Change Notions

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Is your organization performing as well as it should? As it could?

Do you know? Can you know?

Random notions on the subject:

Notion #1: If you’re confident your organization is performing as well as it could, you’re right by definition. Neither you nor anyone reporting to you will try to improve it because why would you?

If, on the other hand, you’re confident it could be better and you’re wrong, you might do some damage, because if your organization is already doing as well as possible, the best any change can achieve is neutrality. That’s the best outcome. The rest must leave you worse off than where you started.

Notion #2: Benchmarks were popular because an executive could use them to “prove” a recalcitrant manager wasn’t performing as well as possible. They were flawed because they rarely avoided the sin of apples-to-basket-of-randomly-assembled-fruit comparisons.

“Best practices” have replaced them as the flogging tool of choice for those whose closest level of descent is 50,000 feet (15,240 meters if you’ve adopted altitude-measurement best practices).

Best practices are popular because what they prescribe rarely matches how we do things around here. Which means the manager responsible for following less-than-best practices surely deserves a whuppin’.

True story: I once saw a consultant’s PowerPoint slide that promised to “… institute best practices followed by a program of continuous improvement.”

Ahem. If the practices are best they can’t be improved. If they can be improved, continuously or otherwise, they aren’t best yet.

As the KJR Manifesto pointed out there are no best practices, only practices that fit best. Most so-called best practices are one-size-fits-no-one off-the-rack pants. They’re too small for your waist and too short for your inseam, but your boss insists you wear them anyway.

Notion #3: Fixing the root cause isn’t always the best way to deal with a problem.

Imagine, for example, that you, like me, suffer from cluster headaches. Your research determines the root cause is spontaneous activation of nociceptive pathways.

So what. We can’t do anything about the root cause. I don’t even know what the root cause means.

What we can do is take Sumatriptan as soon as a headache starts and wait 15 minutes or so for it to take effect.

Sometimes, suppressing symptoms is the best alternative. Not a good alternative, mind you, but the best one available.

Notion #4: A common and pernicious barrier to organizational change is the Assumption of the Present. It’s the Assumption of the Present when employees are sure a proposed change will fail because otherwise it would have already happened.

The Assumption of the Present is a close cousin of “We tried that and it didn’t work,” only you can suggest the reason it didn’t work is that, “Maybe we did it wrong.”

The Assumption of the Present, in contrast, is circular. And being circular there’s no entry point you can use to rebut it.

Notion #5: Agile isn’t a methodology. It isn’t a family of methodologies. Well, it is, but more importantly it’s a way of thinking about how to accomplish things.

It’s the practical application of Gall’s Law: A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.”

What it means to you: If you want to try to improve how your organization functions and don’t want to risk doing more harm than good, figure out ways to improve it one small increment at a time. As you do, consider that each increment should be:

  • Easy to explain: If it’s complicated it isn’t incremental.
  • Easy to integrate: The increment shouldn’t disrupt how the rest of the work gets done, or at least it shouldn’t disrupt it badly.
  • Contained: Its scope should be limited to your organization. Processes have inputs, outputs, and methods. Incremental changes should focus on methods, unless a source of your inputs or consumer of your outputs wants to collaborate.
  • Non-limiting: To the extent you can tell, implementing the increment shouldn’t close off potentially desirable future changes.
  • Reversible: If it doesn’t work out, you should be able to stop doing it without difficulty.

Last Notion: Some managers are good at operations — at keeping the joint running. Others are good at making change happen — at making tomorrow look different from yesterday.

Neither skill is good enough by itself.

Managers who excel at operations but can’t make change happen will lead a long, slow slide into obsolescence. But those who excel at change without being competent at operations have the opposite problem.

They won’t survive until the future gets here.

Comments (3)

  • “Spontaneous activation of nociceptive pathways”: this is like a burglar alarm that repeatedly goes off in false alarms, claiming that a sensor has been tripped when in reality it has not (e.g. front door has opened). One possible cause is a short-circuit in the wiring. Another is that the circuit has been tuned to be so over-sensitive to supposed “signals” from the sensor that random electrical fluctuations in the wiring, due to ordinary random internal noise, repeatedly rise above the activation threshold. So, the pain signal in the sensory nerve (i.e. wire), and the pain sensation that is experienced (i.e. the ringing alarm), are NOT caused by the pain sensor being tripped by an external real-world cause; the pain signal, and therefore the resulting pain sensation, are entirely INTERNALLY generated by the nervous system itself.

    One “solution” is to simply silence the alarm every time it goes off, after verifying that it is indeed a false alarm (this is what pain-killing drugs do). Another is to disable that particular sensor forever. Another is to simply cut the wire (there are actual surgeries that correspond to this one). These “solutions” all run the risk that GENUINE alarms will go ignored or undetected; in the real-life surgical case, this can amount to permanent numbness (i.e. lack of touch sensation) in a body part, as an improvement over permanent severe and unjustified pain (this might well be considered an acceptable tradeoff).

  • I’ll contend that fixing the root cause, i.e. curing the disease rather than merely treating the symptoms, is ALWAYS a better way to deal with a problem UNLESS either: (a) fixing the root cause is impossible, or (b) fixing the root cause has side-effects worse than the problem itself. There are gradations of “worse than the problem itself”, so that “worse” is a comparison of two value judgments, and the decision of what to do is a tradeoff. Sometimes, there are gradations of “impossible”.

    A root cause, if it isn’t fixed, can become worse; it can also change to cause new problems, or to worsen pre-existing problems with unrelated other causes; and it can block OTHER problems, including their root causes, from being solved. For example:

    (1) Problem: A toothache; the “problem” is that it hurts. Root cause: tooth decay, i.e. a cavity. “Solution” that treats the symptom without fixing the root cause: swab liquid oral anesthetic on the tooth twice a day, forever, for the rest of your life. Genuine solution that fixes the root cause: dental procedures to drill out, remove, and replace the diseased portions of the tooth; depending on the severity of the cavity, these could include a filling, a crown, a root canal, a bridge, a dental implant, or other options.

    If left unaddressed, the root cause of the problem, i.e. the cavity, can progress to an abscess, leading to infections and damage in other parts of the face and head. Furthermore, even relatively minor dental problems can actually cause DEATH, by making life-saving surgery (e.g. for heart problems or cancer) excessively dangerous, and therefore NOT performed, due to risk of infection (after the surgery) that originates in the diseased tooth.

    In a world where dentistry does not exist, solving the root cause is “impossible”; the gradation of “impossible” here is that nobody knows how to do it, and nobody ever did; plus nobody has any tools or methods or materials to do it with, and nobody ever did. Another gradation of “impossible” is that you’re poor, you can’t afford to pay for it, you’re too physically disabled to work to earn any money, Medicaid doesn’t pay for dentistry, and if you TRIED to pay for dentistry you’d be instantly bankrupt, starving, and homeless on the streets; whereas Medicaid DOES pay for a prescription for liquid oral anesthetic, forever. This gradation of “impossible” might alternately be considered a gradation of “side-effect of the solution is worse than the problem itself” (i.e. instant bankruptcy / starvation / homelessness is the side-effect of getting your teeth fixed).

  • (2) Another “root cause” example… Problem: inside an apartment, after it rains, there’s a puddle of rainwater on the floor; this happens with every rainstorm. Root cause: there’s a leak in the roof. “Solution” that treats the symptom without fixing the root cause: put a bucket on the floor under the leak, and leave the bucket there forever. If this is chosen as the standard and permanent solution to the problem of a roof leak, then soon enough, there are buckets everywhere. Genuine solution that fixes the root cause: repair the leak; this could be a small roof patch, or a larger-scale roof repair or replacement.

    If left unaddressed, the root cause of the problem, i.e. the roof leak, can progress to become worse. It can also lead to leaking water finding new pathways into other apartments, plus wooden structural parts of the building rotting until they fail, plus mold growing on and inside walls and carpets and spreading spores that cause illness for the tenants.

    I know of an actual real-life case of a rental-apartment complex where the landlord had, for years, instituted a policy of NEVER fixing roof leaks; instead, offering complaining tenants a “wet lease discount” off of their rent, which was formalized as an actual written contract rider to their written lease. After some years of this, most tenants were receiving quite large “wet lease discounts” because of all the frequent water damage to their material possessions, plus the sensory unpleasantness of being dripped on (cue the music: “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”).

    In a world where the fixing of roof leaks was a completely unknown and unimagined art, solving the root cause of the problem, i.e. fixing the roof leak, might be “impossible” in a purely technical sense. In this real-world case, the gradation of “impossible” was that a policy decision had been made years ago and approved all the way up to the top of the company hierarchy; the apartment complex’s owner had made up his mind to do business this way, and no manager or subordinate had the power to override the owner. The root problem was eventually addressed when a new owner purchased the apartment complex for far less than the market value of a similar but non-leaking property, and then replaced all the roofs and announced that all “wet lease discounts” would be honored for the remainder of the tenants’ lease terms (despite the new non-existence of the leaks), but that RENEWAL leases would NOT include the “wet lease discounts”. With the ending of the “wet lease discounts”, tenants either paid actual market rent for their apartments, or moved out and were replaced with new tenants who paid market rent. The rise in rental income soon enough paid for, and justified retroactively (as had been planned and predicted in the first place), both the replacement costs for the all the roofs and, ultimately, the decision to purchase the apartment complex. The previous owner accepted a sub-market price for the property, because in a market where the norm was for properties to NOT have pervasively leaking roofs (or discounted apartment rents), a sub-market price was all the owner could ever hope to receive for a property WITH pervasively leaking roofs (and routinely discounted apartment rents).

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