What’s your mental map of the world? Do you imagine countries as jagged shapes, in pastel colours with printed names? Or do you envisage a panoply of people and landscapes? Do you hear the local music and language, and smell the food? And is your picture based on books and movies, or firsthand experience?
Europeans often criticise Americans for mixing up, say, Slovenia and Slovakia. But how many of those critics could correctly name and label all the US states?* Perhaps, though, you’re a seasoned traveller, with a Google-map brain. Yet how would you fare on French literature? Or astronomy? Or the Icelandic legal system?
We’re all trapped in our own bubbles. We know this from the polarised reaction to world events, such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But how often do we consider that all our colleagues or clients also carry around different mental maps of how things should be done?
What I personally don’t know literally fills libraries. (And I don’t use the word literally lightly.) But that’s true for all of us. The last person to have read every book in existence was supposed to be Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Even in the 19th century, though, with millions of books in print, that was a patent exaggeration. No one can have read everything. And no one knows everything.
Our mental maps (or models) are vital in helping us sort what we know into categories we can access. Most of the time we can get by well enough with the knowledge we have. Until we can’t.
So in a world where everything seems to be moving faster, how do we keep up with new ideas? And do we even need them? Don’t the old ideas still work?
The short answer is ‘no’.
“We can usually get by well enough with the knowledge we have.
Until we can’t.”
With challengers nipping at your coattails—if you’re leading the pack—or a competitor threatening to jump to light speed and leave you for a different galaxy entirely, taking your customers with them, you need to transform your approach. The capability to do more, with the same or fewer resources, and do it faster and more reliably is a necessary condition for sustainable success. But it’s not sufficient.
What work really matters?
At some point, surely, we’ve all had a niggling feeling that there must be a better way of working. Unfortunately, we’re stuck on the treadmill with seemingly no time to stop for breath and look for better approaches. Also, it’s hard to know which ideas are worth our time, when so many people seem to be selling snake oil or the latest management fad. How to know where to leap?
This article already has a lot of questions. And with reason; we believe that a powerful question is more than half a good answer. So let’s start with the fundamentals: Where are we going? And how will we get there?
Think of the answers first in terms of your organisation and the part of it that you contribute to; then also as they affect your personal career ambitions. If you’re going to take a bold step, the two elements—organisational and personal—must be intertwined.
Start with your organisation’s goal. We call ourselves Ensemble because we understand that an organisation is like an ensemble of musicians. The orchestra convenes with a goal in mind: to perform the composer’s music for an audience of listeners. In the analogy, the audience is your customers or clients and the orchestra your organisation’s employees. The music is the strategy the composer (the boss!) has decided to follow.
But an orchestra also needs a score which breaks up the whole piece of music into parts for strings, woodwind, brass and percussion. There are ‘sections’—the first and second violins, for example—with further specialists on piccolo or harp. Without individual written parts, these players would be making up the notes as they went along, hoping to play in the same key and start and finish at the same time.
Even with written parts, the orchestra needs a conductor, otherwise the players won’t play in time or blend their sound into a unified whole. Conducting involves rehearsing (planning) and performing. We call this ‘work management’ and we can give you the tools and capability to do it better. But let’s take a step back for a moment to the goal again.
We take the whole—the desired resulting ‘performance’—and apply ‘systems thinking’ to make sure that everyone in the ensemble understands the goal and how their role influences it. The piccolo player may only have (ahem) a small part, but when he plays, the whole audience can hear. He’s vital to the success of the project. Every project has performers who are only required for walk-on parts. How you manage the scheduling and resourcing of these roles can dramatically change the overall success of your organisation.
What’s holding you back?
It’s become a truism that the world is ever more connected, with global markets and the instantaneous transmission of information. A change in the weather or a political coup can easily scupper supply chains. We can’t predict or affect these things, although we can account for some of the risk in our planning. Instead, we start by examining our sphere of influence and span of control. That will tell us the extent of the system that we can manage. Many clients are surprised when they consider how much they can control if their organisation works in concert.
“A powerful question is more than half a good answer.”
Yet it’s surprising how many organisations still work in silos. Each division or department—or even team within a department—has its own ‘key performance indicators’; information and personnel are not maximised and rarely shared. The law of unintended consequences means it’s possible to optimise at this level to the detriment of the system as a whole—the equivalent of the brass instruments playing too loudly; they may sound beautiful, but they drown out the strings who happen to have the tune.
So in complex systems, we seek out the interdependencies. We need to dig down to identify root causes and envisage the effects that our work will have—both desirable and undesirable. Then it’s about managing the work. Peter Drucker said that ‘management is about doing things right; leadership is about doing the right things’. He also said that ‘nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all’. While we couldn’t agree more that we must focus on the right things, Drucker wasn’t suggesting we slack off on the management side. We need to do both.
A necessary part of the management solution is the ‘theory of constraints’ (TOC), developed by the late physicist Dr Eli Goldratt. The whole point of this methodology is to bring focus to what you do. We must acknowledge that every system has a constraint. This constraint governs the rate at which value can be created. Therefore, any value gained by the constraint means value gained for the system as a whole. It sounds simple but has profound consequences for how you manage your organisation.
The innovations in productivity Ensemble brings beyond TOC come in how we combine it with the organisational design and development needed to implement the new thinking, as well as the technology that gives you the instrumentation and control to manage in real time.
What difference do you want to make?
According to Plato, Socrates used to say, ‘All I know for sure is that I know nothing.’ While that was a little bit disingenuous, a dash of humility goes a long way. By opening ourselves to the possibility that there are things we don’t know, we can challenge our current assumptions and see new ways out of the woods. Ultimately, we can shoot for the moon.
We invite you to explore these ideas with us. You might be at a different stage of your journey. And the journey itself may be fraught with uncertainty, but the Ensemble Way does offer a map and a compass to steer by. In fact, to go back to our original analogy, the technology we use is less a map and compass and more Google Maps and GPS.
We shouldn’t confuse the map with the terrain, though. What we offer is a methodology that uses systems thinking to identify how people, process and technology can work (and learn) together as an ensemble. While we don’t claim to have all the answers, our framework does let you clearly see your own organisation and its challenges, then make informed decisions about where best to focus your resources and energy. Contained in that is our promise that there are better ways to work that can inspire your team and uplift your vision.
Earlier, we said we define success by both your organisation’s goals and your own. Taking on these new ideas is not for the fainthearted. Even the most dynamic organisations have their own inertia when it comes to how they manage the work. (Often, objections to new ways are simply founded on the idea that ‘it’s just the way it’s done around here’.) But the rewards for those willing to take it on are huge. When we build our mastery doing the kind of work that really makes a difference, the day-to-day meaning of our jobs becomes transformed.
Of course, you should challenge the assumption that we can deliver on our promise. Some of what we say will be counterintuitive; other things will sound like so commonsensical you’ll wonder why so few people do them. (Then again, common sense isn’t always common practice.) We’ll develop these ideas over the coming articles. I hope you’ll come along with us on that journey.
Meanwhile, our website already includes a lot of information about our systems focus and organisation. Or if you’re ready to see the kind of difference we’re talking about, try our ‘Right Stuff’ workshop.
* A few years ago, I realised I couldn’t name all the US states and my mental map was hazy at best. So I learned them all with an online test. (I couldn’t swear I’d pass the test now. Information has to be used, tested and recalled to become permanent. But that’s a different story.)
Ensemble brings innovations in productivity to the planning and performance of work. Through consulting, technology and capability transfer, we help ambitious executives win remarkable results.
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