The Single Biggest Mistake: a key cause of failed change initiatives

I’ve posted about this before, but here is a piece I wrote recently.  If there is one piece of advice I’d give to managers and leaders about what NOT TO DO, it would be this.

So again, re-posted here:

The single biggest mistake I have observed in organizations over the last 30 years, is treating what everyone usually knows to be a truly complex problem and system, as though it was a technical or complicated problem. The latter can be broken down into component parts to be studied and changed. The latter can be analyzed and understood in terms of causal relationships (if we do this, then that should happen). The latter then allow for comparatively easy metrics of outputs and outcomes.

But the former- the complex challenges- can not be broken down. Can not ascribe causality prospectively. Can not be managed or controlled or made predictable even though we wish it so. Can be prodded, explored, observed, influenced, and eventually stabilized as understanding and coherence emerge.

The fear comes from the understanding that we do not, and can not, have the solutions to these complex problems. Leaders have to admit they aren’t sure what to do, or how to do it. So we count things that are easy to count, but not really important, relative to the real underlying issue. We set goals, and hold people and programs accountable, for solutions and outcomes that are often impossible to achieve given the current system, respurces, and approach to change.  

We’d be better served by thinking about baseball, or soccer. When my son started little league baseball as a kid, he was upset each time he made an out instead of a hit. I told him about the best hitter who ever lived, Ted Williams. I asked my son, “out of every ten times Ted was up to bat, about how many times did he actually get a hit?” Of course, my son assumed that the best ever hitter, must have had a hit 9 out of 10 times. Nope. Not 8, or 7, or 6, or even 5. The best hitter in history failed 60% of the time. Today, if you can hit the ball just 27% of the time- failing 73% of the time- you’ll be a major league millionaire. Teams on the soccer pitch all know what the objective is- get the ball i to the other team’s net. But in 90 minutes of play, it is not uncommon to have just one team score just one goal. It’s hard. The dynamics are complex.  

So too with many organizational challenges. At SAMHSA, I recall discussions about the NSDUH data on teen drinking or prescription drug abuse. Surveys could tell us the approximate rates of substance abuse in certain populations, in certain areas. The surveys could not tell us the full underlying causes, or point to optimal solutions.

There is a way forward. People must learn the basic dynamics of the complex as opposed to the complicated. There are very different ways to approach problem-solving and change, in each principal domain.

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We’re All FLUXed: Deming, Darwin, and the challenge of change

W. Edwards Deming was perhaps best known for his application of statistical analysis to the work of quality and business process improvement. But he was also a brilliant and insightful teacher about human dynamics in any organization and endeavor. Paraphrasing Darwin, Deming famously quipped, “Learning is optional. Survival is optional.”
To survive and thrive in a world of turbulence and uncertainty, we must accept Deming and Darwin’s challenges. We must think. . . 

. . . About the capacity to be ever-curious, and to seek real facts, real knowledge, and real understanding

. . . About courage and confidence overcoming fear born of ignorance 

. . . About being the hero of our own story and life, instead of looking for some swaggering person who we think will “make everything all right” because of what we’re told “they” did to us

Darwin didn’t really say “survival of the fittest.” Rather, he wrote that those best able to survive will be “those best able to adapt to changes” in their environments.

Will we accept the challenge?

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Give a #$%! about FLUX: a fat rat’s tale 

Pity the poor rat. Though usually lithe and lean, we often talk only about the rotund members of the family. And we seem almost obsessed with their derrieres, as if the conniving rodents’ brains had nothing to do with their survival in less than idyllic circumstances.

Worst of all, is our total and utter contempt for the Southbound ends of the Northbound varmints. How many times have you uttered the dismissive “I wouldn’t give a fat rat’s patoot for…” for, well, whatever it is that you hold in such low esteem.  

But these are no ordinary critters. The rat endures the FLUX of its lived experience in ways that truly “survive and thrive.” In fact, we could learn a lot about building our own FLUX Capacity from the lowly rat. As the good folks at Crowley’s Pest Control write, “The survival skills and physical prowess of rats are unmatched by any other mammal.”

Here are a few choice bits of rat facts:

“There are no mammals that have the resilience of rodents. And no rodent has survived better than rats.”

“Colonies of roof rats lived on the Eniwetok Atoll in the South Pacific throughout ten years of atomic bomb testing. The soil of these islands was literally burned off and tidal waves inundated them. The rats not only survived in their underground burrows; they appeared to suffer no ill effects from the high levels of nuclear radiation.”  

“they have flexible skeletons that can compress and expand enabling them to squeeze through a pipe the width of a quarter. Rats can hold their breath for four minutes; they can get flushed down a toilet and live.”

[rats] “can jump two feet to the top of a garbage can – three feet with a running start. this is the equivalent of a human leaping from the driveway up to the roof of the garage.”
What the FLUX?!

In life, whether you are a rat or a bipodal humanoid, you are constantly in the FLUX. Things that we took for granted as stable and predictable every day, can suddenly change in ways ranging from mildly annoying to hugely catastrophic. What worked yesterday may not work today.  

So. . . what’s a FLUXed rat to do?

Don’t freak out just because you’ve been nuked. When life drops a mushroom cloud, you’re not necessarily covered in shiitakes. Take a deep breath, and tell your amygdala to wait a minute. Don’t let your emotions narrow your ability to act in the moment.

Pay attention, not only in the ways you always have. Suspend your judgment of what you are seeing and what it means, to be open to new interpretation. Watch what others are doing in similar situations, and what happens to them.

Keep learning; keep trying. Maybe something you know or something you can do will work. Maybe not. But if you don’t try, you can be pretty sure your patoot isn’t worth a thing.

Explore the dark tunnels. It might seem crazy, and it might not work. But you’ll get a better understanding of your options, and you just might find a way to get through this.
You might not know a rat’s patoot from a fine cheroot, but building your FLUX capacity can get you through it.
Quotes from Cowley’s Pest Control retrieved on 21 December 2015, at http://www.cowleys.com/pests-we-treat/rodents/rats-survival-skills.html

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The Generator of the New: how to influence people and create positive change

In a recent Plexus Institute call, Benyamin Lichtenstein and Pierpaolo Andriani talked about “Generative Emergence” and the dynamics of influencing change in complex human systems.  Several participants on the call, myself included, had submitted questions to the speakers.  To my delight, Benyamin and Pierpaolo engaged us all by email in what is now a rich ongoing dialogue.

Following are my initial comments in response both to the email exchange, and to the content on Benyamin’s “Generative Emergence” website:

As I begin to dive into this delightfully complex dialogue, a few observations and comments, in no particular order:

…what we call “emergence” in human adaptive systems, strikes me as being subjective, and socially constructed. We are noticing patterns and degrees of difference as we observe over time. What we see as emergent and coherent won’t yield to analysis of causality for the purpose of prediction and control, if the underlying dynamics are complex.  

…temporal dynamics rarely seem to get the level of attention that I suspect they deserve. What is the rate of change and behavior we are observing in the system? What is the perceived degree of urgency in the need for our response? 

…I personally do not believe that computational modeling of complex systems is (not yet, anyway) sufficiently able to match the sense-making of informed human sensor networks. The Algorithmists, as I call the pattern-seeking rule-makers, do not yet have sufficient ways to model the full complex dynamics of human systems, to enable successful analysis. One question I always ask of Big Data advocates, is whether they have done any research comparing their computers to human sensor networks (that is, groups of people in the system, telling and signifying/interpreting their stories collectively). After the puzzled looks, and my explaining what I mean, they have to admit that they haven’t thought of this, and have not done it. This would also appear to be linked to the Quantum Zeno Paradox, and the indivisibility of time.

I will add that I recently obtained some anecdotal data on a case in point. The genomics lab at a major university has invested many millions of dollars in computer systems to model and analyze genomic and dna data. Virtually without exception, the doctors and professors there- including prize-winning, world-renowned scientists- prefer to rely instead on their own judgment of the data. One world-famous there told me that he literally teaches their medical and research students to essentially ignore the computer systems.

…with regard to “dissipative systems” and the 2d Law of Thermodynamics in complex adaptive human systems– it took me a couple of years to solve this seeming dilemma when I first encountered complexity and began my learning journey in the late 1990s. One day I realized what the answer was. Human systems organize to increasing levels of complexity over time because they are not dissipative at all. Energy continues to flow into our endeavors (Dawkins was wrong).

…can we purposefully influence the emergence of positive change? That’s the Big Q, of course. I believe we can not know all that there is to know, and all that we might want (or need) to know, in order to truly control change outcomes. What we can do (and must do, if we are to survive and thrive), is continuously seek to learn and understand about what’s going on. We must iteratively try our most promising options, and continuously observe what happens. Where and when stability and desired outcomes occur, we act to stabilize and sustain them (which may not always work, since the underlying dynamics may still be too complex). We must work to keep improving our response capacity in the face of change and emergence of the new.  

…in reading a bit on the Generative Emergence site, I kept thinking about the work of Alicia Juarrero, and the influence she had on the work of Dave Snowden, and Cynthia Kurtz in particular. I am thinking here about the dynamics of intention, and how our purposeful actions yield boundaries, constraints, and simultaneous opportunities.

…I likewise think that the complexity community would be well-served to look at the work of the Bulgarian-born Australian professor, Vlad Dimitrov. In particular, Vlad’s twist on Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. Vlad posits a Law of Requisite Vorticity. That is, the rate of communicated ideas and info exchanges between and among us. Following on the vortical flow dynamics of liquids, for example, Vlad suggests that a sufficient level of communicated exchanges yield a vortex of thought and action. Like the swirling funnel of a tornado, this vortex results in a specific vector- a trajectory of our intention and shared purpose. We can cultivate and nurture these exchanges and explorations of possibility space. In so doing, I believe we can influence and generate change. Except for…

…the power of social Attractors of meaning. The power of ideas and beliefs, the limits of knowledge and understanding, the barriers of emotion, will all work to simultaneously constrain and hold the status quo. Power and fear, often prime among these. So how then are we to act in the awareness of these dynamics, if we intend to generate new possibility and improved outcomes?

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How F.A.R. Will You Go? 

Are you…Flexible? Adaptable? Resilient?
Eleven years ago, as the Administrator of Training and Development at the Delaware River Port Authority, I gave the opening keynote at the annual conference of the Eastern States Transportation Network. 

The Network is comprised of people responsible for the operation, maintenance, and security, of highways, bridges, trains, and tunnels from Maine to Florida. The impact of 9/11 was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and there were many police and security folks in the audience.

At the conference, I spoke about the lessons learned from the experience of the first responders, and the people inside the buildings that day:

> How the knowledge and understanding each person had up to that moment was not necessarily sufficient for responding to the unexpected action that occurred. 

> How information, when it became available, was often incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading, because of the limited perspectives of people in their places, in the moment. 

> How in complex situations, life or death literally depends on how people make sense of their rapidly evolving experience together in the moment.

SO…

4 SENSE MAKING SKILLS YOU NEED, TO NAVIGATE DISRUPTIVE EXPERIENCES

My conclusion was that there were several skills we need and must use in the face of unexpected events and disruptive experiences:

> We must be willing and able to change our intention and action rapidly in the face of significantly changed circumstances around us.

> We must know multiple ways and paths to (hopefully) lead us towards our goals.

> We must have the capacity to learn, understand, and adapt rapidly.

> Finally, we must be able to calmly and efficiently negotiate meaning and purpose with others. 
The greater our capacities in these areas, the better our chances of surviving. . . And thriving.

As W. Edwards Deming put it (in his usual dry witty away): 

“Learning is optional. Survival is optional.”
Collective sense-making, exploration of promising options, and continuous learning and adaptation, is the best we can do as we act into the complexities of the unknown future.

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Putting It All Together: the “New Lens” of Integrated Improvement

This follows on my appearance last week at FHI 360’s Challenge Development conference. This conference featured Otto Scharmer’s two-hour opening presentation. I was on a panel for a “deep dive” into “polarity and emergence in cooperation and competition” (hint- I said there is NO polarity. These are two aspects of the singular complex experience of living).

My friends at FHI 360 advocate and seek to apply an “integrated strategy” to the exceedingly complex work of global development. 

Here’s my recent comment on Integrated Improvement:

I have been teaching what I call “Integrated Improvement” for years now. I referenced my approach in my remarks at last year’s FHI 360 Advancing the Field Conference, and again last week in my talk at the Challenge Development conference.

The “integration” in approaching the complex challenges of development work begin with applying a new lens to the sense-making and decision-making processes. The New Lens is all about looking at the different types of systems and challenges we face, and understanding that different challenges require different kinds of response. An Appreciative perspective on Asset-Based Community Development help to focus on promising options, without the (false) presumption that solutions to complex challenges are known or knowable. This new lens has powerful implications for sense-making, decision-making, defining metrics, and assessing policy and program results.

We explore possibility without fear of failure. We include everyone in our inquiry. We learn continuously; adapt as needed; keep what works; discard what doesn’t.

And in so doing, we integrate our approaches and actions towards both technical/complicated, and complex/adaptive challenges at the same time. We learn as we probe the multiple dynamics that impact the challenges we want to address. And we adjust strategy and tactics as needed.

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Big Vision From the Low Country: Glenn Roberts and Anson Mills

What do you do, if your mother was a wonderful home cook, steeped in the traditions of the Carolinas’ low country ingredients and cuisine. . . and those ingredients were disappearing?

If you were Glenn Roberts, you change the course of your career, and follow your dream.  Glenn began Anson Mills, where they both grow, and mill remarkable organic grain products.  If you have ever watched A Chef’s Life, or The Mind of a Chef on tv, you may have seen the segments on Anson Mills.

For my birthday, I got a selection of Anson Mills products. Two bags of the amazing blue corn grits, that I first had at Rat’s restaurant.  A bag of grits made not from corrn, but from Carolina Gold rice.  And a bag of classic grits from the Pencil Cob corn variety.

These are not the “five minute” quick-cooking grits that most home cooks know.  To cook Pencil Cob grits, takes forethought.  Last night I soaked a half cup of the grits and left them in the water overnight, as directed.  

This morning, I cooked them at first in the now-starchy water.  Then, as the water evaporated and the grits began to soften, I added leftover hazelnut coffee, that had both sugar and cream in it.  The grits turned a light brown color, and the pot thickened.  At the end of the 25-minute cooking time (if you do not soak them, it takes 45 inutes!), I added a pinch of New Mexican red chile powder.  The result was a bowl of remarkable flavors and textures.

Thanks, Anson Mills.  Thanks, Glenn.  

http://www.ansonmills.com/what_we_do_pages#2 

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“It’s What Ya Know That Just Ain’t So” – Strategic Planning and Complex Challenges

For over a year, I’ve been consulting with managers and staff at a Federal regulatory compliance agency, on their evolving strategic plan. Several factors, including employer power in a down economy, and the fear of immigrant employees (legal or otherwise), have made enforcement and compliance more difficult than ever. 

In working with this group, I have talked with them about several different ways to think about planning– and its “partner” — evaluation/measurement. 

We learn and think together about:

— what aspects of the challenges are fully known, or knowable?

— what aspects of the challenges are not now knowable?

— who we can invite to talk with and learn from, to improve our knowledge and understanding (and thereby, improve the odds of successful outcomes)?

— how can we overcome the “fear factor” — typically fear of failure — as we act into ambiguity and uncertainty?

— what are the core values and operating principles that can best assess our set of promising options in facing our most complex challenges?

— what are the ways to assess and measure outcomes, both for challenges in known/knowable domains, and in unknowable problems?

— how will we learn continuously together, to improve our adaptive capacity and results?

— how will we hold ourselves and each other accountable for acting in congruence with the core values and operating principles we express?


As I tell people, it’s important to learn “The Problem With Problems” (that they come in different types, which require different patterns of response for optimal results), and avoid “The Single Biggest Problem” (treating unknowable complex challenges as if they were technical and solvable).

In this, I am reminded of a quote which I believe is attributed to Will Rogers: 

“It ain’t what ya know that gets ya in trouble. It’s what ya know, that just ain’t so.”

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Just the Facts, Ma’am: Opening space for the “difference that makes a difference”

In the long-running radio and tv series Dragnet, the main character, police sergeant Joe Friday, became famous for his direction to witnesses. In his own minimalist, deadpan style, he always asked for a brief telling of the most important points. “Just the facts, ma’am,” became a cultural cliche.

But… how did Joe Friday know what the witnesses knew? How did he know what they might tell him, that might lead to a better, successful outcome. On Dragnet, Joe Friday always got the criminal (and understanding that these stories were hand-picked actual cases from the L.A. P.D.).

“Time is money” is as much a business cliche as Joe Friday’s request for “just the facts.” But. . .

We know we are often constrained by time. Challenges arose that require a response right now. Or soon. Or maybe.

We know we are easily overwhelmed by the massive amounts of information that are instantly available to us today. Search the web for any topic you can imagine, and in seconds, you have more information than you can digest in a week.

Ideas compete for our attention, and our time. The boss needs your report by noon tomorrow. You have to pick up your child at school but there was an accident on the highway. How can you be the first to market with your amazing new food truck concept?

In a recent conversation, I was consulted for advice on a particular IT product. The person asking knows me exceptionally well. they have spent most of their career inside large and very well-known corporations. They are a specialist in a highly complex set of international laws and regulations. Right answers and optimal strategies can mean millions in savings or penalties to their employers and clients. This is a person accustomed to being ordered to deliver Executive Summaries to C-level bosses.

I had done a bit of research on the IT products in question. A product I am very familiar with. I knew there were a handful of basic questions I could ask, that would quickly narrow the field of options. I also knew that future needs might change, and should be considered in making a choice now. So I prepared and made my response with a bit more than “Just the facts.”

In return, I was told (and in a very friendly and nice way) that I should have given a more brief “Executive Summary.” And so I asked:

How do you know if you know all you need to know to make your best decision?

How do you know what Iknow?

How do you know if something I am going to tell you might be the critical piece of information that would make the difference in your thinking, decision, and outcome?

Yes, I saiid, “time is money.” But, I added, “so too is information that makes a difference.”

Joe Friday only had 30 minutes to solve the case. Confining witness comments to the bare facts might have worked for him. But even when we are pressed for time, we should consider the source – and the odds that if we simply invite someone to inform us – we might Gregory Bateson’s well-known meaning of information – “a difference that makes a difference.”

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To B or not to B: Bullies, Beliefs, and the Fear of Different

What does it mean to be a “bully?” I have worked with a public high school, and a Federal agency on bullying issues. In the latter, we used the American Psychological Association “psychologically healthy workplace” framework and standards as a guide.

A bully is someone who doesn’t respect others. They don’t respect differences between them and others. They won’t suspend their judgment long enough to give any consideration, let alone respect, to the characteristics of others such as race, gender, or religion. They won’t give any consideration to what others may think about issues. They only want their own way. Their own beliefs. Their own values.

Yesterday, Chris Christie gave an interview at the large conservative CPAC gathering, at which he defended himself against the claims that he is a bully. He said, according to the article in the Times of Trenton, that his being called a bully “comes from the fact that he won’t mince words or back down” (the words of reporter Jonathan Salant).

Mr. Christie went on to say that “the word they miss is passionate. If you really care about something, you need to go all in.”

No. No, Mr. Christie. We can be passionate. We can be committed to our beliefs and values. But literally telling citizens who dare to disagree with you to “shut up and sit down” is not about the passion of anyone’s beliefs. It is about your lack of respect for the citizens you are supposed to serve. It is, sir, with all due respect for the commitment you have to your beliefs, about you being a bully.

Your explicit intransigence and unwillingness to respectfully analyze and consider facts and opinions of others may not be bullying. It may indeed reflect your commitment to your own values. Such intransigence will be welcomed by those who happen to agree with you. In my experience, it is not a positive quality in anyone seeking a leadership position, and having to deal with complex challenges where the “one right answer” is neither known nor knowable. Regardless of one’s passionate beliefs to the contrary.

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