Sunday, December 14, 2014


The easiest thing to do in response to a major problem is to create a bunch of new 'rules' to prevent it from ever happening again. It might be the obvious solution, but if the underlying problem was caused by a systemic breakdown due to unmanageable complexity, it is most likely also a bad solution. Once things get too complicated, rules loose their effectiveness.

Although I've seen this reoccur time and time again in large organizations, I wasn't really sure what was driving it or how to really fix the underlying problems. The 21st century is dominated by large organizational systems teetering on the brink of collapse. We have built up these mega-institutions, but they do not seem to have weathered the unbounded complexities exploding from the early part of the digital age. Most are barely functional, held together by that last bit of energy left in people devoted to not being unemployed.

Just saying "don't create any new rules" isn't helpful. These rules happen as a response to actual problems, so turning away from them isn't going to work. It's this no-win situation that has intrigued me for years. Surely, there must be some formalizable approach towards putting the genie back into the bottle?

A few years ago I was sitting in an interview. When asked a technical question, I started off my answer with "I can't remember the exact definition for that, but...".

At which point the interviewer reassuringly interrupted and said "Don't worry about it, we aren't concerned with definitions in this company".

At the time I let the exchange slide by, but there was something about it that deeply bothered me. Of course people should be concerned about definitions! They are, after all, the basic tokens of any conversation. If two people are talking, but using two completely different definitions, then the conversation itself is either useless or misleading.

I've encountered this cross-talk circumstance so many times, in so many meetings, that it has become automatic to stop the discussion and get both parties to dump out their definitions onto the table. Always, after such an exchange, things have started to click and real progress gets made. Until then, the meeting is just noise.

Recently I've begun to understand that bad or vague definitions have even deeper consequences such that they relate directly back to systemic failure, not just useless meetings. They can be used to empower and enhance dysfunction.

So I have a very simple conjecture: any general rules like "all X must have property Y" are going to cause 'trouble' if any of the underlying 'definitions' are wrong.

For example, if X is really something messy like x+q, x'' and xish then it is easy to overlook the impact on all three loose forms of X. Worse, when the boundaries are fuzzy, then people can include or exclude things based on a whim. Some days z is in X, some days it is not.

It gets even worse when Y is messy as well, such as y1, y3, y4 and y7. Now there are 12 to 16 different cases that are broadly covered. If someone crafted the rule because one day an x+q should have had the property y3, that might have been really clear at the time, but may not generally apply in all cases.

If however X really means precisely and only X, and the property Y is really just Y, then the rule boundaries are tight. We know exactly what is covered and we can manage that.

With loose rules it is the corner-cases that people miss. If the definitions are vague, then there are lots of known and unknown cases. Any bad side-effect percolates causing other problems, so a bad rule can really do a lot of damage.

Sometimes the definitions are vague on purpose. Someone high up in the hierarchy wants control. With a vague definition they can yank their inferiors chains any time they choose. They just pull the carpet out from under them, and then punish them for doing a face plant. This isn't an uncommon executive trick, many even believe that this works well. In some corporate cultures the hierarchies are fear-based and sometimes even excessively micromanaged. Those sorts of cruel executive games trickle down to the masses causing widespread corporate dysfunction.

Sometimes the definitions are vague because management is clueless about what it is actually managing. If you don't understand stuff then you really don't want to have a precise definition, and without that most top-down rules are mostly likely go bad.

Sometimes it goes the other way. The employees don't want management oversight, so they redefine things as vaguely as possible to give themselves wiggle room to operate as they please. That, of course, is in tandem with clueless management, but in this case the definitions are coming from the bottom up.

Sometimes the origin of the rules is lost in history. Sometimes it's just outsiders looking in, but missing all but what floats on the surface.

In some cases organizations really like to make up their own terminology or redefine existing terms. That promotes a "club membership" sort of evironment. The danger is of course that the definitions slide all over the place, subject to various agendas. Gradually that converges on dysfunction.

This sort of issue can be easily detected. If rules have been created in response to a problem, but the problem don't go away, then it is very likely that the underlying definitions are broken. More rules are not needed. Fix the definitions first, then use them to simplify the existing rules, then finally adjust them to assure that the specific corner-cases are handled. But it's important to note that if fixing a definition involves "retraining" then there is a strong chance that the definition itself is still broken. If you have a tight, reasonable definition, that should make perfect sense to the people working, so it should not require effort to remember. If you're just flinging around arbitrary words, then the problems will creep in again.

Sometimes the dysfunction is hidden. A bunch of rules get created to throttle the output, so that people can claim improvement. There are less problems if less work is getting done, but that will eventually make the cost of any work inordinately expensive. Also, it hasn't fix the quality issues, but probably just made them much worse. It's a hollow victory.

Broken definitions are everywhere these days. To find them, all you really need to do is start asking questions such as "what does X really mean?" If different people give a range of vague answers, you know that the definition is broken. Unfortunately, asking very basic questions about actual definitions to lots of different people has a tendency to agitate them. Most people would rather blindly chase a rule they don't understand than actually talk or think about it. In questioning the definition they tend to think that you are either stupid or just being difficult.

Still, once a definition is broken it will not fix itself. If it has been broken for years, it will have seeped into all sorts of cracks. People may be running around, throwing out all sorts of hasty bandaides for these new problems, but until light is thrown on the root cause, the issues will either get worse or be ignored. Just saying "that's the way it is" not only preserves the status quo, but also lays a foundation for people to continue to make the problems worse.

Automation via computers was once envisioned as a means of escaping these sorts of problems, but it actually seems to be making them worse. At least when processes were manual, it was obvious that they were expensive and ineffective. Once they've been computerized, the drudgery was shifted to the machines, so any feedback that might have helped someone clean up the mess disappeared. The computer quietly enables people to be more dysfunctional. The programmers might have been aware of the issues they created, but most often they are detached from the usage, so they just craft a multitude of special cases and move onto to the next bit of code.

In a sense, the definition problem is really trivial. You can not manage what you don't understand and any understanding is built into how you define the underlying parts. If the definitions are vague and shifty then the management effort is disconnected from the underlying reality. As the distance between the two grows, things get more complicated and gradually degrade. To reverse the trend requires revisiting how things are defined.