The magic of hierarchy

Probably my favourite tool in the arsenal of analyst techniques has to be decomposition. Whether it’s functional or process decomposition there is nothing like it for arranging problems into the big picture. Then breaking that picture down into its component parts so that you can start to make sense of it.

hierarchyAnd yet hierarchy, in recent years, has got a pretty bad reputation. As Stanford professor Bob Sutton wrote this weekend in this LinkedIn article. He was brought up to believe that hierarchy was bad and led to inefficiency, yet research for his new book showed that hierarchy is unavoidable.

Hierarchy is nature’s gift to us in helping us understand the World around us. Citing research by his colleagues Deb Gruenfeld and Lara Tiedens he describes how hierarchy is found in every single group of animals found in nature. To quote Gruenfeld and Tiedens directly:

When scholars attempt to find an organization that is not characterized by hierarchy, they cannot.

Hierarchy structures the relationships between people and things into parent, child and peer relationships. This makes it easier for us to remember those relationships, it provides an organising principle that is standardised across everything. We simply have to know how hierarchy works in order to understand something that is new to us.

This is what makes decomposition so powerful. It comes naturally to us human beings so is not really something that needs much in the way of education. When we apply it, it’s often to an area that seems chaotic and complex. By decomposing we overlay a hierarchy that allows us to understand what was previously incomprehensible. It allows us to break problems down into component parts in order to tackle them effectively and even start to predict what will happen when we make changes.

It doesn’t just aid understanding, it also helps us to remember. Instead of having to remember every single discreet component of an organisation you simply need to remember a small subset. You can then use this along with the hierarchical organising principle and you will be able to fairly accurately calculate the missing pieces.

This is what makes decomposition one of the first things I do when introduced to a new problem.

An extended version of this article is available at

Why process capture is important for unstructured processes

This article on caught my eye yesterday, “Will standard processes soon be extinct?“, particularly the comment from Software AG Chief Evangelist Theo Priestly. Citing Jim Sinur‘s ‘Dark Processes’, Theo recommends exposing these hidden processes and encouraging them. Based on my experience I’d have to agree.

In Theo’s words:

“Jim wrote last year about Dark Processes, those which lurk around the enterprise conducted by many but defy definition.”

One of the problems with undefined and undocumented processes is often they lack the benefit of process improvement experience. And let’s not forget that process improvement techniques have been incredibly effective over the past century in manufacturing and more recently with Business Process Management Systems automating, and ultimately speeding up highly repetitive and high volume transactional work.

What this article, and many others, are discussing is the limitation of process improvement in the modern World and what happens next. In my experience the one area that seems to continually get left out is the human element. These so called unstructured and dark processes are being orchestrated by humans. These are experts in their field, they have experience and skills that allow them to adapt the way they work to the changing environment. They know when to employ a standard process and when something needs to be created ad hoc.

The thing that most of these workers are not, are process experts and therefore the processes they operate are not as efficient as they could be. I find in these areas people are continually bumping into each other, duplicating work or, worse still, getting things wrong.

Simple process capture workshops can be very useful here, the objective is not to create some perfect standardised documentation. The purpose is to get those working together in the same or related areas and to discuss how things are done today. Not tomorrow but right now. In an ever changing environment it’s easy to forget exactly what your colleague is doing, what they expect of you and what you expect of them. Running regular but short and simple workshops keeps people aligned without hamstringing them with over simplified and rigid processes. It allows them to discuss real and potential issues and how to solve them in the immediate future.

I’ve had this experience recently with agile development teams. There’s a high level 4 or 5 step process but what happens in each of these steps is different in nearly every iteration. After every third or fourth iteration the retrospective is run as a process workshop. The process is torn up and re-captured every time with a focus on what went well, that we’d like to do more of, and what didn’t work, that we need to get better at. This allows the team to openly share ideas and improvements and try them out in a highly agile environment.

It doesn’t make people process experts but it acknowledges these so called ‘unstructured’ processes as being essential. It also gives a checkpoint and an opportunity for continuous improvement.

Innovation and collaboration

This morning BBC’s Breakfast show rounded off a week of articles about small enterprises in Britain. For the closing interview they chose the darling and poster child of British engineering and innovation Sir James Dyson. Dyson, who sounds a little like Mr Cholmondly-Warner and wouldn’t sound out of place as a 1930s BBC presenter himself, is of course the designer behind the famous Dyson vacuum cleaner, among various other household items.

What should have brought an end to the week with a stirring call to action for Britain’s front room innovators actually proved to be something of a downer. There were two points in particular that, in my opinion, Mr Dyson is wrong about and I would like to highlight those here.

Business Ownership

Firstly, when discussing getting started with an idea Dyson appeared to suggest that you should go it alone. He made the point that you may fall out with your friends or family to the detriment of the idea. While of course this is possible and clearly does happen I do not believe this is sage advice.

Businesses develop out of ideas. But ideas are not static concepts locked into a single point in time and space. Ideas evolve through collaboration, they are influenced by those people, objects and other ideas that surround them. A successful idea is one that develops to meet ever changing needs.

Great ideas, most of the time, come through collaboration. It’s difficult to impossible to pinpoint the exact time an idea came into being. Eureka moments, for example, represent a time when the missing piece of a bigger picture is discovered that brings everything together.

So if you’ve been batting an idea around with friends or colleagues, for some time, who really owns that idea? The chances are the idea that was first suggested has transformed considerably through discussion and, possibly, experimentation. In my view it’s unfair for the first person to voice an idea to claim ownership of it, without the input of others it’s likely it would have stayed still and never developed.

What’s more, entrepreneurship is not about one hit wonders, that single idea that you cling to until the end. It’s about creating the right environment and team that can continuously generate great ideas. To me, if that means going into partnership with friends or colleagues then that is a small price to pay. An effective team that generates lots of good ideas has to be better for the economy than a single good idea.


The second point I disagree with is around patents. When asked about patents, the cost and effectiveness of patents Dyson recommends that as soon as your idea has solidified then get it patented. The whole patent system is broken and out of date. If anything patents stifle innovation. Dyson even admits there are problems with enforcing the system.

In today’s commercial World, national boundaries are becoming meaningless. And yet the patent system is based on the nation state. There are international agreements in place but there is no international regime that can uphold and enforce patent infringements.

But it’s even worse than that, the World changes so fast these days that often the time it takes for a patent to be created, lodged and approved the idea is already out of date. Larger enterprises and patent trolls apply for overly vague ideas that are open to interpretation. Often discouraging smaller businesses from even daring to investigate an idea. Patents sit in the patent office files and often never reach the market. They never benefit from innovation and they certainly don’t help improve the economy.

Finally, for a small business struggling to get going with limited time and cash, taking time out of creating value in order to write a patent is waste. There are cases when the patent system can help, the right time, the right technology and the right industry. Having worried recently about this we thought hard about whether to put the time and money into a patent.

We decided to focus the time on innovation. We spend that time thinking about how we will out-innovate the competition. As I said before an idea is constantly evolving through our collaboration. If someone steals our idea it’s up to us to develop that along the most successful path. If someone else does it better than us, if they create more value for their customers and employees, then they deserve the credit.

It’s about collaboration

To me collaboration and openness leads to innovation. Sure there are gifted people out there that can rely entirely on their own skills and expertise and make the right decisions and create innovative solutions. But these people are rare, for the rest of us success comes through collaboration. If you’re thinking of starting a business and ownership of an idea is clearly yours then go for it. If not, the only way you’re going to make a success is to recognise each contributor for the value they provide.

Unfortunately the BBC do not make this TV programme available on the iplayer. A long commute puts several hours between watching the interview and writing this so I apologise if my memory has led me to misrepresent any of the ideas expressed by Sir James Dyson. I also appreciate that the interview was short which perhaps limited the context to the questions.

in defence of #email

While I’ve been an enthusiastic adopter of social platforms I’ve never once felt the need to ditch my old and trustworthy friend email. Sure I’ve been down on email before as I wrote here, but I’ve never called for the end as discussed on this article. The commentors on that post highlight some valid reasons that email is not going away anytime soon but the fact that ‘everyone uses it’ is not what keeps me wired into my inbox. In fact most people I communicate with regularly have social profiles, mobile devices and various other means of communication that we all use regularly.

Even with my closest colleagues on a typical day we will communicate using some or all of the following methods; telephone, instant messaging, desktop sharing, micro-blogs, task management system, blogs, wikis and of course email.

No, the main reason I still use email is that I simply haven’t found anything else that fills that space. In fact I would argue that email isn’t social and that’s why nothing has been developed to replace it and why no social media platform signals the death knell for it. Email is private, it can be open, but that’s a conscious choice, in the same way that a private direct message on twitter is a conscious break from the intended use of the platform.

Email is not a stream that you dip in and out of as you please, it’s a point-to-point communication method. Emails don’t disappear off the bottom of the stream to be forgotten about forever, they sit and wait until they have been dealt with. Whether that is through deletion or being opened and read is a choice made by the recipient and no one else.

But for me, the most valuable aspect of email is it allows me to think. My preferred learning style is reading and writing. Often when an idea hits me it’s impossible for me to explain to someone else exactly what it is straight away. I still feel that moment of excitement that I simply must communicate to anyone who is interested. If the idea is related to the current project I’m working on then the only people that need to hear it are those associated with the project. Composing an email, for me, is the only way to really understand the thoughts that are flying around my head. To put enough words down, in my own time, that allows me to explain it to a colleague. If I can explain it in a single email, with a small number of clarifications, then I know I’m on to something.

Our Berlin Wall

It seems the consumerization of the enterprise is over. In this article Owen Thomas, reporting that oil giant Shell is to allow its 135,000 employees to bring their own devices, declares the debate over. For him, at least, it’s no longer an interesting debate, “what’s next?” he calls.

Well let’s just hold on a second. This is, after all, a momentous occasion. Traditional beliefs and customs are tumbling down. I for one would like to stop, contemplate and enjoy this revolutionary milestone.

Approaches such as agile development and the growth of cloud based products created a two tier system. Those businesses that embraced cloud technologies got to experience freedom and a superior experience to those that were stuck using the old enterprise applications. Like East and West Germany the advancements in mobile and improved user experience became the illegal tv sets picking up western TV shows. Where those without watched enviously as those with gorged themselves on the spoils of a decadent capitalist lifestyle.

We sat at our desks looking at the depressing blue/grey of a SAP transaction while we dreamt of cute kittens on Youtube or poking long forgotten friends on Facebook. Allowing employees to bring their own mobile devices to the office seemed like a small concession to keep the masses happy. But then they began to take photos of their colleagues over lunch and published amusing edits on Flickr. Before long they were spending more and more time updating statuses (or is that statii?) and tending to their virtual farm animals.

Some even learnt how to connect these devices, against IT policy, to collect work email. They no longer needed to hide the device when the boss walked in, they could now claim to be checking the latest sales figures or sending out a contract. Like the East German police, there were pockets of resistance, some tried to stop this from happening but they soon realised the cost of doing so was unacceptable. Powerless to stop the crowd they just stepped aside and let the wall come down.

I #love process workshops

I’ll say that again, I love process workshops. Over the last 10 years I’ve run hundreds of workshops working with teams to reach a common understanding about ‘how things are done around here’ or to design new ways of working. In that time I’ve never been in a workshop that I didn’t enjoy.

There have been times when it’s been hard, generally participants resisted participating for a variety of reasons. But they always ended in everyone getting some value from the experience and I’m not talking about a bunch of flow charts!

If you’ve not been in a process workshop before, or at least one that I’ve run, it goes something like this: you gather a group of ‘stakeholders’ in a given area of process. I say ‘area of process’ but in truth it’s normally existing teams or departments that are not really organized around process. The goal is to reach a shared understanding of the existing process (sometimes called the As-Is) or to design and agree a new process (To-Be). The output is a set of documentation and recommendations.

process workshop

For me it’s always been about communication and understanding. Get the team together to talk about things they generally assume each other knows but in reality don’t, or don’t see it in the same way. As a result the approach is simple; who are you, what do you do and why, next. With such a simple approach people engage quickly and easily with it. Conversations develop, especially around the why, that gives the team a deeper understanding of what each other does, the challenges they face, the value they add and the help they need. It’s about the team working effectively together and at the end of the session they know it.

A byproduct of this interaction is a set of documentation and lists including pain points and improvement suggestions. As far as the participants are concerned this may well disappear into the ether and resurface as some sort of automated solution in the future. But right now they don’t care as the chances are they learnt something new today that will make their lives easier.

why do we lie to our kids?

I recently saw this video by TIBCO CEO Vivek Ranadivé about why lying to our kids is bad. The underlying argument is that in doing so you are eroding America’s ability to compete against countries such as India and China in the future as this behavior destroys competitive nature in children. Ranadive tells us about ‘little Johnny’ the hapless softball player that, despite repeatedly missing the ball, is congratulated for a great swing. It clearly wasn’t a great swing but everyone cheers regardless. This story of a group of parents apparently lying to Johnny sets up the argument.

OK I agree we shouldn’t lie to our kids but I want to challenge the premise of the argument used in the video. Maybe this does happen all the time just not anywhere I go, nor with any of the family activities my family and I get involved in. In fact this recent report from the BBC suggests our children are under pressure to be competitive, maybe it’s just in the UK.

I write about this now after seeing this discussion on LinkedIn in the same week and made a connection. Here the thread starter uses a story, that turns out to be an urban myth, in order to make a point. For me, the fact that the story is not even true puts the whole argument in question. The discussion that took place followed two threads, one about whether the story was indeed true and one about how simple solutions are better than complex solutions, which in turn spawned a series of further anecdotes of dubious origin. I found the former thread much more interesting.

In the case of whether simple or complex solutions to business problems are better, I find it hard to understand how so many contributors could claim one side, or the other, based on the limited amount of information available. In fact everyone blindly, in my view, agreed that simple trumps complex every time. The argument that people can, and frequently do, overcomplicate things may well be true but to be discussing it without even a real story to analyze seems like a complete waste of time.

Why do so many well educated, and clearly bright people, waste their time taking part in  pointless discussions based on myth?

I’ve referenced Daniel Kahneman before and will here again, the problem is that it’s easier for us to accept a story that sounds probable, and we like a good story, than to question its validity. What Kahneman calls “the illusion of validity”. We come up with interesting hypothesis but instead of ‘really’ testing them it’s easier to make up a good story that apparently confirms your argument. When written in a blog or other article it takes a certain type of reader to challenge these assumptions and those people don’t turn up as often as you might think. That is of course if your readers are even allowed to comment, and if this is published in a trusted news source there’s even less chance anyone will question it.