Innovation inhibitors in corporations – modern reality

I see “innovation campaigns” and change management initiatives all of the time in corporations. Most of them never achieve any positive results. In the worst case, failed change management initiatives increase cynicism and depress morale further.
Innovation and change, like morale, are things that all leaders in all corporations will agree they always need more of. However, innovation and change are very slippery items. Like the wind, you know they are there, but they can head in all directions, and are difficult to steer, and even more difficult to capture and grow.
Having watched the trends in IT solution delivery and service provisioning in corporations in the USA and Europe for over 30 years, I have come to some conclusions about why so many corporations are currently struggling with innovation and change initiatives.
Leaving aside the approaches to fostering innovation, which are often bizarre and superficial, there are several underlying current pervasive dynamics that have the power to totally derail all attempts at fostering innovation and implementing organizational and/or cultural change.

1. Psychological Safety
One of the best ways in which a corporation can ensure that innovation is suppressed is to make it clear that the reward for taking risks or attempting new approaches is to be penalized by Exile or by being made redundant. The organization shows little or no tolerance for failure.
This article explains the concept of psychological safety extremely well.
It is up to leaders to create a climate where taking risks is not immediately shut down, and failures of innovation are not immediately punished. Whenever I hear leaders commenting to the effect that “our culture is risk-averse”, I immediately begin to worry that they are stewards of a climate where nobody with any sense of self-preservation is likely to propose any sort of innovation or change.

2. The offshore delivery work fiction
Most IT delivery organizations have been relentlessly reducing staffing levels for decades, often sending work offshore, where it is often performed poorly, at which point the remaining onshore team members have to “paper over the cracks” in order to elevate quality levels to an acceptable level for the client or end-users. (By the way, this “acceptable” level is often way below the previous quality level that was provided to the client). The result is a corporate fiction that the work is being performed offshore. In reality it is being bodged offshore, and fixed up onshore by a small number of over-worked resources. Those resources are usually too busy to even think about visiting the restroom, never mind engaging in innovation.

3. Reduction in SME coverage and predominance of tacit knowledge
Over the last 15 years I have seen groups progressively slimmed down to the point where only one person is a SME for key areas of the solution. If that person is (say) killed in a road accident this upcoming weekend, the organization will be in a dangerous place starting on Monday.
However, a one-person SME, in the current climate, will not willingly train another person to be a SME, since that introduces a risk (as the SME sees it) that the organization can WFR them in favor of the newly-trained SME.
If the request is to train an offshore person to become a SME, well, if you are the corporate leadership expecting willing participation from the onshore resources, you are below naive.
Ditto documentation of processes. When a person perceives that their employer is looking for an excuse to WFR them, they are going to make damn sure that their business and technical knowledge remains implicit and tacit, not explicit and documented. The default in that sort of climate is that Knowledge is Indispensability. It is probably not true, but that is how employees will see it, and, like just about any employee, they will behave in a “circle the wagons” way to protect their position.

A culture of innovation, like credibility, requires constant renewal and attention to detail. Just as credibility can be severely or degraded by one perceived failure to deliver on promises or committments, innovation interest and engagement can be severely impacted and driven down to zero by one incident where innovators were seen to be punished for failures.


So what will the NFL teams do now?

So, after a currently unanimous decision by all 32 NFL teams to not employ Colin Kaepernick because he sat or kneeled for the National Anthem, despite the fact that numerous other players also sat or kneeled that season, what do we have here?
Three more prominent players all declining to stand for the National Anthem.
I don’t think I will be holding my breath until the teams of the players suspend or sit them for this action. That is probably not allowed under the CBA, especially since SCOTUS has ruled that nobody can be forced to stand for the National Anthem.
However, their employing teams could terminate their contracts to put them into the same place as Colin Kaepernick.
They won’t do that. Marshawn Lynch is the Oakland Raiders’ local talisman, the local boy made good, returning to this hometown, where the Raiders are playing out two seasons before relocating to Las Vegas. The other players are articulate team leaders. Their teams are going to do somewhere between diddly and squat.
Which leaves us with the scenario where the originator of the protests is kicking his heels waiting for a job offer, despite having taken one team to the Superbowl.
The NFL teams, collectively, do not seem to know the First Law Of Holes.


Denying reality has a limited shelf-life

The most interesting project manager I interacted with in the UK was a guy with a team of around 8 people at Xerox Corporation.
He had a plaque prominently displayed on his desk bearing the inscription

If you don’t get the facts, the facts will get you

He had a love-hate relationship with his team. They loved his ability to speak truth to power and back them up all the way. They HATED his tendency to quiz the entire team and seemingly play Devil’s Advocate in meetings as he argued with team consensus.
I talked to him about that process. His comment to me was if you are going to tell your leadership the things that they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear, you had better be right, otherwise you will not be taken seriously once you are found out to be wrong once. In order to be right, you have to have the facts on your side. So his “Devils Advocate” style of interaction was deliberate, a tactic to ensure that his team was not simply making decisions based on expediency and groupthink. Confirmation bias can be very distorting in members of a team.
This article in Forbes explains very compellingly why the GOP, since they took total control of the Legislative and Executive branches, has been unable to make much progress on most of their legislative agenda. Quite simply, many of their legislative ideas conflict with reality and facts. That means that sooner or later the painful reality check appears on the scene. The mess over the ACA is but one example of this.



Although I am by no means a geek, I am usually regarded as one by most of my immediate family.
I think that is about to change. Now that Mary is in the middle of IT training, she is catching up fast. I may yet end up building our next home server under her tutelage.
I see a long trip to some distant wilderness area to get in touch with my inner Real Man in my future…(just as long as that does not involve hunting for my dinner with a bow and arrow…)


“I expect loyalty” and what it really means

One of the common features of communication between humans is the use of what Steven Pinker calls “Indirect Speech”. This comprises one or more statements whose superficial meaning is to be largely ignored, the recipient of the statement(s) is expected to parse and understand the underlying (indirect) meaning.
Two examples suffice:

“Bless his heart”!
Translation: My God that guy is a stupid moron

“Nice little business you’ve got here. Be a shame if something was to happen to it”
Translation: A physical threat, usually based on some combination of revenge, or extortion

Which brings us to the testimony from James Comey today. Apparently one of the things that President Trump said to Comey in his 1:1 meeting was “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty”.
Based on my 39 years in corporations and leadership, if a leader sat me down in a private 1:1 situation, looked at me and said “I expect loyalty”, my first instinct would be to wonder what the leader was about to ask me to do that violated one or both of (a) ethics guidelines, (b) the law.
“I expect loyalty” is not a request for support in this context. It is a demand for unquestioning obeisance.
In this context it was a demand that Comey, by the very nature of his job, could not and should not have been prepared to meet. His loyalty is to the Constitution and the law, not the President, even though he served at the pleasure of the President. Remember that government officials swear in their oath to uphold the Constitution, not be blindly loyal to the POTUS or any other leader.


Round-up – Thursday 1st June

1. US Withdrawal from the Paris Accords – the pathology
On one level, this was predictable.
The prevailing sentiment of the current Administration is based on a combination of anti-globalist sentiment and juvenile petulance. If they think that a treaty, or agreement with another country or group of countries is not equitable for the United States, they just metaphorically sweep the papers off the table, kick over the chair and walk out of the room.
Geopolitics is complex and subtle. Donald Trump and his band of followers lack the ability to understand complexity, and certainly lack any degree of subtlety when dealing with other nations. Of course, among Trump’s supporters, many of whom are deeply skeptical and hostile to globalization (which they blame for loss of jobs in the USA), the decision to leave the Paris Accords is one more sign that Trump Is The Man. The protests and complaints from others will be dismissed as the whinings of the losing elites. (As for the impact on the image of the USA in the rest of the world…pffft. The USA needs to be feared, and if those other freeloaders don’t get that, why…nice little capital city you got there, be a shame if a cruise missile was to hit it…)

2. The Tech sector leadership conundrum and fallout from administration actions
Immediately after the election of Donald Trump, a number of IT and Tech sector senior executives met with Trump. It was obvious why they met with him – Trump was the President-elect, and they needed to try and form a working relationship with the new leader of the Executive Branch.
The decision by those executives put them in an interesting bind. IT and Tech sector employees are generally well-educated, mobile, well-paid knowledge workers. They are generally globalist and forward-thinking in their worldview – and not likely to be supporters of Donald Trump. (anecdotally, most of my current work colleagues are not fans of Donald Trump, and many of them are not GOP supporters).
The tech employers are therefore finding themselves in a scenario where their employees’ value system and their public position of engagement with the Trump administration are at odds. While there is no requirement for employers’ public positions to match the worldviews of their employees, (the primary responsibility of leaders is to the stockholders), it is never a good idea to alienate employees. Tech employees are mobile and have other options.
Which brings us to the fallout..one of the leading Tech CEOs, Elon Musk, has resigned from his role as a member of the Presidential Council. Robert Iger of Disney has also resigned. This may be the beginning of a wider exodus of business leaders. Most business leaders are not climate change skeptics, and are deeply adverse to uncertainty, which is one of the inevitable outcomes of having a carnival barker in the role of POTUS. The actions of the administration are threatening to global stability,


How to spot a Twitter bot

This series of tweets is a good primer for how to spot a bot.
This is important information. All of the evidence that is visible in Twitter shows that Donald Trump is gearing up to fight a propaganda battle using social media. He has blocked opposing Twitter users who have large numbers of followers, in order to choke off propagation of messages that oppose his own, and his account has been collecting millions of new followers in the last 3 days, nearly all of which appear to be bots. Those bots are, in turn, Following the top 20+ Twitter users worldwide.
The tactics seem quite clear (and given that a lot of Twitter data is in the public domain, the aims of the tactics cannot be hidden). Trump is likely to use the bots to re-tweet his tweets to the bot followers, saturating Twitter with millions of copies of his original Tweets, plus whatever supporting verbiage is attached to the tweets. This will overwhelm many Twitter users and accounts with pro-Trump messages. Think of this as a DMOS (Distributed Monopolization Of Service) attack on Twitter, to swamp out any oppositional messaging.
Twitter could, of course, stop this all pretty quickly if they suspended Trump’s two accounts (his personal one and the White House official POTUS account). They have every legal right to do so, but I suspect that they will be very reluctant to do that. However…if the alternative is to see the Twitter platform reduced to partisan irrelevance, they may have to take action. There are other social networks waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces (notably Mastodon). If Twitter is seen as a platform dominated by white noise generated by robots, it will die quickly.


The John Wiley Price saga – acquittal

I know that there was general amazement when John Wiley Price was acquitted in his recent bribery and corruption trial.
This article in the Dallas Observer expands past the “corrupt African American grifter” stereotype to explain the rather complex and sometimes contradictory personality and actions of John Wiley Price.
The article makes a very salient point. In order to make bribery and corruption endemic in government, there have to be a string of willing bribers as well as bribees. In this case, a lot of rich families and businesses in Dallas seemed to have been quite happy to “do business” with John Wiley Price. This is not an African American community phenomenon, dismissable with some variant of “it’s African tribal spoils-based politics”. It is far more pervasive, murky and wide-ranging.


Vaguely related comments on parenting

1. Why Parenting might be a lot less important than most people think it is
To me, a significant part of parenting is about providing leadership. One thing I learned a long time ago is that leaders have a lot less influence than they think they do, especially in situations where people are not compelled to follow leaders (and adolescents have limited interest in following any input or advice from many authority figures).

2. The old shibboleths about how to control adolescent sexual activity

Lock Up Your Daughters – 21st Century Style

I found this on my wall this evening.
IMMEDIATE DISCLAIMER – I AM NOT A BIOLOGICAL PARENT. If you only take opinions seriously from biological parents, Exit Now.
Comments and thoughts follow.

1. The last time I looked, the Immaculate Conception has only been written about in a very old collection of books, and has yet to be observed in nature. I assume that the equivalent injunction about sons is to be found on the Internets somewhere.

2. The age of puberty in the Western world has been dropping – and quickly. Here is a quote from a recent article in the Guardian:

“…the statistics provided by German researchers. They found that in 1860, the average age of the onset of puberty in girls was 16.6 years. In 1920, it was 14.6; in 1950, 13.1; 1980, 12.5; and in 2010, it had dropped to 10.5. Similar sets of figures have been reported for boys, albeit with a delay of around a year.”
This means that any rules like the ones that are enunciated in his article, which was presumably written by a parent or a grandparent, are already out of date. It also shows that girls enter puberty on average one year earlier than boys.
This creates all sorts of awkward issues. In practice what it means is that boys and girls are entering physical and hormonal adolescence at an age much earlier than that which is a safe age for them to be generally capable of informed consent. middle school education has not moved up 4 years to match human body development. This presents a challenge for today’s parents that did not exist 50 years ago.

3. One of the more frustrating phenomena in homo sapiens is that as a species we are lousy learners in one key area. We are not good at learning by hearing about other people’s bad experiences. When we are young, we always tend to have a preference to find out how hot the fire is by sticking our own hand in it. And, when we are adolescents, we think We Know It All, we tune out most advice that comes from anybody who looks like an authority figure, and we are lousy at handling hormonal drivers.
This means that all adolescents are at high risk of making poor decisions, often based on Trying Something Out rather than acting on advice from older people that it might be A Bad Idea. They are also at an age when they tend to regard parents (at least part of the time) as elderly, killjoy nitwits.

4. Parents have wonderful amnesia. They quite cheerfully engage in all manner of tactics, stratagems and actions in attempts to prevent their children from engaging in physical contact with people they are sexually attracted to, while cheerfully forgetting that they themselves once did exactly the same things they are trying to prevent. What I believe tends to happen (based on some observation) is that parents, instead of channeling their past experiences into sensible, pragmatic advice, tend, often without realizing it, to simply repeat the advice that their parents sternly intoned to them, ooh, at least 15 years ago – advice that is out of date and not mediated by modern experience and a parent’s own experience.

5. Normal arguments against under-age sexual behavior, once standard injunctions about self-restraint and respect seem to be falling on stony ground, often revolve around some combination of “you don’t want to be pregnant” for girls, and “you don’t want to be in jail” for boys.
I have bad news for some parents.
Those are not useful or viable tactics for scaring people into different behavior. When I was in school, being in trouble with law enforcement was actually seen as a badge of honor by many boys. It showed that they were “tough”, “pushing the boundaries” etc. etc. These kinds of dire warnings are similar to the “descent into hell” messages that a lot of anti-drug campaigns consist of, which have been shown, when repeated stridently, to actually attract young people to drugs.

This brings me to my central arguments.
A. The idea that parents can somehow prevent their adolescent children from sexual exploration is naive and unworkable. It won’t work, for most of the reasons that I already laid out. Hormones, seeking of peer group approval and social status, and the natural rebellion mindset mean that young people will engage in sexual experimentation. If you think you can stop that, I suggest that you try getting water to flow uphill first as a rehearsal before you try making that happen.
(Abstinence-only programs, one day, will be seen as one of the most ludicrous wastes of government money ever).
B. As is depressingly normal, there is a focus on the girls, and less focus on the boys. Girls don’t get pregnant on their own. I still detect too much of an element of “boys will be boys” and “we better lock up our daughters” in these kinds of communications and discussions.
C. The nature of the existing laws that criminalize sexual conduct under the age of 16 are not helping the situation. The possibility of felony charges makes parents and school authorities desperate, and desperation leads to silly decisions. And no, before some of you start forming an online lynch mob, I am not advocating that those laws be scrapped. However, they are not useful in their current form, which forces everybody pretty rapidly into defensive, lawyered-up responses.

The pragmatic course of action is to accept that adolescents will experiment, and work to educate children that this is not necessarily bad, but that it carries risks that they need to learn to evaiuate. There are limitations to this, since we are not good as a species at risk evaluation, and the education system we have does not cater to this (if you are a parent, try answering the question “does my child’s school curriculum contain logical analysis and critical thinking education?”. If the answer is Yes, you and your children are lucky).
If we try to wrap young people in cotton wool by attempting to steer them away from inevitable life experiences, we are delaying their learning. They will learn sooner or later, the objective should be to have them learn sooner and more comprehensively. Tussles over sexuality are both hormone-driven and driven by peer group pressures and norms. They are in the “least likely to win” category if you are a parent. This I do know, having been a step-parent for a while.

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