All posts by Simon Black

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.

Never forget this fact: There is no such thing as factual information

hand countThis blog title is provocatively paradoxical. The assumption is that something measured is something proved.

This is not the case.

In practice, when we decide to define a fact, we then define what it is, how it is to be measured, then measure to verify.

In deciding the measurement, we simply place a judgment – our opinion of reality, onto something that isn’t there. For example:

The label on a blanket reads “50 per cent wool” What does this mean? Half wool, on the average, over this blanket, or half wool over a month’s production? What is half wool? Half by weight? If so, at what humidity? By what method of chemical analysis? How many analyses? The bottom half of the blanket is wool and the top half is something else. Is it 50 per cent wool? Does 50 per cent wool mean that there must be some wool in any random cross-section the size of a half dollar? If so, how many cuts shall be tested? How select them? What criterion must the average satisfy? And how much variation between cuts is permissible? Obviously, the meaning of 50 per cent wool can only be stated in statistical terms (Deming 1975).

Is it now becoming clear?

“Without theory (hypothesis), data are meangingless or nonexistent. There is thus no true value of anything: true value is undefinable operationally. There are, however, numerical values that people can use with confidence if they understand their meaning (for the tensile strength of a batch of wire, for example, or for the proportion of the labor force unemployed last month).” (Deming 1967).

The trick is to understand the meaning of numbers.

Not everything that can be counted counts.
Not everything that counts can be counted.

Just because you can measure something it does not mean that you can manage it. Many things are relatively unmeasurable, but important, like staff morale, contentment of customers (or even their excitement!). Mintzberg (2015) suggests that “when we hear the word ‘efficiency’ we zero in―subconsciously―on the most measurable criteria, like speed of service or consumption of energy. Efficiency means measurable efficiency. That’s not neutral at all, since it favors what can best be measured

Deming was very clear on this point: “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.” We can end up spending effort measuring and reporting the wrong things and also losing sight of the ball – forgetting the real purpose of our work.

So the first useful question about an issue of performance is:

“what do we know about this?”, then “what will help us to improve?”

Think about this next time you set a goal, or measure results…

 

Further Reading:

Deming W.E. (1967) Walter A. Shewhart, 1891-1967. The American Statistician, 21(2): 39-40

Deming (1974) On probability as a basis for action. The American Statistician, 29 (4): 146-152

Fellers G. (1994) Why Things go Wrong: Deming Philosophy in a Dozen Ten-Minute Sessions. Pelican Publishing

Mintzberg, H. (2015) What could possibly be wring with efficiency? Plenty. 9 September 2015. http://www.mintzberg.org/blog/wrong-efficiency

Let’s focus on ‘what’ and worry less about ‘how’

Right Way and Wrong thingsThe emerging consensus in discussions about leadership and management behaviour in recent decades  has focused on ‘changing the way that you lead’.

Although the ‘how’ you do it and ‘what’ you do both contribute to effective leadership, the research literature is overwhelmingly focused on the how (Kaiser et al, 2012). Hunt (1991) reviewed the body of published scholarly articles on leadership and estimated that 90% of them were focused on interpersonal processes. It is also most likely that the majority of leadership developers and consultants have a ‘how’ bias, which may influence the debate. The focus is on how you go about things.

But do leaders know ‘what’ to do? Should we agree aims, develop a vision, inspire people, create teams, empower, engage, delegate, set targets, punish, reward, restructure, enable, measure results, improve services, prioritise, plan or problem-solve? What do these things mean? Which are helpful and which just cause problems?

Of course, HOW we think about these things is important. What is the logic behind reward, recognition or blame? Is it sound logic, or convenient logic, or unfounded assumption, or testable theory (if you are into that). Do we really know what we are doing and assuming? These things must be tested in our own minds, or else we are doing little more than sleepwalking. But the outcome from this thinking must start with what needs to be done. Otherwise we will focus on the hows e.g. (doing it nicely or respectfully or considerately) and end up doing the “wrong things righter”!

Let’s be clear, of course, there is never any excuse for ‘doing the wrong things wronger’, and little benefit in ‘doing the right things wrong’. So this doesn’t let bad management off the hook. Instead, getting our own thinking right (‘what’) is an important start point because it drives better consideration of ‘how’ to go about our business.

Our own styles and preferences (hows) are different to the preferences of each member of our team. We need to be able to adapt in order to interrelate with others effectively. Whilst positive interactions with people are sometimes the icing on the cake, the cake itself must be always be sound. Remember – if we don’t get the ‘whats’ right we will only be deluding ourselves.

Hunt, J. G. (1991). Leadership: A new synthesis. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Kaiser, R. B., McGinnis, J. L., & Overfield, D. V. (2012). The how and the what of leadership. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 64(2), 119.

Seddon, J. (2003). Freedom from Command and Control. Buckingham: Vanguard Press.