Why the Good Intentions Are Not Enough

Yesterday, I had a short discussion on my blog entry “Two common leadership anti-patterns: Urgency as Blame and Busyness as Heroism” with a friend. He basically asked “do I think that managers are malevolent?” Well, I do not, and I don’t say so in that entry. The text was a critique of systems, it wasn’t at all a critique of people per se. Also this this text is a critique of systems: I’m talking the social and cultural systems around us and the psychological and ideological systems inside us.

If a system is dysfunctional, all the good intentions (within that system) may turn out harmful things. If this is obvious for you, there’s very little truly new in the next ~900 words – just some macabre, black humor.

Imagine a benevolent surgeon, who was raised in a family of excellent carpenters. Almost before he learnt to walk, his parents taught him to make wood sculptures with knife, saw, hammer and chisel. Less than decade after the first sculptures, people could only wonder his outstanding skills to cut wood, so stunningly beautiful were the sculptures. The only reason why he didn’t become a carpenter was the fact that he wanted to do more good than a carpenter can. Because he was so skillful in the use of the hands, he chose to become a surgeon. And so he did. Because the knife, saw, hammer and chisel were so good tools for cutting wood he thought that they would be equally good for cutting flesh. It was a catastrophe.

The good intentions in the wrong system won't make it work. Photos in the image are from Wikipedia and used according to their license:  Chisels: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cervo100.jpg; Surgery: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ijn_surgeon.JPG

Many managers seem to think that the good, objectively correct intentions (cf. intention to cut outstandingly well wood/flesh) are the key of good management. The related systems are oftentimes ignored, or conceived as something you cannot and should not change. If something goes wrong, they just need to try harder to be a good manager and intend good even more– like if trying that harder makes any difference. After all, usually, it isn’t their fault that their intentions didn’t lead the intended, good results. It’s no-one’s fault. The problem was that they tried to change something in a system that did not work as they thought it would.

If it isn’t a duck, it most likely won’t behave like a duck even if you kindly and modestly treat it as a duck. The same is true with different kind of systems.

For instance, a manager with genuinely good intentions may honestly believe that Parkinson’s Law is true: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” I have met managers that honestly believe in that law, and that makes me sad.  Actually, I have failed once to explain clearly why Parkinson’s Law doesn’t work in this-and-that context. (Embarrassing.) The law was developed in the context of British governmental bureaucracy. It is based on Parkinson’s extensive experience in the British Civil Service. It might have worked in that context. Probably it did. That proves nothing, nonetheless. No-one claims that knife, saw, hammer and chisel don’t work as tools to cut wood, either. They are excellent tools for that kind of cutting.

But then again, there is strong evidence that Parkinson Law won’t work in creative, knowledge work (see e.g. DeMarco & Lister, 1999, PeopleWare). It won’t work in the same sense as knife, saw, hammer and chisel won’t work as surgeon’s tools for cutting flesh even if they are excellent tools for cutting wood: The system around an action (cutting with carpenter’s tools, leading according to Parkinson’s proposals) is wrong. So, the good intentions of manager of this example won’t make a difference. The reason is simple: If something (Parkinson’s Law) doesn’t work in the context of a system (creative knowledge work), it won’t work in that system no matter how good and pure are your intentions (e.g. sustainable, stabile workplace due to successful projects and satisfied customers) and how hard you try. The result can be what I described in “Two common leadership anti-patterns: Urgency as Blame and Busyness as Heroism“:

Also here, the manager most likely had good intentions, but he simply didn’t understand well enough how the system works. He didn’t ask where the distrust comes from. Or what impact the anxiety and stress in fact had to the team? Or why the projects are often late? And so on. He ignored the system, and focused on, say, his benevolent intent to make a good, profitable project. Probably, he thought that his experience is enough, and thus he need not learn more of the system.

A bad manager isn’t usually a bad or malevolent person. I’ve been told that there are malevolent managers but I know none personally. Usually, a bad manager isn’t stupid either like the surgeon who though that the carpenter’s tools would work equally well for cutting flesh and for cutting wood. He is just ignorant and too proud to pay really attention into systems. Therefore he need not to put his assumptions into testimony. He’s like a cottager who killed the goose that laid the golden eggs in Aesop’s Fable: he’s interested only in good results and a solution for current challenges, not the system that produced the current challenges and will produce the results. I call this “system-blindness”.

It’s not only the managers and management who are sometimes “system-blind” – everyone is. System-blindness is a global disease. It’s okay to be blind every now and then. You cannot avoid that. Yet, it’s ethically wrong to be blind only because opening your eyes would be too painful. Thus, intellectual honesty is a universal obligation. The system-blindness is probably the single biggest reason for suffering. E.g. I claim that the most people who have committed crimes in war, intended to do good but their hard attempt to be good in the wrong system turned against themselves – and against everyone.

This is why good intentions are not enough: A bad system has tendency to make good people accidentally malevolent and their good intentions accidentally devastating actions. The good intentions separated from the system are day dreaming. While day dreaming definitely has its place and value as a source of joy, motivation and creativity, it cannot be the key element in the way organizations are led and developed.

Being Creative and Productive despite of Insane Working Pace

This is the first part of the series “Busyness, Productivity and Creativity. In this serious I discuss why we have to slow down to get things done faster and better. The series consists following parts:

  1. Being creative and productive despite of the insane working pace
  2. Two organization anti-patterns: Urgency as Blame and Busyness as Heroism
  3. The Good Sides of Busyness – Busyness and Urgency as Heuristics for Cadence
  4. 120 000 Nails – Urgency and Busyness as Motivators

Puzzle analogue and slack

So, to be productive, information worker people need some slack – empty space in the calendar. Thus if you keep them busy all the time and maximize the utility, the people get less things done. What really matters is to get things done, not the amount of working hours. Sometimes, by doing more work, less work will done? Counter-intuitive, eh?

Tom DeMarco illustrate in his book “Slack” the need for slack as follows:

The puzzle A is solvable; puzzle B is impossible. Yet, in puzzle A there is approximately 11% unused space while in the puzzle B that all space is utilized. 11% of waste? The innovations dwells in the organizations ability to learn, adapt and change. The empty space needed for change and leaning isn’t waste – except in Excels!

Also e.g. Donald Reinersten underlines the importance of sufficient amount of slack in the organization in his book “Managing the Design Factory”. Reinersten does not use term ‘slack’. Instead he discussed lead time, queue length, capacity etc. In practice, his recommendations and conclusions are similar to DeMarco’s. Reinersten’s mathematical approach shows that slack makes sense also in the Excels if you measure correct things.

The third book reference: In his book “Your Brain at Work” David Rock’s book discusses this subject form the neurophysiological point of view. There are limited amount of resources in the brain. Creative thinking require a lot from your brain, the all irrelevant noise – like awareness of the deadlines that are not attainable – lower the probability of a creative insight. The most of the time the busy people just “survive” – they don’t “shine” since they don’t have time for that.

Counterexamples

Last spring I had a very nice discussion about busyness, rush, pressure and their impact to creativity and organizational efficiency. I had just referred DeMarco’s Slack and claimed that continuous busyness and one-eyed attempts to maximize utility of people have tendency to kill creativity and ability to change. As bonus people get burnout sooner or later – or are smart enough to apply another job before that. My opponent, a smart Russian game developer replied:

[My busyness] is nothing compared to working in an advertising agency. Advertising is a job where you usually sleep at the workplace. And people usually just burn out after some time… It is strange (doesn’t fit into your [claim that Rush kills creativity and ability to change]) but creativity actually flourishes – at first, before a person burns out. In the other company – software startup – they introduced plans and procedures to avoid rush. But it lead to people becoming more passive and non-creative over time, because some air of suddenness and inspiration disappeared. So it was good for some people, who were new; there will be no sudden changes just before deadline, but not so good for those who used to act on inspiration – like being half-asleep for a week and then do the week’s work in three hours.

Embracing – was forced to restructure my argument. What follows next, is my revised answer to her excellent counter-argument. I have divided my argument into two parts:

  1. Why some organizations perform well and are highly creative, even if the working pace is insane?
  2. Why often lack of rush seems to lead passivity and lack of inspiration?

Why some organizations perform well and are highly creative, even if the working pace is insane?

These counterexamples against my argument are probably rather common, but nonetheless probably base on misconceptions or fallacies. I know that there are few opinionated studies saying something different, as my studies poses rather strong counter arguments against them.

It’s true that advertisement offices do time to time highly creative work and performs extremely well. However, you cannot deduce that they are creative because of the overly thigh schedules and busyness.

I presume, that the creativeness in advertisement agency can be explained by following four factors:

(1) Motivated, competent and experienced people. In advertisement offices the workers are often highly motivated and competent. Some of them have practiced arts (e.g. drawing) for decades and have high level of formal education on arts, while other have formal education on economics.

(2) Diversity in the working community. Diversity of working community increases amount of innovative solutions: in advertisement offices some of the workers are highly art oriented while others have financial stance and are money oriented. This kind of diversity and multitude of perspectives is good for creativity.

(3) Working environment. Working environment and way of working in itself is fruitful. Workers often enjoys of high level of autonomy and high level of trust (at least for the “high performers”). The success of a campaign depend greatly on them and thus, there is no place for indifference. In a way the results are “part of you”, and therefore you want them to be as good as possible.

(4) Short feedback loop. The feedback loop between and idea and response is relatively short. Often you see, if the idea worked within few hours, rather than within few months. In order to optimize learning, you have to shorten the feedback loop.

I argue that excessive busyness and rush make advertisement offices perform worse than they could. They have very good starting point, and then the greed spoils the most creative edge of the working community. The greed not only make they perform more poorly, it also endangers their health. According the studies I’ve referred, overly busy advertisement offices would do a lot better results and they would do even more creative campaigns, if there is enough slack in their schedules.

How much slack is needed?

I do not claim, that there must be only slack – that does not work either. Creative workers need some empty space, but only some. So, how much slack an information worker needs? I have not seen exact numbers. Probably, the proper amount of slack depends greatly on the person and on what you are doing.

According Donald Reinersten, for ordinary software development company the optimum performance is achieved with 60-80% relative utility ratio (2010, “The Principles of Product Development Flow”). If the utility score is over 80%, usually there are long queues that add no value but just costs. That is, there should be 20-40% of slack in order to make the organization perform optimally. Then again, Reinersten discusses organizational performance only, not creativity or performance of an individual person.

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Next part: “Two organization anti-patterns: Urgency as Blame and Busyness as Heroism