update on places to intervene in a system

Turns out that the Donella Meadows article on Places to Intervene in a System is indeed online after all. I got the following comment posted over the weekend pointing to the original source from Whole Earth magazine.  Very much worth your time to read her reasoning behind the simple list of intervention points. Thank you Alex.

Comment on post 3618 on 8/23/03 by Alex Gault. Jim, Note that the this material is sourced from “Places to Intervene in A System”, published in the Winter 97 issue of Whole Earth magazine (… I was publisher at the time). The article provides much more depth and texture. For those interested, it's available at: http://www.wholeearthmag.com/ArticleBin/109.html [chaosplayer News]


Eric Raymond on cognitive stress and knowledge work

A Taxonomy of Cognitive Stress: I have. A Taxonomy of Cognitive Stress: I have been thinking about UI design lately. With some help from my friend Rob Landley, I’ve come up with a classification schema for the levels at which users are willing to invest effort to build competence. The base assumption is that for any … [Armed and Dangerous]

Somehow, I missed this when it first appeared in May from Eric Raymond. I find his RSS feed erratic at best. It shows up at a good time, however, as I’m thinking through the implications of shifting focus to knowledge workers instead of knowledge management. Raymond is focused on user interfaces, but I think his perspective can be generalized to the challenges of doing and coaching knowledge work.

12 Leverage Points to Intervene in a System

12 Leverage Points to Intervene in a System. I found a nice summary of Donella Meadow's 12 Leverage Points to Intervene in a System in wikipedia. Places where a small change can have large effects, and if you are a participant in the system, awareness and use of… [Ross Mayfield's Weblog]

Thanks, Ross, for pointing this resource out. This particular piece from the late Donella Meadow's has long been one of my favorite short pieces on how to think about complex human systems and how to influence them. I have a scanned copy of Meadow's article tucked away on my laptop, but it's so much nicer to have an online version to point to. Worth your time to read and reflect on.

Manage the first derivative.

Roland Tanglao pointed me to this post from Eric Sink. I’ve excerpted the key grafs here, but go read the whole thing.

Career Calculus.

We convince ourselves that the real problem is that people don’t seem to know how clueful we are. Over time, we come to believe that the important thing is not our actual cluefulness but rather the degree to which others perceive us as clueful.

I submit that worrying about how others perceive your C value [cluefulness] is a waste of time. The key to a great career is to focus on L, the first derivative of the equation. L [learning] is the rate at which your cluefulness is changing over time. The actual value of C at any given moment is usually a distraction. Only one question matters: With each day that goes by, are you getting more clueful, or less clueful? Or are you just stuck?


It’s a very succinct expression of why you should care about learning for your own selfish purposes. It’s the one thing you can control that links to the payoffs you can’t control. Well worth your time to read and reflect on. Eric focuses on technical learning, but his point, of course, applies to all kinds of learning. Thanks to Roland for the pointer and Eric for the reflections

From managing knowledge to coaching knowledge workers

I’m continuing to work out the implications of shifting attention from knowledge management to knowledge work. It may not sound like a big difference, but I believe it will prove to be a crucial shift in perspective.

One important view of organizational design is the long standing notion that certain parts of the organization serve as buffers between a volatile external environment and a stable and standardized set of internal processes. The goal is to isolate variation and map it into standardized inputs to standardized products and services.

In an industrial world this is a very sensible organizational design strategy. In a knowledge economy, however, the goal becomes one of providing unique responses to unique inputs. Moreover, more and more of the organization finds itself coming into contact with the external environment. You can’t buffer it and you don’t really want to buffer it.

At the same time, our language and our metaphors keep pushing us back into that industrial, standardized, mindset.

As a consultant, my role is to help clients understand their unique problems and frame a suitably customized response. Yet the industrial mindset, and perhaps human nature to some degree, encourages us to sort problems into the bins we have learned to be comfortable with. To the client, their problem is unique. To the consultant it looks a lot like the last fifteen they’ve dealt with. This is why a client turns to consultants in the first place, but there’s an important shift in attitude that separates the best consultants from the rest. It’s a shift from shoving a problem into a particular standardized box to drawing on a deeper experience base to focus on the unique aspects of the problem at hand.

As an aside, my two favorite resources for helping develop this shift if focus are Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used (Second Edition) and Gerry Weinberg’s Secrets of Consulting : A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully.

This shift in perspective is relevant to understanding why so many knowledge management efforts have failed and why focusing on managing knowledge work is likely to be more fruitful.

The fatal flaw in thinking in terms of knowledge management is in adopting the perspective of the organization as the relevant beneficiary. Discussions of knowledge management start from the premise that the organization is not realizing full value from the knowledge of its employees. While likely true, this fails to address the much more important question from a knowledge worker’s perspective of “what’s in it for me?”. It attempts to squeeze the knowledge management problem into an industrial framework eliminating that which makes the deliverables of knowledge work most valuable–their uniqueness, their variability. This industrial, standardizing, perspective provokes suspicion and both overt and covert resistance. It also starts a cycle of controls, incentives, rewards, and punishments to elicit what once were natural behaviors.

Suppose, instead, that we turn our attention from the problems of the organization to the problems of the individual knowledge worker. What happens? What problems do we set out to solve and where might this lead us?

Our goal is to make it easier for a knowledge worker to create and share unique results. Instead of specifying a standard output to be created and the standardized steps to create that output, we need to start with more modest goals. I’ve written about this before (see Is knowledge work improvable?, Sharing knowledge with yourself, and Knowledge work as craft). In general terms, I advocate attacking friction, noise, and other barriers to doing good knowledge work.

This approach also leads you to a strategy of coaching knowledge workers toward improving their ability to perform, instead of training them to a set standard of performance. In this respect, knowledge workers are more like world class athletes than either assembly line workers or artists. There are building block skills and techniques that can be developed and the external perspective of a coach can help improve both. But it’s the individual knowledge worker who deploys the skills and techniques to create a unique result.

Goodies from Frank Patrick

Quotes for the Week. On Technology Management — From Quotes of the Day

“Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage, and those who manage what they do not understand.”
— Putt’s Law

But on the other hand, from the same source…

“Have the courage to be ignorant of a great number of things, in order to avoid the calamity of being ignorant of everything.”
— Sydney Smith (1771 – 1845)

Spoken like a true consultant – [Frank Patrick’s Focused Performance Blog]

More goodies from Frank Patrick. His Focused Performance Blog is a consistent source of insight and resources on the broad topic of project management.

A resource on story from Kevin Kelly

Story. Mastering the inner life of stories [Recomendo]

Another great recommendation from Kevin Kelly. Among his observations:

Halfway through this book, it altered me as an audience; I was watching and reading differently. By the end, I realized that this was actually a book about living. Constructing a story that works is similar to constructing a life that works. For people trying to write a story, for people listening to a story, for people trying to compose an interesting life, this is a profoundly important guide. I find it worth rereading every couple of years.

I've already ordered a copy.

James Roberston on the laws of nonsense

Three laws of nonsense. I just had yum-cha to celebrate a cousin’s birthday. The food was good, but much better were the discussions I had with my uncle, Noel Thompson. He has been working for many years in large organisations (such as BHP and… [Column Two]

A profound way to grasp much of what I see inside organizations. These are the laws that Robertson quotes:

  1. The source of nonsense is that for every piece of nonsense there exists an irrelevant frame of reference in which the item is sensible.
  2. The persistance of nonsense comes from rigorous arguments from inapplicable assumptions.
  3. The diffusion of nonsense results from the fact that people are more specialist than problems.

Robertson offers them as a way to better understand knowledge management. I see them as more broadly applicable to most of what I run into inside organizations.