Saturday, July 19, 2008

Stupid Human Tricks and System-antics

In David's recent PureSchmaltz blog post Going Organic, he fleshes out a notion he calls "management-ism", and recommends the ethic of "working the system so the system can work" - something that often feels like benevolent subversion.

In the comments responding to the post, Glen Alleman, a frequent commenter and sometimes harsh critic of David and my work, comments "The notion that systems work themselves is held only by those with no understanding of the theory of systems. But once understanding is in place, systems can be made to serve those who devised them."

This elicited my own comment on his comment that "It is always useful to remember that we humans are shaped by the systems in which we find ourselves - often inadvertently. So, once THIS understanding is in place, people can be made to serve the system. And, it is always best, in my humble opinion, to design the system with humility and awareness that I am likely to become co-opted regularly by that which I create."

As each of us work the system so it can work - both for our greater, common purpose and for ourselves, we shift the system ever so subtly (or not so subtly). And the system changes and grows, these changes effect each of the agents - or humans, in the case of these systems in which we live, work, and have our being. And the recursive cycle continues.

When we stay modestly awake to this dynamic in the system, and of the dynamics of the system working on ourselves, we might be able to affect real change. This awareness of the nature of the system is part of what Maturana calls "radical acceptance". It combines with our focus on purpose and intention for ourselves and for the common, broader purpose and demonstrates the fully human ability to create lasting systemic change.

When we lose addressability to this dynamic and go into the normal trances of life and work, we can (usually later) discover the surprisingly inhuman actions we may have inflicted on others, and which we put up with being inflicted on ourselves. Such is the subtle "Master / Slave" dynamic that can lead us, no matter how well schooled in the theory of systems or practiced in the application of systems into feeling like we have no control, no influence, and no latitude at all. Or leaving us looking to a manager for direction or railing against a manager for what they never could have known enough to direct. Or railing against the creator of the system as if the originator is really the ultimate creator of the system in which we are engaged - as a community - in co-creating every moment. Whether or not we are awake and aware of what we are doing.

Such is yet another of what I generously call a "Stupid Human Trick". And remind myself again that no matter how conscious and capable I feel, I will succumb to the co-opting effect of all of the various systems in which I live, work, and have my being.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Mapping Relationships

David's been blogging at Pure Schmaltz about the usefulness of (and some techniques for) mapping the relationships needed to make work work well.

Lately there has been a lot in the trades about social network mapping. I find all of it interesting and my inner data geek really is fascinated by the methods for tracking email or other communication in an organization. A piece of me wants to pull out and dust off the old data gathering / research chops and get to work selling companies mapping packages. And, an older, wiser me realizes the folly in this.

Folly? Huh?

Okay, if what you want to do is spend a lot of time and money (and the time and money of a company) mapping things, then go for it. It would even be interesting and provide some insights. However, as interesting as this would be on a large scale, the sort of mapping that is most useful can be done in the small and on the fly.

Besides the time and money spent, in the shifting sands of our organizations how likely are you to wind up with a map of current reality? More likely, you'll get a gold-plated, out-dated map of how it used to be - interesting for archival purposes but not terribly useful in navigating your work today. Unless you are in a pretty stable environment with meantime between reorganizations of more than twelve months, by the time large scale mapping studies are done, the map is likely to be pretty much useless for day to day work. Anyone who has tried to get from point A to point B using an outdated map (one in which they have a heavily investment) knows, you might be better off having no map at all.

Although we've not called it social network mapping, the techniques we've taught for years for dealing with the human elements of work certainly seems to fit the description. My favorite technique is subculture mapping.

In subculture mapping we consider the patterns within the organization and its sub-organizations - down to whatever is the relevant group size. We look for the over-riding patterns of group dynamics and ask "What does safety seem to entail for this particular group?"
  • Do members flee into the safety of following a strong, charismatic or, perhaps, autocratic leader?
  • Do members flock into a clan or clique that, from the outside, can seem impenetrable but feels perfectly rational and well functioning inside?
  • Is this an every wo/man for him/herself chaotic culture - with management and organizational structure showing little effect on the way things get done?
  • Is the predominant metaphor competing - with safety defined as being on the winning side of skirmishes and battles and besting your opponents?
  • Oh yes, I must include the illusive, textbook, congruent culture in which safety is in speaking up, doing the right thing, balancing interests, and pursuing results through rational and explicitly agreed upon process. (Warning: if you think you are inside a congruent organization check from someone outside your group)
To be clear, each of these types can accomplish great results - none is better or worse, more or less functional. And, if you approach one of these organizations assuming it will act like a type other than it is, you are likely to leave with disappointed expectations.

Within each type of organization, there are more and less useful and effective ways of approaching getting work done, seeking support or resources, and feeling accepted and valued. Recognizing what you're working with is the first step in devising useful strategies. In our workshops we spent a bit of time reflecting on what we know about the do's and don'ts of working with each type.

And I've never seen anyone, after a bit of reflection, who couldn't pretty accurately size up the 'type' of various groups. And, I've not met anyone yet who, when comparing notes, couldn't come up with a half a dozen more useful strategies for getting things done with /within that group.

If you've got a giant budget, go for the study. If you just need to get work done, take a look at what is there. As Yogi Berra said "You can see a lot by looking!"

More on other strategies for understanding relationships more usefully in future posts.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Shifting Metaphors

These days, every time I get in front of a group, the topic of shifted metaphors comes up. Inevitably, whether at a gathering of Agile practitioners in San Francisco, a Stanford class of Program Managers looking for ways to better integrate their programs, or Austrian executives and consultants looking for ways to be more effective, the topic comes up.

It starts with someone mentioning their current intractable challenge: BUILDING an organization, IMPLEMENTING a change, BROKEN DOWN operations, quests for EFFICIENCY, or failed attempts to make things run like CLOCKWORKS.

At that point we bring up what seems so obvious - that they are approaching what seem like essentially human challenges as if they were simple mechanical problems.

I ask, "Do we work in an essentially mechanical organization infested with pesky humans? or Do we engage in an essentially living organization that uses mechanical tools to work better?"

The distinction is very important. Perhaps the most important distinction there is for those who want to really become effective and bring out the generative best in their organizations.

Our day-to-day language implies that we are operating in an essentially mechanical system. We measure performance and goodness based on mechanical standards of efficiency and productivity while getting stumbled up by the very elements that can provide the real solutions to our questing - generative productivity that delivers returns only seen in the organic world. Consider the kernel of grain that, if planted, tended, and harvested with consciousness and care will yield a hundred-fold return. Consider the germ that, once it finds a receptive place to lodge, rapidly replicates and infects the host.

Such are the potential yields of a shifted metaphor.

Understanding this distinction, and mindfully using the distinction appropriately allows individuals, groups, and organizations to leverage the principles of living systems, and for individuals to exercise the essentially human elements that unleash the full power within the system.

This is NOT to suggest that if you are, indeed, operating in an essentially mechanical operation - a production line is one example - that you try to reform it into something it is not. However, you might discover that those pesky human elements are the ones that most need tending to ensure that the living elements of the system are interacting with the mechanical elements to produce the highest value results. And those highest value results are ALWAYS measured in human terms - if only in terms of the biggest bonus, the nicest house, the flashiest (or most fuel efficient) car, or the biggest portfolio.

Generative projects, growing and learning organizations, and thriving and engaged workers require this one small shift. Interested in learning more? Stay Tuned.