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Human beings use models all the time. Our observations, reflections and interpretations are all about creating mental models. Words themselves are models – a representation of reality. Just as the word apple is not the apple itself, a word, any word, is a concept we understand through agreement. Models provide a basis for conversation.
Friends at the Sente Corporation have put it this way:
“Depending on how you look at it, anything can be a model. Even reality – from one vantage point – is merely our own electro-chemical processing of narrow bandwidths taken from a sea of information”.
Why do we create models? Good models simplify our complex world, enabling us to communicate and appropriate complex ideas, notions, theories, and so on effectively and efficiently. We make our models to a scale where what they represent becomes understandable on an intuitive level. They enable us to develop the comprehension and insight from which we can begin to experiment. And through this, we learn.
In the context of enterprise, models enable us to examine a situation, analyse it and then draw out plans. Many of the concepts we grapple with in today’s organisations are so complex they are beyond the limits of our intuitive comprehension. Through modelling we attempt to strip away these layers of complexity in order for us to understand the context of the enterprise, the components within it and their relationships to each other and the external eco-system.
They do have their limitations. Models are fundamentally ‘reductionist’ in nature and there’s a balance to be struck between making the model sufficiently abstract that it can be understood intuitively whilst avoiding over-simplification. For example, in breaking processes down to constituent parts, the nature of the whole – the systemic dimension of the organisation – is all too often left neglected. The decomposition omits many of the complex interactions around a process, which is just a logical, linear sequence of activities. To document all such interactions would involve a mammoth effort of analysis, so the trick is to find the right mixture of reductionism and ‘holism’ or ‘systems thinking’. Cybernetics helps our understanding too, and I’ll come back to these points in later posts.
There is one fundamental pitfall to avoid when working with models: we must never forget that all our models – be they process maps, mind maps, spread-sheets, stories, physical or conceptual models – are abstractions. Therefore it is vitally important we remain vigilant in revisiting and revising them regularly, cognisant of the fact that, as George Box put it: “All models are wrong. Some models are useful”.
We must learn to be constantly critical and questioning, otherwise the very models we have constructed can be our own downfall as we cling on to them, attached to the comfort of a reality we perceive that may not, in fact, be appropriate. The only way of achieving a shift in our own perspective is through conversation. An intervention in our self-perpetuating thought processes can – if we are open to it – change our view of the world. Or our business.
At Innovation Arts, when we work with clients facing complex issues, we apply a rigorous approach to modelling. Dialogue and iteration are key to our approach, both during the Architecting and Building phases of solution design, but also when the new model is put to Use.
Even for those of us in the habit of asking curious questions, this one may seem to have an obvious answer: Taking a functional view can provide economies of scale due to the encouragement of and access to specialisation. Similarly, the functional view can facilitate increased skill development and is easier to supervise as there are generally clearly defined activities associated with each role – with specialists not having to be responsible for administrative work. A functional approach may also lead to higher morale as it engenders similar norms and values within each department.
You will have heard tell, though – perhaps you even have stories of your own – of times when working in an organisation with functions becomes dysfunctional. When functions become silos, and it is difficult to co-ordinate work across them, for example. At the very least this can result in bottlenecks and the sub-optimal use of resources. It may also lead to an increased need for the co-ordination of activities within the organisation, where manager decisions tend to pile up at the top. In the same way that managers become functionally focused, it has also been argued that this tends to distract from a greater understanding of the business as a whole which can in turn lead to a narrow, short-term focus on functional goals.
So, would you describe you or your organisation as functional or dysfunctional? Is there a middle ground? Functionally dysfunctional (and vice-versa)? What box would we put ourselves in if it was a 2×2 matrix (apologies, I was once a proper Management Consultant) and would we agree which was the best box?
I think where we can agree is that a functional view is going to be useful in understanding how an enterprise…functions. Or doesn’t function. It’s just not the whole picture. As an approach it has its limitations.
Through our bespoke Design & Decide approach, we can help you to bring the best of the functions within your own organization together to tackle the complex issues you face. We can help you look at things in non-functional ways too. By breaking down preconceptions and old habits within the system, functions can behave as fully integrated parts of a team committed to working in the same direction to achieve shared objectives.
Why does curiosity diminish as we get older? Perhaps because we augment it with experience.
We all have experience that guides our intuition about how the world works. How many of your day-to-day decisions are guided by your personal experiences? I know many of mine tend to be. I form opinions based on my most recent experiences working with the many organisations we serve, facing today’s complex challenges. But also from timeless lessons I have learned during my long and on-going apprenticeship in enterprise. I can trace some back as far as my first real venture into earning money and understanding its value: my first paper-round. Some of today’s issues seem modern and unique, but others are timeless. I first learned about customer service, for example, and the importance of face-to-face interactions, when I grew too big for my paper round (marginally, some would argue) and began working in restaurants. The lesson that you should always treat everyone and everything along the way with respect is applicable whether you’re dealing with a half-million-pound consulting contract or a fifty-pound restaurant bill.
We all learn and grow through our experiences. However, as I remind myself every day, this is never enough. Our experience, and that of the experts we turn to in need, is a double-edged sword, showing us the way and yet sometimes blinding us to the obvious. Experience gives us business texts, articles and opinions, but most (if not all) of those I’ve read over the years seek only to peddle solutions, sometimes solutions to a problem that is ill-defined or misunderstood.
It has never been more evident to me that there is no clear recipe for success. Sometimes, even when all the right ingredients appear to be in place, something might fail – or, more puzzling still – when it feels like we’re missing something, astounding results are achieved. Why can’t we predict these unexpected failures and successes? The future is rational only in hindsight (as the axiom goes).
This is why – although now CEO of my own business with my years of studying business and management a long way behind me – I consider myself to be an eternal, curious student. It’s an approach that never ceases to intrigue, surprise, sometimes delight and (often) dumbfound me.
Our constantly changing world means that the experience and knowledge we have gathered along the way has a shelf life, and I believe it is not those with the right answers who will survive, embrace and drive change, but those with the right questions.
That’s where we come in. At Innovation Arts, our commitment is to help you develop your own solutions to the complex challenges you face, but we never start by looking for answers. First, we help you decipher the right questions. While the process is tough, it works. And it delivers outcomes that you may never have expected.