The Essential Role of the Credible Skeptic

All improvement implies change – some may be incremental elimination of current Niggles; other may be breakthrough achievement of future NiceIfs.

Change is an uphill struggle and the inevitable friction generates heat and sparks which dissipate some of the energy.

People throw spanners into the wheel which may eventually grind to a halt. Experts talk about “oiling the wheels of change” and generating momentum. The mechanical metaphors are numerous and have a common thread – that change requires pushing.

The unstated assumption is that resistance is “bad” and any means to overcome or bypass resistance is therefore justified – but this assumption is one-sided and discounts the possibility that there is a “good” side to resistance.

Suppose a design is proposed that would be effective (it would do the right thing) then resistance-to-change would be counter-improvement. Suppose the proposed design would be ineffective (it would not do the right thing and might even lead to the wrong thing) then resistance-to-change would be protective. The difference is the effectiveness of the design – not the presence of resistance-to-change.

Effectiveness has two components – effective in theory and effective in practice.  Demonstrating effectiveness in theory is the purpose of pure research; delivering effectiveness in practice is the purpose of applied research. Both are embraced in Improvement Science.

Who is best placed to decide what will work in theory? An academic.

Who is best placed to decide what can work in practice? A pragmatist.

So we need both doing the parts that they do best.  And we need them doing it at the same time … not in sequence … not theory and then practice.

It is a common assumption that novel designs are created sequentially – working from big conceptual chunks in stages of increasing detail to the final blueprints.

Reality is a bit messier than this!

An experienced design team will flip between broad-brush and fine-detail and they know the importance of including both theorists and pragmatists in the team. This is where the practical challenge comes because most people have a preference for one or the other modes of thinking.

Coordinating the effective-design-conversation requires awareness by everyone of the value of both.  This is not discussion, instruction, manipulation, or facilitation – it is education. The role of the design team leader is to create the context to allow the learning to flow and the synergy to emerge.

The symptoms and signs associated with inexperienced design teams are:

  • Design done behind closed doors by strategists with the assistance of theoretical advisors called management consultants.
  • Design decisions are delivered as a “fait accompli” to those expected to “operationalise” them.
  • Language such as “herding cats” is used to refer to the influential skeptics who represent the “front line barrier to change”.

These symptoms are harbingers of failure – poor designs that flounder on the Rocks of Don’t Do and good designs that get stuck on the Sands of Won’t Do.

The experienced design team knows these hidden dangers and has learned how to steer around them by demonstrating respect for the theory and for the practice and staying in the Channel to Success. There need to be respected Optics (visionary optimists) and credible Skeptics (respectful pessimists) at both the academic and the pragmatic poles to generate creative resonance. Synergy. An effective design team includes the role of Credible Skeptic.

And there are no chairs at the effective design table for the Politics (egocentric activists) and the Cynics (disrespectful pessimists). Their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours generate dissonance and turbulence which dissipates and wastes the effort, time and money of everyone else.

And we must always remember that effective design comes before efficient design.  Doing the wrong thing efficiently makes it wronger!  First do the right thing – then do it better. That is a design where everyone benefits.

Disappointers, Delighters and Satisfiers.

There are two broad approaches to improvement. One is to start with what we have got now and tinker with it in the hope it will get better.  When this is done well it is effective albeit slow. When it is done badly it amounts to dangerous meddling. The more interconnected the system we are trying to improve the more likely our well intentioned tinkering will create a bigger problem in the future than we have now.

Another approach is to start with what-we-want-to-have in the future and then design-to-deliver it. Our starting point is not an aspirational dream vision, also known as an hallucination, it is a clear performance specification with four dimensions: safety, delivery, quality and affordability. This is called a SFQP specification.

The first one to focus on is safety … and what we usually find is that risk of harm is usually a knock-on effect of delivery and quality design problems.

The easiest one is delivery – because it is the application of process physics. The next easiest one is affordability because that is the application of value system accounting.

The tricky one is quality because that implies subjectivity, people, psychology, behaviour and politics. When we add quality to our design challenge we rack up the wickedness score!

So, how do we create a clear and realistic output quality performance specification?

If we draw up a chart with Subjective Quality on the Y-axis and Objective Performance on the X-axis, we can plot all the characteristics of our current and future design on this chart.  And when we do that we discover some surprising things.

First – some factors go unnoticed until the performance drops. Said another way we do not notice when it is working – we only only notice when it is not.  These factors are called Disappointers.  We take for granted that things work 99% of the time – the sun comes up every morning; there is 21% of oxygen in the atmosphere; the air temperature is OK; the electricity is on; the milk, paper and post gets delivered; the car starts and so on. We take it all for granted and we complain when it unexpectedly does not.

So if we ask our customers what they want from an improved service they do not spontaneously volunteer what is currently working well and that they take for granted – because it is out of their awareness.  This is what Henry Ford implied when he said “If I asked the customer what they wanted I would have got a faster horse“. It is also the reason why a Three Wins design starts with The 4N Chart® – and specifically the Nuggets corner. We need to make conscious what works well because when we plan improvement we do not want to unintentionally discard the baby with the bath water!

Second – some factors go unnoticed until performance exceeds a minimum threshold. They are not expected so we do not mind if they are not provided – but if they are unexpectedly provided then we are surprised and Delighted.  The first time. Once we know what is possible we come to expect it again, and eventually every time.

A common design error is to try to use a Delighter to compensate for a Disappointer.

Suppose we walked into our hotel room and found a complimentary bottle of wine that we were not expecting and then we discovered that there was no toilet paper and the shower was cold. The bottle of wine would not compensate for our disappointment and it might even irritate us because we conclude that the management does not care about our basic needs. Our trust is eroded and our feedback reflects that.

Effective design for trusted quality starts by eliminating the possibility of disappointment. We design it so the expected essentials are “right first time and every time“.  Our measure of success is not praise – it is absence of complaints. A deafening silence. It is what does not happen that is important. Good expected essential design is invisible – because it never intrudes on our awareness.  And for this reason it is surprisingly difficult to do. It requires pro-action not re-action.

The third type of factor is the Satisfier – and these are the ones that our customers will volunteer because they are aware of them. Lower performance giving lower perceived quality scores and higher performance giving higher.  These are the “you get what you pay for” factors. A better designed car is expected to be more comfortable, quieter, easier to drive, safer, more reliable, more effort-saving gadgets and so on. Price is a satisfier. Cost is not. Cost is an output of the design process. So the better the design the greater the gap can be between cost and price.

This method is called Kano Analysis and an understanding of it is essential for effective quality improvement. And like so much of Improvement Science it appears counter-intuitive at first,  common-sense when explained, and blindingly obvious when experienced.

Patience: Necessary but Not Sufficient

The words innovation, invention, and improvement are often used as alternatives for creativity – but there important differences between these concepts.

Creativity refers to any “out of the box” thinking – where assumptions are challenged and changed then the implications are explored.  The classic “thought experiment”. It was one of those that led Albert Einstein to the radical idea that our perception of time as separate from space was inaccurate. He asked the question “If I was sitting on a light beam what would I see?”  Creative thinking happens inside the head – and creative play happens when groups engage in creative thinking together.  Children do it naturally and spontaneously – in the playground. In the classroom play is discouraged – that is where work happens. So as educated adults we separate work-time from play-time and creativity at work is lost. But far more than just that is sacrificed. Creativity is fun – so when we forbid creativity we exclude fun.

An invention is a novel combination of known parts. Invention is an act of design that arises from new insight which comes from creatively challenging assumptions and playing with ideas.  Inventions are not accidents – they require deliberate, conscious activity. Inventions are creativity converted to action. And creating an invention is hard work! Inventors are often depicted as driven, hard-working, loners who the rest of society do not understand – but groups can be much more inventive than individuals. Have you ever wondered why children have so much fun when working together to build a sandcastle on the beach or a den in the forest?

Innovation is when you actually do anything new. It does not need to be novel or inventive – just new for you. Anyone can be innovative and everyone is. Adopting a creative-play mode of thinking at work may be innovative; it may lead to a new insights; which may lead to new designs and new inventions.  It is also fun to do – especially as a group.

Improvement is what happens when the output of the innovation-creativity-insight-design-invention process is implemented in practice. The improvement is the measured change in a valued characteristic of a system. An actual improvement.  Not just the thought of improvement, or the talk of improvement or even the walk of improvement. The the hard evidence of improvement – the evaluation.

This innovation-to-improvement sequence requires time. And one of the important habits that an effective Improvement Scientist must cultivate is patience. Improvements take time to cook – especially when they come from disruptive innovation. That is innovation that challenges deeper held, unconscious, assumptions. Such as “Time is Absolute”.

But patience alone is not enough – it is necessary but it is not sufficient.

The effective Improvement Scientist understands that sustained benefit is more than just a good idea.  For a good idea to become established practice then many other people may need to change some of their assumptions, beliefs and behaviours. To achieve that sort of requires other skills – of which personal mastery, respectful challenge and pragmatic assertion are essential.

But there are traps for the unwary and the inexperienced. One danger is for the impatient Improvement Scientist to give their innovation away to the first investor that shows interest.  An experienced Improvement Scientist is a serial innovator who can generate good ideas at will. Many must be put on the shelf and wait for the right time – like Cheddar cheeses slowly maturing in an ancient underground river cut cave.

And when the time is right for the seed of innovation to germinate then the Improvement Scientist must step up, be assertive, and state what, declare why and show how.

The Challenge of Wicked Problems

“Wicked problem” is a phrase used to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often not recognised.
The term ‘wicked’ is used, not in the sense of evil, but rather in the sense that it is resistant to resolution.
The complex inter-dependencies imply that an effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

System-level improvement is a very common example of a wicked problem, so an Improvement Scientist needs to be able to sort the wicked problems from the tame ones.

Tame problems can be solved using well known and understood methods and the solution is either right or wrong. For example – working out how much resource capacity is needed to deliver a defined demand is a tame problem.  Designing a booking schedule to avoid excessive waiting is a tame problem.  The fact that many people do not know how to solve these tame problems does not make them wicked ones.  Ignorance in not that same as intransigence.

Wicked problems do not have right or wrong solutions – they have better or worse outcomes.  Wicked problems cannot be precisely defined, dissected, analysed and solved. They are messy. They are more than complicated – they are complex.  A mechanical clock is a complicated mechanism but designing, building, operating and even repairing a clock is a tame problem not a wicked one.

So how can we tell a wicked problem from a tame one?

If a problem has been solved and there is a known and repeatable solution then it is, by definition, a tame problem.  If a problem has never been solved then it might be tame – and the only way to find out is to try solving it.
The barrier we then discover is that each of us gets stuck in the mud of our habitual, unconscious assumptions. Experience teaches us that just taking a different perspective can be enough to create the breakthrough insight – the “Ah ha!” moment. Seeking other perspectives and opinions is an effective strategy when stuck.

So, if two-heads-are-better-than-one then many heads must be even better! Do we need a committee to solve wicked problems?
Experience teaches us that when we try it we find that it often does not work!
The different perspectives also come with different needs, different assumptions, and different agendas and we end up with a different wicked problem. The committee is rendered ineffective and inefficient by rhetorical discussion and argument.

This is where a very useful Improvement Science technique comes in handy. It is called Argument Free Problem Solving (AFPS) and it was intentionally designed to facilitate groups working on complex problems.

The trick to AFPS is to understand what generates the arguments and to design these causes out of the problem solving process. There are several contributors.

First there is just good old fashioned disrespectful skepticism – otherwise known as cynicism.  The antidote to this poison is to respectfully challenge the disrespectful component of the cynical behaviour – the personal discounting bit.  And it is surprisingly effective!

Second there is the well known principle that different people approach life and problems in different ways.  Some call this temperament and others call it personality. Whatever the label, knowing our preferred style and how different styles can conflict is useful because it leads to mutual respect for our different gifts.  One tried and tested method is Jungian Typology which comes in various brands such as the MBTI® (Myers Briggs Type Indicator).

Third there is the deepening understanding of how the 1.3 kg of caveman wetware between our ears actually works.  The ongoing advances in neuroscience are revealing fascinating insights into how “irrational” we really are and how easy it is to fool the intuition. Stage magicians and hypnotists make a living out of this inherent “weakness”. One of the lessons from neuroscience is that we find it easier to communicate when we are all in the same mental state – even if we have different temperaments.  It is called cognitive  resonance.  Being on the same wavelength.  Arguments arise when different people are in conflicting mental states – cognitive dissonance.

So an effective problem solving team is more akin to a flock of birds or a shoal of fish – that can change direction quickly and as one – without a committee, without an argument, and without creating chaos.  For birds and fish it is an effective survival strategy because it confounds the predators. The ones that do not join in … get eaten!

When a group are able to change perspective together and still stay focused on the problem then the tame ones get resolved and the wicked ones start to be dissolved.
And that is all we can expect for wicked problems.

The AFPS method can be learned quickly – and experience shows that just one demonstration is usually enough to convince the participants when a team is hopelessly entangled in a wicked-looking problem!