Ritual by design

My first experience with ritual was as an altar boy when being a boy was a prerequisite and you had to memorize the responses in Latin. Others may have thought about the ritual aspects; I was mostly concerned with not tripping on my alb.

Ritual, and superstition, was a major component of life in the theater. Learning to say “break a leg” instead of “good luck” as an actor took the stage. Discovering what the “Scottish Play” was. Remembering to leave the ghost light on when you were the last one out at the end of the night.

As a techie, I did these things because that was what you did even if they seemed silly to my fiercely rational side. Fitting in and being part of the company was far more important than pointing out the essential illogic of these rituals.

Despite my fundamental skepticism I found myself drawn to organizations and settings that valued rituals. I started my professional career at Arthur Andersen & Co, part of what was once the Big 8 accounting firms. Gray suits and white shirts were the uniform of most days. Andersen was one of the professional service firms that invested heavily in training. I spent many days at their training center outside of Chicago as both student and faculty.

The activities that happened after classes wrapped up each day gradually chipped away at my skepticism. Andersen’s training facility had previously been a small Catholic college campus. It was far outside of Chicago proper. We were pretty much prisoners during the week but Andersen was shrewd enough to invest in its own liquor license to keep the natives from rioting. Classes were filled with practical lessons. Evenings were devoted to knitting people into the culture.

Smack me over the head enough times and I eventually catch on. Perhaps the “soft side” of organization is worth paying attention to. An MBA and a Ph.D. later and I finally grasp that it’s more effective to look at organizations as socio-technical systems. Which is an ornate way to say that both the people and the machines matter.

At the outset I viewed this through the lens of an anthropologist. Organizational culture and the methods and rituals that bound people together were objects of study. They were aspects of the organizational environment and had come into existence through the passage of time. You could nudge things at the margins if you worked hard enough at change management.

I had an odd lesson on organizational stability and flexibility early in my career. The theater group that occupied all of my free time and a good bit of my class time in college was about 90 years old at the time. Shortly after I graduated I was asked to serve as a trustee of the group. Instead of the four years that most people spent connected, I spent an additional ten. I saw a curious thing about history vs. tradition. For students, whatever had happened during their few years in the club was all of history. Traditions just sort of existed; they were only loosely connected to the longer history in students minds.

That came back into play when I was part of the founding group of a consulting firm. We had no history but came from places where history and tradition was a key element of success. We understood that we were not simply growing a new business, we were laying down the experiences and stories that would become our traditions and our rituals. We could be intentional about what stories we chose to celebrate or to ignore.

One example comes to mind. We spent most of our time on the road at client sites. We had virtually no infrastructure of offices to hang out in between assignments. Fortunately for our economics, we also had little down time between assignments. You worked with your team during the week and you went out with your team after work in whatever city you happened to be in. But you might not meet your colleagues on other teams for months. They would only be an email address or a disembodied voice on a conference call.

We were smart enough to invest in monthly All Hands Meetings where we flew everyone into Chicago for a meeting to talk about the business and our work. While there was always a formal agenda, we were more interested in providing space for conversations between and after the official meeting. And we were always on the look out for stories to share.

But the clever thing that happened was an end of the day ritual that took place after work at client sites. There was an online trivia game available in many sports bars at the time. It had a leader board that showed who doing well and it showed the leaders across all the bars and restaurants playing the game that night. The game allowed six characters for a name. Our project teams would agree on a time to play (adjusting for multiple timezones) and they would choose a team name that was “GEM” (short for Diamond, which was the firm’s name) plus the airport code for the client city. So the team working in Wichita would be GEMICT and the team on Wall Street would be GEMLGA. We had pretty smart people on our teams and the goal was to see how many slots on the leader board would belong to GEMXXX teams. If your team grabbed the top spot for the night, we picked up the bar tab. Small outlay, but important bragging rights for the next All Hands Meeting.

The final observation I would make is that we learned not to force these things. Instead, we looked for ideas from the field that we could amplify. Learning to discern what could be amplified versus what would be rejected took time.

Not knowing is an ok place to start

My early theater experience involved staging original productions. We started with a scheduled opening night months in the future and possibly a general concept for what the show would be. More often than not we began without a script. But it was the theater after all and we all believed that “the show must go on.”

Turns out that is enough. Creation is messy and chaotic. There’s always a lot you don’t know. What you learn is that collectively you know something and, with some luck and improvisation in the moment, you can take another step toward opening night. Repeat that loop multiple times, opening night arrives, and there is a show.

Essential to making that work is that everyone needs to be clear about what they do know and what they don’t know. Not knowing is accepted and expected. What is not acceptable, often dangerous, and occasionally life threatening is trying to conceal ignorance.

I didn’t appreciate how important those lessons were while I was learning them. Who does?

There was another set of lessons on offer at the same time. They’re still widely available in lots of environments. These are the lessons about celebrating what you think you know and concealing your limitations.

I believe those have always been dangerous lessons despite their prevalence. The organizational environment that we now inhabit makes those old lessons obsolete. I am most troubled by those who cling to those lessons even as they disintegrate.

Ignorance is a correctable problem; willful ignorance is not.

Figuring out who to listen to

It took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t being heard because I wasn’t taking the stage. I confused doing well in classrooms with having something to say worth hearing. It didn’t occur to me that getting called on was a teacher’s decision, not mine.

As I began to work in the theater, I was content to stay in the wings. For that matter, the actors might have been visible and their lines reached the back of the house. But actors’s lines are someone else’s words.

Having something worth saying and discerning the moments when it can be shared in a way that it will be heard is a much more subtle evolution. One of the steps on that journey for me occurred while I was stage managing a small production in college.

Remember, “drama queen” is a pejorative rooted in the theater. The two leads in this show had not been well cast. Their chemistry was virtually non-existent. For reasons long lost, the director had a poor rapport with the leads and couldn’t fix the problem. While all the technical aspects of the production were humming along nicely, an opening night disaster was the most likely outcome.

The leads didn’t trust each other and they didn’t trust the director. But they did trust me. I spent an inordinate number of hours before and after rehearsals listening to each of the leads pour out their anxieties and fears. They had to give voice to their nightmares and that called for someone to hear them. That got added to my job description.

We did make it to opening night and we ended up with a decent production. For me it was a lesson in what “the show must go on” can entail. Mostly, I filed that lesson away with the other ones about real people in real settings that didn’t fit into my preferred reality of technical rationality.

Some seeds take longer than others to germinate. One particular benefit of working in the live theater is that all the moving parts are readily observable. What I slowly came to appreciate is how it takes all the parts working together to create results to celebrate. That, and the value of human ingenuity to tackle the unexpected when it inevitably happens.

In more complex settings, it can be tempting to just focus on your little piece. This is the technocratic impulse that wants to believe there can be a policy and a procedure for every contingency. If you can step back far enough to see the whole picture, then this technocratic impulse is revealed as the fantasy that it actually is.

The more complex the environment, the more important it is to remember and promote the role of human adaptability and ingenuity. The voices of those ingenious people are often distant from the corridors of power. It is always worth finding them and listening to their perspective and insight.

Learning in a tool saturated world

Before my father became an engineer, he worked as a carpenter. When he worked on project around the house, it was a natural step to enlist his eldest as a helper. I was generally comfortable with basic tools by the time I left for college.

That offered an initial edge when I joined the tech crew in college. The interesting thing about tech crew in a university environment was that you couldn’t make any assumptions about prior knowledge. You had plenty of smart people but most equated learning with what went on in classrooms. What happened while you were helping to build or paint a set was work and was a break from class time. There were no teachers, just a handful of fellow students who got there before you did.

What you had was a classic blue collar apprentice environment hiding inside a competitive academic environment. After key safety lessons about working around power tools, you were expected to watch and learn from fellow students. You learned how to do the work by doing the work.

This, of course, was the way that most of humanity routinely learns. But it was out of sync with what most of us had practiced and absorbed as students up to that point.

That small initial edge my dad gave me led to important side effects. I was an apprentice, but an apprentice who could quickly be handed responsibilities to shepherd other apprentices. I was both teacher and student long before I appreciated that teaching was the fastest, and often best, way to learn. I learned how to protect myself from disaster before trying a new technique. Perhaps most fundamentally, I learned that not knowing was a temporary and correctable condition.

This last lesson might be most relevant in the technology saturated world we live in. The flow of new tools and technologies is continual. Learning to use what is new becomes a three step process. Protect yourself from disaster. Run the experiment. Incorporate the successful experiments into your routine. Repeat

From old expertise to new expertise

When my family moved back to St. Louis in 1964, our family of seven kids was reunited with another 24 first cousins. The 31 of us were spread across four families and separated by only a few miles. We saw a good bit of each other over the years. My uncles were bricklayers and electricians. My aunts had been nurses before they became mothers and housewives. Family and church and community were core.

Not only am I going to the top Catholic school in the city, I am planning on going to college and am about to leave for Princeton, a school so fancy and rarified that we all knew of it. My cousins were mystified that I would pursue such an exotic path. Why go to college at all when you could get a good job now? If you insisted on continuing with school, why not go to St. Louis University? It was a good Jesuit school and then you could become a teacher and get on with the important work of raising a family.

Maybe theirs was the better plan.

I stayed with the student route. That strategy was about doing well and going deep. Each lesson completed led to another of more subtlety and complexity. There’s a logic to this path just as there’s a logic to the path my cousins were on. But that logic is implicit. Whatever path you are on, there is an assumption that you’re absorbed the essential features of the path by osmosis from the environment you grew up in.

My environment contained nothing to osmose. I had no role models to look to, other than what I could glean from my teachers. They knew little of my background. All they could see was that I did well within the walls of their disciplines. My parents knew little of what went on inside my classes. My grades were just fine; no problems meant no need to intervene.

The structure of schools and education was organized into silos–it generally still is. Everyone stayed in their lane. Progress was a function of racing ahead as far and as fast within a given lane as possible. But the notion of staying in your lane was largely an implicit assumption. You knew that was what to do because you had already absorbed it from those who had gone before you.

I didn’t know that.

I didn’t know that the game was to crank through the syllabus and only the syllabus. I didn’t know that exploring connections and linkages between and across courses and disciplines was an activity reserved to designated specialists. I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to pick up books that weren’t on the syllabus and wonder what they had to say about what you were learning elsewhere.

Doing these things upsets the power balance. You aren’t supposed to peek behind the curtain to see how the show is put together. You aren’t supposed to recognize that the curtain is even there.

All of those restrictions on what you are supposed to do make sense in a stable world. If the road is straight and clear, then staying in your lane is the fastest way to get to your destination.

We don’t live in that universe anymore. Deep expertise and specialization lose their power if you have to start building new lanes and new roads. If you’ve got power in the current environment, this kind of change is a potentially existential threat. The specifics of your expertise and specialization have been challenged and potentially undermined. Survival now depends on how readily your old expertise lets you build the expertise you need now. We all have to learn to look behind the curtain and build a new base.

Building systems intuitions

Heroes always need a Sancho Panza. Not for comic relief but for essential logistical support.

In high school I found my way into the theater, not onstage but in the wings. I had a friend who persuaded me to audition with her for her school’s upcoming production. I was horrible. That disaster became a path to working on the tech crew where I learned how much work went into creating the magic.

Even a one-person show has a multitude working out of sight. There are directors, producers, set designers, lighting designers, carpenters, electricians, stage hands, ushers, ticket takers, publicity managers, and the list goes on. I financed a chunk of my college education working in those roles. I met my wife working backstage in community theater.

The role I gravitated to was stage manager, which sits at the intersection of several streams. It is where the design work, preparation work, and backstage efforts come together to support the performance on stage. The insight I gained from that perspective was that excellence depended on blending all of the elements in play. You could get acceptable results from focusing on any one to two elements. But the best outcomes depended on taking advantage of all the components interacting.

They way I would explain that today is that excellence flows from systemic performance. For all that we talk of systems in today’s organizations, developing a true systems perspective runs counter to most of our intuitions. Russell Ackoff remains a source for replacing those intuitions with more principled understanding. The following video is longish but more than worth the time to work with and understand:

Keeping not knowing in mind

The tag line for this blog is a quote from Dorothy Parker, “the cure for boredom is curiosity, there is no cure for curiosity.” I chose it on a whim when I started this experiment while I was teaching at the Kellogg School.

Curiosity is not a popular trait in many circles. Serious professionals are expected to keep curiosity in check, on a short leash in pursuit of clear, focused, objectives. That’s an expectation that has fallen out of sync with the environment we live in. We need to be more curious, not less, in the world we inhabit.

One consequence of cultivating curiosity is that we need to become comfortable with not knowing. This can be surprisingly difficult. Most of the settings we operate in reward the appearance of knowing. In school, we are evaluated and rewarded for demonstrating our knowledge not our ignorance. So too in the world of work. “I don’t know” is seen as an admission of weakness, when it ought to be celebrated as a sign of strength.

To be an effective leader in this world we need to keep not knowing in mind. For all the knowledge and answers we accumulate, we need to stay familiar with not knowing. This is an active process not a passive one. It is not enough to acknowledge that there are things we don’t know and then stay comfortably within the boundaries of what we do know. We need to seek out the edges and wander across them.

Serving my time – learning to teach

Early in my career I knew a little bit and was effective because I was always asking annoying questions to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. In the middle, I thought I knew a fair bit but was often reluctant to share what I did know. The problem then was that I knew enough to realize how much there was to know and knew there was always an expert somewhere who knew more than I did.

Today, I know a good deal, know that I know it, and know how much more always remains to learn. I’ve become more comfortable with the fluctuating balance between knowledge and ignorance. I’ve relearned to be comfortable raising questions, whether out of knowledge or ignorance.

I’ve gotten over the desire to demonstrate that I am the smartest person in the room. Which is good because that happens far less frequently than I once believed it did.

One particular blessing in my development was the chance to work with Tim Gallwey. Tim is the author of The Inner Game of Tennis, which explores how the way we think affects how we act.

One of the central lessons from my work with Tim was how I thought about what it means to be a coach or a teacher. I started with the naive but typical view that a teacher was someone who knew more. Tim offered a more powerful perspective.

It hit home for me during a session on the tennis court. I played decently enough that the court served as a good laboratory to understand Tim’s methods and point. He asked what I would like to work on that morning.

“I’d like to learn how to put spin on my serve.”

“That’s a good idea, Jim. Spin is a useful tool, especially for a left-hander like you. How much spin is on your serve now?”

Excellent question! “Tim, I have no idea.”

“Why don’t you hit a few serves for me? As you do, give me a number between 1 and 5 for how much spin you think you’ve put on the serve.”

I hit some serves and called out my guesses. Tim’s only action at that point was to correct my answers.

“That was more of a 3 than a 4. Yes, that one was a 2.”

What Tim was doing was increasing and calibrating my capacity to observe my performance. It didn’t matter what Tim could see in my serve until he could help me see for myself.

My friend, Alan Kay, likes to say that “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points.” This moment with Tim was when I began to see a deeper level to Alan’s dictum. Finding a better perspective is powerful. Getting others to see from that same vantage multiplies power.

Tim was showing me how to use expert knowledge to help someone else reach a new perspective. Which, of course, starts with empathy not expertise.

Two elements of that, which I’ve found valuable, are remembering what not knowing feels like and looking for blinders built into the current vantage point. Both of which are worthy of their own exploration. Stay tuned.

Stealing practice time from performance

Stage view Bright lights“Standby Cue 103.”

“Go Cue 103.”

We had about two minutes left in the finale. Twenty five dancers filled the stage, the music director was in the pit with another twelve musicians, I was stage right talking to the lighting crew via a headset and the stage crew via hand signals. In about thirty seconds, I would give a “Warn Cue 104” followed by a Standby and a Go.

It was the final night of our ten-city tour and we were performing in a lovely theater at New Trier West High School in Winnetka, Illinois. There’s a story about the space I’ll save for another day. Steve, the only performer not yet on stage tapped me on the shoulder. I looked away from my cue book. Steve was in his costume dressed as the Statue of Liberty—another story for another time.

Ok. He’s about to make his entrance upstage center. I’m not sure why he’s interrupted me.

Until he turns around.

Steve is not actually wearing his costume. He’s taped it on so that it looks normal from the front. From behind he’s naked from head to toe.

I miss giving the warning for Cue 104, but do manage to get out the Standby and Go in time. I then warn the crew to keep their eyes on the next 90 seconds. We set up and execute the next half dozen lighting cues, the band continues to play, and Steve makes his entrance, which starts from upstage center and proceeds downstage to the edge of the orchestra pit. As Steve passes each row of dancers, that row misses a step and recovers.

The finale ends, the curtain falls, and cast and crew breaks into hysterics.

Juvenile? Certainly. Unprofessional? Not really.

One of the payoffs of rehearsal and constant practice is the capacity to go with the flow. And to know when you can tweak the flow without interfering with the audience’s experience. It was the final number in our final performance. The steps were muscle memory at this point. Letting me know at the last moment was more of a gift to the crew than a needed warning.

One thing that puzzles me about ordinary organizations is how they develop capacity to respond to the unexpected, to go with the flow successfully. The magic we see on stage or on the athletic field demands time dedicated to practice and rehearsal. It is the practice and rehearsal that creates the capacity to adapt. That time is built into the process.

Ordinary organizations don’t build this into their process. Learning and rehearsal time is limited to occasional training experiences or stolen moments of on-the-job training. The rare major systems rollout may get planned training and support time.

Conventional wisdom says that people in organizations resist change. What they resist, sensibly, is demands for polished performance without rehearsal. By ignoring the role of rehearsal and practice, organizations end up with lower levels of performance. Rehearsal happens but only by disguising some performance time as a mediocre form of rehearsal. Neither practice or performance is effective.

Taking the half-life of knowledge seriously

I’ve made the claim that the half-life of knowledge is shrinking in most domains. We often frame this from the perspective of the increasing volumes of data and information we are called on to assimilate, but there is something worth teasing out by thinking in terms of pace instead of volume.

One of the first places I encountered this notion of the accelerating decay of knowledge was in reference to its impact in engineering fields. James Plummer, Dean of Stanford’s Engineering School, observed that

“The half of life of engineering knowledge is three to five years. As dean, I used to tell students it doesn’t matter what we teach you because it will be obsolete when you graduate, so go out and have a good time.” The Engineers of the Future Will Not Resemble the Engineers of the Past

He’s right if you think of his teaching responsibility as installing an up-to-date and accurate body of knowledge. While he nods in the direction of life-long learning, he doesn’t say anything about how life-long learning should differ from the way it has been organized in formal educational settings. Our naive assumptions about how learning works are anchored in our experience in schools and classrooms; there’s stuff to be learned, an expert to teach it, and a timetable to follow. At the other extreme, there is on-the-job training with little or no structure or guidance.

We see some attention to the notion of learning how to learn. Most of that, however, focuses on how to do a better job within the structures of courses, classrooms, and schools we feel comfortable with. The proliferation of new channels for learning—Khan Academy, Udemy, MOOCs — stay within the broad outlines of that comfortable structure.

None of that addresses the question of how to approach learning when the knowledge landscape is in constant flux. What do you do if you need to pick up a new skill before someone writes the book or the course you need in this structure? How do you manage your learning when figuring out what you need to learn is the first order of business? Worse, everyone else is in the same predicament; new knowledge is accumulating and old knowledge becoming obsolete faster than the systems we know can adapt.

There is one example I can think of for managing learning under these conditions. That is the world of doctoral students in evolving disciplines.

The assumptions about knowledge and learning baked into work at that level match the environment much more effectively than the assumptions built into studies at earlier stages of learning and knowledge acquisition. That change in assumptions, in fact, is one of the traps that students fall into when they try to make the transition into doctoral level work. It isn’t that the work gets harder. The work doesn’t conform to the practices that worked for acquiring and demonstrating your mastery of a known body of knowledge.

First, you discover that the consensus on what constitutes the relevant body of knowledge is in flux and always will be. As a fledgling expert in the field a doctoral student is now expected to develop a point of view about where the knowledge edges are; eventually, you are expected to push beyond them. In stable fields, you have the luxury of limiting your search for answers to the authoritative texts. In the worlds we are discussing now, you are forced to seek out and make sense out of primary sources. Behaviors that once would have gotten you in trouble–questioning sources, arguing with your teachers, disputing conclusions–are now skills to be developed. You must learn to develop your own models and conclusions to make sense of new data as it appears.

This leads to the second key difference; there are more experts to know of and they disagree. The good ones expect you to disagree with them. Learning is less about finding a master whose feet you can sit at and more about finding colleagues to travel with. Learning takes on the flavor of conversations with challenging people.  Conversations imply that you should expect a balanced distribution of questions, answers, hypotheses, and evidence. Asking “will this be on the exam” becomes a     question you must answer for yourself.

Finally, you must develop map making skills. You are in new territory, out where the dragons lurk. You need to keep track of where the sinkholes and oases lie. This will keep you safe on your own journey and give you something to compare notes on as you encounter other travelers drawing maps of their journeys.