You should always follow the rules (except when you shouldn’t)


Note: This post references concepts explained in the Cynefin framework

The typical organizational decision making process treats most operational issues as if they are Ordered, a complicated (or obvious) problem that needs to be solved. Based on your understanding of the situation you develop several courses of action, based on rules or “good practices” that have worked to some degree in the past, and implement a course of action with the belief that you can accurately predict the outcome of implementing the course of action based on past experiences. This assumes, in general, either a relatively static (non-adaptive) situation or a situation that develops in a predictable manner.

Many situations we face today, however, fall increasingly in the complex domain. In this case, you respond to the situation without any separate and discreet analysis or planning. If your actions don’t achieve the desired results, you take what you’ve learned (sense) and respond again. You don’t know what you are going to need to do until the situation presents itself, and you don’t know if it will work until after you’ve tried.

To dip into a pop culture reference, an episode of the TV show “The Last Ship” presented a scenario in which both obvious, complicated, and complex challenges presented themselves, all as part of the same situation. This is a very condensed description tailored to fit this conversation.

The ship is hunting – and being hunted by – an enemy submarine.

The Captain is on the bridge and his staff is providing him the information he needs to decide the appropriate course of action. A well defined task, with years of training and experience, he knows exactly what he needs to do, and his staff know exactly how to respond to the Captain’s orders to achieve the desired result. Obvious.

The ship’s sonar was damaged in a previous action. The Chief Engineer have a sensor that they can adapt to act as a sonar-like device to acquire the target, but have many technical, operational, and other practical considerations they must consider to make this happen. They know the constraints they have and what they need to do to make it work. The Chief coordinates each person’s actions to bring their experience to bear to plan and achieve the predicted results based on past experience. Complicated.

A land team comes across an unexpected gun emplacement threatening the ship. They don’t know exactly how many enemy personnel are manning / guarding the guns, nor do they know the terrain beyond the cover and concealment from which they will begin their assault. When asked the plan, the team leader responds simply with, “Win.” Each member of the team then executes the plan, responding as they learn more about the number of enemy personnel, the lay of the land, etc. Complex.

Organizations tend to look at all problems as if they are obvious or complicated, that we can simply apply a known rule or process and get the predicted / desired outcome. Which is great for when the problem you face is actually obvious or complicated. Too often, though, organizations prematurely try to reduce a complex problem to the point that they are obvious so that we can standardize and automate as much as possible.

When you try to solve a complex problem as if it were obvious, you are just begging for trouble.

image credit: Dave Snowden, retrieved from Wikipedia on 10 July 2017 


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