Complexity is hard. It’s hard to work with, it’s hard to be in, it’s just plain hard! But we make it harder on ourselves by adding complicatedness to the complexity.
At work, when we’re stuck on a problem or making a mess of things, try addressing complicatedness before addressing complexity. Get in the habit of asking: Do we have a mess or a mission?
A mess is when we aren’t sure what conversation we are having or what question we are answering.
A mission is when we are already clear about what it is that we are here to do.
- Which conversation are we having?
- How many conversations are there actually?
- Are we having the right conversation?
- Are we trying to answer more than one question?
- Do we need to answer more than one question?
- Are we answering the right question?
- Is everyone on the same page about that?
- Do we need to answer a different question?
- Do we need to answer a bigger question?
We don’t need to have the wording perfect, we just need to agree roughly that we’re all in the same ballpark in order to proceed. If it turns out we were mistaken there’s plenty of room to move later on. We just need to be pretty happy with the idea that we’re sufficiently on the same page: that we are talking about and working on the same thing (even if we’re unclear about how that will unfold).
Once we can pull apart these and set aside the complicatedness, then we can attend to what we hold. And what we hold may be simple, complicated, wicked or complex (or some of each). But if we try and tackle them all at once then we are adding unnecessary stress and frustration.
Deal with complicatedness before dealing with complexity.
There were a number of technologies that enabled the industrial revolution. While the cotton gin and steam engine were technologies in the sense that we usually think about them: as tangible machines – there were other technologies that played significant roles in the industrial revolution. Rather than being things we could touch and hold they were ideas that were used as windows for improving specific aspects of work performance.
Two examples of these intangible technologies are Fordism and Taylorism. Grossly simplified, Fordism is the standardization of product and the arrangement of work along assembly lines. Taylorism is the breaking down of jobs into individual parts, analysing and optimising these and, importantly, timing outputs (literally through the use of a stopwatch).
For working in a knowledge economy, for dealing with the intangibles of knowledge work, we need a new technology of this second kind. An idea and a window; a frame for seeing and, ultimately, acting.
Key: The Technology of Talk is a frame with which to see the world, to read the patterns of work well and make with our minds collectively.
In the industrial economy, when the production of ‘things’ in factories made up the bulk of our value creation work, the machine metaphor became the dominant frame for thinking about how we did work. People in the system were reduced to cogs in an almost literal sense, and when they broke (or rather, were broken,) they were changed out. And the damage was visible and quantifiable too: we sent people home with broken hands, backs and lungs.
The vast bulk of value creation is no longer found on the factory floor, but the machine metaphor is still the dominant frame for much of our thinking about how work is done. While people are not treated as literal cogs in the machine, the system of work (and a person’s contribution to it) is still viewed through the machine lens. As a result, we still break our people. But we no longer send them home with broken hands, backs and lungs, instead we send them home frustrated, disengaged, burnt out, stressed, and dispirited.
The machine and the metaphor have their place, but when they dominate our view of strategy, innovation and learning, when our thinking settles on repetition and refinement, when we only see our people as cogs in those machines (literal or metaphorical), richer capabilities in those same people are left aside.
For the challenges we face in our work today we need new capabilities and richer ways of working that allow for the machine and the metaphor, but in the right times and places.
When we made things in the factories of the industrial revolution, we could see the work as it progressed across the shop floor.
But we now live in a knowledge economy, where we create new meaning, new knowledge and new value with our heads rather than our hands, and don’t have the same ability to “see” our work.
But what is knowledge work?
Knowledge work is not done inside our heads, in isolation. It is done via interactions: through verbal, non-verbal, symbolic and written material. And all of these interactions are grounded in our language: in conversation.
Conversations are the basis for all business: nothing gets made without being made in conversation first. In fact, organisations are made entirely of conversations.
It follows then that being good at conversation is the most valuable thing a business can invest in and being bad at conversation is the most expensive thing a business can do.
But if knowledge work is conversation, then why do we fail or succeed? And how do we get to be good at conversation? And how do we avoid bad ones? How can we “see” like we did in the factories of the industrial era?
That’s what we’re specialists in. Helping people to see and navigate large and complex conversations in the knowledge economy.
For many decades (through to the 1960’s) rigid upright seating, often fixed to the desk itself, was part of the accepted environment of a good, disciplined education. “Sitting still” and “sitting up straight” were foundational to the mental models shared by teachers, parents and educational authorities when recognising a “good” classroom.
Many of the systems that “support” our modern ways of working and thinking are just as stilted. We are dis-abled by our own self-imposed models of what is good. If we could see the conceptual “furniture” that we use, we might well be horrified.
We have optimised for, rewarded, trained in and been attuned to certain (limited) ways of working.
We need free ourselves from the limited conceptual models that we have inherited. We need a new frame for working.
Installing in teams the ability to recognise, diagnose and design these ways of working is our unique expertise.
An old carpenter’s proverb: “It’s harder to shift the bricks than to shift the thinking”.
When we’re talking about bricks, this is absolutely true. But in the knowledge economy – where everything looks like thinking work – how do we know if we’re shifting the ‘thinking’ and not the ‘bricks’?
When it all looks and feels like thinking:
- How do we distinguish between the different types of thinking work: between ‘thinking’ work versus ‘brick’ work?
- How do we make sure that we shift the right bit of our thinking before we shift the metaphorical bricks?
- How do we do good thinking when we can’t see the ‘bricks’?
To succeed when everything looks like thinking work, we need a way of “seeing”: so that we can know what the ‘bricks’ are, and so that we can know what thinking we actually need to shift.
Conversations are how we get things done in the world. Whether they’re simple ones like describing how to bake a cake, complicated ones like launching a rocket, or a complex reimagining the future for a nation, all work is conversation.
Sometimes we come away from conversations feeling satisfied and having got things done. Other times things don’t go as planned, and we’re left wondering what went wrong.
Our meetings (the people in them and the work they are trying to do) are too often misdirected or misaligned. And as a result, our outcomes are poor and we’re unable to move or change together, and we often walk away disheartened, disillusioned, confused, angry or wrecked.
If all work is conversation, then how do conversations work? How are they organised, and why do we fail or succeed? If we could address the misalignment of our conversations what would be different? And how do we get people to bring their best to the conversation, not through their utility – as a cog in the machine – but as a unique contribution?
Our enterprise conversations can be wiser, more effective, and more human.
When we change the conversations people contribute to, we change the way they think and what gets done. And in changing the conversation we provide people with new skills; they are better equipped for the further, inevitable changes of the future.
Change the conversation.
Before every project or meeting we should ask ourselves: do we have a mess or a mission?
A mess is when we aren’t sure what conversation we are having or what question we are answering.
- Which conversation are we having? Are we on the same page? Are we clear about what mission we’re working on?
- How many conversations are there actually? Are there multiple missions here?
A mission is what we have when we are clear about what it is that we are here to do.
It’s okay to have multiple missions, we just need to make sure we know which one we’re having a conversation about right now.
How many of our team members, do you suppose, drove to work this morning, thinking, “I will come to work today and be lousy at my job”?
When things go wrong in work teams it’s tempting to blame the individuals.
We look to psychology. We try to address individual misbehaviour; we work on personalities and attitudes.
But there is nothing wrong with our people.
We have good people, with good intent and adequate resources.
Rather than asking “why is this person a bastard?” we should ask “what have we done to make them that way?”
The issue isn’t with how people think or behave (psychology), the issue lies in how people interact (sociology).
Many problems appear to show up in the form of individual misbehaviour, but decades of work on the personalities and attitudes of our people (greater personal insight, personality profiling, task matching) hasn’t delivered much in the way of organisational improvement or leadership effectiveness.
The problem is that our work is so badly designed as to defeat the best efforts even of psychologically insightful individuals.
(Hat tip to Elliot Jacques: In Praise of Hierarchy)
Many of us maintain an illusion that we solve problems at work.
The reality is that we spend a large proportion of our time, energy and resources solving problems with work.
We fall short. Our ways of working are messy, ineffective, underwhelming, wasteful or completely off-target.
Our people (and institutions) have been educated and habituated to particular ways of working. These default ways of working are not good for the types of problems we are facing in an increasingly fast paced and complex world.
When we try and bring old ways of working to this new type of work, we do injustices: to the work and to our people.
The world has shifted and we need new ways of working. We need to know when to reach for different tools, and what they are, for when the work is different. We need to dig our way out of the ineffective and (frankly) damaging legacies of the limited set of conversations that we inherited out of the industrial material contexts of work in the 19th and 20th Century that impede upon our ability to do that work.
We need to keep the challenge where it belongs: working on solving problems, not solving problems with work.