Collecting for design

Do you have weeks when you collect interesting phrases that, like small lengths of string, might come in useful someday?  You put them in a mental drawer and there they stay, until after a while you take a look at them, either when you’re tossing in another one, or looking for exactly the phrase you want to neatly express a concept or to explain something.

This past week I’ve collected quite a few of these phrases.  I don’t know why it’s been a particularly rich week for them – maybe I’ve been more attentive, or maybe I feel the need to stock up in case of phrase famine.

So now I’m unravelling them, smoothing them out, and bundling each neatly ready to put in the phrase drawer for future use.   But for now, I’ll just show you what I’ve added to the stock this week.

Creative disobedience:  I was reading the 2017 Human Capital Trends which has a chapter on ‘The Organization of the Future’ (worth reading) about organization design.  The authors assert ‘Still, many business leaders seem to have little confidence they will get the [design] process right … many consulting firms anecdot­ally report that up to 70 percent of reorganizations fall short because of “creative disobedience” from the executive team.’ I really enjoy that phrase – it’s definitely one that’s usable, even if only privately, when sitting in a thorny exec meeting where people want to start with an org chart and forget about systems thinking.

Lyapunov exponent: this is a mathematical concept, I read about in New Scientist and which really grabbed my attention. The basic premise of the concept is that: “We cannot predict the future. Any little uncertainty gets amplified exponentially by chaos.  Whether it is predicting the weather, the stock markets or the next president, Lyapunov exponents tell us our efforts are futile. But experience tells us we’re unlikely to stop trying.”   It could be just right for when I’m next trying to explain that I am not able to say with certainty, what precise and evidence based benefits a new organization design will bring in the coming 2+ years.

Automated groupthink: I was talking with Rob about It’s advertised as ‘Audience interaction made easy’, with the ability to ‘Crowdsource the best questions from your audience’.  In the meeting I was at, audience members submitted a question and the questions(s) that got the most ‘thumbs up’ from other audience members were the ones the speaker answered.  If a question didn’t get any ‘likes’ it wasn’t tackled.  This is similar to Amazon’s ‘people also bought’ aka affinity analysis, but it seems to me a strange logic that the most likes indicate the ‘best’ question.  It got Rob and I discussing curiosity and random connections that often result in innovation and he wondered whether encouraged ‘automated groupthink’.   In organization design work being curious and asking questions that act against confirmation bias, challenge assumptions, inspire creativity, open up a broader context, and cause reflection, even if people do not ‘like’ them, are as important as those questions they do.

Working backwards:  This came from a conversation on planning, with the suggestion that we begin with where we want our new design to be in six months and ask ourselves what we have to do to get from there back to our current starting point.  When it was mentioned, I remembered the pre-mortem exercise that I’ve done several times.  But it works from if things have gone wrong, whereas working backwards implies working from if they had gone according to plan and then constructing the plan from that point back to the starting point.  Maybe the pre-mortem and working backwards could be done jointly?  Others have got intrigued with this idea of working backwards and I particularly liked Akiko Busch’s comments on it.

Two other phrases that I jotted down last week are ‘occupying a conceptual space’, and Finite and Infinite Games.  The latter is the title of a book by Timothy Carse.  It begins with the provocation: ‘There are at least two kinds of games.  One could be called finite and the other infinite.  A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.’   I stopped reading the book at that point and instead found myself ‘occupying a conceptual space’ considering organisation design as either a finite or an infinite game.  If someone wants the ‘right’ design to be ‘delivered’ within a given period is it a finite game?  Alternatively, if organisation design is considered an ongoing evolving process then is it an infinite game?

Why do I collect phrases?  Unlike collecting string, phrases make me stop and think, they usually extend my knowledge or I learn something from them, and (like string) I could use them in the right circumstances.   What do you collect that aids your organization design work?  Let me know.

Image: Richard Wentworth, A Confiscation of String