Was there ever really one normal? Discussion with Murray Cook and Brendan Fitzgerald

Today’s blog features a discussion between two colleagues, Murray Cook and Brendan Fitzgerald.

Murray helps organisations and leaders in the use of scenario planning to explore the future and its impacts upon current strategy.  He works on understanding disruption, detecting early signals of the emerging future, and developing responses to the changing environment.  Alongside his consulting work, Murray also works in executive education, most recently at Saïd Business School, and has previously led large, complex transformation programmes.

Brendan, director of 641 DI, works to build capacity for the library, government, and not-for-profit sectors in Australia and New Zealand. Formerly Manager of Digital Inclusion at Infoxchange, his focus is digital & social inclusion, its ability to reduce social isolation and loneliness in community. Working with clients across Australia and New Zealand including Hitnet, Grow Hope Foundation, State Library of New South Wales, LIANZA, City of Newcastle Libraries, and the Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, 641 DI delivers research and project evaluation services, digital inclusion planning and practice, as well as strategic consultation.

Last month, Murray & Brendan got together for a wide ranging discussion covering foresight, localism, their experiences in different sectors on opposite sides of the world, and even the nature of change itself.

Murray: 

Some topics we might discuss: How things are changing, how change itself has changed, and how we might use scenarios to attend to things we haven’t looked at before. There are never any facts in the future – but that’s more apparent than ever now, isn’t it?

Brendan:

I think it’s also important to look back; to consider those things in the past that you bring with you into the present – or leave behind. One of the things I know we’ve both been pondering: was there actually a “normal” in the first place?

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7 magic words to challenge the wisdom of systems: getting your head around Claudio Ciborra’s Labyrinths of Information

The late Claudio Ciborra (1951-2005) was an information systems researcher, organizational theorist, and Chair in Risk Management at the London School of Economics. Energetic, pioneering, unafraid to take a contrarian position, his work remains thought-provoking for readers today – even though he wrote on information, communication technologies, and organizational theory for a pre-smartphone age.

The Labyrinths of Information, published three years before Ciborra’s death, is a slim but densely written volume which sets out to “challenge the wisdom of systems”. It puts the complex and ambiguous realities of human existence and interaction at the heart of research into information systems and business processes.

Among other questions, Ciborra asks: Why are systems ambiguous? Why do they not give us more time to do things? Is there strategic value in tinkering even in high-tech settings? Are age-old practices valuable for dealing with new technologies? What is the role of moods and emotional concerns in influencing how we think and act?

As he reminds us, “the very definition of information systems as a set of technical […] and human resources devoted to the management of information in organizations spells out the composite nature of the field.” Humanity is always woven into the fabric of information systems.

Ciborra challenges our tendency to describe how information technology is used in terms of rationality and formal method. Academics, management consultants, journalists and other commentators tend to frame what is happening in business in terms of established concepts, neat little pigeonholes for the messy business of the world.

They tend to share basic assumptions: “there is a complex problem to be solved or a task to be executed; a corresponding strategy is deployed to achieve the goals and solve the problem; and a new structure is put in place to implement the solution.”

“To be sure,” Ciborra goes on to say, “decision makers would admit that day-to-day management is run in a more organic, ad-hoc fashion, and that textbooks and journal articles seldom seem to capture the intertwining of market events and managerial responses.”

Often rationalizations are brought in after the fact, and the “gap between what theoretical, ex post explanations and models can deliver and the actual garbage-can style of managerial choice is considered to be a fact of life by practitioners, and an unavoidable result of the limitations of any modelling approach[.]”

Yet Ciborra wants to move away from this approach, attending precisely to what he calls “the hidden or dark side of information systems […] focussing on the obvious, the workaday, and the very well known to any practitioner in the field.” He’s not excited by the latest management buzzwords or theories, and he’s disdainful of their “hospitality on PowerPoint slides by consultants and practitioners.”

Ciborra seeks improvisations, hacks, awkward real-life experiences, and the hard work involved in taking care of complex systems. He probes at the blank space papered over in presentations by phrases such as “You know no organizational model will fully capture the actual flow of events”, “The strategy was well laid out, but then, as you know, life is interesting because it is full of surprises”, and, simply: “You know what I mean.”

He builds his collection of essays around seven words, deliberately chosen for their unfamiliarity to English speakers – words that are meant to stop us in our tracks, shake us out of routine thinking, and apprehend the world of organizations and information systems anew.

No précis can fully do Ciborra’s rich, complex little book justice. But I can take you through a tour of those seven magic words to get you started. Magic for beginners, if you like.

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“Where Do We Go From Here?”: Fundamentals of Design for Uncertainty at MNYLC

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be presenting free lunchtime webinars for New York’s MNYLC, helping people through these turbulent times with a brief introduction to simple tools that help us address issues of uncertainty at an organizational and strategic level.

Over the two hour-long sessions, we’ll look at mapping the uncertainties within a given operating environment, identifying areas of opportunity or concern, and using structured questions to prioritise and develop actions that address those uncertainties. The sessions take place 1-2pm EST on 10th & 17th November.

You can find out more about the webinars at the MNYLC website.

After Frederic Laloux: Reinventing Information Organizations

“Something is broken in today’s organizations…The pain we feel is the pain of something old that is dying…while something new is waiting to be born.”

Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations

So much of organizational life is onerous and frustrating these days. For many of us, the day job is characterised by aggravation and a sense of soullessness: a “cold, mechanical approach” which trades agency and responsibility for box-checking accountability and loss of control.

Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations ...

That’s what Frederic Laloux argues in his 2014 book Reinventing Organizations, which explores alternative models for those institutions and businesses willing to dissolve hierarchies and pursue new management paradigms.

Laloux’s case studies include the Dutch healthcare organization Buurtzorg, which delivers community care in leaderless self-organizing teams of ten to twelve nurses, and FAVI, a French automotive supplier which has divided itself into self-managing “mini-factories” whose teams operate without executive management. These businesses and institutions, Laloux argues, resemble living systems more than the organisations of old. They are evolving beyond previous, rigid ways of bringing people together to achieve a goal: the army, the university, the corporation…even the organized crime syndicate.

Laloux presents a practical vision for a world where “no one is the boss of anyone else”, and our organizations begin to take on an organic character.

The approach is intended to work across many sectors, with examples including highly regulated industries such as the energy industry and food processing. I thought I’d spend some time thinking about what it would mean for information organisations – archives, libraries, and other entities which create, store, share, and manage information – to explore Laloux’s approach. What would it take for us to reinvent the Information Organization? Read more

Fight, Flight, and Futures Thinking: Getting Control of Organizational Panic

“The body’s reaction under critical incident stress has almost nothing to do with how you think rationally. Instead it has almost everything to do with ingrained responses, be they trained ones or instinctive ones. The amygdala will choose. It has the chemical authority to override your conscious thoughts and decisions. It also has the chemical authority to enforce its decision despite your conscious will.”

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Scuba divers by Flickr user Tim Snell CC BY-ND 2.0

In an article on “accounting for adrenalin” in situations of self-defence, US Air Marshal M. Guthrie describes the challenges of making swift and effective decisions under extreme stress. Often in such situations, our own instincts seem to act against us.

Guthrie gives the example of scuba divers who drown despite having full oxygen tanks; in a moment of crisis, the amygdala reacted by driving them to clear their airways, spitting out their breathing tube despite the diver being consciously aware that they were underwater.

“Deeply ingrained reactions are far more likely than conscious decisions,” Guthrie writes. “And don’t even get me started on how much training you have to do to override and replace your body’s instinctive responses with new ones. Regardless, you won’t be selecting an option from a menu of choices calmly and rationally like you do in the training hall. Your body is going to pick its own response in a maelstrom[.]”

Organizations aren’t precisely like organisms, and the way we think when we work collectively isn’t quite like the dramatic individual encounters which trigger our adrenal glands. Often an organizational crisis is measured in hours, days, or weeks, rather than seconds and minutes. It will involve discussion, policy, and procedure, with a pace and structure quite different from the amygdala prompting an unreasoned – and possibly counterproductive – survival response.

Still, organizations can go into a panic just as much as individuals can, and when they do so, they may start making harmful or counterproductive decisions. Significant among the situations which trigger such panic are “feral futures“. In these situations, we think we have tamed the environment we are operating in, but misunderstand what is going on, and our action based on false premises or data in fact makes things gravely worse. Read more