29 February 2012

Zen and the Art of Organizational Analysis

I'm just a city kid from Iowa, but even I know how to watch the corn. Find the space at which the tassels blur into amber waves of terrain, that middle distance where you can see the cornfield for the stalks, the forest for the trees, the ocean for the swells. It is a magic moment, and difficult to maintain. The land is not flat or static ...

It is sculpted ... It is inhabited ...

See the contours ... See the connections ...

See the structures ... See the spaces in between ...

I have sought out this figurative sweet spot on the landscape, again and again.

On my high school speech and debate team, I specialized in an competitive category variously called "student legislature" or "student congress." I learned how to maneuver parliamentary process, how to whip and count votes, and how to listen to the floor debate while also eavesdropping on caucuses and conversations. Find the sweet spot, and you can sense the mood of the room, predict how the vote is going to go, figure out where and when you need to be.

As a journalist, I pursued an expertise in architecture and design. I realized later that I was actually writing about people, rather than bricks and mortar. One of my favorite philosophical cornerstones comes from Winston Churchill, who, after World War II, observed at the dedication of a reconstructed parliament building: "We shape our buildings, thereafter our buildings shape us." Find the sweet spot, and you can see how organizations think of themselves: Flat organizations build flat buildings. Hierarchical organizations build skyscrapers. Those physical forms serve to reinforce the power structures and communications within.

Take a step back from the building-scale, and consider a larger area. You can see how organizations connect to their communities, and how those connections can be manipulated to create change. For example: A lima bean silo connects to a community's agricultural, transportation, and business networks in certain ways. Maybe the lima bean business goes south. Re-purpose that structure into a hotel, and it now connects its surroundings in different ways: retail, travel, and tourism.

As an U.S. Army communications soldier working in a Tactical Operations Center ("TOC"), I learned to keep one ear on the radio and to listen for my callsign, to manage radio traffic according to proper procedure, and to keep track of the battle. It was like listening to a baseball game on the radio, mentally moving the players around the bases.

Later, working on the battle desk, I learned to watch how messages flowed in and out of the TOC. A radio message or phone call would arrive on one side of the U-shaped work area, and you could watch it ripple across the room. A sergeant major once posted this sign in the the Red Bull TOC: "Who else needs to know what I know?" Keep an eye on the battle-drill, and an ear on the TOC-talk. Find the sweet spot, and you can see the data flow, where the organization is headed, and where your boss needs to be involved to achieve his objectives.

I'm not trying to sound goofy or mystical, or like some science-fiction guru from "The Matrix" (1999). Sometimes, however, we don't know what we think until we write it down. Even as I'm writing this, I am beginning to recognize the threads and themes that run throughout my disparate experiences: I focus on process and procedure. I surf through conversations. I identify interconnections. I seek out the modes and nodes of influence toward specific outcomes.

I may be onto something. Then again, I may also be full of crap.

Maybe every practitioner—it doesn't matter of what—has a similar moment of transcendence. You do something long enough, and, suddenly, you know what you're doing. Even if you don't think about it. One day, you wake up and realize: You know Kung Fu.

I'm good at finding the sweet spots in some types of organizations. That doesn't make me a hero, but it occassionally makes me useful.

Similarly, there are infantry soldiers who can parachute onto a random piece of ground, and instantly describe what needs to happen to achieve tactical advantage: The high ground is here, start digging in here, put the machine gun here for optimal effectiveness.

There are military intelligence analysts who can look at a map and a chronology, and spit out a prediction about who is doing what to whom, and the most likely times and places they'll strike next.

There are combat engineers who can look at a road and tell you what's out of place, where the bad guys would be, how the bombs buried in the dirt would be triggered.

It's all about finding the sweet spot. Of doing something without thinking. Of becoming simultaneously aware of the details, while also seeing components in context. Of being an actor both within and upon a process.

There are seeds of genius available in such moments.

The trick is to know when to harvest the corn.

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