Solving for pattern starts from designing with heart

One task for this weekend is to complete a letter of recommendation for one of my recent students. You get these if you are reasonably approachable and care. It’s a moment of vulnerability that you want to be careful of.

It’s set me to remembering similar processes I’ve been part of. For many years, I interviewed high school students applying to the university I attended. You were expected to forward your thoughts and recommendations to the admissions committee. I don’t know that those insights had the slightest impact on the admissions process from the school’s perspective. But that wasn’t why I chose to participate.

Instead, I thought back to that time when I was on the other side of the process as a nervous high school student. This was long before students routinely visited multiple college campuses in their quest for the perfect undergraduate experience.

My father had gone to college on the GI Bill after serving in the Navy during WWII. My mother did a year or two of college before going to work and then starting a family. No one else in our extended family had done even that much.

I was attending a pretty exclusive private high school and being pushed toward even more exclusive universities with no basis for making any sense out of the process I was flowing through. Graced with acceptances to two of those universities, how was I to make an informed decision? It came down to my experience sitting across from an alumnus from each of the schools in one of those ritual interviews.

One conversation focused on how the school would serve as a stepping stone to a great future and the tradeoffs and challenges I might have to navigate. The other was a mix of nostalgia for their experience and envy that I was about to embark on a journey they would happily take again if they could walk in my shoes. It shouldn’t be hard to guess which path I chose to walk.

In one case, the process devolved into a connecting the dots experience. The surface elements were there, but there was no heart. In the second, the surface elements tied into deeper patterns and that produced the necessary heart.

Effective Knowledge Work Environments Start From Design

Like yours, I suspect, my inbox is littered with a steady stream of pitches. A few are even from sources I’ve given permission to contact me. Nearly all follow a standard formula (except for the ones promising to teach me that formula); they describe some imagined pain I am experiencing and promise that their product/service/”proven system” will eliminate my pain and bring me joy/riches/satisfaction/relief. All for the low, low, price of “click here” to dive deeper into their sales funnel.

Makes buying a used car a veritable day at the beach.

If you’re in the market for diapers, a new pair of shoes, or that used car, this strategy is annoying but it does work. It’s also rooted in a set of assumptions that conflict with the assumptions necessary to carry out competent and effective knowledge work.

These pitches are “connecting the dots” thinking applied to “solving for pattern” problems. Ignoring that distinction may tempt you into parting with your money in exchange for things that address your problems only by accident. In a connecting the dots world, problem solving is a selection process. In a solving for pattern world, it’s a design process.

For knowledge problems there are no off-the-shelf solutions that you can simply buy. There are no proven systems to adopt and roll out. The best you can hope for is good guidance on how to tailor available tools and practices to your unique circumstances.

Step 0 is recognizing that you have to start with design. Hard to evaluate prospective solutions until you’ve developed a deep understanding and appreciation of the problem at your hand. We are so accustomed to being offered answers that it is too easy, and tempting, to forget that you need to start from a well-articulated question.

Follow the Markers to the Patterns

Many years ago I inherited the Christmas Pageant at our church. Each Fall, Melissa, our Director of Children’s Ministries, reaches out and asks whether I am willing to do it again, I allow as how I had little choice and say yes, another Pageant unfolds, and I can count on a lovely little thank you note from Melissa.

Come next year, I will be several thousand miles away when Christmas rolls around. We began the process of turning over the Pageant to new leadership. Amanda shadowed me this year to discover how much of the work and leadership I had turned over to our high school parishioners. They have all been through the process multiple times, first as angels and sheep, then as shepherds and readers, and finally as directors. My “leadership” consists of giving the older kids space and permission to take ownership of the effort.

The names and faces evolve but the pattern holds. It’s the pattern that I look for and try to understand. Things like the emails and thank you notes are the markers. If the markers lead you to the patterns, that’s good. Markers by themselves are troubling.

Learning to Make Your Own Sausage

I’ve long been an advocate of case method teaching and learning. Jump into the deep end of the pool and hope there are some lifeguards around when you get into trouble. Good cases are a way to mimic the messiness of the real world in a safe and controlled way.

Learning to write those cases was yet another level of learning by doing. There is craft in taking real messiness and packaging it so that the feeling is real but the risks of drowning are contained. Teaching cases typically have a layer of supporting notes for instructors to help them manage the experience.

When you are in case and course design mode, you are often on the lookout for situations that will help you set up and drive home the learning points you are trying to make.

What happens as you get to the edges of what is known? You don’t know enough yet to separate the signal from the noise. You’ve left the safe confines of the pool, you’re in open water, and the lifeguard might also be thrashing next to you.

I had one particular professor who supervised the cadre of doctoral students. Classes with him were not a carefully orchestrated simulation of a case. They were much more like an improv class, although I didn’t have that reference point at the time. He opened up his own thinking process in real time. We watched and followed along as he dove into the mess at hand. As he talked through a line of thought, keywords got jotted down at seemingly random spots on the whiteboard, arrows were drawn between words, other phrases were circled for emphasis (sometimes multiple times over the course of the session), names and references were tossed out in a rush. I typically left that class in a daze with a pile of incomprehensible notes.

The curious thing was that I also typically woke up around 2am the following morning with some flash of insight. At first, I simply thought he was simply a bad teacher. Surely, he could have laid things out crisply and neatly. It took a much longer time for me to understand what was going on. He was teaching us how to swim and survive in open waters. Not something you can do from the shore or inside the lanes of a pool.

The professor’s goal here was to increase our skill at making sense out of complex situations. And that sense was a synthesis of the facts at hand and the perspective we each brought to the situation. It wasn’t about trotting out a textbook answer. It was learning how to invent a better answer than anyone else had come up with yet. They say that no one wants to see how the sausage gets made. Unless you want to learn how to make sausage for yourself.

Deciding where you want to play

My Mom passed away almost twenty years ago. Mom was an anarchist at heart. She tolerated authority when it suited her; ignored it when it didn’t. As her first born and brighter than average she was inclined to trust my reports about school over those of my teachers. One practice that grew from that trust was my ability to take a “mental health day” whenever I thought it necessary. No questions asked, Mom provided the necessary support. She trusted my judgment and was willing to subvert the official system accordingly.

I wonder whether this was one of the seeds that grew into my fascination with organizations and systems. They are inventions of human ingenuity and reflect the design assumptions of their inventors. If you choose to participate in a given organization or system, you can do so blindly or mindfully.

Most organizations aren’t very carefully designed. They’re fuzzy copies and collages of other organizations we’ve experienced. And too many of those fuzzy images are rooted in old industrial assumptions about the weaknesses of “other” people. Half the HR policies in many organizations exist to make sure that no one ever does what John or Jane did that one time.

The deeper problem is that you provoke the behavior you expect. If your designs assume that people can’t be trusted that is the behavior you are more likely to see. It works the other way as well. Something to always keep in mind when you decide which organizations and system you want to play in.

Making expert sense of the facts at hand

It was a stupid little accident on a Saturday afternoon. I fell over on a bike traveling about two miles an hour. But I landed oddly on my shoulder and knew something wasn’t right. My wife drove me to the ER and the verdict was a broken humerus. I was given a sling for my arm, pain meds, and instructions to see my primary care doc on Monday. On Monday, my regular doctor thought there might be more going on based on his reading of the X-ray and sent me off to an orthopedic surgeon. After more X-rays and an MRI the diagnosis grew more ominous. What I actually had was a “comminuted fracture of the right proximal humerus.” What I had done was to crack the top of my humerus like an egg. After several hours of surgery I ended up with multiple screws and a steel plate putting everything back where it belonged. A year’s worth of physical therapy got me back to about 90% of normal.

One of the things that struck me during this process was the interplay between information and expertise. Pain and the inability to move my arm more than a few inches told me pretty clearly that something was wrong. The initial X-ray provided a bit more information but the expertise in the ER was only enough to pass me along to the next experts. More imaging technology combined with more specialized expertise brought me into the operating room. Even then, I had to authorize several options before my orthopedic surgeon could start the surgery. He wouldn’t know until he opened me up whether he could repair the shoulder or would need to replace it. I was lucky, he was good, and a repair was sufficient.

Facts don’t speak for themselves. There’s always a storyteller picking, choosing, and interpreting the facts. Technology can often reveal new details and new facts. But they all depend on a storyteller to make sense of the facts at hand. And sometimes, the right expert has to go and observe directly.

Developing a Sense for your Limits

Most of my fellow doctoral students were a bit younger than I was. They figured out the path they were on a bit quicker than I did. I was back in school after several forays into and out of the real world. A few more years of work experience coupled with a certain orneriness toward authority came in handy as I got closer to finishing the process.

As you get closer to finishing the process, you have dealt with almost every possible gatekeeper. All the remains at the end is convincing your thesis committee that you are ready. The rite of passage here is that you can’t seek permission. You open the last gate for yourself by declaring yourself a peer, shedding the safety of being a consumer of knowledge to join the ranks of producers of new knowledge. The risk you run is that you will have the gate slammed in your face if you judge wrongly. But you have to make the first move.

This transition from consumer of knowledge to producer is no mean feat. A well-designed doctoral program can make this transition smoother. Knowing the existing literature, for example, is one way to ensure that you’re less likely to mistake your ignorance for new insight.

In a knowledge economy, we expect many more people to contribute by producing new ideas and new thinking. What we don’t have is the corresponding support environment and infrastructure to help apprentice knowledge workers navigate the transition from consuming to producing knowledge. We have no shortage of people with the self-confidence to assert that their claims represent new and fresh thinking. We do have a shortage of adult supervision; of people with the knowledge base to provide the guardrails while clever people develop a calibrated sense of their limits.

Chasing greater effectiveness

Grousing is a feature of all organizations. Generally it’s a healthy thing. It’s part of the lubrication that lets them function. There are times, however, when you need to keep an eye on it.

In the earliest days of Diamond it got out of hand as we were trying to to forge one organizational culture out of the band of renegades who had been persuaded to abandon (or were forced out of) their existing organizations. Consultants are not known for their shy, retiring natures. There came a point where one of my partners acquired and issued a set of lapel pins that read “No Whining.” Good for a laugh and it did lower the temperature a bit.

Lately, I’ve been thinking on what a tricky challenge it can be to distinguish between whining and productive critiques. This is particularly true in knowledge intensive kinds of work. If you are turning wrenches and cranking out standardized widgets, there’s generally one right way to do a task. And those with experience are the right ones to teach and enforce that one right way.

Unfortunately, that mindset spills over into settings where it doesn’t apply. We talk about the McKinsey Way or the way we do things at Amazon or Google. We learn to advocate for ideas and positions with more certainty and confidence than the facts warrant—ideas get packaged and sold without suitable qualifications, warnings, and caveats. Everyone becomes a salesman (man is the appropriate gendered term in this instance I think).

There are two lines of attack on this, depending on whether you find yourself on the delivery or receiving end of these conversations. Let’s start with the receiving side; how to be a better consumer of pitches about how to be a more effective knowledge worker.

The first order of business is to realize that you almost never hear a pitch about how to be more effective; you are pitched on how to be more productive. The unexamined assumption is that your goal is to turn out more or to turn it out faster. The problem is that treating knowledge work as simply another kind of production work will often get you enough payoff to fool you into thinking that your overall approach is sound.

When you inevitably reach a state of disappointment with the latest shiny tool/approach/practice, you need to recognize that your disappointment is not with the new tool/approach/practice. It is with the poor mental model hiding in the conventional pitch—that then invokes inadequate patterns you apply to the system you are trying to modify.

I don’t have this all worked out yet. I am convinced that you can’t treat knowledge work as simple production work. I think it is closer to making art. Somehow, you have to simultaneously consider the piece of work at hand, your techniques, and your evolving body of work. At least. There’s a continual process of taking stock, of asking what still works, of experimenting with new ideas, of filtering all well-intentioned advice through the selfish stance of how does this work for me.

The future grows out of the past

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. The cards my wife and I exchanged might have had twenty five words of text between them. After nearly forty years together that was plenty. It doesn’t take a lot to invoke history or trigger a memory of a favorite moment.

We take this for granted in relationships. It used to be that we took it for granted within organizations as well. History mattered. Now, it may simply be that I am turning into one of those old men ranting for the kids to get off of his lawn. But one cost of the relentless pursuit of innovation is historical ignorance. Michael Lewis captured it succinctly in the title of his 1999 book, The New New Thing.

Whatever the new idea, where it came from is ignored. No one is much interested in how we got to now. Pick your hot topic; machine learning, cryptocurrency, going to Mars. The focus is toward the future. When we are caught off guard as promises collide with reality, the chattering classes point to the dots we failed to connect. Their presumption is that the relevant picture exists in the now, readily apparent to anyone who simply looks.

Few want to invest the time in building a picture anchored in the interplay of trends and forces over time. To ask how what has come before shapes the landscape of what is possible next. This is the shift in mindset wrapped up in the phrase solving for pattern.

Grant Yourself Permission

There’s a calligraphed quote that adorns the wall above my desk in a lovely frame. It’s a gift from my wife on our first Christmas together. It reads;

It’s frequently easier to apologize later than it is to get permission beforehand
Grace Murray Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was a legend in computer science circles. One of the inventors of COBOL, often credited with coining the term “bug”, once the highest ranking woman in the US Navy. Google her when you have some time.

The first order interpretation of her advice ties into Silicon Valley’s celebration of rapid innovation and invention. Move fast and break things. It’s an appealing strategy for a hyper-competitive environment. I’ve advocated it and followed it. I may simply be getting too old, but I think Hopper might demand a more insightful and deeper interpretation if she were still with us.

We tie permission to authority. What we overlook is that authority ought to correlate with knowledge. Someone gains authority because they are in a position to see a bigger picture, to take in more of the relevant pattern. Hopper is trying to remind us that authority depends on knowledge. But the knowledge comes before the authority.

If you are the one who is knowledgeable, then you already have the authority. Grant yourself permission.

The kicker, of course, is that you also have to accept responsibility. It’s not about apologizing so much as it is about educating. About sharing the knowledge that is the source of your claimed authority. It is no longer about issuing or following orders. It is about conversations that establish the shared knowledge environment. Peter Drucker, as is so often the case, sums it up nicely.

In a knowledge economy there no such thing as conscripts, there are only volunteers. The trouble is we have trained our managers to manage conscripts.