Job-Killing Processes

I’ve been wrestling with a thought lately - if organizations are complex systems, and complex systems are continuously self-organizing, then why do we believe formal processes make these complex systems more efficient? Worse, when an organization is in need, why do we engage in process improvement - when what may be needed is process reduction or elimination? This is not the first paragraph to question process improvement, this is not some original Eureka moment.  This is a personal journey, and the enormity of the mistake is beyond what I had considered previously. Friends, more erudite than I, have used similar words before - but for some reason I’m realizing, only recently, a simple truth: the implications for the baseless faith in the machine-based approach to management and the firm are global and profound.

A process-heavy enterprise isn’t cold and impersonal - because humans are still warm and social.  Instead, a process-heavy enterprise creates the need for larger social networks.  Formal processes do not capture the natural evolving paths people take to confront their tasks.  In response, people do what is natural, they use their social network to navigate the workplace - looking inward to find others who have succeeded despite the process.  We know that excessive time spent focused inward leads to burned-out employees, who must work the “second eight” to comply with organizational reporting and the like.  On a larger scale, this wasted effort presents - at the limit - an opportunity cost for the enterprise as a whole.  Perhaps the path to efficiency is to set the conditions for processes to emerge at the point of need, rather than Six Sigma-ing the (majority of) tasks that require creativity and agility.

In the famous early mistakes in business process re-engineering, managers believed once their processes were “streamlined” and “documented” (and embedded in enterprise software tools), they could realize savings by reducing the number of humans.  For routinized tasks, this may be a reasonable assumption - however, what percentage of your workday is routine?  Look to your own environment - do you rely on your social network to find the informal work-arounds for corporate process?  When faced with a challenging problem, do you find solace in the documented process?

Work to Rule. In labor relations, there is a term called “work to rule.”  Simply stated, this means that union workers have a negotiating tool that enables them to paralyze an enterprise - by merely doing only what is considered ‘by the book.’  No creativity, no work-arounds, no focus on task accomplishment - just fealty to the process.  Consider this message:  the way to crash some enterprises is to do what is expected by procedure manuals and process charts.

Business Development. In one company, I observed a set process for preparing contract proposals:  with clear roles, authorities, assignments, formats, and process steps.  Chokepoints were established along the way, when “pencils” down would precede a murder board review to assess the quality of the proposal against the procurement specifications.  These comments were returned to the writing team, who would tackle their task anew. The information technology consisted of shared folders, and the writers laboring over each section would be required to post their documents in the appropriate folder at the required hour.  The work was intense and draining, writers were often unaware of each other’s work, and the review team invariably excoriated the team for the lack of a “single voice” or “storyline.”

In another company, the proposal response was visible at all times to the entire proposal team.  In a shared online space, the sections were worked in parallel, each writer able to observe the other’s ongoing work.  The team met daily to talk through issues, but kept in touch throughout the process through instant messaging and email. There were roles and authorities, assignments and formats here as well - but the process was determined by the writing team, and emerged and adapted based on the demands of the work and the schedule.  As the storyline evolved transparently, there were fewer surprises, people were able to lend value across the work throughout - and the end product was coherent and compelling.  This without a review team’s intervention.

Software Development. In software development, Agile methods are triumphing over waterfall or other linear methods - users are happier because their approach to their work changes as they learn what is possible from the technology solution.  The human and the software evolve together.  The old approach was to gather what people thought they needed, build the software according to specifications, and then train the humans to operate the solution.  There may be a correlation between how much training is needed and how disconnected the solution is from how people work.  When software methods allow the humans and technology to co-evolve, when humans are co-designing the solution during “development” - we seem to have happier humans.

The thoughts bouncing in my head now are:  what needs to be in place to allow for emergent processes? Formal process has a small place - compliance processes dictated by, for example, government regulation come to mind.  However, value-creating processes must emerge from the interaction of the work and the humans.  They cannot be formalized absent the humans or the situational context - if they are, then humans will circumvent them, creating a more inefficient enterprise... or follow them to the letter, and destroy value.  In a real sense, process improvement should be replaced by process enablement.  Let the approach to work emerge from the situational context.

In Pursuit of Coherence - Open Government and Thee

Perhaps the priority for Open Government is to aim for something beyond Openness. While the journalist may see utter value in openness (and I can talk about them right now, since they are busily crashing Wikileak servers); the citizen may not. To my ear, the Open Government elevator speech often takes more than a few elevators to complete.

Back in 2008, my project team had the opportunity to hear from a European civil minister. The question posed to this individual: "What do you do about the problem of information hoarding?" The answer: "I don't understand the question. The information is not ours, it is the public's. The culture in our civil service must be different from yours, when we obtain a new piece of information, the first question we ask is: 'who else needs to know this?'"

Perhaps open government begins with a coherence “audit.” Ask yourself: Who are your constituents, and who else in government touches their lives? Education Secretary Duncan says that he coordinates with Secretary Sebelius of Health and Human Services - because they are serving the same communities. (This is not to say that program managers are resourced or incentivized to continue this interagency collaboration, there is much work to do beyond Secretary-level coordination.) From the constituent point of view, the Departments of Education and HHS are both ‘government.‘ A coherent approach to government services begins with the constituent and asks: If I am the person at the ‘end’ of this program, who else in Government am I dealing with? How can I make those interactions more efficient / responsive?

What other programs serve your constituent? Reach out to other Agencies, see what efficiencies can be realized by coordinating your efforts. Explore how you can jointly present information to the public, in a conversation centered on solutions rather than your program. Begin a dialogue, and a commitment to information sharing when appropriate.

What does this have to do with Open Government? I don’t mean to imply that you ‘get your ducks in a row’ and then go public in an open government initiative. Rather, do this ‘audit’ with a bow to transparency. Do this interagency exploration, coordination and analysis in public. Let us see the process, and join in if we can help. Place the citizen at the center enhances government awareness, services, and develops increased coherence across an often bewildering stew of programs and agencies.

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.

Don't Connect the Dots, Watch the Noise

Keep trying to connect the dots, and you'll remain blind to the future

Originally appeared in Inside Knowledge Magazine 10 Sep 2008, Vol 12, Issue 1.

On 12 September, 2001, I received an e-mail from the CEO of my company (a federal contracting firm located just outside Washington DC). As F-16s continued their combat air patrols over my neighbourhood, I read, paraphrasing: ‘John, yesterday [9-11] was a failure of knowledge management. In the years to come, this will be the critical area for improvement’.

We soon heard about failures to ‘connect the dots’ regarding behaviours among flight school students, an arrest in the Midwest not shared across the FBI, and so on.

Seven years forward and US national security is changing. ‘Need to share’ is the buzzword, hoping to replace ‘need to know’. The director of National Intelligence releases a vision calling for sharing intelligence with law enforcement. The Department of Defense releases its first Information Sharing Strategy. The implication, never explicit: if only we get the right knowledge to the right person at the right time, we can know the future and learn which dots pose a threat.

When then-National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice stated “I don’t think anybody could have predicted... that they would try to use an airplane as a missile”, she was wrong. Someone in government had actually considered that scenario. There are thousands of scenarios considered daily across the national security system – some will always be seen in hindsight as predictive. While technically incorrect, Dr. Rice pointed up an underlying truth. There are thousands of scenarios considered daily and we do not know which scenario, which threat, which dot deserves our attention before the fact. And if we keep assuming there is a golden thread that, if pulled, will unravel the future – we never will.

Systems scientists, organisational theorists and business leaders are beginning to work in a world where control can be an illusion and adaptation preferred. We are starting to focus on nurturing networks and relationships;a recognition that certain systems are, by their very nature, non-linear, and they change their behaviors based on their starting points and the random events that might ensue, leading to emergent new behaviors that cannot be predicted.

Anticipation replaces prediction. While linear models are generally developed to predict the future; complexity helps us anticipate developing patterns of behavior.

In reforming the US national security system, it is vital that we question assumptions regarding the predictability of our world and instead understand that we connect not to find the haystack needle, but in order to better understand and discern patterns in the noise. The subtitle of the interim report from the Project on National Security Reform is a good beginning: ‘Ensuring Security in an Unpredictable World’. How we apply KM and complexity principles to national security reform will shape our ability to secure the nation’s future.

The United States' New CIO: Metrics that Matter

empty-process President Obama today announced the selection of Mr. Vivek Kundra to be the nation's Chief Information Officer. Back in January of 2009, I had the honor of touring Vivek Kundra's operation while he was the Chief Technology Officer for Washington, D.C.  Several things struck me about the arrangements - a small cubicle farm in the center of the room, with interactive screens on the walls depicting various real-time data about technology projects.  In the corner office, a briefing room where managers, stakeholders, and contractors would gather to determine the fate of poorly performing projects.  The cubicle farm contained his "market" (technology) analysts, who constantly monitored the health of the technology projects under the purview of the CTO office.

This itself was impressive, but what struck me most was his definition of "poorly performing."

When he arrived in the position, he was handed thick paper reports that indicated the progress for each project against classic PMBOK metrics.  These are the lifeblood for information technology system integrators, based on a deep belief that adhering to efficient and learned processes will result in the best client value.  Systems engineering steps are carefully detailed and documented, and Mr. Kundra was invited to review these paper volumes as the tool for overseeing a multi-million dollar IT portfolio.

I need to be careful here, lest I appear  dubious concerning the value offered by the Software Engineering Institute, Project Management Institute, etc.  Not withstanding these noble and enduring "best practice" endeavors, Mr. Kundra made a critical decision that, in my opinion, made all the difference.  Rather than tracking his contractors' fealty to accepted practice, he developed metrics that reflected client value.  These included high-level schedule metrics, as would be expected, but also such things as micro-polling to determine stakeholder 'happiness.'  

I have noticed in some commercial firms the tendency to believe adhering to "industry practices" is akin to "delivering value."  Often, I would see projects that made the internal process group happy - but which were failures in the client's eyes.  Alternatively, some of the projects that were highly rated by the client were often those that failed to have a completed checklist of some sort - a failure that would earn it high-level negative attention.  Project managers were left wondering why they spent hours documenting processes that were not related to client value or happiness.  


Kundra's D.C. team established a manageable set of tracking metrics and displayed them on the interactive screens.  At any given time, you could see how various projects were faring - and drill down to the data elements that provided the "score."  In addition, his staff developed RSS feeds regarding online content/news relevant to these projects, and this became Mr. Kundra's morning newspaper.

With a focus on client value, and an awareness of various perspectives, Mr. Kundra was able to increase visibility and improve management of an elusive concept in the world of IT:  solutions that work.  He did this, I am convinced, by throwing the book away.  By not allowing his office to get distracted tracking processes, but instead focusing on outcome metrics - metrics that matter.

Open Government - Issues


The Obama Adminstration is committed to an open and transparent government, leveraging current technology and principles of business and public sector collaboration that are revolutionizing the way we work and live.  This generation is writing their own encyclopedia (, spreading information virally (,, blogs), and is constantly connected to their friends and colleagues through cell-phone texting and other social media. 

This is not only about technology, but behaviors.  Books such as Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody,” Covey’s “Speed of Trust,” Barabasi’s “Linked,” Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds” and Tapscott’s “Wikinomics” point to the power of networked minds to sense, attend, and act.  What we are seeing is a convergence of technology and networked social behaviors and the effect on organizations.  In science, we see the convergence of network science and complexity.  The hallmark of globalization is simply the unparalleled depth and breadth of our universal connections.

We have come a long way from the “CNN effect” noted during the 1990 Gulf War, when private industry connected citizens to government information on a (then) unprecedented scale.  Technologies and citizen expectations continue to evolve, such that it is now time for government to become proactive and thoughtful regarding a potential transformation in how we govern, coordinate, and collaborate in the world's oldest Democracy.

The “seat at the table” initiative during the Transition marked an extraordinary step away from previous transitions and policy deliberations.  Washington has a history of boardroom politics combined with a “culture of leaks;” leading to many off-the-record “non-meetings” to consider policy options. This allows interest groups to advance their agenda in a closed market of ideas, where the citizen and long-term innovation are not well served.  We wish to explore the vastly increased opportunity for disseminating government information, coordinating across “the interagency,” and opening up decision-making to allow for broader participation in addressing the many challenges in the nation’s inbox.

One critical aspect of mass collaboration is the serendipitous connections that can be made.  One value of the Twitter concept is the persistent presence application – an ongoing party line conversation that includes shared links, observations, and general information.  The UK Prime Minister has 5,000 followers, which doesn’t sound like much until you realize that information of broad interest is likely to be re-broadcast across the networks each of those followers joins.  This is a network standing by to provide loose connections across international information networks.  If the Prime Minister sends a note of import, it will quickly spread as a virus.  It will appear on the 5,000 followers, some of whom will re-transmit it as a repeater network. In addition, people who have RSS feeds set against specific search terms that occur across the Twitter conversations will receive the information.

We need to stop thinking of collaboration as only associated with a specific team or problem.  We may want to establish connections with people in order to anticipate trust networks we may need in the future.  

Some Issues

  • What constitutes a Government Record?  Recently, the Obama team learned that they could not use Instant Messenging software on White House networks.  This is akin to banning hallway conversations.  We need to revisit the idea that everything digitized is a Record, just because it can be recorded.  (Hallway conversations can also be recorded, cf. Nixon.)
  • Access - One significant caveat – while the embedding of internet technologies and networked behaviors are changing how we live and work, one unintended consequence is a widening gap between the connected and the disconnected. The obligation to national broadband is therefore vital to maintaining the socio-economic mobility that defines the American dream.  Access to internet technologies is the latest national obligation to connect our people that began with the railroad, and continued with the telephone and the national highway system.
  • Citizen Trust - Simply put: Data accuracy must be assured, and individual privacy must be protected.
  • Authentication -  While there are significant political obstacles, without a common way for citizens to authenticate against federal online resources – we will proliferate user credentialing information across multiple servers and data centers.  Current policy prohibits federal web pages from storing any information about citizens (e-commerce sites use persistent 'cookies,' but federal systems are prohibited from doing so).  In practice, when it comes to citizens, federal web sites are stateless.  Increasingly, people are used to the sites they visit storing information about them, and many even use their browser client applications to store passwords.  Nevertheless, Government web sites present a significant challenge because they cannot “remember” citizens or interactions, even when facing the same needs regarding ‘constituent relationship management’ as these e-commerce sites.  The technical challenges are significant, but identity management on a large scale has been achieved in industry and in environments such as Army Knowledge Online and the Navy Marine Corps Intranet. Privacy advocates will point up the dangers of a citizen authentication process, the challenge here will be protecting individual information while helping the citizenry understand that this is the 21st century version of a “government-issued photo ID.” Americans are used to the need for driver’s license or other “government-issued photo ID” to gain access to automobiles or commercial aircraft; or while using a credit card.  While the connected nature of online authentication increases vulnerability to mischief, this is the next step in accessing public goods for a citizenry who already accepts the need for driver’s licenses, passports, etc. 
  • Cyber Security - In early December 2008, the web address (URL) for CheckFree – one of the largest online bill payment companies – was hijacked.  Specifically, the web address redirected users to a website in Ukraine for several hours, a website that attempted to install password-stealing software. A Gartner analyst estimates that CheckFree controls between 70 and 80 percent of the U.S. online bill pay market.  There are initial indications that the attack was aimed at the registrar for the CheckFree site, Network Solutions.  In other words, CheckFree’s customers were put at risk by a vendor whose security procedures were entirely outside the control of the target for the attack.  In the value network that connects the customer to the good, there are multiple vulnerabilities that are exploited daily. A significant challenge facing the Obama Administration will be to secure this value network against this threat to individual wealth and national security. 

Can You Hear Me - Which Party values Triple Loop Learning?

The exploitation of social media by the Obama campaign has reverberations across generations.  Two Republican Congressmen (Pence, Cantor) remarked on the phenomena on the Sunday following the 4 Nov election.  Paraphrasing: We must use this media to reach out to young people, get them our message, explain where we want to take this country.sharing That sounded noble, but I found myself straining to hear something else:  "we will listen to the people."

I never heard it.  The more I listened to representatives and spokespeople for the opposition party, the more I was struck by the absence of an eagerness to hear.  They appear eager to learn how they can reach the organized masses who turned out for the Democratic ticket, but only in terms of how they can broadcast their message to them. I don't hear any indication that listening is part of the magic.

This difference may be profound, I don't know.  One party speaks of principles in governing, while the other has imperatives gained from observing what people need.  The first defines leadership by sticking to proven policy principles, the second defines it as steering government through challenge and opportunity.  The first proactive, the second reactive. The first accuses the other of lacking principles, and in this election tried mightily to scare Americans into thinking that Obama in fact had hidden principles and an agenda at odds with "real" Americans.  The second accuses the first of sticking to principles that are in fact not natural laws, which got us into an ill-advised war and deregulation, and which are disconnected from the needs of the American people.

Both approaches are disastrous in the extreme.  The second leads to citizens voting themselves cash from the public till, while the first leads to oppression as minority voices are marginalized and principles trump understanding.

The seismic shift this election?  Those "proven" principles did not ensure success.  The belief that "spreading" Democracy would be welcomed by allies and weak states did not prove warranted.  The conviction that relatively unfettered markets would strive for harmony and equilibrium fell victim to the Tragedy of the Commons and basic human nature.  Finally, the Bush presidency was subject to a series of challenges for which it was demonstrably less than capable.

The Moment, for me, came during the extraordinary session where the President, the candidates, and Congressional leaders came to the same table to discuss drastic measures to address the financial crisis in October.  Mr. Obama, at ease in sessions where principles are applied to situations and learning results - sat in stark contrast with Mr. McCain, who had nothing to offer.  McCain's presence was simply to be the symbol that would rally House Republicans. (Perhaps fatal to his candidacy, they did not stand with him.) The awkward moment:  when Mr. Obama leaned over to address his rival.  "What do you think, John?"  No response.  Mr. McCain wasn't there to listen, to advise, or even hear.

Mr. Obama was there to aid in governing.  The application of principles with a feedback loop so that learning can occur.  "What works?" is the central question of the inquiring mind.

In organizational learning circles, this inquiry is a hallmark of some learning styles, defined as Single, Double, and Triple Loop:

Single Loop describes a condition, often referred to as a thermostat, in which an organization holds stable goals and adjusts its behaviors to achieve those goals. • Double Loop describes a condition in which new factors or experiences can change the organizational goals—and the organization adjusts its behaviors to achieve them. • Triple Loop describes a condition in which the organization manages changeable goals—changing ways and means iteratively—and builds upon them, doing so in part by changing the organization itself in response to these requirements.

[Chris Argyris, “Single-Loop and Double-Loop Models in Research on Decision-Making,” Administrative Science Quarterly 21 (1976) & A. Georges L. Romme and Arjen van Witteloostuijn, “Circular Organizing and Triple Loop Learning,” Journal of Organizational Change Management 12.5 (1999).]

The first party would do well to consider moving from Single Loop learning, and develop the ability to learn rather than present themselves as guardians of timeless governing principles.

And the second party, flush with victory, best not forget that they won on a principle of listening, inquiry, and competent yet participative government.

Will This Product Make the Portal More Functional?

With slight editing, this question was posed to me this morning.  The product in question was an RSS service, of questionable value on many levels.  For one, employees are not blocked from using their own RSS feeders, so those who are interested in using this capability are already doing so.  For another - and more importantly - I have a real problem throwing more technology at a workforce who has yet to fully appreciate the value of social software to their work processes and knowledge needs.  Their leadership talks of "facebook in the enterprise" and "social computing" but does not themselves use any tool that can be considered in this space.

So what is their interest?  Why consider the investment?  I don't honestly know.  Perhaps they believe that seeding the garden is useful, although the endless business case and ROI conversations that accompany any IT investment belie this.  Perhaps they read HBR and other business magazines that indicate all the cool companies have them.  But filling the enterprise with vendor fairy dust does not result in "Enterprise 2.0," anymore than wearing scrubs makes one a doctor.  Whatever is driving this interest along Mahogany Row, it is not emerging from informed concerns regarding their workforce productivity and satisfaction.

I will try to advise first principles:

* Focus on what we're trying to accomplish with information technology.  

* Get people who manage corporate information to take their responsibilities to the employee seriously.

* Provide a garden of tools and suggest usage.  Watch usage patterns, encourage and broadcast success.  

* Listen.  Change your mind when proven wrong.

* Connect all employees to enterprise applications - don't allow yourself to decide the "20% who can't get past client firewalls" to no longer matter.  

* Provide an open environment so that employees can find and use information that may not be Corporate, but which may be relevant at the point of decision. 

* Never decide what should be relevant for them.  "The right information at the right time to the right person" is not something you engineer, but enable.

There are more, but I'm rattled today.  Days like this make me want to close the laptop and take out the bocce ball set.  While we try to make progress, I'm reminded the snake oil salesmen remain and proliferate.  As do the ingenues to tend to their sirens.


I am getting comfortable with today's mind-shift from developing a KM strategy to developing a strategy for incorporating and resourcing KM.  I will still need principles in this process somewhere.  So far, I have four.  I drafted the following four principles a while back, and I think they serve as a touchstone - one of the many ways I try to stay honest. 

  1. The company matters more than the sum of any of its parts
  2. I must learn and share information in order to do my job
  3. I don't have to know where information is located in order to find it
  4. I need to trust in the accuracy, quality, and timeliness of the information I find

I'm certain there are more, this still feels like information management principles instead of KM, and I wonder if my colleagues in Security and Contracts have similar principles posted to their wall.  I am trying to get us away from "see what Billy thinks about this" when it comes to policies or initiatives.  We are still too personality driven, and while that is useful for some things, we do need to write down shared principles at some point if we aim to grow at the pace expected. 

As I go forward, then, I'm using these principles to guide my advice and recommendations regarding our deployment of information systems.  That's what I get being located under the CIO, the baseline context will be IT for the near term.

It strikes me that these were easy to write, precisely because we have so far to go in fixing our internal information management processes and systems.  It reminds me of my three-month stint in a West Texas town.  Having come from New York, I was unnerved by the tornado logo in the corner of my television screen one evening.  In speaking to a neighbor, they confirmed that meant there was a good chance of tornadic activity in the area - and no, he didn't have a basement either.

"Well, who does have a basement in this town?  Where are the shelters?"

"Over there in the new section, called Grape Creek.  Those houses all have basements."


"Because Grape Creek was leveled a few years back by a tornado..."