Weblog Entries for February 2010
February 27, 2010
The real game of organisations?
Rob Paterson is on the warpath, and he has big organisations in his sights. He paints a picture entirely at odds with the ideal put forward by people like Peter Drucker.
The sole purpose institutions is to get bigger and to accrue more financial resources in its direct control. The sole purpose of its subsidiary departments and divisions is to do the same. To imagine any other purpose is to be recklessly naive. Institutions do not exist to serve any external purpose. They exist to look after their own interests. The same is true for their parts.It's a good polemic and a useful counterblast to a lot of the idealistic doublespeak to be found in managment textbooks. Lately, I've become acutely aware of how organisations talk the talk of innovation, yet seem to create environments quite toxic to any significant change or disruption.
Chris Corrigan has been thinking about evaluation, the theme for the upcoming Show Me The Change conference. He cites Margaret Wheatley on the subject of measuring. She asks a clot of questions, here are a few of them:
Who gets to create the measures? Measures are meaningful and important only when generated by those doing the work... How will we keep abreast of changes in context that warrant new measures? Who will look for the unintended consequences that accompany any process and feed that information back to us?.. Do they invite in newness and surprise? Do they encourage people to look in new places, or to see with new eyes?
February 26, 2010
Training or education?
So I just posted about the pitfalls of treating complex change as if it is merely complicated.
I see this happening on a smaller scale in areas like training and development. Workshops get reduced to a series of trite "deliverables", stripping the subject of its richness and - in my view - making participants feel either incompetent or cynical (or both).
I have a pet hate for the "happy sheets" dished out to participants at the end of workshops, which feel like a feeble way to explore the many things that could have taken place in the day.
I'm reminded of what Richard Farson (Management of the Absurd) has to say about the difference between training and education. (Let's not get hung up on the words though).
Training... leads to the development of skills and techniques. Each new technique implicitly reinvents the manager's job by adding a new skill requirement, a new definition of the task, and a new responsibility... but because techniques don't work well in human relations, the manager is often unable to adequately discharge these new-felt responsbilities...Training, says Farson, is about making everyone more alike - and most corporate training programmes seem to reek of that kind of dull conformity. He contrasts this with education:
Education, because it involves an examination of one's personal experience in the light of an encounter with great ideas, tends to make people different from each other. So the first benefit of education is that the manager becomes unique, independent, the genuine article.Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (in his book Flow) says
One of the key tasks of management is to create an organization that stimulates the complexity of those who belong to it.Training so often fails to match up to that ideal.
Show me the change
My friend Geoff Brown has done a good write up for the Show Me The Change Conference in Melbourne this May. I'm looking forward to taking part, not least because I get to collaborate with Geoff as well as Viv McWaters, Chris Corrigan and Anne Patillo.
The event is focussed on how we can assess the success of behaviour change, in particular in the context of improving sustainablity.
Evaluation is one of the most challenging and frustrating parts of any change programme. Here in the UK, we're painfully aware of the shadow side of performance targets in areas like health and education. Far too often, complex problems are framed as merely complicated, and treated as if they are engineering challenges.
Sadly, that kind of engineering approach is often applied to conferences, where expert keynotes and panels tend to predominate, as if everyone in the audience is expected to learn the same things, at the same pace, in the same way. The complexity of the audience is ignored.
So I'm happy that this event is going to much more conversational, using Open Space of much of the time. Geoff's done a slideshow with a little more background:
February 24, 2010
Addictions to targets
From The Challenge of Co-Production, published by NESTA:
One former member of the Bristol drugs action team complained that he had to keep his eyes on 44 different funding streams, nine different grids and 82 different objectives imposed on him by managers, funders and the government. Before he resigned, he reckoned that he and his colleagues spent less than 40 per cent of their time actually tackling drugs issues. He compared his management regime to a kind of addiction: “Monitoring has become almost religious in status, as has centralised control”, he said. “The demand for quick hits and early wins is driven by a central desire analogous to the instant gratifcation demands made by drug users themselves.” The target regime has delivered an illusory control to the centre, based on inaccurate data which, from the perspective of the challenges we now face, is actually hugely ineffcient.
The limits of rationalism
Adam Curtis uses his post, The Economists' New Clothes, to take economists to task for their complacent claims to scientific certainty. Along the way, he argues that exponents of the so-called free markets were effectively really supporting state control in a new form.
...When you examine the roots of the neoliberal idea of the market it gets odder still. The ideas that rose up in the post-war years that captured the imagination of people like Mrs Thatcher are actually a very strange mutation of capitalism. If you listen to interviews with Friedrich Hayek he talks far more like a cold war systems engineer discussing information signals and feedback than Adam Smith with his theories of Moral Sentiment... While the roots of the technical systems that the banks created to manage risk also lie back in the cybernetic dreams of the 1950s and 60s. Dreams not of progress through the dynamism of markets - but of using computers to create a balanced, almost frozen world.He also includes a film he made in his Pandora's Box TV series in 1992. This is fascinating viewing and conveys the extraordinary complacency and pseudo-rationalism of economists during the 60s and 70s. With - for me - reminders of the class system embedded in the accents of some of them.
Hat tip: David Smith's delicious links.
Hugh's daily cartoon arrived as I was re-reading an old post: The Halo Effect.
Hugh is definitely the fly not the ointment, and I easily identify with his cynical perspective on corporate life.
On the other hand, I think it's easy to get too attached to change being something that can only happen as a result of powerful outside influences or inspired leadership. The Halo Effect cites research suggesting genius leaders are not all they're cracked up to be. Keith Sawyer suggests ideas grow incrementally and we only deceive ourselves that they come in blinding flashes. And I think a lot of ideas get squashed because they're "not radical enough". Sometimes allowing ourselves to do the ordinary is the most creative option.
February 23, 2010
Communities of practice
I went to David Gurteen's Knowledge Cafe last night. It's a mercifully simple and conversational format, much in the style of World Cafe. The theme was the future of communities of practice.
I was struck that in some organisations, enthusiasts for informal networking are still having to deal with pomposity from senior management. The latter are still resorting to the old canard of worrying about "talking shops" being a waste of time. In my experience, for such people the only difference between a wasteful "talking shop" and an "important strategic discussion" is where in the hierarchy it is taking place.
Richard McDermott, who kicked off the event, talked about Fluor, where on the technical side of the business, the commmunity of practice has effectively replaced the standard management hierarchy. (He's got an article on this in HBR this month.)
Quite a few people, including me, thought social media would mean communities of practice would likely become more porous, informal and outward looking.
February 21, 2010
Egomania in government
A tweet from Shawn Callahan led me to this: Curioser and curioser. A writer is headhunted to write speeches for the Australian government and discovers a world of waste, stupidity and rampant egomania. Sadly, I don't think his experience is uniquely Australian.
February 19, 2010
John Hagel argues:
In the 20th century we witnessed a deep split in our professional and personal identities. The quest for scalable efficiency in all of our institutions required us to conform to highly standardized organizational routines. To do this, we had to sacrifice much of our individuality, which was compartmentalized into “after hours” time. While passions in this domain were certainly acceptable, we were increasingly encouraged to seek status and expression through consumption... [I]dentity in the 20th century increasingly took two different forms – we were company men (and as the century progressed, company women) and consumers.He suggests that a networked world offers the opportunity to find a new identity – the networked creator –
which integrates at last our professional and personal identities into one primary source of meaning and fulfillment.Hat tip: Gavin Heaton
Laws of networks
Jack/Zen posts his four laws of networks. I particularly liked his first, "Luck = consciousness x transparency". He explains
Luck is one of the most powerful and accessible currencies in networks and, as luck would have it, it happens at the intersection of (network) consciousness and being transparent about one’s gifts and passions.He also mentions the word curiosity, and I guess I like "luck = curiosity x transparency" even more.
His second law is "Innovation = learning x diverse connections". I suppose most of us would take that to mean knowing lots of people from diverse fields. I'd add that it could also be about opening up our existing relationships... for instance, work teams are often surprised at how productive conversations are when they stop talking about work and get to know more about each other as people.
I like his advice that applying his third law, "Influence = credibility x location", means
Your voice can soften and you can put your spam weapons downFinally his fourth law is "Network growth = introductions x generosity".
You can quibble with these laws but I think what matters is that we're moving away from hierarchy to networks (or wirearchy). A vast amount of management literature, as Harrison Owen points out, is based on false assumptions of closed systems.
February 18, 2010
I want to explore the growing malaise around business, in particular in widely-held, publicly traded corporations. I believe we have migrated — quite by accident — to a set of conditions such that in order to operate their corporations, senior executives are pressured toward a form of existence that is substantially inauthentic.He looks at how you can't really really relate to shareholders as a community, because of way stocks are bought and sold moment-by-moment and held with little emotional connection to the organisation.
He also points out that big corporations have become much bigger over the years.
GM, the behemoth of 1960, pulled in revenues that would in today's dollars ($66 billion) put it behind Archer Daniels Midland, 2009's 27th placed company, way below number one Exxon Mobil with $442 billion...In fact, only ten companies in 1960 were bigger than regional power utility Pacific Gas and Electric (#176) in 2009. This meant that executives could have a relatively intimate relationship with their customers, who were mainly located in their company's home region or at least country.
February 17, 2010
I liked this Clint Eastwood anecdote from Shawn Callahan.
As an actor Clint found a director's call to 'Action' off putting. He was immediately reminded that he was an actor, acting and his performance suffered. Instead Clint calmly and quietly says things like, "OK, in your own time ..." or "when you are ready ..."Shawn adds his own sensible-sounding tips for making talking head videos...
A few more thoughts on the merits of creative destruction.
This vid has been getting lots of hits on YouTube lately:
I checked out the original song it's based on. Turns out to be Dust in the Wind by Kansas. Here's one of several versions on YouTube:
I love this song, and the paradox that something so melancholy can also be inspiring (check the YouTube comments). Feeling our insignificance makes us feel... significant.
Also relates to stuff Harrison Owen has to say about death and grieving... something he relates to organisational life here:
Innovation vs hierarchy
Is P&G really such a hothouse of innovation?
It's so often quoted as some kind of exemplar of innovation but I've never really felt comfortable with that bit of conventional wisdom. Mostly because the examples given strike me as pretty banal.
Jeff Stibel has a post relating to this at HBR: Gillette, Razor Blades and Creative Destruction. The gist of which is: is the latest overengineering of a razor really that innovative? Jeff draws a distinction between innovation (which he suggests is incremental) and creative destruction (rather more radical).
A lot of conversations that appear to be about innovation seem to me to be more about: how can big clumsy organisations get control of innovation to perpetuate their existence?
Mostly, I think rigid hierarchy is the number one innovation killer.
PS Jeff links to this Onion classic: Fuck Everything, We're Doing Five Blades
February 16, 2010
New organisations start with a single click
I had a great meeting yesterday with Thomas Madsen-Mygdal, founder of the excellent Reboot conference and serial entrepreneur. He and a couple his collaborators showed me their latest stuff and it was a lot of fun.
One tiny detail made me laugh out loud. You probably know that quote about the future being here but not evenly distributed; I also think our acknowledgement of the speed of change is like that... we can go for months taking it all for granted, and then in a moment we're suddenly surprised at how far we've come in such a short space of time. For instance, when I suddenly recall that growing up, my parents had to book a telephone call to relations in America several days ahead, and it cost a fortune. And now I just take Skype chats for granted.
Anyhow, yesterday was one of those moments. It was triggered by seeing this button:
Hoist comes with lots of simple apps to add functionality... so you can set up a space and very quickly organise loads of stuff. For instance, you can just click a button to add CRM.
Just a few years ago, all this functionality was only available to big corporations. Now anyone can have it. As I've said before, a lot of the best technology is easier to use if you're outside a corporate firewall.
And if dinosaur organisations aren't delivering? Well creating a new organisation to challenge them starts with just a click.
February 15, 2010
The complex business of change
I usually struggle to engage with academic papers but I enjoyed Jonathan Shedler's article, The Efficacy of Pyschodynamic Pyschotherapy (pdf).
For outsiders, it may be heavy going but it's clearly got industry insiders excited (the President of the American Psychoanalytic Assocation calls it an intellectual feast and I agree).
It's been written in the context of some long-standing turf wars between competing models for psychotherapy - in this case the focus seems to be on comparing psychodynamic methods with cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).
There are several reasons I found it fascinating. This is just a hasty summation and I'm conscious that I'm trying to simplify a fairly complex topic.
First, Shedler identifies a lot of painstaking research that has been done over the years to establish whether psychotherapy works, and what it is that works when it does. I think a lot of people dismiss therapy as hocus pocus and don't realise that there's reasonable evidence to the contrary.
Second, Shedler's work conveys to me that it's a very complex business measuring effectiveness in psychotherapy and it's very easy to misinterpret the evidence - for instance, when he looked at the apparent success of CBT. Researchers found that people practising apparently different therapeutic approaches often, probably unconsciosly, actually practised stuff from other schools. He suggests that a lot of the apparent success of CBT comes when its practioners deviate from the CBT rule book and implement what he argues are actual practices from the psychodynamic model.
He also points to interesting work showing how research into these areas is usually biassed by the researchers' personal preferences for treatment techniques.
We hear a lot about the importance of "evidence-based" approaches and I think it's important to see here just how easy it is to interpret or misinterpret the evidence.
Third, notwithstanding those caveats, I like seeing CBT put in it's place, even if I should be wary of turf wars. Shedler identifies what separates psychodynamic approaches:
The psychodynamic prototype emphasized unstructured, open-ended dialogue (e.g., discussion of fantasies and dreams); identifying recurring themes in the patient’s experience; linking the patient’s feelings and perceptions to past experiences; drawing attention to feelings regarded by the patient as unacceptable (e.g., anger, envy, excitement); pointing out defensive maneuvers; interpreting warded-off or unconscious wishes, feelings, or ideas; focusing on the therapy relationship as a topic of discussion; and drawing connections between the therapy relationship and other relationships.from CBT:
The CBT prototype emphasized dialogue with a more speciﬁc focus, with the therapist structuring the interaction and introducing topics; the therapist functioning in a more didactic or teacher-like manner; the therapist offering explicit guidance or advice; discussion of the patient’s treatment goals; explanation of the rationale behind the treatment and techniques; focusing on the patient’s current life situation; focusing on cognitive themes such as thoughts and belief systems; and discussion of tasks or activities (“homework”) for the patient to attempt outside of therapy sessions.OK that's two big cans of worms but for me CBT sounds so much like the vast majority of approaches to change in organsations, a mixture of hyper-rationality, lots of fixation with goals and a teacher-pupil vibe. So I'm cheering when Shedler identifies its failings.
(And I may have a further post about the whole business of exploring fantasy for what it is, versus the taken-for-granted future fixation of CBT and related models.)
Fourth, we're talking here about therapy, where one person tries to change one other person, or help one person change, usually where the changee has volunteered, to some degree or another to participate. It turns out that it's not a simple process.
You might think, then that changing whole organisations - where there's rather less voluntary participation - might be regarded as a bigger challenge. Yet it seems to me a lot of business writers and thinkers present it as just a matter of following a few basic steps.
I'm rather conscious of the challenges of evaluating complex things at the moment as I'm looking forward to being at this event in Melbourne in early May: Show me the Change.
February 13, 2010
Dave Snowden has an interesting post about Avoiding reality in favour of a vision. He argues that organisations get fixated on visioning processes that serve mostly to distract them from dealing with the present. I also agree with him that management processes around strategy and budgeting often boil down to games.
He suggests that a future focus provides a good excuse to avoid dealing with the drudgery of reality:
Present possibilities are rarely as compelling as future visions... visionary journeys through the silvan forests to the land of milk and honey that lies beyond is much more fun that dealing with the harsh reality of the present.However, I think when we really get attuned to what is happening now, really see all that is going on, it can turn out to be a lot more interesting and thought-provoking than we imagine.
Bonus link: Jack Ricchiuto wonders about using the future as a lens through which to better understand the present. I think I understand what he means but I'm not quite sure!
February 10, 2010
Todd Sattersten has produced a succinct ebook on the subject of costs, margins and pricing. It's packed with interesting facts and ideas from a variety of industries.
Todd argues that there are lots more options for how you price things, and what price you can achieve, than you might think. Very interesting.
(Disclosure: Todd published More Space, to which I was a contributor)
February 9, 2010
Enough crappy conferences, already
I'm getting to a certain age and I think I've been to enough crappy conferences and events in this lifetime.
I am all for adventure and risking failure. But I'm also in favour of learning from experience.
So I'm not taking too many chances with future events that appear to fit my personal notion of crappy: ones that assume the audience are there to fawn at the feet of a select group of appointed experts.
Of course, I could just politely avoid them and not make a fuss. But where's the fun in that?
I could be mistaken, but this looks like a case in point:The Conference for the Post-Bureaucratic Age.
Like so many of these events, the title excites and enthuses me. I would love to see us getting less bureaucratic as a society, and I see some signs of this happening. I would be happy to spend a day chatting to others who share my excitement, even if it's misplaced.
And then I read the depressing detail, which really puts me off.
I don't want to listen to a 30 minute lecture by David Cameron. I can download a Youtube of his stuff or read it online if I'm interested.
And let me take a wild stab in the dark here: I don't suppose Cameron will stick around for the rest of the day to engage in impromptu conversation. Almost certainly he will conform to the mediocre standard for all leading politicians. Show up, say what a marvellous and important event this is... and then rush off. Tell me I'm wrong.
I don't want to sit in claustrophobia while oversized panels of people every last one of whom appears to be at the top of at least one bureaucracy bore me to death.
I don't want to listen to the chair doing the standard flattering introductions of the glitterati.
I don't want to listen to the panellists waffling away.
I especially don't want to wait for the few minutes of question time when the audience is instructed not to waste time by talking too long.
In a post-bureaucratic age, no one will run conferences focussed so obsessively on celebrity.
Perhaps the organisers are merely being highly ironic. But I doubt it.
So I hope they'll forgive me for pleading a subsequent engagement. There is a patch of wet paint somewhere in London that I want to see drying.
John Wayne's teeth
Jack Zen has an intriguing post linking John Wayne's teeth to thoughts about leadership, or rather our delusions about it. He offers this thought which I like, at least I like the practice it relates to. I'll take a pass on how it's labelled.
In all of the communities I’m working with around the country more and more people get that leader is convener of new conversations. Period.