Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mudmaps, centrality & the fear of failure

From time to time in my writing I have explored the way in which our mental mudmaps, the frames we use to interpret and simplify the complex world around us, affect our thinking.

One thing I have focused on is what I call centrality, the way in which our perceptions centre on us, where we live, the groups we belong to, what we do, the views we hold. Centrality can be thought of in terms of circles moving out. It can also be thought of in terms of hierarchy, the ranking of things by importance.

We all recognise this. The common phrase putting yourself in someone else's skin simply means understanding things from that person's perspective. Another example is thinking outside the box or the square. However, while we recognise the effects, it is quite remarkable how often the existence of centrality blinds us.

Some of my most productive work and writing has come because  of my recognition of the blinding effects of centrality in particular cases.

Wearing my historian's hat, it has provided new insights into Aboriginal life. Wearing my management consultant's hat, it has helped me to identify particular organisational problems. Writing on current events especially in Australia, it has helped me stand back from the immediate froth and bubble, sometimes providing new insights.

Yet in all this, there are problems. I find it very hard sometimes to exercise the discipline and imagination required to overcome my own mental constructs, although I have developed techniques to do so.

More importantly, our mental mud maps exist for good and practical reasons. They actually help us manage day to day life. The world is simply too complex to manage otherwise. We are therefore reluctant to give them up, we can react badly if they are challenged.

I said that some of my most productive work and writing had come because  of my recognition of the blinding effects of centrality in particular cases. It is equally true that some of my worst professional work, my biggest consulting failures for example, has come about because I pushed too far outside the boundaries.

Excluding work done in line or management roles, I have now completed well over three hundred consulting assignments for over 100 clients. Depending on how you define it, my failure rate has been around five per cent. That's actually not too bad, although few consultants will talk about their failures. In a world where your income depends on the latest success, it's not a good look to talk about failures.

I actually write a lot about management failure. I do so because I am convinced that some current management approaches are having quite pernicious results.

People are locked into models, mental mud maps, that don't actually work very well anymore. They know it, but the models have become institutionalised, locked into computer systems, process manuals, structures and performance measures.

As both a manager and as a consultant, I find it increasingly difficult to get new things in place that will deliver results and improve performance.

Just at present, I have moved away from consulting to contracting because I want to focus on completing current writing projects. Whether as  a consultant or contractor, I find myself on marketing calls or interviews saying to myself that's not going to work, you could do that better. Then I have to bite my tongue.

I have no answer to this.

Based on what I have seen, the average organisation could cut its costs by up to ten per cent while actually improving performance if they would simply reduce controls while  empowering their staff.

Of course, they would also have to accept a measure of failure, and that in itself has become an increasing problem. Failure is no longer allowed. Better that the organisation fail if the alternative is to allow failure at individual level.

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