Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There
Editor | On 12, Jun 2018
These days, I fairly frequently end innovation workshops by heading back into the generic world of Continuous Improvement and the specific world of the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle. My aim being to compare the original theory – that each of the four activities should receive the same amount of time and attention – and the distorted reality I see in most of the organisations I visit (Figure 1). I always make sure to say, ‘I’m sure this doesn’t apply in your organisation’, but almost invariably the looks in the room indicate that it does. My point in the workshop is then to suggest that, even if organisations refuse to spend more time at the Plan stage, then they should at least be asking better questions. Like, for example, ‘where’s the contradiction?’
But that still leaves me, after the workshop has ended, with the question about why is it that we – all of us – are much happier Doing and Firefighting than we are Planning? Why can’t we stop doing something and just stand there?
Figure 1: Plan-Do-Study-Act Cycle – Theory Versus Reality
Having now spent a lot of time thinking about the problem, I think there are three underlying reasons that work together to create it. Each sits at a different point along a spectrum starting at one end with the manner in which our brains are wired, and at the other with the way that society has conditioned us.
Let’s start with the brain. And specifically our limbic system. This is one of the older parts of our brain, the one responsible for our ‘real reason’ emotional reactions. It is, therefore, the one that triggers our rapid response to stress. Add a little bit of stress and our initial limbic response is a ‘fight or flee’ decision. Add more stress and we ‘freeze’. On one level, ‘freezing’ sounds good because it is very definitely not ‘doing something’, but sadly, what our limbic system has done when it causes us to freeze is effectively said ‘pretend you’re dead and see if the threat goes away’. We’re not doing something (good!), but alas, we’re not thinking either (bad!). The point here is that we don’t need very much stress for our limbic to take over. The moment our project hits a tricky patch, our limbic brain is telling us, ‘stop dithering, and do something’. We’re programmed by our evolutionary history to Do rather than Plan. If there’s a bear running towards you, your best bet is Do some fleeing.
If 160,000 years of evolution isn’t hard enough to fight against, at the other end of the Do-driver spectrum, many of the societal conventions we have put in place serve to reinforce the ‘stop dithering’ message. In that there are few sins in modern life as big as ‘procrastination’. No-one is going to look at us sitting at our desk, scratching our chin thinking about stuff, and conclude that we’re ‘working’. All of our reward systems – whether it be a kind word from our boss or our spouse or (damnit!) kids – are geared towards getting stuff done.
And then, perhaps worst of all, somewhere in the middle of the space between our limbic brain and the pressure society puts on us, come the words of the wise. The people we’re supposed to look up to in society. The messages they exhort. ‘Fast decisions, unless they’re fatal, are always best’ (most recently attributed to no less than Google’s Larry Page). Or, ‘Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.’ (Thomas Jefferson). Or, perhaps most famous of all, Tom Peter’s exhortation, ‘Ready, Fire, Aim’. Even one of the world’s foremost thinkers on complexity, Dave Snowden of Cynefin fame, tells us that the right thing to do in complex or chaotic situations is Do something before we sense and respond (Figure 2). Advice-wise, it seems, we’re basically not helped on any front in our quest to stop Doing something.
Figure 2: Cynefin ‘Do Before Sense’ Advice
A Solution Clue?
All in all, it seems like we’re pretty much doomed when it comes to getting ourselves out of the downward Do-Firefight spiral shown on the right hand side of Figure 1. Surely, it can’t be the case that everyone is telling us the same thing? Where do aphorisms like, ‘look before you leap’ come from? Maybe they offer us some vague hope of a solution?
Perhaps the most well-thought through and proven version of this aphorism is USAF fighter pilot, John Boyd, who’s success pretty much boiled down to the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) Loop shown in Figure 3:
Figure 3: Boyd’s OODA Loop
The only problem with the ‘look’ part of ‘look before you leap’, or the first ‘Observe’ part of Boyd’s famous Loop is it seems somewhat vague in terms of what are we supposed to look at? The best Boyd offers up, looking at Figure 3, are the five arrows entering the Observations bubble – ‘outside information’, ‘unfolding circumstances’, ‘unfolding interaction with environment’, feedback from the previous Decision, and feedback from the previous Action. On one hand, that’s a lot of stuff to think about, but on the other, it gives us little if any insight into Boyd’s success as a Top Gun fighter pilot. We know our OODA cycle time is supposed to be shorter than that of our enemy, but in practical terms, we really don’t know how to start the Loop off. We need to dig a level deeper…
A first useful think to Observe is what I usually refer to as the ‘pulse rate’ of a situation. Typically, when we in Systematic Innovation Land talk about pulse rates, we’re talking about the rate at which, say, an industry is making discontinuous step-changes from one s-curve to another. But it can equally well apply to much more transient situations. One of the other common features of my workshops is the ‘Save The Titanic’ exercise. Here’s the point where I give people five minutes to try and find resources to save everyone on board the sinking ship. One of the resources I provide to groups at the start of the exercise is the knowledge that the ship is going to take two hours to sink. I rarely use the phrase ‘pulse rate’ at this juncture in proceedings, but that’s effectively what that two-hour figure represents: Two hours from now, the Titanic undergoes a significant step-change from an ‘afloat’ state to one of being ‘sunk’. Two hours is not a lot of time, but it’s not zero, and it also means that spending just five minutes, ‘not just Doing something, but standing there’ is a good investment of time. In those five minutes, I’ve never had a group ever that has failed to find sufficient resources to achieve the objective of keeping everyone alive. Most groups find sufficient resources in fact to keep the ship afloat. Perhaps the over-1500 people that in reality died on the Titanic is all the evidence we should ever need to convince us that ‘Doing Something’ before thinking about what we do is not the smartest strategy in the world. Job one is think about the pulse rate.
Job two, then, Observation-wise, is what the aerospace industry is good at. Or perhaps ‘used to be good at’. The golden age of innovation in the industry probably culminated in the US ‘X-Plane’ activities of NACA and the first Skunkworks – Figure 4. Never before or since has so much ‘impossible’ stuff been achieved by so few, so quickly… perhaps because they too came under the influence of Boyd’s OODA Loop speed philosophy. What they added to the story was the imperative to Observe and focus on the unknowns.
Figure 3: An Array Of X-Planes
What unknowns? Three kinds in particular:
- All the things we don’t know
- All the things our opponents don’t know (whether that’s a MiG pilot, or the designer of the next MiG, or, in the case of the Titanic, ‘Mother Nature’)
- All the things we don’t know about the relationships between the unknowns
Once you’ve done the best job you can of understanding that lot, the next job is to do as cunning a job as possible to find the ‘biggest bang per buck’ unknowns you should focus your efforts towards solving. Solving a bigger unknown quicker than your opponent being the most significant driver. From the first X-Plane, the Bell X-1, onwards the whole Skunkworks rationale was about answering the biggest unknowns as fast as possible. The X-1, for example, was all about answering the unknown of ‘how to fly faster than the speed of sound?’ I doubt the Skunkworks team used the word ‘contradiction’, but to all intents and purposes, that’s what the unknowns they were working to solve in reality were: we want to fly faster, but when we approach the speed of sound the rules of aerodynamics change.
Something else they didn’t have in the classic-era Skunkworks was computer power. Today we’d tend to think of that as a problem. Computers mean we can make a better job of designing things like aircraft that can fly faster than the speed of sound. My first real job, in fact, was writing software to do exactly that. I had a big advantage over the team that designed Bell X-1. But on the other hand, they also had a big advantage over me. Or maybe over today’s generation of computer users. I might just’ve been early enough in the game to still understand what the advantage of not having a computer might be. And that was forcing you to understand things from first principles. If you don’t have a big number-crunching computer to do your maths for you, you have to think an awful lot harder about the problem you want to work on before you start dishing out the slide-rules to the team. Understanding things at the level of first principles, the Skunkworks people implicitly understood, was an extremely good way of making sure you solved the right problem in the most time efficient manner possible.
The other thing the original Skunkworks team didn’t have, that unlike computing power, turned out to be less of an advantage, was that they didn’t have access to the power of TRIZ. And specifically the contradiction-solving engine contained within TRIZ. Who knows how much more effective they could have been had they had access to a Contradiction Matrix that gave them a simple shortcut to ‘someone, somewhere’ that had already solved the ‘big unknowns’ they’d unearthed?
One Way Forward
The third thing Skunkworks people in the didn’t have in the 50s was a clear understanding of complexity and complex systems. Or maybe they did. Maybe they knew just enough to know that Dave Snowden’s ‘Probe-Sense-Respond’ advice was wrong and that smart designers did an Observe-Orient-Decide before they Probed.
Maybe they knew, too, that H.L. Mencken wasn’t completely right when he stated, ‘for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong’. Maybe they knew, instead that, for every complex problem there are thousands of clear, simple wrong answers. But, then, also that there is also a clear, simple, right one. And that we are best able to find that one if we understand and affect problems at the level of their first principles.
‘Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There’
Is a quote I first heard used by Clint Eastwood to describe Gary Cooper’s acting style. Perhaps no-one in the history of motion pictures mastered the art of ‘doing nothing’ than Gary Cooper. And yet, what he managed to convey amidst all of his on-camera inactivity was a character who was thinking deeply about whatever situation he was in. I like to think, too, that all that deep thought was about asking and answering the same questions as the X-plane designers:
- What’s the pulse rate?
- What don’t I know? What doesn’t my opponent know? What are the unknowns between the unknowns?
- What are the most important unknowns? The contradictions?
- What are the first principles?
- Which ones can and should I answer to make sure I’m faster than my opponent’s OODA Loop time and will beat whatever they might do?
Only when Gary Cooper know that, I think, did he stop standing there, and start clearing up Dodge. Or, in the case of High Noon, Hadleyville…