyffin Williams, published to celebrate his eightieth year. I have admired his work from when I first saw a portrait painted by him, of a much-loved headmaster a quarter of a century earlier. He is an artist who has a profound understanding of place, both in his landscape work and his formal and informal portraits of the people of his native land, the Brythonic Kingdom of Gwynedd which dominated what is now Wales from the fifth to the thirteenth centuries. The Romans knew it as Venedotia, or the land of Venus, and I had the privilege of growing up there, walking its hills and sailing its coast. To sit on the summit of Tryfan as the sun descends over the Glyder ridge and Y Garn, casting shadows on to the precipitous slopes of Pen yr Ole Wen is a profound experience, not just of the aesthetic beauty of the landscape, but of one’s place, one’s identity, one’s place of belonging. There is a welsh word, Cynefin, which means all of that and more and has no equivalent in the English language, where it is crudely translated as habitat or place. In his preface to Kyffin Williams’book, Nicholas Sinclair connects the word Cynefin to the interaction between human beings and their environment that is the essence of the author’s work. I took that word as the name for this model created to understand the different types of system within which we operate: ordered, complex and chaotic.

Williams, Kyffin; Deserted Farm, Llanrhuddlad; Southend Museums Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/deserted-farm-llanrhuddlad-2750

Snowden’s words resonate with my professional experiences in a wide variety of organisations as well as my personal experiences of dealing with the unfamiliar.  Until I feel I belong and can relate to others in that environment, I cannot make any meaningful progress.  This is a prerequisite to initiating and achieving successful change of any kind, be it an organizational restructure, a large-scale IT project or even settling into a new country.

The sense of belonging is particularly important for work that involves different groups of stakeholders, particularly those that have conflicting interests and values. In such cases it is critical to achieve a shared understanding of the problem one is trying to solve before attempting to solve it. Such an understanding is often assumed at the start but is then found to be illusory when the “solution” is implemented which, of course, is much too late. The work of building a shared understanding is essentially an act of collaborative problem formulation or sensemaking. It is, in other words, the creation of a common context.

–x–

Years later still, I was asked to move to a regional role in the same multinational. My role there was to look after IT development activities in the region. Since much of this was driven from the corporate head office, much of my work was about resolving the gaps between what various offices scattered across the region needed and what the corporate-mandated solution offered. My experiences in sensemaking helped, but the official aspects of the role were – not to put too fine a point on it – excruciatingly boring. 

There was, however, a saving grace. When I was hired, my boss told me that he wanted me to explore the possibility of setting up a regional development centre for analytics that could serve the entire organization. There was a clear cost argument in favour of such centre. However, given the sharply divided opinions around offshoring, the public airing of such a proposal would cause all kinds of reactions, many of which would be negative. The first problem was to address those upfront.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, my boss told me I had zero budget to do this.

I talked to the usual suspects, a few big outsourcers and consultancies, but soon realized that their aims were not congruent with mine. Everything they told me pointed to high costs and potential conflicts down the line, not the least being vendor lock in and expensive contract variations. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the hidden costs of outsourcing are much too high.

Around that time, I came across the notion of emergent design. The essential idea is to start from where people are and take small steps, each of which lead to demonstrable improvement. This generally requires some trial and error, but since the investment at each step is small and the benefit demonstrable, it is not hard to convince the folks who sign cheques. Moreover, this enables one to continually adjust one’s approach based on feedback from the previous step, much like nature does in the process of evolution.  Actions are based on a given context, but the context itself changes because of the action and thus necessitates recalibrating subsequent actions.

To begin with, I needed to develop a small use case that would clearly demonstrate the benefit of hiring developers in my region to do work for people located in the head office, but in a way that alleviated concerns about job losses. As it happened, I had a colleague in head office who led a database team that was struggling to keep up with their workload. They simply did not have enough people and lacked the budget to hire contractors locally. I had a phone conversation with my colleague and suggested hiring someone who would sit in my office and work for him remotely. He was enthusiastic once he heard the costs (much lower than local consultants!) and committed funding for year.

The fledgling centre thus made its first hire.  A few months forward, my colleague was happy with the result. Consequently, he did a lot of evangelizing on my behalf about how this arrangement did not take away jobs, but augmented capacity.

Requests started trickling in; a few short months later they were pouring in. Three years later, there were over fifty developers in the centre. It had become a thing.

–x–

In recent years, advances in computing have made it possible to process vast volumes of data.  It is now possible for data scientists to apply machine learning techniques to large datasets containing detailed information about individuals.  There seems to be a widespread belief that, given the right kind of data, it is possible to abdicate decision-making on social matters to machine learning models. Of course, there are the warnings of data ethicists and others about the dark side of data science, but these tend to be swamped by the voices of data optimists. Data is so revered that large datasets tend to take on a life of their own, stripped of the context in which they were originally gathered.  There are enough examples that illustrate why this is problematic. If one could save not just a dataset but also details on how it was collected and why, the limitations of the data would be more apparent thus making it is less likely that it would be used in inappropriate ways.  The proposal on datasheets for datasets by Timnit Gebru and collaborators is a good start towards addressing the issue of context in data science.

One must keep in mind that cause-effect relationships are not obvious in large social systems. There are myriad plausible mechanisms of change and, more often than not, several of them will interact and operate in tandem. Given this, any decision based on data alone is likely to be misleading. Instead, success is more likely to come from an emergent approach based on developing multiple perspectives on the data – i.e. by building context around it.

–x–

Building context in social systems is hard because cause-effect relationships are hard to disambiguate and pin down. Consequently, it is impossible to know, with certainty, what is relevant and what is not. Indeed, if it were possible at all, one would include all details, leaving nothing out. The model of the world would then be the world itself; the map would be the entire territory.  But as Borges so eloquently noted:

… In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless…

Building context is a never-ending quest to understand the territory.

–x–

…and so I have been here for many years now. The smell of eucalyptus and wattle still evokes memories of home, but I do not know which one. What I do know now, but did not know then, is that being at home in a place or a set of ideas is the work of a lifetime.

Written by K

March 2, 2021 at 9:57 pm

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