Talent Management: Remember, demographics affect us asymmetrically!

A recent report (Workforce shrinking as boomers retire: report – Canada.com) concerning Canada’s workforce participation rate decline due to continued retirement trends is an issue affecting both governments (in terms of taxation base revenues to support their programs) and organizations in terms of meeting talent access needs. This post will consider the talent management (TM) issues only.

These kinds of reports, including the ones that are more alarmist (hysterical “talent war” type claims) are of interest to governments at the the macro level (i.e., the over all phenomena) but for most organizations they are not.

Many organizations over the years have reported TM issues even though overall workforce participation rates were holding steady and general workforce numbers were even growing. These are situations where selective supply demand ratios for particular talent types were out of balance. This observation supplies evidence that TM issues are often asymmetrical in nature.

So even if general participation rates are deteriorating the implications specifically for any organization’s TM needs will often not match these trends. The micro (i.e., organization level) view can behave very differently than the macro view. We know this truth in so many ways:

  • Statistics about population trends (e.g., fertility rates) will not give us any informative value about whether any one female is pregnant or not.
  • What takes place at the quantum physics level does not easily show itself at the astrophysical level.
  • On a sea shore in high winds and tides, the wave action on the shore can vary greatly due to topographical variations of the shoreline.
  • etc.

In considering an organization’s TM health, risks, uncertainties, etc. it is always critical to assess the organization’s talent asymmetries.

Talent supply demand issues are caused by many more factors than population level trends and patterns. It is always useful to consider the implications of the general on the specific. For example, if we learn that participation in post secondary schools is changing, what are the possible implications on our need to recruit for specific technical skills in the future? We can’t begin to answer this without understanding the cause and effect system concerning people entering and graduating in these specific fields. Also, it is not just supply that impacts us. It is the future demand for this talent too that can shift as well.

Also, remember, asymmetries are also sources of opportunity and bounty too. They don’t always have to be threats. Interestingly, this point gets rare mention by those who are peddling “chicken little” type concerns.

There is a third perspective to consider as well: how we choose to operate by its very implications creates “opportunities” (sic humour) for TM issues. Organize differently and you can shift your TM issues. We often do this by how we set up work processes, invest in capital including automation, improve the quality of management and leadership, etc. I have dealt with clients who had serious issues concerning high skilled talent retention. They could not do anything about the increased competition for this talent, but they could make “internal” use of it differently. This lead to significant better use of this talent and they could get by with less, pay more, and make the work far more interesting to those in this talent area. a triple win if there ever was one.

The use of critical talent internally is in my opinion the greatest untapped improvement opportunity available to those who suffer the TM issue.

There is tremendous practical value in looking at our TM issues in asymmetrical ways. We can look for useful specific solutions which are often quite easy and cheap to implement. We can often deal with local changes without investing in the costs and disruptions of broad scale changes.

The asymmetrical perspective is a remarkably powerful analytical and solution impacts mindset.


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Should I vote? Am I qualified and the uncertainty and risk implications

A recent article in the National Post (24 may, 2014, A17) titled “Some people shouldn’t vote” by David Moscrop (University of British Columbia (Sorry, I could not find an online link to this article) raises the question of whether we should only vote in governmental elections if we are “qualified” to do so. The counterpoint is that unless we are so qualified, perhaps we should not vote at all. I will skate around the “political” aspects of this issue and look at the choice of “to vote or not to vote” from an uncertainty and risk decision making perspective.

The proposition that we should not vote unless equipped to do so in some informed way is a controversial position. Certainly in Canada there is a vocal body of opinion that laments that participation results in federal, provincial and civic elections is at disturbingly low rates and even appears to be deteriorating further. Coupled with this lament is the argument that we should enforce in law the necessity to vote. Moscrop would argue that this is counter productive. People don’t vote for many reasons (from disinterest – to – difficulty in doing so – to – can’t decide who to vote for – to – can’t in good conscious stand the choices presented; etc.)

In the main, I appreciate Moscrop’s perspectives and in several instances have refrained from voting in civic elections because of the incomprehensibility of the significance between choices to outright distaste for any of them. Please remember, I am in the demographic which is diligent in voting in governmental elections. Furthermore, I am a well educated individual, so if I can’t fathom the choices then it is not from a lack of capability or interest. And, if i really do detest the choices, how do I make this point known?  o when I don’t vote, it is a big deal. Will I opt out in the future? Yes, I fully expect to do so.

On the matter of whether I should be compelled to vote, I have the following concerns:

  • If I don’t like the choices offered, how does my “forced” participation help here? It doesn’t, no potential signal is communicated that there is anything wrong with the choices on the table in the first case.
  • If I vote and I don’t understand and comprehend what it is I am choosing, how does this help? It doesn’t. Whoever I choose, will take this as mistaken endorsement for their position. This is a lie, pure and simple.
  • If I am forced to vote, this makes me think and feel like I am in some tyrant’s land where they get their sense of legitimacy from using the “gun” (force of law) to get me to vote for them. This to me is corrupt and obscene.

For me the irony in all this lamenting is that non-voting is a vote. Not a flattering one to be sure. But if people do not vote it is a message(s) that I wonder if people do’t want to acknowledge. And to argue that we should open up the polls to more people (e.g., younger) and use the law to ensure higher participation does nothing in my mind to address that the underlying issues are unexamined and accepted.

As I noted above I want to link this question of whether I should vote or not (or even whether I am qualified to do so) is one that I want to link to uncertainty and risk in decision making.

Let us set up a decision circumstance that mirrors an election:

  • You are going to consider buying a car.
  • You have several choices of makes and models (candidates) all vying for your purchase dollar “vote”.
  • You come to the conclusion for various reasons, that none of the choices are really in balance all that attractive.
  • What should you do?

Really, the sensible choice is to not buy any car at all.

How does uncertainty and risk (U&r) enter into the equation? At least three general ways:

  1. To not buy any vehicle means you are assuming the U&r of your current mode(s) of transportation. If your current vehicle is an older one, you will face increasing likelihood of increased repairs and even unexpected breakdowns. In the election scenario, you are opting for whatever you get in the way of a governing setting (very likely the status quo).
  2. To choose a vehicle that you are not “quite” happy with means you will be constantly reminded how you chose something that is dissatisfying to you. You knowingly take on the risks of dissatisfaction. In elections, I have certaintly been faced with this circumstance, so if I vote, it is with a pinched nose and a selection of the least offensive choice. The U&r is in the circumstance where my dislikes in the choice in the first place come to fruition.
  3. Say, you are happy to vote for a candidate, but they subsequently disappoint you regarding their participation regarding new or proposed amendments to legislation. Congratulations, you have just been exposed almost entirely to a form of uncertainty (not a risk as it is a surprise).

Part of the issue with current forms of voting in Canada at leaf is there is is no effective way of indicating that you don’t want any of the choices presented to ever transpire. There is no “veto” like vote selection. Except in in elections, “not” choosing to go forward with a choice (or set of choices) is considered a “valid” option by those who consider the act of voting sacrosanct.

Any choice we make entails we take on the associated U&r. Purchase a vehicle, we find out along the way whether we made a good choice. Vote/not vote in an election, we get exactly the same exposure. I may rue some of the choices I make, but they were mine to make. In my mind this applies to voting as well. Speaking personally now, I sometimes wish that on the ballot there was a box that said: “None of the above”. This is an option I can choose in almost all other aspects of my life.

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Performance Management: The Performance Cube and Managerial Performance

A recent article (http://business.financialpost.com/2014/05/01/confronting-a-bad-management-epidemic-with-incalculably-high-costs/) by Rick Spence in the National Post intrigued me because of its core thesis: “Why do so many capable business leaders manage things so badly?”. This post explores the article’s thoughts using the model called the performance cube. As a wrap-up, this post also comments on the implications of the article on OD in general and performance management and leader/manager development in particular.

What is the performance cube? It is a three dimensional view on performance that looks at the following dimensions:

  1. Know what to do, and does it?
  2. Know how to do, and does it?
  3. Want to to do it, and does it?

Over the years I have seen this model of performance applied to non-managerial work, but I can’t recall it ever being applied to managerial and leadership work (performance).

The underlying argument for this article’s thesis is the following:

“Bruce Tulgan, founder of Connecticut – based Rainmaker Thinking reported on ‘an epidemic of under management’s 2004 and last week (week of 30 April) released and update proving that nothing has changed. Despite a plethora of management education theories of leadership, and increasing market competitiveness, companies and their leaders are not getting any smarter.”

“Worse, they don’t recognize it. Leaders are trained to be tireless truth-seekers, but they can’t see the problem under their nose. Tulgan says, nine out of 10 managers are under performing. But most think they are doing a fine job.”

“Tulgan defines under-management as a state in which leaders consistently fail to provide … five management basics:

  1. clear statement of performance requirements and expectations;
  2. support and guidance regarding the resources available to meet those expectations;
  3. accurate measuring and documentation of individual’s performance;
  4. regular candid feedback on individuals’ performance;
  5. and, allocating performance-based rewards or detriments.”

Tulgan’s research suggests:

  • One in 10 managers, provide the management basics to their direct reports at least once a week.
  • Three in 10 provide these basics at least once a month.
  • Nearly half fail to provide these basics once a year

” The costs and lost opportunities caused by under-management are incalculably high. … Worse still, bad leaders crowd out good ones … (due to) … failure to recognize and reward great performance.”

Let’s apply the five management basics to the performance cube:

  1. Know what to do? Management basic #1.
  2. Know how to do? Management basic #2, and aspects of 3 and 4.
  3. Want to to do it? Management basic # 5 and aspects of 3 and 4.

I have used the performance cube to assess whether there is a complete system process concerning performance. In other words, does an existing performance system cover all three dimensions with clarity and completeness? I have more often used the cube to diagnose systemic and patterned performance issues (N.B. we can all have bad and great hair days).

One of the key ingredients I have found is that great performance is always grounded and observable within a behavioural context. Yes, we are expected to achieve notable results (and sometimes even outcomes), but to get them we have to “act” or behave in useful ways. Schemes like MBO and the like tend to short shift the behavioural aspects of performance. So when Tulgan reports the infrequency and irregularity of of “providing” (N.B. this is a verb) the basics to direct reports he is speaking behaviourally.

The comment about MBO leads me to my thoughts concerning OD.

If we even discount Tulgan’s research because we impugn he is trying to sell something. We are still left with his core  observations of leader/managerial under performance. I have certainly observed it (using Tulgan’s five basics) many times and have heard many others over the years making similar observations. There is just so much smoke that I am at least wondering if there is a large fire burning.

Where Tulgan’s research is validated by our own observations, we can look to our organization’s performance management schemes as they pertain to leaders and managers as a prime culprit. Yet so many firms have adopted very performance schemes that have been advocated by the so called experts. Hmm!

The observation (“Despite the plethora of new forms of management education, leadership, …”) draws my attention to how OD practioners approach doing leader manager development. The fact that the results of Tulgan’s work covers a decade of research just has to lead us to consider that part of the problem is how we approach developing people in these roles. Furthermore, I have observed over the years the not uncommon behaviour by OD development practioners to blame the the client. Fair enough as far as it goes, but if a concern repeats itself time and time again, we are faced with the “insanity” judgement (expecting different results by doing more of what we are more or less already doing).

I am in OD and I have a lot of pride in being so. I also have so much respect for so many of those in this field that I have had the privilege of getting to know. Yet, I am discouraged by the implications on our field by the results of research such as that done by Tulgan.

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“Never make forecasts, especially about the future!” (Samuel Goldwyn)

This is a post about uncertainty, hence the issue of forecasting and the proposition that the value of long term strategic planning is worthwhile.

First, why long term strategic work is worthwhile:

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” (Yogi Berra)

Nassim Taleb, who is a major influence on my thinking and views on uncertainty and risk is apparently NOT a fan of long term strategic planning. The reason is obvious: uncertainty makes such efforts unworthy. Over the years, I have observed that many people have arrived at similar conclusions. Many of these I suspect have gotten to this conclusion without any knowledge of who Taleb is.

My first recollection, of this conclusion is many years ago when the sceptic offered as evidence that strategic plans ended up being shelf ware before the “tomes” were finished being printed and distributed. The evidence was that the effort spent had very little value and return in subsequent activities and efforts. I have observed this phenomena myself, first hand as well as for the those around me.

Much strategy planning worked is built upon the efforts to do some form of forecasting. Forecasting if it is based upon experience (that is, past events) is a form of extrapolation into the future. Sometimes this is done in a more conversational way (through techniques such as SWOT analyses) or quantitative ways (big data, surveys, applied research, etc.). There is a crucial assumption to any of these efforts:

“The future will be like the past in ways that matter to us!”

Yet there is an ocean of evidence that this does not turn out to be the case. It seems that the future always gives us surprise circumstance which invalidates our best planning efforts. For me, Taleb provided a very helpful context for understanding why this happens AND, will always happen. No wonder the interest in strategy work, especially long term is questioned, even avoided.

What is an expected consequence of this retreat from taking the long view? We will not make any long term investments, especially in infrastructure. Why bother? Won’t it become a “white elephant” investment anyway?

I have a personal concern (and it may very well be very incorrect). I wonder if the growing concern over the infrastructure in our nation’s transportation systems, our utility systems (especially civic ones), education, etc. may be in some part due to this retreat from willingness to do long term strategy work? I am not so naive as to think it is the only reason. But! If we consciously or unconsciously adopt the perspective that the near term is all that is worth paying attention to, wouldn’t we be inclined to pay attention to what seems important in the near term.

I am aware that in most governments there are long range planning groups that often work off decade long forecasts on demographics/populations in their jurisdictions. Yet, how successful are they in their forecasts and more importantly influence on the stakeholders that will have to approve the investment implications of them? It isn’t uncommon for many of us to bemoan the supposed fact that politicians are concerned with their term in office and the next election. And, the voting electorate, they are struggling with making rent and mortgage payments, cost of food, etc. These last two groups, very understandably, have a priority on the shorter term.

Yet, in spite of it all, politicians and citizens do pay attention to the longer term. People pay attention to many issues that affect the longer term livability features in their communities (even if in some comes it across as NIMBY).

How about in business organizations themselves? Not withstanding their espoused aversion to longer term planning, I look at an organization’s capital investment program to see how far out they are prepared to look. Depending upon the business, the outlook can be decades. Try opening up a new mine, building a pipeline, etc. These may be extremes, but it is not uncommon for a capital program to look five to ten years out. It just takes that long to get the job done. Yet, in spite of the understood (sic) uncertainty out there, many organizations make these kinds of investments on a somewhat regular basis.

So if we are well advised to abide by Goldwyn’s advice along with Taleb’s concerns about the implications of uncertainty on our lives how do we live today with the future in mind?

Yogi Berra’s quote suggests how we might approach this. It is less about predicting the future than making the future you desire:

  • Where do you want to be tomorrow?
  • What do need to do starting today to ensure the likelihood you will get there?

To me, the above two questions are the job to be done in strategy work

I subscribe to the metaphysical view that the future is not pre-ordained (like reading a book that has been written). Those who subscribe to a future that is something to be uncovered (versus created) would have little need to do any strategy work at all (after all it will be what it will be).

If we adopt the suggested perspective on the role of longer term strategy, then we appreciate the need for aspiration, vision and mission. These are all about where we want to be (aspiration), how we want to live out this journey (vision) and how we want to fundamentally get there (mission). The rest of the strategy effort is just that: a lot of effort!

Strategy is exactly like flying, sailing, hiking, etc. A plan to get somewhere where we view the journey through the lens of the pilot and navigator.

So what is the place for forecasting in such a strategy perspective? In two basic issue areas:

  • Are underpinning assumptions about our environment behaving as we hope – expect – need to behave? Navigators work on assumptions about weather, topography conditions, currents, etc, to be able to determine whether they are on course, adrift, or even serious jeopardy. The forecasts tells us how critical ( and when and by how much) to respond so we get back on course. This is risk management: we are dealing with variances from expected occurrences.
  • Are there circumstances arising that were unexpected (at the very least unassumed to be present) that may impact our journey? This is the uncertainty of surprise events in our journey. They may or may not matter. How will we determine if that is so? We are concerned about the surprise events in the context of the impacts (consequences) on our journey. The forecasts are about potential impacts (and when, by how much, etc.)

Uncertainty in our journey has a couple of life lessons:

  • Always be attentive to outliers. By definition they are a surprise and surprises are the evidence of significant uncertain like events.
  • Always, think and build into your strategy, the potential capacity to take advantage of surprises. A taken advantage of uncertain like event is by definition an opportunity. Guess what the outcome could very be if you aren’t able to take advantage of it? At best you survive (resilience is the competence here). At worst, you lose big time. Taleb call this being “anti-fragile”
  • There is great value in building one’s capacity to dealing with psychological, emotional and cognitive shock. Why? What do we tend to do when go into shock? It takes time to recover enough to get one’s “bearings” so that we can face that which shocked us. Depending upon the nature of the shock we can take some time to recover and we maybe significantly damaged as a result so we cannot bring our full best selves to bear on the matter. Time to recover may be very important to survival let alone taking advantage. Being damaged (think of a torn muscle here) means you are still partially incapacitated, means what you might have been able to do you are unable to do.

Where might we be most vulnerable to the shod of uncertainty? In organizations I would look at the logistical aspects of our strategy. This is why in times of war, resistance groups attack transportation infrastructure. If the figurative “frontline” of your strategy meets unexpected problems, it is critical to be able to deploy some of your “reserves” to support them. The weak link becomes that which enables the reserves to redeployed. So the logistical aspects of our strategy include: having redeploy able reserves AND the capability to do so when necessary.

So if you are flying, what will you most sensibly do regarding logistics? Have enough fuel to get there even if the journey takes twice as long, and knowing where you shift to if continuing the journey is impractical at this time.

Taking potential advantage of opportunities is not always simple (even if you have the capacity to do so). Again, think of flying. What are the implications of having surprising headwinds and getting to the airport significantly ahead of time?

I am a strong advocate of long term strategy. I  use it in my life and I always recommend it to others, especially those who say it is impractical in their lives, work, etc. I always ask them what a long term strategy looks like, invariably they describe some time and effort taking edifice. I ask them where they have made longterm commitments in their lives (personal – marriage, children, mortgage, etc.; work – capital plan, ongoing customer support obligations, etc.). Then I lay out what I look for in a long rage strategy touching on what is outlined above.

Over the years this general approach has served me personally quite well, and there has never been a ream of paper on any shelf.




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Chaos and Uncertainty?

This post explores my perspectives on the distinctions and connections between chaos and uncertainty.

In the OD field, uncertainty seems to be used much less that terms such as risk, complexity, instability, and chaos. Yet when I think about the various articles using these more frequently used terms I get the sense that the authors are really thinking about uncertainty.

Chaos is a very interesting notion to me as it evokes considerable ideas. Wikipedia describes chaos as having two key attributes: complete disorder and confusion. Confusion I can more easily see in the context of what people are talking about. But, complete disorder, not so much. Disorder evokes ideas about anarchy, being within the front lines of civil unrest or war, and other very traumatic inducing circumstances. We also know that physics considers the time just after the big bang as a time of disorder. Clearly OD practioners are not talking about such events or circumstances. They are most often talking about how leaders need to deal with confusion within their business environments. There seems to be a strong tendency to claim that such confusion is worse now than it has been historically and will likely get more so in the future.

Uncertainty, is describe by wikipedia as having the attribute of lack of knowledge. In the context of risk, uncertainty lacks a sense of likelihood (so we could not/did not expect it). Some like the economist Knight think of risk as “measured” uncertainty. Others like Nassim Taleb think of uncertainty as the result of randomness that exists within systems. The more complex the system the more opportunity for uncertainty to arise. This is due to the lack of knowledge and understanding on how these systems work and the potential variations in their outcomes can arise.

From the perspective outlined above, chaos interns of disorder and confusion can contribute to uncertainty existing and arising. Disorder is an underlying statement of how things exist relative to each other (metaphysical in other words). Confusion related to someone’s cognitive limits. Yet confusion can exist where there is no underlying disorder. Systems can be complex enough such that we lose our ability to truly understand them. These systems may be quite orderly in nature, it’s just that the dependent and independent variable relationships is beyond our understanding. Also systems can contribute to confusion because they embody elements of randomness in them. Anyone who has done a Monte Carlo simulation understands that randomness can be a core feature of the system, game or simulation. In terms of natural systems (ones not involving people or sentient life) we may look to quantum physics to give us insights into  how randomness can be present in systems that in one sense or other are orderly.

Social systems have their own unique sources of randomness: people can change their minds and act “seemingly” inconsistently. I say seemingly, because this inconsistency in others may only appear to be so from an observer’s perspective. In my mind I may be acting quite consistently, using decision references that are not entirely understood (Ah! That notion again) by someone else. Or I may indeed be doing so intentionally or unknowingly. This for me at least is why I consider social systems  as having the most latent uncertainty within them.

From a population perspective (like statisticians like to look at us) we often behave in very predictable ways. But at the individual level this is no so. The parallel in physics again is that large systems physics such as celestial physics behaves in ways that are in large part predictable (N.B. though much is not understood yet). However, at the quantum physics level (small particle physics) the notion of uncertainty is integral (although the notion of uncertainty is quite different than we normally use it). Individual particles can and apparently act quite randomly.

In practical terms, this means when we do strategy, planning, living our lives, etc. we acre continuously interacting with social systems and those in them. We have all experienced the randomness with such systems. Some years ago we were building a house and we had to deal with different building inspectors throughout the project. The building codes were pretty clear, the construction standards and practices were pretty clear. Yet we had quite different experiences when one of the inspectors went on vacation and a colleague of his came out to our construction site. One was very helpful and supportive 9while upholding the building codes), the other was very officious and used the code to expose minutia variances that were deemed violations. One laughable (while I cry and die) was he did not like how the roofing system looked. This was an engineered roofing system so it had been signed. He was not impressed, and he knew that we were dealing with dealings for other trades being able to come on the job site. So a compromise was reached. The contextual system that both inspectors operated in was the same and clear. Yet the individual behaviours varied markedly. This was clearly a case of randomness arising in this system and impacting us.

There was no chaos in the system as such. No disorder as such. Confusion only arose when we were facing inconsistency in behaviour between two individuals with the very same job and task. This happens frequently in our lives, we expect it, we often just know exactly when, where, with who, over what.

So for me, the notion of chaos, is mainly hypothetical (rarely happens for most of us in many parts of the world). but uncertainty is something we are exposed to daily. Fortunately it usually comes in small doses involving other individuals in ways that can be both irritating, frustrating but also filled humour.

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OD and Business Strategy lessons to be learned from the Roman Army

A very interesting article (http://business.financialpost.com/2014/04/14/10-things-that-propelled-ancient-rome-to-greatness-that-can-help-your-business/) by Brad Cherniak of Capital Insight was recently posted in the National Post.  This article examined 10 principles that the Roman Army apparently made use of and their current relevance today. The focus of the article is on business relevance, I will also look at this article’s relevance from an OD perspective as well. Note of caution: I am not sure of the scholarship of this article, but the points raised are intriguing and useful for learning none the less.

Principle 1: Supreme confidence

“The armies took in information voraciously, but too took no input on their core mission and beliefs.”

I believe this is a critical point in terms of high performance in any endeavour. What I find intriguing is the bipolar aspect to this principle, namely that it applies both ways for fanatics as well as those we admire. One of my biggest frustrations in OD is that I see far too many propositions where we should always strive to have more of something (engagement, happiness, openness, etc.) without any acknowledgement that there can and will sometimes be “dark sides” to succeeding in these efforts. When we say that there is too little of something, we are talking about variances. I don’t know about you, but I have not seen or heard o any distribution that only has one tail (not enough <-> ideal). Would love to hear about such phenomena.

This principle, also speaks to in my mind to those who advocate that vision and mission are not that important. This principle guides us in how we can consider the environment of massive available information: test what you observe against your vision and mission, this will guide you to consider what is relevant.

So from an OD perspective, what are the sub-principles that enable us to manage the potential dysfunctional aspects of success? And, for those particularly involved with strategy work, how can we use vision and mission to distill the massive data in environment into useful information?

Principle 2: Losing is literally not an option

“The Roman armies had no conception of accepting a loss in battle – they just hadn’t won yet.

This is possibly a variation on the notion about persistence. In its dysfunctional form persistence is about obstinacy or resistance to change. Yet we know that much in life is worthwhile was accomplished through persistence during difficulties. It is during difficulties that we can be most tempted to move away from what we set to accomplish.

In OD there seems to be a current predisposition to articulating the need to be adaptable, flexible, inclusive, etc. Yet we know that high performance and real progress is often achieved in the face of daunting obstacles and difficulties. So it would be most helpful to appreciate how we chose to persist versus being reasonable in changing courses.

Again, what are the sub-principles in OD that enable us to manage the need to persist vs. the importance of walking away?

Principle 3: Smarter than everyone else, and still outworked them by orders of magnitude

Apparently they were tireless and ruthless trainers, planners and organizers. “The word decimation comes from the Roman practice of eliminating randomly one in ten men of an under performing or undisciplined army.”

WOW! talk about a performance management (PM) system directed at inadequate performance. I consider this in juxtaposition to the fashionable (now becoming scrutinized) PM practice of Forced Ranking. Perhaps inspiration for this practice came form this apparent historical fact. If it did, what a perverse adaptation it is! Forced Ranking is typically applied to the whole population regardless of their overall group performance, the Romans applied this notion to poor performing areas.

PM in OD focuses the discussion on how to get high performance. The discussion on how to deal with poor/inadequate performance to me focuses on such tactics as coaching, changing surrounding processes, being accommodating (I know I am being unfair here). What this suggests to me is that this approach can lead to the notion that your poor performance is somehow my fault. The demarcation between poor performance being the result of poor support (mine fault) or the choices made by the performer are unclear in a lot of PM discussions I have observed and participated in. Yet in law, if one is charged or sued, the issue of liability is almost always a key issue within the suit.

While many organization worry about talent retention issues there are two sub-principles that I think are always useful to consider: deal with poor performers clearly (legally and humanely) as it sends a positive signal to those whose performance is not an issue (i.e., adequate – great performance is actually respected); and weeding out poor performers, creates “space” to potentially improve the team.  Note: I am quite aware that there are many poor – despicable ways of doing this task, and I am not condoning any of these.

The notion of “outworking” intrigues in that it may be a partial antidote to emerging hubris in those who are very smart, accomplished, capable.

Principle 4: Discipline, focus and discretion

“Roman leaders were often respected, but always feared.” “This is a lesson for new paradigm CEOs who risk getting distracted and losing focus – or worse, confusing their brand or even mission – in being too open or social.”

These thoughts would appear to go totally against almost all that is advocated by OD and many others today. The “fear” aspect is one I have many concerns about myself as the dysfunctional aspects of it are so apparent (e.g., the likely destruction of honest feedback on operational and strategic matters, the reduction in taking useful risks, etc.).

This principle again raises the concern I raised earlier about ignoring the dysfunctional aspects or unintended consequences of success in what we propose. Focus is critical to success, but to what point? Being open and engaging have real benefits, but to what point? To me, any advocate of an explicit or implicit doing more and more or even less and less is not that potentially different than someone who says we should be taking more and more vitamins or doing away with intaking any carbohydrates. The panacea or cure-all does not exist.

Again, what are the OD sub-principles for achieving the applicable balance between these important features? For me, part of the answer is found in how we organize around high (usually asymmetrical or idiosyncratic) performers. I had the privilege a number of years ago to work in a R&D facility. The scientists and engineers were world class people in their respective fields. AND, they were most often very quirky  in various personal ways. We didn’t try to change them as people, we organized around them in ways where their dysfunctional behaviours would moderated in the effects of these behaviours.

Principle 5: Aggressively adaptive

“The Romans were keen observers of others’ … innovations. They quickly adopted key elements, but made their versions even better than those they copied.” “The absolute focus should be on the end result – the customer’s experience – rather than the product.”

I would consider the customer’s experience as the outcome, my product as the result/output. If the quote is accurate, the Romans truly did know how to do “best practices” work. It is just not good enough to emulate, one needs to improve upon what is being emulated.

It is one of the biggest tensions in OD (and I suspect many other fields) is how to introduce and install a best practice, but in a manner that is “fitting” to the host and yet a fundamental improvement on the “state-of-the-art”. It certainly has challenged me many times over the years.

The key for me is the “adaptability” in this context is less focused on “flexibility” than “improvement”.

Principle 6: Continuously adaptive

“The armies never stopped the process or sat on a lead, even a big one.”

WOW! This a huge principle. It seems all too common, that when we achieve what we set out to achieve, we run out of “steam”, focus, determination, etc. This is a key PM issue that I have always been fascinated by: how do we leap from one sigmoid curve to the next?

To just focus on how to “sustain” high performance is an admission of failure, you are resigned to trying to not losing ground! Sorry, but entropy will make this strategy a losing proposition. Why? Two reasons: changes in what the state-of-the-art is and our ambition to keep on top of it when it moves beyond just incremental improvement; that someone out there is going to move the state-of-the-art in a disruptive manner.

Yet understanding the notion of inertia seems to be missing in much OD work I have observed. The status quo is the status quo because of all previous investments in it. and some of these investments are difficult to alter, witness:

  • The way we indoctrinate, intentionally and unintentionally in  organizations (often linked to culture) creates “mindsets” that become virtually ingrained in who we are. These ingrained patterns (beliefs, thinking styles, patterned responses to demands, etc.) are in many cases unthinkingly automatic in how we draw upon them.
  • The way we invest in organizational infrastructure sets contextual limits on the range of possible organizational responses. Some of these investments can be virtually impossible to undo and redo.
  • The way we invest in work processes within our infrastructure investments have been honed over many years. They can sometimes take on a “metaphysical truism” to them, the thought of doing something really different can be organizationally, operationally and behaviourally very alien. The process of dealing with the alienness takes time and may not always be successful.

This suggests that how we go into stetting our strategy, organizing, establishing various processes including people related ones with the principle of how can also most easily change, undo, and redo as easily as possible up front. How many organizations (or even us as people) have this principle front and centre?

Principle 7: Fearless in the face of an unexpected challenge

“The bigger the hurdle, the harder the Romans jumped.” For business: “So what if it has never been done before? Sometimes audacity is rewarded and is the only path to success despite the risks.”

At any one point of time, our technology (our knowledge of how to accomplish something) is limited and specific. So how we deal with dealing with such a limit says a lot about us as a person and organization. Being audacious has many implications:

  • How to manage the balance between total commitment and not losing it all if we fail.
  • How to manage the tension between our operational perspective (the way we do it now is “knowingly”  just fine) and use of innovation where data on likelihood of success is near zero (so lets retreat to what we know most about- yet we “rationally” or “intuitively” know it won’t work here either).
  • How to manage keeping current commitments to ourselves and others while redirecting investment energy and efforts to the untried./
  • etc.

Principles 1 and 2 above will be called upon big time.

Principle 8: Committed to innovation even when painful

The Romans committed great resources to the process of innovation – in strategy, logistical supply chain and infrastructure, and troop development and armaments. Roman road systems are remarkable example of this principle.

In OD we talk about the capability to execute and implement. What I find fascinating is while many of us today use the “excuse” (yes, excuse) to forego long term planning (i.e., strategic planning), then how do we ever rationally justify making any significant infrastructure investments.

I suspect that the Romans firmly believed that they could and would rule forever. This meant that they would be predisposed to making significant infrastructure investments like their road systems. In business, this would mean that we picture our organizations lasting many years.

The lesson for me is if you are not predisposed to finding a suitable way to make long range strategic plans, then you will not invest long term, hence you will not last long term. The analogy regarding our physiology. If we are not prepared to think long term about our lives, we will not see any need to invest in health, learning, etc. Statistically speaking, we will age faster and become more readily exposed to life shortening afflictions.

Principle 9: Internally competitive

“The biggest motivator to a Roman general was the glory and rewards it brought” For business the implications are: “truly innovative companies will foster the competition of ideas and the efforts to marshall the resources to execute them (italics added).”

The issue of internal competition is one that is an incredible lever for organizational performance. In fact it may be the equivalent of a nuclear  device. This means, properly deployed and used, great benefits accrue. Improperly deployed and used, great harm ensues.

The reference i made above to Forced Ranking is a glaring example of the improper approach to internal competition. It directs attention to the wrong kinds of accomplishments: besting others within the organizations through politics, focus on where I am within the ranking list regardless of what I have contributed to the organization. Why? Because Forced Ranking only focuses on a ranked order list regardless of business performance. This means my competition  is not a customer or another organization, it is a colleague.

The part I highlighted in italics above is critical to my accepting this principle having potential upside and moderate downside. The competition is over ideas and organizational accomplishments.

Principle 10: Positive feedback loop

“Each of the above principles supported and strengthened the others. There were few unproductive contradictions in Roman thought and action.” I see this balance tension: principles 1 & 2 are balanced by principles 3, 4 & 5; and principle 9 considered how the preceding 8 were used over time with a specific endeavour.

The learning for me:

This article for me was very refreshing: it reinforced some thoughts and concerns I have regarding how we operate within the OD practice; it caused me to reflect on what I tend to hold and believe and encourage me to re-examine them; and to give me an opportunity to apply my OD perspective to a non-OD focused discussion.

More specifically, this article encourages me to continue to refine the basis by which I discern what to recommend and on what basis. This is about strengthening my diagnostic capabilities so I can professionally recommend courses of action without being doctrinaire (sorry for the drama here) about it.

Many thanks




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Uncertainty As Principle – Article by Steven Beattie

In a recent National Post issue an article b y Steven Beattie (http://arts.nationalpost.com/2014/04/11/shortcuts-boundary-problems-and-how-does-a-single-blade-of-grass-thank-the-sun/) examines how literature and modern physics share a common attribute concerning uncertainty (“essential instability”).


For me one of the most interesting thoughts in this article is:

Schrödinger and Einstein have ensured that even the most stable physical occurrences (so called “special cases”) require a whole slew of simplifying assumptions to make the math work.” I would apply this notion (without the reference to math) to all aspects of our lives. We live in a universe of uncertainty.

Uncertainty means for me that we are faced with the unexpected and unpredicted. That is we are surprised, maybe shocked, perhaps devastated or even worse. Sometimes we can also be surprised with the delightful or windfall. Risk means that we are dealing with that which we have experienced and know a fair amount about. Hence we deal with variances around an expected outcome or event.

The notion that uncertainty lies within the complexities and nuances that our theories, paradigms, biases, notions etc. of what we understand to be likely, sensible or true is the heart of the matter. The suggestion is that we ignore, do not take into account many things when we make reasoned or educated “guesses” on how things work. Imagine what we choose to pass over in our uneducated or unreasoned beliefs.

Uncertainty and instability are scary notions. It suggests chaos is “at the gates”. Psychologically nearly all of us crave certainty and assuredness in our lives. At best, we will think of uncertainty as risk. Risk is comforting as it suggests that it is in some way predictable in that surprises are merely variances around an expectation in our lives.

We create islands of certainty in our lives through various means, the most prevalent is rule setting. Settings where we operate within rules is an environment of certainty. The outcomes of applying our rules always leads to expected outcomes. The outcomes may vary depending upon specific differences in our lives, but these are handled by the answers we give to the formalistic questions that rules provide in processing our needs, requirements (someone else’s needs), and desires.

Rules are wonderful, they simplify our lives immensely. But uncertainty is still “at the gates”. Just because we make simplifying assumptions, doesn’t mean that we have actually changed the underlying environment. At best, the rules allow us to live comfortably predictable lives for long periods of time. At worst, the uncertainty bursts through and makes our rules based setting irrelevant (best case scenario) or disrupted (worse case scenario). Being disrupted means that our lives can no longer be lived the way our rules allowed. Continuing to do so will lead to some diminishment or harm to our lives.

Yet, uncertainty brings an upside. When such events occur, there will likely always be someone(s) somewhere(s) that can and will take profitable (in the broadest sense of the word). Disruption is the foundation for major improvements in our lives. Improvement to our lives in a rules based setting can only be incremental at best. In fact some rule settings are so rigid (settings with the suffix “ism” come to mind) where any potential improvement (a.k.a., change) is likely to be considered heresy. We are well reminded that in rule like settings:

There is no situation so bad where status quo isn’t preferred to any improving alternative!”

So, how do we live while accepting uncertainty? For me, I have stumbled one possible approach:

Accept that what we know and believe is going to be proven wrong or at least inadequate. Be willing and prepared to recognize this sooner rather than later (or not at all). Then create better knowledge and beliefs. This is the scientific mindset, always accepting that we have theories about our universe, not truths.

Easy to say, Yet harder to do. It is far easier for me to observe and comment on  your fallacies as it were. Personally what I believe and hold dear makes sense to me, so why should I put it aside so easily. May be the “inconvenient facts and events” will pass or just be interesting outliers. This, sometimes happens, so even though we are reminded that the universe is actually messier than our views would tell us, we can still gainfully ignore them.

The risk (yes this is about risk not uncertainty) is that if we continually ignore outliers, we are blinding ourselves to shifts in the underlying assumptions we made in setting up our rules oriented systems. We are like the frog in the slowly heated pot of water. In the more catastrophic situations, we know we have to act. It is the nuanced and subtle shifts that we will be self inflicted blind to.

Because rule based are so comforting to us. If we are accepting of uncertainty, we can change the context where the rules apply/don’t apply when we observe meaningful shifts in the underlying assumptions. In physics a good example is the continuing use by many engineers of Newtonian physics when Einstein based physics is much better in so many ways. Newtonian physics is practically good enough in many situations. The key though, is the engineer has to know when to shift to Einstein based physics. This is where the appreciation of assumptions and their limits in terms of application becomes critical.

I think and now more emotionally now believe we can survive and thrive consciously within an environment of uncertainty. In fact I would go further:

I am more likely to survive and opportunistically take advantage of uncertainty in my life than you in yours if you do not emulate my approach.

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