Controlling the Invisible

Recently, I was engaged in a listserv conversation (remember those?) regarding the balance between standards-based enterprises and the need to engage creative talent who may bristle at standard processes. The conversation moved to the question of new processes and standards that respected the nature of complex organizations (rather than early 20th century bureaucracies), and I offered the rather offensive idea that we don't know enough to ponder the appropriate intervention strategy.

Expanding a bit here:

An organization I observed had a tenuous and negotiated balance between horizontal teams and client-focused divisions.  This balance was negotiated constantly, as new actors and situations questioned the flexible structures.  While the negotiations resulted in oscillation, the situation "worked," and value was created and delivered.

Over time, new leadership came on board, and began their due diligence to understand the "horizontals."  Using time-honored MBA tools, however, they could not grasp immediately the nature of the relationship.  As is appropriate, they established new financial and reporting controls for "visibility."  These collected data, however, did not reflect the negotiations or relationships - as classical business measures rarely do.  Thus armed with (incomplete) data, this new leadership determined new directions for the horizontal teams.  One can write the ending to this tale.  New directions meant new managers, who lacked the relationships that were invisible to the financial and reporting controls.

Management science has yet to catch up with the notion of networks and relationships that drive business value.  There is some early work regarding complexity-informed leadership for organizations (one compilation I'm slogging through is referenced at the end of this post), but few tools to inform the praxis.  Private sector firms are experimenting with various open models, to some success, and proving the theory: experimentation is critical to finding the 'right' set of standards and processes for a particular organization at a particular time. I was reminded this week of Gell-Man's caution:  The only valid model for a complex system is the system itself - we know to despise the notion of "cookie cutter" solutions, but lack alternatives, particularly in the public sector.

So how to proceed? We know we need accountability at every step, and we know experimentation is an unwelcome leadership tool in most agencies.  How do we evolve the practice of public sector leadership to recognize what we already know:  people are not fungible, the relationships they bring to the workplace are as important as their knowledge and skills, and what matters is often invisible - even when using a balanced scorecard.  How do we control the invisible?

A remarkably relevant Ted talk from Chip Conley:

Ref: Hazy, J. K., Goldstein, J. A., & Lichtenstein, B. B. (Eds.). (2007). Complex Systems Leadership Theory:  New Perspectives from Complexity Science on Social and Organizational Effectiveness (Vol. 1). Mansfield, MA: ISCE Publishing.