Against Slavery to Ideology & Method

The older I get the more I notice that the autonomy and the intelligence of folks in large organisations is put at the service of some ideology and/or method that has taken root in the heart-mind of someone higher up in the organisation.  Typically, this happens when that particular ideology (e.g. “customer-centricity”) and/or method (e.g. “Agile”) has planted itself in the wider business world.

What’s the impact?  Allow me to convey the impact through the following assertion made by Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”

What tends to show up when folks in organisation are ‘in chains’ to some doctrine/method?  This is what I have observed: Stupidity, game playing, and a decrease in effectiveness.

Adherence to the doctrine/method surpasses reasoning hence folks end up doing stuff which they know does not make sense.  To get things done it is often necessary to bypass-bend the doctrine/method.  Therein starts the game playing – making it look like the doctrine/method is being followed when it is not.  The overall impact is a decrease in effectiveness. By effectiveness I mean both outcomes and the workability/capability that generates the  outcomes.

New ideology, method, toolset is introduced with great fanfare. Yet with little understanding: know-how as well as know-what and know-about.  Given sufficient time performance declines.  The Tops and Middles blame the people.  Clearly given the God given status of the ideology/method/toolset the people have to be at fault.  They are not following the method.  I have yet to see the suitability of the method/tool being seriously questioned.  As a result, adherence to doctrine/method is tightened rather than relaxed.  This further degrades the workability/capability of the organisation.  I refer to this as layering stupidity on stupidity.

What is an intelligent way to go about leading-managing an organisation?  Forget doctrine / ideology. Forget method.  Forget blind obedience to anything. Instead focus on calling forth the collective intelligence of your people AND enhancing the workability of your organisation. Let me put this simply: take a zen stance, let fall all fixed thinking (ideology, doctrine, methods, tools..), go to where the action is occurring, and look – really look. Then select the right course of action / method / tool. Once the method/tool has served its purpose, drop it! Like the canoes, when you have used it to cross the river, leave it there at the side of the bank.

Allow me to end this conversation by sharing this story with you:

When the bishop’s ship stopped at a remote island for the day, he determined to use the time as profitably as possible. He strolled along the seashore and came across three fishermen mending their nets. In pidgin English they explained that centuries before they had been Christianised by missionaries. “We Christian!” they said, proudly pointing to one another. The bishop was impressed. Did they know the Lord’s Prayer? They had never heard of it. The bishop was shocked.

“What do you say, then, when you pray?”

“We lift our eyes to heaven. We pray, ‘We are three, you are three, have mercy on us.”

The bishop was appalled at the primitive, the downright heretical nature of their prayer. So he spent the whole day teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. The fisherman were poor learners, but they gave it all they had and before the bishop sailed away the next day he had the satisfaction of hearing them go through the whole formula without a fault.

Months later, the bishop’s ship happened to pass those islands again, and the bishop, as he paced the deck saying his evening prayers, recalled with pleasure the three men on that distant island who were now able to pay, thanks to his patient efforts. While he was lost in that thought, he happened to look up and noticed a spot of light in the east. The light kept approaching the ship, and the bishop gazed in wonder he saw three figures walking on the water. The captain stopped the ship, and everyone leaned over the rails to see this sight.

When they were within speaking distance, the bishop recognised his three friends, the fishermen. “Bishop!” they exclaimed. “We hear your boat go past island and came hurry hurry meet you.”

“What is it you want?” asked the awe-stricken bishop.

“Bishop,” they said, “we so, so sorry. We forget lovely prayer. We say, ‘Our Father in heaven, holy be your name, your kingdom come…’ then we forget. Please tell us prayer again.”

The bishop felt humbled. “Go back to your homes, my friends,” he said, “and each time you pray say, ‘We are three, you are three, have mercy on us!”

Summing up: Many, many, many leaders/managers can do with keeping this story in mind, putting aside the arrogance that goes with their elevated roles, and adopting the pragmatic humility of the bishop.  Focus on workability and use whatever method/tool is appropriate. Do not make a God of a specific doctrine, method, tool.  If you are going to make a God out of anything, then make a God out of your people – their potential to do amazing work and create amazing works.

Enough for today. I thank you for your listening and wish you great living. Until the next time….


Are Leaders & Management Practices The Key Obstacles To High Performing Organisations?

2015 has been another year where I have found myself at the coalface of organisational change: digital transformation, customer experience, CRM and marketing automation….  What is the key ‘thing’ that has struck me?

The ongoing blindness of Tops and Middles, the messiness of effecting any substantial organisational change, and how Tops and Middles are often the biggest barrier to effecting this kind of change.

Allow me to illustrate what I am getting at by sharing a few passages from one of the best business books (Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull) that I read in 2015. by sharing the following with you (bolding is mine):

When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless. That’s what I believe. But unwittingly, we were allowing this table …. to send a different message.  The closer you were seated to the middle of the table, it implied, the more important – the more central – you must be. The farther away, the less likely you were to speak up – your distance from the heart of the conversation made participating feel intrusive…. Without intending to, we’d created an obstacle that discouraged people from jumping in. 

Over the course of a decade, we held countless meetings around this table in this way – completely unaware of how doing so undermined our own core principles.  Why were we blind to this? Because the seating arrangements and place cards were designed for the convenience of the leaders, including me. Sincerely believing that we were in an inclusive meeting, we saw nothing amiss because we didn’t feel excluded.  Those not sitting at the centre of the table, meanwhile, saw quite clearly how it established a pecking order but presumed that we – the leaders – had intended the outcome. Who were they, then, to complain? 

It wasn’t until we happened to have a meeting in a smaller room with a square table that John and I realised what was wrong. Sitting around the table, the interplay was better, the exchange of ideas more free flowing, the eye contact automatic. Every person there, no matter their job title, felt free to speak up….. At our long, skinny table, comfortable in our middle seats, we had utterly failed to recognise that we were behaving contrary to …..

Over time, we’d fallen into a trap. Even though we were conscious that a room’s dynamics are critical to any good discussion, even though we believed that we were constantly on the lookout for problems, our vantage point blinded us to what was right before our eyes…… I went to our facilities department…. A few days later …. our new table was installed, solving the problem.

Still, interestingly, there were remnants of that problem that did not immediately vanish just because we’d solved it.…. While we’d fixed the key problem that had made place cards seem necessary, the cards themselves had become tradition that would continue until we specifically dismantled it. 

This is the nature of management. Decisions are made, usually for good reasons, which in turn prompt other decisions. So when problems arise….. disentangling them is not as simple as correcting the original error. Often finding a solution is a multi-step endeavour. There is the problem you know you are trying to solve  (think of that as the oak tree) and then there are all the other problems (think of these as saplings) that sprouted from the acrorns that fell around it. And these problems remain after you cut the oak tree down……

For me, the key to solving these problems is finding ways to see what’s working and what isn’t, which sounds a lot simpler than it is…… in a way I’ve been searching all my life for better ways of seeing. 

Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc

I invite you to notice the following about the way we – human beings – show up and operate:

  1. We automatically assume that our actions are in line with our beliefs;
  2. As long as it feels right for us we assume that it is right;
  3. We can be blind to that which is right in front of us for decades. Why? See point 2 above;
  4. The access to change is breakdown in the routine that changes lived experience – in the case of Ed Catmull finding himself having a meeting with the team in a smaller room with a square table and feeling the difference in the experience of communicating with one another;
  5. The nature of human life is entanglement – many ‘things’ are entangled with many other ‘thing’ – therefore, solving problems is much harder than creating them;
  6. The key to high performance of any kind is deliberately setting about creating situations which expose you to new situations, shift your vantage point, affect your feelings.  So if you want to know what it is like to be a customer then be a customer. If you want to know what it is like to be a call-centre agent then be a call-centre agent – regularly……
  7. Transformation  – business transformation, customer experience transformation, digital transformation – does not occur overnight. And it certainly does not come ‘out of the box’ whether that is through the strategists toolbox, the best practices toolbox, or the cloud software as a service toolbox.

Continue reading “Are Leaders & Management Practices The Key Obstacles To High Performing Organisations?”

Are There Are Any Flaws In Today’s Hot Theories on Leadership?

What does it take to cultivate strong relationships with the folks that you find yourself leading or managing?

As I listen to the folks in HR, and those that talk leadership, it occurs to me that a specific style/approach is being advocated: be nice to folks, listen to them, don’t lose your calm, delegate/share power, make them feel they matter…  If this is the case then how is it that Steve Jobs is held up as one of the most effective business leaders of all time? Steve Jobs, at least what I know of him, was not the exemplar of this approach.

We can ignore anomalies, breakdowns/holes in our existing take on reality, or look into them, explore and learn. Today, lets take this breakdown to see what it might conceal. As it happens this was a matter that I was grappling with whilst I found myself incapacitated for 4-5 weeks. I’d like to share with you what showed up for me. I invite you to listen to the words of Douglas McGregor as spoken in his book The Human Side of Enterprise (bolding mine):

Many subtle behavioral manifestations of managerial attitude create what is often referred to as the psychological “climate” of the relationship. During childhood ….. each of us acquired a high level of skill in perceiving aspects of parental behavior which told us whether everything was “all right with the relationship. Even very small children are amazingly sensitive to quite unconscious manifestations of parental attitudes of acceptance or rejection...

Granted that the subordinate’s dependency is far less in the employment relationship, it remains materially true that his ability to achieve his goals is materially affected by the attitudes of his superiors….. The climate is more significant than the type of leadership or personal “style” of the superior. The boss can be autocratic or democratic, warm and outgoing or remote and introverted, easy or tough, but these personal characteristics are of less significance then the deeper attitudes to which his subordinates respond. 

What Do You Get When You Swear At, Drive, Discipline, Dictate At Those You Lead?

Let’s continue this conversation by listening to Douglas McGregor share an anomaly that he encountered at a manufacturing company (bolding mine):

The mechanical superintendent in a small manufacturing company was the prototype of the “bull in the woods” manager. He swore at his men, drove them, disciplined them, behaved superficially like a Napoleon. He was the despair of the staff group who were carrying on a program of supervisory training in human relations. Yet, oddly, his subordinates appeared to have high regard to him. They said, “Oh is bark is worse than his bite.” Morale and productivity in his department were both high.

Let’s stop here for a moment and reflect. Here we have a real life example that goes against the conventional wisdom of human-relations – at least the wisdom advocated by leadership gurus, and HR advisors/practitioners. What is going on? How is it that someone who swears, drives, acts like Napoleon calls forth high regard, morale and productivity from the very folks he is swearing at, driving and disciplining? I say we are back to Steve Jobs and the question that I posed at the start of this conversation.

Is Effective Leadership Limited to Creating a Deep and Satisfying Emotional Certainty of Free Treatment?

I invite you to listen some more to the words of Douglas McGregor (bolding mine):

Probing revealed some significant facts. He was known as a “square shooter” who dealt with his men with scrupulous fairness. Despite his superficial toughness he was sincerely and warmly interested in his subordinatesWhen they were in trouble – whether it was a simple matter of a few dollars to tide a man over until payday, or a family crisis – he helped out in matter-of-fact way that left no uncomfortable feeling of being patronised.

Most important of all, he was known to be ready to go to bat for his men on any occasion when he felt they had not been accorded a fair break by higher management. The men spoke with awe of two occasions during a ten-year period when he had stormed into the office of the big boss to demand that a decision be altered because it was unfair to “his boys.” When he was refused in one of these instances, he resigned on the spot, put on his hat, and left. His superior actually followed him out to the gate and capitulated.

Douglas McGregor concludes his take on this superintendent and his leadership/management style with the following words of wisdom:

His managerial attitude cuts across authoritarianism, permissiveness, paternalism, firmness and fairness, and all the other “styles” of management to create a deep and satisfying emotional certainty of fair treatment.

It occurs to me that Douglas McGregor’s take on leadership/management accounts may just account for the success of Steve Jobs as a leader/manager. From what I have read, Steve Jobs surrounded himself with A players: those that showed up as A’s were treated as As, those who did not were pushed out.

I Find Myself Disagreeing With Douglas McGregor. Why?

How is it that I find myself left uncomfortable and in disagreement with Douglas McGregor? I say that the ground upon which the exercise of human-centred leadership occurs is ‘care’: genuine care for the wellbeing of one’s ‘boys and girls’. Care is more than fair treatment. And is illustrated by this superintendent in two ways. First, when “his boys” were in troubles he helped out “in a matter of fact way that left no uncomfortable feelings”. Fair treatment in the workplace does not require one to lend money to the folks you are leading or help them out with family crises. Second, he resigned. Fair treatment would require that the superintendent go to bat for his boys – to make the case. It does not require one to resign. So how does this resignation show ‘care’? It occurs to me that it shows the other (usually hidden side) of care: care for one’s stand in relationship to what will and will not stand for. In his case, the Superintendent was not willing to stand for anything less than fair treatment for “his boys”. I bet that “his boys” were proud to be called “his boys”.

Note: this conversation is a modified version of the conversation published earlier at

How To Solve The Insoluble Problem Of Employee Engagement and Customer Loyalty?

It occurs to me that when the same ‘problem’ keeps coming up then it worth taking a deeper look at the ‘the way of showing up and travelling’ (some call this mindset  or worldview) that generates the methods-techniques-tools for addressing the problem.  So in this conversation I wish to grapple with the persistent problems of ’employee engagement’ and ‘customer loyalty’. Let’s start by listening to one of my favourite stories (of wisdom):

Dividing Camels

There was once a Sufi who wanted to make sure his disciples would, after his death, find the right teacher of the Way for them. He, therefore …. left his disciples seventeen camels with this order: ‘You will divide the camels among the three of you in the following proportions: the oldest shall have half, the middle in age one third, and the youngest shall have one ninth.’

… the disciples were at first amazed at such an inefficient disposition of their Master’s assets. Some said, ‘Let us own the camels communally,’ others sought advice and then said, ‘We have been told to make the nearest possible division,’ others were told by a judge to sell the camels and divide the money; and yet others held that the will was null and void because its provisions could not be executed.

Then the fell to thinking that there might be some hidden wisdom to the Master’s bequest, so they made enquiries as to who could solve insoluble problems.

Everyone they tried failed, until they arrived at the door of … Hazrat Ali. He said: ‘This is your solution. I will add one camel to the number. Out of the eighteen camels you will give half – nine camels – to the oldest disciple. The second shall have a third of the total, which is six camels. The last disciple may have one-ninth, which is two camels. That makes seventeen. One, my camel, is left over to be returned to me.’

This is how the disciples found the teacher for them.

– Idries Shah, Thinkers Of The East

Have you watched The Matrix? It is movie that can be listened to at so many levels. I find the same to be the case for this story. For the sake of this conversation, let me highlight this:

1. The conventional ‘leaders’ had supplied conventional advice which was ok for conventional matters. But not for this unusual one;

2. It is what Hazrat Ali put into the game at hand (‘one camel’) that ended up solving the insoluble problem facing the disciples; and

3. The ‘one camel’ does not refer to a physical camel. The ‘one camel’ refers to wisdom, compassion, love, humanity – the essentials of human existence and authentic community. There can never be a human being only human beings; to be human is to be social.

What relevance does this have to the world of business and the two problems of ’employee engagement’ and ‘customer loyalty’? I say everything. Take a deep look at the methods-tools-techniques used to address these challenges. What do you notice? I notice that the ‘way of showing up and travelling’ (mindset/worldview if you prefer cognitivist rather than existential terms) is extractive: extracting more creativity, time, and effort from the employees and extracting more revenue and profits from customers? Where is the engagement, by the leaders/managers, in the lives (and existential projects) of the employees?  What loyalty is there to the customer?  Here I am pointing at practices and actions that ensure that the company is loyal to customers – not just words.

Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit by Robin P.

What ‘way of showing up and travelling’ in organisational life calls forth the kind of employee engagement that most organisations can only dream of?  I share with the following story as shared by Robin P of Zappos. I invite you to pay attention to that which I have put into bold:

My husband passed away under tragic circumstances …. I couldn’t being to think of what was going to happen for our children, our family, or for me.

When I first heard the news, I was numb, but I needed to make a call. Strangely enough, the call wasn’t to an immediate family member. It was to my employer, That one action made me realize the strong connection I felt with my co-workers and the Zappos culture…

When my senior manager received by hysterical call, she showed great compassion and gave me sound advice to calm me. She assured me that I shouldn’t be concerned with anything else but to take care of myself and my family, and that – day or night – I should call if I needed anything. After that she gave me every single one of her phone numbers, I knew she meant it.

As much as Zappos meant to me before, the things they did after my husband passed amazed and humbled me. I was reassured that I shouldn’t feel pressure to return to work as soon as possible. They even volunteered to cater the reception for my husband’s service….

There was always someone there to listen, offer consoling words, sit with me as I released my tears, or just give a hug. Co-workers and managers alike allowed me time to heal and gave me strength I needed to continue as a contributing and functioning member of the team.

the most important contributions from my extended family at Zappos were support and friendship. Zappos was my refuge and healing place that gave me everything I needed to continue on with my life.

– Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsieh

What do you notice here? Are the folks at Zappos applying a particular set of techniques-tools dreamt up by social scientists, consultants, or recommended by HR? Or is it that the folks in Zappos, including her manager, putting their humanity into action: demonstrating care/concern for a human being in distress?  Do you/i/we need some kind of special training to do this?  Or is it merely a matter of creating an environment where we can put into play that which we know as well as we know how to breathe? Finally, I invite you to notice that domain of ‘care/concern’ for our fellow human beings (customers, employees…) involves action (doing stuff that makes a difference) not merely smooth talk.

Summing Up

It occurs to the that the worst thing that has happened to the world of business is the language of relationship: customer relationships, customer engagement, employee engagement, social.. Why? It masks the reality of the business world and organisational life. What reality? Business and organisational worlds are transactional. There is no genuine care for customers as human beings. There is no genuine care for employees as human beings. There is no genuine care for suppliers/partners as human beings. My lived experience (25+ years) is that those who occupy management and leadership positions are not in touch with their humanity. I doubt that most genuinely care even for themselves as human beings rather than human doings, human ‘achieve-ings’.

I invite you to listen to the following profound words:

To become a leader, first you must become a human being.

– Peter Senge

It occurs to me that all Customer and Employee efforts, like the advice-solutions offered by the conventional leaders to the disciples, are likely to fall short until the advice of Peter Senge is heeded. When it is heeded, and lived, like it is by Tony Hsieh (the CEO of Zappos) then the Tops and Middles will be able to call forth the best from the folks in the business to create meaningful-strong-loyal relationships with customers. With the folks working in the business and directly/indirectly serving customers. And suppliers/partners.

I thank you for listening and invite you to put your humanity into the game of living no matter where this living occurs: with customers, in the workplace, at home….

Please note: an earlier version of this conversation was published on last month.

Why Do Tops Struggle With Customer Experience & Employee Engagement?

On Tops And Their Struggle With Customer Experience and Employee Engagement

Have you noticed that the folks who occupy the seats of power (‘Tops’) in organisational life struggle with ‘Customer Experience’ and ‘Employee Engagement’? By that I am not pointing at the talk. Nor am I pointing at conceptual-intellectual understanding.  I am pointing at walking the path: ‘showing up and travelling in the world’ in a way that creates a context which calls forth the actions that cultivate meaningful relationships with customers and employees.

Why do Tops, in particular, struggle to embrace-embody that which it takes for an organisation to create-design-deliver the kind of experiences that call forth meaningful relationships with their customers, and their employees? In asking this question I wish to rule out the domains of psychology or morality. What interests me is structural factors: the underlying ‘structures’ that shape human behaviour pretty much irrespective of morality and personality.

What is your answer?  Hold that answer. Let’s first turn our attention to considerateness – the quality/state of being considerate.

What Is It To Be Considerate?

Language always leaves clues. So what does the English language suggest? Let’s take a look at the definition:



careful not to inconvenience or harm others.

“she was unfailingly kind and considerate”

Synonyms: attentivethoughtfulconcernedsolicitousmindfulheedfulobliging,





If you haven’t done so then I urge to look up each of the synonyms to get a rounded feel for the phenomena under discussion. Notice, what we are talking about here is a genuine concern for the wellbeing of others – our fellow human beings.  A working alongside-with others as opposed to over-against others.  Cooperation and accommodation and not domination or indifference.  What is the basis of considerateness? Is it not fellow-feeling? That you are human just like me and are worth of the same kind of consideration that I ask for, demand, for myself?

Considerateness: The Glue Of Long Term Relationships?

It occurs to me that the way of showing up and travelling in the world that we have named considerate is the access to cultivating relationships. And, importantly,  keeping these relationships in existence over the long-term. It also occurs to me that this way of being-in-the-world is central to human centred design. And that includes experience design: Customer Experience, and Employee Experience.

Now back to the Tops. If you are a Top then what kind of situation do you automatically find yourself in?  Let’s ask this question differently:  What is the privilege that goes with being at the top, a Top?  Is it not that as a Top you fully expect others to be considerate to you and your needs? Others that surround you and serve you show up and travel in a manner that is considerate of your status-needs-wishes-preferences. Is it not true that you are accustomed to be treated with considerateness by just about everybody that you encounter?

As a Top how do you treat others? Is it not that the default way of showing up and  travelling in the world, as a Top, is that of inconsiderateness towards others:



thoughtlessly causing hurt or inconvenience to others.
“it’s inconsiderate of her to go away without telling us”

“it’s inconsiderate of her to go away without telling us”

What I’m pointing out here is structural-situational factor. One that calls forth a certain mode of being in the world. In no way am I making a moral-value judgement. Nor am I making reference to psychology or personality types. What happens when you are a Top for long enough? You lose touch with the anyone, the everyman.  So your ability to listen to and respond with considerateness to the needs of others withers  – even if it was there to start with. Yet this very considerateness is essential to being attuned to the needs-wishes-preferences of customers and employees. And responded sensitively and on a timely basis so as to generate gratitude, engagement, and loyalty.

Special Treatment: Words Of Wisdom From James A. Autry:

I wish to end this conversation by sharing words of wisdom with you

I think I started maturing as a manager when I discovered that one of the oldest principles of organisational management was hogwash. That principle is stated in many ways, but the military guys used to put it best: “Nobody gets special treatment around here.” …. In the military, they might also say, “If we do this for you, Lieutenant Autry, we’ll have to do it for everyone.” I used to want to say, “No, sir, you could do it just for me.”

What I realise now is that the professed aversion to special treatment was all delusion anyway; people in every organisation ….. get special treatment all the time…… much of it has tilted towards “in” groups…. that kind of “special treatment” is favouritism and discrimination.

But there’s another kind of special treatment …… a manager’s willingness to bend the rules to accommodate every person’s specialness…. Some people do good work but are slow; some do fast work but are sloppy. Some are morning people; some do better in the afternoon. Some have children that cause schedule problems; some have elderly parents. Some need a lot of attention and affirmation; some want to be left alone to do their work. Some respond more to money, less to praise; some thrive on praise…… some are very bright; some are slow….. Some are men; some are women.

Who in the world could believe that all those special needs could be accommodated without special treatment? But it takes a lot of management courage to provide that special treatment…..

I’ve made exceptions to corporate rules to help get an employee’s family through the nightmare of overwhelming financial and emotional distress. I’ve made similar exceptions for employees needing assistance to recover from substance abuse…..

The road of special treatment is not without peril, and it makes day-to-day management much trickier and more time consuming. You must consider the impact on the group, the legal risks, and the questions of equity and justice, in addition to the record and commitment of the person involved. Then if at all possible, decide in favour of special treatment…….

When someone complains, just say, “Everyone gets special treatment around here.”

– James Autry, Love and Profit, The Art of Caring Leadership

I leave you to ponder considerateness and special treatment. It occurs to me that they are intertwined: being considerate involves providing special treatment when special treatment is called for – by the customer, by the employee.  What gets in the way of being considerate and providing special treatment? It makes the life of those in management harder. And ultimately, once you get beyond the rhetoric, the organisation is designed so as to be considerate to the needs of the Tops – not customers, not employees.

How To Cause Customer-Centricity By Shaping The Work Context (Part 3 of 3)

This conversation follows on from where the previous conversation left off.  Specifically, I intend to share with you the theory behind the shaping the work context approach to changes organisational behaviour. And the limitations of using the traditional tools: hard and soft.  Let’s begin.

It occurs to me that the fundamental assumption is that human behaviour is always functional. Which is to say that there is correlation between the human behaviour that occurs in a work context and how that work context shows up for the human beings who find themselves there in that context.  Put differently, there is an ongoing dance between context and behaviour: each is influenced by the other on an ongoing basis.  From this flows the following ‘advice’ from the authors of Six Simple Rules:

1. Human Beings As Purposeful Actors Making Use Of Resources And Dealing With Constraints

Human behaviour can be understood in terms of three elements. First, the goal/s, the towards-which the human being ‘moves’.  Second, the resources-tools that are at hand to help ‘move’ towards the goal. Third, that which shows up as an obstacles-hindrance.  Collectively, these three elements in their unity (as one) constitute the work context as lived-experienced. Here is what the authors say:

Understanding what people do and why they do what they do is so utterly fundamental that it is our simple rule. Before you, as a manager, do anything to solve a performance problem, you can save yourself a lot of time and money by first applying this rule.

2. Understand How The Organisational Elements Affect-Shape The Work Context

Do organisational structures, processes, procedures, and systems matter? Do they affect-shape human behaviour?  Yes, they do affect behaviour and performance. But not in the simplistic way that most of us assume.  According to the authors (bolding is my work):

Their impact depends on how they combine with each other to shape the goals, resources and constraints  to which people adjust their behaviours.

If you do any cooking you will get that the impact that any one ingredient has depends on the other ingredients that constitute the recipe. If you manage stocks you will understand that it is not the risk of the individual stock that primarily matters – it is the impact of that stock on the risk profile of your portfolio.  Hopefully you get the idea.

3. Be Wary of Taking The Hard (Scientific Management) And Soft (Human Relations) Approaches To Improving Organisational Performance

Let’s consider each of these approaches to understand why it is that the authors advise caution in automatically and mindlessly adopting one or both of these approaches as the silver bullet for dealing with organisational challenges.

The Hard Approach And Its Limitations

Why is there is much emphasis in the hard approach on clarity – clearly specifying the rules of the game, the roles and responsibilities of the actors, the boundaries, the rewards and punishments….? Is it because the hard approach takes it for granted that performance is a direct consequence of what people are instructed and rewarded-punished for doing?  Let’s listen to the authors:

Structure defines the role, processes instruct how to perform it, and incentives motivate the right per on in the right role to do it. From this perspective, if there is a performance problem, then it must be because some key organisational element is missing or not detailed enough. So companies jump straight from identifying a performance problem to deploying new structures, processes or systems to resolve it. This error dumps a first layer of complicatedness into the organisation.

Let’s make this real by revisiting InterLodge. What did management do at the beginning? Did it not resort to restructuring and reengineering without actually looking into the work context that shaped behaviour?  And when management did look at the front line what did it conclude?

Receptionists were not selling rooms to latecomers. They were not engaging the customers in a way that made customers satisfied. They were not charging the right room rate.

If you focus on what your people are not doing does this help you understand what it is that they are doing and what leads them to do what they do? Clearly not. So the authors advise the following (bolding is my work):

Performance is what it is, because people do what they do, not because of what they don’t do. People do what they do precisely because of the organisational elements already in place (not because of the ones that are missing)…… 

The authors go on to provide what I consider the most valuable and most neglected insight into human behaviour in organisational contexts (bolding is my work):

Organisational elements do not combine with each other in the abstract, based on their supposed intrinsic pros and cons.…. It is only by considering the work context, and their effect in this context, the organisational elements can be appropriately analysed and designed.  The effect …….. depends on how people deal with these elements as resources or constraints. 

What did the receptionists do with the “guest engagement” skills that they honed during the mandated training course?  They used these skills as a resource. But a resource for what?  A resource for their goal: avoiding stressful encounters with angry customers:

 … they used their skills not to meet the target price point but to proactively offer rebates and refunds. What’s more, their new skills combined with their clarified roles in an unexpected way that also provided new resources to the receptionists……: some receptionists used their newfound interaction skills to explain clearly to guests that their responsibilities stopped at the front desk and did not include back-office activities…

Now you know why I am not a fan of worshipping at the altar of lean, six sigma, process and reengineering. And in the world of consulting, the anal retentive fixation on methodology. I learned the hard way: spending years doing it and seeing the meagre and often counterproductive results.

The Soft Approach And Its Limitations

As this post is already long I recommend that you get hold of a copy of the Six Rules for a fuller-deeper picture. For my part I leave you with the following:

…. the soft approach views performance as a by-product of good interpersonal relationships. But this view confuses people getting along with genuinely productive cooperation. Real cooperation is not fun and games….. it always involved adjustment costs.

Indeed, the better the feelings among individuals in a group, the more people are likely to avoid straining the relationship by bearing adjustments costs themselves or by imposing them on others …. So they will avoid cooperation and make third parties bear the consequences, or they will compensate with extra resources to remove interdependencies… the extra resources teak the form of …. excess inventory stocks, time delays, interfaces and committees, and customer requirements unmet….

Here I draw your attention to the never ending challenge that almost every large organisation has in getting just the folks in marketing (advertising, website, email, direct…) to work together – cooperate. Or the bigger challenge of getting the folks in marketing, sales and service to cooperate to generate a joined up and attractive customer experience.

If you wish to learn more but do not wish to read the book then I recommend the following TED Talk by one of the authors of the Six Simple Rules:





Will Big Data And Analytics Deliver The Promised Land?

This post got published before I intended to publish it. Sorry for this oversight. I have now completed it as intended and am republishing it. I apologise for any inconvenience and thank you for your understanding.

What do B2B technology vendors sell?

No, it is not the technology.  Think again, what do B2B technology vendors sell?  They sell dreams that speak to a fundamental human need. What dreams? Dreams of control-mastery-domination over the ever flowing, every morphing, character of a process we turn into a noun: life.

What need do these dreams take root from and speak to?  The need for safety and security. At some fundamental level we get that nature is indifferent to our survival and wellbeing.  To deal with this anxiety we embrace anything that provides the illusion of safety-security. The Greeks embraced the Gods, we embrace technology and the latest technofix.

I notice that the big data and analytics space is hot right now.  It is the latest technofix being pushed by the B2B technology vendors.  It occurs to me that this technofix is designed to speak to those running large enterprises – especially those who are higher up and divorced from the lived experience of daily operational life at the coal face.

What I find astonishing is that so few actually ask the following two questions:

1. “What kind of a being is a human being?”

2. “What kind of a culture is human culture?”

What is the defining characteristic of human beings?

Allow me to illustrate by share a story I read many years ago:

Psychologist:  John, you have been referred to me by the authorities. They tell me that you think that are dead. Is that right? Are you dead?

John: Absolutely, I died a little while back.  I am dead. 

Psychologist: How interesting! You died a little back. Yet here you are talking with me. And I am not dead.  So how is it that you are dead and I am not dead, yet here we are talking? 

John: Beats me how this works or why it is happening. I know that I am dead. 

Psychologist: John, I have an idea. Do dead people bleed? 

John: Don’t be ridiculous! Everyone knows that dead people don’t bleed! 

The psychologist suddenly reaches over and cuts John’s hand with a knife. Both of them are looking at John’s hand. Blood, dark red blood, is seeping through the cut.  The psychologist looks at John with the look of satisfaction, of victory. Let’s rejoin the conversation.

Psychologist: John, do you see that blood on your hand? How do you make sense of it? You say that you are dead. And earlier you told me that dead people don’t bleed.

John: F**k me, dead people do bleed!

This is not simply an amusing story.  It is a story that captures the experience of a respected psychologist who has been dealing with many kinds of people, dealing with many kinds of problems, over a lifetime.  This story capture a fundamental truth of the human condition.

It appears that to survive in the world as it is and as we have made it, we need to be deluded. We need to distort reality: to make life more predictable, to make our current situation lighter-better than it is, to see a future brighter than is merited by the facts, to see ourselves stronger, more capable, more influential than we are. Studies suggest that those of us who lack this ability to distort reality and delude ourselves end up depressing ourselves.

What Kind Of A Culture Is Human Culture?

Symbolic and ideological.  Why?  Because human beings just don’t cope well with the world as it is. So we get together into tribes. And the glue that keeps the tribe together is a particular way of constructing the world, a particular way of giving meaning to the world, and a particular way of interacting with the world.  And when I speak world I include human being, and human beings; a human being is always a being-in-the-world as in always and forever an intrinsic thread in that which we call world.

The next question: which ideology do members of society espouse?  The dominant public ideology. In the world of business this is that of scientific management and in particular reasoning and making decisions objectively – irrespective of the past, of tradition, of our personal interests and opinions.

A more interesting question is that about the actual behaviour of the elites, the Tops. What is it that the Tops actually do?  They do that which protects and furthers their interests: their power, their status, their privileges, their wealth, their dominance.  So insight and recommendations (whether from big data and analytics or through conventional methods) that are in line with these interests are heartily accepted and actioned swiftly and vigorously.

Any insights and recommendations that challenge the vested interests of the elite (Tops) are repressed at the individual level, belittled-disputed-ignored at the societal level.  I invite you to read this article which can be summed up as the UK Government sacks the chair of the official Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Why? Because the chair was insisting on the reclassification of drugs. What happened?

  1. The Advisory Council looked at the data (of harm to the individual taking the drugs and others affected by his/her behaviour) on drugs at the request of the UK.

  2. On the basis of the data, the Advisory Council came up with the conclusion that “if drugs were classified on the basis of the harm they do, alcohol would be class A, alongside heroin and crack cocaine.”

  3. The drug rankings, associated findings and recommendations were ignored by the UK government. Why? Because they went against the government’s stance on drugs.

  4. The chair of the Advisory Council challenged the UK government’s refusal to act on the recommendations of the Advisory Council.  So the appropriate UK Government minister sacked him.

What Does The Future Hold for Big Data & Analytics?

If past behaviour is an adequate guide to the future then it is safe to say that technology vendors will get rich. And the business folks will have another layer of technology that they have to manage. One or two organisations may reap substantial benefits, the rest will be disappointed.  Yet, this disappointment will not last long. Why? By that time the technology folks will have come up with the latest technofix!

I leave you with the following thoughts:

1. There are no technofixes to the kinds of social issues-problems we continue to face;

2. Incremental improvements lie in the domain of big data and analytics;

3. Breakthroughs lie in our ability to see that which is with new eyes – a shift in dominant concepts, dominant paradigm, dominant ideology, dominant way of seeing that which is.

Put differently, big data & analytics is a red herring for those who aspire to lead: to cause-create that which does not exist today.  Managers, those whose horizon extends to daily operations and the next twelve months, may find big data and analytics useful – as long as it does not threaten the sacred cows of the Tops-Middles and the corporate culture.