Things are the way they are because they got that way

I remember my parents as being light drinkers. One beer at a Saturday barbecue would be typical. I never thought too much about it, even as my peers began their introductions to alcohol.

Extended families became a larger element of my environment when we moved to St.Louis, where my mother’s siblings and their children all lived. Dad’s family was back East and weren’t part of my life. While it was never a specific topic of discussion, I eventually pieced together that my father’s move west was a very deliberate act. His two older brothers and his twin brother were all essentially functional alcoholics. Leaving that environment was his plan to avoid the same fate.

I think this must be one of the seeds of my sensitivity to context and the environment. The environment–social, organizational, physical–sets boundaries on what is easy and what is hard. And history shapes the environment.

Technology pretends to be ahistorical. We are here now and the future looks bright. There is nothing to be gained by wondering how we got here; press on.

Organizations are all about history. Jerry Weinberg was fond of reducing his insights into aphorisms or laws. There’s one he attributes to economist Ken Boulding;

Things are the way they are because they got that way

Understanding how things “got that way” is a necessary step to making things better. And that is true for organizations, technology, and their intersection.

[There’s a reason for the woodpecker but that is for another day]

Living the stories of astounding futures

My mom’s been gone for almost sixteen years now. I still marvel at how she managed to wrangle seven kids between the ages of 8 and 1. I recall one conversation about reading when my boys were young. I was the absolutely stereotypical bookworm. Getting my first library card at the age of 10 still ranks among my signal memories. On a recent visit to my home town, I actually stopped at the local library simply to thank the librarians for existing.

From time to time, my dad would grumble about getting my nose out of whatever book it was buried in and go outside. Mom, on the other hand, never once complained or pushed me to do something else. When I asked her about my relationship with books and why she sided with me rather than my dad she said,

You were compelled to read. I didn’t know what was driving you but I could see that it was something you had to do. I decided it was more important to let you follow your own curiosity than try to tell you what you ought to be doing.

I was pretty indiscriminate in what I would pick up. Early on, one vein that I started to mine was science fiction. I tore through the “age appropriate” material quickly and moved on to the grown up science fiction shelves in the library.

Muggles generally don’t “get” science fiction. But there is a core premise that has immense relevance in the world we’ve all grown up to live in. It has little to do with whether some author “predicted” cell phones or waterbeds or the internet. What science fiction makes you think about is the interaction between the relentless advance of technology and the equally relentless commitment to the status quo of groups and organizations. People are gonna people whether they travel by covered wagon or starship.

What science fiction encourages you to do is to think about how people will react in any kind of scenario. And, it gives you permission to imagine a much richer variety of possible scenarios beyond what history or contemporary society serve up.

There was a period in the 1980s, or so, when scenario planning was a popular technique in strategy circles. Turns out I had been studying scenario planning at the feet of much more accomplished story tellers than the strategy types could bring to the fight.

Technology change does trigger organizational change but the process is as human and messy as any other human system. Because it is fundamentally human, story is an essential entry point and vantage point.

Questions with power

“Julie! It’s 10th grade algebra!”

We were sitting in an MBA classroom along with the rest of our section and Peter, our professor explaining how he had derived a particular economic formula. Julie was stuck and Peter had walked through the equation for the 3rd time when I burst out with my unsolicited comment.

Julie had the flash of understanding that had escaped her and I patted myself on the back for my clever intervention. Until the women in the class rebuked me for my clearly sexist and misogynistic attitude and insensitivity to Julie’s plight. The fact that Julie and I were friends, that I knew Julie majored in mathematics in college, and that I knew my comment was the fastest way to break her out of her confusion were all for naught.

For someone who claims to be a smart guy, I can be a slow learner.

The beauty of mathematics and technology is that not only are there right answers but that any question is appropriate at any time. Throw people and organizations–that is, people in groups–into the mix and simplicity is gone.

In technical settings, facts have no feelings and no question is ever out of bounds. In organizational settings, some of the objects you would like to treat as objective facts are other people with their own feelings and agendas. Questions don’t simply elicit data, they provoke reactions. Learning to be human includes many lessons on the limits of how and when you can pose questions.

For most of us, most of the time, it is enough to learn the boundaries and opt to stay within the lines. If you want to change organizations, however, you have to learn how to set up and sequence your questions to provoke the responses and the reactions you are seeking.

Looking for the machinery behind the magic

stage manager at workDeveloping an interest in the interplay between technology and organizations isn’t something you know is going to happen when you’re in middle school. There’s no teacher or coach to emulate. There’s no hero’s quest to set out on. But there have to be roots.

One of the constant elements in my life has been live theater. Books come from some magical place and appear on a shelf. TV shows and movies arrive from somewhere else, appear for a brief time on the screen, and disappear.

When the curtain opens on a play, there are real people before you on the stage. They wander off into some hidden place and reappear moments later. Perhaps you catch a glimpse of someone in the wings and wonder what they are up to. If you are a curious sort, you start to look for how to get back into those hidden places.

The conventional route is to aspire to be one of those people performing on the stage. Another path is to find work in the wings, to learn how the magic gets put together. Which was the path I chose. I started working in various backstage roles in high school and continued on in to college. I built and moved sets, I hung and focused lights, I searched out and managed the props  the actors used on stage. Much of this work took place while the performers rehearsed. During a performance, however, while the actors delivered their lines on the stage there was a crew in the wings making everything else happen on cue.

All of that activity was coordinated by one person with a three-ring binder in front of them and a headset covering one ear–the stage manager. The stage manager never seemed to actually do anything expect read the binder and talk with other people wearing headsets. But nothing happened until the stage manager gave the order.

Claire was the stage manager I apprenticed myself to to learn the craft. She taught me how all the pieces came together to create the magic that the audience experienced from their seats. How the technology that moved sets, illuminated actors, and amplified their lines was woven together in support of their performances and how all of that was focused on creating a specific emotional experience for the people sitting in the audience.

The magic depended foremost on the talent and craft of the performers. Done well, all the other elements of a production amplify the magic. Done poorly, any element can destroy it.

The seed that this planted was a hint of how the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Watching magic from the audience was entertaining. Putting it together night after night was empowering and humbling.

Magic doesn’t happen. It gets designed and then it gets made. How can you not want to learn more?

Understanding and explaining the magic

Skokie Benefit Rehearsal 2003The place where technology, organizations, and people come together has been a continuing focus of my work. That interest was birthed in stories of the wonders and dangers of fantastic new inventions. Like a lot of future scientists and engineers I was raised on the stories of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C . Clarke, and Robert Heinlein.

Somewhere in my early, unsupervised, reading I encountered Arthur C. Clarke’s “Profiles of the Future,” long before I was mature enough to grasp much of it. I’ve since returned to it multiple times over the years. One thing stuck from the earliest, Clarke’s Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

That notion gestated in the back of my mind as two strands played out. First, I encountered and learned about technology in multiple manifestations; mathematics, physics, carpentry, programming, electricity.

Second, I created magic in the form of live theater. Group effort focused on creating illusions that touched the heart observed from a spot where all the illusion was exposed. It’s an odd experience to watch a singer bring an audience to tears while listening for the key change that is the cue to dim the lights and adjust their color; all of which reinforces her voice  and triggers those tears night after night.

Where this has taken me is showing people that the magic is understandable. Revealing the technology that creates the magic gives people power to create their own magic and power lets you solve problems.

There is a moral question of whether you hoard or distribute power. I land on the distributing side; the problems we face need all the power we can collectively muster. Hoarding crimps the flow of total power we need.

You transform magic into technology in stages. The first is to shift perspective and take people behind the scenes. That involves telling the story twice; once from the magic side and again from the technology side. Next, you break down the experience into its component parts and reveal the seams. Finally, you help people learn to create and assemble their own designed experiences.

The venue for this transformation can take multiple forms. It can be as simple as a telling of the tale from the right perspective. Or, it can be a guided tour. With enough time and resources, the best choice can be a “build your own” experience with a veteran guide at your side.

Can you make a mistake around here

I wrote my first book with Larry Prusak 25 years ago, while we were both working for Ernst & Young. In the intervening years he turned out another 8 or 10 books while I’ve only managed one more so far. I think he’s done writing books for now, so there’s some chance I may yet catch up.

When I was teaching knowledge management at Kellogg, I invited Larry as a guest speaker. He’s an excellent storyteller, so my students benefitted that afternoon. He opened with a wonderful diagnostic question for organizations: “Can you make a mistake around here?”

Organizations spend a great deal of energy designing systems and processes to be reliable and not make mistakes. This is as it should be. No one wants to fly in a plane that you can’t trust to be reliable.

But what can we learn about organizations from how they respond to mistakes? Do they recognize and acknowledge the fundamental unreliability of people? Or, do they lie to themselves and pretend that they can staff themselves with people who won’t make mistakes?

If you can’t make a mistake, you can’t learn. If you can’t learn, you can’t innovate. You can extend the logic from there.

Communications Divides Within the Organization; Look to Homer

HomerHave you ever wondered what’s behind the conflict between geeks and suits? Sure, they think differently, but what, exactly, does that mean? A Jesuit priest who passed away in 2003 at the age of 90 may hold one clue.

Walter Ong published a slim volume in 1982 titled “Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word” that explored what the differences between oral and literate cultures suggest about how we think.

Remember Homer, the blind epic poet credited with “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”? If we remember anything, it’s something along the lines of someone who managed to memorize and then flawlessly recite book-length poems for his supper.

The real story, which Ong details, is more interesting and more relevant to our organizational world than you might suspect. Homer sits at the boundary between oral culture and the first literate cultures.

In an oral culture, what you can think is limited to what you can remember and tell—without visual aids. Ong’s work shows that oral thinking is linear, additive, redundant, situational, engaged, and conservative. The invention of writing and the emergence of literate cultures allows a new kind of thinking to develop: literate thinking is subordinate, analytic, objectively distanced, and abstract. It’s the underlying engine of science and the industrial revolution.

While this may be interesting for a college bull session, it’s particularly relevant to organizations. For all their dependence on the industrial revolution, organizations are human institutions first. Management is fundamentally an oral culture and is most comfortable with thought organized that way. Historically, leadership in organizations went to those most facile with the spoken word.

At the opposite extreme, information technology is a quintessentially literate activity with a literate mode of thought. In fact, IT cannot exist without the objective, rational, analytical thinking that literate culture enables.

How does the nature of this divide complicate conversations between IT and management? Can understanding the differing natures of oral and literate thought help us bridge that divide?

IT professionals have long struggled with getting a complex message across to management. In our honest and unguarded moments, we talk of “dumbing it down for the suits.” But the challenge is more subtle than that. We need to repackage the argument to work within the frame of oral thought. The easy part of that is about oratorical and rhetorical technique. The more important challenge is to deal with the deeper elements of oral culture; of being situational, engaged, and conservative. The right abstract answer can’t be understood until it is placed carefully within its context.

What management recognizes in its fundamentally oral mind is that organizations and their inhabitants spend most of their time in oral modes of thought. The oral mind is focused on tradition and stability because of how long it takes to embed a new idea. The techniques of change management that seem so obtuse to the literate, engineering mind are not irrational; they are oral. They are the necessary steps to embed new ideas and practices in oral minds.

Repeating a calculation or an analysis is nonsense in a literate culture. Management objections to an analytical proposal rarely turn on objections to the analysis. Walking through the analysis again at a deeper level of detail will not help. What needs to be done is to craft the oral culture story that will carry the analytical tale. It’s not about dumbing down an argument, it’s about repackaging it to match the fundamental thought processes of the target audience.

That might mean finding the telling anecdote or designating an appropriate hero or champion. Suppose, for example, that your analysis concludes it’s time to move toward document management to manage the files littering a shared drive somewhere or buried as attachments to three-year old e-mails. Analytical statistics on improved productivity won’t do it. A scenario of the “day in the life” of a field sales rep would be better. Best would be a story of the sales manager who can’t find the marked up copy of the last version of the contract.

These human stories are much more than the tricks of the trade of consultants and sales reps. They are recognition that what gets dressed up as the techniques of change management are really a bridge to the oral thinking needed to provoke action.

Seen in this light, what is typically labeled resistance to change is better understood as the necessary time and repetition to embed ideas in an oral mind.

Management understands something that those rooted in literate thinking may not. Knowing the right answer analytically has little or nothing to do with whether you can get the organization to accept that answer. What literate thinkers dismiss as “politics” is the essential work of translating and packaging an idea for acceptance and consumption in an oral culture.

The critical step in translating from a literate answer to an oral plan of action is finding a story to hang the answer on. The analysis only engages the mind; moving analysis to action must engage the whole person. Revealing this truth to the analytical minded can be discomforting. It’s equivalent to explaining to an accountant that the key to a Capital Expenditure proposal is theater, not economics. You might want to check out Steve Denning’s book, “The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations,” for some good insights into how to craft effective stories inside organizations.

In addition to helping the analytically inclined see the value of creating a compelling story, you need to help them see how and why story works differently than analysis. The best stories to drive change are not complex, literary, novels. They are epic poetry; tapping into archetypes and cliché, acknowledging tradition, grounded in the particular. You need to bring them to an understanding of why repetition and “staying on message” is key to shifting an oral culture’s course, not an evil invention of marketing.

Assume you teach the literate types in your IT organization how to repackage their analyses for consumption. They’ve now learned how to pitch their ideas in ways that will stick in the organization. What might you learn from their literate approach to thought? Is there an opportunity if you can get more of your organization and more of your management operating with literate modes of thinking?

Being able to write things down done permits you to develop an argument that is more complex and sophisticated. On the plus side, this makes rocket science possible. On the negative side, you get lawyers.

On the other hand, if you are operating in an environment whose complexity demands a corresponding complexity in your organizational responses, then encouraging more literate thinking by more members of the organization is a good strategy.

What would such an organization look like compared to today’s dominant oral design? The mere presence of e-mail and an intranet is insufficient. E-mail tends to mirror oral modes of thought, particularly among more senior executives. Intranets tend to be over-controlled and, to the extent they contain examples of literate thinking, are rooted in an organizational culture that strives to confine the literate mind to the role of well-pigeonholed expert. The presence of particular tools, then, isn’t likely to be a good predictor, although their absence might be.

What of possible case examples? A few knowledge management success stories hold hints. Buckman Labs used discussion groups successfully to get greater leverage out of its staff’s knowledge and expertise. Whether this success built on literate modes of thought or simply on better distribution of oral stories is less clear. The successes of some widely distributed software development teams are worth looking at from this perspective.

Although it’s a bit too early to tell, the take up of blogs and wikis inside organizations may be a harbinger of management based on literate thinking skills. They offer an interesting bridge between the oral and the literate by providing a way to capture conversation in a way that makes it visible and, hence, analyzable. As a class of tools, they begin to move institutional memory out of the purely oral and into the realm of literate.

Chaos players: knowledge work as performance art

Stage - Auditorium. Photo by Monica Silvestre from Pexels

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts
As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII. William Shakespeare

I’ve been thinking about the role of mental models for sense-making. While we do this all the time, I think there is significant incremental value in making those models more explicit and then playing with them to tease out their implications. Organization as machine is a familiar example, one that I believe is largely obsolete. Organization as ecosystem or complex adaptive system has grown in popularity. It has the advantage of being richer and more sensitive to the complexities of modern organizations and their environments. On the other hand, that mental model is a bit too appealing to to academic and consulting desires to sound simultaneously profound and unintelligible. It fails to provide useful guidance through the day-to-day challenges of competing and surviving.

Organization as performance art or theatrical production offers a middle ground between simplistic and over-engineered. It appeals to me personally given a long history staging and producing. It’s my hypothesis that most of us have enough nodding familiarity with the theater to take advantage of the metaphor and model without so much knowledge as to let the little details interfere with the deeper value.

The goal of theater is to produce an experience for an audience. That experience must always be grounded in the practical art of the possible. This gives us something to work with.

Let’s work backwards from the performance. We have the players on the stage and an audience with expectations about what they are about to experience. If that is all we have, then we are in the realm of storytelling. Storytelling demands both the tellers of the tale and the creator of the tale itself. Our playwright starts with an idea and crafts a script to bring that idea to life and connect it to all of the other stories and ideas the audience will bring to the experience. We now have a story, its author, storytellers, and an audience with their expectations.

Theater takes us a step farther and asks us think about production values that contribute to and enhance the experience we hope to create. Stage and sets and lighting and sound can all be drawn into service of the story. Each calls for different expertise to design, create, and execute. We now have multiple experts who must collaborate and we have processes to be managed. Each must contribute to the experience being created. More importantly, those contributions must all be coordinated and integrated into the intended experience.

This feels like a potentially fruitful line of inquiry. It seems to align well with an environment that depends on creativity and innovation as much as or more than simple execution. How deeply should it be developed?

March for Our Lives as a pop-up organization

March for Our Lives ChicagoLast Saturday, Charlotte and I joined the Chicago instance of the March for Our Lives. A powerful event in  Union Square and a more powerful one across the country. I’m not qualified to offer an opinion on the policy or political dimensions—although I certainly have them. I am qualified, however, to have an opinion on the event as an equally remarkable example of organizational innovation and entrepreneurship. So, I called an audible in my current organizational development class this week and we took a look through an organizational lens.

Five and one half weeks after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, survivors of the day organized and staged a march in Washington, DC and 800 additional locations that drew on the order of a million people to listen to their demands. What lessons and insights can we draw from this effort? What does it tell us about the environment for innovation and activism that is now available to anyone?

A crystal clear and compelling mission is the best starting point for an organization you can get—much better, in fact, than a pile of money. It’s about as strong an example you can find of Simon Sinek’s argument that organization that succeed and thrive “Start with Why” The more powerful the message you articulate, the more degrees of freedom you are granted; the advantage goes to speed over precision and detail in getting that initial message out. This is the power of the social media and internet ecosystem available to be leveraged. The students organizing this effort grabbed the domain via on February 17th and announced the march on the 18th. They created a Facebook group page at the same time.

Imagine that initial meeting of the survivors planning this effort just a few days after the event. Maybe there’s a whiteboard or a flipchart with an evolving list of immediate tasks. Everyone has a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Brainstorm a name, search for a domain, grab it, register it, launch a placeholder website and start building it as the meeting unfolds. You’re crossing items off of your todo list as you’re writing it. Someone starts taking notes in a Google doc or fires up a board in Trello. Your organization is a few hours old and it already has an infrastructure.

As the work to be done gets defined, you can see the transition into an embryonic functional organization.  Someone steps up to looks after the new infrastructure. Someone else takes on the communications work. A third takes on investigating the logistics of the march idea that’s just been announced. And finally, someone needs to start work on the the back office details of taking in, tracking, and managing the money that will be required to make this all happen. The outline of the work to be done shapes the organization and the talents and interests of those in the room shape how the work and the people are matched up.

There’s an aspect of entrepreneurial reality that gets skipped or ignored in the conventional tellings of Adam Smith’s pin making or Henry Ford’s Model Ts which is that no one operates in a vacuum. That growing to do list that is driving this organizational bootstrapping effort includes a host of tasks that no one in the room has any idea of how to execute.

Being clear that you don’t know everything is a feature not a bug and our new organization starts to reach out and ask for help. March for Our Lives links up very quickly with Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group funded by Michael Bloomberg, and Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence. This gives our new organization access to the knowledge and experience acquired from other groups who’ve pulled off similar events; those big to dos get transformed into executable tasks and supporting details. They transform their visibility into access to knowledge and resources they don’t have.

As the last several weeks played out, you can see that this is a group that naturally thinks in network terms. For example, sibling marches spawned in multiple cities; the sibling marches shared collateral and elements of the infrastructure, the central organization set general parameters and guidance. The ready-to-hand social media and technology infrastructure let the organization move from idea to execution without having to wait for things to be provisioned or contracts to be negotiated.

This is a remarkable example of just how much today’s ecosystem enables ideas to be transformed into action. It will be interesting to monitor where things go from here independently from the underlying issues—important as they are.

Culture is marked and shared in the middle

Christmas 2011

The photo is from Christmas 2011. Our younger son, Derek, had recently completed training as a U.S. Marine and naturally acquired his first tattoo. As a surprise, my wife and I also got tattoos and the big reveal came that Christmas morning. (His older brother vowed that he wouldn’t join us unless and until the Chicago Cubs won the World Series—we’re still waiting to see that tattoo.) Having a tattoo is an occasional source of street cred when my students learn about it. It is also something we chose to do to mark a particular shared moment.

Markers of belonging are a central element of culture. Visible markers like tattoos or uniforms have a certain attraction, but it is the invisible ones that hold power; especially in organizations.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a phrase that pops up in organizational development circles with some regularity. More often than not it is attributed to Peter Drucker, although that appears to be unlikely. Regardless, culture is the way things work in an organization that won’t be found in employee handbooks or process maps. With a strong culture, everyone will do the right thing in the unanticipated moment. Put another way, culture defines what constitutes the right thing in the face of the new; accept it, reject it, play with it, deny it.

How does culture get reinforced and passed along if it can’t be found in the handbooks or the rules?

Today Derek is a sergeant responsible for the development of younger marines.  If you study organizations you learn about sergeants. Having one in the family levels up those lessons. Sergeants are the primary caretakers of organizational health and culture. This isn’t something they talk or think about explicitly. It is the essence of the role and plays out in the way they carry themselves and in the stories that they share.

I was struck by the conversations we had at the end of his basic training. They were filled with stories of the history and traditions of the Corps. Huge amounts of time and effort were spent on why and how to be a Marine. It was designed into the experience. As Derek went off from training into the Fleet, these stories and experiences continued to be dispensed, primarily by sergeants.

We see this aspect of culture in the military and in the foreign places we travel. What is less easy to discern is that culture is not something that simply exists and is laid down during the distant origins of a place or an institution. Culture can happen organically in the ebb and flow of activity and the stories that sergeants and their equivalents opt to share. What institutions like the Marine Corps reveal is that strong cultures can be built and transmitted by design. They need to be anchored in the actual activity and experience of the organization; but we can choose which experiences are deemed worthy of emulating. As leaders we decide which markers to pass along.