On Tuesday, I will be unveiling a new project management process that blends Lean Startup concepts and Human-Centered Design concepts to better manage innovation projects. Please attend the Government Innovator Virtual Summit. If you can't make it, I will unveil the process on this blog after the presentation. I would love to hear your comments. 🙂
One way I talk about organizational structure is how it configures the components of People, Technology, Processes, and Projects. All organizations have at least People, Processes, and Technology which works together to enable the organization to function, survive, and thrive. Defects in any one of these components or how the components work together can create a dysfunctional or dying organization.
What has puzzled me is how these components actually work together and how to best optimize their contributions to the overall operations of the organization. This is becoming an increasingly important question as advanced technology impacts every aspect of organizational life. So, this is how I see the components shifting toward a future organization structure:
- Technology both enables people by relieving them of routine processes and magnifies their creative, collaboration, and communication abilities.
- People play an increasingly important part in developing innovative visions for projects. They also initiate and refine processes until the processes can become fully-automated.
- Projects create new processes and process refinement/obsolescence creates the need for new projects.
I'm still working on the exact nature of the components' interactions and how to set up a self-balancing mechanism for optimizing the projects-to-processes to projects cycle. Also vital to this conceptual model is the interplay between people and technology.
Fascinating profile of the founder of Palantir - "In the last five years Palantir has become the go-to company for mining massive data sets for intelligence and law enforcement applications, with a slick software interface and coders who parachute into clients’ headquarters to customize its programs. Palantir turns messy swamps of information into intuitively visualized maps, histograms and link charts. Give its so-called 'forward-deployed engineers' a few days to crawl, tag and integrate every scrap of a customer’s data, and Palantir can elucidate problems as disparate as terrorism, disaster response and human trafficking."
Ross Dawson argues that the following four principles are essential to crowdsourcing success:
- Open by Default
- Framed around Outcome
- Governance for Transformation
- Learn by Doing
He argues these principles are especially applicable to government. As more agencies consider using crowdsourcing as part of their mission delivery, these are useful principles to start with but I think that more work needs to be done concerning managing distributed workforces and microtasks.
Today is the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17. It was the last time humans left lower Earth orbit and traveled outside the bounds of Earth's gravity. It was also the fulfillment of a specific vision first laid out by President Kennedy when he challenged the nation to land men on the moon by the end of the decade.
The power of a vision can make a government agency do the impossible. The lack of a clear, focused vision can also leave an agency foundering as the recent report by the National Academy of Sciences stated in their current assessment of NASA.
"In his statement, NASA's Weaver said: 'We're fully utilizing the International Space Station; developing a heavy-lift rocket and multi-purpose crew vehicle capable of taking American astronauts into deep space; facilitating development of commercial capabilities for cargo and crew transport to low Earth orbit; expanding our technological capabilities for the human and robotic missions of today and tomorrow; pursuing a robust portfolio of science missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope; developing faster and cleaner aircraft and inspiring the next generation of exploration leaders.'
Smith said that statement itself shows the problem: "If it takes you that many phrases to explain it, then you do not have a crisp, clear strategic vision."
From an early age, I have never liked the observation that something is complex. It usually meant that person is just resigning themselves to never understanding the problem. I couldn't stand this defeatist attitude and have spent most of my life trying to devise ways to tackle complex problems including the aptly-named “wicked problems.” Even though I may never find the solution to the P versus NP Problem, it has taught me a great deal about problem solving in general.
So, what do we mean when say a problem is complex? According to Dr. Melanie Mitchell, there are nine definitions for complex as used by complexity theorists. These definitions range from “complex as a matter of size” to “complex as a degree of hierarchy” to “complex as a measure of algorithmic information content” (pp. 96-111). I tend to think of complexity in terms of systems theory in which you have a number of discrete components with numerous feedback loops and many variables that are hidden within the system processes.
A good example of a complex system is the American economy. There are many discrete components in the forms of companies, consumers, banks, regulatory agencies, etc. all passing information to each other and reacting to that information. Attempts to model the American economy range from the simple macroeconomic diagrams in textbooks to detailed microeconomic equations that requires years of mathematical study to even understand. Yet these models, no matter how detailed, cannot fully describe and fully predict how the American economy operates.
If you accept my definition of complexity then you can see how the next concept describes why complex problems are hard to solve. We have difficulty in solving complex problems because our observation of the problem is hindered, we cannot fully understand the problem, our decision-making processes are flawed, or we cannot act appropriately in confronting the problem. If any of the difficulties I mentioned sound familiar it is because I am describing the four components of the “OODA Loop.”
The Observe-Orient-Decide-Act Loop (OODA) was created by Colonel John Boyd who was a fighter pilot and scholar in military strategy. This concept has been adopted both by the U.S. military and championed by such business experts as Tom Peters. As the diagram below demonstrates, a person, team, or an organization observes a situation along with other inputs. Based on the observations and several internal factors, the subject attempts to orient themselves or understand the unfolding situation. Based on that understanding, the subject then makes a decision and acts upon that decision. Throughout the OODA Loop, there are several feedback channels that make the entire process nonlinear.
Colonel Boyd explained that the use of the OODA Loop was to travel through the Loop faster than your opponent. You present confusing and ambiguous information to your opponent so that they have difficulty orienting themselves and thus are slower to decide and act. Essentially, you want to go through your own OODA Loop faster than your opponent does so that they start falling behind and then are paralyzed by their inability to analyze the situation. Time is the key factor in OODA Loops.
The OODA Loop is why I think complex problems are so difficult to solve. Consider the five components of the OODA Loop as it applies to your personal abilities or the abilities of your team/organization:
- Observe: This is the beginning of the Loop and also feeds into another iteration of the Loop. If your observational abilities are hindered or you just cannot observe all parts of the unfolding situation then you are working with incomplete information. History is replete with examples where disasters occurred because of the lack of key information.
- Orient: This is where you/the team/the organization takes in the new information and pairs it with your previous knowledge, cultural traditions, and other internal factors that influence how you process and analyze information. So, even if you are able to observe the entire unfolding situation, your internal abilities to process and analyze this information can prevent you from fully understanding what is happening.
- Decide: This relates to your ability to generate hypothesis about the situation and possible responses. There is the common “paralysis by analysis” which hinders decision making because you are still trying to orient yourself to the situation. Or, even if the organization has a good understanding of the situation, decision processes may be so cumbersome that you cannot make a decision in time to act on the situation.
- Act: You may not have the resources to act promptly and/or appropriately. Your understanding of the situation may have led to a flawed decision that forces an invalid response to the situation. You do not have the proper feedback mechanism built in your action to determine how your act affected the unfolding situation.
- Feedback: As you go through the OODA Loop, you are constantly generating and receiving feedback from your current iteration and previous iterations. Without good feedback design, your own actions can contribute to the ambiguity of the situation. This is especially true of wicked problems where there is no consensus on the actual shape of the problem and your actions can drastically morph the problem into a completely new problem.
The good news here is that you can also use the OODA Loop to better your abilities to handle complex problems. Use the five components as a checklist for improving your (or your organization’s) processes in handling complex problems.
For example: how well do you observe? How good is your organization at collecting and disseminating information internally? Do your people have the necessary prior knowledge and analysis skills to properly orient themselves when new observations come in? How robust and quick is your team’s decision-making skills? What barriers can you remove so that you can act faster? What can you do to improve your feedback mechanisms?
Government is going to face more complex problems especially in a climate of reduced budgets and increasing responsibilities. All government employees at all levels need to sharpen their problem-solving skills so that we are more innovative and can better tackle the looming wicked problems that face the nation. Whether you accept my suggestion to use the OODA Loop or come up with your own problem solving method, the process of thinking about complex problems is a great way to sharpen your problem solving skills.
Mitchell, M. (2009). Complexity: A guided tour. New York: Oxford University Press.
You have probably been involved in some type of strategic planning effort either at work or in your personal life. You know the scenario: a group in your organization meets to come up with a strategy for a project, your association, church, or to meet a mandate to have a strategy. You spend most of the time brainstorming ideas and making a list of goals. Sometimes, you may do a SWOT analysis or similar effort to find what affects your strategy and the organization. After some discussion, you probably have a strategic goal, a value statement, and a laundry list of activities. The better plans have some set of metrics. The plan is released with much fanfare but is gradually forgotten until the next round of strategic planning.
We know that strategies are important and we put a great deal of effort and thought into our strategic planning. So, how do we make good strategy?
According to Rumelt (2011), we create bad or ineffective strategy because we don’t understand what good strategy really is. Strategy is one of those terms that has been so overused that it has lost its meaning. Like “communication,” “change,” “culture,” and “vision,” everyone thinks they know how to do good strategy but their understanding is built on misconceptions and folk theories. To really understand good strategy, we need to know the four characteristics of bad strategy.
Bad strategy has one or more of the following characteristics:
- Fluff – Vague buzzwords that are strung together to make the strategy sound impressive but there is no real substance.
- Doesn’t define the challenge – Have you read a strategic plan that sounds good but you wonder what the strategy is designed to fix? If the strategy doesn’t address a problem then what is the purpose of the strategy?
- A laundry list of goals – This is usually the result of brainstorming sessions that have lasted too long and everyone wants to go home now. The participants create a list of actions they want to accomplish but there is no connection to a problem or problems.
- Impractical or ineffective objectives – The strategic actions will be too difficult to carry out (if not impossible) or the actions don’t help overcome obstacles (Rumelt, 2011, p. 42).
Knowing what bad strategy looks like helps you understand what good strategy is according to Rumelt (2011). Good strategy begins with the “kernel”:
- Diagnosis – A thorough examination and complete explanation of the challenge confronting the organization.
- Guiding Policy – The overall approach that will be used to face the challenge.
- Coherent Actions – A set of coördinated actions that will implement the guiding policy to overcome the challenge identified in the diagnosis (p. 81).
There can be more to a good strategy but any additional elements must be built upon a solid kernel to be fully effective. This is because the kernel captures the essential nature of good strategy: it is a hypothesis (p. 228).
You create strategy to bring an organization forward into a better state or to help it overcome a challenge. The good strategy is an experiment that you run to test your understanding of the challenges and how to best take advantage of those challenges. That is why I urge you to add metrics to the strategic kernel. You need feedback to determine how accurate your diagnosis was, how well your guiding policy works, and if your coherent actions are fulfilling the guiding policy.
So, the next time you start to build a strategy, the very first question should be: do we understand the challenge(s) facing our organization? Do not go any further until all participants have fully defined and agreed upon the challenge the strategy will address. Then, determine the guiding policy that ties your actions together. Thus, when you brainstorm your list of strategic actions, you can eliminate those actions that will not advance the guiding policy thus saving you wasted effort and resources. Complete the strategy by building in some metrics.
This will not guarantee success but it will give you a much better chance. At least you will avoid the guaranteed failure that bad strategy always brings.
Rumelt, R. (2011). Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters. New York: Random House.