Muddling through as smart strategy

There’s a certain subset of academic articles that are as, or more, famous for their titles as they are for their insights. Charles Lindblom’s “The Science of Muddling Through” has to be on that list. Lindblom’s field was public policy but his insights are more broadly applicable. 

He starts with a simple enough observation; administrators don’t behave the way that theory says they should. Textbook decision processes of carefully articulating objectives, developing options, and selecting solutions that optimally meet objectives don’t show up in the wild. Real managers “muddle through,” making incremental changes and nudging complex systems in directions they hope will prove “better.” 

Lindblom’s insightful question was to wonder whether administrators weren’t as dumb as they looked. Theorists have the luxury of pretending that history doesn’t exist; real managers always start from Ken Boulding’s observation that “things are the way they are because they got that way.” The real world always imposes real constraints. 

The simplifying assumptions that economists and model builders must use to make their work tractable can be acceptable for simple enough problems. It’s dangerous to believe that the techniques that work for suitably constrained problems scale. Problems up the ladder aren’t simply bigger, they are more complex. That complexity transforms tractable problems into wicked problems.

“Muddling through” is what actually works; the primary metric for practicing managers. 

Making Room for Change

Image by Anita Smith from Pixabay

My undergraduate years were dominated by the theater. Most of my free time and a substantial percentage of what should have been class time was spent working on some aspect of the Princeton Triangle Club. By the time I graduated, I had done most every job backstage that existed and been elected an officer of the Club.

Shortly after I graduated, I was elected a Trustee of the Club. Members of Triangle that you are likely to have heard of include Jimmy Stewart, Jose Ferrer, Josh Logan, and Brooke Shields. My four years flowed into an additional ten as a Trustee.

That continuity gave me some perspective about organizations that I might not have gotten otherwise. This perspective had to do with history, tradition, and time horizons. At that time the club was about 90 years old. We had lots of history and history implies traditions. But I discovered a curious thing about traditions. For most members of the club, history was whatever happened during their four years.

There was no way to differentiate between a tradition stretching back decades and an accidental string of events covering your undergraduate tenure. I was frequently bemused and amused by how often I heard undergraduates tell me “this is the ways it’s always been done” about something first done three years earlier.

I suspect this had a lot to do with my focusing on the interplay between innovation and organizational change. The part of me fascinated by technology seeks out change. What new way have we dreamed up to make some piece of technology obsolete? Who needs a bank teller when we have an ATM? Why bother with cash when you have Venmo?

The Triangle Trustee part of me that sees a tradition crystallized out of a short span of experience is sympathetic about those who’ve just figured out how to swipe their credit card and are tripped up by the new card with a chip instead of a magnetic stripe. Doubly confused, perhaps, when the new card has both a stripe and a chip.

In a sense, we’re all stuck as undergraduates. Whatever we encounter is always “the way it’s always been done” as far as we can tell. It takes time and deliberate effort to separate the threads of useful tradition and accidental stability.

Sleep Deprivation is a Bad Management Strategy

It was shortly after midnight. The cast was seated or sprawled in the aisles in the house. I was onstage, clipboard in hand, with the Director, Choreographer, Band Leader, and Tech Director. We had just completed Tech Rehearsal. We opened in four days. We were about to do “Notes”, where the Director and others would walk through all of the things that needed fixing or adjusting. As Production Stage Manager, I was poised to capture all of those to dos on my clipboard. 

Milt Lyons, the Director, had been working with the Triangle Club since 1955, two years after I was born. Scarcely his first rodeo. 

We had worked together before, but I was unprepared for his very first note.

He deputized two of the cast to escort me to my dorm and put me to bed. I turned my clipboard over to my assistant and left with Milt’s deputies. Fifteen hours of sleep later I was back on stage. A bit of quick arithmetic indicated that I had been working on three hours of sleep a night for the preceding week. Nor had any of my professors in any of my classes seen me that week. 

This intervention didn’t lead to any sudden epiphany; I continued to make poor choices about how I managed my time and energy. But it did plant an important seed. A seed that did take root and eventually led to more respect for balance in creative work. We talk about knowledge work in abstract, cerebral, terms. Bodies are simply transport systems for moving brains from place to place. 

When circumstances tempt me to pretend that my brain operates in splendid isolation. I remember that moment. There’s Milt announcing that the health of an entire production needed one foolish young stage manager to go get some sleep.

Sharing a Pint

Photo by Marcus Herzberg from Pexels

My first job out of college was with the consulting arm of Arthur Andersen & Co. (which has since morphed into Accenture). Andersen invested heavily in training their staff and went so far as to buy their own college campus west of Chicago to house staff while attending classes. I spent many a day there as student and faculty.

Andersen may have been the only professional services firm to have its own liquor license. The training center was in the middle of nowhere and the partners deemed it smarter to set up a bar on campus rather than set hordes of recent college graduates loose after class. Days were spent learning the practicalities of auditing or computer programming. Evenings were devoted to knitting people into the culture.

I don’t know that that was a design criteria for the facility. It was certainly a result. After classes, students mixed with faculty, junior staff with partners. Over beers, the stories of successes and failures were told. Connections were made face-to-face that made later conference calls more effective. We were all turned into “Androids” and pleased with the result.

Two decades later, I’m part of a small core group creating a new consulting firm. There are about 25 of us at the start, refugees from Accenture, McKinsey, and elsewhere. But we aspire to much; our goal is to grow and compete with the organizations we had left. Six years later we have more than a thousand professionals across the U.S. and a foothold in the E.U.

We’ve all seen what investments in training and a strong culture can do. But we don’t have a college campus handy. We’re operating out of offices sublet from our lawyers. Our consultants, when they’re not at a client site, work from wherever home might be. Our only rule is that consultants must live near an airport large enough that they can reach client sites on Monday mornings.

One of the core mechanisms we used to create and reinforce a culture of our own was to convene All Hands Meetings once a month. Everyone came to Chicago. We did training and shared updates on the business.

It took some fighting with our CEO, but we designed the agendas with lots of time between sessions. And partners picked up the bar tabs in the evenings.

We did one more thing to jumpstart creating a culture out of nothing. We sought out “signature stories” of client incidents and events that represented the culture we sought. Some we shared in the formal agenda. Some we dropped into hallway conversations. Some we saved for the bar.

Taking the Stage

LecternI got involved in theater early on in my high school days. I was quite happy working backstage in various capacities. There was a production that a friend, Kathy, persuaded me to audition for with her. It was terrifying, a disaster softened only by being mercifully brief. Clearly, I was not cut out for the stage; I wasn’t brave enough.

My teachers had another agenda. They expected me to do readings at the lectern during Daily Mass. That led to being voluntold to deliver a brief talk on the first anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. That led to a Science Fair project that required me to present my work to judges multiple times as I gradually worked my way up through the statewide competition and eventually a trip to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Through all of this I was absorbing lessons about knowledge work, although I didn’t have that vocabulary at the time. First, public speaking isn’t about courage so much as it’s an exercise in rehearsal, repetition, and practice. Second, curiosity is an excellent driver of energy that can be channeled into sharing what you’re learning. Third, it’s hard to make an impact without sharing.

Knowledge and knowledge work exists to be shared. It won’t share itself. If you want what you learn to make a difference, you have to take the stage.

Remember When or What’s Next – Choosing a Perspective

We rolled the last road box up the ramp and onto the truck. We were done. The truck was on its way to Chicago, our next stop. The stage was now bare, empty of the sets, lights, and cast that had filled it a few hours earlier. I had one last task as the Stage Manager before heading off to the cast party now in more than full swing.

My last responsibility was to make sure that the “ghost light” was on. The theater is replete with custom and tradition. You never wish a cast member “good luck,” it’s “break a leg.” It’s “The Scottish Play” never “Macbeth.” And, you never leave a stage dark; there’s always at least one light left on over the stage. They’ll tell you it’s a safety thing; you don’t want someone to walk off the edge of the stage by accident. But, it’s really to keep the ghosts away.

The thing about a bare stage is that it exists between an ending and a beginning. There are old stories to be told and new stories to create. Either is a worthy task; it’s a choice of perspective. 

Economist Joseph Schumpeter developed the notion of “creative destruction;” the idea that innovation depended on getting rid of the old to make way for the new. It’s easiest to see in the demolition of old factories to make room for new ones. It’s harder to suss out when we’re talking about shedding obsolete ideas. 

This seems to be a relatively unexplored aspect of knowledge work. While we talk about the half-life of knowledge and the speed with which new knowledge proliferates, I can’t think of any advice about how to effectively mark the ending of dead ideas. While we want to learn from history, we also want to avoid being trapped in it. Better to adopt the iconic question from The West Wing, “What’s Next?”

If you do knowledge work, you need to become a ‘pracademic’

Loyola’s Quinlan School has just launched a new Next Generation MBA. Project Management is a required course in the curriculum and I was asked to take the lead in designing that course. We’re now halfway through the first iteration of the course. I had an opportunity this past weekend to speak at PMI Chicagoland’s Career Development Conference and opted to use the course design and rollout effort to reflect on what larger, emerging, lessons I saw.

During the course design process, I learned a new label to describe me. It turns out that I am a “pracademic”; someone who brings a practitioner’s perspective to an academic environment. While it turns out that the label isn’t terribly new, I just stumbled across it.

I assert that if you are a knowledge worker, you need to become a pracademic as well.

What is a pracademic?

A quick glance at Google’s ngram viewer suggests that the term, “Pracademic” traces back to the mid-1970s and saw a significant uptick in the early 2000s. There’s a seminal 2009 academic paper on the term by Paul Posner, “The Pracademic: An Agenda for Re‐Engaging Practitioners and Academics that’s a good entry point.

The primary focus seems to have been on the notion of bringing relevant practitioner experience back into the academic environment. Like all good portmanteaus, however, pracademic elicits a constellation of reactions.

Among those is the more general notion of blending practical and theoretical knowledge. An admirable and long sought goal but one that, probably unsurprisingly, is more difficult to put into practice than it is to describe in theory.

It’s hard enough to be competent on either side of the divide. Working both sides effectively is harder still. With the continuing and accelerating explosion of knowledge, the need to do precisely that has become simultaneously more challenging and more necessary. This is a topic that has drawn my attention before:

Living in exponential times means this explosion has always been underway. It’s important to accept that this is an explosion that doesn’t end; there is no point at which the curve is likely to level off. Waiting for things to settle down is a fool’s errand.

If you opt for the role of a pracademic it is a matter of accepting that this is a path you will be walking for as long as you wish or are able. Whatever credentials or experience you might collect, there is no marker for being done.

Why does this matter for knowledge work?

Knowledge work is perhaps the purest expression of this notion. Your capacity to deliver effective results is a function of how well you can assess the practical situations you face and then apply the most pertinent and relevant aspects of your cumulative knowledge base.

While the origins of the term pracademic are anchored in carrying practitioner knowledge back into the academy, knowledge work in the environment we’ve been talking about works the other direction. What does it mean to take theory back into practice?

Knowledge work demands leveraging theory. As a knowledge worker, you are rarely granted the luxury of time off to fully study and integrate the latest and greatest developments in your field of expertise. At the same time, if you don’t continue to add to your expertise, your ability to contribute and make a difference diminishes.

How does this change the shape of practice?

The late Donald Schön of MIT addressed this line of thought with his notion of “reflective practice“. Fundamental to the notion of reflective practice is building and testing a robust theory of action.

My particular interests are in action that occurs in organizational environments; action that calls for coordinating the efforts of multiple actors. Practice takes place within those social and organizational environments. Applying theory within this practice environment benefits from understanding key aspects of how thinking connects to action there.

There is a persistent mythology about organizations that rationality should prevail and that anything other than rational decision making represents some level of pathology. This is an area where academic research and theory is especially illuminating.

There are two aspects of thinking relevant to navigating this environment. The first relates to a distinction between oral and literate thinking. This distinction was mapped out by Walter Ong, a Jesuit historian and philosopher. Ong examined the impact of the invention of writing on culture and institutions. At root, his argument is that literacy enables us to get thinking outside of our heads and that this transition is an essential, prerequisite, step in enabling the rise of rational thought.

While complex rational thought is rooted in literate modes of thinking, organizations are environments that predate literacy. They blend oral and literate modes of thought. Most particularly, organizational power dynamics are rooted in oral modes of thought. Arguments do not carry the day simply by being the most logical and rational. This is puzzling and confusing to those who’ve made the effort to become adept at literate thought.

One rule of literate thought, fortunately, is that you do not simply accept someone else’s word, you go and see for yourself. This leads to the second aspect of accepting the assumption that organizations behave rationally; the discoveries of those who went and looked. There is a growing evidence base about the limits of rationality in organizations.

Herb Simon advanced organizational understanding significantly when he pointed out that our desire for rationality was bounded by innate limitations in our ability. “Bounded rationality” meant that however much we might strive to make rational decisions, there were always limits of time and capacity. Real decision makers in real organizations “satisfice;” they settle for “good enough” answers.

Simon’s observation that theoretical rationality was bounded sparked a stream of research starting with Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman that gradually articulated the extent of the various failure modes of rational thought and established the field of behavioral economics. Kahneman’s 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, provides an excellent entry point into this realm.

Where do you start?

Suppose I’ve made a good enough case. You’d like to begin operating in a more intentional “pracademic” mode. What do you do next? Based on my own travels along this path I can suggest a 2-part reading list and some new practices to adopt.

The reading list contains some core theory and introductions to a starter set of practices.

Core Theory Readings

Starter Practices

There are three foundational practices that should be part of your repertoire.

The first is one you likely already possess; a systematic reading habit. Actually, any reading addiction is a good starting point (cereal boxes were my gateway drug). Over time, you’ll likely find it worthwhile to put some support systems around your habits. There’s a reason your professors wanted you to produce bibliographies to accompany your work. Unfortunately, they sometimes forget to explain the why behind the what. Why and how to keep track of what you read is a subject of its own. We’ll save that for another day. For now, if you don’t have a tool to manage this practice, I suggest you take a look at Zotero | Your personal research assistant.

Reading is the fuel for your own thinking. The second core practice you want to invest in here is better note-taking. That’s covered excellently in Sönke Ahrens How to Take Smart Notes in the core reading list. I’ve got a review of his book here – Unexpected Aha Moments – Review – How to Take Smart Notes. I would also suggest taking a look at Getting Outside Your Head.

Over time your note-taking will evolve into note-making as you become more practiced in using your reading to engage in asynchronous conversations with writers. You’re going to want to start engaging in conversations with yourself, which is the third core practice. There are multiple approaches to developing a journaling habit. While journaling is often associated with doing emotional reflection and work, it’s also a tool for doing intellectual reflection and work.

What comes next?

You are now on a lifelong learning path. Perhaps you were already on it and now have some new tools to work with. You will discover that you’re walking this path with others on similar journeys. Strike up a conversation and share your discoveries.

Learning to See-Improving Knowledge Work Capabilities

My wife is a photographer. Quite a good one, in fact. One sure way to annoy her is to ask what kind of camera she uses after admiring one of her photos.. It’s her eye, not the camera, that recognizes the perfect shot. The tool may well be the least important element in the mix.

My own photography has gotten better courtesy of time spent in apprentice mode by her side. Photography is also an example of a knowledge work capability that can shed light on performance improvement in a knowledge context. The primary performance metric is whether you can capture the image you envision. Secondary metrics might include meeting time, budget, and other constraints on the image. In some settings, you may also need to be able to articulate the logic for why the image you eventually capture meets the criteria set.

If your goal, for example, is to capture a simple selfie to demonstrate that you were there at Mt. Rushmore, anything with both you and the mountain in frame and in focus will suffice. As you goals evolve, you also acquire new concepts and vocabulary; composition, depth of field, light conditions, focal length. exposure.

Meeting those goals may lead you to exploring and adopting new tools. A better camera might well enable you to capture images that weren’t possible with starter tools. But the functions and features of more sophisticated tools might just as well not exist if you don’t have the corresponding concepts to work with.

These concepts and the tools all need to be in service to creating the images you imagine. You don’t learn them in theory or in isolation. You learn them by doing the work and getting feedback. Over time, you also learn to give yourself better feedback.

Ira Glass has an excellent series of short videos on storytelling that fit here and fit knowledge work in general. The whole series is worth your time and attention–Ira Glass on Storytelling – This American Life. The nut graf, however, is something to keep close at hand as you work at your craft:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

There is craft behind all knowledge work. You get better at craft work by being intentional about getting better. And by accepting that craft lies in the mix of tools, techniques, practices, mentors, and peers. It’s a mistake to remain wed to the first tool you pick up, It’s equally a mistake to confuse changing tools with improving your craft.

Learning to plan

I often find that I give myself pretty good advice as long as I remember to revisit what that advice was.

Two years ago I read Peter Morville’s Planning for Everything: The Design of Paths and Goals and managed to post a review here—Review: Planning for Everything: The Design of Paths and Goals.

My advice then was that this was a book worth rereading. It is and I just have.

There’s a separate discussion to be had about whether there are better strategies than rereading. I’ll save that for another day.

Morville observes that “while a plan may be defined as a series of steps, planning itself is nonlinear.” This is something that you come to understand over time, but is easily overlooked. You can forget it as an experienced planner because it is down at the level of muscle memory; it happens too fast to be noticeable. It can be harder to discern when you are learning how to plan.

We tend to focus on the artifacts of planning; project charters, statements of work, work plans, schedules, Gantt charts. We gloss over the complexities of developing those artifacts as our understanding of a problem evolves.

This is akin to when we are learning to write complex arguments. How many of us wrote the outlines to our papers after the fact? That’s because we didn’t recognize then that the struggle to find and impose order on our notes and research  or the multiple iterations of our opening paragraphs were essential to the creative process. We were inclined to see them as accidental complexities that threatened to reveal our ineptness when, in fact, they were essential to the creative process.

Perhaps this simply reveals my naïveté, but for many years it never occurred to me that books weren’t written in the order that we read them. How did Orwell dream up “it was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” out of thin air?

Our first encounters with plans are much like our first encounters with writing; we see the finished product neatly ordered and polished. The iterations, false starts, and multiple revisions don’t show up in the final product, but they are essential to getting there. Learning to plan, like learning to write, requires rolling around in the messiness. We need to acknowledge and accept that.

Becoming adept at planning is as much about attitude and expectations as it is about technique.

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.