The Pale Blue Dot – paradigms and the big picture

An earlier version of this was first posted on November 1st 2013

We all know that the world is a big place, with lots of complexity and over 7 billion people living in it.
Let’s just stop for a moment and take a look at this photograph…

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Pale_Blue_Dot.png

Taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, this image is notable for the diagonal coloured stripes; but don’t be distracted – these colours are just artefacts of sunlight glancing off the camera housing. They are not the subject of the photograph.

The most important piece of the image is however, the nearly unnoticeable speck of blue just over halfway down the brown stripe on the right. This is Earth.

Carl Sagan, astrophysicist, astronomer and author, pointed out that: “all of human history has happened on that tiny pixel, which is our only home” (speech, Cornell University, 1994).

So what shall we think about when we return to work on Monday?

Rather than worry about the wider world and the vastness beyond it, we should perhaps take note of Stephen Covey’s suggestion and focus on our Circle of Influence, namely the things close enough to us that we can do something about. If we proactively work on what we can change in ourselves it will cause a ripple outwards and increase our influence to inspire and change others.

Further Reading:

Covey, S. (1989) 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Shuster, New York, NY.

Postscript: A more recent photograph of earth has since been taken from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft (peeking from behind Saturn) which shows Earth a little more defined far beyond the rings of Saturn.

Links:

BBC News (2013) Cassini probe takes image of Earth from Saturn orbit, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23419543

California  Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory News Release (2013) NASA Releases Images of Earth Taken by Distant Spacecraft saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/newsreleases/newsrelease20130722/

Improving service starts with a leap of fact, not faith

An earlier version of this was first posted on October 10th 2014

Leap of Fact

  • What should we improve and why?
  • What has changed?
  • How do we improve things, where … when?
  • Who should we involve?

If we start to address these questions and filter out assumptions and  preconceptions, we are able to make some sensible decisions about how to make effective changes that will have a positive effect on performance.

The world is not perfect and we are unlikely to always have the time and resources to gather the complete picture of what is happening. Nevertheless it is important that we seek out and analyse relevant data in order to make some reasonably robust assumptions about what we can do.

There are two common failures of action, lets call them type 1 and type 2 (which is what statisticians call them), or perhaps a mistake in identification between ‘common causes’ and ‘special causes’ of variation. Without understanding the difference we risk just ‘tampering’, where we feel like we are doing something useful but actually only making things worse (Deming, 1982).

“Common Causes”

Common cause situations are those where performance goes up and down over time and if analysed properly can be seen to occur over a relatively predictable pattern: if we change nothing, the performance level will most likely continue. The problems arise when  someone thinks they see a real difference between points of data when in fact no such thing exists. This a type 1 error: we observe  a change which is really only a natural effect of background ‘noise’ yet we choose to act on that ‘change’. For example someone in the office achieves a great result whilst others do not achieve the same result. Is the difference because of the person, or something else in the wider context? Perhaps, as is often the case, they just got lucky and happened to be the one that achieved the good result. Next week it might be someone else. The analogy  is a fire alarm going off indicating a fire when in fact there is no fire. It is easy to fall into type 1 errors assuming highs and lows of performance which don’t exist. This is a ‘mistake of commission’  – doing something that should not have been done (Ackoff et al 2006).

“Special Causes”

Some special causes are obvious, for example a major increase or decrease in performance or a freak accident. However, sometimes hidden patterns of performance can indicate a real change which might easily go undetected if we consider each data point as a ‘one off’. This is a bit like a fire breaking out but the fire alarm not ringing. The fundamental problem is that these genuine changes are due to ‘Special Causes’ something real which is impinging on the system. The issue here is that the solution sits outside the system – don’t redesign what you have as it will not replicate the situation – that is just meddling and will make things worse. For example, cycles of deteriorating work output followed by improving work output by one person might indicate an underlying special cause which needs to be addressed (health for example), so meddling with the design of the work in itself would be counterproductive. Furthermore if the manager does not look at performance over time, these cycles might not be detected anyway – on average they might look like a reasonable level of output. Ackoff calls this a mistake of omission – not doing something that should have been done.

Of course to detect differences between special cause and common cause varuiations in performance requires new skills and disciplines of thinking. When you understand the organisation as a system, improving service starts with a leap of fact, not faith.

Reading:

Ackoff, R.L.; Addison, H. J. Bibb, S. (2006) Management f-Laws: How Organizations Really Work. Triarchy Press

Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

FOCUSING ARGUMENTS UPON SOUND KNOWLEDGE: COMMON FALLACIES OF LOGIC AND RHETORIC

An earlier version of this was first posted on September 8th 2014

debate 2Dealing with change usually involves debate: what to change, why, where, when, how and who?

There is often the danger that skeptical inquiry can creep towards defensiveness and cynicism. Here are some things to challenge when these attributes appear in negative arguments presented by others (adapted from Paine 2013):

POOR responses in discussions include:

  • Attacking the person not the argument, or stereotyping a position to make attacks easier.
  • Relying on ‘authority’. Hierarchy should make no difference, one person’s opinion should be no weightier than another’s (both are, after all, just opinions) – what are the facts?
  • Observational selection (counting positives and forgetting the negatives, or vice versa).
    ● Statistics of small numbers
    (such as drawing conclusions from inadequate sample sizes)
    ● the ‘sample of one’: using a single case which could be an extreme outlier rather than the norm
  •  ‘conveniently’ considering only two extremes to make the opposing view look worse:
    ● Excluding the middle options in a range of possibilities
    ● Short-term v long-term: “why pursue research when we have so huge a budget deficit?”.
    ● Slippery slope – unwarranted extrapolation “give an inch and they will take a mile”  – would they…always?
  • Misunderstanding the nature of statistics
  • Confuse correlation & causation (cause & effect):
    ‘it happened after so it was caused by’ – is this really justified?
  • Appeal to ignorance
    (but – absence of evidence is not evidence of absence).

To address these arguments ask: what is the purpose of the discussion? what do we know? what are the facts? what are we assuming? what knowledge can we reasonably base our decision making upon? how can we examine, predict and monitor outcomes?

As Deming says, most of what is important is unknown or unknowable, but we don’t assume that it doesn’t exist.

Bring the skeptics into the argument, involve their questions in the testing and development of ideas. Make resistance useful.

Further reading:

Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Deming W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.

Paine M. (2013) Baloney Detection Kit prepared excerpt from The Planetary Society Australian Volunteer Coordinators http://www.carlsagan.com/index_ideascontent.htm#baloney

You reveal your commitments in what you say and what you do

An earlier version of this was first posted on August 8th 2015

Not a banal team building task… Deke Slayton’s CO2 scrubber fix, designed to save Apollo 13 astronauts from asphyxiation.

When it comes down to it, what are we really committed to? How can we test our integrity, our true priorities and principles? How do people judge our choices and interpret our values? How do we show what we think is important? The answer is startlingly simple. In the words of a valued former colleague, Derek Middleton, whom I worked with many years ago,

  You show your commitments by what you say and what you do

Derek implied that he was quoting someone else, but I have yet to find a source in the intervening years, so I will attribute it to him.

 The statement is far from a banal truism. It is a test of character:

  • Do we link what we say with what we do?
  • Do we do the things which we say are important?
  • Do we say the things which we know are important?
  • Do we prioritise  our actions just as we do our words & ideas?

Lets face it – are we really committed? We can apply this to our ethics, our respect of others, our work values, our plans, goals, priorities, sense of self, use of time. It forces us to be honest with ourselves, to reject the  excuse: ‘I haven’t got the time‘. It is about self-management and real priorities.

Analogies from the worlds of sports and entertainment tend to fail in these discussions; dedication tends to be relatively time-bound (to achievement, excellence or skill acquisition) and is a relatively poor relation to true commitment; what we say & what we do.

Reading:

Coppin, A. and Barratt, J. (2002) Timeless Management, Palgrave MacMillan, NY

Covey, S. (1989) 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Shuster, New York, NY.

Lovell, J. and Kluger J. (1994) Lost Moon – the perilous voyage of Apollo. Houghton Mifflin, NY

Change can’t be planned – it emerges

Traditional change management follows a linear approach, defining a goal, identifying a plan and delivering to that plan. The process is logical and surely unquestionable. The approach to setting targets for change and measuring progress now has its own name ‘deliverology’ – but this does not change traditional linear thinking.

The problem is that organisations do not act in a linear fashion, they are much more complex systems. This means that if you change one thing then something unexpected is likely to happen somewhere else – and what you had intended may or may not happen.

Of course understanding systems can be a difficult thing to do. Instead managers either resort to ‘giving their view’ on things, or  setting success measures, kpi’s and so on, based on those views. Having a view on why things are a problem is one thing, but  for John Seddon, it is better to get knowledge by collecting data.

He suggests that it is better to define the following:

  • Purpose is the definition of why we are here, best understood from the customer (or user’s) perspective.
  • Measures allow us to understand what is likely to happen going forward if the systems doesn’t change.
  • Method – can be addressed when we understand the data derived from our measures.

Systems Theory tells us that Purpose Measures and Method are fundamentally linked – it is a systemic relationship. This systemic relationship can either work for you or against you depending on how you set things up.

If you impose arbitrary measuresyou create a de facto purpose, which is the one that the workforce will follow. This will constrain method. It will prevent people from improving the work.

On the other hand if you derive measures from the users point of view (e.g. customers)  and then put those measures in the hands of people doing the work you and enable people to improve method so that measurable improvements can be pursued, then you can systematically deliver success.

The paradox is that in this system, change requires no plan. For Seddon, change is simply an emergent property. Innovation can only occur if you set things up that enable people to innovate in response to the real system of customers and organisation – what happens.

Any attempt to plan change otherwise is fiction.

Instead Seddon suggests that you need to see your organisation as it really behaves – how things work relative to your purpose ‘warts and all’ – because then at least you will know. Once you know that you can respond by innovating – enable people to innovate and overseee the changes that need to happen and you will improve morale.

John Seddon speaks briefly about innovation and change.

 

 

MOTIVATION IS ALMOST NEVER ABOUT THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT

An earlier version of this was first posted on 22nd May 2014

There has a been a recent flurry of interest, exactly three years on since I last blogged on the topic of workspace design. Google, Apple and Facebook are often cited for their creative office spaces, designed to enable or even enhance the creative thinking by staff.office design

However it is not clear if a creative office space stimulates creative thinking, or whether it is the elimination of bad office design that appears to free up the minds of workers (i.e. workers may have been creative already, but just get it sucked out of them by a poor environment). After all did the innovative and creative workers of the past have wacky working environments (maybe they were  not really as creative!)?

A 2017 survey of the employees at Expedia – the highest ranked company in the UK workplace satisfaction survey (and famous for groundbreaking office designs including on-site perks like table tennis, football, gaming consoles and a cocktail bar) found that  people like working there because of the business, not the fancy office. “Culture” and “career opportunities” rate high, yet the physical surroundings barely merit a mention.

This should not be a surprise.  Frederick Herzberg identified ‘hygiene factors’ in the 1960s – things having no positive impact on motivation but are merely the basics that need to be sorted out (along with pay, management style, working relationships etc). Over the long term there is a risk, unless the managers at these organisations are doing something else (i.e. addressing the working culture and career development), that their workforce may not be motivated to make a real difference to the performance of the business – will they still have leading products and services of the future or will better alternatives emerge from their competitors?

Over the past few decades it has become clear that whilst many ‘enlightened’ managers have dutifully followed the good manager mantras: developed themselves as leaders, worked on motivating staff, built trust and rapport, coached and developed, and engaged in team-building, the things that really matter is a common sense of purpose,  how work is designed and what power people have over decisions and quality of the work that they do. This sounds fine in theory, perhaps, but in reality job design often sits in the lap of central departments (like HR), rather than the worker or the team, so the power even to design jobs is not at the point of knowledge – the people doing the work. The result is that managers can only be left to fiddle around the edges with team-building and cheer-leading. Or perhaps some just repaint the office.

An effective manager will learn how to understand and design work and how to engage people to ensure improved performance. An effective team will seek a clear purpose, investigate how their performance affects users, will challenge thinking, ask questions and engage in  improvement.

Reading:

Cooper, C. (2017) Why Cool Offices Don’t Make for a Happier Workforce. BBC Capital, 22 may 2017. http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170519-why-cool-offices-dont-always-make-for-a-happier-workforce

Herzberg, F. (1968) “One more time: how do you motivate employees?”, Harvard Business Review, vol. 46, iss. 1, pp. 53–62

BBC (2013) 10 bizarre objects found in ‘cool’ offices. BBC News Magazine. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25355618

Wakefield, J. (2008) Google your way to a wacky office. BBC News website. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7290322.stm

Teamwork is best – or IS IT?

An earlier version of this was first posted on 2nd April 2013

Group working is one of those topics that is awkwardly both straightforward and complex depending upon how you look at it. Conventional wisdom sets us to assume that ‘more heads are better than one’ and this maxim is often a justification for working in teams. But is it always a helpful perspective?

Teams may be created to simply fulfill a structural need; to fill an office space or to organise a number of individuals under the supervision of a particular manager. These are not necessarily good reasons for organising group working.

Tug of war
Clones with the same job is not a recipe for a successful team

What do we really know about team performance? And, if we are honest with ourselves, do groups always work better than individuals?

The answer, surely, is no. Have you ever sat on a committee and wondered ‘why are we all here?’?

Let’s take a sporting analogy. Put five excellent runners into a relay team. How well do they perform? In many cases, really well. In some cases they are good sometimes and poor another (the British men’s sprint relay team, in four of the last five Olympics and with largely the same personnel have been disqualified – 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012 – but won gold in 2004. Why is there such a wide difference between good and poor performances? It is easy to blame a mistake; incompetence or lack of attention, but the truth lies deeper.

The Ringelmann effect suggests that something different can happen in teams. If people’s personal roles are similar they can be disinclined to put everything into their work (this is a subconscious effect causing ‘free-riding’ rather than deliberate loafing). This effect has been shown in cases where a single worker has been put in a team with ‘non workers’ (i.e. people deliberately faking effort, but not actually doing real work). Even in these instances, the ‘real’ worker is often measured as putting in LESS effort than if they were doing the task on their own. In the classic experiment, assuming that men pulling a rope individually perform at 100% of their ability, apparently two-man groups perform at 93% of the average member’s pull, three-man groups at 85%, with eight-man groups pulling with only 49% of the average individual member’s ability.

So what is the solution? Never work in teams? No this would be a bit foolish, there are better questions…

1. Does the team have a clear sense of purpose?

2. Have we designed team work carefully – goals, roles, work ?

3. Have reasonable and relevant measures of performance been set?

4. Do we agree how to work together?

5. Are people ready to seek improvements as part of their role?

6.  Do we encourage trust and mutual respect in the team?

7. Are our relationships based on an understanding of 1-5  above?

So, reverting to my previous blog on teamwork, we must focus on our purpose, our goals, understand our differing roles, agree how we work together at a practical level and look to build positive working relationships based on mutuality and trust.

Like anything in life, if we have a team of people, we need to regularly re-consider the purpose of the team. Do we have a team because it adds to achieving the purpose, or is it just because we have always had a team?

Next time you are in a turgid committee meeting, or your project team has ground to a halt, have a think about how the group could work better…

Further reading:

Beckhard, R. (1972) Optimizing Team Building Effort, J. Contemporary Business.  1:3,  pp.23-32

Ingham, A.G., Levinger, G., Graves, J., & Peckham, V. (1974). The Ringelmann effect: Studies of group size and group performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 10, 371–384.

MacDonald, J. (1998) Calling a Halt to Mindless Change, Amacom, UK

And now for something completely different…

office desk lift

There is a time and a place to work of course. And there is also a time to rest and recuperate (Covey 1989).

We have discussed trends, fads and pseudo solutions in office layouts and design before. It is easy to think that changing layout will make people more productive.

However this solution addresses something quite different – a time and a place to work. The workplace is removed, so work time stops. This places the expectation on people to go away and recuperate.

For this company the ‘ritual’ of shutting away the desks sets the norm. It makes people get into the habit of switching off. And for a creative company that is important, letting the bran organise the day’s thinking without distractions of actually having to go back to work.

I wonder what the impact is on productivity…

 

Covey, S. (1989) 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Shuster, New York, NY.

 

See the office furniture solution on this video:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03yf3jl

 

 

 

The Need for Speed : change need not be a slow business

An earlier version of this was first posted on 13th February 2012

Change is very often considered to be a slow and often difficult process. In particular, ‘culture change’ is seen as a long and winding road. Human beings are notable as creatures that have mastered  (or, at least, have developed) the art of adapting. We have changed our knowledge, decisions, behaviour, environment, relationships, societies. It is too easy to think that we ‘don’t like change’. This is simply not the case. We are beings that not only adapt to what is around us, but we often actively choose to change what is around us. After all, it is not uncommon for us to seek to find ways to make things better or different (either for ourselves or, sometimes, others!).

My great-grandfather (who was still around when I was a youngster) was born into the Victorian age in the 1880s. He was already a young man when the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, yet lived to experience flying in jet airliners and even saw the Apollo astronauts land on the moon. His life experiences, work and education had to adapt fairly radically, but I imagine it was a fairly natural process – that’s life.

Organisations can change faster that society as a whole. Whilst change should be seen as a ‘natural’ process, it is one which we should actively influence ourselves. Change can occur in noticeable timescales; weeks and months not years. Changes should move into short timescales to become noticeable, rather than at barely-observable ‘glacial’ rates. Herrero (2006) goes further, suggesting that if cultural changes cannot be observed in short time-frames, then something is wrong.

  • “Cultural change does NOT need to be a slow and painful long-term affair.” – there is a better way.
  • “Short-term wins CAN represent real change.”  with viral networks which engage many people, small changes can lead to a big impact.

We need to accelerate change by engaging networks of people in making things happen. In a previous post it was suggested that small sets of behavioural changes, taken on and shared by informal groups of people can generate improvements in a non-linear way, as Hererro terms it, a ‘viral’ spread.

To influence others we need to encourage quick, meaningful changes; not just ticking items off the ‘to do’ list, but adopting new behaviours, new ways of thinking, new habits. These things may appear less tangible, but they do have impact, they don’t need to wait for a sign-off by top management and they do allow change to happen much quicker.

Remember to read:

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.

Targets only motivate people to meet the target (not to do good work)

The reasons for employing people are:

1) to do the work (produce output, product, service), and

2) to improve the work.

If the person is clear about the purpose of their work, then 1 and 2 should be easy to deliver if they have the right resources, skills, and understanding of users’ (e.g. customers) needs.

But managers rarely leave it at that…

Traditionally, managers get people to do ‘better’ in their work by what John Seddon tags as ‘sweating the labour’ – getting the people to work harder or faster. The idea is that you get more output for the same hours work – essentially more for the cost (efficiency).

Of course the idea of the sweatshop is morally uncomfortable – exploitation to achieve a profit motive. Yet we still stick to the idea by setting targets: ‘You produced 100 widgets last month, let’s have you aim for 110 widgets this month‘.

It seems plausible – motivational even! What possibly could be the harm in setting a target?

Well, the widgets are being created for a purpose – presumably the purpose for which the customer buys them. And that purpose is associated with the design and quality if production in the widget that is produced.

If you create arbitrary targets (and measures of performance) you will create a de facto purpose in people’s mind which is to deliver those targets. This is different from actually delivering the purpose of the work.

Your worker will work to produce 110 widgets BUT not necessarily a widget that meets the customer needs, nor a widget that could be produced faster or at lower cost whilst still meeting the customers needs, other than by cutting corners (lowering quality or increasing risk). The worker is busy but has got his eye off the ball. This produces errors and lowers the quality of work – which will probably have to be redone – at greater cost.

Targets are not motivational. They might make people move, but that is not motivation. A dog that moves is just one looking to avoid the next kick. It is not a motivated, free thinking, creative, proactive animal. Why would we exect people to operate any differently?

Reading

Herzberg, F. (1968) “One more time: how do you motivate employees?”, Harvard Business Review, vol. 46, iss. 1, pp. 53–62

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.