Book-projects – Power and response-ability: Beyond control

Control and direction

The purpose of management, we’re told, is to control the operation of the respective aspect of the business. Directives, instructions, orders, procedures: these are all tools for controlling business processes. Precise control of all processes provides certainty, and freedom from surprises of any kind.

  • Control: operational approach in which processes are rendered predictable through the application of defined rules to the relevant factors of the process.

This all seems fairly obvious, no doubt: what’s perhaps not so obvious is that none of these ‘broadcast’ tools ever actually succeed in controlling anything. None of them: not one. Control is a myth: it does not and cannot exist.

No matter how desirable control might be, the reality is that there’s no way that we can truly control anything in business. Peter Sengé and his colleagues at MIT Sloan School of Management illustrate this with a process they call ‘the Wall’. Cover a wall with large blank sheets of paper, to draw a diagram of all the factors you need to control, in order to bring your entire business under your absolute control. Somewhere in the middle, mark a starting-point: the name of your business will do. Surround that starting-point with the main, obvious factors in your business: your clients, your employees, your suppliers, your financiers, and so on. To fully control your business, you need to control all of those: so you need to add in all the factors that impinge on them, too. You also need to add in all the secondary and tertiary factors: government agencies, new legislation and regulations, general market conditions, competitors, your suppliers’ competitors, and so on. Now add in all the uncertainties of business: bank rates, inflation rates, changes in staff, changes in technology, a recession, an epidemic, an earthquake, a war. Draw lines to show all the cross-references and correlations between all these factors. And keep going, keep going, adding all the factors that affect all the factors, until you’ve listed everything or – far more likely, if you’ve really tried to list everything – until you run out of wall-space. When you get that far, stop, and step back, and look at this wall of marks and lines: do you really think you can control all of this? Do you think that you could write a procedure-manual to cover every bit of it? The plain, simple, inescapable answer is ‘No’: you can’t. (But don’t worry about it: no-one else can, either!) It’s not just complex: it’s infinitely complex – and hence, by definition, far, far too complex for any possible means of control.

There is no such thing as control: it’s a myth, a delusion. This is true even in the sciences: uncertainty is a proven fact in every science, from physics to physiology and beyond. In practice, no matter how precise they may seem, all those scientific ‘laws’ are nothing more than useful guidelines. Every competent engineer knows this all too well, often from painful and expensive experience: nothing in the real world ever works exactly the way that we expect – the only certainty is uncertainty itself.

So why do we think it should be any different in business? Why do people think that something as complex as corporate culture can be controlled by something as crass as a simplistic set of rules and regulations? Why are so many business-folk so obsessed about control, demanding controls that they know can never be achieved? Ah, now that’s a different issue altogether…

The real issue here isn’t about control at all: it’s about fear – fear of perceived lack of control. “Where there’s fear, there’s power”, says an old saying, “and where there’s power, there’s fear”. Wherever processes that we’re supposed to be controlling turn out to be inherently unpredictable, up pops that same old tendency again: we try to retrieve a sense of being powerful, being ‘in control’, by exporting the responsibility, and the fear, to others. So it’s back to delusion-time: power-over and power-under, and the toddler’s object-based and subject-based perspectives on life. “We should be the market-leaders here”; “our suppliers should deliver exactly on time”; “our staff should do what we tell them to do, and nothing else”: whenever we see the word ‘should’, it’s likely that someone’s lost in a subject-based attitude – treating others as a kind of ‘semi-attached’ subordinate extension of self, and exporting to ‘Them’ the responsibility to achieve whatever is indicated by the ‘should’. (There’s one important exception, though: ‘should’ has a valid special meaning in requirements specifications, to denote a requirement that’s preferred but not mandatory.)

Those ‘shoulds’ usually appear in the form of standing orders, through the procedure manual, through other directives for control: but by their nature these cannot succeed in controlling anything – and thus present us with a perfect-seeming excuse, every time, to ‘punish’ those others for failing to carry out our orders. It’s not exactly honest, even though it’s mostly unconscious: but it’s very, very common… It’s also highly addictive, because it tries to achieve something that seems so desirable – freedom from the fears implicit in uncertainty – yet which, by definition, cannot ever be achieved. And because the whole approach is based on power-over and power-under, it reduces the availability of functional power and functional response-ability – and thus guarantees systems and work-practices that are likely to be inefficient, unreliable, inelegant, inappropriate and the rest. And increasingly unpopular, of course.

Agreed, procedures are necessary; standing orders are necessary; directives are necessary. People do need to know what to do, after all; they do need to know the boundaries, the risks, the needs, the expectations within their work. The procedure-manuals and the like aren’t wrong in themselves: it’s the demands for control that are so often implicit in them that are the problem. The alternative to control, but which does support the human side of systems, is ‘direction’:

  • Direction: operational approach in which outcomes of processes are rendered manageable through measurement of feedback within the process in relation to a defined overall aim or purpose.

On the surface, it does look much the same as control. But the differences are fundamental: its focus is on outcomes of processes, not the processes themselves; and it identifies achievement of those outcomes not by expectation of conformance to a predefined rule, but by measurement of feedback from the overall context – not solely from those few factors covered by a rule. Most so-called ‘control theory’ in robotics and similar kinds of engineering is actually based on direction rather than control: although the functions all operate according to predefined rules, they’re designed to respond to feedback from multiple sources, including some outside of the scope of the immediate process; and they always include limit-checks to trigger shutdown if the control-process itself is ‘hunting’ or spiralling out of manageable range – checks that are often missing from equivalent business-processes…

The key criterion for measuring ‘success’ through direction is the aim, or purpose. We provide procedures for processes, but because clarity is provided by the purpose rather than the process, we often don’t need to be all that concerned about precise outcomes – in fact we might abandon the original outcomes altogether if what we observe happening is more in accord with the purpose than was the nominal intent of the process. We’ll be looking in more depth later at the whole issue of purpose: for now, just let it suffice that having a clear overall purpose for a business makes it possible to dispense with the addictive panic of ‘control’, and instead rely on a more relaxed yet still highly disciplined approach to the work/play/learn of business. Without a clear sense of purpose, it’s likely that nothing in a business is really done on purpose – it’s just done for whatever reason happens by in the midst of the chaos of ‘control’. By comparison, a clear sense of purpose provides a yardstick that enables everything in the business to be done ‘on purpose’ – and profitably so. That’s the difference between ‘control’ and direction.

And it doesn’t take that much to change those procedures and the like to emphasise direction rather than control. Procedures become guidelines rather than rigid rules: most of the content remains the same – after all, the work needed is still the same – but the focus shifts to outcomes rather than the exact detail of work-processes. Simply treating people with respect, as intelligent beings rather than mindless robots, releases more of that human power and response-ability, to create the best results that they can: explaining why a procedure should be followed, for example, and describing its place within the overall context, allows the flexibility to choose between following the standard procedure or adapting its principles to achieve a better overall outcome. And structures which support the reporting of unusual feedback from the wider world – rather than, as too often at present, punishing anyone who brings unexpected news – will create greater adaptability in the organization, and faster response to opportunities in the market-place.

A good description for that ‘wider world’ would be Reality Department: after all, it’s providing feedback from the whole of reality, rather than just the small section of it that we usually choose to see. But perhaps a better name would be Chaos Department: beyond control, yet containing within itself every choice, every chance, every possibility. It’s only by letting go of control, and learning to trust and work with that chaos, that we can reach the skill and creativity upon which every business ultimately depends.

Creativity and chaos

Corporations need ideas: corporations live or die by their ideas, and the ways in which those ideas are expressed in practice. As discussed above, corporations also tend to want control of everything: but too much control kills the creativity from which the ideas arise, and can easily kill the corporation too.

So where do ideas come from? They don’t come from somewhere that’s owned by anyone, so we don’t have to buy them as such – though whether an idea can ever actually be owned is an issue we’ll need to come back to later. They don’t come from the company rule-book, either: as the old phrase says, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. Instead, as Nietszche once put it, “you must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star”: ideas arise from within us as we create connections across the chaos.

To deal with the weird world of creativity, we need something more than just the usual rationality. That’s true even in science: it depends on formal reasoning to build and test theoretical schemes, of course, but, as WIB Beveridge commented baldly in his classic study “The Art of Scientific Investigation”, “the origin of discoveries is beyond the reach of reason”. Beveridge’s book is one of only a few which describe techniques and examples of the use of imagination, chance and intuition in scientific research; the business community is far better served with proven tools, such as brainstorming, Buzan’s mind-mapping, Michalko’s ‘ThinkerToys’, the system-modelling and mental-models techniques developed by Sengé and his colleagues, and the plethora of techniques churned out by de Bono and others over the past few decades. Although all are very different, and have different places within the creative process, all are similar in that they rely on the human ability to retrieve useful items of information from the midst of apparent random ‘noise’, and link them to the required context. Machines can retrieve information – often too much of it – but even the most powerful artificial-intelligence systems are rarely of much use in this: so far, this ability to make creative connections is still a strictly human trait.

Understanding the work/play/learn triad – that all three are aspects of the same human power and response-ability – helps in building a better understanding of the creative process. Most creativity looks like – in fact is – a disciplined form of play; it’s concerned with learning, creating new skills and knowledge; and it’s also work – sometimes very hard work indeed. Creativity is often like driving in dense fog: every sense straining to pick out the smallest hints amidst the swirling nothingness. But even more, creativity can be enormously demanding at the emotional level – an issue which is often missed in business, and which can cause serious damage to interpersonal relations, and even to personal health, if it’s not appropriately addressed.

Emotional stresses are more severe if the emotions are not acknowledged – particularly if the emotion is generally ‘forbidden’ either within the corporate culture, or in the wider society. In business, oddly, anger is often permissible where fear is not, which often results in people hiding their fear – even from themselves – by visibly getting angry. The underlying fear is usually some variation on a general theme of ‘performance anxiety’, a fear that we are somehow supposed to ‘know all the answers’, yet we don’t know what’s expected, or which way to turn, or where to go to find ‘the answers’ – which is, of course, the normal situation in the early stages of a creative process, but can still be extremely uncomfortable. Given the ‘need’ in most business environments to appear successful and all-competent – because anything else is an easy target for power-over and power-under – the performance-anxiety is made much worse than it need be: I’ve known many competent people who are terrified that they’ll be ‘found out’, that they’ll be thought of as a fraud, and so on – not realising that everyone else is going through the same agonising experience, but no-one dares admit it. Any ‘outsider’ brought in to facilitate a creative process, though, can greatly reduce the stress-levels – and the angry outbursts – just by explaining that this kind of uncertainty and emotional discomfort is a normal part of the process, and that the best way to handle it is by acknowledging the feelings and the fears rather than by trying to ignore them.

Understanding the concept of response-ability helps to reduce the stress, too. Our feelings are part of who we are, and hence we have no control over them as such – but we do have choice, and response-ability, as to how we respond to those feelings. By deliberately developing an awareness of our feelings – rather than hiding from them, as we’re usually required to do in business – we can develop a ‘gap’ between the feeling and our habitual response to that feeling, and thus create space for genuine choice, a literal response-ability. “‘I’ is not that which changes, ‘I’ is that which chooses“: developing a clear sense of ‘I’ and the response-ability of ‘I’ constructs a kind of island of calm within the self, a fixed place to stand – making it much easier to manage the confusion and chaos of creativity.

The other danger is that creativity can be too involving rather than too frightening. It’s always good to see people being enthusiastic about their work, yet it’s worth remembering that ‘enthusiasm’ originally meant ‘filled with God’ – a literal kind of ‘divine madness’, leaving little space for anything else. In the midst of the excitement of creative work, it’s easy to forget that it is work, and that the often enormous amounts of energy expended on that work do need to be replaced and maintained – otherwise the inevitable result is burn-out, from which in some cases there may never be a recovery. Although it affects all industries, the software industry is particularly notorious for its poor handling of this problem, perhaps because few companies have understood that most programming is still more art than science, and makes the same creative demands on its practitioners as any other art-form. Those few software companies which do understand and address the issue typically do so by enforcing ‘recovery-time’ gaps in the development process, by providing technical, creative and emotional support, and by involving everyone in the creative process as a team rather than as individuals – in other words, by paying proper attention to the human side of systems.

It’s generally safest to treat the creative process within business as a discipline in its own right, with a full integration of ‘work’, ‘play’ and ‘learn’. Most techniques need to be applied in a systematic way if they are to provide any kind of consistency in results. There’s also little point in ‘play’ without purpose: creativity needs a focus, such as a new skill, a new product, a new process. Partitioning of the ‘play’ from normal everyday work is usually a good idea, too, as it needs a safe space in which to risk, to experiment, to practice, to let things ‘go wrong’ so that it becomes possible to see how to make them go right. But most of all it depends on the emotional discipline of learning to trust uncertainty – accepting its weirdness, its uncomfortable chaos, and its gifts of new ideas, as inseparable components of a single business package.

Accepting uncertainty

Nothing is certain in business. If we attempt to apply rigid controls to our business, what we get is chaos; but if we turn round and accept uncertainty, and learn to work with it, what we get is a weird kind of order. This is equally true in the sciences: as one reviewer put it, describing a book on the new mathematics of chaos, “it turns out that behind apparent order lies an eerie kind of chaos; and behind that chaos lies an even eerier kind of order”.

In the business environment, one theorist coined the term ‘chaordic management’ to describe the deliberate structuring of management around this theme of ‘ordered chaos’. Part of it is a tighter focus on operational requirements rather than predefined roles – mainly because the increasing emphasis on multi-skilling means that skill-sets will vary widely between the people assigned those nominal roles, leading to different overlaps between roles as people change. The procedure-manual, in turn, needs to become far more flexible than in a conventional role-based structure, in part to accommodate flexible roles, but also to allow more versatility and faster response to changing business conditions.

In many businesses, almost the only aspect of uncertainty which is addressed is insurance against risk. Even there, though, it’s usually tackled in terms of a checklist of known risks – fire, theft, breakdown, injury and so on – which means that it’s essentially treated as a kind of certainty, if only in a statistical sense. Yet it isn’t: the only certainty is uncertainty. Despite all the enormous research and effort on risk-management carried out by banks and other large corporations, we can never plan for every eventuality: for example, as I write this, the World Trade Center in New York has just been destroyed, by commercial airliners being deliberately flown into its towers by hijackers – a scenario which still seems more like Hollywood fiction than horrific fact. Fortunately, most risk-issues are less lethal, but can still be costly, and similarly bizarre – like the day a bored child in a suburban bank-branch crashed an entire nationwide banking network, by flicking a terminal power-switch on and off repeatedly because he liked the pretty patterns it made on the display. “If something can go wrong, it probably will”: Murphy’s Law, the only true law we know…

The crucial part of Murphy’s Law – yet the one that’s most often left out – is the word ‘probably’: it’s what makes it uncertain, unpredictable. And it’s a real law – a direct corollary, in fact, of the formal scientific proofs of uncertainty. And it’s no joke at all, as all of us know to our cost. But although many people do take it seriously, few take it seriously enough to recognise that there’s a weird twist to it which we can turn to our real advantage in business: if Murphy’s Law really is a law, it has to apply to everything – including itself. So “if Murphy’s Law can go wrong, it probably will”: most of the time, it cancels itself out – which is why we get the illusion that things will always work in predictable ways.

Even when things do go wrong, the definition of ‘wrong’ can often seem a bit blurred: sometimes it turns out to be a ‘blessing in disguise’, or, at worst, just an ending to a dubious delusion of certainty. And sometimes it can be a real opportunity, if we allow it to be so: as Louis Pasteur put it, many years ago, “in the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind”. Yet Murphy’s Law can take us even further than that: because what it really tells us is that things can work, if we let them – and if we only let things work in expected ways, we’re limiting our chances. Breaking free of those limits is what accepting uncertainty is all about.

Murphy’s Law tells us that opportunity-management is just as important as risk-management. Failure to manage success has destroyed many a thriving corporation: serious preparation is needed, for example, if a company is to survive the human stresses of doubling in size, or more, each year – as happens quite often in industries such as broking and software development. And it’s fascinating to see how very few businesses have any contingency-plans at all for extreme opportunities: yet statistically they can be just as probable as the extreme ‘disaster’-risks.

Many overemphasise the negative in other ways too: “we expended enormous effort trying to work out what went wrong in Argentina”, a colleague told me, “but we did no investigation at all as to what went right in Brazil – and yet our unexpected earnings there were far greater than our unexpected losses in Argentina”. Careful research and recording of what’s generally referred to as ‘best-practice’ does help a great deal – though for consistency it ought also to identify ‘worst-practice’ as well. And although it’s obviously hard to put figures against the costs of missed opportunities, they really do need to be there as part of the balance-sheet – otherwise genuine accountability is impossible to maintain. Accountability supports response-ability: without it, slowly, over time, proactive responses fade away to nothing – and if that happens, it’ll be only the destructive side of uncertainty that becomes certain.

Beyond systems

For sanity’s sake, we partition work into systems: but it’s essential to remember that every system is part of a larger system, and that the boundaries between systems could always be redrawn another way. There’s no absolute reason, for example, why the work of a corporation should be split along function-boundaries, such as production, sales, marketing, administration and so on: it may appear to be an easy way to manage, but the result is often vertical ’empires’ with poor communication between them – and low overall corporate efficiency. Being aware of the purpose of boundaries – as a convenience, not as a ‘fact’ – creates a flexibility to respond to opportunities that simply does not exist where work is partitioned into rigid systems. And as we’ll see later, there’s a real need for a specific role of ‘go-between’ – people whose job is to communicate across arbitrary internal boundaries, and help maintain focus on overall purpose.

The only real boundary is provided by corporate purpose, which not only defines overall direction for work, but effectively also defines the limits of ‘Us’. When that sense of purpose is lost, the power-delusion of ’empire-building’ – where personal importance is linked to the number of people ‘controlled’ rather than the work actually done – tends to take over instead: I’ve seen several large companies destroy themselves that way. Lack of internal boundaries can lead to exactly the same result: many years ago I watched as a large university all but imploded when a poorly-managed experiment with cross-disciplinary courses lead to spiralling administration costs, more empire-building, loss of almost half the teaching and support staff – and no cross-disciplinary clients anyway.

A corporation isn’t defined by its systems: it’s defined by its purpose, its people and its knowledge. Systems and procedures codify knowledge into a form that people can easily handle, but it’s essential that those procedures should match the real human and practical issues rather than arbitrary conveniences. Procedures need to be flexible guidelines, not rigid prescriptions: they should never attempt to control what cannot be controlled.

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