I’m spending the Easter weekend in Berlin but in order to get here I had to go on a journey first. This Involved both trains and planes with various checkpoints in between. There was always a destination in my mind and there was an element of planning required to work out how to get here. In this post I want to talk about more metaphorical journeys whose destinations aren’t so clear and two things that I feel are important before starting a journey in the complex domain: vector based measures and understanding where you are starting from.
Journeys through the complex domain
On a personal level you may want to learn a new skill, improve your fitness level or climb the career ladder. A business might want to move into a new market, improve internal processes or increase revenue. All of these things provide a destination – a vision of where the subject would like to be. But to be able to reach a destination you have to know which direction to go in from where you currently are. Unfortunately, these problems all lie in the complex domain and so working out which direction to travel in requires a different approach. It is closer to navigating in fog than in clearer weather – while a map may help, making progress requires more awareness and more careful movement.
We know these problems are complex because we can not hope to understand all of the relationships between all of the agents within the system they are a part of. Take a personal trainer that receives a new client. The trainer will have a lot of expertise but giving the same workout regime to clients with the same aspirations may not produce the same results. Different bodies react differently to different diets and levels of exercise. It’s important to note however that a trainer doesn’t need a complete understanding of the clients body and the way it reacts to make progress. They can instead probe and respond to how the clients body reacts. There will always need to be some level of experimentation to work out what works. When an experiment provides benefit, it can be amplified in the hope of further benefit to the client. If an experiment doesn’t work or damages progress it should be dampened instead.
Where should we go?
An important concept in managing for complexity is the idea of vector based measures, the switching of focus from explicit targets to a direction and a speed of travel. Someone looking to lose weight might traditionally create a target of “Fit into this dress on my wedding day”. Instead, a vector based measure could be “Lose 0.5kgs per week”. Our new vector measure has a clear direction, lose weight, and a speed of travel from the present, 0.5kgs per week. It does not state an end goal.
Moving away from explicit targets in a complex system brings several benefits. The greatest of which is that it opens us up to noticing things that we may not have been aware of when focussing only on the end goal. Suppose in week three our bride’s personal trainer introduces a few strength exercises which causes a weight loss of 0.7kg. Clearly the introduction has been beneficial as it has increased our speed away from the present. Introducing further strength exercises would be a coherent thing for our trainer to do. If instead we had used the dress based target our bride may have gotten to her wedding day and fit into her dress but she would not know that introducing strength exercises into her workout regime is of benefit to her. It’s easy to imagine a similar scenario with a negative influence instead of a positive one.
Where are we moving away from?
Setting off in the right direction is also important. Suppose a paint production company wants to increase the quantity of paint produced per month. They set a vector based target of increasing monthly production by 1000 litres. This alone isn’t enough. Without an understanding of where the current processes are causing problems the company can’t come up with coherent experiments. Coherence is a critical property for an experiment in a complex system. An experiment which is taking a stab in the dark has a potentially high level of risk.
Instead, take time to understand where you are in the present. Get an understanding of the processes at play and find where the pain points are. These pain points can then be targets for safe experimentation with more rational intentions. This approach has a much lower level of risk than making ‘big bang’ changes as experiments can be dampened if they cause movement in the wrong direction. Suppose the paint company identifies that they are capable of producing paint at 1000 litres per day but can only package the paint into tins at 500 litres per day – increasing the volume of paint produced per day would not improve their situation.
How can I map the present?
There may be mounds of documentation about how processes work at an organisation but I’ve found that simply talking to people about how they work is a great way to understand what the processes really are. Documentation will provide the idealistic view of a process, not necessarily the honest one.
You may hear “we don’t have a process for this”. This can’t be true as there is always a method by which people get a piece of work done, no matter how unstructured or inefficient. Push them further by asking how they get a certain type of work done. Being able to map these kinds of processes gives low hanging fruit which are often easy targets for improvement.
Once you have the honest interpretation of the existing processes then you can begin to visualise and understand the flow of work through each stage. There are many tools which help do this but I’ve been using Trello recently as it’s free and incredibly easy to use. I personally use cards to represent items of work and lists to represent each state that the work passes through. It’s then a short jump to Kanban and continuous improvement which I’ll talk more about in future posts!
Vector goals are a great way of moving towards a desired destination without fixating on the destination itself. Just be sure to check that you are where you think you are before you start moving!
P.S. I’d love to hear about your war stories or moments of triumph when attempting to improve your own processes in the comments below!