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Management and the ‘Dead Zones of the Imagination’

February 26, 2017


It takes work to understand people. Many of us take short cuts. In fact, much of modern project management is about creating these kind of short cuts. Yet, understanding people, especially the people on your team, your stakeholders and other project participants, is essential to increasing the probability of success on a project. Engaging in the work to understand each other also seems to be a key component of creating innovation, of creating an environment where individuals feel empowered to imagine and build new solutions.

The anthropologist David Graeber has come up with a term to describe this kind of work.

“Most of us are capable of getting a superficial sense of what others are thinking or feeling just by observing their tone of voice, or body language – it’s usually not hard to get a sense of people’s immediate intentions and motives, but going beyond the superficial often takes a great deal of work. Much of the everyday business of social life, in fact, consists in trying to decipher others’ motives and perceptions. Let us call this “interpretive labor.””

-From the essay ‘Dead Zones of the Imagination’ in his book “The Utopia of Rules,” p. 66-67.

Interpretive labor takes up a large part of business life as well, especially in high performing organizations.

Graeber goes on to offer an interesting insight which seems helpful for project management. He observes that the amount of interpretive labor spent between people decreases as regulations and bureaucracy increases. That is, the more bureaucracy in place, the less time people spend understanding each other. This appears to be particularly acute between people of differing power relations – such as a manager and team member.

Some of the hallmarks of bureaucracy, according to Graeber, are having a well-defined process or method with which something must be done and having metrics around activity. Project management, and management in general, is rife with efforts to find “best practice” processes and key performance indicators which define, measure and track activity. There can be great value in the use of these bureaucratic approaches. I’ve experienced it many times professionally – it is often the difference between performance and failure, and can be the first step towards higher performance. But there is a lot of evidence that says we should be selective in our use of bureaucratic approaches.

We should be keenly aware of the potential downside of these approaches when deciding how to structure and manage our project environments. For example, the risk of gaming is well known when discussing metrics. People tend to work towards whatever moves the metric rather than what increases probability of success. So we should think carefully when picking a metric and designing systems to measure success.

Graeber brings another potential risk, that of reducing the need for interpretive labor or understanding each other. Bureaucratic approaches provide short cuts and short hand for all too human activity, giving folks an avenue to avoid interpretive labor. Track the metric, track compliance, that’s all. This, in turn, tends to dehumanize the whole project environment, to the detriment of on an organization’s solution delivery capabilities. I’ve discussed the impact of metrics and compliance based approaches on communication environments and overall team capabilities in Reinventing Communication. The notion of people over process is also covered in the Agile literature.

Graeber brings an additional concern with bureaucratic methods. He observes that the use of bureaucratic methods tends to place an excess interpretive labor burden on the relatively subordinate parties in a power relationship. This pulls effort away from other potentially fruitful endeavors which these parties could spend time doing. It can lead, as well, to a reduced feeling of empowerment, limiting creativity, flexibility and growth potential in these parties – characteristics which may increase managerial efficiency but at a cost of reduced solution delivery, including basic scope delivery.

I’ve often observed managers uninterested in getting into the weeds quickly resort to asking for metrics rather than understanding context and solving issues or, holding off and giving the team time to figure things out. There is clearly a time and place where this can help. Other times it creates undue administrative burden on a team and can magnify potential marginal deficiencies and finger pointing, rather than foster a collaborative spirit of free information flow and team problem solving. This is echoed in the observation cited in Graeber’s book that there is a negative correlation between coercion and information. The ask for metrics, particularly on the spur of the moment, often feels coercive or reflective of a person’s ability to exercise coercive power over others.

Coincidentally, Graeber’s term ‘bureaucratic’ can be used in much the same way as the term ‘engineering’ is used to describe various procedures, methods or approaches to management. Both can have positive and negative connotations. The negative connotations seem to jump off the page in the context of constraint. But keep in mind that for many thinkers and managers (including my own experience in organizations at various levels of project management maturity) bureaucratic approaches, like engineering approaches, can be the very model of efficiency and effective management. See General Motors in the mid-twentieth century, managerial literature from that period, literature around Quality and Lean Manufacturing, as well as the evolution of earned value management based approaches in project management. Both terms seem to describe approaches based on belief of certainty and predictability.

It seems our drive to bureaucratic or engineering based approaches is related to a drive for certainty and predictability. To quote Graeber’s description:

“Bureaucratic knowledge is all about schematization. In practice, bureaucratic procedure invariably means ignoring all the subtleties of real social existence and reducing everything to preconceived mechanical or statistical formulae.” p. 75.

Substitute engineering for bureaucratic and the definition holds just as well, particularly in the context of management, project management and various methods for dealing with risk. It is this definition which has spawned so much of the literature on complexity, chaos and non-traditional forms of management, including the birth of Agile.

As discussed in this blog, the drive to certainty and predictability may be rooted in the very meme of consciousness, the mechanics of the human brain and in some of the ways we choose to construct reality. Social – organizational – economic components seem to further influencing this orientation. My lecture at the London School of Economics on Uncertainty as Competitive Advantage discusses how the orientation toward certainty or uncertainty, impacts various project delivery capabilities such as innovation, as well as the survivability and resilience of an organization. We can add Graeber’s observations around interpretive labor, and the ensuing dynamics it creates, to the list of potential impacts to consider when adopting an orientation towards uncertainty or certainty in our project environments. These considerations contribute to the ongoing discussion on how to design project environments for various project delivery capabilities, and perhaps most pointedly, designing environments that maintain innovation, imagination and individual empowerment.

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