NOW AVAILABLE The draft of my book on Organizational Intelligence is now available on LeanPub Please support this development by subscribing and commenting. Thanks.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Boughing to the Inevitable

What is the best time to plant a tree?

A popular answer to this question is that the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, and the second-best time is now.

This is often claimed to be an ancient Chinese proverb. Or an African proverb. It is unlikely to be either of these.

And obviously we are not supposed to take this proverb literally. Because if the best time was twenty years ago, the second-best time would be nineteen years ago.

But instead of interpreting this logically, we are presumably supposed to interpret it as a motivational statement. Don't waste time regretting that you didn't plant a tree twenty years ago, act now to make sure you don't have similar regrets in twenty years' time. (Do real Chinese proverbs do motivational statements? I suspect not.)

In his new book, The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly talks about the opportunities for internet entrepreneurs thirty years ago. "Can you imagine how awesome it would have been to be an ambitious entrepreneur back in 1985 at the dawn of the internet?"

He then looks forward to the middle of the century. "If we could climb into a time machine, journey 30 years into the future, and from that vantage look back to today, we’d realize that most of the greatest products running the lives of citizens in 2050 were not invented until after 2016."

In other words, for an internet start-up the second-best time is now.

By the way, I'm not the first person to use the pun about 'boughing' to the inevitable. For example, @rcolvile used it in the context of ash dieback. "Half the trees in the country were going to be torn down. He’d already had to veto a particularly insensitive press release describing him as 'ashen-faced' about the situation, but 'boughing to the inevitable'. Meanwhile, Google is asking me if I meant 'coughing to the inevitable'. Thanks Google, it's always useful to spot something you haven't yet mastered., The Inevitable
Kevin Kelly, The Internet Is Still at the Beginning of Its Beginning (Huffington Post, 6 June 2016)

On The Best Time to Plant a Tree (Reddit)

Robert Colvile, Friends: The One with the Guy in a Yellow Tie (Telegraph, 3 November 2012)

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Quantum Organization

In road traffic, says my friend @antlerboy, the one with the most momentum has the most responsibility. Perhaps that's true in other fields too?

Meanwhile, in a hierarchical organization, the one with the highest position has the highest authority. This is known as positional power. Unfortunately, responsibility and authority are not the same thing.

According to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, the more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum can be determined, and vice versa. This is one of the central principles of quantum mechanics.

An analogous problem in most organizations is that responsibility and authority are poorly aligned. In other words, the person who pulls the strings isn't always the one who gets the blame when something goes wrong. And similarly, the person who does the work isn't always the person who actually knows how to do it properly. Position versus momentum.

There is a useful technique for organizational analysis known as RAEW (responsibility, authority, expertise and work), which was described by Roger Crane in the 1980s and adopted in some versions of Information Systems Planning. Unlike better-known techniques for responsibility assignment such as RACI, which describe how responsibilities ought to be distributed in an ideal (linear, clockwork) organization, the RAEW technique allows us to analyse how (badly) responsibilities are distributed in a real (chaotic, quantum, snakepit) organization.

And maybe fix some of the problems?

Related Posts: Clockwork or Snakepit? (June 2010)

Wikipedia: Responsibility Assignment Matrix, Uncertainty Principle.

Open University: Handy’s four types of organisational cultures

Updated 8 April 2016

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Scotch Eggs and Feedback

A primary school in Essex has banned various "unhealthy" snacks from pupils' lunchboxes. Teachers inspect pupils' lunchboxes and confiscate banned items.

The right-wing press is particularly aggrieved about the banning and confiscation of scotch eggs, which they appear to regard as an upper class snack. The Telegraph informs us that "they were created almost 300 years ago by Fortnum+Mason as a pocket-sized snack for aristocrats travelling by horse-drawn carriage". And Quentin Letts in the Mail enthuses about the scotch eggs at his prep school, with a sidebar describing the products sold today by a range of supermarkets including M+S and Waitrose. 

However, what struck me most about the story was the response from the school.
"Our healthy lunch box policy has been in place for some time and the majority of parents are very supportive of it. The decision to take additional steps to ensure all pupils are adhering to the policy was taken following feedback from parents and as part of our continued efforts to make improvements to all areas of the school. All school meals we serve comply with the government's school food standards, as required by law."

Feedback? The correct use of the word, according to Wikipedia, is when outputs of a system are "fed back" as inputs as part of a chain of cause-and-effect that forms a circuit or loop. In this context, the word probably means something like "a few random comments to which we have decided to overreact".

In the Deal and Kennedy model of organizational culture, a process-based culture is characterized by low risk and slow feedback. See my post On Agility, Culture and Intelligence (November 2012).

Dan Hyde, Scotch eggs branded junk food and confiscated from children's packed lunches (Telegraph 9 June 2015)

Quentin Letts, Keep your hands off my rusty cannonballs: As an Essex school outlaws Scotch eggs, QUENTIN LETTS explains why he's a life-long devotee  (11 June 2015)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Political parties and organizational intelligence 2

#orgintelligence #politics @rafaelbehr contrasts the behaviour of the Conservative and Labour parties.

Before the 2015 election, the Labour party practised collective denial ("misplaced confidence", "kidded themselves"), believing that "organization could compensate for uninspiring leadership". Following the election, "a danger now is oversteering the other way".

Denial and oscillation are two of the principal symptoms I have identified of Organizational Stupidity (May 2010).

Contrast this with the Conservative willingness to invest in 'blue collar conservatism'. Behr attributes this initiative to George Osborne, one of whose political gifts "is the self-knowledge to identify gaps in his own experience and to plug them with astute appointments". Cameron, he suggests, is much less intellectually curious than Osborne. And yet it is Cameron who carries through Osborne's plan to appoint Robert Halfon in order to recalibrate the Conservative's relationship with the working classes.

What reveals itself here is a form of intelligence and leadership that is collective rather than individual, a form of collaboration and teamwork that has not been strongly evident in the Labour Party recently.

Steve Richards goes further ...
"During Cameron’s leadership the Conservatives have become more alive as a party, impressively animated by ideas and debate. Cameron appears to be an orthodox Tory but likes having daring thinkers around him, even if they do not last that long. ... In recent years Conservative party conferences have been far livelier than Labour ones, which have been deadened by fearful control freakery."
... and insists that "the next Labour leader must not be frightened by internal debate".

One of the essential duties of leadership in any organization must be to boost the collective intelligence of the organization. Not just debate, but debate linked with action.

Patrick Wintour reports that there was plenty of (apparently) healthy argument in Labour's inner circle.
"Meetings were quite discursive, because there were a large number of views in the room. ... [Miliband] enjoyed that. He used the disagreement as a means to get his own way. It is a very interesting case study in power, in that he would not be described typically as a strong leader, but very consensual. The caricature of him is as weak, but internally he had great control."
But that's not enough.
"The team that Miliband had assembled around him consisted of highly intelligent individuals, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts – it was, according to many of those advisers, like a court in which opposing voices cancelled one another out."

Furthermore, an important requirement for organizational intelligence is that it is just not enough to have an inner circle of bright and well-educated 'spads', and to appoint either the cleverest or the most photogenic of them as "leader". Perhaps the Labour inner circle deeply understood the political situation facing the party, but they neglected to communicate (forgot to mention) this insight to others. The vanguard is not the party. Any party that aspires to be a movement rather than a machine must distribute its intelligence to the grass roots, and thence to the population as a whole.

Exercise for the reader: count the ironies in the above paragraph.

Finally, intelligent organizations have a flexible approach to learning from the past. @freedland argues that Miliband was single-minded about the future, and refused to tackle the prevailing narrative about the Labour government's role in the 2008 economic crisis.
"The management gurus and political consultants may tell us always to face forward, never to look over our shoulder, to focus only on the future. But sometimes it cannot be done. In politics as in life, the past lingers."


Rafael Behr, The age of machine politics is over. But still it thrives in the Labour party (Guardian 4 June 2015)

Jonathan Freedland, ‘Moving on’: the mantra that traps Labour in the past (Guardian 5 June 2015)

Tim Glencross, Attack of the clones: how spads took over British politics (Guardian 19 April 2015)

Brian Matthews, The Labour Party and the Need for Change: values, education and emotional literacy/intelligence (Forum, Volume 54 Number 1, 2012)

Steve Richards, Labour’s next leader should look to David Cameron, not Tony Blair (Guardian 1 June 2015)

Patrick Wintour, The undoing of Ed Miliband – and how Labour lost the election (Guardian 3 June 2015)

Chris York, The Rise Of The Spad: How Many Ministers Or Shadow Ministers Have Had Proper Jobs? (Huffington Post, 13 November 2013)

Related Posts:

Symptoms of Organizational Stupidity (May 2010)
Political Parties and Organizational Intelligence (May 2012)
Dark Politics (May 2015)

Updated 6 June 2015

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Corporate Grind

#QTWTAIN @lucykellaway asks if those workers who stay for years with the same companies (are) unambitious and mediocre, or does the corporate grind make them so?

Her article addresses the perception that people seemed to get dimmer the higher they went in the organization. If this perception is correct then there are several possible explanations
  • increased quality of intake
  • higher turnover of more talented and ambitious people (who may expect to get better opportunities elsewhere)
  • dulling effect of corporate life
If it is true that organizations systematically lose the best people and/or turn good people into mediocrities, then according to Stafford Beer's POSIWID principle, this is effect reveals the defacto purpose of the organization.

But perhaps the perception that people get dimmer as they get more experienced is wrong. Perhaps they simply display different forms of intelligence that are associated with collective excellence rather than individual brilliance. Clearly it would be natural for organizations to promote those kinds of intelligence that produce good corporate outcomes. However, it is likely that not everyone (especially fresh graduates) would see or appreciate these forms of intelligence.

According to the conventional metaphor, the corporate grind turns people into round pegs. When I was young, I used to think there was some kind of virtue in being a square peg: now I'm not so sure. However, there is undoubtedly a problem for any organization that cannot accommodate a few brilliant square pegs.

Lucy Kellaway, Why firms don't want you to be brilliant at your job (BBC Magazine 20 October 2014)

Twitter Update from @lucykellaway Today was my pearl anniversary at FT. Is 30 years' service a triumph or disgrace? (16 Apr 2015). My answer: Obviously a triumph for the FT to keep such a journalistic pearl.

Working for the Machine

#orgintelligence The recent appointment of an algorithm to a Board of Directors raises the spectre of science fiction becoming fact. Although many commentators regarded the appointment as a publicity stunt, there has always been an undercurrent of fear about machine intelligence. Even the BBC (following Betteridge's Law of Headlines) succumbed to the alarmist headline Could a big data-crunching machine be your boss one day?

There are several useful ways that an algorithm might contribute to the collective intelligence of a Board of Directors. One is to provide an automated judgement on some topic, which can be put into the pot together with a number of human judgements. This is what seems to be planned by the company Deep Knowledge Ventures, whose Board of Directors is faced with a series of important investment decisions. Although each decision is unique, there are some basic similarities in the decision process that may be amenable to automation and machine learning.

Another possible contribution is to evaluate other board members. According to the BBC article, IBM Watson could be programmed to analyse the contributions made by each board member for usefulness and accuracy. There are several ways such a feedback loop could enhance the collective intelligence of the Board.

  • Retrain individuals to improve their contributions in specific contexts.
  • Identify and eliminate individuals whose contribution is weak.
  • Identify and eliminate individuals whose contribution is similar to other members. In other words, promote greater diversity.
  • Enable trial membership of individuals from a wider range of backgrounds, to see whether they can make a valuable contribution.

Organizational Intelligence is about an effective combination of human/social intelligence and machine intelligence. Remember this when people try to develop an either-us-or-them narrative.


Jamie Bartlett, Will Artificial Intelligence put my job at risk? (Spectator 6 June 2014)

Adrian Chen, Can an Algorithm Solve Twitter’s Credibility Problem? (New Yorker 5 May 2014)

John Rentoul, Will Artificial Intelligence put my job at risk? (Independent 6 June 2014)

Richard Veryard, Does Cameron's Dashboard App Improve the OrgIntelligence of Government? (23 January 2013)

Matthew Wall, Could a big data-crunching machine be your boss one day? (BBC News 9 October 2014)

Other Sources

Algorithm appointed board director (BBC News 16 May 2014)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Defensive denial

... often follows what Freud called "kettle logic".

"The problem doesn't exist, and anyway it isn't a problem for us, and anyway we're already dealing with it."

Imagine we ask a manager whether her organization experiences any of the Symptoms of Organizational Stupidity. Suppose she denies it, or says it doesn't matter. Guess what - defensive denial is one of the symptoms on the list.

In 2008, Blockbuster CEO Jim Keyes expressed some bewilderment at his competitor’s success.

"I’ve been frankly confused by this fascination that everybody has with Netflix. ... Netflix doesn’t really have or do anything that we can’t or don’t already do ourselves." 

Denial is a key phase in the hype curve for new ideas (especially but not exclusively technological ones). A concept is rejected as meaningless, dangerous and/or unnecessary, while simultaneously being bundled together with earlier concepts.

"That concept doesn't make sense, and even if it did it wouldn't be technologically feasible, and anyway we already have a perfectly good word for it and lots of people are already doing it so we don't need a new word."

Brian Klapper, When Corporations Cannot Adapt (aka Fear the Kid in the Black t-shirt) (January 2013)

Related Posts: The Dynamics of Hype (Feb 2013)