“Workflow” reviewed part III – Invisibility & trusted returns

A quick aside: About my review

As you may have noticed by now, I’m not really reviewing Kourosh Dini’s most recent book “Workflow: Beyond Productivity” in a traditional manner. As a book, it appears to have an epic objective, which is to provide a deep background to our thinking about productivity and more. It tries to provide an explanation for things we intuitively feel and believe are true, but don’t necessarily understand how they work.

Like you, I am very curious about the result of this undertaking. I am writing as I go along reading, and so far, about 1/8th into the book, often so difficult to say with iBooks, I really like how the basement of this mansion of a book is shaping up.

To my review: I am trying to link some of the ideas which Kourosh puts forward to my own professional experience, as an auditor in a larger environment. My reference framework is all the organizations I have worked for, as an employee or contractor, and all the organizations I have worked with, as a consultant.

Achieving prime objectives depends on a number of factors

In his chapter “Organization”, Kourosh describes a number of factors influencing the realization of your most important, overarching objective, or your primary intention. He defines as key organizational pillars availability, accessibility and avoidability.

In order to have a well functioning system in support of your primary intention, you need to make sure that relevant objects are available when needed, accessible when relevant and avoidable when irrelevant. Now, in personal productivity these criteria, these pillars are just what a well configured GTD system will allow you to achieve.

Organizational details ensure that the three pillars function as they should

Further on in that chapter on organization, he describes what he refers to as organizational details, those aspects that ensure that those pillars function how they should function. And among these organizational details, we find one I find especially interesting in a corporate productivity context, which is invisibility and trusted return.

Quoting Kourosh:

“Invisibility is not necessarily an object’s absence from sight, as much as it is absence from mind. Objects resting in the periphery, unaddressed and often unacknowledged, create turbulence, consciously and unconsciously.”

Let me translate that to a corporate structure setting (my words, interpreting this in a corporate structure):

“Any information in the periphery of a management team, unaddressed, will create turbulence in that team.”

and its inverse:

“Good information flow to a management team at whatever level in the organization consists of Just Enough Relevant Information.”

Just enough relevant information

The idea of just enough relevant information is not mine, but I first heard it from a friend of mine, Hans Van Heghe, the CEO of ICMS group. He used the term Just Enough Relevant Information, or JERI, in a book and a paper on knowledge management. You can find that paper here.

But let’s examine Kourosh’s statement, and my translation in a bit more detail. I’ll use an example.

The sufferings of a CEO in a start-up in transition

Imagine you are the CEO of a midsized organization. You have been lucky to see significant growth in the past years, and now you are, as is often the case after a number of years of growth, platooing out. This is not bad, as it gives you the time to bring your house in order. You have moved from being a small start-up, where everything was well understood and key information was transmitted in face to face meetings, often at the water cooler, to a structure where you are no longer sure where the information comes from, what its accuracy is and whether or not it is complete and timely.

Aiming for key internal control objectives

Internal auditors among you may recognize some control objectives hidden in the last sentence:

  • Existence and occurrence: is this information related to something real in our business reality (indicative of the trustworthiness of the information source)?
  • Completeness: is all the information available, has every relevant aspect of the information been communicated to me or my team?
  • Accuracy: is the information provided correct information? Is the information factually correct, or are there errors in it?
  • Timeliness: do I get this information at the right moment, or does this reach me at a point in time when there is nothing I can do about it anymore?

A key failure in many growth paths

It’s rather obvious that any CEO that cannot trust his management system and hierarchical structure to provide him and his team with this type of information under these conditions has a problem. And yet, this is exactly the point where I have seen many organizations fail to make the correct transition, at a high cost.

As Kourosh states, there are actually two dimensions to this problem:

First, the object, in this case relevant information for management, should not be there when it is not relevant or not needed. That’s the invisibility. Or, to quote him directly:

“How will this be off my mind when irrelevant?”

But there is another dimension to that … because we need to trust the object will return to our attention when needed. Kourosh again:

“How may I place this object so I may trust it will return to my attention when relevant?”

If this functions well, it indicates both the object’s reliability and our own. In my example, it is indicative of the reliability of the information but also of the system ensure that the information gets to where it should, on time.

The implications of a failure to provide invisibility and trusted return are more important than may first seem

If this does not function well, you have a CEO and a management team that will become concerned with everything, even those aspects which are not relevant to them at that time. This has a two effects, both of which are desastrous for a growing organization in the transition from a start-up to a young organization:

  • First, it disenfranchises the management tier just below the management team: as the management team takes away all problems because they feel they need to be on top of them all the time, because they do not trust the system (the information flow) to be complete, timely, accurate and trustworthy, they no longer allow their “middle” management to function, often leading to frustation in those ranks;
  • It overburdens the management team with to them irrelevant decisions, which leads to a situation in which their available time, which is limited, is not used in the most optimal manner. Rather than being able to think and discuss those aspects that should be under their attention, and only those, they lose their precious time in decisions which may well have been taken by their middle management.

Hence, the development of support systems and structures that allow for just enough relevant information to be transmitted to the right people at the right time in an organization is a precondition for good functioning. It is too bad that establishing these systems is almost never in the top priority of management teams … until it goes wrong.

Remediation of this situation is usually costly … not necessarily because the systems cost that much money to set up, but mainly because trust has to be regained in these organizations.