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Monthly Archives: March 2011

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Who came up with this idea?  The red wax supplier?

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Information technology is an integral part of nearly every business. At least in the administration, but in many cases also in the core process of the business. No parking ticket without a handheld printer that automatically connects with a central database. No item in a supermarket without a bar code. No logistics without tracking and tracing system. No customer relationship without electronic exchange or web-based interaction.

The information technology industry is doing a reasonable good job in providing solutions that increase productivity, safety or the quality of decision-making. Not to speak about the imbedded information technology in all kinds of products. And the IT industry continuously markets loads of new ideas and concepts targeted at the profit and non-profit organisation, promising a broad spectrum of potential benefits. They aim their hopeful messages directly at the non-it management or indirectly to the it professionals of an organisation. There is nevertheless a caveat in this promise of the blessings of information technology. As a customer you have to do the real difficult thing, you have to come up with concrete area or business case where you can apply the wonders of technology. IT provides a technological solution (or concept) and the customer has to find the problem. With between the lines the message, you will lose if can’t apply our solutions. This is quite a normal procedure in sales (although teached and preached differently).

Yet, the information technology industry has really refined this ritual of unfulfilled promises, and many executives buy into this promise without exactly knowing what they buy. It leads to troublesome projects and increasing amounts of  management and governance. The technology push is difficult to manage and intrinsic unstable. It brings the need for all kinds of sophisticated management tools and practices  to control the increasing complexity (a business in itself).  All kind of additional layers of IT strategists, information architects, outsourcers, steering committees, programmes management etc. are introduced to make sure the organisation can somehow reap the promised  and presumed benefits.

It seems the counter-veiling force of push, pull, is forgotten in managing information technology. The idea of pull is about challenges that need to be met and technology that is challenged to come up with viable solutions.

No artist started painting because somebody convinced him or her that brushes are the things needed, to make money. The Apollo rockets  flying to the moon, were the results of a challenge set out by president Kennedy, not the other way around. In many areas pull is normal and the idea of push seems odd. That seems to be forgotten when it comes to organising the application of information technology.

Pull as an alternative might lead to less governance, less frustration, less waste and more fun, better applications and more innovation, as it is more stable by nature  (Try to push a robe). Thinking functionality instead of technological wonders and specifications, demanding absolute hassle free user experiences, looking beyond the value of today’s technology to longer lasting values, taking the  slight risks that technology can’t provide the solution, these elements make up a mindset that will help to establish pull. And maybe then, technology will bring even more beauty.

Bold moves are a great way to make a difference in organisations. Due to the intrinsic inclination of organisation to reduce spikes in performance and increase the predictability of behavior and outcome, boredom and mediocracy are more common than excitement and courage to excel. To break this suffocating grip of the day-to-day control, bold moves are an interesting medicine.

Apple has a longstanding strong position in the top three of most admired companies in various rankings. Apple makes continuously bold moves when it comes to design and shaking up the application and content side of personal computing and communications. These bold moves shape the company and the way it is organised.

At the same time Apple has a keen eye for detail and rigorously manages the consequences of its boldness. Apple is very disciplined in all aspects that help to emphasise the boldness of their moves. It solves some very difficult puzzles like the logistics of a worldwide introduction of a new product that is kept secret until the crafty unveiling of that product.

The boldness of some organising principles provide a competitive advantage. Zappos (an online shoe seller)  is good documented case where a sound level of weirdness is encouraged to create an atmosphere where employees really take the interest of customers at heart. Zappos’ growth figures are impressive.

Bold moves are inspiring. The sculpture Richard Serra made impressive bold moves in the Grand Palais in Paris.

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The barely visible curve in the steel sheets guarantee that these impressive elements in this enormous building remain standing. Even though this small detail is important and complex to achieve, it is the boldness of the move that stands out.

Being bold in the organisation is a interesting concept and it needs hard work and discipline to manage the consequences. But the difference between the measure of boldness and the measure of management should be as large as possible, for boldness to be really beautiful.

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One of the traditional aspects of the design of an organisation is the compartmentalisation of functions. Or  the division of labour. Or the delineation of responsibilities. It is the part of the organisation design that has to do with the structure and foremost with the boundaries between the parts. To avoid vagueness, unclear accountability, the impossibility to measure, the structure needs to be well defined. The functions need to be contained and managed. One of the ways to escape ambiguity is to increase the granularity, in other words just keep adding departments, offices, specialities, functions, lines of business, sections, area’s. All clearly demarcated and contained. It adds up in numbers and complexity. It creates overhead for coordination and in its most bureaucratic form it inhibits all cooperation and divides the organisation into tide silo’s. Nothing floats by it self and all has to be steered. A dream for some, a nightmare for most.

The numerous parts.

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Yet another way of thinking and design looks like this

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Fewer blocks, more overlap. Add to this static model the real life dynamic of people interacting and a new picture appears.

A picture where there is less control and delineation but more ad-hoc meetings and unexpected cross pollination.  More fun and less management. More stimulations and less inhibitions. More fuzziness and less definitions. More natural, less constructed.

The variety by which an organisation thrives is rooted in inclusion (overlap) instead of exclusion (boundaries).

The picture  looks simple. There is nevertheless a need for a few very important and maybe difficult decisions, namely which basic colours  (leading divsions) to choose and how they are positioned. That sets the broad structure of responsibilities and should be designed as to lead to seamless cooperation.

In additions there are different organisation attributes to work with. Less formality and more coincidence. It requires management and leadership skills that may not exist and for sure it requires dumping a lot management stuff, but overlap is an interesting concept for organisational beauty.

An implicit parameter in the design of organisation is smoothness. All changes and ideas, all forms and ways of interaction, all structures and systems, all communication and training, all should have an unspoken, undefined smoothness. You might call it professionalism, good management or emphatic leadership. In organisational design there is a boundary that will not be crossed. The boundary of extremity. The idea is extremity is not good for business, extremity alienates, extremity prohibits control, extremity is out-of-bounds.

But there are exceptions.

On of them is the extremity of a true icon. The value of the icon, a symbol of meaning and purpose, goes hand in hand with its extremity.  The Eiffel tower stands for Paris. In the 1880’s, when it was build, it was very extreme, extreme in its height, extreme in its form, extreme in its efficient use of material. Only by its extremity it had the power to become the icon of Paris. Other examples are the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao or the ‘Nachtwacht’ in de Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

In organisational design, one might create an icon to guide the mindset and behaviour of the people involved. It should have symbolic power. But the true power of a meaningful (and beautiful) icon also relates to its extremity.

A couple of years ago I interviewed the director of the Dutch organisation for road assistance (de wegenwacht). I was impressed by their service and was curious how they organised and managed for such an impressive record of client service. It proved to be a combination of selecting the right people with both technical and people skills, training and empowerment of the people on the road. They do decide on how to solve the customer’s (often in despair) problem with the car and how to make sure the customer can happily and satisfied continue its journey. A nice story was about a woman who had to wait quit long for the assistance to arrive. The assistant found the problem within a minute, but stayed bent over the motor saying it was a difficult problem. After some time he said to have found problem and fixed it. He even made a small (not really necessary) test drive with the woman telling her he had to make sure that the problem was really fixed. So he spent half an hour on a problem that could be solved in five minutes. A stupid assistent? Not if you realise that having to wait for one hour to see your problem fixed in five minutes adds to the frustration as waiting for an hour to have a serious problem solved seems worth the trouble. The assistant understood this and being responsible for the satisfaction of the customer spent more time that strictly required. This kind of empowerment is engrained in the organisation.

But there was another part to the story and that had to do with something less visible for the customers, but proofs to as essential as the empowered assistant. And that is a superior and fully automated planning system for the dispersion of the assistants to the customer that need help. The planning system proofs crucial to allow for the empowerment, to reduce waiting time and to optimise the number of assistants needed given the various economical constraints.

The combination of the two ideas made me a very happy customer when my car broke down. When designing organisation one idea might not be enough for enduring beauty.

There is a beauty in an extraordinary large collections of the same object. One Ferrari is quite beautiful, but a line-up of many is more impressive. Even more impressive is a row of 21 red ones of the same type. A unique and special sight. The beauty lies in the repetition of the same, not so much in the beauty of the single object. Shops apply this idea of awe when they mount an enormous pile of soup cans on the shop floor. Not hundreds but thousands, unbelievable many. For beauty ou really need disproportional amounts.

There are numerous examples where marketeers use the beauty of large numbers to let the product surpass the qualities of he single objects. Artist also use  vast repetitions of a simple object in a special setting. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei puts 100 million hand painted porcelain sunflower seeds on the floor in the impressive Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London. The tiny object becomes part of something much bigger. The numbers make it meaningful and beautiful.

The largess of the numbers transcends the viewer to a new level of experience. Also with people that new experience can be created. Some of you may have experienced a football game of the Dutch national team with all the fans dressed in orange. It gives you the shivers. A party where all people are dressed in white has ta simular effect. The uniformity on a bigger scale makes it special. Even when cherishing the difference of the individuals, the power of temporally  giving up the uniqueness by dressing up in the same outfit and doing so unanimously and on a bigger than big scale is enormous. It is gratifying, it bonds and sticks to every attendants memory.

We might use this phenomena of many more of the same in management and organisational design, it can provide a rare sense of belonging. But only when we create in some very visual way, identical objects, in unique numbers and as an exception. Otherwise it proofs to be very uncool.