China, Black Holes, and Trump Supporters

As I write this post I’m sitting in my Beijing hotel room, the haze outside my window as impenetrable as the language. I arrived in China a few days ago to work with a group of leaders on the topic of adaptability and agility. It’s only now occurring to me that the participants in the program weren’t the only ones developing their adaptability and agility.

Speaking of “impenetrable,” this week astronomers using a global network of radio telescopes captured an image of a black hole. Heretofore, the black hole only existed hypothetically. Einstein’s equations predicted black holes and astronomers have detected indirect evidence of their existence. Now they’ve captured a glimpse of one, or more accurately captured a glimpse of the event horizon surrounding a black hole. The event horizon is the boundary, beyond which nothing, not even light can escape. It marks the border between our familiar universe and a place where all physical laws break down.

And speaking of a breakdown of laws, we are now in the second half of the Trump administration. Even as we become inured to the word, “unprecedented,” Trump continues to enjoy the support of millions of Americans. More and more it seems we are drawing geopolitical event horizons around groups of people; we cannot escape our event horizons and the rules we play by operate differently on either side.

I continue to feel disoriented by the state of our politics. The current White House seems like a black hole, except that information occasionally leaks out and we get a look at a place where the laws of decorum and maybe the laws of justice are breaking down. This week I also felt disoriented as I attempted to make my way around the Wangjing Sub-district of Beijing.

Interestingly, as I reflected on my own challenges with adaptability, I started to understand something about support for Trump that has eluded me.

I’ll explain what I mean with a slightly embarrassing story about what happened when I arrived.

Let me start by saying that I travel nearly every week for work and I’ve taken dozens of trips overseas. This week was my fourth visit to China. The difference is that in the past I’ve been pampered. Generally, when I visit Asia I’m part of an International group hosted by one of my clients. I’m greeted at the airport, transported to my hotel and there is always a helpful person nearby to translate and offer guidance. This week, I had to make my own way.

Being an experienced traveller and a neurotic human being, I planned meticulously. I downloaded useful Apps; I printed all my destinations in Chinese characters to show taxi drivers, I made sure that my phone and credit cards would all work. Still, I felt anxious and used up a lot of mental energy imagining what might go wrong. 

I landed at Beijing International airport and found my way to the taxi stand. I stood in a long queue of people; I looked like I didn’t belong and I felt like I didn’t belong (a useful experience for a white male Baby Boomer American who travelled to China to teach something about adaptability). A guy approached me and in broken English explained that he would take me to my hotel. I was well aware that this was an attempt to take advantage of me and yet in my jet-lagged, anxious state of mind, I agreed. I asked about the price and he kept saying, “meter price.” When we arrived at the hotel, he showed me a card with a price on it (the meter was never turned on). When I objected to the price, his English got worse. In the end, I paid ten times the appropriate taxi fare. My driver was an opportunist who made me an offer that I would never have accepted if I hadn’t been stressed out and disoriented. In a situation where nothing was making sense, I went with something that made sense; even while knowing it wasn’t good for me.

We make bad decisions when we experience stress and being disoriented is a particular kind of stress. I anticipated feeling disoriented because I chose to travel to a place where many of the norms I take for granted don’t apply. I was prepared to feel out-of-place and I still let someone take advantage of me.

Imagine feeling disoriented not because you chose to travel to a foreign land, but because your home no longer felt familiar. You look around and suddenly notice that the rules have changed; the most popular and influential people don’t share your values. The people in positions of power make fun of people like you. It’s as if you are standing in a line and suddenly feel unsure that waiting in the line will get you what you want. Someone appears who has learned to speak enough of your language that you feel a bit more in control. At some level you understand that he’s only looking out for himself, but at least the situation makes sense to you.

I realize now that the appeal of preserving our routines and our priorities is not simply about conservatism. Sometimes when you’re worn out and worried, even a huckster can feel like a port in a storm.

Consultant, heal thyself

Earlier this month I facilitated a meeting for a group of physicians who are members of a state medical society. The Governor of the state established a consortium for the prevention of prescription drug abuse in response to the national opioid crisis. The consortium in turn, reached out to the medical society to convene members for the purpose of establishing protocols, exchanging best practices, and aligning on a point-of-view to share with legislators that would ensure meaningful regulation.

My blood pressure goes up when I’m in a room with one doctor, so you can imagine how I felt about facilitating a meeting with 20 doctors. Nevertheless, I had agreed to help them tackle an important topic. We needed to make the most of a day-long meeting of professionals volunteering their valuable time. The expertise in the room wasn’t going to do anyone any good without a process that ensured shared understanding and produced actionable alignment.

Working with problem-solving groups is itself an exercise in problem solving.

Smart, highly skilled people who generally solve problems by themselves don’t automatically adapt to the challenges of collaboration. One of the challenges of collaborating during a problem solving exercise is slowing the group down enough to confirm that they agree on the problem before they start generating solutions. Doctors in particular, think fast and have been trained in a diagnostic methodology; they move from symptoms to causes and then prescribe or operate.

A challenge like the opioid crisis doesn’t present itself in the way a patient might show up with symptoms. A public health emergency is not just a more complicated set of symptoms requiring a differential diagnosis. Complex social problems can’t be outsmarted. Chasing down causes might help us feel more in control, but the causes are not static conditions waiting to be discovered. Asking what’s causing the opioid crisis is like asking what causes religion (no Marxist pun intended).

Upon reflection, I’ve come to realize that a tension between competing research methodologies hid below the surface of our work together that day. The doctors had been trained as scientists. Science presumes that objective observation and analysis can lead to universal causal laws. I had suggested a collaborative process based on a social theory approach called, participatory action research. Participatory action research presumes a dynamic relationship between understanding something and changing it. By contrast, science presumes we need to understand something before we try to change it.

While we made respectable progress and agreed to a few clear action steps, I am only now coming to realize the mistake I made in designing a process for the meeting. Because of my anxiety about showing up as an authority, I inadvertently acted like a doctor. I treated the group as a patient. I diagnosed their group dynamics and prescribed process fixes. Alternatively, I could have recognized that together we represented our own complex social network. I might have been more open to the way our challenges and shared understanding emerged through our dialogue. Had I been more attentive to and less judgmental about the group’s natural tendencies, we may have made even more progress.

Recalculating: When is responding to change better than following a plan?

At some level I understand that the artificial intelligence behind the voice of my navigation app is not judging me when I make a wrong turn. Still, I can’t help sensing a tinge of disappointment behind the announcement that my route is being “recalculated.” Why not just provide the re-routed directions? Better yet, let’s program the navigation system to compliment me for making a bold move: “Interesting choice. Now, continue straight for 1000 feet and make a U-turn.”

Speaking of programming, some of you may recognize the reference in the subtitle of this blog to the Agile Software Development Manifesto. The manifesto was written and signed in 2001 when a group of software developers met in Snowbird, Utah. The document codified values and principles representing a methodological shift in how software developers meet client requirements. Caroline Mimbs Nyce provides an engaging history of the agile software development movement in her 2017 article for The Atlantic, “The Winter Getaway that Turned the Software World Upside Down.”

The manifesto includes four value preferences. The fourth value preference reads, “…We have come to value responding to change over following a plan.” The manifesto does not oppose “following a plan.” The idea is that adopting a preference for “responding to change” will provide a more efficient, more targeted solution to the customer or end-user.

Recently, organizational leaders have taken note of the “Agile” philosophy. The idea of self-managed teams working cross-functionally and collaborating with customers seems like an approach the entire organization should embrace. Agile software development emerged as a response to “Waterfall” software development. The waterfall model is linear and sequential. The waterfall model favors analysis, documentation and design over end-user testing and iterating. The organizational equivalent of waterfall software development is “command and control” management.

Given the current volatility and uncertainty of our business environment, should organizations transition away from a “waterfall” leadership style to an “agile” leadership style?

I recently had the pleasure of partnering on a leadership development program with Bjorn Bihhardt, Owner and CEO of Abilitie. Bjorn introduced me to the Cynefin framework* for making sense of the contexts within which leaders solve problems and make decisions. David J. Snowden, the founder and chief scientific officer of Cognitive Edge developed the framework with input from a number of his colleagues. In November of 2007, Snowden and Mary E. Boone, President of Boone Associates co-wrote a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article about the framework.

The Cynefin Framework

CynefinThe right-hand side of the framework describes contexts that are either “simple” or “complicated.” In both cases, cause-and-effect relationships exist. In simple contexts, cause and effect are apparent to everyone. In complicated contexts, there may be more than one right answer and it requires expertise to analyze the situation and determine an appropriate response. A simple business problem is collecting a late payment from a customer. A complicated business problem is improving the company’s cash flow.

The left-hand side of the framework describes contexts that are either “complex” or “chaotic.” In a complex context, no amount of expert analysis will result in a single solution or right answer. In their HBR article, Snowden and Boone write that a complicated context differs from a complex context in the same way a Ferrari differs from the Brazilian rainforest. The car is complicated, but static. An expert can take it apart and put it back together. The rainforest, on the other hand is in a constant state of unpredictable flux. Instead of conducting expert analysis, decision makers in a complex context must investigate, sense and then respond.

In a chaotic context, there is only turbulence and ambiguity (e.g. conditions in the midst of the events of September 11, 2001). Attempting to make sense of conditions before responding does not help. In a chaotic context, one must simply act and learn from how the environment reacts to what you do. The fifth element of the framework is represented by the open space at the intersection of the other four contexts. Snowden calls the fifth context, “disorder.” Disorder applies when one cannot discern which of the other four contexts pertain.

I mention the Cynefin framework because it seems to me that following a plan works when contexts are either simple or complicated. In both cases, expertise can determine a workable solution, routines and authority can ensure people implement the solution. When things become complex, responding to change with agility will be more useful. When things become chaotic, just do something.

The question then is not whether today’s leaders should adopt a waterfall style or an agile style. The question becomes, how do we know which context we should apply when framing our situation? In other words, when should we follow the plan our navigation software put us on and when should we turn off the app and respond to the changes we are sensing?

* Cynefin (ku-nev-in) is Welsh for habitat. It carries the connotation of factors that influence us in ways we can’t understand.