Change and the knowledge iceberg

An earlier version of this was first posted on 30th April 2012

Is management by fact a bit simplistic?

What about the emotional aspects of work; trust, appreciation, excitement, fear, worry, concern?

How can these things be properly addressed? A lot of these things will be more or less important depending on how we see the world. And each of us see the world differently to everyone else!

If we want to improve anything it is best to devise those improvements from a perspective of understanding, in other words by using knowledge. Unfortunately we live in a world of incomplete knowledge and, dare I say it, differing perceptions (we all see things differently). Deming suggests that we work on the basis of a decent theory of knowledge – but what does he mean? Consider the iceberg analogy:

* A start point is to understand that there are things that most of us know and are obvious, like the peak of an iceberg.

*Next there are the flatter ice floes, which a good ‘spotter’ on a ship might notice bobbing in the waterline. It is important that we know about these and we should get better at spotting them.

* However there is also sub-surface ice (in this analogy) – those things not visible to anyone and for which we need to delve into or at least give consideration. These insights might include decent ‘hunches’ – or ‘beliefs’ – or ‘theory’ – or experience). Effort in these instances is needed either to seek better knowledge or at least think properly about how we might have to deal with them. If we blindly sail through areas were sub-surface ice may be lurking (and assume that what we don’t know will not hurt us) we  would be a little foolish.

* There is also stuff that we don’t know … and need never know… it is out of our sphere of influence and we cannot do much to manage it – in these cases –  don’t worry.

* Deepest of all is the ‘unknown’ – that which we will never know – (so again don’t worry)

In summary we should seek reasonable knowledge when we make decisions; we should not ignore things which are too difficult to understand and we should be honest when we are making assumptions. If we do this, then the outcomes of change, whether good or bad, will be better understood and will help to inform us in the future. If we need to broach sensitive subjects: trust, appreciation, excitement, fear, worry, concern, then a conversation is a good start point.

More reading:

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

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

Avoid the ‘bolt-on’ management method

Maybe not the best way to improve management

Sometimes approaches to managing people simply do not work. However, I have heard people defend the failure of particular management approaches (like appraisal, ISO9000, quality circles etc.) by saying ‘its because it is not being done right‘. While this may be ‘true’ (in the sense that successes can occur), I think that a more circumspect approach must be taken when considering these methods:

  1. If it doesn’t’ work, is this failure a generally observed occurrence? (i.e is it something that predictably fails)
  2. Is it only failing on an unusual, ‘exception basis’ – once in a while?
  3. Might the approach be fundamentally flawed?
  4. Could there be a better way of achieving the desired outcome (assuming the desired outcome is genuinely that the manager wants to do a better job of managing) – in other words is the well-meaning manager barking up the wrong tree?

The problem with bolting ‘good’ approaches onto bad is that it proliferates the work of management, which adds cost, hassle and meddling with the real work (of serving customers, providing public services, educating, making cars, or whatever is our business).

Treating people well, usually involves doing something (‘nice’) to compensate for the default situation, where they suffer some sort of indignity, disappointment or frustration as the general state of affairs. The ‘nice’ idea masks the fundamental problems.

John Seddon openly criticises this type of woolly thinking – not because he thinks people are not worthy of being respected and treated with dignity, but because the respect and dignity should start in the way that their work and the system they work within is managed. In other words:

  • don’t punish people for things out of their control,
  • don’t design work to frustrate them from doing a good job,
  • don’t waste their time.
  • don’t make systems which expose them to unnecessary grief
    (from customers and users)

Deming used to talk about dignity (long before most others used the term) and, as shown throughout his writing, appears to assume that everyone would be following the same ethos. Doing a ‘respect for people programme‘ would, to Deming,  be absurd. Just as doing appraisals would be absurd, or adhering to standards, or setting targets. What do these approaches say about what managers really think about their staff (lazy? untrustworthy? unmotivated? stupid?)?

Some things in life are worth restoring and refurbishing, even upgrading. But others are just so fundamentally flawed that an upgrade is not worth the effort. The same can be said for many management methods.

Just make sure that you are not applying bolt-on management.


Helpful reading:

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

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


However, the alternative perspective is offered by Bob Emiliani: