Not Even Wrong – More on levels of abstraction

November 2014
Stockholm @ Pappas Deli

In a previous text I talked about involving the delivery team in all levels of abstraction. Today, I thought I’d elaborate a tad on that subject.

If, at the point when any idea reaches the team, the level of abstraction is low, the inevitable result will be a few frustrating rounds of the team questioning the idea, the desired outcome, the position of the idea in the bigger picture, and so on.

In order to be efficient, you thought you’d have some other fine folks (not the team) do some heavy thinking on this matter that concerns you. And to be fair, you hade all the right intentions when proceeding this way. Your idea was to have some work done in parallell, as the team in question was not yet ready to dig into this as they were busy working on current work in progress. You thought you’d save some time. Unfortunately, the time you thought you were to save was eaten up by frustration, confusion and dejection. Was that at all foreseeable?

In some sectors, concepts are dreamed up by the “idea people” and then “built” by the people who know how to actually build stuff. In such environments, being an “idea person” is “better” or more prestigious than being a grunt developer or designer. As the two worlds of advertising and product development slowly becomes indistinguishable from each other, we will be facing issues such as these more frequently.

So it seems that we find ourselves at a cross road: Do you want people who “do as they’re told” or do you want people who invest all their intellectual and emotional capacities in the pursuit of the goals of the organization? The difference is one between facilitating a journey towards a shared understanding and commitment to the desired outcome, and working against the natural flow of things. Against how humans function. I’ve heard arguments against my line of reasoning in the shape of “sometime you have to just buck down and do the work. It can’t be fun all the time”, or “other people (than the product developers) must also be allowed to create concepts”.

These are, in my opinion, somewhat misguided objections, as they serve only to defend a suboptimal approach to work, and they are uttered when sub-optimal approaches blow up in someone’s face. The approach is flawed, because they work against, not with, how people actually think and feel. Moved up the chain to higher order thinking, what you’re saying is “I have a desire for people not to function the way they do, as it would suit my purposes better if they didn’t, and what I expect to happen next is that these people, in this situation, will somehow react differently than humans normally do, because I pay them to”.

Okay, moving on: another problem with this is that when too low abstraction ideas end up at team level, you will have no other choice but to add one player to the team that is “in charge” of vision. This person will need to be “the voice of the sponsor”, or even be the very sponsor herself. Simply stated, when not including a team in higher level of abstraction work, there will inevitably emerge a need for someone who can stand up for this thing that is to happen. And if we’re at a low level of abstraction, it has to happen in a certain way, as described by the level of detail that is the result of someone other than the team pushing the idea through the creative funnel, a funnel that consist basically of progressively reduced levels of abstraction and increased number of constraints. On this journey, the available number of options are reduced prematurely and there will be a hand-off that you will have to pay rather dearly for.

Now, this hand-off places an interesting amount of pressure on this someone who is “in charge of vision”, as this someone not only have to be able to explain to the team why the chosen thing to do is the most important or prudent thing we can do, this someone also has to be able to explain why doing this important thing this way, is our best idea on how to proceed.

Basically, this person has to take the team on a journey through the levels of abstraction that the idea has already travelled and this person, no matter how skilled he or she is, will not be able to recreate the learning conditions that are optimal for understanding and learning. This is educational psychology 101, well expressed in the old proverb:

Tell me, I’ll forget
Show me, I’ll remember
Involve me, I’ll understand

Now, in Scrum, our most wide spread Agile framework, the Product Owner runs about collecting stakeholder needs and wants. In this framework, the PO is that “someone” as described above.

As you may know, I think that the Product Owner role is severely broken, and I argue for a world where the ownership of products and work rests firmly within the team. One of my core arguments for this is that the PO role separates thinking from doing, and as we know, knowledge workers think for a living. Stripping that away from them is not only a waste of talent and creativity, it’s demotivating and a clear breach of Demings 12th point: “remove barriers to pride of workmanship”.

The PO run the risk of becoming such a barrier for everyone involved in a scrum team. Provided of course that you have reached such team heights that holistic product thinking has become “the way work works”, where the source of the “pride of workmanship” can be found in the holistic product, not in particulars of the code or the design. One of the reasons why some people are taken by surprise by this is that they didn’t pay attention to the ongoing development, where those that were once code- or design monkey’s have now evolved into product developers. And these people are quite capable of understanding the business aspects of the products that they are creating.

This is why the business side could benefit from focusing their strengths towards finding those high abstraction questions that are in dire need of answers, questions that if answered could make a difference for the organization as a whole. Strategy could be about observing the way things unfold and asking the right questions to the right people. Speed and capacity could be measured by the number of questions that the organizations can explore, and how fast the exploration yields insight and effect.

Everything could be about finding answers to these questions, by way of experiments, involving the teams and making use of their collective capacity for creativity, problem solving and passion.

With a balanced, mature and capable team in place, the old adage “take it to the team” has never been sounder advice.

Earlier post on Not even Wrong

Not Even Wrong – Why transparency might just be your number one organization health check metric

November 2014
Stockholm – Pappas Deli

Let’s talk for a while about knowledge work. And let’s start with the tricky task of defining it. The term was coined by the great Peter Drucker back in the 1950’s, and was then used to describe the growing sector in the workforce who did not perform what was referred to as “manual labour”. One of the more useful definitions comes from researcher Thomas Davenport. He says:

“Knowledge workers have high degrees of expertise, education, or experience, and the primary purpose of their jobs involves the creation, distribution or application of knowledge.”

Another definition that I like is: “knowledge workers are paid to think”. And someone offered this definition: (the source escapes me, will correct further on):

“the primary task of knowledge work is ‘non-routine’ problem solving that requires a combination of convergent, divergent, and creative thinking”.

Which also sounds about right.

We also know that in knowledge work, managers are not necessarily any better than the “workers” at whatever the workers do. The reason why this is, is that seniority has nothing to do with it. One might assume that a senior person has, during the years, assembled a toolkit and developed some capabilities that facilitate the knowledge work “process”. But that this possibility make our seniors better at this than the rest of us is a dangerous assumption to make. Newton was 26 when he invented the reflective telescope.

Now with this background, consider an organization where managers take pride in having “hired people smarter than themselves” – and then they lock themselves away and do all the heavy thinking for these bright people. There’s something not right about that.

We can examine this from a number of angles. The first obvious one that comes to mind for me is to examine the sincerity of the statement “we hire people smarter than ourselves”. If that’s just something we say, but don’t actually think, well, then no further debate is necessary. But let’s for the sake of this post assume that what is said is what is meant.

In the light of this, I’d like to talk about the thinking that goes on at the higher levels of organizations. I’d like to talk about the high level problem solving and creative thinking exercise known as strategy.

So I’ve been pondering: The people who do take it upon themselves to think and create strategy, are they in any demonstrable way better at this than the “workers” are. With little evidence other than personal experience, I’d say no.

I have at times – and I readily admit that this is a bit edgy – claimed that with an identical decision making process and identical information, a team of high schoolers and a management team would come to identical decisions. This is a statement intended to provoke thought. If you’re on a management team and read this and feel a bit miffed, please approach this statement in the spirit that it’s delivered. With a smile and a poke in the ribs.

Now, it might very well be the case that the people who develop strategy are not demonstrably the best people for the task at hand. Admittedly they’re senior, which means high on domain knowledge, high on experience and so forth, It says nothing, though, about level of competence in the field of “thinking”. And please don’t confuse any provess, or lack thereof, in the art of thinking, with intelligence. I’m certainly not calling anyone unintelligent.

So why is strategy the domain of “top management”? Could it be a consequence of this question of seniority which we discussed? Is it a matter of education? Is it perhaps not a question of being better at it, just a question of division of labour? Or is the feedback loop on strategy simply so long that there’s a division of “long term – short term” thinking? One team to strategize another to execute?

I don’t know. But one explanation, I think, can be found in the “organization-as-family” metaphor.

In this organizational mindset the perpetual struggle will be the one between giving away and retaining control. Between parents and children. Between top management and the rest. This is why I feel that “level of transparency” is the most promising metric to observe, as this signals that the organization has willingly given away the only reason I can find why strategy remains the domain of top management. Let me explain.

In an organization living the family metaphor, teenage rebellion will happen, and top level management will find themselves under fire with questions. When this happens, the frontier will become visible: information advantage. Full transparency would obliterate this advantage, and with it would disappear the super weapon of arguments, the show stopper of resourceful use of minds: “there are things that you’re unaware of that influence this situation”. This of course, is not a far cry from “You’ll understand this when you get older”

If all information is available to everyone, such claims cannot be made. The question then becomes: why not open up the books and let everyone have the information they need so that they can contribute? We know that more minds is better than less.

My theory then: because information advantage is the only advantage left that can motivate this organizational setup. It is the last remnants of power. And those who have power and have been enjoying the benefits that comes with it, are understandably reluctant to give it away.

The road forward that I’d like to propose is to let knowledge workers do their stuff, have all the information that they need, and then propose to top management a selection of scenarios or possible ways forward, regarding basically all aspects of the organization. Then let the final decision rest with top management. This would mean the letting go of control to an acceptable extent. Let the thinkers think and amaze you with their findings, then all the management team has to do is to be “the deciders”. This means that they’re still ultimately responsible for the decisions made, while the quality of these decisions can be improved and the frustrations that come with teenage rebellion can be dampened.

This is why transparency might be your number one health metric. The more of it you have, the further you have evolved as an organization.

Earlier post on Not even Wrong

Good post re: how work will work in the future of the communication industry

I recently found myself sitting in a panel discussion at Berghs School of Communication here in Stockholm. We touched upon a number of subjects, such as process- and group development and how the advertising/communication industry is transforming. The audience consisted of students who wanted to get a grasp of what sort of skills they need to develop in order to make it in the future.

I got a question from a member of the audience regarding wether my role (let’s call it team coach) exist (or will exist) in the emerging future of the advertising/communication industry. I replied that I most certainly think so. And that the development that we have seen now for a while, where the boundaries between communication and product- and service development are becoming increasingly fuzzy – will make the need for such approaches increasingly apparent.

In light of that, I’d like to direct your attention towards a blog post that I think perfectly captures the direction we’re heading in.

Oh, and the ustwo Malmö office is looking for a Team Coach. Drop your donut and apply here:

Not Even Wrong – Thoughts on the organization as family metaphor

November 2014
Stockholm

If you find yourself in an organization that subscribes to the “organization-as-family” metaphor, you might consider yourself rather lucky. The majority of organizations around the world have not yet reached such an “advanced” evolutionary level. So says the research. An yet, even if the “family” metaphor is evidence of “better” than what came before, it is also evidence that it’s “worse” than what could be – and already is – in some still rare cases. In the future of work, the family metaphor as we know it will most likely be abandoned.

Even so. Today, the “organization-as-family” mindset is ahead of the curve, but it comes with a few difficulties worth discussing.

First of all, we cannot have a family metaphor without kids and parents. In a “family” organization, the management team will (knowingly or not) be positioned by others or by themselves as the “parents”. This will result in problems related to the “mommy and daddy knows best” mindset. This mental model will exist implicitly, and it will inevitably be questioned. Forcefully. I put it to you that in a “organization as a family” mindset we will find ourselves in a stage of permanent teenage rebellion. And this is a good thing! In a sense, the great contribution of the family metaphor is that it creates both the need, the opportunity and perhaps even the language, for emancipatory processes to emerge and unfold.

Yet, the fact that this teenage rebellion is healthy as well as “normal” – and can be the catalyst that eventually drives the organization towards the next evolutionary leap – does not soften the blow: this stage of evolution can be very frustrating for “children” and “parents” alike.

The “organization-as-family” prepares the soil. It creates the perfect conditions for rebellion. And it will be a rebellion against the very people who made all this “new stuff” possible.

So, imagine how the “parents” must feel. They “gave you” all of this and you’re ungrateful? It’s probably really hard for them to understand why. The people who “gave you this” are probably senior. They have most likely lived their entire lives in lower evolution organizations. The freedom, independence, care and love that they (as parents) are providing in this new and better setting is most certainly revolutionary to them. And I’d expect them to expect you to be grateful. Not obstinate.

And just to make it a tad more difficult, if you find yourself in an organization that is in a transitional phase of evolution (still a bit in “organization-as-machine” mindset, yet having moved considerably into “organization-as-family” mindset) it seems inescapable that you will be uncomfortably straddling two conflicting paradigms.

I think this explains rather well why the transition from organization-as-machine towards organization-as-family is vital to attract the kind of people who are forward thinking and capable (they would never sign with a lower evolution organization if they didn’t have to). And also why this transition will cause more tension, not less.

But when you think of it, it is only in this stage that voicing your concerns is even acceptable. And if we look (again) at how groups develop, we know that openness, trust, talking about stuff, feedback et al are the tools we need to handle our conflicts in a sensible manner, which leads to potential evolution towards “higher” stages of group development.

One problem is that there’s a limit to how much lip the parents can take. When things get ugly, it’s so much easier to revert to “because I told you so”. Which is also why speaking up and questioning the management team is sometimes punished, or at least frowned upon. When that happens, the management team sets boundaries.

Letting go of the last remnants of concentrated power is difficult. And quite like parents who wonder what their purpose in life is once their children are all grown up, the management team must suffer a similar crisis.

Earlier post on Not even Wrong

Not Even Wrong – The Soulless Professional

October 2014
Stockholm – @ Valtech office

There are things that will awaken the warrior in me and spur me to take up arms and go to war. And break things. There are times when I want to tell people that they suck harder than a collapsing star. This happens when people I care about are not treated with the love, respect and care that I feel they deserve. There’s a reason why people are treated badly. So today, I will talk – or rant rather – about the root cause of that behavior. I will talk (with almost no structure at all) about professionalism.

Professionalism has everything to do with appearances. I’m quite certain you’ve come across situations where people have expressed irritation, or even anger, because something happened that made them “appear unprofessional”. Key word here being “appear”. For a professional what other professionals think of them is more important than anything else. Because how they are thought of is who they are. They accept that as a truth.

Professionalism then, is a mold into which we as individuals – with a varying degree – wish to fit. It comes as no surprise then, that the last thing a professional person wants, is surprises. As a professional, you will make your plans and forecasts and predictions. You’ll present them to people above you in your hierarchy – a hierarchy that you, by the way, see no problems with as your purpose in life is to climb that golden ladder. Eager to impress those above you, you make promises and assertions. In order to achieve your goals, you make threats and accusations. You instill fear, uncertainty and doubt in everyone “below” you on your golden ladder.

Obviously, for you, there’s no room for surprises. So when the fundamentally unsurprising reality still manages to both happen and surprise you, you will disregard the basic nature of things: existence is a complex, changing, chaotic and strange thing that you quite honestly don’t know frakk all about.

So, how do you handle this complexity of reality then? You don’t. You disregard it. And you do so either knowingly – which is evil – or unknowingly, which is ignorant.

The concept of professionalism hates surprises. When surprises happen it must have an explanation. The explanation closest at hand is that the other players who are involved in your game are simply “unprofessional”.

The concept of professionalism creates roles that you feel obligated to play. This causes a great disconnect between your authentic self and your work identity. This separation from wholeness causes tension. That’s why you’re a nervous, angry, frightened and neurotic a-hole towards anyone who can’t be of service to you in your climb towards the top.

The concept of professionalism promotes activity goals over outcomes. This is not only troublesome because of its alien mindset, it also causes a lot of old fashioned waste. A lot of stuff that shouldn’t really be done at all is done under the flag of professionalism. I call this “playing office”. You can easily tell when people are doing it. It truly resembles the games one played as a child, strangely imitating how grown ups behave.

The burden of being professional, coupled with the core belief that all it takes is hard work, also creates incentives to cheat, once one discovers that hard work is not enough, as anyone who is involved with complex work will soon realize. This is why projects can finish on time (activity), yet deliver no value whatsoever (outcome). This is also why so many products, services and experiences suck so very, very much. Because no one cares. It’s not professional to care about stuff that is not listed in the soulless, heartless manual of professional behavior. A professional will go above and beyond when it comes to keeping up appearances and reaching activity goals, but will not invest any passion in outcomes.

The concept of professionalism resists change, because change implies that there might not be anything for you at the end of that ladder that you’ve made it your life purpose to climb. And you’re right about that, by the way. There won’t be.

The concept of professionalism rewards acting and punishes thinking and questioning.
The concept of professionalism rewards conservatism and punishes risk taking.
The concept of professionalism promotes ego over teams.

For those of us who have chosen to embrace authenticity, this professional behavior causes other kinds of tension. The feeling for us is that we enter a theatre every time we find ourselves in such environments, and the show that these professionals put on feels both awkward and alien. We feel confused. Who the are these people? Why are they talking funny? Why are they trying so desperately to sound smart?

If we use the terminology of Frederic Laloux we might say that the mere notion of “professionalism” is a lingering leftover from “orange” organizations and the world view that persists there. If we believe that organizations over time move towards “higher” evolutionary stages – and we consider this a good thing – I put it to you that the concept of professionalism is an idea that slows evolution down and is basically holding the whole organization back.

In later posts we will examine the tension, the nervous and anxious behavior of “Green” organizations, which seems to me to be a direct result of these old concepts remaining as archaic mental models. If we view organizations as organic systems, professionalism is one of the concepts that the systems – driven by new values and ideas – is working hard to reject. The difficult process of discarding these concepts might very well be the change that has to be facilitated and endured. It won’t be pretty.

And you know, all this “new” stuff. Authenticity, passion, beauty, creativity, higher purpose and *gulp* talking about your feelings, hopes and dreams. Being human. It’s not what you signed up for. Because all you know how to do is be professional. But  you need to hear this: The current market value for “professional” is not at all what it used to be. And in the future of work – there won’t be a market at all. The clock is ticking.

In summary:

The concept of professionalism promotes faking in a world that craves authenticity. With the mask of professionalism to hide behind you can feel safe as long as you stick with the rules. Professionalism is often defined as “by the book” behavior. So basically, you’ll be rewarded for “playing office”, with the bonus opportunity to label those who find novel ways to pursue value as “unprofessional”. As such, the concept of professionalism legitimizes the confusion between activity and outcome.

And that’s #notevenwrong.

Earlier post on Not even Wrong

Not Even Wrong – Wheelan, Integral Theory and the evolution of organizations

October 2014
Stockholm – Papas Deli

Perhaps you have, quite like me, felt the frustration of observing group behavior through the lens of the IMGD model of Susan Wheelan. How does one go about establishing which phase a group is in, when the group does not have a voice, but consist rather of a multitude of voices, which can with varying degree of sophistication express their own understanding of where the group is at in terms of “stages” of group development. Sure, you can assess this from the outside, looking at actual behavior and listen in to how the group interact and solve problems, but the challenge remains.

So then perhaps you have, as I have, come to terms with the fact that the answer to the question “which stage is the group at when the separate individuals behave in ways that are congruent with different stages” is that the group can be at several levels simultaneously and that individuals and the whole group can move between the stages depending on time, situation and context.

This is fine, the model is still very useful. It is actually the tension between individuals at different stages that create the conflicts that need to be resolved in an amicable manner in order for the whole group to evolve.

The tricky part here is that people at different stages have different ways of dealing with conflict and tension. This then, is the challenge of group development. And this is what makes it so hard, yet so rewarding when it finally falls into place.

With this background established, we move on to Integral Theory, which – as Frederic Laloux demonstrated rather convincingly in his wonderful achievement “Reinventing Organizations” – is a rather useful model to explain the evolution of organizations.

When we talk about evolutionary stages of organizations, we can make a similar observation to the one we did when discussing IMGD. Different individuals, or even whole departments, can be at different evolutionary stages at the same time, within the same organization. This too creates tension and conflict, and this too needs to be resolved in an intelligent way. Anyone who has ever tried to promote Agile/Lean values and thinking beyond the “software department” understands how challenging this can be.

Even though this is a rather banal realization, as any model that proposes defined stages of evolution or development will have these issues hard coded within the very structure of the model, I have found it a valuable thinking tool.

If we turn now to John Hagels “Passionate Explorers”, the wonderful “Rebels at Work”, or any other description of progressive change agents, we know that the frustrations that these pioneers experience are very real. Many of us have felt or feel that we bang our head hopelessly against the unmoving concrete walls of “the old ways”. The fact that the departments or people in the organization that belong to a “lower” evolutionary stage still pay lip service to the ways and values of the “higher” evolutionary level (because it’s fashionable, you see) well that just makes it even more difficult.

The only way I know how to make people aware of when they’re not living their own espoused theory is to expose them to this reality, and this might not be pleasant conversations to have. Or even more troublesome, these conversation are often hindered by they way organizations are structured. This is precisely why successful change initiatives are almost always initiated at “the bottom”, but most certainly need the involvement of “the top” in order to succeed. We must not underestimate the cultural influence of an executive whose ideas and values belong to a “lower” evolutionary stage of organizational development.

In my experience, getting people used to the idea that there can be no action without theory, is a good start. You DO behave certain ways because you DO have theories about the nature of things, be it people (theory X / theory Y) or Organizations, leadership, management, purpose of organizations and businesses. These theories might not be known to even yourself – which is why reflection,  introspection and self-leadership must be promoted.

As always,the journey starts with someone taking the leap, and kickstarts the spiral of openness and trust.

Earlier post on Not even Wrong