May 31, 2016

Castles of the mind

Written by Keith JohnstonKeith Johnston

Is your business plan your castle?  Perhaps that question might bring to mind an image of the forecast revenues and expenses as a blow-up bouncy playground castle.  Instead, I was imagining mossy granite: your predictions, strategies, plans and milestones as a fortress of the rock-solid, sheer-walled, moated, gated, and portcullised kind – a bastion standing in defence of your realm[i].

The castle image arose on a recent call among Cultivating Leadership colleagues.  We were discussing a couple of overlapping questions about how we work on complexity ideas with our clients.

One question was about how to convey concepts of complexity[ii] to middle managers who are deeply embedded in a system where they are expected to find the right answers and to simplify issues so that standard procedures and best practices can be applied.

The second question was about how to respond to the anxieties of many of our clients that working in complexity with all its unknowns and contingencies was an inherently unsafe act.  It is all very well for us to talk about ‘safe-to-fail’ experiments but we are not the ones putting our heads above the parapet.  Well, maybe we are in many of the ways we work, but that is another story and it does not do away with our clients’ needs to work and live in these complex spaces with some confidence and ease.

Actually it is usually not just our clients who want confidence and ease.  So do the people standing behind them.  Most of us work with OPM – other people’s money.  The shareholders/investors/bankers/clients/taxpayers/donors/loan sharks/patrons standing behind us expect we will spend their money wisely (and often to be repaid handsomely).  They want us to be able to account for what we have done with their ‘investment’, how much have we have increased it or delivered a particular service with it, or made the world a better place as a consequence.

Across the public, private, and community sectors two forces have exerted much greater influence in recent decades.  One is the expectation that leaders and organizations will predict, plan, and control their affairs much more efficiently and to account for this more clearly.  The other force, pulling against this, is the increasing complexity of the worlds we work in and the ways it is often much more difficult to predict what will happen.

How can our clients find comfort as they are buffeted between these forces?  The systems for predicting, planning, controlling, and accounting have become more elaborate and more richly informed.   We can write our key result areas (KRAs) and milestones with more and more ‘spurious specificity’, as a former boss of mine once called it.  But we are often caught within these systems.

For some of the people we work with it feels like a liberation to discover the planning system is a shaky edifice, that in the complex domain there is no right answer to be found and they can leave the pretence of all-knowing control behind.   For others this is a frightening prospect.

This is where the metaphor of the castle came to mind.  The aspiration to predict, plan, and control that serve us well as leaders in the relatively predictable parts of our world form something of a garrison or castle.  We can explore beyond the keep and then return to safekeeping when the light grows dim or we become overstimulated or confused.  As the late Lou Reed would sing – Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.

It is true that this is an illusion of safety.  Nothing is ever entirely predictable.  Castles fall, they are sieged and overrun or abandoned and crumble. Simple systems tip into chaos.  Occupying armies getting pinned down in their garrisons, giving more and more of the countryside over to the insurgents.

Organizations we work with are replete with bastions, ramparts, and slit windows.  The perceived need for control fuels a protective and defended mindset. Our role in this is to help our clients venture out into a very different world and then build ways of working in this wilder more surprising terrain.

While we need safe bases to launch our explorations from, the castle is a temporary measure.  Over time much of it would become a prison or, at least, an encumbrance.  In time it would become too expensive to maintain.  It will get repurposed or abandoned, or just left to the National Trust and busloads of tourists.

Our people will come to learn to navigate complexity with confidence and be able to move with ease through the woods and open country. These are dynamic systems we are working within and our clients are dynamic systems themselves: brave and frail, knowing and uncertain. Part of our role is to help them find their way and also, in the early days, to enable them to find secure places to sometimes retreat to when they need it, or when their shareholders or taxpayers are crying out for greater confidence.

Meanwhile, the bus is waiting for the Grand Tour of Ye Olde Strategies, Business plans, and Follies of Yesteryear.  Enjoy your selfies from the environmental scanning tower, the visioning tapestries in the Great Hall, huddling behind the planning parapets, and howling with glee as you fire stacks of flaming accountability documents at the attackers below.

[i] The photo is of the Amer Fort, near Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.

[ii] When we use the term complexity here we are referring to issues and challenges where there is no right answer to be found, there are so many variables and possibilities that the connection between cause and effect can only be seen after the event and it is not repeatable.  In David Snowden’s Cynefin framework the complex domain is in the unpredictable world and stands in contrast to the obvious domain where the answer is actually obvious and a complicated domain where the relationship between cause and effect can be analysed and a right answer can be found.

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