Chaos players: knowledge work as performance art

Stage - Auditorium. Photo by Monica Silvestre from Pexels

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts
As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII. William Shakespeare

I’ve been thinking about the role of mental models for sense-making. While we do this all the time, I think there is significant incremental value in making those models more explicit and then playing with them to tease out their implications. Organization as machine is a familiar example, one that I believe is largely obsolete. Organization as ecosystem or complex adaptive system has grown in popularity. It has the advantage of being richer and more sensitive to the complexities of modern organizations and their environments. On the other hand, that mental model is a bit too appealing to to academic and consulting desires to sound simultaneously profound and unintelligible. It fails to provide useful guidance through the day-to-day challenges of competing and surviving.

Organization as performance art or theatrical production offers a middle ground between simplistic and over-engineered. It appeals to me personally given a long history staging and producing. It’s my hypothesis that most of us have enough nodding familiarity with the theater to take advantage of the metaphor and model without so much knowledge as to let the little details interfere with the deeper value.

The goal of theater is to produce an experience for an audience. That experience must always be grounded in the practical art of the possible. This gives us something to work with.

Let’s work backwards from the performance. We have the players on the stage and an audience with expectations about what they are about to experience. If that is all we have, then we are in the realm of storytelling. Storytelling demands both the tellers of the tale and the creator of the tale itself. Our playwright starts with an idea and crafts a script to bring that idea to life and connect it to all of the other stories and ideas the audience will bring to the experience. We now have a story, its author, storytellers, and an audience with their expectations.

Theater takes us a step farther and asks us think about production values that contribute to and enhance the experience we hope to create. Stage and sets and lighting and sound can all be drawn into service of the story. Each calls for different expertise to design, create, and execute. We now have multiple experts who must collaborate and we have processes to be managed. Each must contribute to the experience being created. More importantly, those contributions must all be coordinated and integrated into the intended experience.

This feels like a potentially fruitful line of inquiry. It seems to align well with an environment that depends on creativity and innovation as much as or more than simple execution. How deeply should it be developed?

March for Our Lives as a pop-up organization

March for Our Lives ChicagoLast Saturday, Charlotte and I joined the Chicago instance of the March for Our Lives. A powerful event in  Union Square and a more powerful one across the country. I’m not qualified to offer an opinion on the policy or political dimensions—although I certainly have them. I am qualified, however, to have an opinion on the event as an equally remarkable example of organizational innovation and entrepreneurship. So, I called an audible in my current organizational development class this week and we took a look through an organizational lens.

Five and one half weeks after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, survivors of the day organized and staged a march in Washington, DC and 800 additional locations that drew on the order of a million people to listen to their demands. What lessons and insights can we draw from this effort? What does it tell us about the environment for innovation and activism that is now available to anyone?

A crystal clear and compelling mission is the best starting point for an organization you can get—much better, in fact, than a pile of money. It’s about as strong an example you can find of Simon Sinek’s argument that organization that succeed and thrive “Start with Why” The more powerful the message you articulate, the more degrees of freedom you are granted; the advantage goes to speed over precision and detail in getting that initial message out. This is the power of the social media and internet ecosystem available to be leveraged. The students organizing this effort grabbed the domain via on February 17th and announced the march on the 18th. They created a Facebook group page at the same time.

Imagine that initial meeting of the survivors planning this effort just a few days after the event. Maybe there’s a whiteboard or a flipchart with an evolving list of immediate tasks. Everyone has a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Brainstorm a name, search for a domain, grab it, register it, launch a placeholder website and start building it as the meeting unfolds. You’re crossing items off of your todo list as you’re writing it. Someone starts taking notes in a Google doc or fires up a board in Trello. Your organization is a few hours old and it already has an infrastructure.

As the work to be done gets defined, you can see the transition into an embryonic functional organization.  Someone steps up to looks after the new infrastructure. Someone else takes on the communications work. A third takes on investigating the logistics of the march idea that’s just been announced. And finally, someone needs to start work on the the back office details of taking in, tracking, and managing the money that will be required to make this all happen. The outline of the work to be done shapes the organization and the talents and interests of those in the room shape how the work and the people are matched up.

There’s an aspect of entrepreneurial reality that gets skipped or ignored in the conventional tellings of Adam Smith’s pin making or Henry Ford’s Model Ts which is that no one operates in a vacuum. That growing to do list that is driving this organizational bootstrapping effort includes a host of tasks that no one in the room has any idea of how to execute.

Being clear that you don’t know everything is a feature not a bug and our new organization starts to reach out and ask for help. March for Our Lives links up very quickly with Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group funded by Michael Bloomberg, and Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence. This gives our new organization access to the knowledge and experience acquired from other groups who’ve pulled off similar events; those big to dos get transformed into executable tasks and supporting details. They transform their visibility into access to knowledge and resources they don’t have.

As the last several weeks played out, you can see that this is a group that naturally thinks in network terms. For example, sibling marches spawned in multiple cities; the sibling marches shared collateral and elements of the infrastructure, the central organization set general parameters and guidance. The ready-to-hand social media and technology infrastructure let the organization move from idea to execution without having to wait for things to be provisioned or contracts to be negotiated.

This is a remarkable example of just how much today’s ecosystem enables ideas to be transformed into action. It will be interesting to monitor where things go from here independently from the underlying issues—important as they are.

Culture is marked and shared in the middle

Christmas 2011

The photo is from Christmas 2011. Our younger son, Derek, had recently completed training as a U.S. Marine and naturally acquired his first tattoo. As a surprise, my wife and I also got tattoos and the big reveal came that Christmas morning. (His older brother vowed that he wouldn’t join us unless and until the Chicago Cubs won the World Series—we’re still waiting to see that tattoo.) Having a tattoo is an occasional source of street cred when my students learn about it. It is also something we chose to do to mark a particular shared moment.

Markers of belonging are a central element of culture. Visible markers like tattoos or uniforms have a certain attraction, but it is the invisible ones that hold power; especially in organizations.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a phrase that pops up in organizational development circles with some regularity. More often than not it is attributed to Peter Drucker, although that appears to be unlikely. Regardless, culture is the way things work in an organization that won’t be found in employee handbooks or process maps. With a strong culture, everyone will do the right thing in the unanticipated moment. Put another way, culture defines what constitutes the right thing in the face of the new; accept it, reject it, play with it, deny it.

How does culture get reinforced and passed along if it can’t be found in the handbooks or the rules?

Today Derek is a sergeant responsible for the development of younger marines.  If you study organizations you learn about sergeants. Having one in the family levels up those lessons. Sergeants are the primary caretakers of organizational health and culture. This isn’t something they talk or think about explicitly. It is the essence of the role and plays out in the way they carry themselves and in the stories that they share.

I was struck by the conversations we had at the end of his basic training. They were filled with stories of the history and traditions of the Corps. Huge amounts of time and effort were spent on why and how to be a Marine. It was designed into the experience. As Derek went off from training into the Fleet, these stories and experiences continued to be dispensed, primarily by sergeants.

We see this aspect of culture in the military and in the foreign places we travel. What is less easy to discern is that culture is not something that simply exists and is laid down during the distant origins of a place or an institution. Culture can happen organically in the ebb and flow of activity and the stories that sergeants and their equivalents opt to share. What institutions like the Marine Corps reveal is that strong cultures can be built and transmitted by design. They need to be anchored in the actual activity and experience of the organization; but we can choose which experiences are deemed worthy of emulating. As leaders we decide which markers to pass along.

Strategy and organizational design in a crowded ecosystem

When I teach organizational design, I start with the observation that organizations survive because they’ve struck a balance with their environment. That environment is now an ecosystem teeming with other organizations seeking their own balance. One consequence is that you cannot separate organizational design from strategy. A second is that both must operate from a deeper understanding of the ecosystem.

Ecosystem has become a popular way to think about the competitive environment. Some of this is simply evolving language preferences; terms go in and out of style. But there is a deeper and more significant rationale for this evolution in terminology. The appeal behind talking about ecosystems lies in the adage that “everything connects to everything else.” While that has always been true, it wasn’t terribly relevant until recently; “everything” didn’t add up to very much. For a long time, organizations had to only pay attention to a well-defined set of customers, a small handful of suppliers, a small handful of competitors, and a handful of other factors that impinged on their freedom to act.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have that sort of environment today? Not only are there more players to consider in every category, those players bump up against one another more tightly. It’s easy to cross an empty room to get to the bar; in a crowded cocktail party it can be hard to move just a couple of feet. You need to think and manage differently if you need to cross that crowded room. To further complicate things our hypothetical room is surrounded by a balcony full of people shouting conflicting, contradictory, yet potentially essential advice.

The temptation is to put your head down and bull your way through the crowd toward your destination. If you’re a bull and you’re in a china shop, this strategy will get you to the other side. You might also think it acceptable that the floor is now littered with broken china. On the other hand, if we are indeed in an ecosystem rather than a china shop, then we trample at our own risk and as risk to others in the broader system. Are we trampling over a future food source? Predators? Poison? Future mates? Risks to others might be ignored; but many risks are to our own future existence.

It’s a popular notion that today’s environment calls for innovators to move fast and break things. If that environment is as tightly packed as today’s actually is, what may end up broken is the ecosystem itself. That’s a contest with no winners.

Rethinking organizational functions and components in a freelance economy

An story on NPR this morning about Grind, a new co-working start-up raises some intriguing questions about where organizations may be evolving in an increasingly freelance economy.



JaegerSloan: Workers share office space at Grind, a co-working company in New York City. Those who want to use Grind’s facilities are vetted through a competitive application process.

April 10, 2012

The recession brought widespread unemployment across the U.S., but it also prompted a spike in the number of freelance or independent workers.

More than 30 percent of the nation’s workers now work on their own, and the research firm IDC projects the number of nontraditional office workers — telecommuters, freelancers and contractors — will reach 1.3 billion worldwide by 2015.

Typically, freelancers get to choose when and where they work. Many opt to set up shop in “co-working” arrangements, where they can rent a cubicle and other office resources by the day or the month.

It was once a relatively simple process to sign up with a co-working site.

But now, more companies are adopting a selective approach known as “curated co-working.” One such company, New York City’s Grind, requires an application — and you have to be accepted to get started.

That means some would-be co-workers will find they don’t make the cut…

For Freelancers, Landing A Workspace Gets Harder : NPR: by KAOMI GOETZ

(Someday I will produce a rant about the overuse of the word “curated.”)

Two interesting questions come to mind:

  1. How will the application and profile process evolve? We are all social animals. We also have a pretty solid understanding of what differentiates successful groups and successful teams. As freelancers and as potential co-workers, will we become more mindful about how we manage our associations?
  2. Grind is testing the hypothesis that there is value in filtering the freelancers who will have access to their space. Is this a leading indicator that the physical, social, psychological, and economic functions of the organization can be effectively decomposed and rearranged in new formats?

It’s certainly time to reread Ronald Coase’s The Nature of the Firm. I might also take a look at Jay Galbraith’s Designing Organizations and Bob Keidel’s Seeing Organizational Patterns.

Defining Characteristics of Wicked Problems

I’m just wrapping up a course I’ve been teaching at DePaul’s School for New Learning on Understanding Organizational Change. I’ve grounded the course in a view of organizations as dynamic systems from the perspective of Jay Forrester, Donella Meadows, and Peter Senge. In the last few sessions, we’ve also been discussing the notion of Wicked Problems and the challenges they present in today’s organizational environment.

I introduced the following list of “defining characteristics of wicked problems” drawn from The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations. I’m not yet finished with that book, although it is excellent so far. I’ll post a review when I’ve finished it. Here is their list:

  • There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. In other words, the problem can be framed in many different ways, depending on which aspects of it one wants to emphasise. These different views of the problem can often be contradictory. Take, for example, the problem of traffic congestion. One solution may involve building more roads, whereas another may involve improving public transport. The first accommodates an increase in the number of vehicles on the road, whereas the second attempts to reduce it.
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule. The first characteristic states that one s understanding of the problem depends on how one approaches it. Consequently, the problem is never truly solved. Each new insight or solution improves one s understanding of the problem yet one never completely understands it. This often leads to a situation in which people are loath to take action because additional analysis might increase the chances of finding a better solution. Analysis paralysis, anyone?
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false but better or worse. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong but are subjectively better or worse. Consequently, judgements on the effectiveness of solutions are likely to differ widely based on the personal interests, values, and ideology of the participants.
  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. Solutions to wicked problems cannot be validated as is the case in tame problems. Any solution, after being implemented, will generate waves of consequences that may yield undesirable repercussions which outweigh the intended advantages. (Offering Britney Spears a recording contract is a classic example).
  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a one-shot operation because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly. Rittel explained this characteristic succinctly, with the example One cannot build a freeway to see how it works.
  • Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions. There are no criteria that allow one to test whether or not all possible solutions to a wicked problem have been identified and considered.
  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique. Using what worked elsewhere will generally not work for wicked problems. There are always features that are unique to a particular wicked situation. Accordingly, one can never be certain that the specifics of a problem are consistent with previous problems that one has dealt with. This characteristic directly calls into question the common organisational practice of implementing best practices that have worked elsewhere.
  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. This refers to the fact that a wicked problem can usually be traced back to a deeper underlying problem. For example, a high crime rate might be due to the lack of economic opportunities. In this case the obvious solution of cracking down on crime is unlikely to work because it treats the symptom, not the cause. The point is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be sure that one has reached the fundamental underlying problem. The level at which a problem settles cannot be decided on logical grounds alone.
  • The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem s resolution. In other words, a wicked problem can be explained in many ways with each explanation serving the interests of a particular group of stakeholders.
  • The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate). Those who work with wicked problems (town planners, for example) are paid to design and implement solutions. However, as we have seen, solutions to wicked problems cause other unforeseen issues. Planners and problem solvers are invariably held responsible for the unanticipated consequences of their solutions.

Culmsee, Paul; Kailash Awati (2011-12-02). The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations (Kindle Locations 2759-2839). iUniverse. Kindle Edition.

Richard Feynman On The Folly Of Crafting Precise Definitions

I’ve often struggled with the notion of definitions when working in organizations. On the one hand, too many of us hide our ignorance and uncertainty behind a wall of jargon and terminology. Terms fall in and out of favor and their relationship to the underlying real world is often less important than their value from a marketing perspective.

On the other hand, new terms and language can help us point to and see new ideas and new opportunities for action. Here’s a recent post from Bob Sutton that sheds light on these challenges and is worth thinking about.

One of my best friends in graduate school was a former physics major named Larry Ford. When behavioral scientists started pushing for precise definitions of concepts like effectiveness and leadership, he would sometimes confuse them (even though Larry is a very precise thinker) by arguing “there is a negative relationship between precision and accuracy.” I just ran into a quote from the amazing Nobel winner Richard Feynman that makes a similar point in a lovely way:

We can’t define anything precisely. If we attempt to, we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosophers one saying to the other: “you don’t know what you are talking about!”. The second one says: “what do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you? What do you mean by know?

Feynman’s quote reminded me of the opening pages of the 1958 classic “Organizations” by James March (quite possibly the most prestigious living organizational theorist, and certainly, one of the most charming academics on the planet) and Herbert Simon (another Nobel winner). They open the book with a great quote that sometimes drives doctoral students and other scholars just crazy. They kick-off by saying:

“This is a book about a theory of formal organizations. It is easier, and probably more useful, to give examples of formal organizations than to define them.”

After listing a bunch of examples of organizations including the Red Cross and New York State Highway Department, they note in words that would have pleased Feynman:

“But for the present purposes we need not trouble ourselves with the precise boundaries to be drawn around an organization or the exact distinction between an “organization” and a “non-organization.” We are dealing with empirical phenomena, and the world has an uncomfortable way of not permitting itself to be fitted into clean classifications.”

I must report, however, that for the second edition of the book, published over 20 years later, the authors elected to insert a short definition in the introduction:

“Organizations are systems of coordinated action among individuals and groups whose preferences, information, interests, or knowledge differ.”

When I read this, I find myself doing what Feynman complained about. I think of things they left out: What about norms? What about emotions? I think of situations where it might not apply: Doesn’t a business owned and operated by one person count as an organization? I think of the possible overemphasis on differences: What about all the times and ways that people and groups in organizations have similar preferences, information, interests, and knowledge? Isn’t that part of what an organization is as well? I could go on and on.

I actually think it is a pretty good definition, but my bias is still that I like original approach, as they did such a nice job of arguing, essentially, that if they tried to get more precise, they would sacrifice accuracy. Nonetheless, I confess that I still love trying to define things and believe that trying to do so can help clarifying your thinking. You could argue that while the outcome, in the end, will always be flawed and imprecise, the process is usually helpful and there are many times when it is useful pretend that you have a precise and accurate definition even if you don’t (such as when you are developing metrics). “

Richard Feynman On The Folly Of Crafting Precise Definitions – Bob Sutton:

Russell Ackoff on Systems Thinking vs. Continuous Improvement

Russell Ackoff was one of the seminal thinkers in systems models of organization. Here is a short talk of his from 1994 that provides an excellent introduction to the topic.

Learning to see and understand the systems behavior of organizations is an excellent antidote to much of the mythology around organizations that functions in lieu of more powerful models.

Focusing on mission – why asking why is where to start

Morry Fiddler is a friend and one of my personal trusted advisors. During one of our recent breakfasts, he recommended the following TED talk by Simon Sinek on how leaders inspire action.


Since then, I’ve found myself weaving Sinek’s thinking into my own work and recommending it to others.

I also made a point to get my hands on the book version of Sinek’s thinking: Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.  While it helps fill in some holes in his argument, I think most will find the TED talk more than sufficient to grasp Sinek’s argument and start adapting it to their particular situations.

As you’ll discover, Sinek believes that the differentiating role of leadership is to define and ultimately embed into an organization’s culture a clear sense of "why" the organization exists.

Sinek’s arguments and examples are sufficient to encourage me to make the why/mission question more explicit in my work and I’m already seeing it bear fruit in several settings. Sinek makes an effort to anchor his ideas in what we’ve been learning about the organization of the human brain. While he makes an interesting case, I think it’s a bit of a stretch and not essential to his argument.

What Sinek does do is give you both a framework and some plausible examples to support important conversations with organizations and leaders who are struggling to find their focus.