Let It Go

I have been thinking a lot about the outstanding Workstock unconference which was premiered at last month’s Workplace Trends conference (#wtrends14). To my mind, its unifying theme was the need for change in our work whether in terms of it becoming truly human-centric and meaningful or unleashing the potential of networked intelligence or harnessing the power of diversity.

It is a sound scientific principle that you should only seek out evidence which could undermine your own hypothesis. However, I was secretly delighted that what I heard at Workstock resonated with my core belief that applying the principles of Systems Thinking to the social, physical and obligatory aspects of our work and our workplaces (Neil Usher’s “logasphere” – a term I am now using frequently because it does what it says on the tin) will transform organisations’ operational performance in the form of lower operating costs and higher productivity.

I continue to be fascinated by the joint moral and commercial imperative of “making the work (noun) work (verb) better” but Workstock started me on a train of thought about why the Command & Control status quo is the way it is. In fact, it was meeting one of the presenters in person for the first time, the very wonderful human being and planet-sized brain that is Anne-Marie McEwan (@smartco), which reminded me of one of her observations that work outcomes, ‘results’ if you will, are probabilistic; they cannot be determined. And the fact they are probabilistic lies at the heart of explaining what is preventing qualitative or human-centric changes from breaking into the mainstream of work.

In other words, it is the illusion of certainty that is underpinning the status quo; the fallacy that we are masters of our own destiny and can control, determine, and even guarantee, work outcomes whether they are financial or operational. Numbers have achieved primacy over all other aspects of work and because they denote quantities and can easily be identified and measured, we have allowed ourselves to accept that the future can be predicted with the certainty of solving a mathematical equation.

Consider the huge advances in organisations’ analytical and modelling capabilities and the significant resources allocated to forecasting – the amounts of data that can now be processed and the speed at which they can be processed were unthinkable even a decade ago. What has this data crunching done for organisations in terms of guaranteeing success or providing outcome certainty? Exactly.

Do not misunderstand me, I am not in any way advocating an anti-scientific or anti-numerical approach to work. I am merely trying to argue that best endeavours and sensible control measures and precautions are the best we can do based on a recognition that most risks can only be mitigated, not eliminated.

The irony is that it is the perceived need to be in control of people, resources, information and activities in order to guarantee outcomes that is actually undermining successful performance in many organisations. Yet this appears to be the foundation stone of mainstream thinking and this needs to be understood before it can be changed.

My starting point for understanding the status quo requires a brief history of Command & Control and I shall be borrowing a lot from John Seddon along the way. At the risk of repeating what is common knowledge, C&C has its roots in neo-classical economic theory and Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations”. These ideas were taken further by FW Taylor in his development of scientific management techniques in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which typically involved measuring work through time and motion studies. In turn, Taylor’s work informed the methods of Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan in the American automotive industry. This was an era of mass-production environments where most work involved repeatable methodologies and fixed mechanistic designs and as such it was generic, recurrent, straightforward, predictable, compartmentalised, rigid and process-oriented.

C&C can therefore be summarised as a scientific, analytical and production-centric approach to the design and management of work focusing on the work to be done, the resources required to do the work, how long the work takes to perform and how much it all costs. For the majority of the 20th century, C&C was an unqualified success and delivered huge performance improvements because it was entirely appropriate for most organisations’ prevailing internal and external operating environments.

To say these goalposts have shifted in the last 30 years is an understatement of considerable magnitude. Here, at the back end of 2014, the operating environments of the C&C era only hold true for a tiny minority of workplaces around the world; even heavily automated manufacturing plants have to manage significant supply chain complexity. As Anne-Marie has noted: “Internal performance environments are made of interacting systems – information, technologies, enabling HR systems, governance, physical workplace etc. They influence but do not determine performance outcomes. Our interactions are too complex for that”.

The same is true for external operating environments. The VUCA acronym has had a bad press mostly because it has been bandied about without being properly understood (I quite like this handy guide from HBR). However, it does help convey the essence of the bewildering external political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal (our good friend PESTEL from the text books) opportunities, threats and constraints that most organisations have to deal with. To paraphrase Mark ‘E’ Everett of The Eels, it’s a mother-VUCA (sorry, couldn’t resist!)

It seems incredible that despite this seismic shift in internal and external business landscapes (which has created a plethora of variables that cannot be controlled or influenced as well as the infamous “unknown unknowns”), C&C remains the mainstream approach for the design and management of work. It is even more inexplicable when one considers the mounting evidence of organisations for whom C&C has produced outcomes that were the opposite of what was intended and expected (RBS, Tesco, Barclays, Goldman Sachs, pretty much any aspect of public services etc. ad nauseam). This is further reinforced by a recent report highlighting that profit warnings from UK listed companies have increased nearly 25% in 2014.

C&C is therefore consistently failing to deliver on its promises. The more control measures are applied, the less predictable outcomes become. The more focus is put on reducing costs, the more they spiral out of control. The more resources that are put into service delivery, the worse customer service becomes. It is a manifestation of the law of unintended consequences at its most brutal.

Why does C&C prevail then? Why are we faced with a situation where, in the words of Professor Gary Hamel, we have 21st century internet-enabled business processes and mid-20th century management practices built atop 19th century management principles? Allow me to offer some complementary explanations:

  • It is borne of the necessity to meet stakeholder expectations, especially those of Boards of Directors and institutional shareholders, and no CEO in their right mind would approach this in any other way than to behave as though they are in complete control (this is fundamentally what has put CEOs on such high pedestals and why their remuneration packages have grown exponentially in recent years)
  • The status quo is maintained by the vested interests and inertia of various consultant organisations, lobby groups and professional bodies, none of whom will ever bite the hand that has kept them well fed for many years
  • C&C theories and practices are embedded across all disciplines in the education system from secondary schools to universities to professional bodies – we are conditioned to think in a C&C way about work before we even enter the workplace
  • Many people are ignorant to the existence of alternative approaches, such as Systems Thinking, to the design and management of work and/or these approaches are beyond their normal frames of reference (deeply-held mental models of how the world works)
  • It is easier to believe that poor performance is primarily a people issue as opposed to something that is caused by a dysfunctional system i.e. we would rather believe it is the result of people not having understood what they are supposed to do and/or not having done it well enough

For certain requirements, C&C is absolutely essential; for example, you would not want to administer a nuclear power plant under anything other than a strict operational C&C regime. However, in most instances, the upshot of C&C is a triumph of ideology over pragmatism which, perversely, is destroying shareholder value and making work a joyless and inorganic experience for many people. This is a wholly unsatisfactory and unnecessary state of affairs. In the words of Peter Senge: “Profit for a company is like oxygen for a person…unfortunately most businesses operate as if their purpose is breathing”.

So what is the alternative then? I believe what is required is a fundamental shift in thinking towards conceptualising business success (strong financial performance) as a highly probable consequence of being effective – in other words, doing the right things. The test of a “right thing” is whether it contributes to achieving organisational purpose which is, in the words of Peter Drucker, to create a customer. Drucker recognised that it is the purpose of any organisation to create a customer because no organisation can exist without its customers. Customers are created (and retained) by ensuring that the variety of customers’ requirements (“value demand”, which is very different to failure demand which is the demand we do not want from our customers) are fully understood and all of our work activities are designed to ultimately facilitate the efficient servicing of these value demands.

What do I mean by this? Well, take a look at your organisation and particularly at your logasphere and give some serious consideration to your policies, processes, procedures, practices, IT systems, compliance (audit/assurance/inspection) activities and…oh you get the idea. Are they production-centric or are they customer-centric? Can a clear line of sight to organisational purpose be established? If an activity cannot be directly related to customer requirements, does it exist to provide necessary safeguards or checks & balances without detracting from the servicing of your customers’ value demands? I will hazard a wild guess that the majority will be production-centric…and therefore may be of little or no value to your customers from their perspective.

Given that there is a mountain to climb, it may take a generation to change the status quo. As such, it is imperative that we in the logasphere take personal responsibility for driving this customer- and human-centric change and demonstrating beyond any reasonable doubt that doing the right things, including doing better people things, is directly correlated to better business performance.

Why us? Because I unequivocally believe that we are uniquely positioned to drive performance improvements in organisations because when the logasphere is curated well, it has a profound impact on people in terms of how they experience work and it enables them to do their work as enthusiastically, productively, efficiently and safely as possible. People are at the heart of the matter: irrespective of the on-going technological advancements that are supporting the automation of certain types of work, people will continue to be at the heart of organisational performance since work is predominantly designed, performed and directed by people and consumed by people whether as customers or shareholders.

Control? Let it go. And, in the words of Anne-Marie, carry on thinking.

This entry was posted in Systems Thinking - Letting Go of Control and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Let It Go

  1. maverisk says:

    Reblogged this on Maverisk and commented:
    Some paragraphs before you get into it, but True. As frequent readers of this blog may have learned from my rants against the top-down hierarchical approach. As Roger Waters (et al) sang: The Tide Is Turning… Hopefully.

  2. Pingback: Let It Go

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