Science and Ideology (Not scientology!)

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by: John Sviokla

A few weeks ago  I was presenting an approach to management that was at its core a “scientific” approach; not in the narrow Frederick Taylor sense of time and motion studies, but in the more knowledge-worker-friendly notions taking information about the business, and the market, and turning it into value as fast and efficiently as possible.

The simple model I proposed suggested that there is an information cycle in organizations that progresses from: ambiguity, to uncertainty, to complexity, to velocity, and then back to uncertainty.  In an ambiguous state, it is impossible to describe the customer’s needs fully, and only through deep and frequent interaction with the clients will there be progress toward workable solutions.  I used the example of Illinois Tool works as a company that deals effectively with ambiguity, because they work deeply with their customers to create new solutions – even to the point of reinventing basic products – like the lowly screw. 

After ambiguity, there is a stage where the organization can begin to describe the problem in a reliable language of description.  Credit card issuance has uncertainty, but no ambiguity.  Once something is described well, then the competitive landscape shifts to being about to deal with complexity – and then to deal with that complexity faster, and faster – hence velocity.

As I presented this model, with examples, a very wise, articulate senior intelligence official, who looks a bit like the Oracle in the movie The Matrix spoke up and said, “It is the role of leaders to create ideology, to absorb ambiguity for the organization.”  When she said this, I had one of those telescopic moments where it felt like she and I were in direct connection, in a small room talking one-on-one, despite the fact that we were in a room of 100 people.

In that one phrase she captured for me the core duality of management.  On the one hand, a leader in an organization needs to be scientific; scientific about customers, about people’s performance, and scientific about the movements in the marketplace.  On the other hand, they need to create ideology to fill in meaning for those who come to work each day.  Sometimes this duality is invigorating; sometimes debilitating.  The important thing, to me anyway, is to know when you are doing science, and when creating ideology. 

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