Management, Simple and Wrong – Semantics, Systems, and Self-Correction

Villain Caricature

Simple responses to complex situations are both seductive and dangerous. The difficulty in juggling lots of variables tempts us to employ abstraction so as to avoid being overwhelmed. Abraham Maslow’s observation, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail”, applies. Some things (e.g. landmines) react badly to being treated as if they were nails. Having more tools in the box may help avoid problems.

This isn’t the post I had in mind to write next, but it’s one that came about by accident (via a multi-day mass participant Tweet-storm, with my participation beginning here). I had planned an Organizations as Systems post re: multiple players in multiple contexts (competing, and possibly conflicting goals and motivations) and I stumbled into a conversation that should provide a nice preamble to that post which should follow this one.

Before I dive in, two quick notes:

  • Rather than try to summarize the entire conversation, I’m going to lay out what I brought to and took from it. There are far too many tweets and, as of this writing, I can’t be sure the conversation has concluded.
  • My thanks to everyone involved, whether named or not. This kind of civil, if contentious, dialog is much appreciated. When ideas rub together, it can produce irritation, but sometimes they also get polished.

Management is one of those things that, like landmines, tends to react badly to the hammer of simplistic thought. We can see this in managers who apply (or misapply) theories of management, particularly ones like scientific management (AKA Taylorism) to contexts where it is extremely inappropriate and counterproductive. Whether there really exists a context where Taylorism is actually appropriate or productive is a question for another day. We also see the hammer in reactions to abuses that dismiss all value of management out of hand. While the reaction is understandable, that doesn’t make it credible. The vicious circle just becomes more vicious; heat is generated but without corresponding light.

One thing that’s necessary to pin down is what we mean by the term “management”. Are we talking about a concept (“…the administration of an organization…”)? Are we talking about the job/profession? Perhaps the discipline (branch of knowledge) or academic discipline (field of study) is what we’re talking about. We could be talking about a theory management, or we could be talking about management practices, either individually or grouped into systems of management. Knowing specifically what’s being referred to is critical for evaluating statements. A very valid criticism of a specific theory or system (e.g. Taylorism) will likely fall apart when applied to the concept as a whole due to the fact that the concept is far broader and contrary examples are easily found.

Another issue relates to intent. Few would argue the universal detriment of poor management practices. Extracting the maximum possible effort from your employees is unlikely to result in the generation of the most value in the context of knowledge work. These practices are the very antithesis of fitness for purpose in that they do not materially benefit the organization and they alienate employees (which is yet another hit to the organization where the product is knowledge work). And yet, there are still managers that manage in that very manner. Are they, each and every one, evil? A simplistic answer, hard against either end of the spectrum, is almost surely going to be wrong. That being said, in my experience the distribution is skewed more towards the “no” side than not (just as I’ve found people who only perform when driven to it to be a very small minority).

Why would someone who wants to do their job well and in an ethical manner resort to practices that are harmful to all parties? With sadism eliminated as a motivation (there just aren’t enough in the population to account for all the positions to be filled), the far more plausible answer would be culture, tradition, and/or lack of knowledge regarding alternatives. In short, when the outcome of a system doesn’t match the intent, there’s a bug in the system.

The disconnect between leadership and management is also a problem. Leadership, admittedly, is a concept distinct from management. It makes sense that not every leader needs to be a manager. The extent to which we as a society tolerate management absent leadership, however, is shocking and part of the problem. Consider a tweet from Esther Derby:

I would argue that steering and enabling can be considered leadership qualities as much as management activities. There’s a place for supervision and compliance, however knowing how to achieve results without forcing the issue is, in my opinion, an extremely useful skill. This is not manipulation, rather a matter of understanding goals and how to achieve them intelligently. It’s a matter of understanding how to resolve potential conflicts between the goals and motivations of an organization, groups, and individuals and adapting the system so that the outcomes more closely track the intent. The alternative is allowing the system to degenerate into a web of perverse incentives that increase the gap between intent and outcome. This gap may benefit some individuals, but at the cost to other individuals and the organization as a whole.

Medicine is something that has been through a number of changes, large and small, by finding a way to adapt. While the concept of medicine (diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease and injury) has remained constant over time, the practices and theories have evolved greatly. The discipline itself has evolved so that not only does it adapt to change, but that it adapts in as optimal a manner as possible. In short, it has developed a culture of learning.

Understanding organizations from a systems standpoint means recognizing the need for sensing the fit between the system and its contexts (learning) and then steering to correct any mismatches (management). Simplistic approaches to management (particularly relatively static ones that have little save tradition to recommend them) can only lead to a widening gap between the intended outcome and actual results. At some point, this gap becomes wide enough to swallow the organization.

[Villain Carricature by J.J. via Wikimedia Commons.]

Innovation, Intention, Planning and Execution

Napoleon at Wagram


Convergence is an interesting thing. Greger Wiktrand and I have been trading posts back and forth on the subject of innovation for almost eighteen months now (forty posts in total). I’ve also been writing a lot on the concept of organizations as systems, (twenty-two posts over the last year, with some overlap with innovation). The need for architectural design (and make no mistake, social systems like organizations require as much architectural design over their lifetime as any software system) and the superiority, in my opinion, of intentional architecture versus accidental architecture are also themes of long standing on this site.

My last post, “Architecture Corner: Good at innovation – Seven Deadly Sins of IT”, linked to a YouTube video produced by and starring Greger and Casimir Artmann. It’s worth the watching, so I won’t give away the plot, but I will say that it demonstrates how these concepts interrelate.

Effectiveness requires reasoned intentional action. I’ve used this Tom Graves’ quote many times before, but it still applies: “things work better when they work together, on purpose”.

The word “purpose” is critical to that sentence. The difference between intentional rather than accidental activity is the difference between being goal-directed and flailing blindly (n.b. experimenting, done right, is the former, not the latter). An understanding of purpose can allow a goal to be reached, even when the initial route to that goal is closed off. Completing a required set of tasks lacks that flexibility. This appreciation of the utility of purpose-oriented direction over micro-management is an old one that the military periodically re-visits:

An understanding of the purpose aids the joint force in exercising disciplined initiative to facilitate the commander’s visualized end state. Moreover, the purpose itself not only drives why tasks must happen, but also how subordinate commanders choose to execute their assigned mission(s).

Purposes must be carefully crafted, nested, and organized not only to achieve unity of effort, but also the intended outcomes (selected tasks to execute, method of execution, and/or desired effects). They also must give subordinates the latitude to find better, innovative solutions to tactical and operational problems. Finally, the operational purpose must ultimately nest back to the strategic national interest in order to affect change in the human domain. Purposes for the subordinate operations must be well thought out, nested within the desired operational objectives, and be the correct purpose in order to achieve the desired operational end state. Therefore, it is incumbent upon commanders to develop purposes for subordinate operations first and subsequently build the tasks. The “why” trumps the “how” both in importance and in priority.

What to accomplish and why are more important than how to accomplish something. As the author of article above noted, communicating purpose “…enables subordinates to take advantage of emergent opportunities that arise by enabling shared understanding of the commander’s purpose and end state.” It should also force those providing direction to examine their rationale for what they’re asking for. “Why” is the most important question that can be asked. Activity that is not tailored to achieving a particular aim will be ineffective. This includes chasing the latest silver bullet. A recent article on International Business Times, “As a term of description, ‘digital’ is now an anachronism”, had this to say:

As a term of description, digital is an anachronism. It reflects an organisational mindset that views technological transformation itself as the aim. It’s a common mistake. At the height of the dotcom boom, suddenly everyone needed a website, but not everyone understood why.

Over the last few years, the drive to digitisation has intensified. Business models, brands, products and services, customer relationships and business processes are increasingly governed by digital elements such as data.

But much the same as building a website in 1999, it’s not a question of becoming “more digital”. It’s a question of what you want digital to do.

Confusing means and ends is both futile and expensive. No matter how many tools I buy, buying tools won’t make me a carpenter (though my bank balance will continue to shrink regardless of whether the purchase helped or not). Dropping tools and techniques into a culture that is not able or prepared to use them accomplishes nothing. Likewise, becoming more “digital” (or for that matter, more “agile”), will not help an organization if it’s heading in the wrong direction. Efficiency and effectiveness are two different things that may well not go hand in hand. Just as important to understand, efficiency must take a subordinate position to effectiveness. You cannot do the wrong thing efficiently enough to turn it into the right thing.

You need to understand what you want to do and what the constraints, if any, are. That understanding will allow you to figure out how you’re going to try to do it and determine why the tools and techniques will get you there or not. The alternative is delay (waiting for new instructions) caused by the bottleneck of over-centralized decision-making with a high probability of something getting lost in translation.

Work together purposefully so things work better.

Disruptive Decency

Well, this turned out to be very much a different post than what I’d first thought.

Last Thursday, CIO published an article titled “Your Pebble smartwatch will live on when Pebble’s servers shut down” that had good news for owners of the Pebble smartwatch:

But now that Pebble has been acquired by Fitbit and is presumably nearing the end of its life, Pebble users fretted that their watches would cease to work once Pebble dies. That’s not the case.

Pebble just rolled out an iOS and Android update that frees its watches from cloud-based online servers. That means when Pebble goes offline, your watch will still work.

Coincidentally, this was one year to the day since I posted “Google’s Parent Company is Stirring Up a Hornet’s Nest”, which talked about Nest’s decision to brick the Revolv home automation hub rather than continue to support them. Fitbit’s decision was a refreshing departure from the attitude demonstrated by Nest (and lampooned by xkcd above). The punchline was going to be: basic human decency seems to be a disruptive tactic these days.

And then I launched Twitter Monday morning:

By this point, I would assume Sunday night’s, incident needs no explanation on my part. Details are still coming out, but regardless of what develops, United Airlines is the loser in this scenario. There’s an old saying is that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

The old saying is wrong:

The tweet above has plenty of company in the twitterverse, none of it flattering to United or beneficial to its share price. Tweets like this haven’t helped:

The perception that sticks is that an older man, a doctor, was violently removed from a plane in order to allow United to get four of its flight crew to Louisville and United’s CEO is upset about having to “…re-accommodate these customers” (not exactly what’s said, but certainly what will be taken away from that garbled message). Additionally, the poor job done on that earlier message completely undercuts the perceived sincerity of the latter one:

Given United’s past problems with customer service, one might expect more effort would have been spent to prevent incidents like this and they would have been better prepared for dealing with the aftermath of something that did go badly.

Wrong on both counts.

An excerpt from a recent interview of Oscar Munoz (United’s CEO) on Business Insider makes the situation all the more egregious:

Here, in Chicago, it’s miserable because if you don’t leave by a certain time, you are just dead. “I’m going to get there and there are going to be a billion people and the damn TSA line.” By the time you get to sit on one of our seats you are just pissed at the world.

So how do we make all of that a little bit easier? This is the thing. You’ve got that broad issue of anger and anti-industry noise. We’ve lost the trust and respect of the broader public, and so every action we take, they don’t particularly like, they see it negatively. We have to work on that broad communication. I am going to do it at this airline and allow myself to differentiate in the flight-friendly mode so that people don’t immediately have that visceral reaction.

Dragging people off a flight (literally) probably doesn’t fit into the mold of a “flight-friendly mode”.

So I will return to my original punch line: basic human decency seems to be a disruptive tactic these days.

You can’t always get what you want…


You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you just might find
You get what you need

When it comes to systems, you can’t always get what you want, but you do get what you design (intentionally or not), whether it’s what you need or not.

In other words, the architecture of systems, both social and software, evolve through some combination of intentional design and accidental emergence. Regardless of which end of the continuum the system leans toward, the end result will reflect the decisions made (or not made) in relation to various stimuli. Regarding businesses (a social system), Ruth Malan, in her February 2012 “Trace in Sand” post, put it this way:

I have been talking about agility in terms of evolutionary ecology, but with the explicit recognition that companies, comprised after all of individuals, attempt to speed and alter and intervene and interject and intercede and (I’m looking for the right word here) shape evolutionary processes with intentional actions — concerted, but also emergent from more and less choreographed, actions and intentions. Being bumped along by the unpredictable interactions of others, some from within, but also from “invasive species” from other ecosystems looking for new applications for their adaptable, mutable capability set.

Organizations create and participate in business ecologies. They build up the relationships that stabilize parts of the broader ecosystem, and create conditions for organizational forms to thrive there. They create products, they create the seeds of the next generation of harvest. They produce variants on their family tree, to target and develop niches.

Ruth further notes that while business adapt and improve in some cases, in other case they have “…become too closely adapted to and integrated within an ecosystem that has been replaced or significantly restructured by some landscape reshaping change…”. People generally refer to this phenomenon as disruption and the way they refer to it would seem to imply that it’s something that happens to or is done to a company. The role of the organization in its own difficulties (or demise) isn’t, in my opinion, well understood.

Last Friday, I saw a tweet from Noah Sussman that provides a useful heuristic for predicting the behavior of any large social system:

the actual reason behind the behavior:

It’s not that people are actively working to harm the organization, but that when there is no leadership, where there is no design, where there is no learning, the system ossifies and breaks down. Being perfectly adapted to an ecosystem that no longer exists is indistinguishable from being poorly adapted to the present context. I’m reminded of what Tom Graves stated in “The game of enterprise-architecture”: “things work better when they work together, on purpose”.

Without direction, entropy emerges where coherence is needed.

This is not to say, however, that micro-management is the answer. Too much design/control is as toxic as too little. This is particularly the case when the management system isn’t intentionally designed. Management that is both ad hoc and rigid can cause new problems while trying to solve existing ones. This is illustrated by another tweet from Friday:

The desire to avoid the “…embarrassment of cancellation” led to the decision to risk the lives of a plane load of “…foreign TV and radio journalists and also other foreign notables…”. I suspect that the fiery deaths of those individuals would have been an even bigger embarrassment. The system, however, led to the person who had the decision-making power to take that gamble.

The system works the way you built it, even when you didn’t intend to build it to work that way.

When One System Fails Another

Robinson Crusoe Shipwrecked

Ten days ago, when I wrote the post “Uber and the Cost of a Culture of Corruption”, I said that assuming there will be negative consequences (both legal and financial) from the incidents in the news, then it is in Uber’s best interests to fix the problem that led to them in the first place. The negative consequences are now becoming visible in the form of people abandoning ship.

Over the weekend, Uber’s president, Jeff Jones, resigned with the following statement:

I joined Uber because of its Mission, and the challenge to build global capabilities that would help the company mature and thrive long-term.

It is now clear, however, that the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber, and I can no longer continue as president of the ride sharing business.

There are thousands of amazing people at the company, and I truly wish everyone well.

Travis Kalanick’s announcement to Uber’s employees, while factually accurate (the decision did come after the announcement of the search for a COO), doesn’t quite convey Jones’ reasons for leaving:


I wanted to let you know that Jeff Jones has decided to resign from Uber.

Jeff joined Uber in October 2016 from being CMO at retailer Target. In 6 months, he made an important impact on the company—from his focus on being driver obsessed to delivering our first brand reputation study, which will help set our course in the coming months and year.

After we announced our intention to hire a COO, Jeff came to the tough decision that he doesn’t see his future at Uber. It is unfortunate that this was announced through the press but I thought it was important to send all of you an email before providing comment publicly.

Rachel, Pierre and Mac will continue to lead the Global Ops teams, reporting to me until we have signed a COO. Troy Stevenson, who leads CommOps, and Shalin Amin who leads brand design will report to Rachel Holt. Ab Gupta will report to Andrew MacDonald.



Jones is not the only Uber executive to resign this weekend. Brian McClendon, vice president in charge of Uber’s mapping, is “…leaving to return to his hometown in Kansas”.

These resignations are also not the only recent executive casualties. Ed Baker, vice president of product and growth, had also announced his departure earlier this month amid questions regarding his conduct with other Uber employees. This came after senior vice president of engineering Amit Singhal was asked to resign when it was discovered that he failed to disclose that he was investigated for sexual harassment while at Google.

It’s cliché to talk about people as assets, but for companies like Uber, their talent really does comprise the majority of their value. While the media will take note of high-profile departures like these, it would be a mistake to consider them the entirety of the damage. How many lesser known employees have left or will be leaving as a result of the recent scandals? How much potential talent will pass by opportunities at Uber due to what’s happened? In particular, how much harder will this make Kalanick’s search for a Chief Operating Officer who can turn things around?

If the talent drain is not quickly plugged, what happens to the quality of Uber’s service?

This situation perfectly illustrates the theme of organizations as systems. Uber’s software and business model have done well for it, but the culture created by the lack of leadership and lack of ethics of its management may well sink it. One bad component can bring down a system, whether software or social. The tragedy is that the innocent would be harmed along with the guilty.

Uber and the Cost of a Culture of Corruption

'Personification of the Faculty of Law' from the pedestal of the statue of Emperor Charles IV, Prague, Czech Republic - via Wikimedia Commons

Even before I hit the “Publish” button on Monday’s post, “Regulating Software Development”, I had already started composing this post in my head. In that post I had used the words “corrupt culture” in passing. I needed to expand on that, because I believe that’s what lies at the heart of Uber’s cascading collection of scandals.

Uber’s business model has always displayed a certain flexible attitude towards government regulation. Greyball represented a departure from dancing on the line to barging over it. Caught with their hand in the cookie jar, Uber has now announced “We are expressly prohibiting its use to target action by local regulators going forward”. I doubt this act of contrition on their part will be deemed sufficient.

In this environment, Susan Fowler’s account of her time at Uber becomes less of a “how could they be so stupid” story and more of a foregone conclusion. When, to all appearances, violating the law is part of your business model and you’re building software intended to thwart enforcement of the laws you’re violating, your moral authority is rather thin. In this type of culture, I’d imagine things like unwanted sexual advances and retaliation aren’t seen as a big deal, rather business as usual. Crossing lines, like other activities, becomes easier with practice.

Assuming that there will be negative consequences (both legal and financial), from these incidents, then it is in Uber’s best interests to fix the problem that led to them in the first place. This means radically changing Uber’s culture, otherwise new problems will continue to arise. Uber’s CEO has announced that the company is looking for leadership assistance:

“This morning I told the Uber team that we’re actively looking for a Chief Operating Officer: a peer who can partner with me to write the next chapter in our journey,” Kalanick said in a statement on Tuesday.

It remains to be seen whether this will represent a radical change in leadership or not. Anything less than a radical change will be unlikely to affect the current culture which appears to be a deeply entrenched. Debbie Madden, CEO of Stride, published an open letter to Uber’s Travis Kalanick on Wednesday. In “Dear Travis Kalanick: Here’s What You Must Demand From Uber’s New COO”, she noted that “Uber’s culture is broken and you need help to fix it”. She outlined seven steps to do just that:

Step 1: Change Uber’s core values

Step 2: Kill Greyball

Step 3: Adopt a zero-tolerance harassment policy and fire offenders

Step 4: Hire a strong head of HR and an employment lawyer and educate employees

Step 5: Fire or PIP each manager and HR employee who turned a blind eye

Step 6: Shift focus from individual productivity to team productivity

Step 7: Change your recruiting process

Uber isn’t the only organization in trouble due to a troubled culture. Volkswagen is in the same boat and it isn’t over yet. It’s reported that the pollution hidden by their cheating on emissions testing could contribute to the early death of 1,200 Europeans. It’s a solid bet that there will be more litigation to come.

Uber hasn’t killed anyone as a result of their corporate culture, but with their interest in self-driving vehicles, we should all be rooting for a turn-around in the ethics department. Uber can only exist in the future by eliminating the Uber of the past.

Fear of Failure, Fear and Failure

Capricho 43, Goya's 'The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters'

Some things seem so logically inconsistent that you just have to check them out.

Such was the title of a post on LinkedIn that I saw the other day: “Innovation In Fear-Based Cultures? Or, why hire lions to be dogs?”. In it, Michael Graber noted that “…top-down organizations have the most trouble innovating.”:

In particular, the fearful mindsets that review, align, and sign off on “decks” to be presented to Vice President-level colleagues often edit out the insights and recommendations that have the power to grow the business in new ways.

These well-trained, obedient keepers of the status quo are rewarded for not taking risks and for not thinking outside of the existing paradigm of the business.

None of this is particularly shocking, a culture of fear is pretty much the antithesis of a learning culture and innovation in the absence of a learning culture is a bit like snow in the desert – not impossible, but certainly remarkable.

Learning involves risk. Whether the method is “move fast and break things” or something more deliberate and considered (such as that outlined in Greger Wikstrand‘s post “Jobs to be done innovation”), there is a risk of failure. Where there is a culture of fear, people will avoid all failure. Even limited risk failure in the context of an acknowledged experiment will be avoided because people won’t trust in the powers that be not to punish the failure. In avoiding this type of failure, learning that leads to innovation is avoided as well. You can still learn from what others have done (or failed to do), but even then there’s the problem of finding someone foolhardy enough to propose an action that’s out of the norm for the organization.

Why would an organization foster this kind of culture?

Seth Godin’s post, “What bureaucracy can’t do for you”, holds the key:

It lets us off the hook in many ways. It creates systems and momentum and eliminates many decisions for its members.

“I’m just doing my job.”

“That’s the way the system works.”

Decisions involve risk, someone could make the wrong one. For that reason, the number of people making decisions should be minimized (not a position I endorse, mind you).

That’s the irony of top-down, bureaucratic organizations – often the culture is by design, intended to eliminate risk. By succeeding in doing so on the mundane level, the organization actually introduces an existential risk, the risk of stagnation. The law of unintended consequences has a very long arm.

This type of culture actually introduces perverse incentives that further threaten the organization’s long-term health. Creativity is a huge risk, you could be wrong. Even if you’re right, you’ve become noticeable. Visibility becomes the same as risk. Likewise, responsibility means appearing on the radar. This not only discourages positive actions, but can easily be a corrupting influence.

Fear isn’t the only thing we have to fear, but sometimes it’s something we really need to be concerned about.

This post is another installment of an ongoing conversation about innovation with Greger Wikstrand.