Bugs or Features

Most organizational change efforts frame things that aren’t working as bugs in the system.

As in, “That’s not working the way we want it to. We’re not doing this the way we’d like to. We just need some help with…”

One of the great insights of the Adaptive Leadership work of Ron Heifitz, Alex Grashow and Marty Linsky  (great short summary PDF here) is that systems are optimized to deliver exactly the results that they deliver.

Put another way: those things that are going wrong aren’t bugs, they are features.

This means that things are the way they are because it serves someone’s purpose – most often the purpose of someone with authority. That thing that everyone says they’d like to achieve (that better result, that clearer strategy, that adoption of a new decision-making process) is less valuable than something that’s going on today.

So, any time you see a gap between what people say they value and how they’re behaving, stop and look more closely. Look more closely to figure out what that valuable “something” might be.

If you don’t do this correct diagnosis upfront, you’ll be unnecessarily surprised when:

…the new person hired into that just-created, change agent role fails after 12 months.

…the guy who endlessly complains at the water cooler never seems to quit his job.

…the new mission statements end up as empty words on a page.

…and Facebook, to much fanfare, creates a Oversight Board, funds it with $130 million, and then systematically hides information from and misleads that Board (link to a free WSJ article for readers).

If we want to make change, whether in our own family, our organization, or in a social system, our first step is to remind ourselves: this system is delivering exactly the results it was designed to deliver.

This system—all systems—is not flawed. They are functioning perfectly at delivering the results that they currently deliver.

Once we see this, our next step is to figure out: who is being served by the results that are being achieved today?

And then, finally: how do we tip the scales so that the actors in our system are willing to do something different, something that makes it harder to allow things to continue the way they are today?


The biggest risk online

Your mind doesn’t really understand it means to be online.

For example, I’m sitting in front of a computer screen, typing something that I will post on my blog.  Am I really conceptualizing the experience of each and every real, living, thinking, influencing person out there reading this post?  Am I also keeping in mind the network of people they’re part of with whom they might share this post if it strikes them? Or recalling that the words that I’m writing will be in the pubic domain, findable and searchable, forever?

Kind of makes you stop and think for a second, doesn’t it?

I’m probably not going to be able to process all of this — it’s just too much to ask of me and my simple caveman brain.  And I think it’s too much to ask of most people, which is why typing an email or writing a Facebook status update is the online version of road rage: we forget ourselves and morph into semi-anonymous bots who act in ways we never would in the real world (unless you know lots of people who shout out, “I’m taking another nap at work!” in a permanent, globally searchable database that will live on forever).

Since you’re bound to forget this too, why not cling voraciously to common sense and good manners?

Why not ask yourself if the tweet/status update/text/IM/blog post/email you’re about to write would hold up if you had to stand and read it to a close friend or a relative or your third grade teacher or a loved one or your boss?

It’s deceptive to type away and think/hope/fear that no one is listening.  Would you act differently if you were standing in front of a room filled with everyone who might hear you and all of their friends?

I sure hope not.

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Know enough

You don’t have to know everything to start something.  You just have to know enough, and be willing to let the other pieces fall into place over time.  In the act of doing you’ll learn how to do “it” better and you’ll learn more about what “it” is.

For example, it’s taken until now for me to figure out how to place all of those fancy Web 2.0 icons at the bottom of each blog post.  But I figured it out (it’s a little more trouble than I expected).  And now I’m glad they are there.  They make it easier for you to spread the word.

So go ahead.  If a post (today, tomorrow, next week) strikes you as interesting, click a button.  People love to hear from other people about what’s interesting and what’s worth reading.

In the meantime, I’m going to try to figure out if I know enough to start Twittering (yes); and if I have time to follow people on Twitter (maybe); and if I have time to tweet (probably not).

I’d probably be better off doing a better job tackling my RSS feeds.

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Cut away what you do not need to do

Michelangelo would see a block of marble and say that all he had to do was cut away what was not needed to release the statue within.

Reaching your goals is just as much about what you DON’T do as what you do.  You can convince yourself that you need to….check your personal email every 30 minutes; log onto the newspaper to scan headlines; watch an hour of TV every night to unwind.

The thing is, you don’t.  And if you cut out all the little things that you’d convinced yourself you need to do, you’ll discover a lot more time to do the things you have to or want to do.

Here’s a clue: if you have a gap in the day, what do you do?  Do you reflexively open up a browser, scan your email?  Instead of that, why not tackle the list of things YOU (not someone else who emailed you) have decided is a priority?

Until I started blogging, I never would have imagined I had time to blog.  Now I do.  Something had to give to make that possible.

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Slydial: Please leave a message after the beep

A new service has been launched called Slydial, which lets you place a phone call that goes directly to a persons’ voicemail, without the phone ever ringing. The service addresses the silent wish of every teenager who, for the past three decades, has whispered to herself, “I hope no one is there and I can just leave a message.”

The Slydial website describes when you might use their service:

Create the illusion of communication
You maxed out your emergency credit card the first week of school. Your parents are looking for some answers. A text message isn’t going to cut it but a voicemail would mean that you tried calling them.

Wow. Pretty bold to come out and state that your value proposition is to create the illusion of communication.

The number of tools we have to communicate is multiplying. If I want to let someone know what’s on my mind, I now have to decide between a phone call, an email, an SMS message, posting on my blog, updating my Facebook or MySpace or LinkedIn or Plaxo Pulse profile. And if I were 20 years younger I could add to that list things like Twitter, video messages, vMix, Bebo, and of course Slydial.

All of this is very exciting, but it also requires a new kind of filtering and understanding of which messages are appropriate for which media. There is also the risk that, as the media multiply, less time and effort goes into composing messages that create a real connection and understanding between people. We end up with lots more information, but a lot less meaning, and we lower the bar on what’s good enough in communications with the excuse that email (or SMS or whatever else) is supposed to be sanitized and devoid of emotion and real connection.

The medium is not itself the problem. But when I find myself emailing someone who sits 6 feet away from me in the office to ask a question, I do wonder if things have gone too far. At least I’m not Slydialing them…yet.