“What I think is…”

InformedI’d suggest that every day in our working (and home) lives we are asked for our opinion on something. In fact, such a situation probably occurs dozens of times every single day.

Let’s drill down into a single instance and consider the basic pattern of dialogue: we listen to someone state, and maybe explain, their thinking with regards to what they deem to be a problematic situation (explained below)  and then we start an immediate response with words like “I think that…”.  Worse, we may state our ‘thinking’ (perspective) as fact and we may mistake our feelings as rational logic.

I have a constant battle with myself to avoid, pull back from, or recognise my fall into this vast pit.

A sideways look at ‘everyday life’:

Peter Checkland, in his ‘Soft Systems Methodology’ (SSM), came up with a rather nice device that assists – the idea of ‘problematic situations’.

“As a member of the human tribe we experience everyday life as being quite exceptionally complex. We feel ourselves to be carried along in an onrushing turbulent stream, a flux of happenings, ideas, emotions, actions, all mediated through the slippery agency of language, all continually changing.

Our response to our immersion in this stream is not simply to experience it. Beyond that, we have an innate desire to try to see it, if we can, as meaningful. We attribute meaning to it – the ability to do this being one of the characteristics which marks us out as human.

Part of this meaning attribution is to see chunks of the ongoing flux as ‘situations’. Nothing is intrinsically ‘a situation’; it is our perceptions which create them as such, and in doing that we know that they are not static; their boundaries and their contents will change over time.

Some of the situations we perceive, because they affect us in some way, cause us to feel a need to tackle them, to do something about them, to improve them.” Thus we perceive such situations as ‘problematic’ i.e. something to intervene in.

This neatly dovetails with my last post in respect of Ackoff and messes vs. abstract problems. Just as Ackoff didn’t like the simplistic word ‘problem’, neither does Checkland. …and for the same reason: ‘problem’ implies ‘solution’ but, as he puts it, “real life is more complex than that!”

Back to that opinion we have been asked for

How do we arrive at our thinking? Do we have enough knowledge to justify a response?

Here’s another useful passage from Checkland:

“In human conversation, each of the persons involved influences others and is also influenced by them. Out of this two-way process comes what the participants are creating as their notion of changing ‘reality’. These acts of creating reality are never complete, and so have to be examined as only a part of a never-ending process.”

i.e. Any response we provide isn’t, and cannot be, ‘concrete’*. We have, and will always have, much to learn. Of course, it’s absolutely the case that our mindset (and where it sits on the ‘fixed – growth’ spectrum) will determine in which direction(s) and how far our thinking will travel during, and following human interactions.

(*yet, in many situations, we are easily satisfied with superficial response(s) and make key decisions based upon them)

I’d like to propose a few ‘alterations’ to our language to more accurately express the reality whenever we offer our opinion. How about we start our replies with:

“what I currently think is…”; or even better

 “what’s just popped into my head as a response is…”

Because, let’s be honest – we weren’t thinking about it 5 minutes before we were asked and we have press-ganged our brain into providing a timely reply. Further, our ‘answer’ isn’t exactly complete. It’s just an initial train of thought based on what we have been exposed to, and heavily weighted by its recency.

Even thinking about adjusting our replies to being less certain is likely to help us contemplate what we actually know to respond.

I could be flippant here and say that, if you ask me what I think, I should reply that I don’t know yet – ask me on my death bed…because that’s when I will have finished* assimilating all the information available to me. (* though likely, I presume, not by my choice)

Rather than taking this unhelpful line of reasoning…let’s look at what lies within:

Knowledge, not opinions

i.e. the idea that I need to take my time, gain (and therefore seek out) experience, understand the facts and expose differing perspectives before I provide a hypothetically useful reply.

So, even better than the “what I currently think is…” response would be to clearly explain the basis, extent (and therefore limitations) of our experiences in respect of the topic in play…so that we and the listener can appreciate why we currently think as we do…and our listener is encouraged to  reflect in the same manner. Gosh, we might end up educating each other!

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” (Confucius)

In a work scenario our response should often simply be:

“I don’t have the facts to make a valuable response…but I can do something about that…I’ll get straight to the gemba!”

…and if we do this, we will collect the facts, appreciate the environment in which they arise, and understand other perspectives…leading to meaningful change, towards purpose.

…which is an excellent link to three previous posts:

…and I’ve also set myself up for a follow-up post on the ‘soft systems thinking’ topic of ‘Worldviews’. Here’s a teaser to end with:

“The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another. [It] goes on to discover that every world-view is terribly restricted. There are no experts in the systems approach.” (C. West Churchman)

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So, you think you’ve got a problem!

Mr MessyI wrote in my bio of Russell Ackoff that he was a favourite giant of mine…but I haven’t covered much of his work in my writings to date. I recently re-read a couple of chapters from his wonderful ‘Ackoff’s Best’ collection of essays on management (and education) and this post is the result.

Ackoff wrote that:

“There are four ways of treating problems: absolution, resolution, solution and dissolution.

1. To absolve a problem is to ignore it and hope it will go away or solve itself; 

…and how much of what occurs around us (in whatever organisation) fits into this category?!


2.  To resolve a problem is to do something that yields an outcome that is good enough, that satisfies. Problem resolvers…try to identify the cause of a problem, remove or suppress it (relying on ‘experience’ and ‘common sense’), and thereby return to a previous state;

 …this fits with a ‘copying’ what you or others have already done, and an ‘implementation’ mentality. Nothing’s really been solved, just hidden or worked around;

…to my mind ’outsourcing’ fits here: i.e. the hope that ‘giving the problem to someone else’ to sort out for you is a good idea. (There’s a post ‘shouting to get out’ here)


3. To solve a problem is to do something that yields the best possible outcome, that optimises. Problem solvers…rely heavily on experimentation and analysis;

 …we may therefore move forward in a continuous and incremental manner

…but, whilst ‘solution’1 is a word that we all seem to be devoted to:

– no problem ever stays ‘solved’ due to the dynamic nature of reality; and

– every solution creates new problems. If you doubt this then reflect on the phrase that ‘Systems bite back’!


4. To dissolve a problem is to eliminate it by redesigning the system that has it [such that the problem no longer exists]. Problem dissolvers try to idealise – to approximate an ideal system – and thereby do better in the future than the best that can be done now.

 …this is to look at the ‘problem’ within its context – the bigger system that it sits within; to go ‘above’ the problem and look to understand how and why it exists in its wider environment;

…and, by redesign, achieve breakthrough improvement (or in Ackoff’s words a “discontinuity”).

Some ‘command and control’ organisational examples

…to ponder in respect of problems and their (re)solutions:

  • Why do we try to continually draft, and redraft cascaded personal objectives in the hope that we can make them SMART and good for the stated purpose of the system?
  • Why do we continue to fiddle with the incentives system so as to ‘motivate’ our people to ‘do what we want’, whilst increasing ‘controls’ to stamp out the resultant undesirable dysfunctional behaviour?
  • Why do we constantly strive to ‘give’ people empowerment (which is an oxymoron) and ‘make them’ engaged with their work, and yet continue to command and control what they do?

why don’t we look at the management system (which reflects management’s beliefs and behaviours) that currently requires cascaded personal objectives, targets, the rating of people and the dangling of contingent rewards…and redesign it …and thereby dissolve these recurring ‘problems’?!

(Clarification: A reorganisation does NOT qualify as redesign!)

So how do we redesign?

You study your system, get knowledge and then, and only then, intervene for the good of your employees and customers….which sustains a long-term result for your investors.

But you don’t simply ‘intervene’: The manner of your intervention is vital to the outcome.

In a recent post, ‘Think Purpose’ brilliantly explained a somewhat profound point – that “change doesn’t happen AFTER finding the solution, it IS the solution.”  His post (along with the simple yet insightful diagrams within) is worth taking the time to read.

Looking at what is written above, I see a strong correlation between dissolving problems and people understanding and improving their system for themselves.

Okay, so we’ve looked at different ways to treat a problem but…

What’s a problem anyway?

Ackoff went on to explain that:

There’s no such thing as ‘a problem’. They don’t exist – they are a concept. A problem is an abstraction, extracted from reality by analysis. It’s isolated from reality.

A problem is to reality what an atom is to a table: You experience tables not atoms – you experience the whole, not the parts that you have reduced it to by conceptual reduction.

What we experience (i.e. reality) are dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of problems, not individual or isolated problems. I call such systems messes.

When a mess, which is a system of problems, is taken apart, it loses its essential properties, and so does each of its parts. The behaviour of a mess depends more on how the treatments of its parts interact than on how they act independently of each other.”

“Erm, right…I think – got any examples to illustrate?”

Okay, I’ll go with two topical examples in the news.

Let’s start with Donald Drumpf3:

  • DrumpfProblem: (supposed hoards of) illegal Mexicans
  • Resolution: Build a wall! Obvious really :).
  • So how will that help? If you want a hugely funny take-down of Donald’s overly simplified problem-resolution thinking, watch John Oliver’s hilarious 18 min. piece about how determined ‘aliens’ will easily get around the wall. The bit where Donald answers his own question by suggesting they might just use a rope to lower themselves down is hilarious.

I could have written all day about other absurdly simplistic Drumpf-isms to everything and anything but, frankly, he’s too easy a target. What comes out of his mouth are supposed ‘resolutions’ to problems without thinking about the mess from which they come….and the many many new problems that they will spawn.

Without wanting to be political, I would note that Bernie Sanders appears to look underneath the problems at the systemic root causes, with a huge desire for redesign.

And so on to ‘BREXIT’:

BrexitOn 23rd June 2016 Britain votes on whether to remain in or leave the EU.

The ‘problem’ that the leaders of the ‘Leave’ campaign appear fixated on is the control of (supposedly unmanageable) immigration…mmm, there’s a similarity with Drumpf here.

Now, I’m not saying that leaving the EU is impossible – of course it’s not…but I believe that the suggested miracle ‘cure’ of leaving the EU is many magnitudes worse than the abstract ‘problem’ of resolving immigration.

An attempt at ‘dissolving’ the problem might look at why they want to leave their homes. Bombs could have something to do with it.

(If you don’t mind the swearing – I warned you – then I love this 3 min. Jonathan Pie ‘BREXIT’ video)

So what about an organisational example to end on?

Resolving the problem of high costs by ‘cost-cutting’ fits here!

We should remember that “Costs aren’t causes. Costs come from causes.” (Deming).

We can’t look at a line item in the management accounts, say it is too high and command that it be cut…and then not expect this to harm the system. The abstract ‘problem’ of a (seemingly) high cost cannot be separated from the system that causes it.

Ackoff’s ‘mess’ thinking now makes so clear the underlying reasons behind Seddon’s message:

“Managing value [i.e. the purpose of the system] drives out cost.

Cost cutting [i.e. an abstract ‘problem’] paradoxically adds costs, and harms value.”

To conclude

Here’s the hugely important point in a final Ackoff quote:

“A partial solution to a whole system of problems is better than whole solutions of each of its parts taken separately.”

  • A partial solution for the whole is good for the system’s purpose, and can be improved yet further as we study and learn more;
  • ‘Whole solutions’ to each part will likely harm, and can ultimately destroy, the system and its purpose.

Or, in American-speak:

  • A small step towards gun control is better than arming everyone4;
  • A small step towards cultural, racial and religious tolerance/integration is better than building a wall and throwing people out of the country.

Neither of these small steps eradicates the mess, but both start to untangle it.

Notes:

  1. Many ‘Lean (Systems) Thinkers’ prefer to use the word ‘countermeasure’ rather than ‘solution’ because they understand the reality of a complex and dynamic system;
  2. If you are new to this blog and don’t appreciate what the word ‘system’ means then please take the time to enlighten yourself  – this is foundational to everything;
  3. If you don’t know why I’m calling Trump ‘Drumpf’…John Oliver provides the answer 🙂
  4. Here’s Donald Drumpf’s simplistic rationale on arming the ‘good guys’ (who ever they may be!): “[the recent massacre in Paris] would have played out differently with the bullets flying in the other direction.”
  5. I’ve always intensely disliked the rather conventional ‘go after the low hanging fruit’ business improvement phrase, which refers to taking a cursory glance at something, coming to some quick judgements and ‘wading in’ with solutions. The phrase “Don’t think about it, just do it” springs to mind! Ackoff’s brilliant systems thinking work firmly puts the ‘low hanging fruit’ mentality in its place (at least for me anyway).

 

How to have a successful journey

photo-winding-roadMike Rother, in his excellent book ‘Toyota Kata’, explains that ‘command and control’ organisations see the ‘implementing’ word as a very positive one but that their obsession with it actually impedes their progress and the development of their people.

To explain what is meant by an implementation versus a problem solving mode:

Implementation mode (‘Go fast to go slow’)

This mode can be characterised as:

  • The need for a clear and (usually overly) simple ‘solution’ up front arrived at by some expert(s) a la “we have the answer!”;

(where this answer is normally derived from copying what others have already done);

  • A detailed plan (the more lines on the Gantt chart, the better!) that sets out exactly what needs doing, when, and by whom to implement the answer;
  • A target date (along with some incentives), established to motivate (!) people to put on their ‘implementation’ blinkers…nothing must get in the way;
  • A finish line mentality – “we got it in!…now let’s move on to something else.”

…in reality:

  • The above requires the organisation to assume everything is ‘steady state’ (which includes ignoring the effects of the rest of the system on the component(s) in focus);
  • However, there is continual change both inside and outside the environment (which may or may not be noticed…and which is unlikely to be understood);
  • It is impossible for us to predict what will actually eventuate;
  • We spend vast sums of money trying to shoe horn our answer into this changing reality, often years after it was conceived;
  • There has been very little meaningful learning and development going on!

“Humans have a tendency to want certainty, and even to artificially create it, based on beliefs, when there is none. This is a point where we often get into trouble. If we believe the way ahead is set and clear, then we tend to blindly carry out a preconceived implementation plan rather than being sensitive to, learning from, and dealing adequately with what arises along the way. As a result, we do not reach the desired destination at all, despite our best intentions.” [Rother]

Problem solving mode (‘Go slow to go fast’):

There are three things we need to know with certainty (none of which is to know the answer up front!). These are:

  • Where we are (current condition);
  • Where we want to be (target condition); and
  • A method by which to manoeuvre through the unclear territory in-between

Some key points to make:

‘Where we are’ means that we really understand our current condition, which includes why we are like this (i.e. the system conditions and management behaviours that make it so).

‘Where we want to be’ doesn’t mean “we want to have implemented x”. That’s just the implementation mode by another name. It means clearly stating a target condition (our challenge towards purpose): how should the process operate i.e. can we describe this in terms of relevance to the customer and the process performers. This description can’t know how it is to be achieved….this will unfold via…

…the ‘method’ (experimentation), which IS clear. The experiments themselves will not become clear until we progress step-by-step through the obstacles within the unclear territory.

“True certainty and confidence does not lie in pre-conceived implementation steps or solutions, which may or may not work as intended, but in understanding the logic and method for how to proceed through unclear territory.” [Rother]

So what’s the point?

Too many ‘projects’ are merely the implementation of a new technology or ideology (that someone has been convinced they need) with:

  • a reverse-engineered ‘business case’ that attempts to justify what should be achieved from ‘putting it in’; and
  • a grand plan with supposedly certain time, scope and cost.

Such projects regularly fail, sometimes spectacularly and even if they ‘complete’ (whatever definition they use for this word), there has been little value added or learning achieved….in fact they often (usually) destroy value and repeat the same errors and pitfalls as the last project and the one before that.

Instead, we should adopt a mindset of:

  • being really clear on what we are trying to achieve (in respect of customer purpose); and then (and only then)
  • work our way towards this ideal through a series of steps:
    • learning as we go; and
    • deciding the next step (the how) as we learn, adapt and ‘see’

Okay, so I’ve ‘scratched the surface’ of the idea that a brilliant implementation plan is not the answer. For those that would like an excellent analogy to think about this, here’s a useful (and short) post: The difference between launching a rocket and driving a car.

We should know ‘before we leave the house’ what our intended destination is, why and how we would know how we are going towards it…and we should steer our way there (unconstrained) as we meet the unknown obstacles on the way.

There would be little point in claiming ‘completion’ because we had spent our quota of time, distance or cost if we hadn’t actually arrived!