Locking Down the Prisoners: Control, Conflict and Compliance for Organizations

Newgate Prison Inmates

The most important thing to learn about management and governance is knowing when and how to manage or govern and more importantly, when not to.

The story is told about a very new and modern penal facility, the very epitome of security and control. Each night, precisely at 11:00 PM, the televisions were shut off and the inmates were herded into their cells for lights out. Since the inmates tended to dislike their enforced bedtime, fights would ensue during the lockdown and throughout the night when the cells needed to be opened (both for purposes of head counts and to respond to the inevitable conflicts caused by locking people in close quarters). If the problems were pervasive enough, an entire housing unit might be punished by – wait for it – being confined to their cells (perpetuating the cycle).

Management of the facility was at a loss on what to do. The conflict was causing disruption in the day-to-day activities. This disruption further exacerbated tensions. The fights led to injuries to both staff and inmates, raising costs and risk of civil litigation, as well as causing staffing problems.

The answer was simple – stop the lockdowns. When the policy was reviewed objectively, it was obvious that enforcement was yielding no benefits to offset the many costs. In fact, stopping enforcement actually increased security by reducing tensions and causing the night owls to sleep in during the day. In a real-life zen moment, it was realized that letting go of the illusion of control provided real control (or at least something closer to it).

Most organizations could benefit from a similar epiphany.

This is not to suggest that process, management, and governance are unnecessary, far from it. Instead, it’s important that the system by which things are run is…systemic. As Tom Graves likes to say, “…things work better when they work together, on purpose”. Intentional design applies to social systems, just as it applies to software systems. Ad hoc evolution, by way of disjointed decisions unencumbered with any coherence, lead to accidental structures. Entropy emerges.

This can be seen in a tweet from Charles T. Betz:

Or, as Gary Hamel tweeted:

The alternative is to do as Yves Morieux stated in his TED talk: “We need to create organizations in which it becomes individually useful for people to cooperate.” This involves a ruthless attention to cause and effect. This involves creating environments where unnecessary friction is removed and necessary friction is understood to be necessary by all involved. It’s a lot easier to get compliance when it’s easier to comply and a lot easier to get conflict when you provoke it.

Conflicts, Collaboration, and Customers

With Ron Jeffries comment on my “Negotiating Estimates” post, I think we’ve reached agreement on a common problem, even if we disagree (perhaps?) over how to fix it. As I noted in my short answer, my position is that abuse of estimates stems from a deeper issue. Changing a practice won’t eliminate the abuse. Changing culture will. Changing that culture (where possible) involves convincing the players that it’s in their best interests to change, which it is.

This is my biggest objection to #NoEstimates. It makes an illogical leap that the practice is responsible for problems rather than some underlying dysfunction without showing causality. This putting the cart before the horse risks encouraging people to espouse action that is probably both ineffective and detrimental to their relationship with their customer. The likeliest outcome I see from that is more problems, not fewer.

The word “customer” was a point of contention:

It’s my position that, for better or for worse, there is a customer/provider relationship. Rather than attempt to deny that, it makes more sense, in my opinion, to concentrate on having the best possible customer/provider relationship. While poor customer service is extremely common, I’d hope everyone can think of at least one person they enjoy doing business with, where the relationship is mutually beneficial. I know I certainly can, which stands as my (admittedly unscientific) evidence that the relationship need not be adversarial. A collaborative, mutually beneficial relationship works out best for both parties.

“Collaborative”, however, does not mean conflict free. In his post “Against Estimate-Commitment”, Jeffries states:

The Estimate-Commitment relationship stands in opposition to collaboration. It works against collaboration. It supports conflict, not teamwork.

I both agree and disagree.

There will be conflict. Different team members will have different wants. Different stakeholders will have different wants. The key is not in preventing conflict, but resolving it in a way agreeable to all parties:

Recognizing, rather than repressing conflicts might even be beneficial:

What is critical, is that the relationship between the parties not be one-sided (or even be perceived as one-sided). In-house IT often has the peculiar characteristic of seeming one-sided to both customers and providers. The classic model of IT provision is, in my opinion, largely to blame. It seems almost designed to put both parties at odds.

The problem can be fixed, however, with cultural changes that encompass both IT and the business units it serves. One such change is moving from a project-centric to a product-centric model that aligns the interests of both groups. This alignment cements the relationship, making IT a valuable partner in the process rather than an obstacle to be overcome to get what’s wanted/needed. Relationships are key to success. By structuring the system so that each group’s incentives, conflicts and all, are aligned to a common goal, the system can be made to work. We’ve certainly had plenty of examples of what we get from the opposite situation.