Raising the Bar
Have you ever been surprised in how an apparent dysfunctional team or organization somehow manages to reach an objective or deliver successfully when, from the outside it appears impossible how this can be?
I have a good friend that has a saying: “Some companies are successful despite themselves.” He usually uses this saying when he observes how companies or project teams manages to achieve, when there is seemingly little to no logic to explain why and how they manage to do it, under the circumstances.
The circumstances he refers to, and encounters mostly, constitutes dysfunctional and incompetent management. These teams have to contend with managers that manages poorly, and still they succeed in delivering and achieving successful outcomes for customers.
Peter Drucker is quoted as saying: “Most of what we call ‘management’ consist of making it difficult for people to get their jobs done.” What is it then that we as managers should endeavor to achieve?
Poor management occurs when the performance of the company’s operations or projects somehow manages to deliver on the day-to-day requirements for the business to persist. It happens regardless, and despite of it being disconnected from the strategic, or thinking functions of the business - its management.
The best (although unsavory) example of such a circumstance is the observance of a headless or decapitated chicken. The body continues to function - it is running for its life. Although, without its head to guide it in the appropriate direction it cannot avoid injury and facilitate escape. Death is inevitable. For a while though it will continue to do what it does best: run for its life!
I have been involved with a client for two years where at the coal face, individuals and small teams achieve amazing results for its customers.
This is achieved despite generally overall incompetent management practices, with managers disconnected from the realities of the day-to-day business. Managers are busy with being busy. The busyness takes the form of meetings, workshops, emails, meetings and more meetings. I often question: “What is it they do here exactly?”
The higher you go in the management hierarchy, the worse it gets. All this goes on with seemingly no effect on the day-to-day business.
Why can an organization under such circumstances prevail (at least in the short term)?
How can projects under circumstances like these somehow fumble along for long enough to eventually and still, deliver value for their sponsors and clients, regardless of shoddy management practices (I.T. Projects in particular)?
In this Blog entry I am elaborating on two complex but imperative principles that may shed some light on the above: The Nash Equilibrium and The Route of Least Resistance.
I make the case for the one thing we as managers and human beings should pioneer in everything we do. We should leave a legacy of innovation - of making things better.
In game theory, the Nash equilibrium (named after John Forbes Nash, who proposed it) is a kind of solution concept of a game involving two or more players, where no player has anything to gain by changing only his or her own strategy unilaterally.
If each player has chosen a strategy and no player can benefit by changing his or her strategy while the other players keep theirs unchanged, then the current set of strategy choices and the corresponding payoffs constitute a Nash equilibrium.
In simple terms it means that while an organization is locked into accepting the way that things are done (whether they like it or not), while the business perceives that it is meeting the objectives of the customers and the market in the way they are doing it currently, then it becomes hard or near impossible to introduce change as a lone individual working in such an organization. The organization is in equilibrium and will find a way to maintain such equilibrium.
If there is no perceived need for change, and while there is relative acceptance of the circumstance (it being negative or positive), then the Nash equilibrium mathematically shows that you are bound to get more of the same. Managers will do what they do. Staff will do what they do, in the way it was always done, and things will continue the way it always was, regardless.
For example: As an outsider looking into an organization, one may see a number of inefficiencies from the way in which things are done. These inefficiencies may relate to processes or beliefs in the way and in the reasons for how day-to-day business tasks are accomplished.
These inefficiencies appear to be “acceptable to” if only tolerated by the group. The group will also defend their circumstances. It is an equilibrium at play even if they don’t like their jobs in its current state. If you seek explanation for the situation, one is often told by the organization: “That is the way it is done here, or it has always been done this way.”
If you continue to do things in the same way, you will be guaranteed of obtaining the same results.
Change the Equilibrium
How does one introduce change or innovation into a business or project that finds itself in such an equilibrium?
It is very hard to change an equilibrium from within the system. The system will somehow find a way to balance itself again.
One of the effective ways to address this inefficient equilibrium configuration is by introducing an externality that challenges or upsets the equilibrium, forcing it to adapt to an outside induced factor.
This externality can come in the form of a new technology, a new team member, leader or manager, or a significant market dynamic. It must be something that challenges the status quo and its balance.
Another way is to remove a part of the current configuration.
While the equilibrium remains in place, an organization will continue to deliver the same outputs in a similar manner.
For change, this equilibrium needs to be addressed. If we don’t, we are locked into the same equilibrium where we tend to accept the status quo of poor management and mediocre execution, even while we know it can be done better.
Path of Least Resistance
In physics, the path of least resistance is always taken by objects moving through a system.
For example, water flowing downhill follows the path of least resistance as it is pulled downward by gravity. Electricity flowing through a circuit behaves similarly: while every available path has some current flowing through it, the amount of current through each path is inversely proportional to its electrical resistance.
The path of least resistance is also used to describe certain human behaviors, although with much less specificity than in the strict physical sense. In these cases, resistance is often used as a metaphor for personal effort or confrontation: a person taking the path of least resistance avoids these.
How easy is it not to avoid the introduction of change as a result of avoiding the resistance that we will face for our attempts to do things differently, if not better.
If we attempt to address the balance of a Nash Equilibrium, we are bound to be faced by resistance and opposition. It will require one to take the road of more resistance for the betterment of ourselves, the team or the organization.
An Equilibrium of Least Resistance
As I.T. and Project Managers we are confronted with the realities of the above two concepts.
For example: We know that doing more of the same will result in us, and our teams getting the same results, which has the potential to be improved. If we continue to plan, price or manage projects in the way that it was done in our previous project, at best we can expect results that are similar, if not worse than our previous engagement.
If we continue to manage our businesses without introducing innovation we risk being captives of a Nash Equilibrium, and taking the route of least resistance. Being inflexible and not evolving puts an organism and an organization at risk of being eliminated.
Personally, all I want from the above two concepts is the knowledge on how we come to find us in circumstances that are resisting change, and how to address these obstacles to improving our practices as Project and I.T. Management Professionals.
If we don’t rise to the challenge, we may soon find that we have teams that delivers despite our management. We have teams that are operating as drones not benefitting from the management energy and insight we can bring to our engagement.
Let Us Innovate
Who innovates in your company?
One of the better definitions of innovation can ben found in Innovation Manifesto. Innovation can be described as: The capability of continuously realizing a desired future state" ([John Kao, The Innovation Manifesto, 2005])
If there is one state of the Nash Equilibrium that is worthwhile having, it is the equilibrium that can be found in people and teams that continuously question how they can improve on their actions, thought and approaches. These are people driven to innovate.
If somehow, we can succeed to create an environment where we are compelled to continue innovating. That through being in equilibrium we are bound by the knowledge that there is nothing to gain by stopping our continuous improvement, then only does the Nash Equilibrium serve a useful purpose in our management approach.
If the desired future state is a state whereby we never stop questioning, trying and endeavoring for an improved and desired future state, we will have our eye on the most important trait of being human: the ability to create.
The answer to who is doing the innovation in your company is therefore: everyone. It is the responsibility of every party in your team and organization, household or network to strive towards a desired future state. It is not a function of a specific group or department. It should be the DNA of your business.
If as managers we can leave this to be the legacy in our organizations and project teams, we have succeeded in connecting the head with the body - the management with the execution team. Together there can only be success, progress and improvement.
Let us therefore be advocates for innovation. Let us be true to being human by never ending to innovate and create.
Your comments and thoughts are welcome.
Hendrik van Wyk