Whose Your Villain?

When people encounter issues in their day to day business, there seems to be a human need to find a villain.

This is borne out of the mindset (or mental model) that says we are all independent entities, operating on our own. Decisions are linear, so we need to decompose our world into component parts and perfect each piece. Within this world view, of course there is a villain. Someone did do this to you, and it’s likely the person directly upstream from you. “Someone’s to blame here. This didn’t happen by itself!”, is a common refrain of the linear thinker. Sadly, formal education seems to exacerbate this model given the way we are taught to solve problems.

Let’s reflect on this a bit. One message I’ve heard loud and clear from the likes of Deming, Ackoff, and Senge:

The key to understanding what needs to change isn’t to react to dysfunctions and failures, but to stand back and attempt to get a broader view of the entire system.

When we do this, we learn that a core truth is that we are all inter-dependent, not independent beings. All parts are connected. The processes are connected. The variables are connected, and each of these things affects outcomes. It’s core to systems thinking.

The Fifth Discipline
Peter Senge, author of “The Fifth Discipline”, teaches that, as intelligent human beings, we tend to make reasonable (and reasoned) choices. He goes on to say that we rarely fail because we lack the ability to make reasoned choices, but sometimes we fail because of those reasoned choices. The failure is not in decision making, but our inability to “see the whole”.

How could this be?! If I’m making rational choices, how can I fail?

By way of example, Senge describes (via analogy) controlling the temperature in a shower. When you turn on a shower and the temperature is cold, a well reasoned decision might be to turn the hot tap up a little. If nothing happens, you might turn it up a bit more. If still nothing happens, you might crank it way up, only to find seconds later that the water is scalding hot.

Nothing. Nothing. HOT!!!

This cycle then starts over again in the opposite direction.

Nothing. Nothing. FREEZING!

This is a trivial example to understand because the affect of your actions are relatively close in time and space. At some point we realize we need to turn the temperature dials… and wait. But think about this same concept in the context of your business, relationships, and personal life. Simple decisions that are well reasoned at the time of the decision often affect the system in catastrophic ways way out in the distance. It might take weeks or months to see the affect of decisions. As humans, if an outcome isn’t tied closely to the event, then we think they aren’t linked. When we focus on local, linear outcomes and don’t take into consideration the whole system over time, we make “good choices” that force the overall system to lurch wildly. (Nothing. Nothing. HOT!!!! )

That Sounds Familiar
In corporate IT shops, what tends to happen when business partners feel they aren’t getting their products or features fast enough? In my experience, customers tend to ASK FOR MORE.

They reason, “If I only get half of the things I request, I’ll just ask for more stuff. If I ask for more, I’m bound to get more.”

The fallacy here is that those same business partners don’t see the effect on the entire system. They don’t step back and look at the system. If they did, they might find that their peers are doing the very same thing. They might find that critical projects are being abandoned for more trivial projects from “squeaky wheels”. They might find that ongoing care and feeding of core systems and platforms are being neglected in the hope to “catch up” with project demand.

The net effect? You guessed it…the death spiral. Not only does IT deliver fewer projects “under duress”, the ones we DO deliver are hobbled by poor design and riddled with technical debt. This poor quality creates even more system pressure as developers begin to hide the fact that they are “keeping all the plates spinning” by working to cover up deficiencies in their systems “offline”, effectively hiding their ambient work. Core platform health deteriorates causing rework, errors, and yet more work.

This cycle is vicious, costly, and devastating.

The Dichotomy: This horror is riddled with * good decisons *. There are NO VILLAINS here.

The next time a system breaks down, stop and think about how you might begin to see the entire system for what it is, and begin to reflect on the part you play in it. Don’t look for villains. They rarely exist.

Leadership: Tips to Reduce Your Embarrassment

What mortifies you? What makes you cringe every time you reminisce on the mistakes of your past? What has made you feel the most human throughout your career?

As I look back at my “blundering youth”, it’s clear that my propensity to debate, correct and contradict has me mortified. (Pretty specific, right?) I’m sure I know why I am “the way I am”. In my house, everything seemed to be up for debate. It never felt disrespectful or ill intentioned. It’s just the way we communicated, and I’m grateful for it. Not to sound duplicitous, but what has plagued me over the years also taught me to question things in my life, right down to authority figures I’ve encountered. It served me well.

This confidence was/is one of the my best traits. I quickly learned that the “rule makers”, those dressed up in temporary authority, were no different than you and me. After all, they were the ones who made the rules. They are no more intelligent or thoughtful than you and me.

The problems tended to come when I took it too far. For effect, this is how it sounds when it’s gone too far:

“This is BS. I can’t believe people are listening to this jackass! I’ll make my own damn rules. And dollars to donuts says they’ll be better than the close minded and obstinate dullard leaders force feeding their version of the gospel.”

Does this sound familiar to you? The above sentiment is a concrete example of how a valuable personal trait can quickly turn harmful and eventually cause embarrassment. And it did for me more times than I care to mention. But, alas, I’m not alone. I’ve learned it also happens to even the best among us. Turns out we were all young once.

In the classic American autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin tells how he defeated his unfortunate habit of argument and “transformed himself into one of the most able, suave and diplomatic men in American history.”

One day, when Ben Franklin was a blundering youth, an old Quaker friend took him aside and lashed him with a few stinging truths, something like this: Ben, you are impossible. Your opinions have a slap in them for everyone who differs with you. They have become so offensive that nobody cares for them. Your friends find they enjoy themselves better when you are not around. You know so much that no man can tell you anything. Indeed, no man is going to try, for the effort would lead only to discomfort and hard work. So you are not likely ever to know any more than you do now, which is very little.

Whoa. That’s pretty sobering. So what did Franklin do? …He did what you might expect someone like Ben Franklin to do.

“I made it a rule,” said Franklin, “to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiment of others, and all positive assertion of my own, I even forbade myself the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix’d opinion, such as ‘certainly,’ ‘undoubtedly,’ etc., and I adopted, instead of them, ‘I conceive,’ ‘I apprehend, ‘ or ‘I imagine’ a thing to be so or so, or ‘it so appears to me at present.’ When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny’d myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition: and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear’d or seem’d tome some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos’d my opinions procur’d them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevaile’d with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right. “And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence to natural inclination, became at length so easy, and so habitual to me, that perhaps for these fifty years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me.”

I can’t say I have this licked. But for me, and for adults generally, learning and maturation happens through quiet, thoughtful reflection. The great Ben Franklin has definitely given me something to reflect on.

Systems Thinking and Brain Surgery

If you haven’t read Dr. Russ Ackoff, you should. I’ve recently become acquainted with Dr. Ackoff’s work. I was immediately drawn to him because he reminds me so much of my Dad. He, like my father, is an architect by trade. He’s also a systems thinker and a leader in his heart. He inspired this post and the examples within, and I want to share something I learned from both of them.

Think about the system, the whole, when leading change.

As leaders survey organizations in need of change, they will often take a reductionist view. They break the organization into tiny pieces and look at those pieces to find problems. When found, they set about solving local problems and optimizing each individual piece. And who could blame them! This is how we are taught to problem solve. Break it down. Focus on each piece. I can almost hear my 7th grade algebra teacher as I write this.

The problem is that long term, effective solutions to issues occurring in complex systems (ie our organizations) rarely come from fixing mere components. Awkwardly, the opposite is more likely. (optimizing a part tends to sub-optimize the whole) To make matters worse, most system issues arise in parts of the whole that are completely unrelated to the actual issue. The solution to that problem often needs to be addressed far away from where the symptom is actually occurring.

Take the “system” of the human body, and the “symptom” of a headache. When you have a headache, the issue causing the headache is rarely caused by the head. If I have a headache, I can take aspirin or drink lots of water, which typically alleviates the headache. What I don’t do is brain surgery. Why? Because it’s not the problem…the symptom of the real issue is occurring in the head, but the head is not the issue.

What is the typical response from most organizations that are experiencing the proverbial headache? You guessed it – brain surgery.

Quality is low – the code is crap…builds keeps failing. Bugs are everywhere!

In the case above, the knee jerk, “brain surgery-style” solution is…? It MUST be the developers! We need to ride those darn developers until they get it right! (or worse, we need new developers!)

This is not fiction, it is sadly typical. My suggestions for situations like this is directly related to values espoused by Lean and Systems Thinking. “Go and See”. Map the value stream and see how the work works. Look for bottlenecks, gaps, workarounds. Ask tough questions and gain some insight. Look at the entire system as a whole. Learn about your systems, the people, their process, and more importantly their pain. You might be shocked what a little understanding will yield. It might just save you the painful recovery of brain surgery.