Thursday, November 1, 2012

Better Safe Than Sorry!

October 31, 2012

We have just seen the back of mega-storm Sandy and thank goodness for that. But while the memory and experience of it is fresh in our minds, we have a very special opportunity to learn; specifically to learn what to do after the next Sandy, or nuclear accident, or terrorist act, or power outage, And make no mistake; they and other disasters are waiting to happen. We know that as a fact of life. So, isn’t there something we can do to reduce the damage from catastrophes, whether climate, accident, or terrorist/criminal act related?

Well, actually there is, and we can have a much better system up and running in time for the next horror story. starting right now. We spend a lot of time and money trying to learn from these experiences, and that work is essential and valuable, but we can do something else which is guaranteed to save lives, property, time and trauma. Think about it for a moment. You’re caught in a difficult or life-threatening situation and you have to act right now or things will get worse, possibly much worse. At those moments, a thought is likely to go through your mind: ‘I wish I had (fill in the blank).

Of course there are many different sorts of things that could fill in the blank, and we know that the thoughts that run through people’s heads at times like that cover an enormous range, literally from “I wish I had my pajamas on” to “I wish our town was covered with a protective and super-strong dome.”  But in the middle of that range, there is something that we could do; something we can learn, by asking a simple question of everyone who has been in or involved with a catastrophe. of almost any kind. This is the question.

What specific things might have helped you avoid problems you had in this event ?

This deceptively simple question could lead to a dialogue or discussion that would flesh out and concretize that “what.” There are several general categories of answers, all of which would be helpful in redesigning our communities and helping people enhance safety and reduce costs.
·         More information, particular not general.
·         Objects that could help.
·         People in positions with responsibility to help.
·         Other people, neighbors etc

So, for example, in the case of the late unlamented Hurricane Sandy, someone might have had a problem getting out of their flooding home. A rubber inflatable might help. Or people might need to call their neighbor(s) but do not have the phone numbers at hand, or might simply have forgotten them. A list would help, as would other people having your number convenient or pre-programmed in their phone system. For many reasons, a handheld with emergency information set up and operated by long-lasting (permanent?) power sources. Or again, roads less than 50 feet above local water level could have sensors to tell anyone what’s safe and what’s not. Similar sensors could exist in cars so they simply wouldn’t go towards deep water.

To collect the necessary information, people who’ve been through some traumatic event, if they’re willing, would participate in a carefully designed discussion or interview, either in groups or alone, at their homes, by Internet or in person.

Some answers to these questions are obvious (eg, simply having a list of neighbors’ telephone numbers) but it would be important not to simply accept the first or  easiest answer. The critical test of adequacy or utility is this: does it suggest, lead to or enable a non-human system, process or device that could help in the event of a disaster. We know absolutely that people are not at their best when confronted with these problems. Apart from the intrinsic stress at such times, there are many things to be considered or attended to. The right approach is to make as many of them automatic as possible.  And, not least, there could be much more effective automatic telephone or computer programs than currently exist.

It is simply not credible to argue that the cost, including development, of such systems would be too high. Too high for what? This overall process would also lead to many innovative approaches to non-life-threatening events or situations. The cost of Sandy is now reckoned at over 50 billion dollars and that doesn’t count (as such calculations never do) the loss in people’s productivity, health and life. The problem lies, in part, in our well-established tendency to ask how existing systems and procedures could be improved, rather than what could we construct as a safety net – essentially a floor under people’s lives and livelihoods.

This program could be launched at a low and affordable level. In fact, this is essential because people rapidly forget or re-imagine the experience of being in the situation about which we would be asking them. Here’s a very brief example of what such a dialogue might look like.

Questioner: Did you have any problems getting to safety?
Respondent: I certainly did.
Q: Can you give an example of that?
A: Yes. I tried the front door but water was coming under it so I went to a window instead.
Q: You thought there might be a lot of water on the other side of the door?
A:Yes, of course, Another exit seemed better.
Q: And did you get out that way OK?
A: Yes I went through a window, but it wasn’t easy.
Q: Why not?
A: It was very hard to open. It had been shut for a long time and we didn’t use it very often.
Q: Did you try to get in touch with anybody for help?
A: Well, I probably should have but I was really scared and I didn’t want to take the time.
Etc, etc.

In this short dialogue there are probably a dozen ideas for ways to improve the ability of that person to stay safe, be less frightened and get useful/critical information. A systematic process of this sort could provide fodder for new directions in catastrophe safety. What’s more, such an approach would not be expensive, even in absolute terms. What is important is to get at it ASAP, while the experience is fresh. We believe that actions have to be seen in context, and as responses to a situation as experienced. It would be easy to improve safety on both dimensions, by getting more insight into contexts, which define or at least strongly influence people’s choices and actions.

Seeding Slow Revolutions

October 29, 2012

In my earlier note, “Slow Revolutions?” I suggested that every revolution was slow, that we are now living through one, and that their presence can be detected by changes in the momentum of existing social systems, themselves driven by (perhaps many) disparate smaller changes reinforcing one another. One tendency in such turbulent times is likely to be highly conservative; hunker down, put up protective shields and stick to your knitting. But there is an exciting and less obvious alternative; to use those times and that environment for deliberate and effective social change.

Of course, much has been written about social change and an enormous amount of energy, both individual and collective, academic and operational, has been devoted to efforts to enable, strengthen, guide and modify it. To put it mildly, success has been highly elusive. I believe that slow revolutions provide an opportunity to initiate and effect desired social changes, for several reasons. First, even though social change by definition concerns communities and relatively large groups of people, this emerging and complex character of revolutions means that deliberate changes will be easier in part because they will appear as just another happening among many. That is, there will be less attention.

The second and related point is that every social change in its earliest stages is fragile, easily derailed and therefore usually born only to die. Its emergence in an already complicated world means that more time and support of the initial action will be possible. This provides much-needed space and time to become more substantive and rooted. Third, it is possible, even perhaps probable, that the new initiative will be able to build on or gain support from some of the many other changes already underway. Fourth, there are likely to be other initiatives that specifically could appropriately support this new one. And finally, fifth, there will be a growing body of potentially useful knowledge and experience about social change in general. Overall, a slow revolution provides an opportunity.

This is therefore a very good time to launch a social movement. This is not the same thing as hijacking a revolution (or another movement), which means capturing its momentum and reorienting it toward other ends. (This is historically one of the most important ways social revolutions have succeeded. An excellent example is the Communist revolution in Russia, in which the Bolsheviks captured the momentum built by the much more peaceful Mensheviks.) But this is different.  Application to the launching of a new social movement simply takes advantage of the loosening of traditional structures, so that new ideas and policies can also be incorporated. It isn’t quite the same thing as filling a vacuum; rather it takes advantage of the feeling that things are already somewhat out of control and that “steps need to taken.”

That raises an important question. What deliberate steps can or even should be taken to launch a social change program during a slow revolution? In particular, what steps can help support that infant change seed? To answer that, think for a minute about the standard political image of a “big tent.” The first target is to get into that tent. Why is that important? Because more or less by definition that image arose to denote the presence of all of the acceptable and important threads. In Republican circles, where (I believe) that image started, it meant for them a way to include everyone whose supporters were likely to vote that way. But it served to legitimize those as plausible and worth pursuing.  Social movements need to do the same.

There is another important lesson in this. The record will show that once a point of view or philosophy, even a very non-mainstream one, is allowed inside the tent, it has taken the most important single step towards legitimacy. The history of movement towards alternative modes of energy production is a good example. Wind power, followed a bit later by solar power, has gotten into the big tent of energy production methods. That means, for example, that ever discussion of energy scenarios now includes a discussion of their possible contributions. Similarly, when federal energy regulations or requests for proposals are promulgated, respondents are asked to include these alternatives in their proposals, even though neither of them has yet become significant in the US.

Social movements also need a rationale that can be widely disseminated and has the capacity to interest people.  Revolutions do not succeed without attracting followers. The Occupy campaign is a lesson in how to do some things extremely well, but it failed completely in its presumed main objective (shifting the national dialogue on the 1%) because there was no way to engage with the movement, even for those who wished to help move its ideas  into the mainstream (that is, letting it under the tent.) That’s another lesson about slow revolutions:  ideas and campaigns need spokespeople (spokes-groups?) and figureheads.

So, does a new idea get under the tent? Here there is another lesson from slow revolutions. One way it can be done is by influencing powerful and respected people or champions, who are willing to speak for the issue and whose personal credibility assures respectful attention. But another way is by publicizing the idea(s) in respected publications or these days, web sites. Indeed, the proliferation of Internet access across the world creates a very special opportunity.

Never in history have so many people, and so many diverse people, had such easy access to a simple and far-reaching link to others, everywhere in the world. Add to that the availability of remarkably effective automatic translators and spread is virtually guaranteed IF enough attention can be captured. What is lacking is an efficient aggregation engine, a program or protocol that easily clusters ideas and their sources, and indicates their strength, and translates that into social momentum.

There is much more to be said on this topic but perhaps this at least scratches the surface of the issue. Slow revolutions are prime opportunities for engendering social change. We should take full advantage of the current one.

Slow Revolutions?

October 29, 2012

Years ago, studying for my history classes, I kept coming across passages something like this. “That (the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Congress of Vienna, Printing, etc) was a revolution in world history.” That certainly sounded important, so I made sure to remember their names and dates for future quizzes. Later – much later -- I began to wonder, what exactly would life be like, living through such a revolutionary time? And, even more, would we know (and how) that we were in one? In fact, I believe that we are now living in the midst of such a social revolution. The textbooks ( or memory cubes or knowledge capsules or implants) in 2112 or so will probably be telling students that this was a revolutionary time. If that is true, we have an opportunity to find some answers to those questions. What does a revolution look like from within, and (how) can it be recognized?

The first part of the answer is easy. Mostly a revolution in process looks like business as usual. Most of ordinary life, life for Lillian Lieber’s T.C.Mits (“The Celebrated Man in the Street”), continues with little change. There is a line in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” that puts it nicely (though a bit condescendingly). Gandalf the wizard explains it to Frodo more or less like this. “We need to fight secretly so that ordinary people can live their lives undisturbed.” That makes it sound as though revolutions can take place over the heads or behind the backs of the population at large, which I think was once true, but is now in the process of becoming false, at least in relatively highly developed societies.

Is it possible to recognize a social revolution while living through it, and if so, how? I think it is, but to do it first requires putting away the idea that revolutions are sudden. They are in fact, actually, and necessarily, always very slow. History is like a telescope in that it foreshortens the appearance of events; the farther away (or back) you look, the sharper and more sudden the change appears. I suspect that most of think of the Renaissance as a relatively brief period in which Europe awoke after a thousand years of sleep. On the contrary, as Stephen Greenblatt  shows in his wonderful book, “The Swerve,” it developed over a period of more than 200 years. No one saw or even could have seen any systematic difference from one day to the next.

History is not an experience; rather, it is an intellectual discovery or recognition. A revolution is not an experience; it is a cognitive reconceptualization of some past period. What, then, are the elements we would need to find in a “typical” revolution? Presumably, if there is such a thing, we must be able to distinguish it from periods which are not revolutions (and will later be seen as relatively stable). So we should start with the nature of societal change in general. All complex societies are always in the process of changing; it is a condition of modernity. Even the most apparently stable societies are changing, in small ways and large. A “revolution” is therefore necessarily a somewhat arbitrary label, marking a time when the changes were both relatively large and relatively consistent.

I find the most useful way to think about social change, and therefore about revolutions, is in terms of their momentum. An object’s momentum, by definition, is the product of its velocity and its mass. It is essentially a measure of the strength of its tendency to continue on its current path; the greater the momentum, the harder it is to change its course. By analogy, we can say that every social object (system, world, country, etc) has a certain amount of social momentum. As changes take place, that momentum must also change, either in direction (Which way are we headed?) or speed (How fast are things changing?) but most of the time it probably changes in both senses.

In the normal course of events both of these factors are likely to be changing, but by rather small and more-or-less random increments in day-to-day observation.  However, since the ultimate momentum of any system is determined by the combined effect of all these internal movements and forces, the actual overall momentum reflects their combined effects. The net effect can only be confirmed after the ultimate path of the system’s momentum becomes clear. In most circumstances, this will require some time to pass because there is generally likely to be a lot of variability in the actual path of the system.

But in some circumstances, that path will be clear and consistent fairly quickly. What does that require? It requires that the local changes in momentum are relatively aligned so that an early look will predict the final shift pretty well. It follows that the most sensitive indicator is likely to be the extent to which all social changes in process are relatively well aligned. In that case, the revolutionary quality of the changes will be clear. The other relatively early indicator will be the amount of the shift; significant deviations from the earlier path will be likelier to be permanent and to signal a revolution in progress. There’s one other point. When the various regions or elements changing are changing in concert with one another, the likelihood that eventual movement in that direction will be permanent is higher, and therefore more reliable.

To sum up, it seems plausible to consider social change, and particularly revolutionary change in terms of three different observable factors; first, the speed with which things are changing, second, the direction in of those changes, and third, the consistency of smaller and more local changes visible in elements of the system. If these three indicators are all moving in the same direction (meaning they will increase the probably of leading to a similar result)  there is a good case to be made that a revolution is underway.

I believe that is the case now (2012). The main indicators are: 1, a dramatic change in individual capacity and interaction by new technologies , 2, a strengthening of national and territorial interdependence, 3, recognition that the world is faced with a global climate problem, and 4, the existence of WMDs that can put everyone at risk. These all lead to or at least encourage a shift in the old idea that territories – defined by lines on a map -- have sovereign rights and need not concern themselves much with other territories. It used to be possible for countries to declare themselves wishing to be left alone and able to operate in that spirit. That is no longer true. Now, more than ever, everyone is responsible to be their brother’s and sister’s keepers.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Not-for-Profit Profits

Recently there has been a rash of stories in the newspapers and on radio and TV about the “sudden” recognition that the chief executives (CEOs) and other senior managers of large "not-for profits" (NFP) were being paid an extremely handsome salary, usually plus bonuses.. This uproar played particularly well in Massachusetts, where the Boston Globe regularly runs editorials fulminating about the fact that consultants (hiss, hiss) to the state were getting rich at the public’s expense, by being paid at the “outrageous” rate of $100 per hour. (Full disclosure: I myself am a consultant. If that sets your teeth to gnashing,  feel free to skip the rest of this column.)

But that would be a shame, because the argument is actually quite important, and interesting. It is only secondarily concerned with the high pay per se, but rather is focuses on the question of whether NFP executives and particularly Chief Executives should be paid using more or less the same rationale as for corporate (for-profit) CEOs, which of course leads directly to roughly the same pay and the same type of pay package (including potentially substantial discretionary bonuses).

After all, in comparing the work to be done and the responsibilities of the position, there doesn’t seem to be much difference. As a matter of fact, one could actually argue that the NFP job is more, not less, difficult and exacting because there is usually less flexibility and its boundaries are more open to examination and inspection. People, particularly including all of those affected by its efforts, can see more clearly what is going on, how decisions are made and their potential effects on “me.” And by definition, the rationale for having such a category as Not-for-Profit is to encourage and invest in activities of unusual public value. So, maybe, if anything, their CEOs should be paid more.

But Maybe Not.

The other side of the coin is also quite clear. The original issue began with people entering public service, whether as a clerk in the school or a major political actor. The positive payoff from that was straightforward. People who were willing to devote their efforts to serving society, one way or another, deserved special consideration. This used to include (and sometimes still does) assured employment, the satisfaction of doing something important and recognized, the power to make a difference (not necessarily in one big splash), the esteem of their community, support in times of need, and less likelihood of turmoil in their workplaces.

Actually, there are two “other sides” of this coin. It’s not merely that  NFP workers were more protected and respected, but also that workers in the private workforce took significantly greater risks by doing so. Businesses could and often did fail, those dependent on them suffered, they were also more responsible for a variety of possible damages to the community, and even though their compensation, especially near the top, could be quite high, it could also be quite low – or zero. In both cases, the principle was pretty clear. People on public payrolls got security, private payrolls might get richer. Risks and rewards were reasonably related and clear, and people had a choice. The fact that pay scales in private organizations are largely kept secret is also a source of distortion. How can we be sure the system is fair under those circumstances? We can’t.

The problem is that the relationships between these elements, which were never as sharp as theory hoped, have largely collapsed. We now have a system in which some people are in jobs that are both low risk and high rewards (investment bankers), while most others settle for high risks and low rewards (casual or unorganized workers). The appropriate answer is to begin to revise the employment system and our laws to return to the fairer system. It will take time, but in this, direction counts more than speed.

Monday, April 4, 2011

In Mid-Air

As a practicing consultant for over 40 years, in fields as diverse as technology, community development, innovation, business and organizational change, I've undoubtedly made at least as many mistakes as most people and surely many more than I should have. But I don't seem to be making much progress. Although I've continually been thinking about how to do it better, that list gets longer and longer, for a very simple reason. Every time I examine either what I was just doing or what I'm trying to do, it coughs up a couple of headline problems or errors that I think I should have caught. It would be easy to conclude that I simply hadn't thought things through carefully enough. . In retrospect, I could easily have set up a personal “WikiErrors” site that would list every misstep, slip, catastrophe, etc, all the way to the ultimate unhappy category – the one where I say, “What was I possibly thinking?” I nevertheless still tend to suspect that I should have caught most of those mistakes.

I also know beyond any doubt that I am not alone in this situation. When I talk with colleagues, or participate in on-line groups and exchanges, I discover that the same thing is happening to them and others. We have dozens of magazines and journals, enough “how-to-do-it-better” conferences and workshops to go to a different one every day for years. Most visibly, we have now many social media programs which contain groups devoted to consulting (and virtually every other profession), and many of them, in sites like LinkedIn and Facebook, have tens of thousands of members. I am morally certain that if I (or you) looked at similar files or conferences in the past, I (or you) would find exactly the same complaints and questions. I thought – and I continue to think – that despite an awful lot of talk and writing to the contrary, we don’t seem to be learning much.

But Maybe Not.

There’s another way to look at all this, and it’s pretty much the way we mostly encourage our clients and colleagues to look at their experiences. I have been participating in a number of organizational consulting groups on LinkedIn and I see that virtually everyone using these sites at root agrees with the others. There are some outriders to be sure – some of them are undoubtedly mine – but the thing that stands out is that almost all of us agree, even though that fact doesn’t seem to translate into demonstrated effective action. Why not? How can we be convinced we’re right and yet so wrong?

Here’s how. The discussions among us are both correct and unhelpful because they are addressed at the wrong level; wrong for recognizing the need for action and understanding the characteristics of effective action on that topic or in those circumstances. It is as though we’re in mid-air. We feel as though we’re on solid ground and we act that way, but we’re really not. For example, when someone says “We need to communicate better,” or “We agree on greater communication,” there is usually broad agreement. But, there are no genuine action implications in that statement. I call this “misplaced concreteness” because although it sounds useful and actionable, it is not.

Consider just a few of the options if someone sets out to  follow such a prescription. Communicate how?  Should we write, call by phone, send emails, walk to another office and talk, convene a meeting of everyone involved (and who should that be), walk around and tell “everyone” one at a time? Etc. But these are the realities, these and many other specific possibilities, to say nothing of what the message should be and whether there are expectations as to future behavior. The choice of these and the details of actually following through makes all the difference in the world. So we can all agree that “Better communication is needed,” without at all agreeing on what should actually happen or carried out by whom. We tend to disregard these choices on the grounds that they are trivial, or that we all know what is meant, but these assumptions are emphatically false. The choice of method, the details of execution, the support or reinforcement (if any) that accompanies those actions, all make a great and even deterministic difference. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

When the Wind Blows

We are an organizational society. Every one of us is a member of dozens, perhaps hundreds of them. If you doubt that, think about it for a moment. We belong to political parties and jurisdictions, governmental, business, educational and religious groups and units, families and social  clubs. In all probability, if we did a census, we would find more organizations than people.

There has long been a remarkable lack of agreement about the nature of organizations; what arrangements produce the desired results, how, why and when they work and in particular, what to do if you’re dissatisfied with their character, performance or behavior. Thousands of books and case studies, hundreds of journals, newsletters and magazines, and dozens of university professors, research projects and courses attempt to answer these questions and offer reliable guidance.

Still, even in those disciplines and professions, like management and consulting, specifically aiming to solve those problems, there is near universal agreement that most of the time, even when things work pretty well, we’re not sure why, and when they don’t, we don’t have a reliable way of improving them. All in all, “It’s a puzzlement.”

But Maybe Not.

The island of Martha’s Vineyard, off the Southeast coast of Massachusetts, covers only about 100 square miles, stretching about 20 miles from East to West, and 10 from North to South. Despite its small size, there are consistent and very obvious local differences. For example, there is a striking contrast in appearance of the oaks that cover the island. Those along the South shore are short, bent and sparsely leaved. Along the North shore, in contrast, the oak trees are tall, straight, and thickly leaved. What accounts for these obvious differences?

In a word, wind, which blows more or less steadily, from the Atlantic Ocean across the South shore, losing most of its strength before it gets to the North shore. Continual exposure to it makes a big difference to the oaks in its path. They all start the same way, growing tall and straight, but over time, they bend to fit the wind and they adjust their growth in ways that are unpredictable in detail but very predictable in general.

There are also “winds” in organizations, and they produce similar results. Those winds are the continuing but often slow-acting and unrecognized effects of the organization’s structure, by which I mean not only the boxes and lines on organization charts but everything in the organization that’s left when all the people have been removed from consideration. This also includes, for example, in-boxes, memos, offices, desks and locations, assignments, contracts, reputation, relationships etc.

All of these tangible (non-human) factors create a kind of wind in the sense that their consequences are always developing, they make certain outcomes more likely, and their effects accumulate over time. In the short run, their effects are small, often unnoticeable. As a consequence, deliberate change can be brought about relatively easily in the short run, but is eventually overwhelmed by the accumulated effect of these structural winds.

This is what is generally seen in organizational change initiatives. At the beginning, managers can do pretty much as they wish, but these effects erode after the early adjustments are made. Lasting change requires not only a good beginning and an appropriate direction, but deliberate adjustment of the organizational winds, to encourage the early changes and sustain them in the long-term.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Culture Confusion -- Part 1

There are a number of words tossed around casually but regularly in the world of organizations, organizational change, leadership and management. I haven't made a study of this literature (if that's the right word) but even though I'm not a betting man, I would put a few bucks on the table to bet that "culture" was in the top two or three. It's not just its frequency of use is surprising; the surprising thing is that it's so routinely used as an explanation of behavior in and by organizations. Why do companies do -----? It's their culture. Why is it so hard to -----? Because of their culture. How can we get our organization to ----? Fix their culture.

This has become the word of choice for answering questions to which we do not actually know the answer. Just say it's the culture and everyone will nod in agreement without having any idea in the world about what that means much less what to do about it. (Basically, it is usually defined as "How we do things around here.") Disagreeing with this seems like folly, first because no one much except for me seems to be bothered by this lack, but even more because there really doesn't seem to be a good alternative explanation with which to replace it. After all, we do need answers to those questions. (There is plenty of academic work on all of the above but its value to practitioners and managers is debatable.)

But Maybe Not. I would like to offer one. The word "culture" came into increasingly widespread use because of its importance in anthropology. In that field, it means, by one definition;  "The learned patterns of behavior and thought that help a group adapt to its surroundings." It seemed to make sense to transfer exactly the same idea to business organizations, which Terry Deal and Allan Kennedy did in their 1982 book, "Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life." This was a very good book, which became hugely influential in the relatively new field.of organizational behavior.

It is now practically impossible to discuss organizations without referring to their culture, and indeed, using "their culture" to explain why people do what they do in an organization, thus substituting one vague concept for another. There is a much better and conceptually more sound alternative word, which was also current at that time but which has gone out of fashion. That word was "climate," and much effort was spent on research to lay out the components of organizational climate and their implications for organizational behavior.

The difference between these two terms may seem trivial or vague, but as they have become used, it is quite fundamental. Culture is an intrinsic property that emerges in and through the organization itself, whereas climate is an aspect or set of properties that exists apart from the organization. We can deliberately create the same climate in another organization, whereas its culture would develop organically and thus inevitably be distinctive. I also prefer the concept "climate" because its substantive measures are immediately sensible and can easily be put to use. To help people become more "engaged" with their work is much harder and less clear than reducing the number of levels of the hierarchy between them and the VP.