Devizesbowmen shooting a recurve bow at archery target. (c) Jethrothompson (CC BY SA 3) Via Wikimedia.

Change Management, IT, Improvisation and What Work Really Is

E. Forrest Christian Change, Computers/IT, Managing Leave a Comment

After recently finishing a gig with a company that has hit a spate of bad luck, both self-inflicted and environmental, I have taken to reading. And as always when I read, I like to meander aimlessly through the thoughts of disparate thinkers who have nothing in common except that they caught my fancy for the moment. So my apologies to those who like a point.

I’ve been reading a folks who write about the problems of Information Systems Development (ISD) projects — John Sterman and Claudio Ciborra, mostly. We all start our laments by noting that most ISD projects come in late or are disappointing to their consumers. (See IT Cortex’s review of the literature on IT project failure rates) The rates get worse for larger projects, the ones that are supposed to change the way that you do business. Quick: think of an ERM or CRM implementation at a largish (50,000+ employees) company that the management considers a success. Can’t think of one? Apparently neither can most people.

The late Claudio Ciborra, in one of his many brilliant statements, points out that most social systems grow out of use and social negotiation.

So, like usual, I’m going to add things I talked about before to the mix. I quoted Cass Sunstein’s review of the James Scott’sSeeing Like A State two years ago in a prior blog, and it’s worth noting again here:

A German psychologist named Dietrich Dorner has done some fascinating experiments designed to see whether people can engage in successful social engineering. The experiments are run by a computer. Participants are asked to solve problems faced by the inhabitants of some region of the world: poverty, poor medical care, inadequate fertilization of crops, sick cattle, insufficient water, excessive hunting and fishing. Through the magic of the computer, many policy initiatives are available (improved care of cattle, childhood immunization, drilling more wells), and participants can choose among them. Once initiatives are chosen, the computer projects, over short periods of time and then over decades, what is likely to happen in the region.

In these experiments, success is entirely possible. Some initiatives will actually make for effective and enduring improvements. But most of the participants–even the most educated and the most professional ones–produce calamities. They do so because they do not see the complex, system-wide effects of particular interventions. Thus they may recognize the importance of increasing the number of cattle, but once they do that, they create a serious risk of overgrazing, and they fail to anticipate that problem. They may understand the value of drilling more wells to provide water, but they do not foresee the energy effects and the environmental effects of the drilling, which endanger the food supply. It is the rare participant who can see a number of steps down the road, who can understand the multiple effects of one- shot interventions into the system.

I continued in a now embarassing vein:

The rest of the article reviews the points made by Scott in his book. Scott says that these issues are the same in real life: governments and other organizations attempt to create long range plans that will transform the world, only to find that they have simply driven it into the ground.

Examples abound. Tsarist Russia attempted to induce industrialisation through a central policy of decentralization. In the Western world, industry grew up around cities or places with resource that induced people to permanently move there. Brasilia was built on the simplified principles of Le Corbusier, the evil man who whose ideas also brought us Chicago Public Housing. Both were failures because they tried to regiment human life without understanding it.

And this is Scott’s main point. Most people will be unsuccessful in putting a revolutionary policy into place. They will put in something that will destroy the existing wisdom, replacing it with something that won’t last, only to result in a decapitated society. Think Russia right now after 75 years of Leninism. “Kill all your leaders!” is never a successful program.

This brings us back to Elliott Jaques’s point about Time Span of Discretion (TSD) and mental capability. Very few people would have the mental complexity to put forth a Big Idea that transforms a culture. Burnham seems to have had it, as did Montgomery Ward, to cite two great Chicago examples. Washington had it — the dullard that everyone talks about never existed. He may have bored his country guests with his talk of land grabs, but you were more likely to pass out from his long explanations about innovative crop management practices.

I got it, but not really.

What I kind of understood but didn’t make clear (because I didn’t really get it) was the idea of level of thinking and vagueness. When you think about the future at Stratum 7, it’s a very vague world, very open to events, very fluid — at least compared to that of Str3. You aren’t trying to dictate short-term activities into the future. You’re seeing the risks (variance) in the future and making a system that can withstand the variance. The founders of America attempted to do that, to create something that would grow and change and survive in times that they couldn’t imagine.

But they also grew out of a received knowledge and understanding from their ancestors. In the same way, information systems grow out of their predecessors, the social ways that provided information flow previously. (Which also explains why we have a “desktop” and “files” and “folders” in an electronic environment, a la the QWERTY effect.)

We don’t like to think of information systems as organic, alive, growing; socially created and maintained abstractions for communication. Information and Communcation Technologies (ICT). Most people in the business tend to think of things as if they were stationary. Including managers. “If only we could document the users’ requirements more completely!” they moan. But we can’t. Not just because tacit knowledge doesn’t pop out of your head easily (Brown and Duguid). Social systems aren’t static.

And RO people don’t always get this either. They have an irritating tendency to think of things as static, as if you can create a single structure that gets everything right once and for all. But you can’t. You can only set things into motion that will allow the organization to constantly adjust and retool in a such a way to increase their chances of being more or less natural at any single point. It’s not in everyone, but RO consultants aren’t somehow immune to this tendency. Even those (like me) who cry “Semper Reformanda” tend to simplify this problem.

No matter how you look at folks, in two years things will have changed. More than a little.

Of course, there are more than a few interesting passages from the Great Thinker himself. I think about the passage on work from RO. Work, Jaques held, was problem solving. FromRO ’96, page pair 64:

The complexity of a problem does not lie in the complexity of the goal, but in the complexity of the pathway that has to be constructed and then traversed in order to get to the goal.

  • That is to say, the complexity of the task lies not in the goal but in what you have to do in order to get there. ….

Work, he points out, “is not the traversing of known paths”. Instead, we work when we solve problems. So mindlessly applying rules, procedures, processes or regulations to a situation is not working: it’s simply mindlessly moving. Figuring out how to apply them to any particular situation, he points out, might be work. (Sounds like it to me.)

The work is to choose pathways or construct new ones, and to adapt them as you encounter unanticipated difficulties in traversing them.

Jaques uses the illustration of “getting to California” via jet airplane or horse-drawn wagon: both achieve the same goal (“California”) but probably leading the wagon is a more complex problem (i.e., has more questions of what to do at this juncture) than flying the plane does.

The technology changes the complexity. Reduces it. (Although this is not explicitly stated by Jaques.)

We therefore have “improvisation” as described by Ciborra occurring in all levels of work. Or at least we should. For it is in the improv, the on-the-spot problem solving, that work is done. Or, I should say, that improv is work.

To be entirely twisting and winding about it all.

The real lesson here is probably to never go back and read your meanderings after beginning to read something. The only piece I’ve ever written that didn’t make me wince afterwards was my college admissions essay, where, forced to pick a historical figure to interview, I chose Marco Polo, since he opened the Orient to Europe, which give rise to increased mercantilism, which led to discontent, which brought about the Reformation, which gave us capitalism, which led to America and all that’s good and wholesome in the world. (I then interviewed him following the lead ofPeople magazine with a series of innane questions.) While I disagree with most of the argument, it’s still fun in how it followed along with major thinkers I’d later find out about. Thank God I watched all that television when my high school was going bankrupt!

Image Credit: Devizesbowmen (shooting a recurve bow at archery target). © Jethrothompson (CC BY-SA 3.0). Via Wikimedia Commons.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

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