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What We Don't Know

Wednesday, May 15, 2013
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken


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.




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.


Modern Medicine in the Developing World**

Timothy Prestero's design team developed a simple treatment for infant jaundice, which was bathing them in blue light. They built a great device to do so, and started trying to implement it. What they didn't realize is that, if there is room in a device for more than one infant, a terribly overwhelmed hospital in a developing country is going to crowd three infants in and dampen the intended effect. After righting this misconception, and a litany of others, they came out with a top-notch solution. By talking to distributors, manufacturers, hospital administrators, mothers, doctors, and watching the device used in action. A lot.




The tech specs said the original version was an incredible device. But they didn't account for what people actually do. It's not “the device in action.” It's “the device used in action.”

Really, the necessity of dealing with people, notoriously complex entities they are, throws a gigantic wrench in the best laid plans. Deep understanding is irreplaceable.


Transforming the NYPD

William Bratton took over the Police Commissioner role in NYC in 1994, when the force was in a sorry state. The turnaround he managed is amazing, captured in one of Harvard Business Review's top ten must-reads, Tipping Point Leadership.

“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 first change described in the HBR article is that he started requiring NYPD officers to ride the subway, even though the statistics showed they were the venue for relatively little crime. But the subways felt unsafe, and it sensitized officers to what life was like for those they served.

There are three massive points to consider here.

  1. The statistics, without additional strategic thought, would not have led to this action.
  2. The goal was to build a genuine understanding.
  3. 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.


Canada's Homeless Partnership Strategy (HPS)

The Homelessness Partnering Strategy is an interesting example of a community-based approach to “a wicked problem***.” Former Clerk of the Privy Council Jocelyn Bourgon describes it as showing:

“...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.”

The Senate currently holds HPS up as a success story and a model on which to build.

Some problems are simply too complex for one-size-fits-all solutions, and having stakeholders involved in the decision-making builds legitimacy for decisions. It creates adaptability in the system for things that are working or not working. A doctor on Prestero's design team (one from the hospitals that would use the device) would have exposed the shortcomings. If a loudmouth Mockingbird**** was on the U.S. Science Advisory Committee when DDT was being applied around the country, the unintended effects would have been known far quicker.

One official for the HPS got this, saying that there was “more known outside of Ottawa than inside.”

The lesson from Bratton and the HPS (organizations far larger than Prestero's design team) is that the top of the hierarchy doesn't need to try to understand everything. But they do need to make sure that, collectively, the organization understands as much as possible. And they should constantly wonder about what, and how much, it doesn't.


The Critical Path to Corporate Renewal

The 1990 book The Critical Path to Corporate Renewal attempted the academic approach***** to understanding how positive change happens. Studying six large organizations that had pivoted dramatically, with various levels of success, the authors came up with six success factors:

  1. Mobilize commitment to change through joint diagnosis of business problems
  2. Develop a shared vision of how to organize and manage for competitiveness
  3. Foster consensus for the new vision, competence to enact it, and cohesion to move it along
  4. Spread revitalization to all departments without pushing it from the top
  5. Institutionalize revitalization through formal policies, systems, and structures
  6. Monitor and adjust strategies in response to problems in the revitalization process

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So yes, I'm biased because this has been on my mind this week, but with the exception of #5, this list reads like an emphasis on deep understanding, with a significant degree of engagement with the front line, and with stakeholders.

Think of change initiatives you've witnessed, or experienced. What worked? What didn't? What elements of this list were present?

How were communications pieces, data sets, frameworks, and tools being used (by, as we've established, notoriously complex people who do not always use tools as intended), where the rubber met the road?

How did the strategists and champions know, and get feedback about, that front line use?

What we don't know, and don't understand, would fill a boat with no hull.

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.