Language, concealment and #Birkman

29 11 2010

Been taking a slow but very thought-provoking wander through Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary (London, 2009), a book largely about the profound differences between the left and right sides of our brains – and what those differences mean for everything from the structure of ourselves to the structure of society. Here is just one snippet:

…language … is the perfect medium for concealing, rather than revealing, meaning.         (2009:106)

This comes in a section arguing that language is not a pre-requisite either of communication (think of all the non-verbal ways both we and animals communicate) nor (perhaps more surprising) of complex thought. (We may choose to think in words about the process of thought, but actual thought is often pictorial, visceral, etc.)

So language lends itself to concealing meaning as much as to revealing it. Why would we want to conceal meaning?

“To deceive, in order to gain unfair advantage”, is one obvious answer. There are others, which help explain why language does get used in precisely this way so much of the time, without any necessarily nefarious intent.

“I am very conscious of your self-esteem and your feelings, so even though there is a pretty black and white issue in which you are at fault, I need to find a way of breaking this to you in a way that preserves your dignity.”

“My expectation of myself is that I should be a team-player, so that even though the demand you have just made of me is totally unreasonable and is definitely not meeting my need for being valued, I will say ‘sure, no problem’ even though, in my heart of hearts, I mean quite the opposite.”

“Although I believe it is very important to take account of how people are feeling, I have a strong need to come up with objective solutions to emotional problems; so although I am saying ‘there, there’ and ‘you poor thing’ I am actually going to really flip out in a moment if we can’t move on from how you feel to what practical steps we can take.”

And those are just three of my own quirks, all described in terms a Birkman user may well recognise (high Esteem Need, low /high Advantage and high/high reversed Empathy). None of those are attempts to deceive for unreasonable advantage; but they are precisely the uses of language to conceal that all of us are surrounded by – and contribute to – every day.

One man’s fish is another man’s poisson

26 11 2010

Working with a team this morning on perspective and how your perspective affects not just how you attempt to solve a problem, but especially how you will frame the problem in the first place.

The practical application for this team was around “completion”. As a client-focussed team with very “ideas and systems” orientation (Blue / Yellow Org Focus in Birkman terms), “completion” for them was a concept that, for them, revolved around “having the ideas and then handing them over in the form of a system set out in reports and manuals”.

From the client’s perspective – especially a client with a more Operational (Red) or Sales (Green) perspective this is of course somewhat deficient. For the Green perspective, completion is “you’ve had the idea and managed to get buy in from all my team, so that we are all running with your idea now”. For the Red perspective, completion is “whether or not any ideas are involved, has my business changed for the better? If not then the job isn’t finished…”

That may seem so obvious, stated in those terms, that you wonder how this could ever have become an issue. Of course it is all about what you can and can’t see without help. So, before you think the less of my client team, I wonder what perspectives you have that fail to synchronise with your clients’ expectations? It happens a lot more than you can… see!

The Cybernetic Organisation

15 11 2010

Still with Kevin Kelly and Out of Control, I have been reflecting on Norbert Weiner, author of the 1948 book Cybernetics. Weiner provided a simple but profound insight that changed the face of engineering for ever.

One specific problem Weiner addressed was that of producing uniform sheet steel when doing so was notoriously difficult. Rolling mill operators had to contend with at least half a dozen factors, any one of which could affect the thickness of the finished coil of steel: temperature, quality of the raw steel, contamination of the rollers, pressure and so on. What made it harder was that these factors tended to be interconnected: for example, a change to the setting that regulated the pressure of the rollers would tend to raise or lower the temperature of the steel as well.

Weiner’s brilliant insight was that if you placed a sensor (to measure thickness of the steel very accurately) immediately after the final roller, and allowed the data from that sensor to control just the final factor in the chain of causality (in this case the pressure of the rollers), then whatever the other factors were doing, the steel would come out at the right thickness. The adjustements to the pressure setting were automatically taking account of the sum of all the other factors (since they all played a part in the final thickness). Brilliant and counter -intuitive. It changed how tightly connected systems are controlled ever since.

As Kelly points out, this insight had actually already surfaced in the field of economics a quarter century earlier (suggesting that centrally controlled command economies such as Lenin’s Russia would never be as efficient as an economy in which price was allowed to control all other economic decisons).

Has the Cybernetic insight reached your Organisation yet? I don’t mean in the way you roll steel necessarily; fewer and fewer of us are engaged in steel rolling. (And I speak as one who did a project once in a Chinese Steel Mill with 440,000 employees! Those were the days…)

What I mean is that in running your organisation (whether business or government department or not-for-profit), you are probably juggling all kinds of factors and – let’s be honest – experiencing the law of unintended consequences more often than you care to admit. You make a brilliant change to factor x, suddenly factors y and z are killing you. What to do? Smile and wave and carry on?

Here is a thought experiment to follow on from last week’s one: what is the output sensor for the product or service you deliver to your customers or clients? Probably the experience of those customers or clients. (How you capture, accurately, that experience is a whole other discussion).

What if you coupled that sensor to the last factor in the “production line” – what would that be? Probably the people who deliver your product or service to your customers – whether they are consultants or coffee baristas. What would happen if you allowed customer feedback to determine how your customer service was set? That might mean moderating the type of person delivering that service, and how they behave, scripts they use, the manner in which they deploy or deliver the product or service and so on.

We aren’t rolling steel here, so it may be a bit more involved than customer service mitigating the effects of bits of slag on the steel coil. Customer service people might actually need to inform how your product or service is designed and built. What the customer wants might need to flow right back up through the organisation. It would also be important that you didn’t chunk that information off into projects which would proceed outside the real-time feedback web, because those would then tend to act as increased input errors rather than real-time error correction. In such a Cybernetic Organisation, what Customers are telling us about our Customer Service today would need to be the most important thing anyone in the organisation could hear – because it would determine what we do today. Too crazy for you?

Learn Strategy from Robots

8 11 2010

Re-reading one of my favourite books, Kevin Kelly’s 1994 “Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines”. One of the early chapters deals with the paradox of producing intelligence in machines, namely that the ‘obvious’ solution – giving the machine a really clever, highly developed brain – is actually the wrong one. In fact, a big, all-controlling, all-knowing brain pretty much condemns a machine to clunky failure. The reason we all start with this assumption is, of course, that we assume a big, centralised brain is what we as humans have. Turns out we are wrong about that as well.

The alternative – an alternative that produces machines that can actually get things done – is something Kelly refers to as “emergent intelligence” – swarms of “dumb” functions that in aggregate produce smart results. This is the same approach that makes a beehive or an ants’ nest such a successful “super-organism”. 16 years after it was published (an eternity in web-time), “Out of Control” is still worth a read.

Kelly refers in passing to both political economy and organisational structure in this context, but doesn’t really take it anywhere. There is a lot of food for thought here though. We all tend to work with the illusion of strategy being a top-down, CEO-led activity; but it is amazing how many apparently well-thought-out strategies take the business down. Could it be that top-down strategy is like the cumbersome robot with a big brain (usually kept in an unwieldy box connected to the robot by cables because of its disproportionate weight; one more reason the robot never functions properly)? Could it be that emergent strategy – strategy that bubbles up from interactive but comparatively dumb functions at the lowest level of the organisation – is actually smarter than the C-suite approach to strategy? (And is the C-suite too often like that brain in a box connected by a remote cable?)

Here are Kelly’s 6 rules for building intelligence from the bottom up:

  1. Do simple things first;
  2. Learn to do them flawlessly;
  3. Add new layers of activity over the results of the simple tasks;
  4. DON’T CHANGE THE SIMPLE THINGS (my emphasis);
  5. Make the new layer work as flawlessly as the simple;
  6. Repeat ad infinitum

What might this mean? Do the thought experiment for yourself. I find myself thinking about customer service: what if you were to start with simply working out what kind of person could meet your customer’s real needs, and get that layer of the organisation working flawlessly? Then ask: “so what needs to happen in the layer above customer service to ensure they stay effective and the organisation stays viable?”, and so on upwards. Make sure communication from each level can make it upwards without distortion; that means we will always know what is happening in the way of change amongst our customers; and so on.

Tell me what you think this might look like in your business or organisation.