Working with the Front-line

October 9, 2011

Front-line managers and supervisors practically spend their entire working day on the Ordered Side. I surmise that the time split between the Complicated and Simple Domains is in the 20/80 range respectively. Everyday operational decisions primarily require Management by Intuition – relying on established habits and past experiences to get the job done. As we know, in the Complicated Domain an expert is called upon to sense, analyze, respond. The first-line manager can play the role of an expert, in particular, when he is a key player in a pilot project. Many years ago I was in that situation.

A pilot project is a small trial or test of a change idea. It’s common practice to include a pilot in a large scale Business Case. The chief purpose is to locate the kinks and bugs before full implementation and rolling out to the masses. I was picked as one of the experts in the field since I was well positioned in the org hierarchy to generate data and hopefully provide useful feedback. In the beginning I objected (“Why me?”) since it affected my ability to get the Simple Domain work done. However, my resistance faded quickly when it was strongly suggested to “get with the program.”

With edict in hand, I was prepared to do whatever was necessary to make the pilot work. The company had invested in training my brain to solve business problems. So the pilot was perceived by me as nothing more than another problem to tackle. In addition, as an up and coming manager, I had formed a plausible rationale: “Let’s see. Someone at a higher-level has created a business case. To get executive buy-in, the plan has proposed launching a pilot and testing the waters to reduce risk. They picked me to be involved in this pilot project for 3- 6 months. I don’t get to make a Go/No Go recommendation; my job is to collect data to help refine the business case. I can live with that. Hey, why risk a CLM (career limiting move) by blocking a change that my bosses want?”

I already knew what the solution was; it was articulated in the business case that I read. So I did what Thomas Kuhn discovered and led to his coining the term Paradigm Shift. I fit the data to match the estimated costs and benefits. Plus ignored data that didn’t match or would screw up the business case. No big deal. This wasn’t much different from my days in the high school lab when my buddy and I cooked the data to prove the physics or chemistry law we were studying.

The business change initiative went ahead and did turn out to be a good one for the organization. My expert analysis I’m sure produced some distortion. But then again, I felt all along the project sponsors knew they had the green light from the get go . The pilot was just an exercise to say field personnel were involved. Such is life on the Ordered side.

What about working on the Unordered side? What must a CE practitioner be wary of working with front-line managers and supervisors on a Complex Domain issue? Here are a few things to muse over.

They have a really tough time working in the Complex Domain
Front-liners who spend most of their time on the Ordered side find unpredictability and uncertainty extremely discomforting. Problem solving is all about analyzing and finding cause & effect. When you as a CE practitioner say there is none, be prepared for stunned “how can that be?” faces.

Failure is OK
“Hey, didn’t you watch the Apollo 13 movie? Failure is not an option!”
Reminding them of the Cynefin framework helps to shift their heads from the Complicated to the Complex Domain.
We want failure to happen, as long as it’s tolerable and safe. We will carefully monitor and if things are getting too much out of control, shut down the experiment and stabilize.

Probe, not Pilot
Coaching is required to focus their attention away from piloting to probing the system. At our client workshops we have small table groups design a safe-fail experiment. We learned they really struggle creating probes. To spark them, we ask them to think about Provocations (reference the Serious Creativity blog posting.) We encourage suspending judgement when we hear murmuring such “Well, that won’t work. No way we can do that. The guys will think we’re nuts.”

We should only observe, not measure in the Complex Domain
“Say what? This is a joke, right?”
They live by the creed “what gets measured gets done”. Now we tell them the measures they are accustomed to may not be appropriate; the measures may belong to a paradigm we are escaping. So we can only observe behaviour and monitor accordingly.
Asking them to suspend their need to measure won’t be easy. Giving an analogy may offer some comfort: “We don’t want to be measuring velocity when, in the hindsight, we discover acceleration is the right measure. It’s conceivable we may have to invent a new measure.”

Insanity is repeating something and expecting to get a different result
Umm, guess what. We can and are looking for different results in the Complex Domain. More incredulous looks. Maybe a few agitated smiles.

In the Complex Domain, everything might be reset back to Ground Zero
“You got to be kidding me. You mean I can’t fall back on my vast knowledge accumulated over many years? Hey, that’s why they pay me the big bucks around here! My value will go down the toilet!”
This won’t be an isolated problem with front-line managers and supervisors. It will be a change leadership issue for everyone impacted.

You can Do More with Less
Front-liners who lead by empowering their people to come up with a solution get this really quickly. Front-liners who struggle with giving up control and feeling compelled to find a solution by themselves unfortunately practice Do Less with More.
At FranklinCovey, we use the Gardener vs. Mechanic analogy to point out the differences between leading and managing. A gardener knows he cannot command and control a seed to grow. His role is to nurture by providing water, soil, fertilizer and managing climate extremes.
On the other hand, Mechanics work with gears and pulleys on machines. Their job is to keep the machine running efficiently. If a gear breaks; throw it out and replace it with another.
In the Complex Domain we lead people and enable the system to solve the intractable problem.

From your experiences working with front-liners, what can you add?

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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