Management – Insulation and Shade

It’s interesting that on a hot day we can go and stand under a shady tree and feel cooler. But on a cold day, there is no equivalent in nature.

Sketch7013522Perhaps it is because heat is an addition of energy and cold is the absence of energy. When we stand in the shade, the light/heat from the sun is reduced – but without a heat source – out in the cold – we need to find one (often it is our own bodies and some thermal insulation to keep the heat trapped).

We can use this as an analogy about management in the workplace.

When we are trying out new ideas, we often refer to our managers and senior stakeholders as ‘providing cover’ for us. Meaning that they will deflect disruptive questions or even take the ‘heat’ if someone gets upset about what we are doing.

It’s easy to see the managers in this example as similar to trees providing shade – but what might the source of heat be? Perhaps it is the amount of attention we are drawing from others – or the amount of interactions we need to have in order to take our ideas forward.

So where a lot of collaboration is needed, it is like a hot environment and we are likely to need a source of cover (shade) to help us do a good job.

What might be the equivalent of a cold environment? Sometimes we can tinker away at an idea pretty much alone. The problem with this is that not many people will see us doing it – and we risk being overlooked for our good efforts. In this case, we can provide our own ‘warmth’ – ‘blow our own trumpet’ about our work. Perhaps our managers and senior stakeholders can act like insulation – amplifying the warmth that we generate – and telling the good news about our work to others. If we don’t generate enough warmth ourselves, then one risk with insulation is that it could also prevent any news about our work being shared.

So what type of managers/stakeholders do you need? And what type do you have?

  • Flying cover – or not?
  • Amplifying your good work – or acting as a barrier to communications about our work?

It would be easy for a manager to start out by providing cover – which is great if there is a lot of ‘heat’ and collaboration needed. But if our work focus suddenly changes to individual achievements, this mode of management could easily become suffocating.

In summary – make deliberate choices about management providing cover and check the situation regularly to determine if a change of mode is needed.

Management, thermodynamics and the weather.

So what has management got to do with thermodynamics and the weather, well the different styles of management can be grouped into two very broad categories and three styles : Radiant management and Ambient and/or Convection management.

Thermodynamics is a stream of science concerned with heat and temperature and their relation to energy and work.

Radiant management; follows a similar definition as radiant heating and has similar benefits and disadvantages. Radiant heating is characterised by the use of radiant energy to heat, like the warmth of sunshine. Radiant heating is the method of collection and directing radiant heat to transfer radiant energy, from a source to an object. The advantage of radiant heating is that only the objects in the direct path of the radiant energy are warmed up. This means there is no waste of energy, warming up the ambient environment. This form of heating and management is highly efficient but also highly directional and dependant upon a clear line of sight.

Convection management; follows a similar definition as convection heating and has similar benefits and disadvantages. Convection heating is characterised by the use of convection currents which circulate through a body coming in contact with a heating element. The air coming in contact with the heat source becomes energised and expands, increasing in volume and becoming more buoyant and rising. The heat source, heats the ambient air directly, convection heaters often include a heat exchange mechanism, to increase efficiency. Convection heating is typically a passive and slow process, where heat gradually moves from the hottest object to the coolest. An oil column heater is an example of this slow convection heating.

The common fan heater has more in common with a convection heater than a radiant heater.

Ambient management; shares a lot of components with convection management, the result is that the whole increases in effectiveness. The convection currents and stratification that results from convection heating gradually increase the whole. To use heating as an example the heater in the room will eventually warm the entire space but gives rise to a temperature gradient and zones in the process. This heating process if left unaided will be both slow and gradual. The heating effect is dependant upon proximity to the source resulting in stratification and gradients. The only way to reduce the stratification and proximity effects is to actively “stir” the environment. This effort is required to reach a stable and constant state.

The ambient warm air, tends to accumulate at the ceiling unless mixed with ceiling fans.

Just like the heating examples above there is overlap between each method, radiant, convection and ambient. Convection heaters often utilise radiant heating methods to improve efficiency and no radiant heater is 100% solely radiant. Even an infra red lamp, one of the purest forms of radiant heaters we have, affects the ambient environment and causes convection currents unless in a vacuum.

I propose that we often are not aware of which style of management or blend of management styles is appropriate for any given situation.

In an environment where there is a disconnect, or disjointed structure then a form of radiant management would make the most sense. Radiant management is also the best method where there is high staff churn and highly fluid and dynamic structure. This is often what occurs even if we are not consciously aware of it. The charismatic leader will often evolve in a fluid and dynamic environment and others will often gladly align with them. In chaos stability is sought either in the structure or leadership.

Convection management is what occurs naturally, lead by example. When there is a radiant management style there is a proximity effect where those who interact with this type of management gradually by “osmosis” begin to modify their behaviours. This is where we should be aware of what we as managers are broadcasting. Hopefully our better traits are being broadcast but there is also a possibility, bad habits or negativity maybe passively transmitted. These convection currents must be taken into consideration and acknowledged if we are to reduce and prevent negative management.

Ambient management is what we end up with if left to our own devices. It is the “cultural” methodology which surrounds the work place when the boss is not active and/or around. This is the realm of very slow and gradual change but can be aided with the correct tools and processes. The idea is that just like in our heating example if a gradual “mixing” of the environment is allowed then the result is a comfortable rise in temperature with no stratification or proximity effects.

Positive ambient or convection management is often the result of a well structured and defined environment. Established processes and confidence in predictable outcomes are all the result of positive ambient or convection management. This leads a sense of freedom, security and safety, to allow flexibility and exploration.

Rediscovery Reiterations and Frequency

How often do we revisit ideas and decisions? It is a strange fact that once we decide on a course of action or a solution we seem to think that there is nothing left to do but implement that which we have decided. The very act of deciding some how defies the law of space and time, a temporal bubble is formed around that very point in time and nothing will ever change. Ludicrous but this is how we behave, we rarely if ever, revisit the decision making process and if we do it is often a revalidation process rather than an actual open and frank analysis. We are now heavily invested in our previous decision and heavily biased by it. A dangerous starting point for any discovery.

This ludicrous temporal bubble which we create around our decisions highlights the linear causality we use as our default mental model.

So how often should we revisit a previously decided process or decision ? Well that’s the golden question. I can only offer a philosophical view and that is the process or decision should be revisited depending upon its complexity, its interdependence upon other projects and the number of people involved in its implementation. Basically complexity requires vigilance, the more intricate and interconnected a project is the more often we should take a step back and revise our situation and the decision making process and decisions based upon the previous state of knowledge.

As Tobbe said :

“What’s required to deal with complexity might not be vigilance but explicit anticipation and rough boundaries validity.

While mining complexity we should always bring our canary with us down into the mine.”

Efficiency can be bad for your health

In a world of “Bean counters”, the bottom line and increased production, we seem to have missed the human side of the equation and it is having a detrimental effect upon all of us personally.

Terms like work-life balance, transparency and a hundred other touchy feely buzz words seem to only appease the many; with a sense that “something is being done or there is a process to follow”. The problem lies in the truth that as a business the chosen target of focus is the wrong one. We focus to attain and maintain 10% growth, we focus upon man hours wasted, increasing production and reducing staff, all valid strategies yet only one side of the complex equation that is work and business. The other side of the coin is far more complex and counter intuitive.

The ancient Romans were presented with a steam engine by Heron, a Greek mathematician and engineer in the 1st century, yes a basic, rudimentary steam engine (the aeolipile ) it could have been used to do work and may have eventually lead to the industrial revolution occurring back in ancient Rome. The surprising thing is, when this device was shown to the Romans they basically replied “What would we do with all the slaves?” How many among us would have thought to say that, does this mean they were smarter than us or is it that they had a different focus and vision of what work was actually about. Yes they had slaves but they also were aware that if a machine could do all the work then the social impact would be far greater than they were prepared to suffer.

steam engineMechanisation and the industrial revolution did occur and its social impact has been felt ever since but does that mean in a modern work place the workers are machines, cogs in the greater mechanism? Is production the means and the end of the modern global workforce? Strangely enough I have never heard anyone say they work solely to produce; reproduce maybe, family, friends or the next holiday, but never just to produce product or perform a service as the ultimate goal of their labours. The goal for most people is not what they actually produce but what they think it will give them, a means to an end. So to most of us work is not the destination but the method or journey to achieve something greater.

With that in mind, think about the way we examine a business and work-flow. The focus is on efficiency, increased profit and reduced cost, all easily measured metrics and relatively easy to modify, especially in a negative way. Now look at the goal of the “workers” the human side of the equation (yes, this includes Management), a much harder metric to examine let alone measure. This is a can of worms! And far to complex to broach here. Yet we can determine some threads to be taken home from this:

Obviously the goal of the “workers” is not actually tightly related to the method or journey taken.

The way we measure success is narrow by nature, focusing upon components not the whole.

So what am I getting at ? The question we often ask is wrong, not because we don’t know it’s wrong but because that’s how we’ve always worked. More is better but more of the wrong thing is worse.

Focus and goals are highly relevant and to lose sight of them is a dangerous and unhealthy way to go. Consider a holiday, a trip across Europe say, most of us plan this sort of thing, where to go, what to see, what to do, and so on. Now what is the goal of a holiday, this varies but for most of us it’s to relax and take a break from work etc. So if your goal is to relax and take it easy then would you plan every moment of the trip; bus and train timetables optimised, condense the trip to its minimum? No, of course not, but if your goal was to see as much of Europe in the time you had, the answer would be Yes. That’s a sight-seeing trip not a holiday, yes they can blend together to some degree but the goals are different.

So how would we measure this, number of sites seen, number of photos taken, time taken, cost effectiveness, distance travelled, personal interactions engaged in or do you need a holiday when you return? It would depend on your attitude to travel and your actual goal.

Efficiency may be bad for your health if you focus on the wrong things or ignore your goals. Like a laser, a highly focused beam of light, efficiency can cause damage if poorly applied.

So how do we deal with this idea and try to make sense of it. Personally I see work, business and global markets no differently than ecosystems, highly varied and complex but with many smaller “components” which effect the overall health of the system.

Biology is a complex and varied system far more so than business, despite what some economist types would have you believe. Think about it biology has evolved over millions of years, has had dead ends, set backs and eventually become what we see today. Business and economics has had at best several thousands of years and if we remove bartering far less.

So if the more evolved and complex system has particular traits then we should at least examine the more simplistic system to see if it truly requires the same traits. Yes we should pare it back to its simplest form, and see the basic blue print of an advanced system. Wow! heavy stuff and far more complicated a discussion than for this document but basics can be gleaned.

Any biological system has some basic truths our comparisons will depend upon how we see a company or business. If we see a company or business as an individual entity then we would focus on the biological requirements for a single individual of a species. If we see the company or business as a group dynamic then we could focus upon cells in individuals or social behaviour, animal dynamics in a group of individuals or maybe even social insects such as bees, ants etc.

An Ecological Example: Trophic cascade.

When a top predator is removed from an ecosystem, a series of knock-on effects are felt throughout all the levels in a food web, as each level is regulated by the one above it. This is known as a trophic cascade. The results of these trophic cascades can lead to an ecosystem being completely transformed, and some surprising results. The impacts trickle down through each level, upsetting the ecological balance by altering numbers of different animal species, until the effects are finally felt by the vegetation.

Removal of apex predators, such as sharks, from food chains can have a devastating effect on the ecosystem. Many sharks reproduce slowly, attaining sexual maturity at a later age, this means their removal has a long term effect to their ecosystem. The next level of carnivorous fish are now not preyed upon and can increase in numbers. This increase can lead to the removal of herbivorous fish which graze upon the algae. If the numbers of these grazing fish is reduced drastically the algae can grow unhindered. This type of trophic cascade can destroy coral reefs by choking out corals that can’t compete with the fast growing vegetation. Not really an obvious outcome, is it?

So when we optimise or increase the efficiency of any part the trophic cascade effects can result into surprising outcomes some of them detrimental.

Aquariums a simplified system as an example.

Most of the technology used to keep a modern aquarium healthy has directly or indirectly evolved from the sewage treatment industry. Many aquarists find this surprising but the legacy of waste treatment is undeniable especially when we look at marine aquaria. The marine aquarium is the pinnacle of aquaculture for the home hobbyist, loaded with advanced equipment such as, biological filter media, Protein skimmer (foam fractionation), denitrifying beds, probes for pH, ORP (oxygen redox potential) etc., ozone generators the list is extensive and goes through even to the low tech box filters and under-gravel filters used in a basic bowl or tank for goldfish and other freshwater fish etc.

Why are we talking about fish? Well the point is that all this technology originated from sewage treatment and is now used to keep your fish alive yet it was developed with a different goal. The best example of this is the protein skimmer or foam fractionator, this device forces a stream of small air bubbles into a water column and if the pH (is say that of seawater ) is sufficiently high a foam begins to form, floating up and then collected and removed, extracting proteins (organics) from the water column. This basic tool is invaluable to the marine aquarist wishing to keep corals alive and healthy in their marine aquarium. Marine invertebrates, especially tropical and reef invertebrates are highly sensitive to pollution and increased organics because they have evolved in nutrient poor waters.

The removal of organics before they can pollute the water column is highly beneficial as you would imagine. The first protein skimmers were an air driven affair using special wooden air-stones, that would slowly degrade and become less efficient overtime. The advances in protein skimmer design meant that air driven skimmers were replaced by highly efficient venturi and/or “turbo” skimmers. Now herein lies the problem, as skimmers became increasingly efficient at removing dissolved organics from the water column, there was a growing need to add supplements to your aquaria to maintain healthy growth. Corals and some other invertebrates require dissolved nutrients, organics and minerals to maintain a healthy metabolism. Highly efficient protein skimmers were in fact being run continually by most aquarists and ironically they were also adding expensive supplements while the skimmers were on and therefore extracting them at the same time. My advice was, since the ridiculously efficient skimmer was being used, they should only run them intermittently either on during the day and off during the night or 2 days on, 3 days off or variations of these depending upon feeding schedules, stocking levels and inhabitants.

The fact that was lost, was that the goal of sewage treatment is ultimately pure water; the goal of an aquarium on the other hand is an aquatic ecosystem which is anything but pure. Actually pure water or distilled water will kill your fish very quickly indeed. When transplanting technology from sewage treatment to aquaria, the goals of the two disciplines were similar but not identical.

Be careful and aware of your intent or goal and the intent or goals of the “tools” and methods you utilise.

Wikipedia, History of the steam engine

The cascade effect


Imagine a discussion between managers.

Manager A – ‘How do think person X is performing?’

Manager B – ‘Doing a great job – understands what the need is and then delivers the outcome every time.’

Manager A – ‘Thanks – sounds good, I’ll count that as a ‘meets expectations’ in the review.’

Manager B – ‘Well, actually, I think that X exceeded my expectations – did you know that they have 5 years of delivery experience under their belt? I think that we are under-utilising X.’

Manager A – ‘Yeah – but they’re not really leadership material – I don’t think they will ever get above their current level in the company.’

Manager B – ‘That’s not their expectation – X has high potential, depth of experience and took this role to learn more about our part of the company. Have you had a discussion with X about their career goals and experience?’

Manager A – ‘Umm, Yes – but they don’t seem to be leadership material, I guess they will be disappointed…’

A and BThis imaginary conversation contains many examples of expectations – One manager has high and the other low expectations of person X and person X has high expectations of themselves. I believe that people are capable of living up to our high expectations and also of living down to our low expectations and whatever our expectations are, they will sense and comply.

This is an important insight – our expectations are similar to assumptions and can be very tricky to surface. This means that they will become part of our subconscious and we are likely to transmit our expectations in ways that we cannot easily control such as body language, tone and our sentence construction.

So what can we do about it?

Any time we think that someone is doing an average or poor job, take a moment to reflect if it could be a bit of confirmation bias (that we always thought they were only capable of average or low quality and we have been selective in our observations to support this view). If this is the case, then imagine the best performer you have met and that this person has the potential to be just as great. Of course this applies in our non-workplace relationships as well – so we can get plenty of opportunities to reflect and practice in safe environments.

If we are not certain that a major factor is our own expectations, then find a couple of other people and sound them out about the person in question. Be very careful with this approach, because it is very easy for other people to pick up your expectations of others and answer in ways that will add to the confirmation bias.

In summary, expectations could be a major factor in productivity in the workplace – I wonder what would happen if everyone believed that their staff and colleagues were capable of achieving awesome instead of mediocre?

Expectations and Empowerment bizarre possibilities.

So what if the goal is to enable the empowerment of staff, how can we possibly accomplish this when human nature and culture on the whole is risk averse?

Most of us expect negative results when we fail, this is basic survival. Yet we also know that the greatest rewards are often obtained when we seek opportunities and stretch outside comfort zones. These less travelled paths often are avoided because of the risk of failure and the expectation of “punishment” or negative results. The strange thing is, that as companies become larger they are often forced into previously unfamiliar territory. This very risk is often were the benefits lie.

Yet in an established hierarchy the management and staff often feel that it is better to remain inert rather than proactive and acting upon possible opportunities. We have negative expectations when we see opportunities. Often even though the answers are obvious and easily implemented, we stand idle because it’s outside our pay grade or we want/need higher management permission to enact any action or change.

This form of initiative blockage is systemic in most work environments, so how could we get around this blockage? The answer may just be as simple as the problem. We use a “get out of jail free card” strategy. If you give your management team or even expert staff an exemption card, if something goes wrong during a project they could utilise it and the entire issue is for all intents and purposes a blank slate, written on a piece of paper and thrown in the bin, never to be remarked upon ever again. This reset, enables the expectation that even if things do not work out for what ever reason then the risk averse bias is negated to a certain extent by the exemption card. Obviously this is not meant to be carte blanche but a method to alleviate the bottlenecking and allowing staff of all levels to maximise opportunities, developing skill of evaluation and risk assessment along the way, all within a professional framework.

Game play – a Management Insight

The whole idea of modern management can be distilled down to a single basic goal to maximise profit, the methods in which a company or business pursues this most basic goal can vary substantially, focusing upon different areas such as efficiency, staff satisfaction, R&D (Research and Development) and the list goes on.

For the purpose of this discussion the method chosen to achieve the basic goal of profit, is irrelevant.

I want to focus on a method of decision making that we are all familiar with, yet underutilise in our work lives. The process is that of game play and in particular the games of Yahtzee and Poker. The simple fact is that in our management we forget that there are not only outcomes but multiple outcomes from any given situation. These actual outcomes may or may not be desirable but they are equally valid regardless.

The reason I’ve chosen these two games to highlight my point is that although both games are games of chance, they are also games of skill, relying upon probable outcomes of particular desired patterns.

The game of Yahtzee is based upon poker with dice, the general game play is a simplified and modified poker variant. Yahtzee does not allow for the ability to bluff as in Poker which makes it less human but more instructive for my example.

YahtzeeAs you can see from the Yahtzee score card to maximise your score every box (category) must be filled with the highest possible score. This is where the management part comes in because when you get say three or four of a kind you need to allocate that roll of the dice, for the highest yield. You have to decide if the three 6’s you just rolled should be scored as either a three of a kind or three 6’s. The fact that three 6’s is the highest three of a kind possible is going to bias your decision, in this case, so you place them in the three of a kind category but if they were 4’s instead. Three 4’s is a good score for either category, and it depends where you are in the course of a game. You begin to see the point?

There are definite probabilities for each potential outcome and obviously the more difficult, lower probability, ones are the highest rewarding. However, if we focus on only getting the highest possible score for each scoring outcome we soon find ourselves in a losing situation. Each roll of the dice must be recorded and accounted for so aiming solely for Yahtzee (5 of a kind) will result in poor scores because that blind focus will mean other options will be ignored.

So what has this got to do with management, well projects can be considered outcomes just like a hand of cards or a roll of the dice in Yahtzee.

When we ask for a piece of work we expect to get it, yet in the real world we rarely get what we expect and in fact may not get it on time or at all. The delivery may be postponed because a part of the work has not been completed, requirements change over time. This can happen quite often and is one of the reasons we do risk analyses. Yet if we remove the original expectations, we may realise we have created a very worthwhile component which would not be delivered because it is not the expected/requested whole but could fit into and/or compliment another project. Just like in Yahtzee holding onto the original expectations may lead to a reduction in movement towards our goals.

When we manage we tend to focus upon expected outcomes and unexpected or below expected outcomes are disregarded or thrown out.

Both Poker and Yahtzee also share the fact that the initial hand or roll can then be cherry picked and tailored to achieve the best outcome available with what was given. Then the parts not suitable for the newly scoped goal are discarded and re-drawn or cast. This happens three times in Yahtzee and one, two or three times in Poker depending on how many draws are allowed.

Adaptive Management FlowThe simple fact is that maybe the three 1’s are better scored in the one’s category rather than the three of a kind box. The old make lemonade when life gives you lemons approach. We rarely get what we expect, so if we are open to see the possible benefits of a given outcome disregarding our expectations then maybe we will have more wins.

I suggest that we use the mind set of reiteration and liquid goals as seen in Yahtzee and Poker as a possible management methodology, examining components and maximising their utilisation.

Efficiency and Transition Points

For the purposes of this post, the term ‘transition point’ means any point where something changes from one state to another. Some examples are;

  • A caterpillar changing to a butterfly
  • A company growing from a start-up to a large business
  • Developing a skill from basic to competent and then to expert would be considered at least 2 transition points

Transition PointsWe assume that it is easy to anticipate when transition points are going to happen – this is because for our whole lives up to now we are looking into the past and it is easy to see when transitions occurred. But this is a fallacy – we are using the benefit of hindsight to observe when the transition happened and in many cases we could not have estimated when the transition would occur beforehand.

Transition points can impact efficiency – I harvested some damson plums this morning and was pushing out the stones with a cherry pitter. Easy for 10-20 plums – but I was doing over 100 of them. The transition in this case was the scale of fruit that I was preparing – I found that I was picking up the cherry pitter, then putting it on the other side of the sink, then picking up a strawberry huller to get the stone out. I found that putting down the cherry pitter on the same side of the sink that I was working on instead of the opposite side sped up the process.

The same thing happens at work – imagine a small company dealing with incoming traditional mail – almost anyone can manage it on top of their normal job because only a small amount would get delivered each day. But it is easy to see a difference in a large company – often there are several people who have full-time jobs sorting and delivering the traditional mail and parcels. When did the transition point/s occur? How did they get detected and then managed?

When we notice problems, these can be symptoms of a transition point in progress – I noticed the delay caused by reaching to the other side of the sink and created a counter-measure to reduce the distance to put down and pick up the tool. But imagine that someone delivered a lot more plums to me – how would I process them in that case? The 100 or so this morning took me about 30 minutes to pit. The process I used today would be very inefficient in a plum jam factory – how many other things are we doing in ways that we always have and imagine them to be efficient? Perhaps an external factor has changed that we have not noticed yet and our ways of working have therefore reduced in efficiency.

The term ‘counter-measure’ in the Lean sense is starting to grow on me. It is a good term to use instead of ‘fix’ because any action that we take to address a problem is likely to become less useful later on and we will need to create and implement a new counter-measure at that time. It takes the pressure away from finding the perfect solution and focussing instead on one that is good enough to address the issue that we are observing, implement it and then observe the effect of the counter-measure – adjusting again when needed.

In Summary

  • Efficiency can drop if we apply the same ways of working when a transition point occurs
  • It is easy to see the transition points afterwards, but hard to anticipate them – use problems and issues as indicators of transition points
  • Using the term ‘counter-measure’ instead of ‘fix’ can be helpful to recognise that future transition points will happen and a new counter-measure will need to be developed later

Of course, this post has been using the term ‘efficiency’ which is not the same as ‘effectiveness’. We also need to be aware that the effort we are making is towards a valuable outcome. In the case of my plums, I am just about ready to put the cooked plum paste into a container – this is valuable for me, but not for people who do not enjoy the taste of plums. For such people, it might have been just as good for me to put the plums into a compost bin – but then I would not have had to remove the stones – so being more efficient with that process would have been wasted efficiency.

Managing Constraints

Tasks and activities are easy to manage – we see that a job needs to be done, schedule some time for it and then do it.

Queues are easy to see – waiting in line to pay for some goods when we go shopping – or waiting in line to see a popular tourist attraction. Waiting in queues like these is a good time to ponder about why the queue is there and how it could be better managed. Could the shop hire some more cashiers? Could the tourist venue allow more people through at once by setting out the attraction in a different way?

What about the queues that we cannot easily see such as those in our everyday work?

One thing that seems efficient is a regular set of decision-making meetings such as review and approval to proceed with an activity (like recruitment or a project). There could be a better way to manage these decisions – or are these regular meetings actually the most effective way to do it?

How many of us have rushed a presentation together to get it into the next cycle for a decision meeting? What might happen if the decision could be made as soon as we have brought together the information needed to make that decision? Would we have less of a sense of urgency and take longer to do simple things? Would it take less time because we know that the decision will be made as soon as we are ready for it?

The decision to proceed or not is a constraint – up until that time, we are not certain that the project or other action will go ahead. By holding a regular meeting for the decision-making, we are making efficient use of the decision-makers time – but we are introducing queues into the process. Imagine that there will be 5 project ideas presented at the next meeting – all 5 have different sets of data that they need to gather in order for the proceed or not decision to be made. This data-gathering will have different lead times and each project will actually be ready for the go/no-go decision well before the meeting – so the length of wait-time in the queue will be different for each of them. How many of us record these wait times? Those things that remain invisible cannot be managed – people will be waiting on the decision-meeting before they can do the next set of useful actions. We could have 5 teams waiting on one meeting with senior decision-makers – because that is the best way to use the time of those decision-makers.

5 Teams WaitingConstraint management is hard to do because it is very hard to notice the constraints. We get used to it taking a certain time to do things and waiting for the next decision point – because that’s how it’s done and it appears to be efficient.

There are a lot of other constraints out there waiting to be noticed – the clues are there when our colleagues roll their eyes or complain about something. We can empathise with them and move on – or we can empathise and then dig a bit deeper.

  • Is this a part of a pattern?
  • Do other people also complain about it?
  • How can we measure the things that people are complaining about?
  • If we could measure them, what would we expect the measurements to be in order to validate or invalidate those complaints?
  • If we are not already capturing the data, why?

Next time you are planning work – notice if you are planning activities, tasks or constraint management. Planning some time each week for observation sounds like a good idea – only by looking at something for a while and reflecting will we find ways to improve.

Linear, Non-Linear, Predictable and Unpredictable

Firstly, a thank you to Torbjörn and Steve for the conversations and feedback leading to these thoughts. Torbjörn has also written a post on this theme for those who have not yet seen it.

We can have a tendency to use linear and predictable as synonyms, but there are non-linear concepts that are also predictable and one of them is called hysteresis.

The easiest example of hysteresis is a thermostat for a heater. If we use one temperature setting to turn it on and off, then it will click on and off endlessly. If we set the on temperature just a little under the desired one and the off temperature just a little over it, then it works much better. When we walk into the room and measure the temperature only, then we cannot know if the heater is currently on or not without knowing the historical temperature and thus whether the room is currently cooling down or heating up.

So this is an example of a predictable process that is non-linear – we can use mathematical modelling to generate that predictability. I wonder if there are other processes that are non-linear, but still have some predictability in our work places.

One example might be change initiatives. We start at one level of understanding, do some training, coaching, communications and other ways of influencing change. After a period of time we move up to a new level of understanding. Then as other things happen and new people join the group, we lose some of that understanding – but it is likely that we are still above the original level.

I’m still looking for other examples – but hypothetically, a whole bunch of non-linear processes over-lapping and intersecting with each other would likely look like a very complex system.

Of course, mathematically, we would then be able to demonstrate these parts of the system and their predictability – but that is not really the point. We are all observers of our world and how we experience it as individuals is different for each of us. Therefore, the natures of systems that we interact with will differ according to our experiences of them and what seems predictable to one person can appear quite random to another one.

Back to the title of this post – along the gradient of predictability, we move from linear with obvious cause and effect to non-linear, such as hysteresis with less obvious correlation, then towards a lot less certainty where the relationships are dispositional and then to randomness. Most of the time whatever we are observing is likely to have a mixture of these attributes both inherently and from the ways that we experience it. Taking the example of a thermostat, I wonder how many other things also appear quite simple and are really elegantly complicated and on the flip side, how many things appear complex and are likely non-linear, but still predictable?