|by Kent Aitken|
I was supposed to continue a previous thread about what is happening, right now, in Canadian Public Service [See: Moving Public Service Mountains, Part I]. Wasn't on my mind tonight. I'll get back to it.
Have you ever read Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson?
It's an amazing book, both for content and impact. It was fundamental to environmental movements, and gets much credit for the ban on DDT in the 1970s.
Over the past few weeks, many people in my circles have touched on the question of whether knowledge workers are losing an appreciation for genuine, deep understanding. The alternative, it seems, is a reliance on statistics, data sets, frameworks, and processes*. Most poignantly, a commenter on a previous post referred to the onset of “methodolatry.” [See: Rearranging the Briefing Room Chairs on the Bonaventure.]
I started thinking of case studies of the need for such understanding from the world of organizations, particularly in the context of change initiatives, but kept returning to Silent Spring.
The management framework and data analyses were clear: insects were causing massive problems to plant life in the United States. Chemical pesticides, including DDT, could be applied in concentrations low enough to kill the insects, but not the plants they were feeding on. What Silent Spring brought to the public attention was that, unfortunately, there was an element missing from the understanding. What ended up happening was that other animals that ate the insects in massive quantities, particularly birds, eventually hit lethal concentrations of the chemicals and started dying, too. This disrupted the natural check on the insect population and threw the ecosystem out of whack.
Poor results resulting from an inaccurate or incomplete understanding of the environment. This happens in the world of organizations, too: businesses, governments, and civil groups. I'd like to explore some cautionary tales, and some counterpoint success stories.
“Yet in less than two years, and without an increase in his budget, Bill Bratton turned New York into the safest large city in the nation. Between 1994 and 1996, felony crime fell 39%; murders, 50%; and theft, 35%. Gallup polls reported that public confidence in the NYPD jumped from 37% to 73%, even as internal surveys showed job satisfaction in the police department reaching an all-time high.”
- The statistics, without additional strategic thought, would not have led to this action.
- The goal was to build a genuine understanding.
- Specifically, the goal wasn't to build a genuine understanding for the Police Commissioner himself. It was to help front-line officers build that for themselves.
Which leads to my next case study.
“...how states can address complex issues by applying power through others (via funding) and with others (through processes of collective governance)... the federal government's efforts involved very little direct action but a great deal of capacity building for local action.”
- Mobilize commitment to change through joint diagnosis of business problems
- Develop a shared vision of how to organize and manage for competitiveness
- Foster consensus for the new vision, competence to enact it, and cohesion to move it along
- Spread revitalization to all departments without pushing it from the top
- Institutionalize revitalization through formal policies, systems, and structures
- Monitor and adjust strategies in response to problems in the revitalization process
How do we mitigate that?
* Don't get me wrong. I love data. Heck, I have a borderline uncomfortable relationship with it. But I also like context.
** Please continue to not get me wrong. The term "developing world" is debatable, and at best, an oversimplification.
*** Interestingly, the data wasn't even available to show how big of a problem this was. Bourgon's book describes homelessness as a complex function of "poverty, housing, health, mental health and the security of communities."
**** Link is to poet Rives summing TED 2006, and contains, perhaps, my favourite line from any TED talk. It's about recording everyone's conversations with a Mockingbird, and then getting a key to the city: "And that is all I need. Because if I get that, I can unlock the air. I'll listen for what's missing. And I'll put it there." The role of the artist, redux.
***** Yes, in the context of this post I should be preaching caution towards data. But it's always worth thinking about.