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 in Inner Space

KGL dragoons at the Battle of Garcia Hernandez


Long-time readers know that I have a rather varied set of interests and that I’ve got a “thing” for history, particularly military history. Knowing that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I was recently reading an article titled “Cyber is the fourth dimension of war” (ground, sea and air being the first three dimensions). It’s not a bad article, but it is mistaken. Cyberwar is the fifth dimension of war. The first dimension, today and for all of time past, is the human mind. Contests are won or lost, not on some field of battle, virtual or physical, but in the minds of the combatants. For example, if you believe you’ve lost, then you have.

The painting shown above illustrates this nicely. During the Napoleonic period, infantry that was charged by cavalry would form a square, presenting a hedge of bayonets to all sides. Horses, being intelligent creatures, will not impale themselves on pointy things, thus the formation provides protection to the infantry who were free to fire at the encircling cavalry. Charging disciplined, unbroken infantry was a losing proposition for the cavalry under almost all circumstances. Note the use of “almost”.

At the Battle of García Hernández, July 1812, something unusual happened. One French formation was late in firing, and a wounded horse ran blindly into the square, breaking it up. The attacking British (Hannoverian, to be precise) cavalry rode into the gap and forced the surrender of the French infantry that comprised it. This, of course, was simply a matter of physics. However, two further squares broke up when charged due to the effect of what happened to the first one on their morale. Believing they were beaten, they failed to maintain cohesion and their anticipated defeat became a reality.

So, what’s the point?

Greger Wikstrand and I have been trading posts on the topic of innovation since late 2015. Greger’s latest, “Spring clean your mind”, deals with the concepts of infowar and propaganda (aka “fake news”). This is another example of what Greger’s written about in the past, a concept he dubbed black hat innovation: “Whenever there is innovation or invention there is also misuse”.

Whether you call it black hat innovation or abuse cases (my term), it’s a concept we need to be aware of. It is a concept that affect us, not just as technologists, but as ordinary human beings. We need to be aware of the potential for active abuse. We also need to be aware of the potential for problems that caused by things that make our life more convenient or more pleasant:

This isn’t to say that Facebook is some evil empire, but that we need to bear some responsibility for not allowing ourselves to become trapped in an echo chamber:

It’s something we need to take responsibility for. We can’t hope for a technological deus ex machina to bail us out. As Tim Bass recently noted on his Cyberspace Event Processing Blog:

The big “AI” processing “pie in the sky” plan for cyber defense we all read about is not going to work “as advertised” because we cannot program machines to solve problems that we cannot solve ourselves. There is no substitute for the advancement and development of the human mind to solve complex problems. Delegating the task of “thinking” to machines is doomed to fail, and fail “big time”. It seems like humanity has, in a manner of speaking, “given up” on humans developing the intelligence to manage and defend cyberspace, so they have decided to turn it all over to machines.

Wrong approach!

The right approach, in my opinion, is to be intentional and active in learning. Consuming information should not be a matter of sitting back and shoveling it in, but one of filtering, testing, and appraising. How much time do you spend reading viewpoints you absolutely disagree with? How much time do you spend exploring information?

In 1645, as he was looking back at his long and successful career as a samurai, where a single loss often meant death, Miyamoto Musashi concluded that although rigorous sword practice was essential, it wasn’t enough. At the end of the first chapter of A Book of Five Rings, he also admonishes aspiring warriors to “Cultivate a wide variety of interests in the arts” and “Be knowledgable in a wide variety of occupations.”

Similarly, Boyd, who was was a keen student of Musashi, described his method as looking across a wide variety of fields — “domains” he called them — searching for underlying principles, “invariants.” He would then experiment with syntheses involving these principles until he evolved a solution to the problem he was working on. Because they involved bits and pieces from a variety of domains, he called these syntheses “snowmobiles” (skis, handlebar from a bicycle, etc.)


Perception is critical. We are made or unmade, less by our circumstances and more by our perception of them. Companies that have suffered disruptions have done so not because they were unable to respond, but because they either believed themselves invulnerable or believed themselves incapable. Likewise, as individuals, we have control over what information we expose ourselves to and how we manage that exposure.

Sense-making is a critical skill that requires active involvement. The passive get passed by.

[Painting of the battle of Garcia Hernandez by Adolf Northen, housed in the Landesmuseum Hannover. Photo by Michael Ritter via Wikimedia Commons]

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.

Situational Awareness – Where does it begin? Where does it end?

Infinity symbol

Situational awareness, according to Wikipedia, is defined as “…the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status after some variable has changed, such as time, or some other variable, such as a predetermined event”. In other words, it’s having a handle on what currently is and what is about to happen. It’s a concept that is invaluable to a wide range of interests, particularly management/leadership, architectural design, and innovation. It’s a concept that crosses levels, from tactical to strategic. Just as socio-technical systems architectures exist in a fractal space (application to solution to enterprise), so too does the concept of situational awareness. As such, it’s a common theme for this site, particularly over the last year or so.

The OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) Loop, developed by Air Force Colonel John Boyd, is a framework for decision-making that explicitly incorporates situational awareness:

OODA Loop Diagram

Coupling sense-making with decision-making is critical to achieve a balance of both speed and effectiveness. In my opinion, acting without taking the state of the environment into account is a recipe for disaster. Equally important (likewise, in my opinion), is understanding the dynamic nature of situational awareness. As Boyd’s diagram above shows, it’s not a linear process. Additionally, the very nature of a loop should convey the fact that there’s neither beginning nor end. This is a key concept.

One of the sites that I follow is Slightly East of New, which is run by an associate of Boyd’s and dedicated to his theories. A recent post on that site, “The magic of the OODA loop”, related a paragraph from a sci-fi novel, The Apocalypse Codex, that referred to OODA:

Observe, orient, decide, act: words to live or die by. Right now, Persephone is disoriented — on the run, cut off. It’s time to go on the offensive, work out where she is and what’s going on, then get the hell out of this trap.

It was an interesting post, but nothing noteworthy, until I got to this comment:

I find the phrase, “…on the run, cut off.” very interesting, within the context of “disoriented”. To me, “on the run” mean a decision has been made and acted on, whereas “disorientation” usually means that one can’t make a decision.
Likewise, “cut off” is the position you find yourself in, after all the decisions have been made and, after thinking about it, it is the posture you observe yourself to be in.
In other words, on the run and cut off is not really a disorientation, but a reality.
So, while you may not survive, you have made a decision to run or you are about to make a decision and join the otherside.
I suppose it just depends on where those words show up in the narrative, as to if you made the decision or your competitor made the decision for you.

I may be over-sensitive to the phrasing, but “…decision has been made and acted on…” and “…after all the decisions have been made…” strike me as being too static and too linear. Every action/inaction follows on decision/indecision. The point “…after all the decisions have been made…” is terminal (for the person who has made all the decisions they will make). In my opinion, it is key to bear in mind that the clock is always running and that the reality being processed is already past. Too much attention to the state of what is (or rather, was) takes away from the more important task of getting to a better “to be” state. Additionally, decisions and contexts should be thought of as not just linear, but fractal (e.g. having multiple levels from tactical through strategic) as well.

Loops that have an end are no longer loops. Likewise, we have to be able to strike a balance between just focusing on what’s relevant (too much context/backstory can cause information overload) and the point where we’ve trimmed away necessary context.

Actively thinking about sense-making and decision-making can seem overly academic. The activities are so foundational to nearly everything that they can feel instinctual rather than learned. I suspect that’s a case of “familiarity breeds contempt”. Depending on the application, contempt for developing the best possible situational awareness could be fatal.

[OODA Loop diagram by Patrick Edwin Moran via Wikimedia Commons]

Learning Organizations: When Wrens Take Down Wolfpacks

A Women's Royal Naval Service plotter at work in the Operations Room at Derby House in Liverpool, the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches, September 1944.

What does the World War II naval campaign known as the Battle of the Atlantic have to do with learning and innovation?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. Early in the war, Britain found itself in a precarious position. While being an island nation provided defensive advantages, it also came with logistical challenges. Food, armaments, and other vital supplies as well as reinforcements had to come to it by sea. The shipping lanes were heavily threatened, primarily by the German u-boat (submarine) fleet. Needing more than a million tons of imports per week, maintaining the flow of goods was a matter of survival.

Businesses may not have to worry about literal torpedoes severing their lifelines, but they are at risk due to a number of factors. Whether its changing technology or tastes, competitive pressures, or even criminal activity, organizations cannot afford to sit idle. In his post “Heraclitus was wrong about innovation”, Greger Wikstrand talked about the mismatch between the speed of change (high) and rate of innovation (not fast enough). This is a recurrent theme in our ongoing discussion of innovation (we’ve been trading posts on the subject for over a year now).

The British response to the threat involved many facets, but an article I saw yesterday about one response in particular struck a chord. “The Wargaming “Wrens” of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit” told the story of a group of officers and ratings of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (nicknamed “Wrens”) who, under the command of a naval officer, Captain Gilbert Roberts, revolutionized British anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Their mandate was to “…explore and evaluate new tactics and then to pass them on to escort captains in a dedicated ASW course”.

Using simulation (wargaming) to develop and improve tactics was an unorthodox proposition, particularly in the eyes of Admiral Percy Noble, who was responsible for Britain’s shipping lifeline. However, Admiral Noble was capable of appreciating the value of unorthodox methods:

A sceptical Sir Percy Noble arrived with his staff the next day and watched as the team worked through a series of attacks on convoy HG.76. As Roberts described the logic behind their assumptions about the tactics being used by the U-Boats and demonstrated the counter move, one that Wren Officer Laidlaw had mischievously named Raspberry, Sir Percy changed his view of the unit. From now on the WATU would be regular visitors to the Operations Room and all escort officers were expected to attend the course.

Each of the courses looked at ASW and surface attacks on a convoy and the students were encouraged to take part in the wargames that evaluated potential new tactics. Raspbery was soon followed by Strawberry, Goosebery and Pineapple and as the RN went over to the offensive, the tactical priority shifted to hunting and killing U Boats. Roberts continued as Director of WATU but was also appointed as Assistant Chief of Staff Intelligence at Western Approaches Command.

This type of learning culture, such as I described in “Learning to Deal with the Inevitable”, was key to winning the naval war. Clinging to tradition would have led to a fatal inertia.

One aspect of the WATU approach that I find particularly interesting is the use of simulation to limit risk during learning. Experiments involving real ships cost real lives when they don’t pan out. Simulation (assuming sufficient validity of the theoretical underpinnings of the model used) is a technique that can be used to explore more without sending costs through the roof.

Leadership Patterns and Anti-Patterns – The Growler

Grizzly Bear Attack Illustration

Prior to starting my career in IT (twenty years ago this month…seems like yesterday), I spent a little over eleven years in law enforcement as a Deputy Sheriff. Over those eleven years my assignments ranged from working a shift in the jail (interesting stories), to Assistant Director of the Training Academy, then Personnel Officer (even more interesting stories), and finally, supervisory and management positions (as many headaches as stories). To say that it was as much an education as a job is to put it mildly. I learned useful lessons about human nature and particularly about leadership.

One of the things that I learned is that leadership and management (they are related, but separate things) have patterns and anti-patterns associated with them. Just like in the realm of software development, it can be difficult to distinguish between what’s a pattern and what’s an anti-pattern (there’s an interesting discussing to be found on this topic in the classic “Big Ball of Mud”). Hammering a square peg into a round hole “works”, albeit sub-optimally. Pattern or anti-pattern?

One pattern/anti-pattern from my time with the Sheriff’s Office is what I call “The Growler”. A high-ranking member of the department was a master of this technique. When approached for something, particularly when the something in question was a signature on a purchase requisition, the default response was a profanity-laced growl (the person in question had retired from the Navy as a senior NCO) demanding to know why he should grant the request. This was extremely daunting, but I learned that the correct response was to growl back. When he growled, “%$@$ a !#&^ing $@!#*. More $%&^ing computer stuff, why the @#*& do you need this?”, I would answer, “You know when you ask me a question and I respond in five minutes instead of three hours”. This would result in a shake of his head, a “Yeah, yeah”, and most importantly, a signature.

More than just an endearing quirk of his character, it was a triage technique. If the person who wanted something tucked tail and ran, it wasn’t important. If, however, the person stood their ground, then he would put forth the effort to make a decision.

Right up front, I should make it clear that I don’t recommend this technique. First and foremost, Human Resources finds “salty” language even less endearing today than they did twenty-five plus years ago, and they weren’t crazy about it then. There’s also a big problem in terms of false negatives.

Most of my coworkers back in my badge and gun days were not shy, retiring types. Consequently, I never saw it backfire for that person. Later on, though, I did see it fail for an IT manager (and yes, while gruff, he was significantly less “salty” than the one at the Sheriff’s Office). This manager had a subordinate who would retreat no matter how valid the need. Consequently, that subordinate’s unit, one that several of us were dependent on, was always under-staffed and under-equipped. When his people attended training, it was because someone else had growled back for him. It was far from the optimal situation.

While not quite as bad as the “shoot the messenger” anti-pattern I touched on recently, “The Growler” comes close. By operating on a principle of fear, you can introduce a gap in your communications and intelligence network that you rely on (whether you know it or not) to get the information you need in a timely manner.

Fear encourages avoidance and no news now can be very bad news later.

Learning Organizations – Shooting the Messenger All the Way to the Fuhrerbunker

Unless you’re living under a rock, it’s a near certainty that you’ve seen at least one Downfall parody video (although I hadn’t realized just how long these had been around until I started working on this post…time flies!). There’s a reason why they’ve managed to hang on as a meme as long as they have. The “shoot the messenger” style of management, in spite of all the weight of evidence against it, is still alive and well.

When Tom Cagley and I were recording the Form Follows Function segment for SPaMCast 407, one of Tom’s questions brought to mind the image of Hitler’s delusional ranting in the bunker made famous by these parodies. The subject of the segment was my post “Learning to Deal with the Inevitable”, which deals with the need for a culture of learning to be able to deal effectively with the change that has become a constant in our world. Tom keyed in on one point (taken from a talk I’d attended put on by Professor Edward Hess): ‘candor, facing the “brutal facts” is essential to a learning culture’. Although his leadership failures pale in significance to the atrocities that he was responsible for, the Hitler portrayed in these clips demonstrates that point vividly.

It should be unnecessary to point out that flying into a rage when given bad news does nothing to change the nature of those events. It is particularly destructive when the bearer of the news is attacked even when blameless for what they’re reporting. Far from helping anything, the temper tantrum ensures that negative information is only delivered when it can no longer be hidden, hampering the ability to react in a timely and effective manner. A vicious circle builds up where delay, spin, and outright deception replace candor.

Delusional, drug-addled dictators can be expected to operate in this manner (thank heavens). The rest of us should aim for better.

It can be inconvenient to have to deal with crises; it’s more inconvenient to find out about them when the situation is unsalvageable. Maturity, humility, and perspective can be difficult character traits to develop, but not as difficult as finding yourself under siege from a world of enemies with only the pathetic dregs of your minions for company.