Jensen DiagnosisGraham Westwood of ProCarta gave me a copy of Bill Jensen’s Simplicity, a book that claims most business problems are a result of unnecessarily complex decision-making processes. I recently wrote that if Knowledge Management were relabeled Work Effectiveness Improvement, both the requirements of the job and the customers’ expectations would be much clearer, and we might finally get the job done. Jensen’s book offers a prescription for WEI.

Jensen’s thesis is that poor decision-making is the root cause of business error and ineffectiveness, and his diagnosis of the four causes for it is shown at right. Most employees, he says, want to do good work, but are impeded by these four causes, which produce unnecessary complexity in each of our jobs. I concur with this diagnosis, though I’m not sure large organization have either the capacity or the will to fix these four problems.

At the individual and team level, Jensen suggests* five behaviour or learning changes that could alleviate these problems:

  1. Better time management – We need to learn to prioritize and provide better context of why tasks are important, clarify and simplify goals, improve our personal work organization skills, provide better definition of expected outcomes and of ‘success’, develop and provide better, simpler tools and resources to get the job done, and eliminate unnecessary tasks and bureaucracy.
  2. Improvisational project stewardship – We must learn to focus people’s attention on what’s really important, communicate priorities and success measures, and learn from failures. Today’s organization is more like a jazz combo than an army, and needs a very different kind of team facilitation and ‘leadership’.
  3. Quality conversations – We must learn to communicate a vision that co-workers can understand in concrete terms, and can buy into, to selectively tell people precisely what to do (but only when it’s needed, and when you know), and to communicate the measurements of success and the resources available to help.
  4. Effective listening – We need to learn, in the mass of messages, to filter out what’s irrelevant, unimportant, and unactionable, and to focus on messages that clarify expectations and identify unmet needs and critical problems that we can personally help solve. That entails knowing when to intervene, and when not to, and learning how to say ‘no’ gracefully.
  5. Engaging people – We need to learn to use stories and other techniques to clarify what is important, what needs to be done, and the consequences of success and failure.

Both as an individual ‘knowledge worker’ and as a team/project member, then, we can be more effective if we learn, and practice, managing our own time and helping others manage theirs (by eliminating unnecessary tasks and simplifying others), more effectively; selectively intervene in work processes and project activities only when we can add real value or eliminate obstacles; communicate what’s really important to bring clarity; listen to identify and resolve critical needs and problems; and filter out messages and information that burdens rather than alleviating work effectiveness.

These are useful suggestions for improving work effectiveness and hence decision-making in organizations, but none of them is new. Those that would take up WEI (or KM) as a career need to understand why these techniques have not worked in the past, before they attempt to implement them in their organizations. In many companies, both employees and managers raise their eyebrows at ‘soft skills’ courses like time management, effective communication and story-telling. We know how to do that, they will say, the problem is more systemic, more entrenched than merely teaching common-sense skills can hope to solve.

These critics are half-right. Many problems in business are structural, strategic, or systemic, and raising people’s hopes by suggesting that these basic work management techniques are suddenly going to work bottom-up when they didn’t work before, will merely create disappointment. Excessive size and hierarchy, poor managers, and inappropriate success measures (that reward executives more for cutting staff than for making staff more effective, for example) are at the heart of much work ineffectiveness, and need very different solutions.

But these critics are also half-wrong. Each of us today is increasingly in charge of our own careers, our own jobs, and hence our own work effectiveness. The five skills listed above are critical skills for every entrepreneur and every front-line worker, and we should each ensure we have these ‘core competencies’. If the big, cumbersome organizations we work for do not allow these skills proper exercise, then the answer is either to leave them or reform them, not to revel in our ineffectiveness and just blame management (even when they are to blame).

The remainder of Jensen’s book prescribes some higher-level organizational ‘disciplines’ that can enable improvements in work effectiveness:

  • Better understanding of what different stakeholders need, and why
  • Building trust, through openness, fairness, respect, attention, consistency, and clarity
  • Designing the content of databases for effective (re-)use
  • Designing project tools to focus on, and inform, the critical decisions and choices that must be made, and to surface potential landmines and potential innovations
  • Designing tools to make it easier to connect with the right people and find the right information
  • Making the objective of all infrastructure to make workers’ jobs simpler

I am less excited about these latter ideas, because as desirable as they are, I just don’t see them happening in most organizations. Enlightened businesses already have a culture that embraces these concepts, but the vast majority of unenlightened businesses simply lack the adaptability needed to embrace them, so I think they’re just so much wishful thinking. Despite the claims of the zealots of acquisition, growth, integration, globalization and ‘economies of scale’, I am increasingly convinced that large organizations are inherently incapable of being efficient, responsible, agile, or places where effective work can occur. They need more radical surgery than Jensen’s treatment.

Nevertheless, this book provides some of the much-needed definition for WEI, which I believe will be the next wave of organizational change, and will accomplish much of what reengineering and knowledge management failed to do. The #1 purpose of management must become empowering people to know and do what’s important to achieve the organization’s goals, and enabling them to stop doing the other stuff that, today, takes up most of their time.

* Jensen uses different words for these, and for many of the key ideas in this book. As much as I liked his messages, I found sometimes his choice of labels for his key concepts confusing.

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  1. Jon Husband says:

    Re: the next wave of organizational change, and will accomplish much of what reengineering and knowledge management failed to do. The #1 purpose of management must become empowering people to know and do what’s important to achieve the organization’s goals, and enabling them to stop doing the other stuff that, today, takes up most of their time.I caught your brief comment not too long ago that jokers like me don’t add anything to your blog or community of readers by saying “great work” or “I agree”, and so I want to try to avoid my impulse to do so.Nevertheless, you’ve touched on a fine nerve of mine here. I have been “grumpy” for at least the lastten years as more and more consulting houses come up with responses to this issue – engagement, “change mgt” for big ERP installations because before they left the people out, human capital, endless exmples of “communications skills” being at the top of the flip charts when people are asked what their organizations need to do, a huge industry emerging in leadership development in attempts to mitigate the effects of 70+ years of full-blown Taylorism and the increasing presence of engineering and accounting mindsets at the top of organization, and …Working with and through people to concentrate on what’s important to the organization’s goals is complicated, tricky and messy, and also begs the issue of re-casting the organization’s goals in a wider context (of course profitability – without that, no product, no jobs, no tax revenue, no spin-off effects). Is what this organization doing worthwhile for our society and us human beings who work here ?Fred Emery developed, in his research and practice on productive workplaces, six principles that underpinned his concept of Participative Work design: Elbow room, learning, variety, mutual support and respect, meaningfulness of the work, and the sense of creating a desirable future.In our technologically-surrounded society and the mindsets of efficiencyand results that are easy to acquire, the sociology behind these principles can be easy to overlook, treat in trite ways that people see through, or forget.Anyway … I started out to say … great post, I agree ;-)

  2. Denny says:

    Jensen’s book, like most books of this genre, call upon leadership to do things a little differently. When we reflect on the fact that after 30 years these books are still calling for change, I think it’s helpful to remember that leadership behavior is very hard to change, and there are reasons why, as I outlined in my May 3 and 4 posts on “People Skills.” If change agents look realistically at this, maybe they will do the hard things that will actually make it work.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    Oh, and I forgot to add … IMO Bill Jensen’s more recent book Work 2.0 is a more practical application of his ideas, and reflects, in simple (and sometimes almost hyperbolic) language the core challenges of a wired interconnected workplace.Four main themes:1. The Asset Revolution (Drucker’s “the knowledge workers own the means of production)2. My Work, My way (the mass customization of work)3. The P2P workplace4. Extreme Leadership – how interconnectedness and continuous flows of information impact the growing challenges of leadership)

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Jon: ’tweren’t me, I don’t think, that decried ‘me too’ blog comments. I think such comments are useful to determine what people care about, how clearly you’re communicating etc. But in any case, thanks for the Fred Emery reference — I’ll take a look. Denny: Agreed. I hope the books that espouse change start to address this issue more pragmatically as well, because that’s desperately needed.

  5. Jon Husband says:

    Dave, I owe you a sincere apology. Me being me, I went back through all the comments on your blog to early May … I could have sworn I had read an exchange between you and Rob P. about “me-too-ish” comments.I couldn’t find even a hint of anything that would suggest that point of view or attitude.I know I saw that somewhere – it must have been either Dave Weinberger or Wealth Bondage or Billmon, although I would have to say that all 4 of you are real blogging role models in terms of openness, graciousness, and effectiveness as on-line teachers, guides and facilitators.Re: Fred Emery – he and Eric Trist of Tavistock fame developed Search Conference methodology, later morphed into Future Search by Marvin Weisbord (Productive Workplaces, berrett-Koehler, 1987).Participative Work Design was his methodology for addressing and enabling democracy in the workplace, and there have been a number of seminal papers written about the theory and methods. PWD is the essential conceptual underpinning of a domain known as large-scale change.Here are two links:Fred Emery Institute12 Methodologies for Large-Scale Change

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