Weblog Entries for January 2010
January 30, 2010
This HBR post attempts to evaluate Obama's record on change management, based on a four step model. I'm instinctively wary of models and this one strikes me as typically trite and questionable.
The first step is to "make the case for change", which seems to assume that change is some rational and intellectual process. I suppose being a business academic is going to make you think that's how the world works.
The second step is "Create a vision of what will be different" - another B School convention that sets us up for idealising the future and instead of getting grounded in the present. I concede that there seems to be a big market for grand visions, but if you want real change, they're quite likely to set you up for failure.
The third step is "Mobilize commitment to change". Ah the commitment word. Again, the idea is that we make a rational decision, commit to it, and lo it happens. I've been to way too many meetings where commitments are made to have much faith in this. I call them "commitment ceremonies" and I try hard to avoid them.
The fourth step is about creating early successes but I can't help feeling this is another set up to avoid really honest evaluation of changes and complexity in favour of a simplistic pursuit of things going to plan.
And I find this sign off pretty patronising:
Clearly, there's room for improvement in the President's change management approach. Let's hope that he learns from the experience of the first year and — like the best senior executives — gets better at managing change over time.That word senior crops up all the time in consultant speak and it always puts me on guard. It feels like a status game. I'd call it elitist, if it wasn't such a mediocre tactic.
Hat tip: Dominic Campbell
An approach to wicked problems
Matt Moore has posted a short and succinct paper about approaches to wicked problems. In my experience, lots of these problems get treated as if they are merely complicated and just need a solution from some (dubiously-qualified) expert. Here in the UK our politicians seem unable to resist responding to complexity other than by pandering to some celebrity expert: such as Alan Sugar on enterprise, James Dyson on innovation, and a countless number of Lords on a variety of other topics. They almost always come back with egotistical, opinionated, headline-grabbing "solutions" that fail almost comically to grasp the ambiguities and complexities of the issues at hand.
Matt's paper succeeds in outlining an alternative that is more sophisticated, without making it sound painfully difficult. (It's no surprise that he wasn't able to sell it to his government.)
A couple of interesting posts...
Rob has a couple of interesting posts up. He challenges how conversations about diversity reinforce stereotypes, in particular of the white male. And he describes an approach to cancer screening that relies on herd principles for success.
January 29, 2010
Acting into thinking
Nice post from Viv leading to this thought:
We act our way into a new way of thinking, we don’t think our way into a new way of acting.
January 25, 2010
Viv McWaters writes about liminality.
When you’re asking me to change a particular behaviour (even if it’s for my own good, or for the well-being of others, or even the planet) you’re asking me to let go of something familiar and take up something unfamilar. That space between letting go and grabbing on to something new is called liminal space. You’re asking me to enter a space of unknowing, of uncertaintly and of change. Is it any wonder I’m reluctant?Other people's change can put us into liminal space too. Think of a parent who watches their child playing on a wall of a certain height... do they intervene for safety's sake or do they sit tight and manage their nerves, allowing the child to learn and grow?
January 21, 2010
Enough reinventing leadership, already
The title of Bob Sutton's latest post makes lots of sense to me:
Most claims of originality are testimony to ignorance and most claims of magic are testimony to hubris.I share his weariness of efforts to radically "reinvent leadership".
January 20, 2010
I found his argument confusing and a bit annoying. He seems to suggest that the mass collaborations made possible by the web will lead to a bland aggregation in which we all lose our personalities. He says
I don’t want our young people aggregated, even by a benevolent social-networking site. I want them to develop as fierce individuals, and to earn their living doing exactly that.I find that a pretty bizarre and patronising argument - my experience of participating in social networking is that it contributes my individual learning and growth and I don't feel remotely aggregated.
(See also Caterina's post on the same topic.)
Hat tip: Open Culture who say
If you think this sounds like Ayn Rand philosophy (see vintage clip) grafted onto tech talk, you’re probably right.
Management by being interested
Euan has posted his talk from LIFT last year. Good stuff, including his mini-rant against the costs of pomposity. I wanted to highlight the last chunk, starting around 12 mins.
This is where he argues that management doesn't disappear when organisations use social network tools, but it changes. Here's how he describes his role after the BBC introduced a forum and wiki.
I spent a lot of time and a lot of effort being interested in that space, being interested in what people were doing... and noticing things. Much harder work than managing something in a conventional sense. But by being there, noticing and being engaged, I had influence.He talks about this as a fundamental difference in management style. Makes sense to me, especially with my notice more, change less mantra running.
January 19, 2010
Innovation and control
Roland at NESTA writes about the problems faced by people in organisations responsible for open innovation.
My colleague David Simoes-Brown likes to say that open innovation professionals are on the 'fringe of the fringe' of their organisations. By this he means that innovation teams, if they exist, tend to be fringe departments as they are about disrupting or evolving the status quo, and open innovators are on the fringe of the innovation departments.I think it can be a tough gig to be put notionally "in charge" of innovation in any circumstances.
If you frame innovation as disruptive then you're inviting some to organise disorganisation. There are lots of knotty problems with that.
If, alternatively, you frame innovation as natural and innate, again there are questions about anyone being put in charge of it.
Keith Sawyer has interesting things to say about skunk works and other models for innovation departments. I think the short version is that they can work if there is a regular throughput of people from diverse areas of the organisation and from outside. They don't work so well if they're mostly permanent staff who are just supposed to innovate.
January 18, 2010
Quite a few people have pointed to John Naughton's article: Lasers would never have shone if Mandelson had been in charge. Naughton challenges the government's plans to restrict science funding to applicants that can show "demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life" (the words of the Higher Education Funding Council for England). A lot will depend on the flexibility with which such a mandate is pursued, but I fear it will involve lots of rigid and simplistic tick boxes and score cards.
Naughton uses the examples of lasers, which play a vital role in heaps of current technology - but the people who first experimented with them could not have foreseen that. And presumably could not have got government funding under the proposed regime. Naugthon says
This bodes ill for any scientist or engineer interested in curiosity-driven research.I like that phrase, curiosity-driven research. It suggests intrinsic motivation, a phenomenon easily underestimated by managerial convention, wedded as it is to the things that can be made explicit, and made explicit now.
Facilitators often come under pressure to get meetings to deliver definite outcomes on a fixed timescale. That approach comes with a hidden cost.
(For more of my thoughts on this, see this post on obliquity.)
January 17, 2010
Next gen media
January 14, 2010
Order from chaos
I've just read Matthew May's book, In Pursuit of Elegance. It's an easy, succinct read and contains some engaging ideas.
There's a fascinating section looking at the work of Jackson Pollock. It's an intricate story which I'm shortening a little crudely here:
When Pollock first came onto the scene, a lot of people dismissed his work as just random splashes of paint that anyone could do. Yet his paintings sold for fantastic amounts of money. May relates how, as a byproduct of an experimental art project, a scientist discovered that Pollock's works were fractal - containing layers of symmetry that you might not immediately recognise.
Although Pollock was clear that there was a guiding principle to his work, it's fractal nature wasn't explicit, and may not have been even to the artist. Yet it appears that at some level this was recognised by people, albeit unconsciously. Even though on another level, the stuff looks like random splashes that you'd think anyone could emulate, it turns you can't.
What looks like chaos can contain order, or be on the brink of order... and that last thing you need to do is "organise" it. An important lesson there for facilitators who are often tempted, or pressured, to add structures or processes to make meetings more safe and orderly.
January 12, 2010
I've just been reading Harrison Owen's Wave Rider. He explores the notion that human systems are fundamentally self-organising, with some interesting implications for how we view formal organisations.
He refers to the work of Stuart Kauffman, a biologist interested in the origins of life. Kauffman suggests that order emerges naturally from chaos, or as he puts it, "Order is Free".
Owen riffs on Kauffman to suggest the following preconditions for this kind of emergence:
1. A relatively safe, nutrient environment
2. Diversity of elements - if the stew is homogenous, not much will change
3. Complexity of connection - if the elements will only fit together a certain way, self-organisation is less likely
4. Search for fitness - a better formulation of "survival of the fittest". Life forms move towards a better fit within themselves and with their environment
5. Sparse prior connections. Self-organisation is difficult when everything is already organised.
6. On the edge of chaos. Self-organisation is less likely when the material to be organised is an intert blob.
Owen suggests that what works in nature is what works in human organisations - even though this will seem counter-intuitive to many of us.
January 11, 2010
Complexity and the credit crunch
Organisations are not things but patterns of interactions between people. In these interactions, and among other things, people develop imaginative constructs of ‘wholes’ such as ‘the market’ or ‘Lehman Brothers’. In telling the story of what is happening using these abstractions reality is covered over and people and what they are doing disappear from the tale. The constraints that we exercise over each other, or the power relationships, also largely disappear from the stories we tell about what is going on.This makes much sense to me too:
Contrary to the dominant view of management, no one, no matter how powerful, can control the interplay of intentions in an organisation, or between organisations. The patterning of intentions will often bring about outcomes which nobody intended or wanted. It can also escalate small local changes across entire national and international populations generating widespread patterns of change of an uncertain kind which we might call ‘globalization’, ‘credit crunch’ and technical innovation.My experience is that many conversations in organisations are based on the notion of controlling the whole system, or attempting to wrest control from others. I often find these conversations unsatisfying; I get more engaged when people talk about stuff that is more local to them, even if it's more uncomfortable territory.
I often sit through briefings that are full of abstractions about the organisation feeling as though I should understand what I'm being told but not really feeling engaged. I think it's because I lean to Stacey's view and don't really get the idea of organisations as concrete things. It's nearly always more interesting when people talk more openly about their personal feelings and concerns, stuff that is more local to them. Maybe we need to spend less time trying to find the levers of power and more time noticing the more subtle ways in which we interact with and influence those around us.
January 10, 2010
Leadership and bureaucracy
Umair Haque is always good value if you want provocative thinking about the state of the world. He's got some interesting things to say about the myth of leadership, for instance:
Leaders don't lead. How did this particular skillset emerge? Influence counts because the vast, Kafkaesque bureaucracies that managed 20th century prosperity, created, in turn, the need for "leaders": people who could navigate the endlessly twisting politics at the heart of such organizations, and so ensure their survival. But leaders don't create great organizations — the organization creates the leader. 20th century economics created a canonical model of organization — and "leadership" was built to fit it.He proposes a different perspective:
Here's the problem in a nutshell. What leaders "lead" are yesterday's organizations. But yesterday's organizations — from carmakers, to investment banks, to the healthcare system, to the energy industry, to the Senate itself — are broken. Today's biggest human challenge isn't leading broken organizations slightly better. It's building better organizations in the first place. It isn't about leadership: it's about "buildership", or what I often refer to as Constructivism.
January 9, 2010
Rules and control
Quite a few people have been linking to Michael Pollan's Food Rules. I thought this idea from Laura Usher had relevance beyond food:
Dont' create arbitrary rules for eating if their only purpose is to make you feel more in control
January 7, 2010
Stress, creativity and confabulation
Ok, here's another insight gleaned from Keith Sawyer's Group Genius. I've blogged before about Keith's ideas about the impact of time pressure on creativity, and I was intrigued by the research he himself did inside an organisation.
He watched people working under differing levels of pressure - on high stress, hectic days as well as slower, less pressured days. Most of the subjects said they felt they were more creative on the high pressure days - reflecting conventional wisdom that deadlines and other stresses provoke more ideas. A lot of brainstorming activities try to create urgency on the basis that it stimulates more ideas.
I've often subscribed to that view myself. I recall writing my best comic material at university when under extreme exam revision stress or facing a mega-essay crisis.
Here's the kicker. Keith didn't just take these subjective assessments at face value, but studied what the workers actually did - and he found there was greater collaboration, and more idea development/sharing, on low pressure days when conversations could be more casual.
I think we're often mistaken in our views of what works and doesn't work for us - something hugely backed up in work like Dan Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness. And as I reflect on those bursts of creativity at Oxford, I realise that they were at the least distractions from the stated goal.
Keith's work also emphasises how we deceive ourselves about leaps of insight, assigning credit for apparently sudden bursts of insight to a variety of causes. Closer examination shows that our minds actually build towards ideas in a process of slow, often unconscious, accretion. And we're bad at giving credit where due.
For instance, he reports an experiment where subjects enter a large room with two ropes hanging from a ceiling at some distance. The task is to find a way to tie the ropes together. The trouble is, they are so far apart that if you grab one and walk towards the other, you can't stretch far enough to reach it.
So in the first run, people generally fail to solve it. In a second version, however, the experimenter briefs subjects and on leaving the room brushes, apparently accidentally, one of the ropes so that it swings. Subjects are then more likely to spot the solution: start one rope swinging, grab the other rope and walk it within range of the swinging rope.
And here's the really fascinating bit: when interviewed, the successful swingers give no credit whatever to the experimenter's actions at the start. Instead, they confabulate a series of stories about where they got the idea from. They're not lying deliberately, it's just a natural human characteristic not to notice the small links in the chain of thought that gives us insights.
Fascinating to think about in a world where networking makes those kinds of small connection ever more plentiful. It's not surprising that some people and organisations are very eager to claim ownership of ideas that really belong to the community.
January 6, 2010
The perils of small worlds
I'm still mining Keith Sawyer's Group Genius for insights; the more I re-read it, the more useful and powerful I think his research is.
One nuggest he reports is the study done by Brian Uzzi of Northwestern University and Jarrett Spiro of Stanford. They studied the community of creatives - directors, choreographers, composers etc etc - that put together Broadway musicals. They looked at them over a time period of over 40 years from 1945. They basically established measures of creativity based on both critical acclaim and financial success. They laboriously assessed the social networks each year to create a "Q score". Essentially, the higher the Q score, the greater the density of social contact between individuals in the Broadway community.
In years when Q was low, so was creativity. When Q - i.e. connectivity - rose, do did creativity.
But here's the kicker: at a certain point, if Q kept climbing, creativity actually went down. This suggests its possible to overconnect, and for a community to become constrained by its relationships rather than stimulated by them.
I think there's a moral here for anyone who aims for idealistic systems in which everyone is supposed to have access to everything and everyone. This idealism may end up as a form of totalitarianism, lacking diversity and randomness.
I found their reseach in this pdf, titled Collaboration and Creativity: The Small World Problem
January 5, 2010
David Carr has a good piece in the NYT: Why Twitter Will Endure. I'm less certain about Twitter per se, but Carr makes some excellent points about how easy it is to underestimate the value of short, apparently trivial, tweets of ideas and information - especially when we see them connected into a stream and can see patterns.
As I've written about before, we have a series of cognitive biases that makes us think ideas come in leaps on insight from specific, gifted individuals. I think the reality is that thinking is a way more social process where notions of ownership are actually way muddier than intellectual property law would have us believe. I could even speculate that our language traps our thinking by having the word idea as a noun, as something that can exist separately from its social context.
Hat tip: Dominic Campbell tweet
January 3, 2010
Emerging from complexity
I was indulging myself in reading some old posts here and found a couple relating to muddle and emergence.
I reread my review of Patricia Shaw's Changing Conversations in Organisations.* Shaw does a great job of challenging the tidyness of business models and well established assumptions about how change happens in organisations.
Nature is not an intelligent engineer... It doesn't start from scratch each time it wants to build a new system, but has to work with what's already there... the result is a system no human engineer would ever design, but it is wonderfully powerful, energy efficient and computationally brilliant... Nervous systems evolved, and that makes it difficult for neurobiologists... to look at the wiring diagram and figure out what's going on.... [Artificial intelligence researchers] tend to approach the problem within the framework of electrical engineering, and with prejudices about how they think brains should process information, instead of finding out what they do.As I'm fond of saying, humans are rationalising rather than rational creatures - yet we often try to run organisations as if linearity is the best way to get the best out of us all.
* Funnily enough, this rereading was prompted, as was the post itself, by Matt Moore.