Saturday, May 30, 2009

Pixie dust and magic wands

[Editor's note: Compuserve is closing down its OurWorld website hosting after many years. So I decided to resurrect some articles I had online there. This one dates from 1994. Not much has changed about organizational behavior in the intervening 15 years.]


Fads and why they fail.

Lots of management theories have come and gone during the past century. When I was a supervisor at Ohio Bell in the late '70s, Management by Objectives was the hot theory that would solve all the company's ills, reduce labor strife, and guarantee that we focused on the important issues. Nowadays, MBO is old hat (even if recycled in The One Minute Manager) and Total Quality Management (TQM) books fight for shelf space with those for re-engineering corporations, reinventing government, activity-based costing (ABC), teaming, zero defects, and learning organizations.

Why do managers keep seeking the Holy Grail of management theory? Because the last technique no longer works, if it ever did. Managers understand that insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The logical conclusion, then, is that something else is needed. What managers seldom look at, though, is the way they seek to implement change.

Most management books are written for upper management, who are viewed as the ones who can direct change to occur within their organizations. They're also the ones who have the budgets to hire the consultants who write the books. The result of this focus is a top-down approach to creating change.

In the usual top-down approach, management become the cheerleaders for the new paradigm that will save their collective skins. They ensure that people get training in the new techniques. They lead very visible large-scale efforts that require lots of studies, lots of time, and lots of consultants and facilitators. Sometimes, they get lucky and get the results they want. More times, they don't.

The problem is that the fad du jour is treated like pixie dust or a magic wand. You wave it over the organization and wait for the magic to happen by itself. Yet substantial change only happens when people throughout the organization buy into, understand, and apply the prescribed theory. Change has to happen at the grass roots as well as at the top.

How you go about creating change is as at least as important as the change itself.

Stephen Covey tells us that creating new habits requires mastering the new skills, knowing when to use them, and having the desire to do so. Creating organizational change is akin to creating new corporate habits: the same rules apply. The management theories tell you what to accomplish, what skills you need to master. They seldom tell you how to get there.

Knowing and doing are two different things.

My boss and I were returning from yet another TQM training class when he bemoaned, "You know, TQM is a great theory. I just wish I knew how to apply it!"

We were liberally dosed with pixie dust. We learned a lot about TQM—except for the most important lesson of all: learning how to use it in the real world! Supervisors had "incentives" written into their performance plans (i.e. MBO) declaring that they would promote the use of TQM. Top management sported buttons showing an inverted organizational pyramid, declaring that they were there to support the front line people at the "top". People in the organization could truthfully say that they were aware of TQM, and that management generally promoted its use. But no one ever asked them if they were finding applications, integrating the TQM philosophy into their daily work.

There were some success stories. The most notable was the effort to revamp the entire process for submitting travel requests and processing the claims for reimbursement. This was a large project that involved several organizations. The head of the effort was our executive officer, someone with enough clout to authorize the changes once the new system was designed.

But there were also horror stories. One "Process Action Team" was so gung-ho that they dared to implement changes, without getting a by-your-leave from the department head first. He fully supported their studying the processes in the department, but taking action was another matter. The Process Action Team became a Process Study Team. Oddly enough, enthusiasm for TQM dropped sharply. The pattern repeated in other departments.

The department head knew about TQM. But he hadn't figured out how to unleash it without colliding with his values and beliefs about the proper way to enforce the "chain of command". The philosophy hadn't sunk in.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


*There's no such thing as a free lunch.

Ralph Ellis, in an essay posted at Watts Up With That, outlines the challenges of dependency on renewable energy sources:
However, it is my belief that this sublime day-dream actually holds the seeds for our economic decline and for social disorder on an unprecedented scale. Why? Because no technical and industrial society can maintain itself on unreliable and intermittent power supplies. In 2003 there were six major electrical blackouts across the world, and the American Northeast blackout of August 14th was typical of these. The outage started in Ohio, when some power lines touched some trees and took out the Eastlake power station, but the subsequent cascade failure took out 256 power stations within one hour.

The entire Northeast was down onto emergency electrical supplies, and the result was social and economic chaos. Nothing, in our integrated and automated world, works without electricity. Transport came to a grinding halt. Aircraft were grounded, trains halted and road traffic was at a standstill, due to a lack of traffic lights and fuel. Water supplies were severely disrupted, as were telecommunications, while buildings had to be evacuated due to a lack of fire detection and suppression systems. Without any available transport, many commuters were forced to sleep in offices or in Central Park, and while the summer temperatures made this an office-adventure to remember, had this been winter the results of this electrical failure could have been catastrophic.

This is what happens to a major technical civilisation when its life-blood, its electrical supply, is turned off. Chaos looms, people die, production ceases, life is put on hold. Yet this was just a once-in-a-decade event, a memorable occasion to laugh about over dinner-parties for many years to come, but just imagine what would happen to a society where this happened every week, or if the power was cut for a whole fortnight or more. Now things are getting serious. Without transport, refrigeration, computers and key workers, food production and distribution would cease. Sleeping in Central Park on a balmy summer’s night is a memorable inconvenience, whereas fifty million empty bellies is getting very serious indeed. In fact, it is a recipe for violence and civil unrest.
He goes on to illustrate the costs associated with "free" renewable energy sources, due to the costs associated with a) converting them into electricity, and b) creating the spare generating capacity or energy storage systems required to match supply and demand. (He's from the U.K., so many of his examples relate to Britain or the European Union.)

Of course the costs for developing, installing, and operating those renewable energy resources mean green jobs, beloved of posturing politicians. However, Spain's experience should give us pause because those green jobs meant significant job losses elsewhere in the economy plus high taxes to subsidize them.

My problem with the green push is the rush to spend lots of other people's money in ways that bring little benefit to those paying for it other than feeling good that we're "doing something". As charities go, I'd rather get more bang for my buck. That's why I appreciate the work being done by Bjorn Lomborg.

Bjorn Lomborg, also known as "The Skeptical Environmentalist" and a frequent op-ed contributor, is Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. They "promote the use of sound economic science – especially the principle of prioritization – to make sure that with limited resources, we achieve the most ‘good’ for people and the planet." While they agree that global warming is a problem, their 2008 consensus ranked it far down the priority list of how to spend $75 billion over 4 years:
The experts considered four solutions in this area: investing only in mitigation; investing in mitigation and research and development into low‐carbon energy technology; investing only in research and development into low‐carbon energy technology; investing in a combination of mitigation, research and development and adaptation. Mitigation only and a combination of mitigation and R&D were given the lowest two rankings by the expert panel, due to their very poor benefit/cost ratio. The option including adaptation was discarded, as the adaptation is essentially included in nearly every other option presented to the Copenhagen Consensus. An
investment into research and development in low‐carbon energy technologies was ranked 14th by the expert panel.
(His related WSJ op-ed is here.)

I'm a fan of clean air, clean water, and a healthy biosphere. I remember when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969 due to pollution. And that ten years later, biologists were astounded how many species of fish had returned once the pollution was cleaned up. In many ways, however, I think the environmental movement in the US has lost its bearings as it's won its case on egregious pollution. But it fights on, seeking more and more expensive remedies for less and less benefit.