Thursday, May 10, 2020
Kiss the KISS principle goodbye
We all know the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. I’ve hated it for years and squirm every time I hear someone use it. Here’s why.We’ve long been advised by many gurus to Keep It Simple, Stupid—usually abbreviated to KISS. I’ve often wondered precisely what this means. Does it just mean that that it’s foolish to embrace complexity, because people are so stupid you have to make everything simple . . . or they’ll be unable to grasp any of it? Or does it mean that keeping it simple is necessary because you are stupid, so any complexity is bound to be too much for you?
What about situations, ideas, or concepts that are naturally complex? Are you supposed to simplify them regardless of whether this makes them unintelligible or nonsensical? Or ignore them, just because they aren’t simple?
There are two principal kinds of simplicity. One is easily produced: take a quick, superficial view, based on some scrappy sound-bite, and ignore anything that might add complexity. Many examples can be found in most organizations, where complex ideas are reduced to some kind of slogan, like “Delight the customer,” “Be the lowest cost producer,” or “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
The other kind of simplicity is tough, demanding, and may take years to achieve. That comes from long and careful thought, thorough research, and a profound understanding of all the elements involved. It has almost nothing in common with the superficial simplicity that is demanded by Hamburger Management. It seems simple only because you don’t see the huge amount of work that has gone into it, stripping away all the inessentials to get at the fundamental meaning beneath.
All too many corporate managers only understand the first kind of simplicity. They have learned how to use buzzwords without any real understanding of the processes they (very partially) describe. They look around and see the grass looks much greener over the fence in the other guy's organization, so they snatch up whatever they believe the other guy is doing and apply it instantly, usually understanding little or nothing more about it. Let me let you into a secret. The grass very often looks greener over there for one reason only: it’s had greater applications of BS than yours has.
Simplicity Type 1—the quick and dirty kind—fits the KISS principle exactly. Everything is kept simple (not gradually and painstakingly made clearer and simpler to grasp) by ignoring the complex bits and skimming over anything challenging to the mind.
Hamburger Managers like it because they assume, arrogantly, that others are indeed stupid, and couldn’t grasp anything more complex. Besides, they don’t want to “waste” time explaining or answering questions (or, still worse, having to defend what they are doing). In true command-and-control fashion, they shout out the slogans and expect everyone else to jump to attention, salute, and comply.
Of course, the KISS principle also applies because these macho types are stupid themselves. They haven’t the determination, patience, or (often) brain power to work through to Simplicity Type 2: the kind you only reach because you know the topic in such depth that you can step beyond superficial complexity and point straight to the essentials.
Forget slogans like KISS. Problematic complexity almost always has a single cause: you haven’t taken long enough, or thought hard enough, to grasp the topic fully, so explaining or teaching it gets muddled and wanders off the point. The only way to produce the crisp, elegant, utterly comprehensible “simplicities” of the greatest minds is the same way they they did it: hard work and steady application to learning.
Wednesday, April 18, 2020
A failing grade for the world’s business schools?
Are they a route towards a solution to today’s workplace issues; or a major part of the problem?
A little while ago, I posted an article about Professor Russell Ackoff’s “Management f-Laws.” Professor Ackoff, now 88 years old, has a mind as sharp as a razor and a subversive wit to match. These laws cleverly expose many of today’s conventional management ideas and assumptions as flaws in the process of running a business, not well-established steps to success as is usually believed. Here’s Ackoff’s take on business schools.Recently, Professor Ackoff was in London to promote his book. He was interviewed by Peter Day, the dean of British business correspondents, and the interviews are posted on the BBC’s web site. In this two-part article. I want to draw your attention to Professor Ackoff’s thinking about two issues critical to leadership and management: the role of business schools, and the impact of our modern culture of suppressing or denying many of our mistakes.
Here are some choice extracts from what Professor Ackoff had to say about business schools:
Business schools are way back. They’re behind even corporate practice. They are a major obstruction.Heady stuff, but not, I suspect, that far from the truth in many cases. Hamburger Management has infiltrated business schools in a big way, causing them to turn out mostly people polished in applying today’s orthodox style of macho, finance-obsessed, short-term management, not knowledgeable, thinking professionals equipped to make up their own minds and challenge sloppy thinking.
Information is more valuable than data, and knowledge more valuable than information, and understanding more valuable than knowledge. We devote all of our time and energy to information and a little bit to knowledge. None to understanding and still less to wisdom.
Peter Day summarizes Ackoff’s observations on business schools like this:
When he retired from the Wharton School in 1986, Professor Ackoff wickedly identified three contributions of a business school education:Let’s consider each of these points from a Slow Leadership perspective.
- It gives students a vocabulary that enables them to speak with authority on things they do not understand.
- It gives them a set of operating principles that enable them to withstand any amount of disconfirming evidence.
- It gives them a ticket to a job where they can learn something about management.
Does an MBA help people to speak with authority on things that they don’t understand? I suspect it does, at least in this sense. To understand something fully takes time and experience, plus a willingness to reflect deeply on what you have observed over many different situations. It used to be that expertise went with age; mostly because age allowed for enough time to have passed, not because older people are automatically wiser. Now bright, young MBAs are assumed to know more than managers twice their age.
Older people are often assumed to be out-of-date, technologically illiterate, incapable of grasping new ideas. Is this the truth?Does time at a business school count for so much more than experience doing a management job? Older people are often assumed to be out-of-date, technologically illiterate, incapable of grasping new ideas. Is this the truth? No, just another one of those conventional cultural myths that bedevil all societies, like wearing top hats or growing luxuriant whiskers marked out Victorian times. There are older people who refuse to stay current, but I strongly suspect that they were just as reactionary when they were 20 as today, when they are 60 or older. There are many young people who care nothing about new ideas, preferring to rely on mindless slogans and whatever is the currently fashionable clap-trap. Getting an MBA gives you access to today’s fashionable buzzwords, that’s for sure. I’m not convinced it always offers much else. Maybe that’s why so many businesses suffer from jargon-monoxide poisoning and creeping consultantitis.
In place of experience, we tend to rely on qualifications. Fine, if it’s also proof of some level of knowledge and hands-on training, as in the case of doctors. Not so good, if all it means is that you were able to absorb theoretical information and write term papers, as in the case of many MBAs.
What about the idea that business school student absorb a set of principles that are proof against all subsequent evidence that they are wrong?
. . . a whole generation of obsolescent executives, applying out-moded ideas together and never noticing they were doing it.Also true. When I worked in management and executive posts, I came across hundreds of managers who had shown neither the inclination, nor the wit, to keep their knowledge up to date. Most relied entirely on a few basic principles they had learned maybe 25 years ago. They didn’t question them, because they had nothing to put in their place. Besides, questioning them would have taken time and thought, and they never slowed down enough to apply either. Since they were surrounded by others behaving in exactly similar ways, they appeared to fit in perfectly: a whole generation of obsolescent executives, applying out-moded ideas together and never noticing they were doing it.
The last of Peter Day’s points does at least offer hope. The best way to learn about management and business is by doing it. You’ll get ample experience and have the chance to test your ideas in realistic situations. So far so good.
There’s one catch. You have to be willing both to make mistakes and reflect on them honestly afterwards. Pushing them aside, or hiding them from everyone (including yourself), renders this chance for learning null and void. And it’s not just mistakes arising from what you did that count. More problems are caused by mistakes based on not doing what you ought to have done.
But that’s the topic of part two of this article.
Thursday, April 05, 2020
Taking a positive view of procrastination
Putting things off may be a sign that you haven’t done what you need to do to make a firm decision
I’m amazed how many blog postings, articles, e-books, and books there are claiming to cure procrastination. It must be a global pandemic, worse than bird flu could ever be. If there are enough people who habitually procrastinate to justify so many words and prescriptions, it’s a miracle any work is done at all. Yet is procrastination always a failing? What if it’s telling you something that you need to hear?Hardly anyone ever looks at the positive benefits of procrastination. There seems to be a universal assumption it’s an almost moral failing to be eradicated. Perhaps that’s because of the prevalence of the Puritan Work Ethic. Procrastination is assumed to derive from laziness; and there’s no greater sin in the Puritan Work Ethic Catalog of Deadly Sins than laziness. And if it’s not laziness that’s the problem, it’s poor organization. Use this or that planning tool and never procrastinate again! Whipping up concern about procrastination is a wonderful marketing ploy for anyone with something like that to sell.
But are laziness or poor organization the only reasons for procrastination? Sure, both happen sometimes, but many of the “cures” put forward for poor organization are so simple it’s hard to believe people haven’t already tried them—even if they didn’t buy the expensive software yet. (It used to be planner diaries, but now it’s software. Same difference.) And while some people are lazy, I’m not at all sure that it’s as prevalent as all those anti-procrastination urgings would suggest.
I’m more interested in the reasons why people procrastinate. When you consider those, it seems procrastination may often be a sensible, even essential, response. Here are some possible reasons:
- One of the commonest reasons for putting something off until later is fear: fear of making a fool of yourself, fear of getting it wrong, fear of doing something you know that you can’t do properly. Fear is our natural warning system. It may be rational or irrational, but it should always cause you to slow down and think before going further.
Is the fear imaginary or real? Many are imaginary. You conjure up all kinds of potentially bad situations in your mind, then convince yourself they’re bound to happen. Total nonsense, of course. Still, you may have benefited by the moment’s pause to consider them and dismiss them as foolish. But not all fears are illusory. Some are warnings of real pitfalls ahead; problems you would do well to consider in advance. In such cases, procrastination may save you from serious harm.
- Next there’s that uneasy feeling you get about some choices. They seem sensible, but there’s a niggling question in the back of your mind. Something about them doesn’t feel right. So you procrastinate.
That’s entirely rational behavior. If something doesn’t feel right—and you aren’t absolutely forced into instant action—it’s logical to hold back until you can resolve the problem. Using some planning tool to override your unformed concerns isn’t a good idea. Once again, there may be nothing to worry about. But if there is, far better to take your time and get it straight first. Another plus for procrastination.
- You may also procrastinate because you suspect that you aren’t ready to handle something. Yet another good reason to wait. Or because you didn’t do the necessary preparatory work and think you might be caught out by lack of preparation. Or because you aren’t sure you’ve considered all the options. All excellent reasons for delay. All positive kinds of procrastination.
- Another common cause of holding back occurs when you believe you ought to do something, but you don’t want to do it. Surely this is a situation where pushing past your urge to procrastinate is essential?
Hold on a little. Why don’t you want to do it? You might be right to hold back. There are many cases where all those “shoulds” or “oughts” have no rational basis. They’re there because it’s the conventional thing to do, or someone else is pushing you to fit their agenda, or because of some rigid dogma or traditional belief. None of these make them right. If something is holding you back, you should at least explore it properly before allowing yourself to be bulldozed into action by a “should” or an “ought.” Take it as another warning and act on it.
- Then there’s one of the commonest reasons: pressure. There’s someone, usually the boss, driving you on to do something that you don’t believe is right, or even sensible. You’ve raised your objections, but have been told to keep quiet and do what you’re told. Maybe you’re under pressure to make sure “the numbers” look right, but you know that isn’t in the organization’s best interests longer term. Is it right to delay? Or should you forget your scruples and comply? Not an easy decision, and one that almost anyone would want to take time over.
Many years ago, I was told this story by a policeman in Birmingham, England. The newspapers had been full of dire warnings about the terrible state of local schoolchildrens’ understanding of simple arithmetic. Everything was blamed, from incompetent teaching to laziness amongst pupils and apathy from parents. My policeman friend didn’t believe a word of it. He told me about a young man he’d arrested many times for various betting scams. This boy (he was fifteen) had almost no education and could barely read or write. Ask him any normal math problem and he’d be lost. But he could calculate betting odds, and the pay-out on the most complicated multiple series of linked bets, in the blink of an eye. No mistakes. What he truly wanted to do, he did. The rest meant nothing to him.
Before you sweep your hesitation aside, stop and think. What may it be telling you? Is it just laziness and disorganization? Or are you being rushed into something that is making you feel uneasy—perhaps with very good reason.
One of the worst aspects of many organizational cultures is the over-emphasis on action and related denial of the importance of taking time to reflect fully before making any important decisions. Rushing intro something unprepared, or with too little consideration, is hardly a sound basis for success. Yet tens of thousands of people have swallowed the idea that, to be a good leader, you have to be willing to take snap decisions on just about everything. There are even books extolling the supposed merits of the process: making decisions in the blink of an eye, rather than taking the time needed to consider options and alternatives properly. Against a measure like that, almost any response other than an instant one looks like procrastination. Perhaps that’s why it suddenly seems to be so prevalent.
Monday, April 02, 2020
Decision making by data collection isn’t management. It isn’t even sensible.
The current-day obsession with data and measurement is part of a supposedly “scientific” approach to management and decision making. Yet our equal obsession with speed and cutting corners ensures that choices are often made without taking enough time to weigh all the evidence, test it for validity, or even consider its true meaning. To parody Sir Winston Churchill: “Never in the history of human leadership has so much been measured by so many for so little resulting clarity.”We live in an age that prizes data and measurement to an almost obsessive degree. Computers have increased our ability to collect and process information by many orders of magnitude. Almost every special interest group, from political parties to social action groups and trade associations, trot out yet another slew of survey results whenever they wish to make a point or attract the attention of the media. No one seems to stop to ask what use we are making of all this data. Do we even know if it’s correct? Or what it means?
The media report all the often conflicting survey results with gleeful interest. Survey stories fill air-time and column inches. You can nearly always find some nugget in them to create a jaw-dropping headline. Never mind that today’s survey contradicts yesterday’s. The public attention span is assumed to be too short to care—or maybe even to notice.
Surveys and statistical studies have long been the stock-in-trade of academics. You publish your results, others test and criticize them, and—slowly—knowledge inches forward. If what you report fails to stand up to analysis and replication by your peers, it is rejected. You are an expert writing for experts. They demand solid evidence and unshakeable methodology. This process is the foundation of the scientific method.
Thanks to Powerpoint, presentations contain carefully chosen summaries—little more than headlines designed to produce an emotional reaction, not an analytical one.In organizations, much of the data is collected and analyzed by amateurs. The methods used are often poorly understood. Once available, results are use more politically than scientifically: to justify individual points of view, support pet projects, or wave in the face of opponents. What supports a case is seized up. Often there is no one to question it, since any “inconvenient” findings are quietly hidden away. Thanks to Powerpoint, presentations contain carefully chosen summaries—little more than headlines designed to produce an emotional reaction, not an analytical one.
It is the aura of scientific respectability that makes the day-to-day use of numerical data and survey results so attractive—and so dangerous. The results printed in the media, or reported in tens of thousands of Powerpoint presentations in corporations every day, are not delivered to be checked, questioned, or challenged. They are to be believed. All the scientific (or pseudo-scientific) trappings are used to foster an unquestioning acceptance of the supposed findings. The hearer or reader is subtly reminded that they are ill-informed amateurs being addressed by experts possessing all the data. This isn’t science. It’s marketing and PR “spin” wrapped in scientific garb. It’s a very aggressive wolf trying to pretend it’s a harmless, scientific sheep.
In today’s hyper-competitive climate, no one wants to admit that they understood barely one word in five . . .In the workplace, more and more data is demanded, processed, and used to justify various points of view. Do those making decisions based on presentations of this data understand it? Do they have the knowledge, or the time, to question its validity—or even reflect on what else it might be pointing to, in place of whatever they have been told to believe? Is there any opportunity given for fact-checking or attempts to replicate the findings?
The answer to all these questions is usually “no”. Haste is endemic. Executives are expected to make virtually instant decisions. Most of them are too overwhelmed with data, let alone all the other demands that they face, to do more than accept what their “experts” tell them. In today’s hyper-competitive climate, no one wants to admit that they understood barely one word in five; or that they have virtually no grasp of statistics and can be bamboozled by almost any set of plausible-seeming figures.
Worse, yet, many of the “experts” producing and presenting this data are consultants, and expensive ones at that. When you pay millions to get a report from a consulting firm, you aren’t usually disposed to question or reject the results. And the more that you’ve paid for the consultants’ findings, the less willing that you are even to consider that your money might have been wasted.
What does it take to make sure of a sensible level of fact-checking, critical analysis, and consideration of all this data, let alone the conclusions that you are told that it supports?
In management decision making, all data ought really to be presumed false or misleading until proven factual.It takes time and the willingness to regard all proposals, however enthusiastically presented and wrapped in “scientific” analysis of data, with initial skepticism. In our judicial systems, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty (though try getting the media to respect that). In management decision making, all data ought really to be presumed false or misleading until proven factual; and all proposals supported by data, however superficially convincing, should be the subject of deep suspicion until proper independent evidence is produced.
Time and skepticism: the very heart of Slow Leadership. Without them, managers and executives are almost helpless against manipulation by special interests and confusion by data overload. A glut of macho Hamburger Managers, all primed with endless ambition and eager to appear decisive, coupled with silly workloads and a corporate obsession with instant gratification, is a terrifying prospect. It’s like putting a group of manic two-year olds in charge of your trust fund.
Hardly a recipe for sound, truly scientific decision-making, is it?
Friday, February 23, 2020
Stepping through the looking glass
It’s long past time to try something new in management
Management today is mostly based on standard responses to problems. But like Alice, stepping through the looking glass into a wonderland on the other side, it’s always open to us to consider what might happen if we didn’t follow the set path, but broke out into fresh ideas and opportunities.
Suppose that we implemented the opposite of today’s standard management responses? What kind of business world might lie on the other side of the looking glass? Would it be a wonderland of untapped potential, or a wasteland of risk and problems? Let’s take a look.
Gone would be the cramping over-emphasis on instant results and avoidance of risk. No one was ever inspired to great ideas or endeavors by thinking only about immediate or short-term practicality. Only idealism ever inspires. That’s why corporations that favor idealism over pragmatism produce more innovative, more inspiring, and more motivating ideas. Pragmatism is fine for second-rate businesses handling commodity products, but that route will never win long-term market leadership. Visionary companies, and leaders with a fierce resolve to implement those visions, consistently win over the long haul.
If we want people to look to the long-term for their returns, we have to offer the kind of security and support that warrant their trust.On the other side of the looking glass, organizations would retain key employees with long-term rewards, such as development, security, and opportunities for personal growth; not just short-term ones like bonuses and stock options. Where employees have learned to distrust the long-term security of their employment, they will always demand large rewards now as insurance against future lay-offs. If we want people to look to the long-term for their returns, we have to offer the kind of security and support that warrant their trust. The corollary of this must be that consistent, long-term performance would be seen as more valuable than quick wins (and long-term losses).
The more the demand grows for quick, measurable results, the more our aims become distorted to give only these—even if it hurts the organization’s interests in the longer term. Creativity and long-term potential is worth so much more than merely current performance. Instead of paying reluctantly to try to deal with any present performance shortfalls, which are only the symptoms of some underlying malaise, through-the-looking-glass organizations would go straight to the fundamental drivers of excellence: being trusted to do your job, set in the right role, given the right support, and allowed the freedom to contribute freely whatever gifts you can bring to your work. A group of free people, having fun and acting together out of choice and shared beliefs, will always outperform pressed labor and those whose loyalty and interest goes no further than the salary check.
Most management is still based on the underlying assumption of a “master” stipulating what the “servants” must do and judging them according to their performance against his or her imperious standards.This is not the way to promote creativity, learning, or fun in the workplace—let alone real productivity. Leadership of this kind is always ‘us’ versus ‘them’: the expert leader instructing the ignorant subordinate and demanding compliance. Yet compliance never produces better than mediocre performance. None of us can do anything well if our hearts are not in it. Real achievement only comes about when people engage in an act of free will—an act with joy and passion—by choosing to thown themselves wholeheartedly into their work and seeking to understand what will improve their output, knowledge, or skill the most. Our public schools should have shown us all that when alienated pupils withdraw their consent to work and learn, no amount of discipline or teaching produces any result at all.
Our organizations and its leaders, like our society, have a long history of trying to deal with problems by coercion of one kind or another—legislating against them, or trying to drive them out of existence, instead of exploring to understand what produced the problems in the first place and continues to sustain them. At best, this drives problems underground; at worst, it gives them something to push against to build up their muscles. We need at long last to understand the total futility of this kind of behavior.
I shall be away until early March, so posting will be more intermittent than usual, as my access to the Internet will be sporadic at best. Please be patient and things will return to normal in about 10 days or so.
Thursday, February 22, 2020
Russell Ackoff: a wise and subversive thinker
How flawed, out-of-date, and misplaced teachings are crippling management
Professor Russell Ackoff has recently published a new book about the f-Laws, uncomfortable truths about the (mistaken) way most organizations are run, and how this approach is embedded in decades of repeated management mistakes and conventional business teaching. If you don't already know about Professor Ackoff, this article will introduce you to a grand old man of management non-conformity.
Here's a fascinating short piece from the BBC in London about Russell Ackoff and his f-Laws: the view that business is riddled with “flaws . . . from decades of repeated management mistakes and conventional business teaching.”
According to Professor Ackoff:
f-Laws are truths about organizations that we might wish to deny or ignore—simple and more reliable guides to managers’ everyday behavior than the complex truths proposed by scientists, economists and philosophers.Here are a few examples:
- The lower the rank of managers, the more they know about fewer things. The higher the rank of managers, the less they know about many things.
- Executives make mountains out of molehills; subordinates make molehills out of mountains.
- The relationship between executives and subordinates is complementary: neither knows why the other does what they do, nor cares about it. This leaves a large black hole between them into which most important issues and communications fall, lost and, like Clementine, gone forever.
In the workplace it’s also true that managers will measure anything that can be quantified in order to be able to set targets.Then there is this piece of wisdom from Sally Bibb, Professor Ackoff’s collaborator, that speaks directly to Slow Leadership and the current craze for over-ambition and Hamburger Management:
Managers don’t know what they want because they never think about it. One executive told his psychotherapist he was depressed because he felt he wasn’t successful. To the therapist he looked successful: good job, great salary, lovely family and beautiful home. She asked how he would know when he was successful. He couldn’t answer. He just kept on striving without knowing what he was striving for.Ackoff's books on the f-Laws are published in Great Britain, and you can get a free “taster” from the publishers. His latest book is Management f-Laws: How organizations really work and it’s definitely worth reading, The publishers are offering readers of this post a 10% discount on the book. Order from them here and type “triarchy-ten” into the Promotional Code box (which you’ll find when you get to the checkout).
I’ve said in many posts that I believe traditional organizational ideas are out-of-date and badly flawed. We still owe far too much to methods dreamed up in the days of Henry Ford and the Model-T. Despite great books like Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton, business schools seem happy to go on trotting out half-truths and out-of-date nonsense and calling it management theory. I’m looking forward to the next piece by Peter Day of the BBC, in which Professor Ackoff promises to tell the truth about business schools!
Wednesday, February 14, 2020
Accepting the unacceptable : a thought for Valentine's Day
Here’s my “workplace” version:
Why do we accept this as normal?
I cannot see that any working culture marked primarily by constant haste and distraction, continual pressure, and frustration on a massive scale could possibly be described as either “efficient” or “inevitable.”
Yes, the business environment is competitive. It always has been. Is it any more competitive than it used to be? I doubt it.Yes, the business environment is competitive. It always has been. Is it any more competitive than it used to be? I doubt it. The competition is simply different, that’s all. But even if the level of competition has increased, that’s no reason to accept a wretched kind of workday and career experience as normal.
Human beings choose and sustain their working environment the way it is. It isn’t a natural product, like the weather, over which mankind has no control. We chose capitalism over communism and a centrally-planned economy; that wasn’t an “act of God,” it was an act of mankind. We choose to operate within a global economy, because enough people believe that it works for them—at least in the sense of increasing their prosperity and that of their organizations. Boards of directors don’t have a totally free choice over how they structure and run their businesses. They have to comply with the law and various regulations and expectations. Yet, even with all that taken into account, they still have a great deal of freedom in what they choose to do. That’s even more true of private companies, family-owned businesses, and sole proprietors.
Why do so many stick to a business model that creates so much stress and misery? Is it a failure of imagination, a lack of nerve, or a simple ignorance that any alternatives are possible. People like Ricardo Semler have shown that there are other ways—probably many, many of them.
Shouldn’t we be trying a few?
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