All posts by Gary Wong

UBC BASc 1971

The Case against the Business Case

Business cases are developed typically for big projects that require a huge commitment of resources (time, people, money). Calculations are based on best-guess revenue forecasts and cost estimates. It is written from a “fail-safe” perspective – think of everything that could go wrong, devise mitigating action plans, and cover off uncertainties as assumptions. Not only is the task challenging and energy sucking, you never really know if you’ve missed something because “what you don’t know is what you don’t know.” So, you “time-box” the effort and proclaim “Oh well, good enough”.

In 2010, Dan Gardner in this book Future Babble took a critical look at expert predictions and the psychology that explains why people believe them even though they consistently fail.

“Seminal research by UC Berkeley professor Philip Tetlock proved that the average expert is no more accurate than a flipped coin.”

Gardner based his book on current research in cognitive psychology, political science, and behavioural economics. These are intangibles that a business case cannot dollarize and frequently end up being subjectively treated in a risk assessment section.

With respect to the Cynefin Framework, the Business Case tool resides in the Complicated Domain and works well in an ordered, linear, predictable environment. It will probably continue as the approval mechanism for cause & effect solutions. Sense, Analyze, and Respond.

Just be aware that the Business Case has very little value when dealing with a Complex Domain issue where uncertainty rules, predictions are fallible, and unknown unknowns abound. Here, we must Probe, Sense, and Respond by conducting “safe-to-fail” experiments.

Asiana Flight 214 followup

The following excerpts are from Wikipedia regarding Flight 214. What they do is reinforce the paradigm that the Aviation industry is a complex adaptive system (CAS) with many agents like the NTSB and ALPA who interact with each other. The imposed fine of $500K reconfirms the need to Act when in the Chaotic domain but more importantly, Sense and Respond to the needs of all people impacted by communicating your actions clearly and quickly.

“Shortly after the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) used Twitter and YouTube to inform the public about the investigation and quickly publish quotes from press conferences. NTSB first tweeted about Asiana 214 less than one hour after the crash. One hour after that, the NTSB announced via Twitter that officials would hold a press conference at Reagan Airport Hangar 6 before departing for San Francisco. Less than 12 hours after the crash, the NTSB released a photo showing investigators conducting their first site assessment.

Air Line Pilots Association

On July 9, 2013, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) criticized the NTSB for releasing “incomplete, out-of-context information” that gave the impression that pilot error was entirely to blame.

NTSB Chairman Hersman responded: “The information we’re providing is consistent with our procedures and processes … One of the hallmarks of the NTSB is our transparency.  We work for the traveling public. There are a lot of organizations and groups that have advocates. We are the advocate for the traveling public. We believe it’s important to show our work and tell people what we are doing.”  Answering ALPA’s criticism, NTSB spokeswoman Kelly Nantel also said the agency routinely provided factual updates during investigations. “For the public to have confidence in the investigative process, transparency and accuracy are critical,” Nantel said.

On July 11, 2013, in a follow-up press release without criticizing the NTSB, ALPA gave a general warning against speculation.


On February 25, 2014 the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) fined Asiana Airlines US$500,000 for failing to keep victims and family of victims updated on the crash.”


When a disaster happens, look for the positive

In last month’s blog I discussed Fast Recovery and Swarming as 2 strategies to exit the Chaotic Domain. These are appropriate when looking for a “fast answer”. A 3rd strategy is asking a “slow question.”

Resilience as Cynefin DynamicsWhile the process flow through the Cynefin Framework is similar to Swarming (Strategy B), the key difference is not looking for a quick solution but attempting to understand the behaviour of agents (humans, machines, events, ideas). The focus is on identifying something positive emerging from the disaster, a serendipitous opportunity worth exploiting.

By conducting safe-to-fail experiments, we can probe the system, monitor agent behaviour, and discover emerging patterns that may lead to improvements in culture, system, process, structure.

Occasions can arise when abductive thinking could yield a positive result. In this type of reasoning, we begin with some commonly well known facts that are already accepted and then works towards an explanation. The vernacular would be playing a hunch.

Snowstorm Repairs

In the electric utility business when the “lights go out”, a trouble crew  is mobilized and the emergency restoration process begins. Smart crews are also on the lookout for serendipitous opportunities. One case involved a winter windstorm causing  a tree branch to fall across the live wires. Upon restoration, the crew leader took it upon himself to contact customers affected by the outage to discuss removal of other potentially hazardous branches. The customers were very willing and approved the trimming. The serendipity arose because these very same customers vehemently resisted in the Fall to have their trees trimmed as part of the routine vegetation maintenance program.  The perception held then was that the trees were in full bloom and aesthetically pleasing; the clearance issues were of no concern. Being out of power for a period of time in the cold winter can shift paradigms.

When a disaster happens, will it be fast recovery or swarming?

Last month’s blog was about Act in the Cynefin Framework’s Chaotic domain.  Be aware you cannot remain in the Chaotic domain as long as you want. If you are not proactively trying to get out it, somebody or something else will be taking action as Asiana Airlines learned.

How you decide to Sense and Respond? We can show 2 proactive strategies:

Resilience as Cynefin DynamicsStrategy A is a fast recovery back to the Ordered side. It assumes you know what went wrong and have a solution documented in a disaster plan ready to be executed.

If it’s not clearly understand what caused the problem and/or you don’t have a ready-made solution in place,  then Strategy B is preferred. This is a “swarming” strategy perfected by Mother Nature’s little creatures, in particular, ants.

AntsIf the path to a food supply is unexpectedly blocked, ants don’t stop working and convene a meeting like humans do. There are no boss ants that command and control. Individual ants are empowered to immediately start probing to find a new path to the food target. Not just one ant, but many participate. Once a new path is found, communication is quickly passed along and a new route is established.

This is Resilience – the ability to bounce back after taking a hit. 

When a disaster happens, how fast do you act?

In the Cynefin framework, we place unexpected negative events into the Chaotic domain. The solution methodology is to Act-Sense-Respond. When a disaster produces personal injuries and fatalities, Act is about initially rendering the situation as safe as possible and stabilizing conditions to prevent additional life-threatening events from occurring.

Whenever a disaster happens, we go into “damage control” mode. We think were in control because we determine what information will be released, when and by whom. Distributing information to the right channels is a key action under Act. We try our best to limit the damage not only to our people and equipment but to our brand, reputation, and credibility. In other terms, we attempt to protect our level of trust with customers/clients, media, general public.

In the latter stages of the 20th century, breakthroughs in information technology meant we had to learn how to quickly communicate because news traveled really fast. In today’s 21st century, news can spread even faster, wider, and cheaper by anyone who can tweet, upload a Facebook or Google+ photo, blog, etc. The damage control window has literally shrunk from hours to minutes to seconds.

This month we sadly experienced a tragedy at SFO when Asian Airlines flight 214 crashed. I recently reviewed slides produced by SimpliFlying, an aviation consultancy focused on crisis management. Their 2013 July 06 timeline of events is mind boggling:

11:27am: Plane makes impact at SFO
11.28am: First photo from a Google employee boarding another flight hits Twitter (within 30 secs!)
11.30am: Emergency slides deployed
11.45am: First photo from a passenger posted on Path, Facebook and Twitter
11.56am: Norwegian journalists asks for permission to use photo from first posters. Tons of other requests follow
1.20pm: Boeing issues statement via Twitter
2.04pm: SFO Fire Department speaks to the press
3.00pm: NTSB holds press conference, and keeps updating Twitter with photos
3.39pm: Asiana Airlines statement released
3.40pm: White House releases statement
8.43pm: First Asiana Press release (6.43am Korea time)

Although Asiana Airlines first Facebook update was welcomed, they did not provide regular updates and didn’t bother replying to tweets. Bottom line was their stock price and brand took huge hits. Essentially they were ill prepared to Act properly.

“In the age of the connected traveller, airlines do not have 20 minutes, but rather 20 seconds to respond to a crisis situation. Asiana Airlines clearly was not ready for this situation that ensued online. But each airline and airport needs to build social media into its standard operating procedures for crises management.”

If you encounter a disaster, how fast are you able to act? Does your emergency restoration plan include social media channels? Do you need to rewrite your Business Disaster Recovery SOPs?

If you choose to revisit or rewrite, what paradigm will you be in? If it’s Systems Thinking, your view is to control information. Have little regard for what others say and only release information when you are ready. Like Asiana Airlines.  If you’re in the Complexity & Sense-Making paradigm, you realize you cannot control but only can influence. You join and participate in the connected network that’s already fast at work commenting on your disaster.

That’s Act. How you decide to Sense and Respond will be subsequently covered.

Manage things, Lead People

As a manager and later a consultant, I have been involved with helping people deal with change. My first formal exposure in change methodologies occurred when I was trained by ODR. Founded by Darryl Conner in 1974, ODR held licenses with the major consulting firms from the mid-80s to late 90s. His book Managing at the Speed of Change became a must read for ERP clients.

So that we have a common understanding, let’s use Wikipedia’s definition:

“Change management is a structured approach to shifting/transitioning individuals, teams, and organizations from a current state to a desired future state. It is an organizational process aimed at helping employees to accept and embrace changes in their current business environment.”

There were many methods, templates, charts, diagrams, and forms endeavouring to cover all avenues one would encounter in change management. As a linear, sequential type person, I felt like I had hit the jackpot and won the prize at the end of the rainbow. I was taught the who, when, where, why and hows and became a SME – subject matter expert. FYI, in the consulting world, being a SME is no longer kosher; you are now called a SMS – subject matter specialist. Why? To avoid possibly being sued by a client if big-time projects go badly wrong. Thank you, legal beagles.

Does the preceding sound like the Complicated Domain to you? Change Management was viewed as complicated yet quite manageable. Sense what’s happening using assessments and surveys. Analyze the feedback. Respond with the appropriate packaged solution. Very Ordered side.

If employee backlash or unpredictable behaviour edging on chaos arose, just steer them back on track. One of the more interesting statements I heard was: “We first try to change the person. If that doesn’t work, then we change the person.” It’s a rather subtle way of saying if you don’t get onboard with the program you’re terminated.

What does this mean for CE practitioners who might find themselves involved in a change initiative? I have a couple of ideas to share.

Manage Things, Lead People 
I first heard this from Stephen Covey and it’s been a real favourite of mine. It recognizes that non-human objects (inanimate and living) adhere to logical cause & effect rules. Flip the switch; the light goes on. Press the button, the motor stops. Stimulus-response amoeba behaviour. Simple Domain stuff.

However, when dealing with humans, it’s an entirely different ball game. People have the ability to think, make choices, and choose to behave accordingly. Since we cannot manage/control people, that leaves leading them. Conceivably, they may choose not to listen and go their own way. As leaders, we hope to influence their choosing by giving them positive or negative consequences and acting as models of desired behaviour. Unpredictable behaviour, no understood link between cause and effect? Sounds like Complex Domain to me. Consider Probing as a Stimulus. Sense behaviour changing and patterns forming. Respond by accelerating or dampening stimulation. Rinse, and repeat (sorry about that…)

CE Leadership vs Management

Change Leadership
We have been playing around with the Cynefin framework by creating model variations and testing resonance with clients. One such variation advocates the Ordered side is Management and the Unordered side is all about Leadership. It’s having the desire to get “out of the box” and courage to declare “Enough is enough!” But it’s also having consideration and respect for others who are quite comfortable doing same old, same old. All the more reason why I feel small safe-fail experiments are much more tenable than massive change efforts.

We’re also putting out the notion that most of the time one wants to be on the Ordered Side where life is stable, predictable, easily fixable, and in steady state mode. When you finally come to grips you can’t solve today’s problems using present methods, you take the lead to venture to the Complex Domain As leader, you initiate a search and rally followers to find a new solution that will change the paradigm. 

Change Management
I’m not throwing Change Management out of my toolkit. I occasionally do project management work for clients when the subject of change management is discussed. In this case we are talking about modifying tasks, reallocating resources, issuing change orders. You know, things that don’t think but just get moved around on a spreadsheet or Gantt chart. But if I do hear some whining or screaming from project team members, it’s a signal to shift into a Change Leadership role.

Why Managers Haven’t Embraced Complexity

This is the title of an article written by Richard Straub in the Harvard Business Review HR Blog. The notion of applying Complexity science to management has been around for over 20 years. So why hasn’t it caught on? Why are managers and leaders reluctant to see the world as it is: non-linear, turbulent, ambiguous, unpredictable, and uncertain? Straub offers 3 reasons:

  1. Managers don’t want to give up control. 
    Today’s dominating business paradigm is Systems Thinking and the control of information. Before that it was Scientific Management and the control of processes. Imagine the resistance put up by those not willing to give up Taylorism and accept emerging ideas like socio-technical systems, learning organizations, etc. Now systems thinkers who once fought an uphill battle to introduce their ideas are being asked to give up their control of information and don’t resist/deny/block but embrace emerging ideas like complexity, networks, cognition. Reluctant managers will eventually change because they will discover that their old methods can’t resolve today’s problems. “Keep at it, try harder” no longer works and becomes a waste of time.
  2. Technology isn’t powerful enough.
    In engineering school I was taught “When in doubt, make a model”. I later realized that students in business and economics were also told the same thing. So we learned early that models were useful to proxy the real world. We didn’t have powerful computers (only slide rules) to perform detailed calculations; therefore, we learned from experienced craftsmen and professionals the “rules of thumb” they successfully deployed. Fast forward to today and consider the computer horsepower we have to create mathematical models to handle real world complexity. The internet, big data analytics, cloud computing, supercomputers et al are rapidly changing the IT landscape. We now know how human sensor networks can turn stories told by humans into data points that can be analyzed and support better decision-making.
  3. The prospect of non-human decision-making is too unnerving.
    If we had infinite computer processing power, would we be able to create a precise model of a complex system such as Health Care? Aviation? Public education? Electric power industry? Physicist Murray Gell-man says no: “The only valid model of a complex system is the system itself.”
    Machines are designed to perform “work-as-imagined.” Because human designers can’t imagine everything, machines are limited in what they can do. Humans are the best agents in a complex system to deal with unknown unknowns, unknowables, and the unimaginable.

Straub makes the point there has been a gradual change in mindset, pushed along by the increasingly evident damage of narrow, simplistic thinking. Here we are 10+ years into the 21st century and note the number of industrial age ideas still being widely used. The public education system continues run on a factory model. Health care remains using a craft model.

The movement from Safety-I to Safety-II hasn’t happened as quickly as we had hoped. In the latter case, perhaps by embracing complexity and applying ideas like the Cynefin framework and narrative inquiry, we will be able to accelerate the operationalizing of Safety-II.

Click here to read the Richard Straub article.

Working with Front-line Managers and Supervisors

Front-line managers and supervisors practically spend their entire working day on the Ordered Side. When they are faced with a Complex Domain issue, unfortunately they struggle big time.

I guesstimate that the time split between the Complicated and Simple Domains is in the 20/80 range respectively. Everyday operational decisions primarily require Management by Intuition – relying on established habits and past experiences to get the job done. As we know, in the Complicated Domain an expert is called upon to sense, analyze, respond. The first-line manager can play the role of an expert, in particular, when he is a key player in a pilot project. Many years ago I was in that situation.SenseMakingA pilot project is a small trial or test of a change idea. It’s common practice to include a pilot in a large scale Business Case. The chief purpose is to locate the kinks and bugs before full implementation and rolling out to the masses. I was picked as one of the experts in the field since I was well positioned in the org hierarchy to generate data and hopefully provide useful feedback. In the beginning I objected (“Why me?”) since it affected my ability to get the Simple Domain work done. However, my resistance faded quickly when it was strongly suggested to “get with the program.”With edict in hand, I was prepared to do whatever was necessary to make the pilot work. The company had invested in training my brain to solve business problems. So the pilot was perceived by me as nothing more than another problem to tackle. In addition, as an up and coming manager, I had formed a plausible rationale: “Let’s see. Someone at a higher-level has created a business case. To get executive buy-in, the plan has proposed launching a pilot and testing the waters to reduce risk. They picked me to be involved in this pilot project for 3- 6 months. I don’t get to make a Go/No Go recommendation; my job is to collect data to help refine the business case. I can live with that. Hey, why risk a CLM (career limiting move) by blocking a change that my bosses want?”I already knew what the solution was; it was articulated in the business case that I read. So I did what Thomas Kuhn discovered and led to his coining the term Paradigm Shift. I fit the data to match the estimated costs and benefits. Plus ignored data that didn’t match or would screw up the business case. No big deal. This wasn’t much different from my days in the high school lab when my buddy and I cooked the data to prove the physics or chemistry law we were studying.

The business change initiative went ahead and did turn out to be a good one for the organization. My expert analysis I’m sure produced some distortion. But then again, I felt all along the project sponsors knew they had the green light from the get go . The pilot was just an exercise to say field personnel were involved. Such is life on the Ordered side.

What about working on the Unordered side? The first thing we do is put away our Sense/Analyze/Respond problem-solving tool bag. Instead we apply a Sense-Making approach and its Probe/Sense/Respond methodology. This calls for setting up Safe-Fail experiments to probe the system and sense the new attitudinal and behavioural patterns that emerge.

Safe-fail experiment

Working with front-line managers and supervisors on a Complex Domain issue is, to put it politely, a delightful challenge. Here are a few things to remember.

They have a really tough time working in the Complex Domain
Front-liners who spend most of their time on the Ordered side find unpredictability and uncertainty extremely discomforting. Problem solving is all about analyzing and finding cause & effect. When you as a facilitator say there is none, be prepared for stunned “how can that be?” faces.

Failure is OK

“Hey, didn’t you watch the Apollo 13 movie? Failure is not an option!”
Reminding them of the Cynefin framework helps to shift their heads from the Complicated to the Complex Domain.
We want failure to happen, as long as it’s tolerable and safe. We will carefully monitor and if things are getting too much out of control, shut down the experiment and stabilize.Probe, not Pilot
Coaching is required to focus their attention away from piloting to probing the system. At our client workshops we have small table groups design a safe-fail experiment. We learned they really struggle creating probes. We ask them to think about radical ideas that would provoke and spark strong reactions. We encourage suspending judgement when we hear murmuring such “Well, that won’t work. No way we can do that. The guys will think we’re nuts.”We should only observe, not measure in the Complex Domain
“Say what? This is a joke, right?”
They live by the Ordered side creed “what gets measured gets done”. Now we tell them the measures they are accustomed to may not be appropriate; the measures may belong to a paradigm we are escaping. So we can only observe behaviour and monitor accordingly.
Asking them to suspend their need to measure won’t be easy. Giving an analogy may offer some comfort: “We don’t want to be measuring velocity when, in the hindsight, we discover acceleration is the right measure. It’s conceivable we may have to invent a new measure.”Insanity is repeating something and expecting to get a different result
Umm, guess what. We can and are looking for different results in the Complex Domain. More incredulous looks. Maybe a few agitated smiles.In the Complex Domain, everything might be reset back to Ground Zero
“You got to be kidding me. You mean I can’t fall back on my vast knowledge accumulated over many years? Hey, that’s why they pay me the big bucks around here! My value will go down the toilet!”
This won’t be an isolated problem with front-line managers and supervisors. It will be a change leadership issue for everyone impacted.

You can Do More with Less
Front-liners who lead by empowering their people to come up with a solution get this really quickly. Front-liners who struggle with giving up control and feeling compelled to find a solution by themselves unfortunately practice Do Less with More.
At FranklinCovey, we use the Gardener vs. Mechanic analogy to point out the differences between leading and managing. A gardener knows he cannot command and control a seed to grow. His role is to nurture by providing water, soil, fertilizer and managing climate extremes.
On the other hand, Mechanics work with gears and pulleys on machines. Their job is to keep the machine running efficiently. If a gear breaks; throw it out and replace it with another.
In the Complex Domain we lead people and enable the system to solve the intractable problem.

Social Media vs. Knowledge Management

When this article Social Media vs. Knowledge Management: A Generational War was written by Venkatesh Rao back in 2008, it sparked a heated discussion ranging from totally right on to totally way off base. Much of the debate focused around his choosing to call it a generational war with Gen Xers being in the middle and neutral. 

I agree with many of his comments regarding Knowledge Management as being top-down driven, highly structured (i.e., idealistic). But as a Boomer myself, I choose not to buy the argument that our age bracket is responsible for this approach. I believe that our perceptions and therefore, how we see the world, are influenced and shaped more by our intellect and experiences. Nevertheless, it’s a stimulating read.

Mary Abraham was stimulated. Her response is posted here. She writes: “…it’s [KM] trying to transform itself from a purely archival discipline to a more dynamic and informal approach that puts people in direct touch with each other, without the obvious intermediation of a knowledge manager.” Sounds like the naturalistic approach to me.

Thinking about Paradigms and Paradigm Shifts

I was initially introduced to the notion of paradigms and paradigm shift by Joel Barker. For me, he was able to take a science phenomenon into the world of business.

From Wikipedia: “The word [paradigm] has come to refer very often now to a thought pattern in any scientific discipline or other epistemological context.” …Since the 1960s, the term [paradigm shift} has also been used in numerous non-scientific contexts to describe a profound change in a fundamental model or perception of events, even though Kuhn himself restricted the use of the term to the hard sciences.”
I can relate to non-scientific contexts. As a FranklinCovey trainer, I introduce the concept of paradigms very early in a 7 Habits of Highly Effective People workshop. 7 Habits is all about changing human behaviour and it starts with the paradigms, the beliefs, the mindsets, we possess. In many cases, the paradigms that people hold dearly are not wrong or incorrect; they are insufficient. In addition, if you become highly skilled at using a hammer, you see every problem as a nail.


I hold a Professional Engineer license. I enjoy analyzing problems, finding cause & effect relations, optimizing choices, and implementing solutions. Life is good. When I can make all the decisions, life is really good. However, when other people get involved (especially stakeholders who are not engineers) I get extremely frustrated. I also like to work in a very linear, sequential fashion. I dislike uncertainities, unknowns, unpredictable behaviours. What’s wrong with people? How can they disagree with me? Why can’t they see it my way? As a budding engineer, this was my attitude. Thankfully I quickly matured and discovered I had tunnel vision. I could only view things from my vantage point. The world was much broader and wider than that. In Cynefin framework terms, my early formative career years clearly put me in the Complicated Domain. In many instances I was able to argue that I was right. However, I was insufficient because I did not recognize the Unordered side where Complexity and Chaos resided. I had read some things about complexity thinking but still didn’t have a complete picture. That changed when I read Dave’s and Mary’s 2007 HBR article Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.

Too Good for your own Good

Whenever I took a course or attended a workshop, I discovered my return to my office was often filled with employee trepidation. “Uh oh! What has Gary learned now that he wants to try out on us?” In later years as a consultant, I would come equipped with tried and proven methods, tools, and templates. Yesterday’s posting about wanting to start an engagement with traditional interviewing is an example. Hey! Why not? It’s worked in the past and therefore, should work just as well again. As experts we need to ensure that we are using the right tools at the right time for the right reasons.
In Cynefin framework terms, it’s perfectly okay to recommend Simple Domain solutions such as Training 101 when a lack of basic skills is the problem. Here we’re dealing with known knowns. We must be aware, however, when we propose resolving a Complex Domain issue using a Complicated Domain approach. It’s that ability to use a hammer well inside us which wants to immediately jump in and start analyzing instead of patiently stepping back and probing the system. It’s getting the client to appreciate that a safety culture problem won’t go away if more rules are written, training is mandated for all, and documenting crew inspections is added to the supervisor’s already overloaded checklist.

I once was asked in a 7 Habits workshop must a perspective change be earth shattering, tsunami-sized to be called a paradigm shift? My opinion was no. Humour, for instance, is a paradigm shift. Standup comedians like Bob Hope, Bill Crosby, Jerry Seinfeld knew how the play the brain to create laughter. Question: What is a paradigm worth? Answer: 20 cents If you aren’t smiling (or groaning), don’t feel bad. It’s just an indication of the patterns that have formed in your brain. I will be exploring how the brain works in a future posting. Plus provide an explanation if you didn’t get the joke.
I’d like to end today’s ramblings with story of a paradigm shift in my own home.

We were at the dinner table with my young daughter, Jennifer, sitting across from me. “Daddy! I can count to 10!’ she proudly exclaimed. “Great, Jen! Show me!” “Okay. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10. See! I did it!” “Good job! Way to go!”
Now being the father who enjoyed giving his kids a challenge, I then asked: “Now, can you count backwards?”
“Sure!” she smiled.
Jen proceeded to jump out of the chair, turn her back to me and confidently shouted: “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10. See! I did it!”.
My wife and I hit the floor laughing. Yes, it was a .001 paradigm shift on the Richter scale but one that we will always remember fondly.