How we look at and for things creates uncertainty and risk in our lives

A recent article by Andrew Coyne (The Vancouver Sun – System makes losers out of winners) comments on how the “first past the post” process for elections creates uncertainty in making election predictions by pollsters and other pundits (most notably in the recent U.K. elections). In Canada and more recently in my neck of the woods, British Columbia, we had a similar situation where the public polls and those apparently used by one of the parties suggested that the ruling Liberals were in for an election defeat. The result was dramatically different with the ruling party getting a large electoral victory.

I have thought about and studied how uncertainty and risk play out in our lives and posted many of my musing in this Blog. Andrew’s column brings to mind another way that we through our actions create uncertainty where there in principle it needn’t be so. How we look at, for and measure things create opportunities for uncertainty in our lives.

How the pollsters measure voter preferences and predictable voting patterns can and has masked what is really going on. In one sense in the U.K. election they were reasonably on as regards the overall voting patterns for each party (within 3% which is within their measuring margin of error). What they missed was how the distribution and location of this voting pattern fallout within each riding. Local factors were powerful ‘;skewers”, for example the Scottish National Party (SNP) got 4.7% of the popular vote but 56 seats whereas the UK Independence Party garnered 12.6% of the popular vote and got one (1) seat.

I have explored how we look at our world with our various world views (a.k.a. loose theories or hypotheses) enables us to see with incredible precision nuances and subtleties while at the same time being fundamentally deficient (even wrong and misleading) in other ways. When we stereotype people we run this “risk” all the time (and virtually every time).

When we do strategy like work, we often put in place means of measuring future meaningful (positive and negative) environmental events and patterns that signal to us the need to continue, modify, or even abandon our plans.

We often use statistical or stochastic type measures. These are powerful, BUT, potentially dangerous. An example is when we rely on an “average” and how it moves over time as the signal for whether we are making progress. Yet this form of measurement is very prone to the pollsters problem. An average is a calculation that can be derived whenever we have two or more items that we are counting. An average gives us a single value which makes comparisons to other average calculations very easy. But what if the actual “distribution is “bi” or even “tri” modal? When we have these kind of distributions ( and we are not aware/or don’t pay attention to them) our calculated average may very well mask what is going on. Remember the UK election: the SNP vote because it was geographically very localized, hence concentrated acted as if it was a unique modal area within the overall voting pattern.

Other times we know we cannot measure what is important directly so we rely on “proxies”. Think of how we tory and measure more qualitative attributes such as happiness, satisfaction, pain, etc. Although we may be limited to using proxies, we should always remember that these are indirect and approximate in nature. They can always mask or misdirect us from something that is important.

So how does all this relate to uncertainty and risk?

Fundamentally, risk is about dealing with variances. Is it too hot or cold? Is it too fast or slow? All these situations are about staying within some medium, median, or average place that is safe and alright. So if how we measure has underlying exposure to misdirection or misinformation then even though we think we are dealing with risk, we are not!

We are dealing with uncertainty! Uncertainty is about surprises in our lives. The difficulty for us when dealing with surprises, we basically not prepared for them. This is what it means to be surprised – we did not expect it and we are not anticipating it. Expectation means we know it happen and we are at least somewhat on guard for it (this is what fire insurance does for our home) and anticipation means we are monitoring the situation for its occurrence. When we have these two conditions in place we are dealing with risk not uncertainty.

So how we choose to monitor and measure things can mask what it is that we really want to know, or need to know (not the same thing sometimes)

Yet we have to measure, monitor or in some systematic way observe our environment(s). And, we are prudent in knowing how our choices in this area can lead us astray.

A smart person knows they can be wrong.

A clever person knows how, if and when they are wrong.

A sensible person will respect the above.

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Reflections on: When We “Manage” Other People, We Take Away Their Choices

What makes for a great learning moment? For me, it is when I am reading, hearing, or observing something that creates the kind of following responses:

  • Yes, yes, yes, yes, but!
  • No, no, no, no, but!

I recently had such a moment when I read a delightful Blog post by Terina Allen ( Terina shared that she was deeply troubled by the notion of “managing” people. Leading people is fine as a notion, but managing no. In summary her concerns centre around the concept of managing as:

“…management to be the act of or skill of directing, controlling, handling, deciding, overseeing, etc.”

None of which she wants to see her doing to someone else or having done to herself. Managing is appropriately applied to “things” like budgets, processes, etc. Managing people is an act of taking away their choices, and that is problematic.

I found my reaction as I read her piece as a series of “yeses” and then a big “But”. Hence my delight at the opportunity to learn. The “But” for me centers around the notion of restricting choices.

What does my learning encompass?

  • I honestly believe that in life we are continuously bombarded by choice limiting actions of others. Did we really have a choice about whether we would be born? Did we have a choice about if we would go to school? Do we have choice about what laws we are living under (I know we could move, but then we would be living under a different set of laws that are in place.)? Where we work, we are in a context that in many ways is restrictive. And so on.
  • I honestly believe that we need even desire that such choice restrictions are put in place (Ever uttered: “Come on Someone just make the decision, so we can get on with the job!”?). Many times we want these restrictions to apply to others for one reason or other. But guess what? Others want the same things and their desire for restrictions will further limit our range of choices.
  • Restrictions on choices are a price we pay for living within a myriad of social systems. Social systems in fact are designed in large part to restrict. Any vision, purpose, mission, objective, strategy, action plan, process, and procedure has as an aim to channel us in one direction at the expense of other channels. We may argue over whether the choice is the best one, optimal, effective, efficient, etc. but, we rarely think that we should be doing these kinds of (restricting choice) things at all.
  • So if we are being lead, herded, directed, cajoled, indoctrinated, “encouraged”, etc. in any one direction at the expense of others all our lives: we are being continuously managed. Living in social systems means people are managing us, and anytime we enact (or cause to have enacted) limitations on other people’ choices we are managing them by the definition that Terina reasonably puts forward in her article.
  • So I am being managed, and often I am acting in ways that have the effect of managing others” choices too. Yet, I obviously am okay with that or I would go and live as hermit somewhere. I choose not to become a hermit because of all the benefits that accrue from living within a setting that means I will have many choices removed for me.

The above thoughts explore why I had a big “But” with the article, but, what is it about Terina’s article that causes me to agree so very much with her thesis?

Having choices made for me, having them restricted for me is not the point of my agreement with her reflections. It is the manner that choices can be limited that can be inappropriate. It is the form of limiting that can be inappropriate. An example of the first sense of inappropriateness is how I am involved with a choice that materially impacts me. Am I even involved in meaningful sense? DoI even get to vote? Do I even get to express my concerns? An example of the second is am I told what to do and how to do it, when I know fully well what is required?

This second form of inappropriateness gets at the notion of “controlling” versus coordination and direction. Years ago I was influenced by Henry Mintzberg where in his book (The Structuring of Organizations, Prentice Hall, 1979) he introduced the notion of five coordinating mechanisms:

  1. Mutual adjustment – coordination of work through informal communication.
  2. Direct supervision – having one person take responsibility for the work of others
  3. Standardization of work processes – where the contents of work are specified of programmed.
  4. Standardization of of outputs – when the results are specified
  5. Standardization of skills – when the kind of training required to do the work is specified.

Perhaps unfairly, I get the sense that Terina may be most troubled by direct supervision form of coordination. Yet, it has its place (and I am introducing sarcasm here) in the very cannons of determining liability: The wholesale practice of “blaming” someone is based on the foundation that legitimate forms of direct supervision are in place. For an officer in a company to say they did not know what was going on will often fail to carry much currency when the proverbial crap hits the fan. In OD I contend that  as practioners’ we often fall into this game when we blame the client for some failure in a project we were part of. As evidence, examine any commentary on why a change management effort failed: client failings (hence liability) will invariably arise. AND, it probably should be so. The point being is that we accept the practice and (perhaps unwittingly) the implications of direct supervision. When we set up structures that incorporate direct supervision we end up managing people at least when it comes time to assign blame.

Mintzberg taught me that any one form of coordination is clearly applicable in certain work circumstances but not others.

I am sure that Terina and any other professional would be concerned, even offended if a client tried to tell her “how” to do her job. This would be a circumstance where the client attempted to impose the standardization of work process on her when the appropriate coordination form is standardization of outputs. To take it further, if Terina is a licensed practioner in some field of medicine, the client should satisfy themselves that her credentials are appropriate (standardization of skills) and even leave the diagnostic (outputs) work up to her.

Speaking only for myself, Mintzberg helped me become aware of why I resent inappropriate forms of coordination in my life. There are times when any one of the five coordination forms he identified has been applicable to what I was doing. Being over and under coordinated has been a source of personal stress.

Terina’s article gave me two learning opportunities. First to examine for myself my perspectives on what does it mean to have choices made for me, and why do I accept this in so many parts of my life. Secondly, brought back for me how old insights on coordination may be applicable to her thesis.

I thank and complement her on these two wonderful gifts.

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Arrogance and Ignorance: Self Indulgent Sources of Uncertainty

Emotionally and psychologically, uncertainty is an unanticipated and surprising event or moment. It can be big (sudden illness or economic collapse) or small (tripping over an unseen snag). It can be harmful or even delightful (think of the received unexpected meaningful gift).

Uncertainty is fundamentally different from risk in the level of information we have about a current or future event. Risk is that which we have some prior experience. It does not need to be even our own experience. We can pay attention and heed the lessons learned by others, although we seem to prefer our lessons more than others (“Yeah, it happened to you, but it won’t happen to me!”). Risk is something we can anticipate, appreciate its implications it it happens and take steps to “manage” it. We have fundamental strategic options when we manage risk:

  1. Take steps to prevent or minimize its likelihood of occurrence such as doing audits, quality control checks, locating to more secure locations, etc.
  2. Take steps to minimize the harm resulting from the event such as having insurance, wearing protective clothing, building in redundancies, having an exit strategy (or rear door), etc.

Uncertainty we manage quite differently. Yes we can undertake some risk management steps (having a broad based insurance policy against loss or harm). But by definition we are fundamentally oblivious to such events until they happen. So though we don’t know what when, where, who or how are there some steps we can take to minimize uncertainty or its effects when it happens?

Being oblivious is a partially curable condition. If can know more about possible events that could materially impact us, we have moved the “shroud” of uncertainty back. This is where ignorance and arrogance come into play.

Being ignorant means amongst other things, not knowing enough about something (perhaps even many things). It is one thing to be aware of those areas in our lives where we are ignorant. If we think this knowledge gap could be important we have two basic strategies open o us: personally learn more, and/or tap into the knowledge and experiences of others. BUT, we can be “wilfully” ignorant by deciding that something is not worth knowing more about. Wilful is harsh, rather it might just be a choice based  upon disinterest, other things being more important at the moment, not having any comprehension that it could matter (“How could I possible be aware that this is important?”). However, whatever the reason, ignorance is a self imposed  state. Whenever, I hear: “Why should I concern myself about …?” I am hearing a form of intentional ignorance. Another form of intentional ignorance is encapsulated in the statements like: “Why should I believe you anyway?”

The point of intentional ignorance is it works for us most of the time. In fact we have to practice it some degree or other: we have limits on what we can know or pay attention to. we sidestep this fact in large part by being “social beings” and relying on the efforts of many others to protect us, forewarn us, bring to our attention, etc. Through social cooperation and collaboration mechanisms we can move the veil of uncertainty far back from what we could ever achieve individually.

This is the overwhelming power of diversity, it helps us overcome our personal ignorances. No one social subsystem has to be all that diverse, there can be great advantage to focus and specialization in knowledge and viewpoints. It is the larger aggregate that needs to meet the “I am diverse” test.

Arrogance is quite another matter though. When it is present, it is a self inflicted form of staying ignorant.

An arrogant person(s) or social system would make the following kinds of claims that clearly reveal their ignorance inducing consequences:

  • “I know best about this, hence I am knowledgeable about another subject!”
  • “We know best what is right for you!”
  • “We are the authority on this subject, your position is contrary (perhaps even heresy), so you are wrong!”
  • “We are superior to you or your offering, customers will never buy what  you are offering!”
  • etc.

An underlying theme for many forms of arrogance is “I know the truth!” Truth is all about certainty. Uncertainty is about doubt, wonder, possibilities, change, etc. The underlying assumption in truth is the notion of complete knowledge (in the subject area of truth). So if I assert I know the truth then I am saying I have no areas of ignorance in the truth area’s domain. Yet we know this is a very risky (sic) position to take. History is full of truth wreckage. Being arrogant means we blind ourself vest to the possibility of being wrong, being surprised, being caught unprepared.

Arrogance increases exposure to uncertainty because it denies its existence in the area of its assertions.

The self indulgence in ignorance and arrogance is when someone chooses to remain ignorant (even of other peoples’ wisdom) and creating areas of ignorance by asserting complete knowledge.

Are there any areas where we can have “complete knowledge”? Yes with simple closed systems. Why simple? Once we move away from simplicity, we introduce complexity, usually due to multiplying instances of inter-relationships between system parts. With complex systems we get multiple paths, increased dependent variable relationships, and multiple feedback and feedforward paths. In complex and open systems we are cognitively restricted to discerning patterns (F. Hayek raised this point for me). But patterns incorporate the notion of variability and changeability over time. History does not exactly repeat itself. At best we can say that patterns in history repeat themselves. Yet the nuances in the specific differences can be significant in terms of the outcomes from two similar patterned historical situations.

In OD many of us preach the virtues of adaptability. In terms of this post what does this mean. Being adaptable means knowing as soon as possible that the situation is changing in ways not anticipated (an ignorant person would easily miss this “changing”, an arrogant person would deny that the change is significant may be even acknowledging). The second critical step in adaptability is recognition of what is a superior/appropriate shift (being ignorant makes it harder to do this well, arrogance would lead to delays in bothering to consider change). Third, is making the appropriate adjustments (competence). Again, being ignorant or arrogant makes this adapting behaviour more difficult.

Knowing ignorance and arrogance are self indulgent in the sense that we deem ourselves to be “above it all” in terms of uncertainty. May my enemies or competitors always be such.


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Part 3: A Parable about Uncertainty and Risk – Playing with a visual Metaphor


In part 2 ( I introduced and explored the notion that what we get out of our experiences is less than what we actually experience. To reflect what we ‘actually get out of our experiences I introduced the notion of Learned From Experience (LFE).

In this post I will continue the exploration using the visual metaphor:

U&r Theme LFE_NEW

The focus will be on the notion of depth in our experiences. One of the key needs in my thinking on uncertainty and risk (U&r) is the the dynamic nature of it. The notion of flows, fluctuations, changes, and time are critical to consider and incorporate if we are to get and hold a robust views on U&r. The visual above reflects the dynamics of time and lateral like flows. I want to consider the implications of a third dimension (depth) in a dynamic model/metaphor view.

I will do this with the following graphic:

U&r Exp Layers 1

Our experiences are nuanced in many ways, and I want to keep these in mind as we proceed with this thinking effort. How are some of the ways we experience things?

  • Whether we are on solid ground or footing or not and what are the perceived characteristics of that.
  • Whether we are in social settings or not and what is going on and how that is impacting our experiences.
  • Our mental and emotional state and how this is affecting what we are aware of and what it means to us.
  • What we have learned or come to believe about circumstances like we are experiencing.
  • Is it the experience a surprise or a continuation of a sequence of prior experiences and the context this places on what we take meaning from what we are dealing with now.
  • What sense of what will happen next and our expectations about this. We often take differing meaning based on whether we are at the beginning, middle, or end of some sequence of experiences. This sense of history is key to whether we are having a “U” or “r” like event.
  • etc.

If the first graphic is about time and place, this second one is all about what is going on in the “now”. For me this graphic reflects in a modest way why you and i can be in the same “now” but having quite different experiences about that, especially in the LFE of it. We did not exactly arrive here and now in exactly the same way. We will observe, take meaning and significance quite uniquely b because of who we are and all that entails of our pasts and anticipated futures. Throw into the mix we can have very different capabilities in what we notice and how well we can interpret them. I may be very unaware of the social aspects of what is going on and you may be very astute. Hence your LFE will be very much richer for these talent differences.

This graphic also leads us to consider what makes things complex. The notion of layers suggests to me that many under the surface activities can be at play. Think of a situation at work where it is absolutely critic that you focus on the task at hand. Yet you have a sick child at home and you have not heard what the doctor said (family layer). And, you are tired because you did not sleep well last night (personal health layer) And, you have a keen interest in your condo board’s ruling on the new roofing proposal (close social layer). And, you know some of your work colleagues will have serious concerns about what you will be recommending in your task report (work setting layer). And, you are concerned that Kinder Morgan is proposing to locate a new pipeline adjacent to your property (industry/economic layer). And, so on. How all these and perhaps other concerns all add some form of complexity to your work. If any two of us were experiencing the exact same issues, we would still be reacting and living with them is unique individual along with common ways.

The power of LFE is the role it plays in making sense of our world. It establishes for us significance and meaning. Significance and meaning are instrumental in determining how we will respond to same, similar, somewhat analogous, or even suggestive akin future situations. In my parlance I consider these our “working” theories of how the world works and what it means to.

BUT, there is a dark side to LFE: forgetfulness.

What we do not see as significant we will in all likelihood not bother to remember (why would we want to?). Yet what we forgot today and yesterday may be of vital use to us in the future. Memory is about not concerning ourselves with aspects of of what we have experienced. This is why LFE is always smaller than what we actually experience.

Another dark side to LFE: discounting as important.

Not quite the same as forgetfulness is the act of diminishing the importance of observed and aware of information. How do many of us respond to “outliers” in our lives? We discount them as being anomalies and extraneous to what we should bother to pay attention to.

The issue of discounting is often the result of the fact that our environments are so complex: we can only keep so much in our active processing minds at any one time. So one way we focus is to discount at any one time things that do not appear particularly germane or relevant.

Whetter we focus on some things to the exclusion of others, we know that many of those we things we set aside have a connection to what we are doing (even if it is secondary). For example, being tired may be set aside while we work to meet a critical work deadline. Tiredness, may have an impact on our work quality and speed, yet we choose to ignore it for obvious reasons.

Complexity is simply present in our lives, especially so when there are social based layers/matters involved, and, this leads to having uncertainty in our lives too. In fact, I conclude that most uncertainty in our lives is caused by social based complexities.

How do we deal with complexity when trying to live (either survive or even thrive)? We make use of our ability to see and form patterns (I am grateful for FG. Hayek, for making me aware of this). Much LFE is directed at creating, building, nurturing, questioning, reformulating patterns in our minds. Patterns are like rules of thumb (“when seeing a fork in the road, keep the knife”), crude theories and hypotheses (“blondes have more fun”), sometimes even sophisticated ones (“Someone who holds these [listed] values will vote social democrat”), some will be science based and others may be nothing more than bigot like biases.

We use patterns to make sense of our past, ongoing experiences, and even use them to make decisions going forward. Patterns allow us to simplify and to even embrace greater amounts of complexity in our thinking, judging, acting and evaluating. They have remarkable power when useful they reduce uncertainty for us.

But what if a pattern is not or no longer useful? As long as we continue to hold onto it we are increasing our exposure to uncertainty, perhaps even increasing it.

A non-useful pattern can have the following consequences:

  • Does not add anything useful at all, so it is irrelevant.
  • Distracting by getting us to pay attention what isn’t relevant or meaningful, so it wastes attention and energy.
  • Misdirecting, gets to pay attention to things and possibilities that turn out to be unhelpful, hence are time wasters and this can be important in specific situations.
  • Dangerous, exposes us to perils that we would be exposed to if we held a more useful pattern.

Patterns aren’t about truth, they are about making sense of things. We can obviously hold a false pattern. One can go further, outside of faith (which is about perceived truths regardless of any evidence) all beliefs (about patterns) are conjectures, even science based ones. Even logic, which concludes that something is true/false always has the “back door” of assuming that the assumptions are true (which they may or may not be).

So with the introduction of patterns, we see the other door for uncertainty to enter into our lives: their inappropriateness in use (using a useful pattern in a non-appropriate context) or inappropriate pattern to begin with. BUT, BUT, what about appropriate patterns in appropriate contexts? Yes uncertainty will creep in too: the dynamics of the passage of time and flows means the specifically exact becomes the generally applicable to it even becoming incorrect in significant ways.

So my parable for Part 3 is:

  • The wise person knows that they can be wrong.
  • The honourable person will recognize this error when they become aware of it and correct it.
  • The honest person will acknowledge this publicly when called on it.

Part 4 will do some further synthesis on what this approach to seeing how living brings uncertainty into our lives and gives further thoughts on what we can do to live successfully.

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Part 2: A Parable about Uncertainty and Risk – Playing with a visual Metaphor

In part1 (Part 1: A Parable about Uncertainty and Risk – Playing with a visual Metaphor) I introduced a visual metaphor to think about how uncertainty and risk (U&r) into our lives. I left off this post with two questions:1. Does our learned from experience (LFR) cone always continue to expand until our death? Why, why not?

  1. Does our learned from experience (LFE) cone always continue to expand until our death? Why, why not?
  2. Why do I abbreviate uncertainty and risk as U&r?

Let us deal with the second question first: I hold the view that we live in a universe that is more uncertainty like than risk like. Why?

  • There is much about the past and present that we know nothing or very little about
  • The future is unclear and by all ours (and others) history likely full of surprises.
  • Even that which we have some inclination about we do not understand it very well. Well enough to deal with it effectively.
  • Even if we know others have such knowledge, we often face obstacles in being able to make use of it.
  • We forget, we ignore, we fail to process the meaning or significance of what we have experienced.
  • Risk is about what we have experienced, understand, and have practical ideas on how to handle when we face equivalent re-occurances of such events.

Hence, I suggest that we modify our original visual:U&r Theme 1_NEW

To look more like this:

U&r Theme LFE_NEW

The LFE is a subset of what we have lived through. We experience much more than we learn from and there are several reasons for this:

  • Our senses take in much more than we can possibly process. For example we hear many things but are only able to pay attention to a few sounds. This is a blessing in that we can focus on what we see as important. We sometimes learn later that we could have picked up on something said that was subsequently significant, fortunately by someone else who was at the scene. Without them we would never have been aware that there was more to be learned.
  • Our views and mental models on what is important mean we are selective in what we pay attention to. Different models and mindsets would have paid attention to differing data and hence made differing sense of. In Part 1 I noted the role of biases in reducing our capacity to process and incorporate contrary data.
  • We are just not everywhere at any time. Something important may be just out of our range to be even able to know about.

Because of our individual limits on understanding what we are witness to let alone what we aren’t, we can make the argument that socializing is one of humankind’s greatest inventions or attributes. We can, if we so choose (yes there is a choice to be made) to take advantage of what others have experienced and learned from and make use of it. We can take advantage of someone else’s learning. Deliberately seeking those with diverse (from our own) experiences and learning potentially opens up our capacity to make experiences more risk like and less uncertain like. This is a wonderful gift.

The matter of using others’ LFE is one of trust and believability. for example, someone may tell me that they have experienced an alien abduction. But it is not unreasonable for myself and many others to be skeptical. Sometimes it is important to establish some form of verification of another’s LFE claims, especially if a lot is riding on the claim.

There are many situations where there is skepticism based on factors other than knowledge about the subject matter of the claim itself. There are many people who do not trust anything coming out of large pharmaceutical companies because they are in the business of making money. The “bearer” of the LFE claims has a bearing on the trustworthiness of what is claimed. The useful can be discounted, the un-useful can be taken as gospel.

Trustworthiness is a foundation in any social setting. BUT, trust is not just about the affirming positive. I can trust that you will have my best interests in mind, OR, I can trust that your interests are inimical to mine. Trust at its heart is about predictability and consistency. Over the years I have learned to work and associate very successfully with people who I have a clear understanding of the limits of their likelihood to be on the same page as me so to speak. For example, knowing to avoid certain topics (politics, religion, etc.) with some others is absolutely critical if you are going to be productive with them.

Does our experience and LFE continue to expand until our death?

I seriously doubt it.

I have met numerous people over time who at some point in their lives choose to lead a “constraining” life style. These are people who choose to not seek new or novel experiences. Reasons can be very understandable: illness, loss of some functionality or other, or even clear preferences on how they want to live. So the experiences growth in terms of new, novel, diverse, etc. can cease. But what about LFE?

LFE requires the work of being inquisitive and thinking. Both a lot of work. Also being inquisitive can be quite expensive (travel, studying, taking in new experiences, etc.).

Again, I would suggest that we can stop growing here. We can forget. We can lose proficiency with lessons that need to be practiced if they are remain useful. Illness and mental health can reduce the ongoing LFE. So my visual model entails the possibility that both the ongoing growth in experiences and LFEs can crease and in some ways regress.

Can we see similar patterns in organizations? Yes I think we can.

Organizations (the people within them) can become insular. Successful organizations in particular are more exposed to hubris and insularity. In other situations, some organizations who believe they have the “truth” about something will act with even with  viciousness to any evidence or suggestion that there might be a “better” (sic) truth. The notion of heresy is an outcome of these insularities. Any bias that is immune to correction or change due to new evidence (i.e., addition LFE) is going to have a predisposition to close down open inquiry (an act to expand experiences) and discourse (processing for new LFE).

Every organization has an operating model. This is a jargon term that simply means that the organization has a specific idea on how to succeed as a business. The strategy activity in the organization is the means by which it shifts and moves its way of operating moving forward in time. Many assumptions are made along the way (in doing strategic change and even in an operating mode). Assumptions by definition are are selective of some things over almost an infinite number of other things. Who should be our customers (or not), how should we invest and run so we are competitive (or not), how best to gather our inputs resources including people (or not), how best to socialize so our people can be effective and efficient (or not). The “or not” are sometimes more important than the “to be” as we are defining ourselves as much by what we are not as well as what we are.

What I find intriguing is that i have read and heard reports that some organizations have an almost antagonistic attitude towards strategy. If this true then I would argue that these are organizations that have no systematic LFE process for itself as an entity. This is almost like intentionally having no intended coherent approach to personally growing. Without intention, we still change, but only in a reactive and delayed way. Only by doing meaningful strategy can we do more than react or after the fact.

If we can make the assumption that our operating/living environments are going to continue much as they are, it is relatively safe to not grow our LFE. If we are successful now, we will likely continue to be so. This stability assumption requires us to believe that there is no uncertainty in our environment(s). This is an assumption that I will personally never make, nor want to entrust any meaningful aspect of my life in with someone who holds this assumption. I certainly would not want my retirement investments located there.

In Part 3 I will explore the notion of complexity in our experiences by looking at the concept of depth in the visual

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Part 1: A Parable about Uncertainty and Risk – Playing with a visual Metaphor

The next few posts are going to be a synthesis piece of work for me and hopefully of interest and use to the reader.

It is about uncertainty and risk (U&r) through two lens: that of me and you from a person centric view; secondly, through the eyes of OD practioners. If successful, the benefits will include:

  • For you and me: we will have useful ways of understanding and taking personal advantage of U&r as they enter into our lives.
  • For the OD professional, helping our clients imbed U&r into their aspirations and plans, be quick to flag and become attentive when U&r arise, and have useful strategies available to take advantage of these situations (i.e., they are opportunistic)

This series will take the form of a parable that will be based on a visual metaphor theme. Each post will explore the metaphor, tease out  hoped for insights, and end with useful ideas on how we might act (i.e., the story’s moral – non ethical sense). My concept of a parable is:

  • A short simple story from which a moral lesson can be drawn, usually an allegory.
  • To represent by fiction or fable.

The U&r I am taking on with this series of posts, is I am not entirely sure what I will finally get out of it. This is very much a “123stilllearniing456” journey. Any journey is unequal with another in terms of bearing benefits. Another “warning” this story will be quite conceptual at times. But synthesis is an exercise in bringing bits and pieces together into a larger embracing whole – the act of doing this is an exercise in conceptual thinking. I trust the insights and morals will be beneficial enough to keep those who are not as inclined to be conceptual to “hang in there” and be patient with me.

I make one earnest request of all readers: please comment and/or contact me at: with ideas and thoughts on what you would like me to dive into in subsequent posts.

Let us table the first visual form of my metaphor:

U&r Theme 1_NEW

This theme considers U&r through the eyes of an individual person, but it can be easily elevated to the organizational level, and I will do so through examples.

We come into this world and begin to amass a life’s journey of experiences. As our thinking capabilities develop we can learn and make use of these experiences. Over time we are growing this experience base. We learn more and we become more and more capable. The visual shows this growth of “learned from experiences” over time by the enlarging cone as we age.

The jagged and raggedly nature of this growth in learned from experiences and our capabilities to make use of them is mean to illustrate that our personal journeys can take many turns due to varying extraneous circumstances both internal and external. Every journey will be unique in some manner or other, even when we compare our “learnings” with those who have been faced the exact same external circumstances.We notice then when we are in a group that has had the same experience. Listen to how we each recount what we noticed, took as significant or interesting, and the meaning for us. The story of experienced events is the same, yet we live with and through them uniquely. Why?

  • Differences in our past learned from experiences may prompt us to consider present and future events distinctly. For example differences in culture.
  • Individual differences in physical, mental, and emotional makeups shape what we will notice, process and evaluate.
  • Differences in what we are interested in.
  • etc.

Let’s test the above propositions with a mental experiment. Five of us enter into a river with the goal of getting to the other side. Will we travel the exact same path? No (for several reasons). Will we make the same time in the swim (most unlikely). We use different strokes. We have differing cardio and stamina capabilities. We have differing experiences swimming. For reasons like this and how the river’s currents impact these distinctions we will arrive at different points on the bank in space and time. When we recount to each other the crossing experience we will most likely highlight different aspects of our individual journey.

What are the implications for U&r?

  • Our increasing cone of experiences and what we learn from them establishes our current and future risks. Risk is about dealing with future experiences that we have in one form or other have meaningful pasts with. We’ve sewn and experienced this in the past. In future “like” situations we can reasonably assess the threats, their magnitude and our capabilities of how and whether we can dealt with them. Hence, informed caution is possible. Also the specific risks to myself will vary at least somewhat from yours.
  • Everything outside of the growing cone of learned from experiences is uncertainty. That is, that which we do not know anything about (hence, when experienced will be surprising to one degree or other). That which can literally be life threatening because we have no knowledge or even skill at coping with. Again, uncertainty will likely impact us differently (trivial – significant). An image that brought this home for me was to look at a subdivision that had been ravaged by a forest fire. Amongst all the devastation, one house stood unscathed. Same event, varying consequences.

What might these distinctions look like in our river swim example? If we choose to swim the river again, we can use our previous experience to choose how we would do it the same OR differently. This is risk management. If the river seems a little swifter, we can decide whether the current speed is beyond our swimming capabilities or make adjustments to how we will attempt the swim. This is risk management again as we are consider ing the notions of “variance” and “thresholds”. Variances for how to adjust our swim attempt (different stroke, take two rests instead of one). Thresholds as the point for choosing to not attempt the swim. Hear these notions in any discussion about a future course of action, you are listening to a discussion about risk.

Uncertainty? This becomes nuanced and subtle. It is everything outside of our cone of learned from experiences. But this means it is about many possible things that we have literally no awareness about, period. They are invisible. Ah! But, some of them don’t have to be!

Let us look at the river again, can we observe anything that is an indication of something “outside our experience”? The river has chunks of ice floating along, but you have had no experience with winter like conditions. What is the significance to us seeing ice. We did not expect to see it. We do not know what to make of it because we have no experiential reference to make to it either (okay, you’ve read about it in National Geographic). The point is that we sometimes do have clues that something is quite different. We just don’t know what to make of it though.

In situations like business, we sometimes see phenomena that we label as “outliers”.  Events that don’t fit our business model, strategy, marketing, plans and activities. How do we often treat these situations? My observation: We ignore outliers and go about our current business. This is not a criticism it is a circumstance of ignorance (which we all have): what do we do about outliers anyway?

We do this personally, we have biases. They work pretty well for us. We see something that contradicts or conflicts with our bias. What should we do (AND just as importantly, what could we do) about it.

When we are young, virtually everything will be new, novel and often surprising (our cone of learned from experiences is small). As we get older we become competent at some/many things. Surprises are just not as likely to be as welcome. There can be a lot of work (mental, emotional, motor-skill, etc.) to adjust. AND we are just so very busy. Besides, one thing we have all learned as “practical people” pretty good is often more than good enough. Just because we know they are not always right the biases can still have a lot of practical utility.

So what are some of the morals of our parable so far?

  • We increase our competence at having more and more of our lives managed in risk like ways if we encourage ourselves to have growing diverse experiences. These need to be experiences that expose us to surprises not just affirmations of what we already know about.
  • Unless we learn from our experiences they are of no practical value to us, that is, we still live in a place of uncertainty. If we do not have good “making sense of it” skills then we better work with or marry someone who has.
  • The boundary between risk and uncertainty is blurry. We can use our experiences and how well we have learned from them to be observant of possible uncertainty. Uncertainty can sometimes (frequently, almost always???) be overtly hinting at its existence.
  • Our ability to deal successfully with emergent uncertain like events in part is to be self aware of our biases, models, theories, etc. and understand where they can limited and how to sense when those limits have been reached.

Question to be explored next post: Does our learned from experience cone always continue to expand until our death? Why, why not?

QUESTION TO THE READER: Why do I abbreviate uncertainty and risk as “U&r”?


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Change Management Failure, OD, and the connection to Uncertainty and Risk

I recently participated in a Linkedin discussion (Why Do 70% of All Change Efforts Fail?) on the disappointment that up to 70% of all change management efforts fail in some significant manner or other. I was intrigued for a number of reasons, one of which is that I have read and heard over the years about this seemingly consistent failure rate for change. In fact back in the early 1980,s when I was doing my EMBA my thesis covered this phenomena which not only covered OD type changes but also more business type changes (M&A, new product introductions, IT, new plant investments, etc.). To update my insights on this issue of failure rates in business strategy, I talked to a strategy consultant who I have much respect for. He confirmed that failure in one form or other is very common and blaming others also somewhat common. One ironical observation I have had is that even in the area of personal change, many efforts fail. I can’t recall any specific statistics on this failure rate, but it would not surprise me that it is in this general 70% ballpark too (Terina Allen in her comment below provides some interesting perspectives on failure rates for personal change efforts).

Failure seems to be a recurring experience.  It seems to be present in whatever field or endeavour we participate in. It seems to be present at quite high rates no matter how much smarter we have gotten. Yet, I do not see in the OD literature  or even business strategy literature an acknowledgement that this is the case. Mostly all literature that explores change failure “rails” against failure, often by blaming someone else (often the client or senior leadership). I have a general rule in life: if a phenomena exists over time with different players and within different contexts, then it is probably like gravity. It is a natural occurrence. A natural occurrence is one that happens because of the way nature works. Sanity means we accept and work with the fact. Insanity means we deny or even complain about it.

Perhaps we should just be able to celebrate the 30%. It is because we are as smart as we are that we get average success rates close to this value.

Yet, it is clear, if we accept this notion of common failure there are major implications to any of us who endeavour to make/manage change in one form or other.

  • Who among us wants to consistently embark on important efforts knowing that we statistically speaking are most likely to fail? How do we sell that to ourselves? How do we sell that to others? In fact many consultants promise to help clients do better. It would be interesting to see an independent scorecard on such parties.
  • Even though we are so much smarter/more knowledgeable now (compared to when I did my thesis) why can’t we fundamentally get much better at this? Is there something we have not learned yet that is critical? Is there something we consistently do that gets in the way we do change that we are not aware of?
  • What does it mean to succeed or fail? A common notion is to consider whether we get all the planned benefits, how much does it cost against our expectations/value propositions, how long does it take against our expectations/value propositions? Is this an adequate view on what success or failure looks like? Do we even contemplate that what we want to change was not a great idea in the first place (in other words, “It deserved to fail, thank goodness!”)?
  • Almost all change that we try involves “others” as customers, as employees, as suppliers, as stakeholders, etc. We typically view “pushback” by these “targets” as resistance, is this a helpful conceptual construct? When I did my thesis on change failure, the big topic in change management was how to overcome resistance, and it still seems to be a favourite topic along with noting how others (often senior leaderships’) fail to do what they ought/promised to do. We want something good – great to happen, when others are not as enthralled they become the problem, hmm!
  • We often say that we do our best personal learning through dealing with failure. We sometimes even apply this “failure leads to success” notion to organizations. How does this supposed wisdom relate to change management? Apply to change management going in, midway, and at the end? The irony, maybe even sarcasm, is of course we supposedly need failures in our lives. If so, what failure rate would make for a good learning environment (yes, some sarcasm here)?
  • etc.

For me the notion of success and failure can be a dynamic one. Going in we picture success as (benefits 1, 2, 3, …). Midway, after getting some sometimes sobering feedback we might be really happy if we just got benefits 1,2, 8 & 9. At the end, after seeing all that we had to deal with we realize that we scored really big because we got benefits 1, 8 and 17 (which wasn’t even on the original list of hoped for outcomes).

The other observation for regarding change is connected to my notion on what is at the heart of it. All change somewhere, somehow and at sometime affects someone. All change is social.

Yet, I have participated in many change related efforts (yes even on myself) where upon reflection I realize that I was using a mindset that viewed others in a very static manner. Static in the following ways:

  • Others were reactors in the change. They would respond to what we proposed. Yet we know that this is incorrect. Others do not see the world as we do. They have their own perspectives, often quite different than ours. Different perspectives mean they maybe acting out their change efforts too, even on us.
  • Ours was the only meaningful change effort going on, every other effort was secondary to the “targets”. Yet we know this is untrue as well. At anyone time all of us are dealing with many change demands on our time, bodies, minds and hearts. So we are always competing with urgent and emergent change efforts on others. AND, guess what, on us us too. One of the common finger pointing admonishments made towards sponsors and senior headers is that they do not stay consistent, true, or fully present during our change effort. Yet we know life is exhausting and all encompassing on everyone of our lives.
  • People can and often change their minds, even several times, on an issue. It makes sense that they do, otherwise no learning is taking place. I guess it is okay when it is about something other than our change effort though.
  • The source of almost all significant uncertainty in any change effort is those involved. There is nothing we can do that will fundamentally change that. Disagree, or ignore this observation, I offer up the following certain prediction: your change effort will fail more often than the 70%.

My central thesis here is that because we have people involved in change, we imbed uncertainty (NO, not risk) into our change management lives. People contribute to our uncertainties in the following venues:

  • They make the environment for change dynamic rather than static. Not only can people pushback, they can deflect, redirect, redefine, wrest ownership, as well as accept or reject our brilliant proposals. AND, the notion of dynamic means that this is not just a onetime event.
  • People will, for very sensible reasons to themselves, chose to be overt or covert in their reasons and motivations for what they do. AND, these can shift over time as well. So setting up a simple “for” and “against” spreadsheet is a recipe for self delusion. One painful lesson I have learned in life is that the more I suggest that people “should” (in a moral like sense) be for what I am advocating, the more likely they will go covert.
  • People cannot guarantee their commitments overtime. “SHIT HAPPENS” and when it does they (and we) will respond. AND, we should. Yet, I have not seen too many change management plans concerning sponsorship intelligently prepare for this. Why I do know? Because all to many comments on change failure blames someone for their lack of ongoing support. Maybe if the commentators were in the sponsor’s shoes they may find themselves acting much the same way. If a critical change effort is so at risk (YES risk not uncertainty) to fluctuations in sponsor support, then it is a vulnerable process to begin with. We should know by now (because of all the reports about its occurrence) that sponsorship support will be a varying commodity and we should learn how to deal with it going into the change effort.
  • Time and people! The longer a change effort is planned for, the greater the opportunities for the above mentioned vagaries to arise. Time is a variable that can be used when planning and undergoing change. Uncertainty has less chance to emerge or at least surprise us if we adopt shorter time frames in our change management activities.
  • Size and people! The more complex a change effort the more nuances it will have for those affected. Nuances introduce uncertainty as they often mean consequences for those impacted that we cannot foresee and anticipate. Simpler change efforts will likely have a narrower set of nuance impactions, more of which we can foresee and anticipate.
  • The “cast” in any meaningful change effort includes four sub cast groups: those directly impacted (i.e., targets); those on the sidelines  who influence and can choose to become interested and involved (and this can be a nightmare); other members of the change management team and their close associates; and of course, ourselves. these four groups and their members are a dynamic stew of varying involvements, motivations, capacity, distractions, etc. Remember, we often cannot anticipate others dynamic shifts (as noted above) but we often cannot even anticipate ours as well.

This is why I think of change management as an exercise of navigation, literally!

This is why I think that 30% success rate can reasonably be viewed as almost miraculous. A testimony to the skills fortitude, and generosity of those who pursue, support and accept change.


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