From Business Case to Enlistment Pitch

I’m a fan of case studies–both as a teaching tool and a research tool. They’re often disparaged. And caricatured. I certainly had my own reservations when I first encountered them. Why couldn’t somebody just lay out the problem and get on with solving it? What was the point of all the arguments and background and history and politics?

As I’ve written about before, I was eventually invited into the process and became a case writer. Now I was inside the mess and searching for the threads I could weave into something coherent. What had seemed unnecessarily complex as a student was a deliberately crafted simplification of the actual situation.

There’s an old maxim that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. Writing stories about it is a close second.

In organizational settings becoming a competent performer is a process of learning the important stories. In most organizations that was largely an oral tradition. It was also an oral tradition that largely took care of itself. Most of us could sit back and gather round the watercolor while older and wiser heads clued us in to what was important and what was passing fancy.

That’s not so true anymore. Organizational and environmental change continues to accelerate. The people who might have the perspective to recognize and craft the relevant stories may already be gone or at the tail end of shortening tenures. What was once an organic outgrowth of routine organizational activity now has to be recast as an intentional and designed practice.

I think it has also become a more democratic and decentralized practice. In effect, we must all become case writers about our organizational environments. Resources and power flow to those who can weave the most compelling stories.

It can be tempting to interpret this as an indicator of organizational decay. A better view is that the most coherent stories warrant the organization’s resources. Learning to craft stories that are the right balance of threat and opportunity, tradition and innovation, and process and people becomes the new form of a compelling business case. The business case evolves from being a recitation of facts and figures to a story that enlists the right team of rivals.

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.

Tech Rehearsal and Organizational Change

I’ve talked about the interplay between actors and crew during a performance; how everything needs to come together to deliver an experience to the audience. None of that experience is accidental. All of it is designed; the actors’ lines, where they move, sets, costumes, props, lights are all the product of careful thought.

All of these elements first come together during tech rehearsal. Tech rehearsal is when you work out all of the details that the audience won’t be  aware of yet are essential to their experience. As an example, consider just the lighting in a scene. Is it a beautiful morning in Oklahoma? The lights won’t simply be bright; the color balance will be some version of straw or amber. That level and balance gets worked out and adjusted during tech.

In the theater, those environmental elements are designed and controlled. I think this is where I first began to tune into the role of the environment on performance. We tend to think of the organizational environment as a fixed background if we think of it at all.

The theater teaches a different lesson. Any element is potentially mutable. And it is the interaction of multiple elements that contributes to the overall effect. Eventually, this leads you to a systems perspective on performance. Sure the lights need to be bright enough to see the performers, but what color balance do you want to set the tone?

One of the particular challenges in organizational settings is that we lack the theater’s appreciation for the complexity of how elements interact. Or for the time it takes to understand and adapt to a new arrangement of elements. Instead, we are likely to turn down the lights or move the sets in the middle of a live performance and wonder why the actors are angry and the audience has left.

Don’t Walk: Applying the Rules in a Volatile Environment

On days that I teach, I take the train into Chicago and then walk from Ogilvie Station up to the Loyola Watertower campus. Generally takes me about 30 minutes. Yesterday, as I was mulling over what to write here, I came to an intersection. The “Don’t Walk” sign was lit and several other pedestrians were waiting patiently. I looked both ways, saw that there was no oncoming traffic, and continued on my way.

It always strikes me as odd that Chicago pedestrians simply comply with the traffic signals and don’t adjust their behavior to the actual environment in the moment. I used to think it was simply because I learned to be an urban pedestrian in New York City, where getting from train station to office on foot was a blood sport.

I don’t think I can be accused of being a scofflaw; someone who is merely rebellious by nature. If anything, as an eldest child, I am a rule follower. Courtesy of my parents and a string of enlightened teachers, however, I also learned that rules are elements of larger systems. In good systems, there is a deeper logic; rules exist to advance the goals of the system.

One choice is to simply comply with the rules and assume that the goals of the system remain relevant and the design of the system matches the realities of its environment. In stable and slow-changing environments, that is a reasonable strategy. Waiting for the traffic signals to change doesn’t hurt, although it might slow the world down a little bit.

There is another choice, which is to look at the design logic driving whatever system you are engaged with. This is the dangerous path you set people on when you start teaching them how to program. Programs are the explicit rules for realizing the design goals of a bigger system.

The differences between a working computer program and a working organization are differences of degree not of kind. As you learn to see how rules, information, structure, and goals interact, you learn to see the commonality that unites systems across disparate environments. It can take time to work out the value and the limits of the analogies, but it gives you a path.

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.

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

Just because it’s cliched doesn’t make it bad advice

My time learning to be a stage manager contained my first lessons in managing something bigger than myself. If there are 40 people you can see dancing on stage, there were at least as many behind the scenes making it happen. Everyone has a very specific set of tasks to perform, it all has to sync up moment to moment, and it all has to serve a singular artistic vision.

This was during my university years, where I was usually at a rehearsal or work session when I should have been in class. Everyone in the group was a student with three exceptions. We paid for a costume designer, a choreographer, and a director. In my role, I worked with all three, but it was our director, Milt Lyon, who was the sources of the most lasting lessons.

Milt had been working with the Triangle Club for at least twenty years when I arrived. His job was to tease out the core of the artistic vision from the writers and composers and help the performers bring that to life on stage. Mine was to handle all of the mundane issues of time and space: rehearsal schedules, rehearsal rooms, copies of script updates, meeting schedules, agendas.

The details of the incident are lost to me but I had screwed something up that was throwing off the schedule and, therefore, messing up the plans and focus of a hundred other people. I was fumbling through an explanation of how we had gotten into this mess, which included the reasons for why it wasn’t actually my fault, when Milt held up his hand:


Milt was one of the three people on the planet who called me Jimmy.

“I’m not interested. Are we ready to start now? Good, then let’s get going.”

Afterwards, Milt did take a few minutes to talk me through ways to avoid the problem in the future.

Since then, I’ve acquired an expensive and extensive education in how complex organizations work. I’ve had business cards with C-level titles on them and budgets to match. But that moment remains one of the touchstones of my thinking. I’ve come to see it as one of the first moments where I saw what it meant to be a professional.

Are we clear on the goal?

Are we all in agreement about the goal?

Is there something in our way?

Deal with it.

Keep moving.

Eyes forward.