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Control Vs. Uncontrolled

26th October 2010

#CHRU was brilliant. Lots of people have written about it and there’s a list here. Abi Signorelli used a word cloud to identify ‘Control’ as the word of the morning and here are my thoughts on why that might be and what we might do about it.

686752094On my writing courses, I teach that the structure of any document is as important as the words in making the writing easy to understand. This is because readers look for a predictable sequence and order to help them follow the writer’s thinking. This is a universal truth about people. The human psyche demands shape and predictability. When the Ancient Greeks looked at a sky full of starts, they determined that Ursa Major was a Big Bear. Every time I’ve looked, it has been a random series of unconnected points of light but it helped them to think of it as a shape, so they did. They taught this to their children, they navigated their ships by it and the idea worked. You could argue that the recent history of human development has been dominated by trying to understand the world through patterns and shapes – from Christianity through to Darwin’s ‘’On the Origin of the Species’ and into the domination of Google’s algorithm, you could make a case for saying that the history of thought is partly about people trying to explain the chaos of real life by imposing a pattern; a form of control and reassurance because a belief in chaos is just too scary.

This is particularly true, and particularly futile, in organisations. The genius Karl Weick describes organisations as a places where alternative meanings exist for everything. For him, the social psychology of organising, and therefore managing, is the process of trying to make sense of what has happened in the past in order to predict the future and, crucially, convince employees and shareholders that the firm’s management has a plan:

“In business, we tell ourselves stories in order to know more and to compete better. In a crisis, stories tell us not to panic. As reality unfolds, everyone starts asking themselves ‘Do you have any idea what’s going on here?’ Then someone spins a story and the moral is something like ‘Don’t worry, I have seen something vaguely  like this before’. And that’s more than comforting, its motivating. Even if the company is in quite a serious situation, someone will be able to use that tiny core of meaning to convert their interpretations into action”.

There’s another whole article on how this analysis plays against the financial crisis and the Con-Dems slashing but for now my theme is the workplace.

I’ve witnessed this reliance on planning; I’ve done it myself. ‘This is what happened and this is what we did’ quickly leads to ‘Let’s do that, then’. The plan lends the illusion of control and is given credit for any eventual success. Of course, the plan is not responsible for sucess, the people are, but the illusion of security in the plan is where the value lies. Weick tells a story of a platoon of Austrian soldiers lost in the winter Alps. Short of food, ammunition and warmth they confounded the odds against survival to find their way back to base. When questioned as to how they had managed it, they produced a map which they had relied on. Unknown to them at the time, the map was of the Pyrenees and therefore completely useless in any practical sense, yet the belief that they knew the way out of their crisis was sufficient to motivate and, ultimately, save them. On a similar theme, I have always thought that the amount of time, energy and effort placed by organisations in deciding direction is out of proportion to the reward gained by it. Strategies are rarely unique and success is often easier to achieve through excellence at execution than it is through having a ‘cunning plan’. Its made me unpopular for saying so several times in my career, but it seems to me that right, wrong or indifferent, a plan followed with enthusiasm will often be enough. Ask the Austrian soldiers, if you doubt me.

And this is one way that management works in organisations – systems, processes and controls are the currency of management. Through them organisational security and success is assured. Except, of course, it isn’t.

It might have been enough for Henry Ford to mass produce through rigid system and process and it might have been enough for the Toyota system to achieve better results through better process but more recent experiences teaches us that over emphasis on control brings stifled creativity and the ultimate fossilisation of the firm. From Peters and Waterman’s ‘freedom in a framework’ to Bob Sutton’s ‘firm opinions weakly held’, there is an acknowledgement from academics and consultants that letting go of control is a requirement for business success.

The distinction often made is ‘leadership’ where embracing equivocation and tolerating ambiguity are requirements versus ‘management’ where the prized attributes are getting people into work on time and measuring their operation of fixed systems to defined outputs. In my own management career it is precisely this transition from ‘tight’ to ‘loose’ that caused me the biggest challenge. As a young middle manager, I was taught that control was the essence of my work – run the budget and the team to achieve the plan written at the start of the year and you will do well, my son. As a senior manager, I had too many people to adequately control and my plan was overtaken by events before it was written. A nervous breakdown did not ensue, but it might have done and the current stress levels experienced by managers are, in my opinion, at least partly attributable to the increasing incidence of the paradox of control and lack of control that they have to balance every day. As Rick has written, the problem with command and control is that it works sometimes and its bloody reassuring when you are the one doing the controlling, particularly at times of crisis.

Unfortunately, the HR function is often instrumental in this controlling urge in organisations. From policies and procedures through systems and protocols right up to competencies and performance management, most HR work is over engineered and has control at its heart. Control of managers to control people and sometimes control of people through the blunt instrument of employment law or at least the threat of it. Even those disciplines where liberation is the aim – Learning & Development or Organisational Design – have control at their core and rigidity is their unintended output. Most of my work as a Consultant was with organisations seeking to manage change (an oxymoron, if ever there was one) and no matter how many times we argued otherwise, those senior managers paying the bills were insistent on a process, a map, a means to determine the outcome. This is not surprising since their personal success was based on managing the status quo and the personal risk to them from change was greater than to anyone else. Most of my grey hairs were earned banging my head on boardroom tables arguing for a wider view of what was possible.

So, finally I get to social media and #CHRU. For me, the strength of collaborative media is its anarchy – it is a social state where there is no or at least little governance. This gives huge potential advantage for organisations in e.g. customer service or project working through the direct and unfettered access of individuals to one another but it is the antithesis of management and control. It is particularly the antithesis of HR as practiced in most organisations most of the time. Even in a group of converts at #CHRU, we spoke about policies, systems and risks – hence Abi’s word cloud. And while we did this in order to dismiss them, in the main, I think that this is a much tougher argument away from the converted crusaders in Vauxhall. This is a huge challenge because the perception of risk is potentially greater than the tangible reward that anyone can explain to the people with the cheque books.

In the session on ‘Who owns Social Media’ the very lovely Natalia showed us the Organisational Design that CIPD have deployed to control their PR message through social media. This entails all departments with an interest in external relations driving their social media output through a ‘digital team’. We all know the epic fail that they experienced over their recent press which, in my view, was a direct consequence of attempting to control the uncontrollable beasty that digital media really represents for them. Through clumsy organisational design, CIPD failed to realise a potential benefit through their investment. Worse, they managed to create an avoidable loss. This is not about the CIPD (who deserve credit for sharing it with us, after all) because I’ve seen similar structures elsewhere. Marketers are trying to deploy control systems over the messages that are broadcast from the firm through social media. In the case of the CIPD, I would argue that the urge to control social media has killed the opportunity and predicated the very risk they were trying to avoid.

Effectiveness in external relations is one thing, but I would estimate an equal or greater economic value can be realised through the use of collaborative media in the internal workings of the firm rather than in its external messaging. A social media presence will quickly become a ‘must have’ rather than ‘nice to have’ for most (if it hasn’t already) but differentiation may exist in how things get done inside the business. Creativity, innovation, learning and knowledge are only a selection of the areas of work where collaborative media tools can enhance performance if only we are able to deploy them effectively. For me, this is where the HR business case lays: success will come through a culture which encourages managers to let go and trust their people and through good organisational design that doesn’t get in the way of the value gained by unstructured contact between people.

After the Second World War, Deiter Rahms at Braun in Germany began designing consumer electronics in clean, simple lines. Radical at the time and still easy on the eye, those objects were, for him, as much about the mood of the country and the restoration of Democracy as they were about making objects. For him, clean design was a means of demonstrating a break with the past and a vision of a simpler future for his country to which people could contribute. More recently, Jonathan Ives at Apple has followed that creed.  He has described his idea of design:

“I want people to look at it and say, ‘You couldn’t possibly have solved those problems with less’”.

Perhaps collaborative media represents the same challenge for the future of organisations.