Searching for the secret class

permanent whitewaterThere was a time when I wanted to get my hands on the syllabus for the “secret class;” the secret being how to navigate the real world outside the classroom. Think of me as a male version of Hermione Granger; annoyingly book smart and otherwise pretty clueless. Classes were easy; life not so much.

Most of us spend enough time between classes in hallways and playgrounds to soak up the necessary experiences to get a clue. Through a peculiar set of circumstances and events, I was late in encountering and absorbing these experiences. My wife is on record that she would have crossed the street to avoid that earlier me. My therapist assures me that these lessons are learnable as long as I put my heart in circuit between my brain and my mouth.

Because this arena was foreign to me, I had to study it much as an anthropologist might; observing, cataloging, and making sense of what I see. The biggest risk for an anthropologist is to “go native”; to leave the edge and to immerse themselves in the action. Life demands immersion.

I make no claims about life in general. Life within organizations, however, is a place I understand. Thinking about secret classes and learning in organizational settings turns out to be a fruitful path. Really smart people, like Chris Argyris and Donald Schon among others, have thought a great deal about the things people need to learn within organizations. They talk about skills and perspectives that are effectively secrets and acquired by way of experience rather than classrooms.

Experience alone is rarely sufficient to impart these lessons; managers and executives become effective by way of reflective practice. They must process and digest experience to transform it into effective managerial practice. Classic examples of this deliberate reflection are Chester Barnard’s The Functions of the Executive and Alfred Sloan’s My Years with General Motors.

These are valuable and insightful analyses of complex organizations and executive work. They also highlight critical ways that reflective practice must evolve. It’s a common trope that organizations operate in an increasingly fast and complex environment. It’s common because examples to demonstrate it surround us. In the early days of my career, we were still converting paper-based business processes to electronic. Today, we’re knitting together digital processes spanning multiple organizations and continents.

That plants us in a world where the volumes of digital data threaten to collapse into a wall of noise and this wall feels more like  the leading edge of a tsunami rather than a fixed landmark somewhere “over there.” Simply coping with the onslaught consumes our attention and drives too many of us and our organizations into reactive mode. We become driven by events. Planning feels like a luxury and the notion of reflecting seems an unrealistic, academic, dream. Peter Vaill makes a compelling argument that we now live in a world of permanent whitewater and have to learn to operate accordingly.

We have a conundrum then. A changing world demands changed responses, yet the pace of change leaves no time for the reflection needed to transform experience into new practice. What are the elements of a strategy that might even our odds? How do we make reflective practice work in the organizational environment that now exists?

Peter Vaill offers a clue in the title of the book where he talks of permanent whitewater, Learning as a Way of Being. Learning is not something neatly distinguishable from practice; we pursue learning while doing. Elsewhere, I’ve discussed the notion of observable work as a pre-condition for making that kind of learning possible. Then, there are various techniques, such as after action reviews that should be in any knowledge worker’s toolkit.

There is no “secret class.” Even it one existed, it wouldn’t make sense to take it. Instead, we structure experience so that learning is a continuing parallel element of doing the work.

The limits on connecting the dots

connect the dots exampleI was a big fan of Sherlock Holmes and various other fictional detectives growing up; I’m still drawn to the form when I want to relax. There’s a basic pleasure in trying to match wits with Sherlock and figure our who the killer is before the final reveal. Connecting the dots is a rewarding game but it’s a flawed strategy.

The picture is always clear after the fact. But to jump from that fact to the assumption that you can recognize the dots earlier and connect them into one single, compelling, inarguable picture that triggers right action is a leap too far. Detective stories have an advantage that truth lacks; the writer knows where they intend to go.

The problem is that connecting the dots is such a well worn story telling and story organizing technique. The key to using this as a story telling technique is to manage the ratio of story dots and noise dots. Looking backward to make sense of the outcome that came to pass, the storyteller emphasizes the dots that reveal the picture and shares just enough other dots to suggest the work our hero had to do to see the hidden picture. As a good storyteller you might add a clever twist or put our hero in just the right spot to see what others have missed.

Suppose, however, that in the real world our potential hero was looking in the wrong direction or trying to separate the relevant dot from a thousand irrelevant but similar dots. Now our hero might be portrayed as a fool or an incompetent. Our hero’s reputation and future hangs on the objectives of the storyteller, not on the events in the field.

The appeal of the connecting the dots rhetorical strategy obscures its flaws as a thinking strategy. There are two principal flaws from a problem-solving perspective. One, it suggests there is a single, correct, picture of what is going on waiting to be discovered as soon as someone draws the correct thread through the data points that otherwise appear to be noise. Two, it presumes that recognizing the picture offers sufficient, timely, insight into appropriate action steps.

There are always too many dots; in a big data world we seek more dots in the hope that the picture will emerge. All the analytical tools will do, however, is add more possible pictures that might be hiding in the dots. Any collection of dots might form multiple pictures; more dots simply suggest more pictures.
Which brings us to the second problem; how does recognizing a picture connect to effective response? In our detective stories, our goal is to bring the killer to justice, perhaps to intervene before the killer strikes again.

In the world of more dots than time, our goal is to devise a response soon enough to make a difference. We wish to create a new story to be told. The dots behind us are only useful in suggesting where to place the dots that are not yet part of the picture we are in the act of creating.

Goals and journeys

Saints John and James Church - FergusonMy dad is 96. He’s never been a big talker, but there is one story that I’ve often retold. It wasn’t one that I learned until I was probably in my thirties.

Dad served in the Navy during WWII. He had to cheat on his pre-induction physical because of his eyesight; he memorized the eye chart while standing in line. He ended up stationed in San Diego, pretty much as far away from his home in Delaware as you could get and still be in the country.

After the war, Dad went back East and got a degree in mechanical engineering on the GI Bill. In 1950, he packed himself into his car and started west to return to San Diego. If you’ve seen both Wilmington, Delaware and San Diego, you can understand the attraction.

Around about St. Louis, he ran out of money, found a job, and started going to the local parish church, while saving up to resume his journey. One Sunday after Mass, he asked the parish priest if there were any nice Catholic girls he might get to know. It turned out to be seven children and nearly forty years before he finished that trip to San Diego.

Goals are important. They set you on your way. But, what you learn on the journey is equally important. It’s trite. I know. I don’t like trite. But I need to be reminded that it is the shared human experience underneath the trite that is important. I am distracted by bright, shiny, objects all of the time. For me, this story is a reminder and a warning to worry less about the particulars of my plans and keep the human goals top of the list.

UPDATE: With the help of some of my cousins, I was able to track down a photo of the church where Mom and Dad were married, Saints John and James Catholic Church in Ferguson.

The danger of easy paths

easy pathBeing a quick study can get in the way of learning what you need to understand. Midway through elementary school I went on my first field trip to the Museum of Natural History in Milwaukee. The enduring memory from that trip was my first encounter with a buffet line in the museum cafeteria. My tray was loaded by the end of the line and I was mildly ill for the remainder of the day. This was merely the first in a long line of lessons about the difference between theory and practice; lessons that I continue to trip over half a century later. There was the 4th-grade teacher who sat me in the back of the classroom and challenged me to see how much of the World Book Encyclopedia I could finish by year’s end whenever my other work was done. By the time I got to college, I had been nudged by so many teachers and other supporters in the direction of thinking over other kinds of doing that I was on track to graduate in three years.

As that second year in college was drawing to an end, I realized that I had no idea what I wanted to do when graduation arrived. My parents didn’t flinch when I concluded that I wanted to take the full four years to finish school; I wasn’t insightful enough to grasp the financial hit I was imposing on them. Regardless, they bought me an extra year to work out an answer about a next step.

There’s a running debate whether competence or passion should drive your career. The passion wing cheers that heart should drive your choices; find your passion and the career will take care of itself. More recently, the counter-narrative that expertise precedes engagement has regained ground. This is the realm of the 10,000-hour rule and deliberate practice. Better that you should become good at something and trust competence to evolve into commitment.

We now have two false dichotomies—theory vs. practice and passion vs. competence. There are others we could add to the list. The world isn’t organized into these binary choices. It’s necessarily messy and complex. This is not a popular position; we all want to believe advice that begins with “all you need to do is…” Everyone is offering proven systems or guaranteed methodologies. Instead, we should seek to accept complexity without letting it paralyze us. We need to remember what H.L. Mencken said “there is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”

Today, in particular, we live in a world full of bright, shiny, objects promising to address their narrow perspective on a narrow conception of the problem. We need to become adept at framing opportunities to incorporate messiness. That’s a process that benefits from traveling companions walking the same paths.

There’s always a bigger picture

Earth from spaceIt’s a given in writing circles that there are only a small number of basic plots; the miracle of human storytelling is how many unique tales have been wrought from that basic ore.

Storytelling has become a lens in better understanding the organizations that we belong to and interact with. I think we’ve construed story too narrowly in organizations. Oddly enough, we’ve done so by ignoring the social dimensions of story.

Our first images of story conjure Homer declaiming to the audience gathered by the fire. But we quickly enlisted others to bring stories to fuller life and drama arrived. Through the usual concatenation of circumstance, fortuitous moments, and basic temperament I found my way into that world. A degree of shyness and curiosity about how things—as opposed to people—worked led to a shadow career behind the scenes.

I was fortunate that my early history involved producing original works within a tradition rich environment. What that meant was that you started without a script or even a title but opening night was fixed. Some of those involved had been through the experience the year before and the year before that. Others of us had no clue. All of us knew that the institution had been pulling off the equivalent trick since 1891. There are things you can accomplish before the script is finished. On the other hand, it’s hard to build a set before you’ve designed it and you can’t design it without an inkling of what the show will be about.

From the outside, this looks like chaos. Parts of it are. Traditions and history assure you that the curtain will go up on opening night. Tradition also assures that you will lose sleep along the way. I couldn’t see it at the time but I was learning how innovation and organization worked. More specifically, I was learning about innovation as collaborative story-making and about the interplay linking technology constraints and opportunities with artistic or strategic vision.

Viewed from the audience, performance is about actors, their lines, and their interactions. Sets, lights, and costumes may be visible, may attract some fleeting attention, yet fade into the background. The massive efforts going on behind the scenes to create the context within which the performance plays out only become apparent when something malfunctions.

This creative fulcrum, where content and context are brought together, is the most interesting place to stand. Those who can learn to look in both directions—to play with both content and context—have more degrees of innovation freedom than those who limit their gaze. Learning to look both ways, however, is a very hard thing to do.

What makes it hard is that the tribes who come together to create a shared creative outcome come from very different traditions and mindsets. Pursuing excellence within any one aspect of production means settling for mediocrity in others. Working across tribes demands an ability to speak multiple languages with competence at the expense of eloquence in a single tongue.

The particular conversational bridge that draws my attention today is the contribution that changing technology can offer. Technology is a powerful creative lever . It makes things possible that weren’t before. In a stage production, for example, an automated lighting system can slowly change the look of the set over the course of many minutes, simulating the transition from dawn to full daylight. That is an artistic effect that wasn’t possible when the change depended on human operators.

But that creative effect might never be contemplated unless the artists staging and directing the performance learn about and understand what the technology has made possible. And that requires an effective conversation between artist and technologist.

It requires translators but also requires something more difficult. This level of creative collaboration demands a shared respect for all who contribute. Healthy, tradition rich institutions are better prepared to cope with new innovation opportunities than weaker organizations. Resistance to change is a marker of organizational weakness; infatuation with new technology for new technology’s sake is a marker of low trust in institutional tradition.

Managing the conversation across the performance and technology tribes depends on helping the participants see the larger picture that all are seeking to bring into existence.

Learning to think for innovation

Management Thinker Peter Drucker

“Innovation and change make inordinate time demands on the executive. All one can think and do in a short time is to think what one already knows and to do as one has always done.”
Peter Drucker – The Effective Executive

Once again, Peter Drucker offers insights for today even though this was originally written in 1967. Taken at face value it suggests that innovation in today’s organizations is a fool’s quest. A few people—Cal Newport, for example, in “Deep Work”—have begun to pick up on this, but they are distinctly in the minority. They can be nearly impossible to notice or hear in the cacophony of productivity advice, inboxes littered with offers to write your best-selling book in 90 days, and workshops to design your business model in a weekend. We have always been enamored with speed and live in an environment that raises speed to a religion. Thinking hard has rarely been popular.

There are some counterexamples. Bill Gates was famous for his “Think Weeks” where he withdrew from his day to day responsibilities to look beyond the immediate. The question for mere mortals is how to create the time and space needed to do the kind of thinking needed for innovation. Recognizing the challenge is, doubtless, the first step. Few of us have the luxury or clout of a Bill Gates to dedicate entire weeks for deep thought; we can all recognize that some kinds of thinking and reflection require bigger chunks of time and carve out those chunks where they can be found.

Another thing worth doing is to get better at stringing those chunks together in more effective ways. I’ve taken a run at this before, for example,

Distraction is the enemy of reflection. What Drucker is pointing out is that the underlying time demands for innovative thought flow from the demands of clearing your mind of the immediate and building the internal mental models necessary for deep work. I think of it as learning to meditate in a particular direction. We know a good bit about step one from the lessons of meditation. But meditation tends to stop there. The second step is to point your thinking in a particular direction and provide useful supplies for the journey. There is a process and discipline to thinking about innovation that is learnable. It is a skill that can be improved with deliberate practice.

Sweating details

Bottom Line Program CoverDuring my second year in business school, I co-produced the annual student variety show. My co-producer and I ended up dipping into our own shallow wallets to cover budget overruns. To the best of my knowledge, it was the first time the show produced an artistic success and a financial failure. That was a decidedly un-business school result. Although we named the show “A Bottom Line” in homage to “A Chorus Line,” we lost sight of our bottom line in pursuit of our vision.

This was probably the harshest lesson I took away from theater as laboratory. Art and economics do not coexist without effort. Balancing them demands vision and craft. I can’t prove that pursuing one over the other leads to failure, but success always seems to correlate with making the partnership effective.

I wrestle with why this simple observation should seem so hard to grasp. Perhaps, those who cling to either pole—art or economics—secretly want to have a ready excuse for mediocrity. How much easier it is to blame the “suits” for paying more attention to the budget than to the audience. Or to blame the director for wasting that budget on sets that no one cared about.

The tension between art and economics is no new thing. The lesson I learned over time was the more nuanced relation between vision and detail. Any new product or service depends on a tapestry of interlocking details that each contribute to the overall experience. Too often, it is the interweaving that gets forgotten. As organizations strive to fit new ideas and processes into the existing design, crucial details get sanded off or forgotten in the gaps between jurisdictions. In last year’s Academy Awards ceremony, the presenters on stage announced the wrong winner for Best Picture. The error traced back to a momentary lapse offstage in managing the envelopes because there were two sets of envelopes to deal with the detail of not being certain where the presenters would enter from. A huge gaffe in front of the world traces back to a design detail that missed one possible failure mode.

There’s a collection of useful lessons to be gleaned from a detailed post-mortem of this particular mix up. The broader lesson is that no one looked at how little changes in the details of a long-running process put the broad vision at risk. The lesson from my theater experience is that there is always a level of chaos playing out offstage that is essential to maintaining the illusion of control on stage. If you don’t recognize this and factor it into your designs and your management practices, then the offstage chaos is going to spill into view.

Building two bridges between technology and practice

Parallel bridgesI got hooked on the theater in high school. The gateway was a stint as props manager for a local community theater production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” At the same time, I was a science and math geek in class. I was immersed in the Two Cultures debate long before I even knew that it existed. As much from being shy as for any positive reason, I spent my time in the wings and backstage where I learned about all of the technology it took to make the art happen on stage.

Because theater is live, techies and actors intermingle. There’s rivalry, but it is friendly; the need to work together is obvious. In my college theater group, the tech crew had an award called the “golden crescent wrench.” It was awarded to the cast member who did the most to support the crew. I don’t recall that there was an equivalent award from the cast to the crew, but you know how actors are.

You might think that the divide between techies and performers is narrower in the world of organizations; the interdependencies are just as critical to success. But we see that isn’t the case. Where a theatrical production has a performance to focus everyone on their joint contributions, there is no equivalent in a business. Performance is a continuing process, not a discrete event. Continuing processes push organizations in the direction of increasing specialization, organizational barriers, and silos.

Fewer and fewer people are positioned to view and understand the whole and the multiple magics required to deliver that whole. Technology is something that happens deep in the engine rooms, not nearby in the wings. There is narrow communication and certainly no fraternization between the different specialists.

This has been a long standing problem in organizations. It becomes more pressing as technology becomes more and more visible; as it becomes more of the performance. Our theater analogy suggests that there are at least two problems to address. Techies must learn to appreciate performance and performers must develop some sense for what art becomes possible with each new technological advance.

Dilbert notwithstanding, getting techies to appreciate performance may be the simpler task. A look back to theaters may help. Every theater has a history and that history includes the technological assumptions that were made at its inception. Sometimes those assumptions can be baffling; the Athenaeum Theater in Chicago, for example, has a loading dock that is fourteen feet off the ground and requires a forklift to load in sets for a show. Old theaters accrete new capabilities in layers as technology evolves and budgets ebb and flow. Wishing that a particular constraint didn’t exist is a waste of time; history sets limits on what is easy, hard, and impossible. None of those constraints matter, however, unless they interfere with a particular artistic goal. Understanding the performance goals is the central step in taking advantage of the technological possible.

Developing a meaningful grasp of the technological possible appears to be the more challenging task. Arthur C. Clarke captured this challenge in his third law; “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” If all technology looks like magic to a performer, how can they make sensible choices among options? The answer lies in the practice of stage magicians. They start with the illusion they wish to create and a deep understanding of human psychology. They add a good helping of knowing how technology has been used in the past to create particular effects. Then they proceed to experiment with what might be possible next.

What this becomes is a very grounded approach to innovation. You start with where you are. This includes a sense for what has gone before. You imagine where you hope to take your audience/customers. Only then do you explore what can be done with new technology to fulfill your vision. This exploration does require that performers develop a sense for technology, its history, and its edges. That might require some fraternization with the technologists in the organization.

High velocity conversations and communications breakdowns

conversationI was a smartass for the longest time. I’m an eldest child who was a rule follower and well suited to classrooms. Classrooms were arenas where victory went to the quick. The tortoise and the hare was not a fable about slow and steady wins the race; it was a cautionary tale to keep moving. I ended up in—and sought out—environments where brains were honored and rewarded. Most of the rewards went to those who were quick witted and glib. Many of the natural corrective counterbalances were missing.

This led to frequent episodes of “engaging mouth before engaging brain.” I still experience lapses. I’m certain there are still people I annoy. I hope there are fewer that I hurt. It was a long time before I learned that conversation was a group activity, not a solo. The smartass in me would happily point out that this is self-evident from the Latin roots of the word.

I have a friend who is a little bit older and a great deal wiser than I am. One of the things that makes our relationship fun is something he labels “high velocity conversations;” He’s a jazz musician and I think these conversations must feel something like good improvisation. Instead of plodding from A to B to C and on, we leap from A to G to T and know that each of us is keeping pace. When it works, it’s an energizing experience.

What occurs to me is that it isn’t simply the actual velocity that makes these conversations work. It’s also matching velocities. That requires hooking your ears into the circuit as well. And, more often than I might like, it requires routing conversations through your heart as well.

Two things make this harder in today’s organizational environments. First, the default velocity of conversation in organizations has been increasing. “TL;DR” is a rude response to one-sided conversations arriving faster than you can handle. But how to be civil and slow the onslaught of incoming messages remains a riddle. For most of us, the response seems to be grim determination and less sleep.

Second, new conversational channels interfere with both conversational rhythms and emotional content. I can’t monitor and manage an online class discussion with the same fluency I can bring to a physical classroom. Slipping in and out of conversations at a cocktail party or on a coffee break is a skill honed through decades of practical experience. Picking up the thread in an ongoing discussion forum is a different skill and one that lacks easy models to emulate.

The interaction between these two makes it harder to navigate the communications landscape. If I lack the signals and cues available in a face to face conversation, I am pushed toward strategies that aggravate the problems I’m looking to avoid. For example, if my audience is going to read my message later rather than listen to me now, I will be tempted to anticipate and build in all the context and background that might be relevant rather than sort that out on the fly. I’m increasing the risk of provoking a TL;DR response—which is a perfect example of the problem. Can I assume that my reader can translate “TL;DR” into “Too Long; Didn’t Read”? Guess right and I move the conversation along; guess wrong and I irritate someone I may be hoping to persuade.

Our emerging communications environment demands more empathy and sensitivity to our conversational partners at the same time as it strips us of the tools we’ve learned to depend on to make that communication work.

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.