Review-Managing the Unexpected. Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe

Cover - Managing the UnexpectedManaging the Unexpected: Sustained Performance in a Complex World. Third Edition. Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe

Conventional wisdom has it that the job of management is to “plan the work and work the plan.” Wall Street loves to see steady growth in reported earnings and managers learned to give Wall Street what they wanted. Sadly, the world is more complicated than Wall Street analysts would like to believe

Weick and Sutcliffe take an intriguing route in this book—now in its third edition. They ask what lessons might be found in the experiences and practices of high-reliability organizations. What’s an HRO? Flight-deck operations on an aircraft carrier. Nuclear power plant control room. Fire fighters. Cockpit operations on a 757. Common to all of these is a tension between routine operations and potential disaster. All face the problem of how to take ordinary, fallible, human beings and create organizations that work; organizations that operate reliably day-in and day-out, avoiding disasters for the most part, and coping effectively when they do.

While studying HROs is fascinating in its own right, Weick and Sutcliffe successfully connect lessons from HROs to the challenges of running more mundane organizations. The world is throwing more change and complexity at all of us. The problem is that most organizations, by design, are focused on the routine and the predictable. They effectively deny and eliminate the unexpected and the unpredictable, which works well in a stable environment. Less so in today’s world.

The core of the argument is that high-reliability organizations know how to operate mindfully as well as mindlessly (which is the default for most organizations). Mindfulness in this context breaks down into five characteristics focused toward two objectives.

The first objective is anticipating the unexpected. Three characteristics contribute to that:
1. preoccupation with failure,
2. reluctance to simplify interpretations, and
3. sensitivity to operations.

Each of these is a way to detect or amplify weak signals soon enough to do something useful. As Weick points out “unexpected” implies something that has already happened that wasn’t anticipated. You want to figure out that something relevant has happened as soon as possible. The problem is that stuff is always happening and we couldn’t get through an average day without ignoring most of it. The challenge is to differentiate between signal and noise.

One way of separating signal from noise is ignoring the routine. That’s why we call it routine. The trick is to avoid getting caught up with expanding the definition of routine so we can ignore more of it. Take a look back at the Challenger launch failure. Before the catastrophic failure, there had been a series of smaller failures of the O-rings. Each of these “failures” was explained away in the sense that the post-flight review processes concluded that the “minor” failures were actually evidence that the system was working as designed.

The issue is attitudinal. Most organizations, NASA included, treat earlier minor failures as “close calls” and ultimately interpret them as evidence of success. An HRO takes the same data but treats it as a “near miss.” Then the analysis focuses on how to avoid even a near miss the next time round. Small failures (weak signals) are sought out and treated as opportunities to learn instead of anomalies to be explained away.

If anticipating and recognizing the unexpected is the first objective, containing the unexpected in the second. Here the relevant characteristics are a commitment to resilience and a deference to expertise.

Resilience is the term of choice for Weick and Sutcliffe because it highlights key aspects of organizations that typically are denied or glossed over. It acknowledges the human fallibility is unavoidable, that error is pervasive, and reminds us that the unexpected has already happened. A strategy of resilience focuses on accepting that some small error has already occurred and on working to contain the consequences of that error while they are still small and manageable. To be resilient requires an organization to be serious about such practices as not shooting messengers.

Weick and Sutcliffe cite one example from carrier operations where operations were shutdown when a junior member of the crew reported a missing tool. Instead of punishing this person for losing the tool, the captain rewarded them even though operations were suspended while the missing tool was found. Dealing with the small problem was rewarded because everyone recognized the greater risk of ignoring it. The same issues exist in all organizations, although the responses are generally quite different. The result, of course, is that problems are ignored until they are too big both to ignore and, typically, to deal with.

The second dimension to containing problems while they are small and tractable is knowing how to defer to expertise. Expertise can correlate with experience (as long as the experience is relevant). It does not generally correlate with hierarchical rank. Successfully seeking out and benefitting from expertise takes two things. Those up the chain of command must be ready to set examples. Those on the lines need to be assertive about the expertise they have to offer, which includes developing a clearer sense for the expertise that they have.

While the world that Weick and Sutcliffe describe is quite different than the organizations we are accustomed to, it does not require wholesale organizational change programs to get there. The mindfulness that they describe–of anticipating and containing the unexpected–can be practiced at both the individual and small group level. If their analyses and recommendations are sound (they are), then those who practice this mindfulness will gradually take over on the basis of improved performance.

Review: Making Work Visible

 

Making Work Visible: Exposing Time Theft to Optimize Work & Flow Dominica Degrandis.

While drawn largely from the realm of software design and development, Making Work Visible offers advice that applies to all forms of knowledge work. We’re all familiar with the problems; too many demands, arbitrary deadlines, constant interruptions. Degrandis offers practical advice on two levels. First, she lays out simple practices that anyone can use to see the work they are being asked to do and use that visibility to get more of the most important things done. Second, she offers a deeper look at a better way to look at knowledge work than our current bias toward thinking that knowledge work is a form of factory work.

Obviously, I was drawn to this book given my own interest in the challenges created by the invisible nature of knowledge work. We all know that we should be working on the highest value tasks on our lists, that we should carve out the necessary time to focus on those tasks, and that we are lying to ourselves when we pretend that we can multitask. It isn’t the knowing that’s hard, though, it’s the doing.

Degrandis offers simple methods to accomplish that anchored in the theory and practice of kanban; make the work to be done visible, limit work-in-process, and focus on managing flow. I’ve claimed that Degrandis offers insight into the limitations of viewing knowledge work as factory work. Is it a contradiction that the solution is drawn from the Toyota Production System? Not if you understand why kanban differs from our myths about factory work.

The purpose of a kanban system is to make the flow of work visible, then focus on making and keeping that flow smooth. You search for and eliminate spots where the flow slows down. You focus on the rhythm and cadence of the system as a whole. You learn that you cannot run such a system at 100% capacity utilization. As with a highway system, 100% capacity utilization equals gridlock.

What makes this book worth your time is that Degrandis keeps it simple without being simplistic. She offers a good blend of both “why to” and “how to.” That’s particularly important because you will need the whys to address the resistance you will encounter.

Review: Filters Against Folly

Filters against follyFilters Against Folly: How To Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent Garrett Hardin

You never know which books and ideas are going to stick with you. I first read Filters Against Folly in the early 1990s. Once a month, the group I was with met for lunch and discussed a book we thought might be interesting. I wish I could remember how this book got on the list. I’ve given away multiple copies and continue to find its approach relevant.

Some of the specific examples are dated and I think Hardin goes too far in some of his later arguments. What has stuck with me, however, is the value of the perspective Hardin adopts and the process he advocates.

We live in a world that depends on experts and expertise. At the same time, whatever expertise we possess, we are ignorant and un-expert about far more. Today, we seem to be operating in the worst stages of what Isaac Asimov described in the following observation:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.

Hardin offers a practical way out of this dilemma. We need not simply defer to expertise, nor reject it out of hand. Rather than focus on the experts, Hardin shifts our attention to the arguments that experts make and three basic filters anyone can apply to evaluate those arguments.

Hardin’s fundamental insight is that as lay persons our responsibility is to serve as a counterweight to expert advocacy; the expert argues for “why” while the rest of us argue for “why not?” It is our role to “think it possible you may be mistaken.”

The filters are organized around three deceptively simple questions:

  • What are the words?
  • What are the numbers?
  • And then what?

When looking at the language in advocacy arguments, the key trick is to look for language designed to end or cut off discussion or analysis. Of course, in today’s environment, it might seem that most language is deployed to cut off thinking rather than promote it. Hardin offers up a provocative array of examples of thought-stopping rather than thought-provoking language.

Shifting to numbers, Hardin does not expect us all to become statisticians or data analysts but he does think we’re all capable of some basic facility to recognize the more obvious traps hidden in expert numbers. That includes numerate traps laid inside expert language. In Hardins estimation “the numerate temperament is one that habitually looks for approximate dimensions, ratios, proportions, and rates of change in trying to grasp what is going on in the world.” Both zero and infinity hide inside literate arguments that ought to be numerate.

The Delaney Amendment, for example, forbids any substance in the human food supply if that substance can be shown to cause cancer at any level. That’s a literate argument hiding zero where it causes problems. The numerate perspective recognizes that our ability to measure  improves over time; what was undetectable in 1958 when the Delaney Amendment was passed is routinely measurable today. The question ought to be what dosage of an item represents a risk and is that risk a reasonable or unreasonable risk to take on?

Hardin’s final question “and then what?” is an ecological or systems filter. In systems terms we can never do merely one thing. Whatever intervention we make in a system will have a series of effects, some intended, some not. The responsible thing to do is to make the effort to identify potentially consequential effects and evaluate them collectively.

To be effective in holding experts to account, we must learn to apply all three of these filters in parallel. For example, labeling something as an “externality” in economics is an attempt to use language to treat an effect as a variable with a value of zero in the analysis.

For a small book, Filters Against Folly offers a wealth of insight into how each of us might be a better citizen. The questions we face are too important to be left in the hands of experts, no matter how expert.

Review – Sound advice on managing collaboration in teams

Collaborative IntelligenceCollaborative Intelligence: Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems. J. Richard Hackman.

I first met Richard Hackman in my doctoral studies. I was taking his course on the social psychology of organizations and the twenty five page reading list was an early hint that I might not have fully understood what I had signed up for. The enrollment was small so there was no place to hide. I did survive the experience and learned much of what was on that reading list. Better still, Hackman was THE authority on creating and leading teams.

This book grew out of his work with the U.S. Intelligence community post 9/11. That work flowed out of the belief that “what is most needed these days to generate the insights that policymakers demand are interdisciplinary teams that cross traditional institutional boundaries.” That is a need that is central to the mission of any knowledge intensive organization operating in today’s environment. This book is Hackman’s distillation of decades of work with teams of all forms and missions.

The essential message of the book is that the biggest payoff in quality team results comes from the work the goes into setting the team up for success at the outset. Getting the initial conditions right and crafting good performance strategies proves to be far more important than team-building, coaching, or process management along the way. Think of it as empirical support for the adage “well begun is half done.”

The book is organized around exploring and elaborating on six enabling conditions that set a team up for ultimate success. These six conditions each get their own chapter:

1. creating a real team (rather than a team in name only),

2. specifying a compelling direction or purpose for the team,

3. putting the right number of the right people on the team,

4. specifying clear norms of conduct for team behavior,

5. providing a supportive organizational context, and

6. making competent team-focused coaching available to the team

Much of what follows is solid, but unsurprising, advice for creating and directing teams. That doesn’t make it any less valuable, particularly given how often it is ignored in practice.

There are interesting insights that are especially relevant for teams doing knowledge intensive and innovative work. For example, Hackman points out that “only rarely do teams spontaneously assess which members know what and then use that information in deciding whose ideas to rely on most heavily.” This is part of a larger problem that managers generally don’t seem to do a very good job of designing work to take advantage of what teams can bring to a problem. Managers seem to be biased toward carving tasks up in a quest for the illusion of manufacturing efficiency rather than on “ways to elicit and integrate the contributions of a diverse set of performers.”

In an interesting parallel to Fred Brooks’s observations about the “mythical man-month”, understaffing teams seems to produce extra motivation and energy, while overstaffing appears to mostly lead to problems not benefits.

Diverse, interdisciplinary, teams are assembled on the premise that pooling team members collective knowledge and expertise will produce more innovative solutions. Here is Hackman’s cautionary take on that goal:

Perhaps the greatest advantage of teamwork is that team members have diverse information and expertise that, if properly integrated, can produce something that no one member could possibly have come up with. It is ironic, therefore, that teams typically rely mainly, and sometimes exclusively, on information that is shared by everyone in the group. Information uniquely held by individual members may not even make it to the group table for review and discussion. For decision-making and analytic tasks, that can significantly compromise team performance.

This reinforces his advice that team effectiveness depends greatly on the design of team structure, membership, and performance strategies. Putting the information in the room is not sufficient; you must also explicitly design for surfacing and sharing that information.

One of the most interesting findings about effective teams comes from research that Hackman worked on with his colleague Connie Gersick. They discovered an interesting pattern in how effective teams managed their time over the course of a project. They found that

every group developed a distinctive approach toward its task immediately upon starting work, and then stayed with that approach until precisely half-way between its first meeting and its project deadline. At that point, all teams underwent a major transition that included altering member roles and behavior patterns, re-engaging with outside authority figures or clients, and exploring new strategies for proceeding with the work. Then, following that midpoint transition, teams entered a period of focused task execution that persisted until very near the project deadline, at which time a new set of issues having to do with termination processes arose and captured members’ attention.

This would seem to contradict assumptions about what constitutes best practice in project management circles. Project managers are trained and rewarded for their ability to develop an initial plan and carry it to conclusion. Few project managers are likely to prepare or submit project work plans built around the assumption that the plan will be scrapped and rewritten halfway through the effort.

The way that I reconcile this apparent contradiction is to observe that many projects are not about exploration or innovation but about executing to a well specified final result. Hackman and Gersick’s observations appear to be most relevant to teams tasked with addressing the non-routine. It suggests that project managers need to be very careful to understand and communicate the limits and relevance of mainstream project management practices when dealing with less well-defined questions. This is increasingly relevant in the turbulent environment that more and more organizations are compelled to work in today.

This is not a long book, but it is dense. There is a lot of wisdom within that is grounded in a combination of rich field experience and rigorous thinking.

Review – Only Humans Need Apply


Only Humans Need ApplyOnly Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines
Thomas H. Davenport, Julia Kirby

In his most recent book, Tom Davenport, along with co-author Julia Kirby, provides an excellent entry point and framework for understanding the evolving relationship between smart people and smart machines. There’s a great deal of hand-wringing over technology encroaching on jobs of all sorts. This is hand-wringing that arises with every new technology innovation stretching back long before the days of Ned Ludd. Davenport and Kirby avoid the hand-wringing and take a close look at how today’s technologies—artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc.—are changing the way jobs are designed and structured.

They articulate their goal as

“to persuade you, our knowledge worker reader, that you remain in charge of your destiny. You should be feeling a sense of agency and making decisions for yourself as to how you will deal with advancing automation.”

In large part, they succeed. They do so by digging into a series of case histories of how specific jobs are re-partitioned, task by task, between human and machine. It’s this dive into the task-level detail that allows them to tell a more interesting and more nuanced story than the simplistic “robots are coming for our jobs” version that populates too many articles and blog posts.
Central to this analysis is to distinguish between automation and augmentation, which they explain as

“Augmentation means starting with what minds and machines do individually today and figuring out how that work could be deepened rather than diminished by a collaboration between the two. The intent is never to have less work for those expensive, high-maintenance humans. It is always to allow them to do more valuable work.”

They give appropriate acknowledgement to Doug Engelbart’s work, although the nerd in me would have preferred a deeper dive. They know their audience, however, and offer a more approachable and actionable framework. They frame their analysis and recommendations in terms of the alternate approaches that we as knowledge workers can adopt to negotiate effective partnerships between ourselves and the machines around us. The catalog of approaches consists of:

  • Stepping Up—for a big picture perspective and role
  • Stepping Aside—to non-decision-oriented, people centric work
  • Stepping In—to partnership with machines to monitor and improve the decision making
  • Stepping Narrowly—into specialty work where automation isn’t economic
  • Stepping Forward—to join the systems design and building work itself

Perhaps a little cute for my tastes, but it does nicely articulate the range of possibilities.

There’s a lot of rich material, rich analysis, and rich insight in this book. Well worth the time and worth revisiting.

Carve out time and space for deep thinking

 

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport

If your value to an organization depends on the quality and insight of your thinking, Cal Newport’s latest book, Deep Work, offers important insights about how to think about your thinking. The forces at work in our environment and in our organizations favor quick, shallow, and social over other forms of thought. That is generally adequate for much of the activity that fills our days.

Exceptional value, however, finds its roots in sustained, focused, individual thinking and reflection. Deep Work builds the case for this mode of thinking and offers paths to carve out the necessary time and develop the necessary mental muscles to engage in deep work more intentionally and predictably.

Newport defines deep work as

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

The ability to think deeply is a skill, so it can be developed. Much of the book offers counsel on techniques and practices that can help you develop your skills at deep work.

Newport is an academic computer scientist. In his world the contrasts between deep and shallow work can be stark. His binary distinction doesn’t transfer neatly to organizational settings where it is more useful to think in terms of a spectrum of work with shallow and deep anchoring the extremes. With the pressure toward superficial and shallow, there is great opportunity for individual knowledge workers to become more proficient at going deep.

Newport does offer practical advice for how to make deep thinking more possible. That advice needs tuning and refinement to work well in most complex organizations. Newport sums up why that effort matters thusly;

A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement—it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done. Deep work is important, in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester.

Book Review – Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

CreativityIncCover

 

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace,
Random House, New York, 2014

 

This is an excellent case study of creativity and collaboration at scale. Ed Catmull was one of the co-founders of Pixar. With co-author/collaborator Amy Wallace, Catmull reflects on the lessons he and his colleagues have learned over nearly three decades of superior creative work. 

There’s a management summary of key lessons at the end of the book. For example, here’s Catmull on errors: 

Do not fall for the illusion that by preventing errors, you won’t have errors to fix. The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.

Pithy, but you’ll do yourself a disservice if you skip ahead to the conclusion. The value here is in the details and the unfolding stories of challenges met and mistakes made. 

I’ve been a fan of the movies forever and I’ve always been intrigued by the complexity hinted at in the credits. It’s easy to be dazzled by the egos of movie stars and auteur directors. The real work of any movie is hideously complex and interdependent. With the likes of Toy Story or The Incredibles, you must integrate art, science, technology, and business in a dynamic balancing act that spans months and years. This is organizational and management challenge in the extreme. 

Catmull is a computer scientist by training who grew into an executive role in a business that makes money by creating art collaboratively. The lessons here are applicable in any organizational context. They are all the more important because the organizational and economic world is moving along paths that Pixar has already travelled. Catmull’s observations and lessons learned are a report from the future. 

Organizations are backward focused. Accounting systems, standard operating procedures, human resource policies all look backwards. That can be appropriate in a slowly evolving world, but that is not the world we live in. That we live in a time of rapid change may be a cliche, but that does not make it less true. Catmull offers timely advice for this new world:

Whether it’s the kernel of a movie idea or a fledgling internship program, the new needs protection. Business-as-usual does not. Managers do not need to work hard to protect established ideas or ways of doing business. The system is tilted to favor the incumbent. The challenger needs support to find its footing. And protection of the new—of the future, not the past—must be a conscious effort.

Congratulations to Euan Semple on the publication of his first book “Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do”

Euan Semple’s first book(of many I hope) has just hit the net in e-book format. It’s already on my iPad awaiting my next flight. I’ve known Euan long enough to know that it will be excellent even before I read it so I am recommending it now. I’ll follow up with a review later.

– The Obvious? – The eBook edition of my book is published!: “The eBook edition of my book is published!

MONDAY, DECEMBER 19, 2011 AT 4:57PM

NewImage

Thanks to the guys at Wiley the eBook edition of my book “Organizations don’t tweet, people do” is available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes. You can also get it from amazon.com.

From the blurb:

Practical advice for managers on how the Web and social media can help them to do their jobs better.

Today’s managers are faced with an increasing use of the Web and social platforms by their staff, their customers, and their competitors, but most aren’t sure quite what to do about it or how it all relates to them.

Corporations Don’t Tweet People Do provides managers in all sorts of organizations, from governments to multinationals, with practical advice, insight and inspiration on how the Web and social tools can help them to do their jobs better. From strategy to corporate communication, team building to customer relations, this uniquely people-centric guide to social media in the workplace offers managers, at all levels, valuable insights into the networked world as it applies to their challenges as managers, and it outlines practical things they can do to make social media integral to the tone and tenor of their departments or organizational cultures.

A long-overdue guide to social media that talks directly to people in the real world in which they work

Grounded in the author’s unparalleled experience consulting on social media, it features eye-opening accounts from some of the world’s most successful and powerful organizations Gives managers at all levels and in every type of organization the context and the confidence to make better decisions about the social web and its impact on them”

(Via .)

Review: “The New Edge in Knowledge”

The New Edge in Knowledge: How knowledge management is changing the way we do business, O’Dell, Carla and Cindy Hubert

Carla O’Dell and her co-author, Cindy Hubert, have been tilling the fields of knowledge management since the earliest days of the notion. In their latest effort, The New Edge in Knowledge, they take stock of where the field has been, where it is today, and how it is evolving. With their work at the APQC (American Productivity and Quality Center), they’ve always split their time between the trenches and the big picture. Spread that over 15-20 years and the result is lots of pragmatic guidance buttressed by an equal measure of real examples.

O’Dell has always supported the notion that knowledge management is primarily an organizational challenge, that is aided by the effective use of technology but not dependent on it. That position remains strong here. Fortunately, the rest of the world appears to be catching up to this perspective. In many respects, this book is deceptively simple. It tends to gloss over the organizational resistance that many KM efforts will encounter as they are deployed. Granted, that isn’t a specific goal of the book. Nevertheless, KM can present unusual problems of resistance to change because the target audience (knowledge workers in all shapes and sizes) constitutes such a critical resource for the organization. Moreover, they have greater degrees of freedom in whether and how they choose to cooperate, support, or sabotage KM efforts.

Overall, this is an excellent introduction to the state of KM in today’s organizations and a usefully pragmatic playbook for someone wanting to put an effective KM program into practice within their organization. Many of the topics benefit from deeper dives to understand them, but this is the place to start for a coherent view that effectively integrates the big picture with a pragmatic approach to getting started and making progress.

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.