Three Envelopes – A Guide to Launching an EDM Program

The following story is entitled “Three Envelopes” – the story that kicked off my foray into EDMEnterprise Data Management:

A woman had just been hired as the new CIO of a large Financial Services corporation. The CIO who was stepping down met with her privately and presented her with three numbered envelopes. “Open these if you run up against a problem you don’t think you can solve,” he said.

Well, things went along pretty smoothly, but six months later, the organization hit issues and she was really catching a lot of heat. About at her wit’s end, she remembered the envelopes. She went to her drawer and took out the first envelope. The message read, “Blame your predecessor.”

The new CIO called a meeting and tactfully laid the blame at the feet of the previous CIO. Satisfied with her comments, the organization responded positively, things began to pick up and the problem was soon behind her.

About a year later, the company was again experiencing issues, combined with serious morale problems. Having learned from her previous experience, the CIO quickly opened the second envelope. The message read, “Kick off an Enterprise Data Program.” This she did, and the IT organization, and morale, quickly rebounded.

After several consecutive worry-free quarters, the organization once again fell on difficult times. The CIO went to her office, closed the door and opened the third envelope.

The message started, “Prepare three envelopes…”


An Ecological Approach to…IT Strategy?

In technology organizations, especially when technology isn’t the core Wolfbusiness, “systems thinking” is rarely taught.  I find that interesting and deeply ironic. The more time you spend trying to help organizations transform, the more you realize how often really smart people fall victim to this gap in awareness.  The result:  much of what we call strategy is actually nothing more than ham-handed fiddling.  And that fiddling often has disastrous unintended consequences that slow the pace of change at best, and ruin careers or organizations at worst.  All this to say that in corporate IT, we need to think more like ecologists than technologists.

So Why “Ecology”?

I’ll demonstrate using a concept from ecology called a “trophic cascade”.

Question:  What is the most effective and fastest way to quadruple the size and density of Cottonwood and Aspen trees in National Parks like Yellowstone?
Answer:  Re-Introduce wolves

I know what you’re saying. “Whatchu talkin’ bout Willis?!”

To illustrate the point, below is a description of how the Yellowstone ecosystem lost Aspens and Cottonwoods (and much more) when wolves were removed:

  1. Wolves were killed at scale and completely driven out of the park
  2. Large herbivores, such as elk or deer, increased in number and foraging behavior changed significantly.
  3. These animals over-browsed preferred plants, especially deciduous trees and shrubs like cottonwood, aspen, willow, and oaks, and spent more time in riparian areas.
  4. As a consequence, “recruitment” of cottonwood and aspen (i.e., the growth of seedling/sprouts into tall saplings and trees) was drastically reduced, and uncommon plants became rare or were disappeared completely.
  5. Long-term loss of streamside vegetation caused major changes in channel morphology and floodplain function.
  6. Loss of berry-producing shrubs, and young aspens and cottonwoods, led to changes in the diversity and abundance – and sometimes the outright loss – of other species, including beaver, amphibians, and songbirds.
  7. The disappearance of top predators triggered an explosion of smaller “mesopredators,” such as coyotes, which led to further cascading effects.

The term for this phenomenon is a “trophic cascade,” defined as the “progression of indirect effects [caused] by predators across successively lower trophic levels.”

For millennia, humans have attempted to accomplish their objectives by “fiddling” with variables using the simplistic “I want A, so I’ll change A”-style. Ham-handed as it was, I must admit, some of these issues are not simplistic at all. Who could have foreseen that killing wolves in a National Park would decimate aspen trees? Or some species of bird? Or frog?

Thinking Like an Ecologist – Indirect Effects

The item I want you to pay attention to in the above definition of a trophic cascade is Indirect Effects“.  Ecologists understand this concept all too well.  Ecology is the study of connections and relationships, and therefore an ecological approach in business strategy forces its creators to think about the relationships a particular decision might have on the “system” around it.  Ecology is a foundation of systems thinking and helps us understand feedback loops, indirect effects, and dynamic (non-trivial) interconnected systems.

Just like the decision to artificially remove a “top-of-the-food-chain” predator has disastrous consequences for ALL species in that ecosystem, so too might seemingly rational decisions in IT strategy deeply, and negatively affect critically important teams, systems, processes, etc. (indirectly).

So What Might We Do?

Here are some suggestions to keep in mind as you build forward looking strategies in your IT organizations that uses an emergent, ecological approach to design {adapted from Emergent Design Solutions}:

  • Design from top down, and from bottom up simultaneously
  • Practice patience and careful observation – Only begin articulating the design when you see or experience the patterns of the system underlying the Emergent Design.
  • Practice cultivating adaptive methods rather than prescriptive methods.  Discourage reliance on highly prescriptive methods that typically introduces excess rigidity into the design. Safety and rigidity are useful only as a catalytic structure for emergence.
  • Ensure continued health, resilience and deepening wisdom in the system by encouraging adaptation to changing conditions within the system
  • Practice Continuous Improvement – No sacred cows – Be open to questioning assumptions.
  • Focus on people and their relationships rather than process – cultivate intelligence and wisdom in your human ecosystem.  Process is the guide. It is the wisdom and quality of relationships that determines the usefulness of what is produced.
  • Cultivate mutualistic respectful relationships; however be aware that negative feedback loops and frictional forces are often critical to the health of a system.
  • Seek to become aware of and engage wholes and nested networks of relationships rather than causal relationships and linear hierarchies.
  • Encourage rapid prototyping. Fail successfully and often.
  • Seek slow small simple designs over fast, large, complex ones.
  • Follow the basic law of emergence – simple principles can lead to the “complex beautiful”.
  • Engage diversity.


I’ve built my career being strong willed and opinionated. As I’ve grown and challenged myself (especially in leadership roles) I’ve come to realize that maintaining that opinionated attitude is the exact behavior that will keep me right where I am. Namely, stuck. Not only that, it will keep everyone else around me stuck as well.

As a younger person in an individual contributor role, it’s important to learn your trade. It’s critical to solve problems and to be “the expert”. Having an opinion, using it (and relying on it) is not only important, it’s mandatory if you want the work to get done.

There is a very different approach as your sphere of influence grows. As a leader, there is an inflection point where your staff will clearly know as much, and often more, than you do about the day to day details. It’s at that point when your opinion matters WAY less than it once did, and you need to work hard to encourage your staff to drive.

Don’t misunderstand.  There is a real need for everyone, leader or not, to share ideas, debate and explore, but as a leader, you need to be much more deliberate about when and where you share your ideas.  It’s important to create space for your opinions, be it in sessions designed for that express purpose, working with peers or with your boss, or even writing blog posts or editorial pieces on the internet.  But, in the day to day trenches, your staff needs much, much less of your opinion than you likely want to give.  They need your trust and support.

Much more than in my professional life, I have come to gradually realize the need to be less dogmatic and opinionated in my personal life as well. Maybe even more so. The people I care about need my compassion and understanding WAY more than they need my opinion.

The willingness to bite my tongue is extremely difficult, but it is the hallmark of maturity and growth to be sure. And it’s not just about “active listening”. It’s every bit as much about recognizing that importance of your interactions, being connected to someone, and that “serving” them doesn’t always require the dispensing of advice or wisdom. In fact, it likely rarely does.

I see this as a leadership opportunity in my personal life that will not only help me, but is a sign of respect and caring for the people around me.

So, I’ll leave you with words of my strongly opinionated older brother, which helps anchor my behavior whenever I feel the need to opine…

“Opinions are like assholes. Everyone’s got one…and yours stinks”

This Is Water

In this brilliant video, Dave Foster Wallace explains that real education is not about knowledge, but about how you look at your challenges in life and how you choose to interpret life’s annoying trivialities that are all around you. Education is about awareness.

This is his commencement speech from 2005 at Kenyon College. I’m having a tough time explaining the not-so-trivial impact this lesson has had on me.

We all have a choice. Education affords us an opportunity to reflect. We have the opportunity to choose to see things and interpret their meaning positively, compassionately. Or, we can choose to be miserable, self centered wretches, unknowingly imprisoned by what we KNOW to be true (that just isn’t). That our default condition (that WE are the center of the universe) can be overcome with hard work and deliberate effort, and the knowledge that we can choose to think differently.

Related to work and career, one thing I do know is that happiness and fulfillment is not found in your “work”, per se, but in relationships and committed, long term sacrifices for those you serve – eg people you care about. (family, friends, teams)

In Search of Empathy

At a recent leadership event focused on Organizational Change Management, one of the comments I heard described a key point that I felt I couldn’t let go unnoticed. The comment that was made was, “we need to continue to show empathy to our partners, teams, and peers”.Screaming400x2251

At the surface, this seems like a “garden variety” type of statement. It’s not.

At one point in the day long leadership event on OCM, I told the story of my own attempts early in my careeer related to organizational change. It was mainly about mistakes I made related to “human factors”. My failure is littered with me (as the change agent in firms) showing very little empathy. Unfortunately, I see a lot of that everywhere I go, and sometimes (sadly) I was the cause of it. It’s sad because at NO point in my past did I feel like I was doing the wrong thing. From my point of view, I was trying very, very hard to help. What I learned was how much you have to pay attention to people, their emotions, their circumstances, and definitely have empathy if you’re ever going to have a chance to help them.

Devolve Into Name Calling

I don’t like to generalize too much, but this one actually might help. This incredibly simplistic generalization is that leaders tend to self-select into 2 groups:

  • Change Agents
  • Managers / Stabilizers

Change Agents challenge the status quo and tend to feel good with ambiguity, breaking things apart and trying to affect the system in a positive way. Managers / Stabilizers are focused on effectively and efficiently operating the system and spend their time making everything work predictably, at reasonable cost, with low risk. Basically, change agents change broken systems and stabilizers run and perfect them. What I have learned over the years is that WE NEED BOTH. After all, you can’t constantly smash organizations to bits and rebuild everything. You also can’t “polish”systems that are deeply, or fundamentally flawed.

I have also learned that there are predictable tendencies between these two groups:

  1. Change Agents tend to look at Managers / Stabilizers as incapable of change, inept, lazy, and attribute behavior to personal characteristics (e.g. those people don’t know what they are doing!)
  2. Managers / Stabilizers tend to look at Change Agents as arrogant, emotionless villains who are only out for their own self-interest. Everything they do is seen as despotic and offensive. (e.g. that guy is an asshole!)

Essentially, organizations devolve into name calling and the Fundamental Attribution Error. This cognitive bias basically is placing a heavy emphasis on personality traits to explain someones behavior rather than thinking about external factors.

A Third Trait

A third trait needs to evolve if we are to ever get forward momentum in our organizations. We need Leaders. Leaders help others understand that empathy and understanding is critical, and people behave based on incentives, as well as intrinsic or extrinsic motivators. They also teach that diversity of thought is critical, and that organizations need heavy doses of both roles to be successful. Leaders help both sides (and the unlucky middle) understand why we need both types of people, and how to effectively coexist. In effect, they teach people about ecology.

I will be writing more about ecology in upcoming posts. In the meantime, let me know what you think!