Archive for April, 2010

Systems dynamics meets the Afghan war via Powerpoint

April 29, 2010 2 comments

It is becoming a common practice to laugh at that slide, but try on this thought experiment:

what if someone made a slide of a zoom in on the surface of a semi-conductor chip?

Wouldn’t that seem as incomprehensible and “foolish”? and yet by the slow process of developing knowledge we have become capable of extraordinary things enabled by semiconductors and information theory

In 2005 or so, MIT Systems Dynamics lab came by Bell Hall to demonstrate their model of COIN in Iraq which had many thousands of nodes and relationships between nodes.

It was much busier than that slide. And yet somehow that very complex model yielded important insights related to the management of complexity in a way that transcended simple rules of cause and effect.

Complexity requires new forms of building and communicating understanding and appreciation, which cannot be easily transmitted through the linear text modes favored by those who want to see a return to management by info papers only.

It would take many books to flesh out a detailed description of what that one slide is already able to represent in a single image, admittedly busy.

Does anyone think war in Afghanistan is any less complex than the slide indicates? If anything, it’s absurdly simplistic.

In any event, developing models of complexity is exactly how you go about making the unknown a little more knowable.

A systems dynamics model is the first step towards building collaborative understanding of complexity.

We laugh about the 6 blind men trying to describe the elephant, but we forget that after each has shared his limited experience of the elephant, we are left with a pretty good list of what qualities the elephant actually has, and those 6 blindmen collectively know more about elephants together than they did individually.

that’s what that slide says to me.

And those who would eliminate Powerpoint on principle are apparently making the argument that visual learning and graphics degrade communication.

Like any other tool (Powerpoint, not me) I am against the misuse of Powerpoint in the classroom or in decision making.

I acknowledge that it is all too easy to confuse activity (including “busy” slides) with results

But I also know of excellent resources broadly available that make visual display of information a communication multiplier:

Garr Reynolds: Presentation Zen

Cliff Atkinson: Beyond Bullet Points

Edward Tufte: everything he has ever written

Seth Groden: many things he has written

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Obama declares people of Arizona are irresponsible

April 24, 2010 2 comments

Barack Hussein Obama takes the oath of office ...
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Obama,  elected by citizens, according to the law,   has declared the citizens and their duly elected representatives, who followed the law to pass a law, as irresponsible. You would expect that from true believers, who see the world in absolutes: the members of this group include children,  the naive, idealists, utopianists, and clowns.

“Our failure to act responsibly at the federal level will only open the door to irresponsibility by others,” Obama said at a Rose Garden naturalization ceremony for 24 members of the U.S. military. “That includes, for example, the recent efforts in Arizona.”

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Complexity in process consulting: a good thing?

April 22, 2010 4 comments

The Lorenz attractor is an example of a non-li...
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A colleague used the word “simplistic” in describing the 10 principles of process consulting offered by Ed Schein.

I interpreted his use of the word simplistic in describing shines 10 principles as a negative thing. There’s a part of me that remembers the 10 Commandments are simplistic too.

In my studies of complexity and chaos theory there is a belief among practitioners that to successfully adapt to or manage complexity requires an equivalent degree of complexity in the manager or leader or organization’s processes themselves. There is rarely if ever evidence offered to support this contention, but it seems to be intuitive. It is the very intuitive attractiveness of that idea that causes me to be skeptical and wonder what the evidence really shows about the need to be complex in order to manage complexity.

The other side of the argument is that a combination of very simple rules in a dynamic environment can cause very complex results, and so I’m not sure that complexity needs complexity to be managed.

If you believe the 10 principles are overly simplistic where would you add some additional nuance to his general advice?

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Learning from the process consultant

April 22, 2010 3 comments

Social gadfly
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Think about the last time you worked with a consultant in your organization: looking back at what the consultant did and said, were there any specific behaviors that surprised you? Did she do something that you and the faculty were not already capable of doing?

If they did something new, is the new behavior something you think your staff can now perform on their own war will it be necessary to continue to have a consultant to achieve the freedom to state the insights?

If they didn’t do anything new, what did the presence of the consultant really contribute to the process? Did they help create a safe space for discussion and reflection? Did they encourage fresh thinking that you couldn’t get to in the normal conduct of meetings with the staff?

Did you find yourself nodding as he or she spoke and saying “of course! I knew that all along!”

did the consultant offers specific opinions or insights or were they like a lawyer asking leading questions or Socrates guiding the team indirectly to the truth? Or did they simply put the question out there and let the answer go where it may?

Did they do anything that you now think “I have to add that to my skill set!”

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The persona of the process consultant: is it intentional or assigned?

April 22, 2010 2 comments

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I’m wondering if you have ever had the experience of deliberately planning your relationship to the organization you’re trying to help change.

I am discovering that I tend to have a particular role that I favor witches being an expert. Sometimes when I act as an expert by taking nonconfrontational or non-directive role and try to encourage the group to join me on the path of self discovery, but I am starting to realize that deep down I still consider myself to be an expert. I get uncomfortable when I am in the middle of uncertainty and I can see that part of being a good process consultant is to embrace the uncertainty and trust the group process.

Do you have a preferred persona for intervention?

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How important is contextual knowledge for process consultants in business settings?

April 22, 2010 3 comments

Margaret Mead ( December 16, 1901, Philadelphi...
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am interested in knowing in what two or three adjectives you would use to describe the essential nature of the environment that you operate in for your business.

What do you consider to be the most important environmental influences on the system that is your business? Is your environment something that your firm can directly affect or are you really at the mercy of where the environment and its regulations are going? To what degree do you have true freedom of action in your environment?

I ask this because it is customary to overlook the real differences in the nature of the environments that different businesses operate in. In an effort to oversimplify systems theory sometimes we overgeneralize and miss important distinctions.

It’s very dangerous to be an expert in systems theory and conclude that you as a consultant have special insight into a business where you’ve never worked before.

I can remember doing some work with a student of John Forrester, the founder of systems dynamics who was herself a recognized authority in modeling complex business systems. She told the story of how difficult it was for her to learn the lesson that being an expert in general systems theory can be an obstacle in helping an organization discover and map its own processes. She had to learn to set aside her preconceived notions and let the story unfold from the people who were directly involved.

This seems to be an important theme in every style of action research that I have seen so far as well.

how important is specialized knowledge for you in your business? How would you protect yourself from a naïve process consultant or expert consultant who might be in a hurry to offer a advice?

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Thought experiment for contract teachers

April 22, 2010 3 comments

Interior of one of the 15 walk-in freezers in ...
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in your capacity as a contract employee as a teacher, did you find that your employer’s request for you to offer expert advice conflicted with your perceived role as a teacher?

One of our most important learnings about the use of contract services in the Department of Defense are the challenges of asking contractors to go beyond the boundaries of their formal statement of work. This can lead to either violating contract limits or incurring additional costs and risks when a contractor goes beyond the boundaries.

Have you had similar experiences when working inside an organization but as a contract employee? Do your peers have the same work relationship or is there a mixture of inside and outside personnel? If so, how does your management and leadership handle a work force coming from two separate places like that?

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