Doctrinally approved solutions

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About a week ago I finished reading Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. I did not find it particularly novel as most of the research mentioned in it was familiar to me from other readings. However, it does  contatin some compelling anecdotal examples.

One thing that did struck me as interesting are the parts where the author describes some of the changes initiated in the U.S. army due to its initial failure in Iraq. The author describes how during the cold war the army was trained to fight the Russians in a one-off huge war where the strength of each army will tested in a predictable way. This meant that the army trained in a certain way:

One of the main ways the army did this was to require soldiers to essentially memorize checklists. In army terms, these are called “doctrinally approved solutions.” Military doctrine enables the army to manage its operations across a large organization. Because fighting the Soviet Army allowed for such a small margin of error, approved solutions detailed how to solve anticipated battlefield problems with precision and efficiency.

However, when the U.S. army reached Iraq, the “doctrinally approved solutions” (I love this term!) turned out to be irrelevant due to the ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty of fighting an insurgency in highly populated areas. So today, it turns out that training focuses on understanding the culture, the ability to study the terrain (both physical and in terms of the population) and on adaptive strategies.

In essence, from a rule based, top-down approach, making soldiers into memorizing cogs, the army had to turn into a creative machine that provides soldiers with a foundation and trusts them to use judgment and adapt to the situation in the field by connecting with local population, understanding the difficulties the specific context demands and leveraging learning and experimentation. Since the army started implementing this strategy its success in securing cities and defeating insurgents has risen tremendously.

I think this story has important lessons for every organization. If an organization as hierarchical as the army understands that using rules and turning people into cogs is not going to work, what does it say about modern organizations competing in highly competitive highly adaptive markets?

Yes, training people to think by providing them with the right foundation is harder than just drilling them to memorize pre-approved actions. This easiness has its price. It doesn’t work.

So, does your organization have “doctrinally approved solutions”?

Elad

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Is your team thinking about higher level actions and goals?

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In the last year or so, as part of a research project I am working on, I have been reading hundreds of academic articles on different aspects of teamwork. I must say that most articles are very shallow and focus on a very narrow idea. Most of the experiments have very limited implementation potential in the real world. That is mostly fine as this is how academic ideas develop. However, every once in a while I encounter an article that makes me say “Wow! This is deep and has implications”. This was the case when I read Amy Edmondson’s articles about psychological safety which I wrote about in the past. And this is the case with Anita Williams Woolley’s work on outcome and process focus.

In a series of studies Woolley demonstrated that the way a team initially discusses its task has tremendous effects on the way team members’ attitudes and behaviors will develop down the road, significantly affecting their performance. As Woolley puts it:

Thinking about a team’s process [process focus] involves identification of the specific subtasks that need to be completed, the resources available for doing so, and the coordination of each among members. In contrast, outcomes [outcomes focus] refer to the intended final product or results of the team’s work.

This distinction is based partly on earlier work regarding action identification:

[This] work has shown that individuals can identify actions as low-level, specific activities (e.g. ‘‘I am typing a report’’) or in higher-level terms that encompass multiple specific alternative activities for enactment (e.g. ‘‘I am consolidating and communicating my knowledge’’).

Put simply when a team, early in its life cycle, deliberately engages in thinking about outcomes (higher-level – “the what”) and not about process (lower lever – “the how”), it creates a norm of talking about the higher level. This in turn creates flexibility and an ability to adapt. These abilities allow for better performance on the team final task.

While this sounds simple enough, when you think about it, it really isn’t. Think about the last time you were on a team. I am willing to bet that there is high chance that the first thing that you did was to think about how to divide the work and how to distribute responsibilities. It not only comes naturally, it seems common sense to us to do that. I can’t count the times I heard (or said) the phrase, let’s each start working on it and it will come to us. Many times in these kinds of situations people feel it is a waste of time to talk about the ambiguous goals that we want to achieve. At least according to Woolley’s work that is exactly what they should do, because it creates an understanding of the purpose that later allows people to identify the specific actions with higher level goals.

I wrote a lot about rules in the past and I think this idea correlates with my thoughts about the subject. The problem with rules is that they deprive people from the connection to what actually matters. People forget that rules were put in place to achieve a certain goal. They then follow to rules blindly, even is situations when the best way to achieve the goal is actually ignoring the rule.

In the end, I think it is another interesting look at the idea of purpose and how important is for people – working in team or individually – to understand that purpose of what they are doing and how it relates to higher level goals – personal or organizational.

In a blog post today, Heidi Grant Halvorson has a very interesting point of view on this issue. Here is what she writes:

In order to experience a sense of autonomy, your employees need to understand why the goal or project they’ve been assigned has value.  Too often, managers tell their employees what they need to do, without taking the time to explain why it’s important, or how it fits into the bigger picture.  No one ever really commits to a goal if they don’t see why it’s desirable for them to do it in the first place.

Allowing your employees the freedom to decide how they will complete an assignment is another way to create the feeling of choice necessary to be intrinsically motivated.  Allowing them to tailor their approach to their preferences and abilities will also give them heightened sense of control over the situation they find themselves in, which can only benefit performance.

The important thing is the Why. The how will come afterwards.

Elad

Here are the academic citations for the Woolley articles:
Anita Williams Woolley (2009) “Putting first things first: Outcome and process focus in knowledge work teams” J. Organiz. Behav. 30, 427–452
Anita Williams Woolley (2009) “Means vs. Ends: Implications of Process and Outcome Focus for Team Adaptation and Performance” Organization Science 20(3), 500–515

Book review: Practical Wisdom by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe

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A few days ago I finished reading Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe’s new book Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. I love reading and the thought process that comes with the process of reading. As a result I tend to recommend a lot of books. However, usually my recommendations are not universal but specific. Once in a while I come across a book that I think everybody must read. Practical Wisdom is at the top of that list.

The authors have a few basic claims. We need more wisdom in our lives. Not the wisdom of sages or scholars but practical everyday wisdom that will help us live better lives and make better decisions. Wisdom is the act of performing a particular social practice well—being a good friend or parent or doctor or soldier or citizen or statesman—and that means figuring out the right way to do the right thing in a particular circumstance, with a particular person, at a particular time.

Wisdom, however, is not about intelligence or intellectual capacity. Because we are all born to be wise. The problem is this wisdom needs to be nurtured, cultivated and encouraged. It requires mentioned, coaching, modeling and time to develop. We, as a society, are doing just the opposite of that. We are waging a war against wisdom. Because of different societal process our society has turned more and more to rules, incentives and standardization. As the authors put it:

The assumption behind carefully constructed rules and procedures, with close oversight, is that even if people do want to do the right thing, they need to be told what that is. And the assumption underlying incentives is that people will not be motivated to do the right thing unless they have an incentive to do so. Rules and incentives. Sticks and carrots. What else is there?

While these tools are sometimes useful, they are usually effective only in the short-term and have unintended consequences. They are unable to provide for the changing complex needs of the environment in which people operate in, and thus, lead to unwanted results:

Rules and incentives may improve the behavior of those who don’t care, though they won’t make them wiser. But in focusing on the people who don’t care—the targets of our rules and incentives—we miss those who do care. We miss those who want to do the right things but lack the practical wisdom to do them well. Rules and incentives won’t teach these people the moral skill and will they need. Even worse, rules can kill skill and incentives can kill will.

Rules are aids, allies, guides, and checks. But too much reliance on rules can squeeze out the judgment that is necessary to do our work well. When general principles morph into detailed instructions, formulas, unbending commands—wisdom substitutes—the important nuances of context are squeezed out. Better to minimize the number of rules, give up trying to cover every particular circumstance, and instead do more training to encourage skill at practical reasoning and intuition.

More than that, this reliance on rules and incentives is eroding our ability to develop wisdom and makes people who go into professions like medicine, law and education with a desire to influence and do good, hate their jobs or act in ways that are contrary to what they wanted to do when they decided to join the profession.

The challenge is to find a way to enable people to earn their livelihoods and create a viable organization without having payoffs completely control what people do—without having payoffs demoralize both the people and the practices in which they engage.

The book is a wonderfully written call to stop treating people like cogs. A call to stop measuring things just because we can and then leading our lives according to these measurements. It is an attempt to point out that there is more about being alive and working, than just thinking about outcomes, money and bottom line measurable results. It try to challenge the assumption of “one right way” and “top-down” control that is like a cancer in our societies. It is an attempt to point out to the Obliquity of our business and work. It is a praise to human judgment and ability to do good. It describes the world I want to live in and the kind of work life I want to lead. It is the book I wish I could have written. Read it. Today.

Elad

Patience

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I was watching an amazing talk by Dan Myer on how to give math classes a makeover. Watch it! It’s worth your ten minutes. I won’t ruin it for you. However, I liked one of the main starting points for his talk. Here it is:

David Milch, creator of “Deadwood” and other amazing TV shows, has a really good description for this. He swore off creating contemporary drama, shows set in the present day, because he saw that when people fill mind with four hours a day of, for example, “Two and a Half Men,” no disrespect,  it shapes the neural pathways, he said, in such a way that they expect simple problems. He called it, “an impatience with irresolution.” You’re impatient with things that don’t resolve quickly. You expect sitcom-sized problems that wrap up in 22 minutes, three commercial breaks and a laugh track. And I’ll put it to all of you, what you already know, that no problem worth solving is that simple. I am very concerned about this, because I’m going to retire in a world that my students will run. I’m doing bad things to my own future and well-being when I teach this way. I’m here to tell you that the way our textbooks, particularly, mass-adopted textbooks, teach math reasoning and patient problem solving, it’s functionally equivalent to turning on “Two and a Half Men” and calling it a day.

I feel this on myself. When is the last time you looked at something new and asked yourself – how does it work? And sat to think about it and find out by trial and error. Kids start out being really curious. A small child really wonders how things work and sets out to try to understand things, usually by trail and error. Along the way, we lose that. Seth Godin wrote:

We often forget to teach kids to be curious. A student who has no perceived math ability, or illegible handwriting or the inability to sit still for five minutes gets immediate and escalating attention. The student with no curiosity, on the other hand, is no problem at all. Lumps are easily managed.

Same thing is true for most of the people we hire. We’d like them to follow instructions, not ask questions, not question the status quo.

Godin and Myer talk about the same thing. And I think that our “impatience with irresolution” is not only an issue in studying math problems. It represents a problem in our business world and a problem with how we manage people and relationships. As I have written before a couple of times, people think in events and not in processes. We sometimes neglect to see the long-term effects of how something happening right now can affect the future. It is another facet of short-term thinking.

So, managers don’t invest in the little things, don’t resist the temptation to give answers , strive for efficiency instead of effectiveness and use too many rules that don’t require our employees to develop and use judgment.

We need to re-integrate patience into our lives. As Myer says, it starts with the way we educate our children. But it continues with the way we manage our businesses.

Elad

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Unlearning from Frederick Winslow Taylor

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In my presentation “No More Rules!” – which earned me a few heartwarming reviews up till now (Still waiting for yours!) – I claim that the use of too many rules in management today is harmful in many ways and that we need to revamp our thinking about their use and efficiency because in aggregation they might create more harm than good.

One issues I talk briefly about in the presentation is the fact that the basic assumptions about the use of rules comes from the thinking of Frederick Winslow Taylor whose work and book The Principles of Scientific Management revolutionized American industry leading it to new levels of efficiency and productivity. In the last few days, while reading 12: The Elements of Great Managing by Rodd Wagner and James Harter, I found two very interesting references to the Taylor’s work that amplify the normative argument I try to make in the presentation.

The first is a direct quote from Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management:

The development of a science (of managing tasks) involves the establishment of many rules, laws and formulae which replace the judgment of the individual workman and which can be effectively used only after having been systemically recorded, indexed, etc.”.

The second quote is from Taylor biographer Robert Kanigel who wrote in the book The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency (Sloan Technology):

Scientific management was degrading. In reducing work to instructions and rules, it took away your knowledge and skill. In standing over you with a stopwatch, peering at you, measuring you, rating you, it treated you like a side of beef. You weren’t supposed to think. Whatever workmanly pride you might once have possessed must be sacrificed on the altar of efficiency, your role only to execute the will of other men paid to think for you. You were a drone, fit only for taking orders. Scientific management, then, worked people with scant regard not only for the limitations of their bodies but for the capacity of their minds.

I don’t know about you, but the fact that this kind of approach is at the base of many of the achievements of the 20th century makes me feel a little bit ashamed. Notwithstanding the fact that today’s competitive advantage does not stem anymore from productivity and efficiency (which can be replicated easily) but from innovative thinking, Art and practical wisdom, this kind of approach seems inhuman and unsustainable. And still, in the number of times I encountered Taylor in my academic education, his approach was treated with respect and as a basis for modern thinking.

History is filled with individuals that, sometimes for noble reasons, led different disciplines in the wrong way. I do not think Taylor was a bad man. He probably believed he was working for the general good. However, the long-term damage his thinking produced is felt today and probably will be felt in the future. His assumptions are so intertwined into our thinking that it is hard to identify their exact influence. It is time to let go of our Tayloristic heritage and start celebrating the capacity of human minds. History will judge us on how well we learned from Taylor’s mistakes and how fierce we were in our approach to change it.

The change begins with you. What are you doing for it?

Elad

The unlimiting rules of process

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I just finished reading Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. I know it has already become a cliché to like one of Gladwell’s books, especially for someone like me that has Gladwell’s name as one of the bigger tags for this blog. However, I found the book so thought-provoking and compelling that I really do not care if it is a cliché. I am going to devote a  number of posts contemplating some of the issues discussed in the book.

Lately, as those of you who follow this blog know, I wrote about rules in the world of management and even made a  video presentation about it. One of the things I advocate for in my presentation is that if we do use rules, we need to use rules that are unlimiting instead of limiting. Design, by definition is limiting, however, we all know and feel when the design frees us up and helps us achieve things instead of limit us. I wrote in the past about the idea of lack of friction, an idea I borrowed from Bob Sutton’s blog where he wrote:

It is one of those phrases that applies to all sorts of things, great customer experiences where good things happen and your feel no friction, organizational practices that are seamless and painless, and even government services that seem designed to reduce the burden on you.

One of the stories Gladwell tells made think about that. He tells the story of Improv Theater. The whole idea of Improv Theater is that there are no scripts and no rules. People go out on stage and do whatever the audience suggests and whatever the other actors lead them to. Without any rules, wonderful things are created. It seems random and chaotic and utterly irrelevant to business and management but when Gladwell dwells deeper into the theater and the method he finds that there are rules and it is not chaotic.

In fact, the people of the theater spend a lot of time not only training but also giving feedback to each other and dissecting each others’ performances. Because if we do want to rely on human judgment to make common sense decisions and employ practical wisdom, we need them to be able to train and to give them feedback and ample opportunity to reflect on their performance.

But what was even more interesting is the rules themselves. Because it is a great example of what I call a rule about process and not about content. Gladwell explains that one of the most important rules in the Improv Theater business is that of acceptance. The actors must agree to every suggestion, crazy as it may sound, the other actors make. This is the heart of what makes Improv Theater so entreating and compelling (and you have to read the book for examples, I don’t want to ruin it for you). But this is just it. The rule does not try to regulate the content the actors are dealing with or where they take the ideas, it just regulates the process. You have to agree to everything and flow with it. How? That is your judgment to make. This is how Gladwell describes it:

Do you have to be particularly quick-witted or clever or light on your feet to play that scene? Not really. It’s a perfectly straightforward conversation. The humor arises entirely out of how steadfastly the participants adhere to the rule that no suggestion can be denied. If you can create the right framework, all of a sudden, engaging in the kind of fluid, effortless, spur-of-the-moment dialogue that makes good Improv Theater becomes a lot easier…. He created successful spontaneity.

And I ask you – how much of the work you or your employees do is Improv Theater? Is it customer service? Is it sales? Is it teaching or working with the client of standing up in court and talking? There is no script in life. What is people’s reaction to the fact that there is no script? They try to write a script. But when you write a script, you will have the same show every day or you will need to write one every day. That is very hard as the world is changing and you have better things to do. Instead of writing a script (rules about content) why don’t we try to create a rule of accepting (rules about process) and an environment or framework that allows people, with the proper training and reflection ,to shine out there in the stage of life?

Elad

No more rules – the video presentation version

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What do Seth Godin, Daniel Pink, Dan Ariely, Malcolm Gladwell, Lawrence Lessig, Barry Schwartz, Jonathan Zittrain and Philip K. Howard have in common?

Well, they have all given amazing talks in TED conferences and I recommended watching all of these talks. However, that is not the commonality I had in mind. What is common to all of them is that their ideas are all mentioned in a new presentation I created and called “No More Rules”. This presentation gathers many of the ideas I have been writing about in this blog for the last few months and puts them all together with new, exciting and even surprising concepts and examples.

I set out to create a ten minute presentation and ended up with a much longer one. And this is after limiting myself and leaving many examples and concepts out of it for the sake of time and clarity. I hope you would invest your time with me and allow me to take you through a journey of re-thinking about the way we use rules in the workplace and in the management of people.

This is the first time I am recording a narration of a presentation online and turning it into a movie. This may be obvious even to the untrained eye (and ear) who chooses to watch it. However, I had a lot of fun creating this over the last few weeks and hope you will enjoy watching it just as much as I did creating it and thinking about it.

If you do, the best way to reciprocate is to comment here, post about it and spread it in any way you can considering your relationships in the social media space and beyond. If you don’t, those methods are just as valid to teach me a lesson and vent your frustration. Anyway, I hope to engage you in a conversation.

Thank you for visiting my blog.

Elad