Tag Archives: complexity

Hit the Attention Button


I spent New Year’s Eve at the local hospital emergency department with She Who Shall Remain Anonymous (SWSRA). She was suffering from a debilitating medical condition which was, fortunately, non-life threatening. She is also a nurse and so has some knowledge of the best treatment for her very occasional incidents and that led us to ring in the New Year in bed 10 of the ED.

Shortly after admission, during initial diagnoses and triage She passed out and this spooked the young nurse attending Her. I was aware of similar occasions in the past and remained calm which allowed me to watch the situation unfold. I could see the surprise on the nurse’s face and she reached over and pressed the red Emergency Button on the wall above the bed.

Immediately a collection of ED nurses and doctors came running in. The degree of focused attention which they all brought to bear for the next 60 or so seconds was palpable. I could see them sizing up the situation based on the limited information available, making observations and processing the patterns from their years of experience. Whenever one of the doctors or nurses did something – calling Her name, shaking Her, etc. all of the other attendees focused on Her response. She quickly revived, the young nurse apologised to the other staff for raising the alarm, and the scene cleared.

In that short period of time I watched a number of people bring years of experience to bear and, I think most importantly, focused all of their attention on the scene – they were ‘fully present’. No one was wondering whether they needed to pick up some milk on the way home, or what the last text message might have said or whether they should complain about the Christmas bonus. The ability to focus attention is not unique to medical emergencies – I see it across all emergency services and many of the armed forces. While emergencies are often life-threatening, they are usually not life-threatening to the practitioner attending. Self preservation is not the driver for the attention which is brought to bear – it is a skill which is developed through application and experience in order to achieve the best outcome under the circumstances.

Attention and focus are also key skills for anyone working in an organisation that is looking improve responsiveness and resilience to unexpected threats and opportunities.

In my own work trying to help people deal with complex situations, I find that outside of emergency services, attention and focus remain a major hurdle. Despite most people’s stated intent of caring about performance improvement or outcomes or fulfilling accountable roles, they are rarely ‘fully present’. A crisis can be useful catalyst to encourage these skills, but a crisis is viewed as an exception and there is no business case for developing skills which are only used in exceptional circumstances.

I do see some very early recognition (or maybe I am just meeting the same niche audience that’s always been there) that attention and focus are useful skills in general – not just during a crisis. The ’emergency’ which impacted SWSRA may have looked like a crisis to the junior nurse, but to the more experienced attendees it was a normal event. If it was a real crisis, the more experienced attendees would have stepped up to another level of focus again.

The message here is the skill of applying attention and focus is not that of an on/off switch – it is an ability to be aware and apply different levels appropriate to the situation. Unfortunately, in many organisations, people do not appreciate the opportunities and threats which are present in a situation and therefore devote little to no attention.

In order to adapt to an increasingly complex environment, we need to be more observant and better able to attend to the dynamics of situations.

Exercise the unexpected.

Training for an unknown future = 70+20+10+?

ExpectedLearningI’m currently developing a new product which aims to blend the insights that come from  scenario based discussion exercises with the kind of learning and retention associated with a regular exercise regime – aka muscle memory.

While this work has allowed me to continue to pursue interests in behaviour, decision support, knowledge and cognition, it has also re-introduced me to the world of training and learning systems and it’s been interesting for me to see how practices have evolved over the past 20 or so years.

When I last played in this space, I was influenced by things like ‘Cognition in the Wild‘, artificial intelligence, knowledge management and distributed cognition. Training was an extension of my engineered sense of the world – teaching people how things work. This mindset drove my work founding companies and building products to improve business processes and ‘solve’ management problems with management methodologies and IT systems. At the time, organisations were adopting the first big wave of large enterprise integrated IT systems and there was a lot of effort being made to describe the way the organisation worked in terms that could be supported by the IT system.

My experience came from training environments where it was taken as a given that the organisation would work according to policies, processes, methodologies and ‘best practices’ and that the systems would reflect that. Given these assumptions, a more structured environment could be established to ‘manage knowledge’. The companies and products I was involved in at the time were and continue to be moderately successful serving a customer base which still holds on to this view.

Over time however, I found that most organisations failed to make much use of these structured systems views after a new management system was implemented. Life tended to return to the messy world of ambiguity, cultural influences and self motivated behaviours.

After 5 years involvement in large organisation transformation work, I began to understand that messy was normal and could see that high performance came from teams which could be disciplined about being flexible. Being able to adapt to changing circumstances and developing a deeper general management capability which blended specific skills into a more holistic approach to problem solving and delivering outcomes.

In the past few months I’ve re-engaged with learning professionals and discovered that – surprise – my journey was not unique. People who are passionate about learning have been trying to cope with the increasing pace of change in working environments. In most organisations, there are more variations and new work place challenges than ever before. Managers, service providers and knowledge based workers have to deal with real world ambiguity and exceptions and manage messy issues and make difficult decisions without having as much information as they would like.

So how do you train people to be better at working in a situation they haven’t seen before? Well, for a start, you don’t send them on a 3 year training program which is based on dealing with issues which were common 2 years ago. At the other extreme, you don’t train them on the use of a million different tools which they could use in combination to solve any problem – people just can’t retain the knowledge across such a broad range of skills.

Current thinking in the learning and development world is tending towards the magic 70 – 20 – 10 principle. Rely on people to learn 70% of their craft while working, day to day. 20% through feedback, coaching and mentoring. 10% through traditional formal training programs.

As long as you have the basics right, experience – and an ability to relate experience and incorporate new learning as an adaptive process – enables you to keep your skills up to date.

This however, only tells part of the story. In a changing world, experience is useful, but does not provide the perfect preparation – your experience was gained in an old environment while new unforeseen challenges continue to emerge. You need to be able to leverage experience but not assume that it can be applied directly.

In my crisis management work, I have found that people who are successful working in very dynamic environments such as in defence, emergency services and healthcare, develop an ability to apply patterns of experience to help them deal with challenges they have never seen before – this is the key to learning and development in the 21C.

This sentiment was also expressed recently by US Army Major General HR McMaster in a McKinsey interview in which he said “we’re never going to get the problem of future war precisely right. The key is to not be so far off the mark that you can’t adapt once the real demands of combat reveal themselves, and you need leaders who can adapt rapidly to unforeseen circumstances….we train them on fundamentals, we also test their ability to observe changes in the environment and to adjust as necessary so they can accomplish their mission….Rather than using a checklist of individual capabilities, we are evaluating them on their ability to innovate and adapt to unforeseen conditions.”

In order to develop an ability for adaptation,  the 70/20/10 model needs to be supplemented with experience that lies outside the day to day environment. By regularly applying yourself to challenges of greater variety, you can develop a kind of familiarity with the unfamiliar. You get better at knowing what you know as well as what you don’t know.

I often see people gaining new and deep insights during the scenario based exercises which I facilitate. Having to think about making decisions in a plausible but not yet experienced situation leads to a deeper understanding of strengths and weaknesses and reminds people of life’s uncertainties.

Experiential learning is clearly a benefit so why not increase that benefit by increasing your range of experiences – even if it’s just the experience of thinking through what you would do in an unexpected situation.

Exercise the unexpected!

(Flickr photo Darren Kuropatwa)

Makers – Making Trouble?


Anyone following any kind of technology news can’t escape the growing interest or hype in 3D printing. The ‘Maker’ movement is being propelled by the lowering of entry costs of systems which can combine easy-enough-to-use design software with easy-enough-to-use 3D ‘printers’ which can sculpt an object, usually using lasers, according to the design you ‘draw’ with the software. The printed object is becoming price competitive to low volume alternatives provided by traditional large scale industrial processes.

There are a number of heavy evangelists promoting the concept and it is taking on a kind of cool-tech arts & crafts guild image. Chris Anderson, the foresight focused founder and ex-CEO of Wired recently left that organisation to pursue his dream of the Next Industrial Revolution where Atoms are the new Bits. It sounds great to me and for those as old as me to remember, very Jetsons. I can see some of the tremendous opportunities and give full credit to people like Chris who are willing to craft a new personal brand around this concept.

Chris’ move (at least as it’s been reported) reminds me a little of when Shai Agassi left SAP to set up Better Place. I don’t know about the timing of the Maker movement over the Electronic Refuelling movement, but if things proceed, I hope Chris can learn something from Shai’s own journey. After evangelising the concept around the world, setting up a company to show that it was possible, and raising hundreds of millions of dollars, Shai was fired by his board.

Perhaps unlike the electronic refuelling idea, the consumerisation of technology has a more inevitable momentum behind it. On a positive note, there is already a growing market for small, industrial ‘craftshop’ businesses using the technology to provide widgets designed by people who can’t afford the whole at-home-printer set up or who don’t think it is quite easy-enough-to-use. Already you can find small shops willing and able to print you a gun, a bike, an action figure, and even a car.

The big question for me, is – why are we so excited about the Next Industrial Revolution – when we haven’t completed the last?

A couple of weeks after reading Chris’ article about the brave future awaiting us, I read an interesting assessment of Boeing’s Dreamliner aircraft issues by Paul Marks, New Scientist’s chief technology correspondent. Paul’s opinion was that the complex federated supply chain model used by Boeing was always going to be a high risk because of the lack of end to end quality assurance running through the vast network of suppliers to suppliers to suppliers to assemblers etc..

Ironically, the Dreamliner was slated to be the first, best, biggest, brightest plane every built completely off a shared digital design. It is a great example of a Global Maker. Thousands of ‘makers’ working together, sharing the same software designs and ‘printing’ parts to fit together perfectly like a great Lego set.

While the Dreamliner project did struggle with many technical challenges, the biggest challenge was, and remains, with the human system – not the technology. The people running the workshops have multiple agendas and mixed incentives.

It seems to me that we have here a perfect snapshot of a point in the evolution of society and technology. Unlike Chris Anderson however, I believe that the Next Industrial Revolution will occur in the way that distributed networks of people work together to achieve results which have higher quality and are more resilient than anything they could print for themselves.

Clearly, we still have some ways to go. Viva la revolution!

Strategic Risks and Opportunities to Accelerate!

In the November HBR there’s a new piece by seminal uber guru of change management John Kotter called Accelerate! in which he proposes that organisations formally adopt a second, fundamentally different, strategic system of management to complement their operational management practice.

He claims, and my experience mirrors and agrees, that while traditional hierarchies and management processes do well at keeping the lights on in the short term, “what they do not do well is identify the  most important hazards and opportunities early enough, formulate creative strategic initiatives nimbly enough, and implement them fast enough.” Despite 15+ years of attempts to improve these processes, the pace of change is simply outstripping the ability of this system to cope. Organisation that face real threats or eye new opportunities or compliance requirements try – and fail – to cram through some sort of major transformation using change processes.

Kotter’s been researching, mentoring and watching transformation programs for more than 40 years and it may well be that these traditional change processes (many of which he influenced) did work in the past. In my own 25+ years observing hundreds of transformation programs of different scales, only a handful could be said to have delivered on their original promise. Irrespective of just when the myth may have started to overshadow the reality, Kotter now sees that the old ways are not going to work any longer and is prepared to call the Emperor naked.

His solution, in a nutshell, is to leave the traditional management structure to do what it does best – work on the assumption that your market will remain stable long enough to execute a pre-formulated strategy and ask most people to shut up, take orders, and do their jobs in a repetitive way. This will deliver returns for a while – until the environment changes to such an extent that your strategy is no longer relevant. This reminds me of Stuart Kauffman‘s use of the concept of fitness landscapes in evolutionary complexity.

In parallel with the traditional structure, Kotter proposes that you proactively engage a ‘strategy system’ which uses a structure of a distributed, loosely coupled network of peers across the organisation who’s passion for new ideas brings them together to develop more holistic situation awareness to identify extreme risks and opportunities and iteratively evolve new execution models to deal with those. This more agile approach ties in with much of the current state of the art in complexity and extreme risk management which proposes running many ‘safe to fail’ experiments in order to have the best chance of landing on the next fitness peak in the landscape.

The role of the traditional organisation structure is to facilitate the strategy system and foster new structures which may, in turn, one day evolve (devolve?) into another traditional management organisation suited to the next landscape.

In order to provide some kind of continuity and overall stakeholder / shareholder returns, it seems to me that the Board of Directors or equivalent governance body needs to have an influence on the assurance of informed decision making which sits at the intersection of the two systems.

Peter Whyntie, Executive Director of Compliance Australia recently wrote an article in the Chartered Secretaries magazine entitled “Strategic risk management – the neglected element of ERM'”. The article is behind a membership wall, but you can listen to a podcast summary here. Peter comes from a risk management perspective and, it seems to me, arrives at a similar place. Longer term strategic risks need to be seen through a much wider lens that the traditional risk and control structure found in operations management. The key difference is that strategic risk assessment is externally focused using the lens of your risk appetite.

My impression of much of Kotter’s earlier work is that it has been internally focused around leadership, culture and change management within the organisation. The strategy system he proposes now is focused externally and places the organisation in a role as an adaptor and adopter, resilient to change and co-creating in a complex environment where the distinction between internal and external is being redefined.

The take away from both of these is that you need to be more aware of your external environment and the assumptions you make as to how fit you are to exploit it and survive in it. This will require participation by a broader group of stakeholders who can help to formulate a more holistic common operating picture and show that there are many different senses of common sense out there.

An extreme impact exercise is a good place to start a process which leads you to exercise the unexpected.