Originally published January 6, 2015
A Christmas gift from Dave Snowden:
- Breaking Goodhart’s Law: The Strathern variation — Anything made explicit will sooner or later be gamed for survival purposes and that need will corrupt practice and people.
- Confusing correlation with causation and the paucity of good data: Statistical tails wagging the dogs of truth — We can’t trust the data, but neither can we trust the correlation other than as an indicator of something we should pay attention to.
- The old ways are evil, I bear the torch of truth and enlightenment: The Popinjay — Condemning past or future practice based on evidence or theory is valid; so is offering a new way of thinking. The objection is to creating a dichotomy between the two and being highly selective in picking cases (without doing other than book or Internet searches) to support a simplistic proposition.
- Anything requiring you to attain levels of enlightenment: The Cultists — True religious enlightenment is achieved by years of dedication, it cannot be acquired in a simplistic training program. Scientific insight and understanding is similarly the product of years of study and practice. Both take part in a social setting that welcomes criticism and while rewarding status does not allow that status to prevent learning. The various popular management movements that attempt to ape either or both to generate training and consultancy revenue should be wholeheartedly condemned.
- Taking something of value, but then seeking to industrialize it: Industrialization of the craft — Development of skill takes time and effort. Tools can be industrialized; people interventions involving judgement cannot be.
- Using language without meaning: A lick of new paint — The addition of key words that appear to have symbolic power as tokens of meaning. The big one at the moment, especially in Agile circles is the use of the word “Lean” as noun, pronoun, adjective and even verb and adverb.
- The dangers of categorization: Little Boxes — Creating simplistic categorizing models is cool in stable, fully-known situations, but in complexity or uncertainty environments it is dangerous. With people, it means we can damage personal development, and we can also miss completely capabilities that we didn’t know we needed at the time of the categorization. Myers-Briggs has little academic credibility, but provides the same utility as astrology.
- Issues of evidence and judgement & a false dichotomy: Trials need tribulations — A single intervention using a novel approach with a lot of attention is never going to scale and it does not constitute evidence. Trials that are reported to have worked, in the main, have suffered insufficient tribulation to be resilient.
- Against essentialism, defining potential through action: ‘Essential’ flows — In managing culture, we are not creating, designing or determining an essence that will give us predictive or controllable behavior. Attempts to do so will drive the real culture further underground, with the surface manifestation repeating back to you the platitudes of your value statements. Humans are very good at appearing to confirm with the verbiage of power while continuing to practice what matters to them. In practice companies depend on this authentic inauthenticity to survive. The irony is that if it wasn’t for people’s willingness to work for customers and for colleagues despite the process, not because of it, most companies would fail a lot faster.
- Trying to get to a single causal line of reasoning: Roots determine routes? — Let’s assume we accept that statins reduce the risk of heart attack; cool, take them. But we also know that Type II Diabetes is one side effect of statin prescription, and we know one of the reasons for that is the way statins work on the pancreas. Now if you have Type II, then you are at increased risk of heart failure, so guess what happens? You get prescribed statins. Each individual causal pathway creates a prescriptive guideline. What is really needed is an artisan approach in which the multiple interactions between patient support groups and medical staff are taken into account.
- You can’t reduce or aggregate a complex system and trying is wrong a priori: Deal with the system as a whole please — SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) is not exceptional. It’s simply following in the same path as balanced score cards; KPIs; mergers based on structure, not people; etc. The automation and mechanization of the engineering metaphor has dominated thinking for the last few decades and it is predicated on aggregation and reduction. Things like SAFe and Six Sigma are simply the last attempts to get a tired and inappropriate philosophy to work, but doing things that have failed with more intensity in the hope that this time they will work.
- Avoiding uncertainty and anti-intellectualism: Then kill the messenger … — A plea to senior decision makers, and a pretty direct attack on common practice. If you allow yourself to get caught up in meetings, decision making, and the like to the point where you no longer have time to think and reflect, then you have damaged yourself and downstream, the organization that you lead. It also shows you are not leading well, as you have too little time. Paying attention is not the same thing as being busy. Some of the best executives I know have brains that can sense there is something they need to spend time on. Some of the worst make a virtue of ignorance. It’s not enough to simply act; you also have to think. It’s not enough to think; you also have to act. They go together, and the more senior you are, the more you need to be comfortable with both; neither can be fully delegated. So, if someone comes along and offers you a solution that doesn’t require you to think, then kill the messenger.