The value of delayed decisions

decisions by mihaibrrr

decisions by mihaibrrr

Most conversations about improvement revolve around finding ways to speed things up.  Whether by focusing on the elimination of unnecessary activities, doing less more often, reducing clutter, training the mind to avoid multitasking, or any other approach to speeding up decision making the prevailing message is clear:  do things faster.

The desire to do things faster necessitates making decisions faster, of course.  Process improvement schools of thought are, essentially, designed to speed up decision making to one degree or another.  Last year, I came across Frank Partnoy’s Wait, however, which advocated something different – slowing things down.

Partnoy investigates the cognitive science of decision making across multiple situations, from athletes making decisions in milliseconds to investors like Warren Buffet who delay decisions for weeks, months or years.  In his investigations, he discovers a seemingly simply truth:  That the longer you can delay a decision, the better decision you will make.

Partnoy’s take seems to be out of synch with improvement methods that look to speed up our ability to make decisions. Nonetheless, I think there’s more in common than might meet the eye.  What I see in Partnoy’s book  is that decision making needs to be slowed down in order for genuine improvement to occur.  Adopting continuous improvement methods allows  for as much information gathering as possible prior to making the final decision.

The iterations surrounding any approach that looks to fail fast and learn constantly are all doing 1 thing – allowing for as much learning as possible prior to making a decision that can’t be undone.  Partnoy’s work reinforces the wisdom of this approach and makes it clear:  slowing down your thought processes, rather than speeding them up, results in the best possible outcomes.


Stump the Chump, and the Steve Jobs Paradox?


iTime paradox by IlookingYou

Two weeks ago, I delivered the presentation that’s been adorning the home page to a monthly meeting of the New Hampshire chapter of the project management institute.  That presentation was drawn from a series I put on the blog just a little over a year and a half ago, where I made a connection between common, sub-optimal activities that are found in project environments and Lean’s 7 wastes.

I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to stand up and speak about how Lean is not a set of cost reduction techniques nor a quality assurance program, but a philosophy of how organizations work, how people work, and of how people within organizations work.  While several in the audience were expecting a discussion of Agile software development when they heard the topic would be about Lean in Project Management, I think my focus on understanding environments and behaviors resonated with a few of the audience members.  Many asked if they could obtain a copy of the presentation, which I took to be quite the complement, also.

If the Q&A that followed, however, I was asked a question that – as I put it, “Stumped the Chump.”  One gentleman asked, in response to the portions of my presentation that focused on the Respect for People foundation of Lean and, in particular, the Shingo model, how I would characterize Steve Jobs and Apple’s success, given that Jobs was a well-known egomaniac and had a reputation for being quite stern and non-compromising.

While some members of the audience offered their take on what might have happened at Apple as others took up the cause of Respect for People and the “appropriate” management styles, in an effort to help me out as I stated that the question would require some thought, I thought up my response.  I briefly recounted my understanding of the work Steve Jobs did at Pixar, and the interpersonal dynamics he created within the hallways of Pixar (quite literally) that fostered collaboration and creativity – including several dynamics for idea sharing and generation that were drawn from – you guessed it – the Toyota Production System.

While this answer satisfied the gentleman asking the question, it has stuck with me for the past couple of weeks, as I felt the need to contemplate the question a bit further.  What I may have come to realize, is that there is something of a Paradox involved when a true visionary ascends to the position of influence within an organization.  These situations are remarkably rare, I believe, which is why they are so disruptive, revolutionary, and highly successful.  It is dependent as much upon the circumstances as the traits of the individuals involved, but it is clear to me that the person(s) who creates a whole new paradigm for conducting the work of an organization very often must embrace what I will call the “Jobsian Paradox.”

Clearly, the stories of the founders of the Toyota Production System are not that far from what we hear of Jobs doing at Apple.  The outcomes are revered by many, studied and copied by others, and delved into by an army of commentators looking for the secret to the success these visionaries bring about.  What they have in common, however, is something that is, indeed, contrary to the tenets of creativity and innovation in both project and process.  That is, that at the beginning – when people’s mindsets need to be calibrated towards a new understanding and  that understanding needs to translate into action, someone authoritative, demanding, relentless personality must be at the forefront of creating and driving the system under which change will occur.

From those personalities come systems, and from that relentless focus on driving people to the correct behaviors comes guiding them to possibilities, and from satisfactory mediocre comes the expectation of greatness.  It must begin, however, with unique individuals willing to drive others to the point of aggravation in order to be achieved, which is something of a paradox in the realm of thinking that believes people are intrinsically motivated and that all a brutish task master can do is to de-motivate them.

This is, in many ways, akin to the concept of a Level 5 Leader that Jim Collins discusses.  To foster change, unique, rare, visionary people are needed.  In order to turn their vision into reality, however, a certain drive is required that leads the people with that vision to adopt behaviors we tend to believe, at least in the short term, are counterproductive and entirely suboptimal.

To wrap it up, the Jobs-ian paradox is this:  For true visionaries with the ability to persevere, many of the management practices and behaviors that we associate with high levels of creativity  and innovation among the workforce, are ignored or simply not practiced in order to bring the organization, as a whole, to high levels of creativity and and innovation.


The paradoxical inefficiency of thought


Imagination by silverin87

One of my life’s great frustrations is the number of good ideas that get lost throughout the course of a normal day.  Before I can find a voice recorder, pencil, or something to write my ideas on, they fly away and my train of thought is lost forever.  It’s not an unfamiliar tune – authors, artists, musicians – all of them frequently relate stories of how much goes through their minds that is simply lost before they get the chance to write it down or record it.  Such is life for anyone any kind of a creative bent – be it an innovative scientist, a performer, or even a part-time blog writer who likes to ramble about life’s daily struggles.

My own difficulties with the passive annihilation of good ides got me thinking about how good ideas can be actively squelched as well.  People who are asked to “be professional”, not make a “Career limiting move” by speaking their minds, or who are asked to just live with a problem or not step on someone’s toes – all of these sometimes innocuous messages serve to do one thing – actively decrease the number of ideas that get poured out.

When I do get to writing down or recording my thoughts, I also often find that a lot of those really don’t have any legs and never go anywhere.  So, too, the number of ideas you get might result in only a few gems – but therein lies a certain discovery that needs to take place.  That is, that you can’t demand good ideas.  You have to sift through all the ideas to find the really good ones – because generating good ideas comes about only through the process of crafting them.  Also, the value of an idea is not something that is inherent and internal to the idea itself.  Rather, it is a function of time, place and circumstances that make any idea valuable.  What seems like a really, really good thought and the solution to all our problems today might be utterly ridiculous tomorrow.  Nonetheless, that value judgment can’t take place as the idea is being formulated in someone’s head.  It has to come about and be judged under the lights of the here and now.

This is something of a paradox, I suppose – that in order to attain high levels of ingenuity in products and activities, the environment in which those ideas are created must support an endless ocean of thoughts that yield very little value, in the hopes that, eventually, a single very good one will be produced. Generating ideas is an inefficient process, even if those ideas are generated around improving efficiency.

Therefore, the efficiency of thought should never be pursued.  Only the efficiency of implementation.

The difference between learning and understanding

Learning the basics

learning the basics by etherealism.jpg

Learning is a fairly linear phenomenon.  You examine a decision, look at the outcome, and determine the causal chain.  It is incredibly useful, as well as simple and straightforward.  This is, usually, the manner in which we educate others and ourselves.  Do this and get that. 

On the Job training on the latest process or policy is usually much the same.  People are told, or expected to know,  some desired outcomes.  They are shown the steps that achieve that outcome, and then are expected to master those steps.  Perhaps, in an enlightenend organization, they might even be asked to improve upon those process steps.  This is, essentially, the “Know What” paradigm in action – if you know what gets you to the target, just repeat it, and you will always reach the target.

Learning is about seeing things only for the result they provide.  Understanding, however, necessitaties examining the context of a decision and the basis for the process in the first place.  Whereas learning is forward-thinking (do-this-get-that), understanding is backward looking (do-this-because-of-that) and, therefore, understanding is an essential component of the “Know Why” paradigm.

Know What is the most simple method of directing an activity.  Bosses, parents, bullies, and manipulators of all level will resort to this simplest of methods.  Basically, it’s not much more than, “Do this, or else.”  As such, people learn to avoid punishment.  Or, in a better way, we employ methods such as “Do this, and I’ll give you that.” in order to create a reward.  This way, people learn to seek compensation.

Know Why, however, is a more complex form of stirring people into action.  Know why requires a conversation.  It also requires that the person soliciting the activity has a deep enough understanding of the situation, the reasons why, and the ability to communicate them.  Understanding is not directing, but guiding.  It is also risky – people may reach different conclusions than what was intended.  This is acceptable, however, since it enhances the understanding of the subject for both the teacher and the student.

Developing the habit of understanding is difficult.  It is not the same as openly accepting ideas, but appreciating the thought patterns and circumstances that went into them.  You might not agree with a point of view, but you should understand it.  Interestingly enough, developing an understanding of things you disagree with tends to strengthen your beliefs and not weaken them.

Which, I have come to understand, is something that we should all try to learn.

Understanding why: Developing Critical Thinking in kids

Little Hockey

Little Hockey by Strawberry West on

This weekend, I attended a minor-league hockey game with my son.  Before the pro game, a group of youngsters from a local league had the honor of playing hockey on the ice.  When we entered the arena, the little guys were ending up their game with a very lopsided score of 8-1.

As the kids played, however, another boy in the stands next to us noticed that the goalie of the team with the 7-goal lead was sitting or kneeling, all alone at his end of the ice, and about 10 feet outside of the blue-colored goal crease, where the goalies usually play.  The boy next to us exclaimed, in absolute certainty, that the goalie HAD to stay in his crease.

I turned to him and asked, “Why?”  He looked at me in disbelief, as if I must be dense for even thinking that the goalie wouldn’t ever NOT be in his crease.  The boy told me, once again, that the goalie HAD to.  There wasn’t a reason why – there wasn’t even the thought that there might be a reason why.  It just simply WAS.  The crease is where the goalie is supposed to be, so if he’s not there, he’s breaking the rules.  “What happens if he’s not in the blue?” I asked.  “Does his team get a penalty?”

Of course not, and the boy who had been so adamant about where the goalie is supposed to go, rather than contemplate this new information, simply stated once more, in a loud voice for everyone to hear, that the goalie HAS to go in the blue-colored area designated for goalies.

Clearly, what had happened at some point in this unfortunate child’s past is that someone told him that the goalie has to stay in the blue area.  Perhaps this boy plays hockey himself, and some coach hollered “Stay in the crease!” without ever trying to explain to the boy why.  We can all come up with some version of the back story that explains the boy’s certainty over where the goalie plays.

What I saw in his behavior, however, is something that adults do, too:  When faced with information that contradicts our understanding of the way things are supposed to be, we revert back to what we already know, claiming disbelief in the rightness of what we’re seeing and failing to examine the situation in order to develop a new understanding.  We are told to follow the rules, even if we don’t understand them, and we insist on following the rules even when it is pointed out that those rules were based on false assumptions.

Truth is, the goalie can go anywhere on the ice that he wants – just like every other player.  The goalie is, of course, usually much better off when he stays in his crease – which is a matter of choice and not one of obedience.  It also represents an understanding of Why vs. What:  The rule tells you What to do (stay in the crease).  Developing a person’s ability to think through a problem addresses the Why: (If the goalie is in the crease, he usually has a better chance of playing the puck…..but not always!)  When you know why something is done, you also develop an understanding of when the rule doesn’t apply and also how it can be done differently.

That combination – knowing when the usual rules don’t apply and also how to accomplish a task outside of the rules – is the foundation for thinking critically – which also lays the foundation for innovation & creativity.  It also enables people to focus more on the results:  Was there any damage done from playing outside of the crease?  Did the goalie hurt his team or help it, or make no difference whatsoever?

The presumption that not following the rules leads to a bad outcome is, itself, a really bad rule that should come under examination.  What if you did the “wrong” thing?  What would the wrong thing look like?  Who determined what “wrong” is?  In this example, the only thing that matters is whether or not the goalie let the puck into the net.  If he did not – what difference would it make where he was standing?

Now, ask yourself these questions when trying to demonstrate the need for change in your organization:  What if we didn’t bid on this project? What if I didn’t write that report? What if I let the fire burn instead of rushing to put it out, even though I’ve no idea what would happen if I left it alone?

Truth is, we all end up doing a great many things simply because we believe we’re supposed to.  That belief in the way things are supposed to be starts in childhood, with a lot of reinforcement.  What we should all be doing, however, is teaching people of all ages to raise questions.  Doing so, however, places the burden on the rest of us to have good answers – the lack of which might be the root cause behind “just follow the rule” thinking anyway.