Monday, October 7, 2013

Managers keep forgetting that it is what they do, not what they plan, that explains their success

This is a good reminder to myself...


Blog: Maps and Plans

Over the last few months, I’ve been wrestling with a book called Sensemaking in Organizations, by Karl Weick. I’ve got bogged down in it from time to time, but it’s fascinating. Weick describes sensemaking as having seven properties:
  1. it’s grounded in constructing or enhancing the identity of an individual or group;
  2. it’s retrospective, or based on “meaningful lived experience”;
  3. it’s “enactive of sensible environments”, which is kind of circular; it means that part of the process of sensemaking involves trying to produce an environment in which further sensemaking is possible;
  4. it’s a social process; it happens in the presence of others, or with the knowledge that others will understand, approve, or be involved;
  5. it’s ongoing; despite the fact that it’s retrospective, it doesn’t have a clear starting point either, because “people are always in the middle of things”;
  6. it’s based on extracted cues, “simple, familiar structures that are seeds from which people develop a larger sense of what may be occurring”; and
  7. driven by plausibility rather than accuracy, which means to me that sensemaking is a heuristic process.
The book is rewarding, and I recommend it, but there is one story that on its own makes the book worth the price of admission. Over the last few months, I’ve treated a couple of newsgroups to the story, which I had heard before from Jerry Weinberg as an example of the heuristic, “When the map and the territory disagree, believe the territory.” But Weick’s analysis adds some extra richness that speaks to the idea of reasonable limits on planning and increased emphasis on doing.

Paraphrased, the story is that an Hungarian Army unit is on patrol in the Swiss Alps. A big snow storm comes up, and they don’t come back to camp for a day, two days, three days. Their lieutenant is now panicked, thinking that he has sent these men to their deaths… and then the unit walks back into camp. “Wow! We thought you were lost for good–where have you been?” “Well, when the storm came up, we hunkered down, and when we finally poked our heads out, everything was covered with snow and we realized that we were lost. One of us had a map, though, so we opened it up, and we realized that if we went down the hill we’d hit a river, and if we followed the river we’d hit the town, and here we are.” The lieutenant looked at the map and realized that it wasn’t a map of the Alps, but of the Pyrenees.

Says Weick (on page 55), “this incident raises the intriguing possibility that when you are lost, any old map will do. For example, extended to the issue of strategy, maybe when you are confused, any old strategic plan will do. Strategic plans are a lot like maps. They animate and orient people. Once people begin to act (enactment), they generate tangible outcomes (cues) in some context (social), and this helps them discover (retrospect) what is occurring (ongoing), what needs to be explained (plausibility), and what should be done next (identity enhancement).

Managers keep forgetting that it is what they do, not what they plan, that explains their success. They keep giving credit to the wrong thing–namely, the plan–and having made this error, they then spend more time planning and less time acting. They are astonished when more planning improves nothing.”

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