Smoke and mirrors

Smoke and mirrorsI drafted a post a few years ago, but never got round to ‘topping and tailing it’…and so it never got posted. However, I had a chance conversation with someone this week in which the content of the post become highly relevant. So, after searching around a bunch of digital ‘nooks and crannies’, I finally found it, dusted it down, and completed it:

Over the last few years I’ve run various education courses and coaching sessions to introduce people to the fundamentals of ‘Systems Thinking and Intervention’.

I deliberately ‘mess with their heads’ using questions, exercises and simulations that explore systems, value (in respect of purpose), measurement (of system performance), learning, motivation and leadership. It’s good fun but also serious and important stuff.

I sometimes1 experience somebody come up to me at the end of such a course, saying something like:

“Wow, that’s amazing…we need to do something about this NOW…but we can’t do anything without a clear plan of how other organisations have successfully implemented what you have told us about!”

A variation on this is:

“We accept your critique of how we are now, and the problems this causes…but that’s no good if you don’t tell us what to do instead! We need you (or others like you) to come in and sort this all out!

Now, before I go any further, I should write that I understand the burning desire to do something! The reality is that many of the insights (aha moments) in the education course/ coaching can be quite tender for people – they are having ‘known truths’2 spelt out in black and white to them, they feel uncomfortable about this and they want to go back and change their working reality.

There is a treatment…but it ISN’T me (or others like me) coming in to implement a plan that copies what others have (supposedly successfully) done.

If you want to read some earlier posts that get into the ‘why not’ then:

Often, the person that raised the question doesn’t like hearing this. It makes them think that I’ve just (painfully) diagnosed the truth of their working world but that I am deliberately withholding the cure.

Let’s see if I can provide a rational explanation of the necessary treatment (there’s some irony in that sentence – see footnote 1 again):

Mirrors

First, you must be curious….and if you are not, well there’s not much that I (or anyone) can do for you – except perhaps provoke you!

“And if you can’t come, send nobody” (Deming, quoting William E. Conway)

Okay, so let’s say you show some interest…

Mirror… if you are curious I can find you a mirror

  • that would be your system (which will be made up of its components, their interconnections, and its purpose…though you probably won’t clearly see these yet).

… if you are still curious I can then hold the mirror up for you

  • that would be to help you create meaningful measures as to how your system is actually performing for your customers (in terms of demands placed upon it, and its capability at meeting them).

… if you remain curious I can then help you stand in the right place to see your reflection

  • that would be to help you go to, and immerse yourself within, the place where the work is performed (often referred to by the Japanese word ‘Gemba’)…which will contain the reasons as to why the system performs as it does.

So, having helped you to stand directly in front of the mirror…

I can never see for you!

I would (and should only) be acting as a catalyst3 i.e. assisting, but not being part of, the reaction.

  • I shouldn’t be writing reports for you – because you won’t then own them…though I will certainly reflect on anything you consider necessary to write;
  • I shouldn’t be taking any responsibilities from you – because you won’t experience the feedback from your actions, and learn from this…though I will certainly stand with you, providing counsel and encouragement;
  • I cannot provide any guarantees as to what you can (and will) achieve – because this is in your gift, not mine. Such achievements will likely be hard to quantify, and should continue to flow long after I have carefully stepped away.

Smoke

Dont smokeThe opposite of mirrors would be smoke. And this is where conventional ‘change’ resides:

  • ‘Going to the market’ to procure ‘solutions’ from (often self-anointed) experts;
  • Contracting with ‘outsiders’ who convinced you that they can ‘do it for you’, perhaps with attractive ‘benefits to be realised’ guarantees;
  • Dealing in reports of recommendations, business cases, ‘benchmarks’ on what others have done, methodologies, plans, resources…;
  • Setting up projects, seconding people away from the work and then requiring those in the work to comply with the outcome;

And, finally, at the end of it all, that champion imposter of ‘transformation’ jargon, the promised knowledge transfer!

…which usually means “we did it to you…and we’ll leave you with the ‘artefacts’ so that you can attempt to copy what we did after we’ve left the building.”

Footnotes

1. At first, I saw such a response as a failure on my part (i.e. as in not getting my message across). I don’t see it this way now – it doesn’t matter how good my rational explanations have been, I shouldn’t expect to have solved anything for people – they have to go and see it for themselves. All I can do in such sessions is create curiosity, and provide a language, concepts and frameworks which can assist what may happen next. Many will be curious. A few won’t.

Update: I (think that) I’m a lot clearer when attempting to educate people now.

2. ‘Known Truths’: Once uncovered, most people understand what is being put to them…and indeed, a number exclaim that they’ve thought like this for quite a while but have never had it articulated to them. In fact, for these people, it can be a release – like a valve on a pressure cooker.

3. Catalyst: My school boy chemistry reminds me that a catalyst is “A substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change” (Oxford Dictionary).

This isn’t strictly accurate because, since I am a human being, I (the interventionist) cannot help being changed by my (attempted) intervention. I hope you get the point though that ‘catalyst’ suggests that it’s ALL about you, and really NOT about me.

4. Source of the smoke and mirrors image:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/theilr/5091351124

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Books – Part 2: “There’s a book coming out…”

apples-vs-orangesI have bought and read a fair few ‘management books’ over the years. Some start off usefully but go on to ‘wind me up’, others are absolute diamonds….and so I had a little think about why this might be.

I realised that, whilst obviously hugely important, the quality of the writer’s prose isn’t the fundamental factor – it comes down to the author’s intent.

In an effort to expand and examine my thinking, I tried to ‘put it down on paper’ – I spewed out a ‘compare and contrast’ table.

…and so, in this post I present a short 2-column table breaking management books into two types (of author, and their intent).

These two types – ‘Guru’ and ‘Educator’ – originate from a wonderful Russell Ackoff quote that I shared some time back.

Here goes:

‘Guru’ book: ‘Educator’ book:
Billed as a ‘new’ idea that “changes everything”! Modestly recognises and builds on what’s already been achieved but, importantly, adding much wisdom.
Claimed by the author(s) as (mainly) their own brilliant discovery. Humble recognition of past giants, and their work.
Narrowly drawn – to solve the supposed problem. Wide, and general – offering self-reflection rather than solutions.
A panacea, presented as if some new world order is coming! Caveats and clarifications, usually relating to systems and people.
Presented within a 2 x2 grid (or other such framework) to show that it is all so simple. Recognition that it is complex and multi-dimensional.
The book merely flogs the same material as in the earlier ‘best-selling Harvard Business Review’ (HBR) article (i.e. the same thing, just massively padded out). There isn’t a separate HBR article and book!

The author’s aim isn’t to top the ‘management books’ hit parade.

Gives advice on how to implement their solution – perhaps with a step by step plan and/or a self-assessment checklist. Provides thoughts on further reading, exploration and self-education.
Includes chapters on carefully curated ‘Case Studies’ of organisations that have (apparently) magically transformed themselves. Warts and all consideration of its applicability and usefulness.
Does not seek out or, worse, ignores problematic counters to the idea. Openly explores criticisms and scenarios that don’t appear to fit.
…the narrow idea expands into some management methodology and becomes a cult (complete with consultants offering their ‘thought leadership’ services)…for a few years…

…until the next book comes out!

…requests further work to move ‘our’ combined thinking further.

…the funny (or sad?) thing is that there is usually much that could be of value within the guru’s idea…but their choice of presentation conceals the kernel from its true long term potential…and can do much harm.

Footnotes:

1. I reckon there’s probably a link between the two columns in this post and the three book types in my previous post.

2. Of course the table represents two extreme ends of a spectrum: A given book is likely to tend towards one end…but may not display every ‘quality’ imagined above…blimey – if it DID then it would either be bloody awful or bloody brilliant!

3. A book that, for me, sits in the left hand column (and sits ‘on the surface’ per the last post) is ‘The Balanced Scorecard’…the ink is drying on a post that explains. Watch this space 🙂

Unknown…and unknowable

so much more than a bagSo it’s the beginning of an ‘Improvement through Systems Thinking’ course that I facilitate and I am asked a question from one of the attendees:

“What is the value, as in ‘return on investment’ (ROI), in me attending this training?”

Now, that’s a (sadly) all too common a question when someone working within a command-and-control environment has to guarantee a short term payback BEFORE they are authorised to spend time towards studying and improving their system.

Here’s my response:

1) It isn’t a training course. It is education, aimed at making you curious. No more and no less; and

2) The ‘value’ is unknown….and unknowable!!!

Sure, I can (and will) do my best in designing and delivering this course against its purpose but:

  • I cannot know (let alone dictate) which of you will speak to who during and afterwards, and about which bits. I cannot know when such conversation(s) will occur (tomorrow, next week, next month…or even after someone leaves for another organisation!) and I cannot know how the system will enable (or constrain) as and when these conversations eventuate; 
  • and perhaps the nub of it is that the ‘value’ is in YOUR hands to decide, not mine! YOU decide whether you will explore or ignore. YOU decide whether you are too comfortable in your current state or whether you desire growth. Not I.

…BUT that doesn’t make this a problem. It’s just ‘how it is’, whether you like it or not.

There is massive ‘organisation-changing’ value to be had…but it is for you to decide whether you pursue it.

The ‘ROI as permission to act’ view of the world is such a poor way to seek, and achieve, improvement.

I am reminded of a fabulous scene in the classic ‘Love Actually’ film between Rowan Atkinson and the late Alan Rickman: How much is that necklace there? (It’s only 3 mins. long and well worth watching 🙂 )

A course can be ‘so much more than a bag’…but that depends on you.

Educator, not Guru

theloveguruFollowing the theme of my earlier post on education, I’d like to share a great Russell Ackoff quote which he wrote as part of the forward to Peter Scholte’s superb book ‘The leaders handbook’:

“A guru is one who develops a doctrine and seeks disciples who accept and transmit it without modification. No deviation is acceptable. Any modification is a sign of disloyalty, in fact, heresy. Its consequence is excommunication.

Educators, on the other hand, encourage and even try to inspire progressive deviations from what they have said. Their objective is not to remove the need for further learning, as is the guru’s, but to initiate it – to provide a springboard from which their students can dive into their own minds, discover what is there, and develop it.

The number of management gurus is increasing at an alarming rate. We do not yet have one guru per manager but we are rapidly approaching that number. The ultimate success of a guru is to produce the fad of the week, becoming number one on the managerial hit parade. Successful or not, gurus preach panaceas the validity of which they pretend to have received directly from the Great Manager in the Sky, who actually resides in the mind of the gurus.

What educators teach comes from experience, their own and that of others, not from revelation.”

Be wary of the management cults of… [please insert the name of today’s panacea].

Which pill is it?

red-pill-blue-pillAt the end of the ‘Improvement through Systems Thinking’ course I run, I facilitate a conversation about going back out into the real world. I use the ‘blue pill/ red pill’ Matrix analogy.

I got talking with one of my previous course attendees the other day…and neither of us knew whether it was blue or red we should be taking!…so, after looking up the script (thanks H)…here it is:

“You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

Just to confirm (in case you weren’t sure), I took the red pill some years ago!

We got to reading a few more quotes and, wow, I’d forgotten what a classic film that is, and how cool some of the quotes are.

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In respect of normative change:

“Sooner or later you’re going to realize just as I did that there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”

“I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

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On the dominant command-and-control management system:

“The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system…you have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that corporate life and the matrix are directly comparable but I hope you see the well meaning intent in the comparison.

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And, finally, on showing people the reality of their command-and-control system, and helping them move towards a better (systems thinking) place:

“I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid… you’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”

The ‘you’ in the above being the dominant command-and-control management system rather than any individual within.

Great film. Great quotes.

The difference between…

tree+bookA short and, hopefully, light hearted post for you:

For those of you who have been on an improvement course with me you will know that I start off by saying that it isn’t a training course, it is about education (with the same being true about this blog).

I use Deming’s quote of:

“We’re not here to learn skills; we’re here for education – to learn theory.”

If you are uncertain about the difference between training (learning skills) and education then I think Alfie Kohn (leading education psychologist) makes the distinction  really clear with the following:

“Would you want your kids to be provided with Sex Training or Sex Education?”

…I don’t think I need to say anymore to explain that!