Simple Questions that aren’t so Simple

“Where did you go to school?”

It’s an innocuous cocktail party question that pops up fairly early. You would think that the answers would be simple. Not necessarily.

In St.Louis, where I grew up, this is actually a question about where you went to high school, not university. The answer slots you pretty precisely along political, religious, and socio-economic dimensions. 

Elsewhere in the U.S. this is, in fact, a question about your university affiliation. For most people, in most situations, the answers are simple; “Michigan”, “MIT”, “Notre Dame.” There are two seemingly evasive answers that I am qualified to and sometimes do use; “in New Jersey” and “in Boston.” These are code phrases for “Princeton” and “Harvard.”

Why dodge a direct answer? Because a straight answer might not provoke a straight reaction. The explicit conversation isn’t always the most relevant conversation underway. What appears to be a simple inquiry and a simple, factual, response may be heavily freighted with hidden assumptions and expectations. 

This layering of conversations is present in most settings. My history may make me a bit more attuned to that. 

Which turns out to be of increasing importance and relevance in knowledge intensive settings. Organizations want to pretend that they are simple, straightforward, places. While I am open to a debate about whether that might once have been true, I wouldn’t operate on any of those assumptions today. 

The complexity is there. You can ignore it or you can accept it and factor it in.

Out of place: finding a place to stand

Cannon Green Princeton University“Where did you prep?”

A simple question posed by another freshman taking in the sight of a thousand other freshmen (3/4s of them men) scattered about Cannon Green on the campus of Princeton University.

Four simple words, yet I wasn’t able to process them.

“Where did I prep?” Prep for what? This get acquainted picnic among a thousand strangers? This college experience I was setting off on?

It dawns on me that the question was about which exclusive prep school I had attended on my way to gracing the ivied halls of one of the best universities in the world. For my questioner, there were only a handful of correct answers; any other point of origin marked me as irrelevant in his universe.

A few days into my college experience and I was irrelevant.

Until that point, I thought I was defined by what I had done. Now I discovered there were a host of external markers defining me in the eyes of others. What town did I live in? What subdivision? What street was my house on?

Classic ways of differentiating people; all new to me. So much for being a valedictorian; I was profoundly ignorant of things that apparently mattered. I’m in a new place, a thousand miles from home, and feel profoundly out of place. Have I been out of place all along and only come to see that now?

I’d never thought about myself as a kid from the Midwest until I was among people to whom the middle class Midwest was a foreign land. It was disorienting. I had grown accustomed to being the smartest person in the room. Now, I was in rooms where everyone was as smart or smarter. And smart wasn’t the pertinent metric. There were entire realms of competition and measurement I couldn’t see even as I fell short.

Working out the implications of this has mostly involved time with various therapists. Not terribly interesting in this context. But coping with disorientation turns out to be a good way to prep for the future we live in now. Unpacking a question like “where did you prep?” turns you into an anthropologist in your own environment.

There’s a line in Shaw’s Caesar And Cleopatra that’s relevant here;

Pardon him, Theodotus: he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature

I was a barbarian forced to recognize customs as simply that. This put me on a path to make sense out of institutions and organizations and the people inside them.

Organizations are ostensibly about what you do. But what you do is filtered and interpreted by where your office is located; how big it is; what you hang on the walls; where you sit in the pecking order. Over the course of a career, you learn to send, receive, and interpret these signals. You learn your place. You learn to establish your place.

The past year has accelerated a long simmering trend toward shifting work from physical space to virtual. For teams and groups that have a working history to draw on this transition is mildly disruptive. For newly assembled teams, however, all the cues and clues that were readily available to work with in a physical encounter aren’t available in the virtual. If we want these virtual groups to succeed and flourish we now have to think about things that were just there in the background.

When you foreground these things they create different effects than in the background. Making an explicit point that you went to Princeton or Harvard is quite different than a diploma on the wall or a discrete reference/object on a shelf in the corner that might trigger a question or open up a conversational gambit. There’s no easy conversation opener about someone’s Starbucks order or lunch. No reference to some object of interest in the place where you are interacting.

One of the reasons we’re finding ourselves exhausted in this new virtual world is that we are now having to do the work that our places did for us.



Working in the boundaries – making the pieces fit together

“Specialization is for insects” Robert A. Heinlein

Between can be a difficult location. Cast or crew. Analog or digital. Quant or sales. Worker bee or management. Head or heart.

If you choose to reject the standard either/or logic and opt to stake out territory at a boundary or junction, the most likely result is ridicule and rejection. No matter how continuous reality may be, we insist on carving it up.

When I first moved out of the tech crew and into the stage manager’s shoes, I thought I was taking a small step. What I was doing was choosing to live in a DMZ. I became the referee when the lighting director and the choreographer both wanted the stage at the same time.

There was a time in one especially difficult production when I had had it with both the Producer and the Director. I can’t even remember what the argument was about. I left a note in the office that I was going back to school and they could finish the show without me.

A friend in the cast found me ten hours later in the one place I figured no one would think to look. I was in the third subbasement of the university library. Probably the first time I had set foot there since September and it was now March. I was coaxed into going back to the production, after apologies from the Producer and Director.

This was the earliest incident I can recall working to reconcile conflicting perspectives and demands to pull off a vision. Carpenters wanted to build, electricians wanted to light, dancers wanted to stretch, and actors wanted to run lines. All of it had to come together for the curtain to go up on opening night.

Over time, my interests have migrated to how to balance technology opportunities and organizational limits. But the reluctance of most to look outside the boundaries of their playgrounds remains. My head likes the challenge of figuring out the differing sets of details and their interactions.

Most players pick a side. They choose to belong to one organizational clan or the other. They commit to being management or to being a machine learning expert. Fewer choose to work as simultaneous translators; to learning the language and theories of new technology and of deep strategy.

Our systems are built around slotting people into speciality roles. What often gets lost is that someone has to work at being the glue fitting key elements together.

Picking an organizational stack

I suspect my early experiences with organizations were similar to most. Most of what we encountered was pretty simple to see and understand. We were students in a classroom, there was a teacher in the front of the room and a principal down the hall. Add a librarian, a school nurse, and the cafeteria ladies and you pretty much had it all.

At the other extreme, we tried to get the phone company or the Department of Motor Vehicles to help with a simple problem and encountered bewildering complexity. Why organizations looked the way they do wasn’t a question that occupied much of my attention.

My path to organization change and design was by way of programming and information systems design. What I learned in systems design was that complexity was the enemy. You had to understand the complexity of the problem you wanted to solve for there to be any hope of crafting a solution. The biggest mistake you could make was to miss some essential element of the complexity. The second biggest mistake was to add complexity by accident with your solution.

My technology training and experience tackled complexity with notions of designed modularity and looking for the natural places to carve the overarching system into discrete pieces.  There’s a rich assortment of models for thinking about problems of organizational design. I’ve taught them and I’ve used them. What I’m working through now is whether I can articulate a stack of organizational ideas that might help keep the complexity under control when looking at a new problem.

One organizational stack that intrigues me is

  • Purpose
  • Power
  • Process
  • Practice
  • People

I like the alliteration and I think the layers are largely self-defining/self-explanatory. I can see how I might map what I observe onto layers and how I might navigate up or down the stack while exploring a design question.

I’m now curious whether this cursory perspective is enough to generate some reaction.

Turtles all the way done: hijacking stories to your own ends

Turtles all the way down
Terrapin stack

There’s an old parable that I first remember encountering in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. It often surfaces in explorations of the collision between science and myth. In Hawking’s retelling, the story goes like this:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

With the recent resurgence in adherents to belief in a Flat Earth, this tale is offered as a cautionary reminder of the power of compelling myth in the face of plain old evidence. That’s an important reminder in a world buffeted by change. Whatever your commitment to reason and evidence, you only replace a story with a better story.

I want to see if I can hijack the turtles metaphor to my rational ends.

My interests are in connecting technology and organizational realities. I’ve used the obvious image of building bridges but that may be too simplistic to be helpful after everyone nods that a bridge would be nice to have. Perhaps a stack of turtles can help us navigate the space between.

The realm of computing and communications technology is still a relative newcomer in organizational settings. Learning to wrestle the complexity to the ground is a key task in developing comfort and proficiency with technology. One of the principal methods of getting technology under conceptual control is the notion of a stack; of discrete layers of technology the interact with one another in sharply constrained ways.

There is a well known observation about dealing with technology first offered by computer scientist David Wheeler that:

All problems in computer science can be solved by another level of indirection

When things become too complex, we hide the complexity underneath a new layer of abstraction. Tim Berners-Lee invents a scheme, the url, that hides the details of reaching out to another computer and grabbing a file or document. Pretty soon, we’re watching reruns of I Love Lucy in our web browsers.

The number of layers you might traverse in  any given technology environment can become quite deep. The design challenge in new technology often revolves around how cleanly you can define and navigate the stack of layers.

Which brings me back to my turtles. What if we extend the stack upwards from the technology into the organization? Don’t think of the process as a single step across one bridge. Think in terms of what new layers (or turtles) make sense to cross the span. Now your problem is one of working out how to move up or down a layer at a time.

You can’t win. Play anyway

Holloman AFB F-4 Phantom II

One of the first office jobs I held was the summer after my freshman year in college. I worked for McDonnell Aircraft Company. as a material accounting cost clerk. MDAC was a defense contractor that made F-4 Phantom Jets and the Gemini space capsule among other things. Today it is part of Boeing.

I was a very lowly cog in a large complex system. My job was to write up the accounting entries to make sure that the inventory systems were in sync with the actual inventory. Some auditor would go out on the factory floor and count how many left-handed wing tips were sitting somewhere along the assembly line. My entire job was to compare the auditors count of actual inventory with the number recorded in the accounting system and then write out the journal entry to adjust the number in the accounting system to match the number that the auditor had found on the factory floor.

It was as mind numbing as you might imagine. I wrote the entries by hand onto paper forms that had to be reviewed and approved by my supervisor and then sent off elsewhere to be punched onto punch cards and fed into the computer located three buildings away.

There is one entry that sticks in my head. The auditors reported that they had counted three Pratt and Whitney jet engines on the floor. The accounting system thought there were four. How do you lose a 16-foot jet engine? Not my problem and no one else seemed terribly concerned. I wrote up the journal entry and it happily flowed off into the system.

You don’t design and build fighter jets with a handful of smart people. You need a complex system of people and processes and technology working together to pull it off. People, process, and technology is one of those cliches that gets thrown around a lot in organizations. I didn’t know the cliche at the time, but I was living in the middle of its reality.

This was when I began to grasp the complexity baked into large organizations. There are two choices for how to play in this environment. One is to be content with occupying a particular niche in the greater whole. The other is to wonder how it all fits together. Clearly, I opted for door number two.

I chose the word “play” intentionally. There is another lesson that I found in my time as a clerk. You have to accept that systems don’t always match reality. You have to build in mechanisms for correcting when systems and reality fall out of sync. And those mechanisms have their own weaknesses. Complexity and perfection are not reconcilable. Order is always battling chaos.

When I was learning physics, we learned about the second law of thermodynamics and the notion of entropy. There was some nasty math involved but our teacher summed things up this way:

Life is a game. You can’t win. You’re going to lose. You can’t get out of the game.

That leaves you with the option of playing simply for the sake of playing. A good lesson for all seasons.

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.

Finding a Guiding Principle

I used a picture of a woodpecker last week and I promised the story that went with it.

Jerry Weinberg was a computer programmer and author who wrote often about the impact of information technology. He was pretty sharp with his observations. One I encountered early in my career building technology was:

If builders built buildings the way programmers wrote programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.

This was a plea for programmers to get better at their work but it also planted a question about what makes some systems stable and others not. That’s the kind of open-ended question that can get you in trouble and eventually lead you back to graduate school for a deeper dive into all kinds of systems–technological and organizational.

One of my advisors was a deep thinker about systems. He was also a decidedly non-linear thinker and lecturer. My notes from Jim’s seminars were typically a wild profusion of boxes and arrows attempting to discern his train of thought. The aha! moment would sometimes arrive at 3 in the morning, but it did arrive.

As those aha moments accumulated, I developed some facility at making sense out of complex systems, whether they were constructed out of technology, organizations, or some blend. While I was getting better at figuring systems out, explaining what I was doing or seeing was more difficult. People prefer simple stories. If I couldn’t find simplicity in the systems I was exploring, perhaps I could find some in how I thought about my underlying process. I eventually found an answer in the title of a 1981 essay by Wendell Berry, “Solving for Pattern.” It nicely captures the clarity of the goal and the complexity of the journey.

No one is the villain in their own story

If my mother were still around, I’m sure she would be a Bernie Sanders supporter. At heart, she was a communist. Dad was your classic engineer. Both were from blue collar roots. In that environment, business in general and big business in particular was the enemy.

Against this backdrop, working with technology was acceptable. It was a form of engineering. It was inherently rational. Rational was good. Good was opposed to evil.

Business, on the other hand, was not good. It might even be evil. Big businesses were led by selfish and uncaring people. The system was rigged against the little guy.

This was the environment I swam in. Like a fish blind to the existence of water, I happily built systems anchored in rationality. But I was also building these systems inside business organizations.

When you are a junior member of the team, technical rationality prevails. When organizations reject technology, it is easy to fall back on stories of rigged systems and selfish leaders.

I tried this path.

As I took on more responsibilities and rose within organizations, that story started to fall apart. I didn’t feel as though I was becoming uncaring or evil. And my colleagues seemed to be fairly normal as well. I needed a better story about why the leaders in organizations did what they did.

I recall of conversation with my thesis advisor in the early days of my journey to understand technology and organization. He wanted to know what version of organization I believed in. Were organizations about power and politics? social relationships? technical rationality? economics and strategy?

All of these elements are at play in any organization. In healthy organizations, the play is balanced. The dominance of any one perspective is an indicator of underlying trouble.

The place I arrived at is to  view organizations as complex systems subject to one major constraint. The systems perspective trains to you look for and see how elements interact. The constraint is the idea of bounded rationality. Most of us would prefer to base our decisions and actions in the systematic analysis of facts and data. But there are always boundaries and limits on our ability to discover or do the most rational thing. This perspective is what has evolved into today’s notion of behavioral economics.

When I take these notions into actual organizations populated with real people, I remind myself that no one is the villain in their own story. For all that my mother liked to start her complaints with “that’s crazy,” you’re better served by looking for what makes things look sane for each of the players.

A big story is just a collection of little stories

Above my desk is a wall of pictures. It’s not the “brag wall” of executives or politicians showing off all the famous or important people I’ve met. No, it’s pictures of family and moments going back over thirty years. It’s a practice my wife taught me. We’ve had one in every place we’ve ever owned.

There weren’t very many pictures around the house when I was growing up. There were occasional photo albums but hanging fragile things on walls wasn’t a great idea in a house with lots of boys moving at high speeds.

My professional curiosity centers on how technology changes how organizations function. I started that exploration from the realm of technology. One of the appeals of technology is that it does only and just what you tell it to. Working that out can be tricky but it is ultimately an exercise in rationality.

I came to the exploration of organization with a naive assumption that rationality was enough. I am less naive now but I still want to make sense of organizations. When the complexities seem overwhelming, I can look up at that wall. It reminds me that the complexity is built on the stories behind each picture. The big story is built up from the unfolding of each little story over time. You grasp the big picture by working your way through each individual story.