In this blog post we will more concentrate on how it is possible that common sense can be supressed in an organisation today, rather than talk about all different common senses that commonly are suppressed in today’s organisations, even though examples of course will be brought up. Focus will especially be on organisations that is transforming its way of working to agile at scale via a method or a framework, since it is very common today, and as we will see an exposed arena.
But what is common sense? Most of the common senses have their roots in science. That everything falls down to earth in daily life is common sense, which children learn early the hard way, that they also do fall down, and we do not even need to talk about gravity, or have a diploma in physics, since it goes without saying.
But, common sense in one context, does not necessarily mean that it is common sense in another context, especially if they do not know the science behind in the first place. An example is the understanding of complexity that is not self-evident for people that has worked in a context without or having low complexity. This will be further examined as an example below of new methods that does not take care of complexity in the right manner, which can generate enormous problems for an organisation.
First, we start with the example of common sense, about complexity, which is an apt example, due to the many organisations transforming themselves as stated above.
A common-sense example – not understanding complexity
Another big factor due to that many organisations are transforming their way of working, is the understanding of complexity. To understand that a complex context is totally different from a clear context is of utterly importance. This understanding does not necessarily need to come from education, but is most probably helps. We can make a parable with a car. To manufacture the car is an easy context, we already know how we can manufacture it with a bottom-up approach, since we already know that all parts will fit together to a unified whole, to our car. We just need to find out the proper granularity of the car parts for each and every manufacturing process, that suits our purposes best. By contrast, to develop the car is a complex context, especially if the car is novel. In a complex context, we do not know how the parts will fit and work together to a unified whole, since that is what we need to find out ourselves. It is here that we need to have a top-down approach instead, where we reduce the complexity in a step-wise manner, by systems design/system engineering, in order to find out the parts and sub-parts of our car, that will become a unified whole. Many agile scaling frameworks try to imitate manufacturing methods. This gives simplistic methods not usable for product development, due to their lousiness for reducing complexity. But this simplicity, makes management that is used to obvious contexts, an easy prey for the consultants. This means that the few people in the organisation that understand and even can prove the method’s deficiencies, in the long run will be outmanoeuvred.
Let us now go through some of the ingredients that it takes for an organisation, unwittingly engaged in it, to start to suppress common sense. Maybe there are some of you that unfortunately have experienced a few of them.
The management has low understanding of what transforming to
It is common that management has low understanding when transforming from one way of working to another and is of course an important factor in order for someone to be able to suppress common sense. Low understanding makes the management exposed, due to they need to take the right decisions anyway, where the wrong decisions more often will take place when the old culture has a bad habit of supressing problems and only show green reports. The transformation gets especially difficult when there at the same time is a change of context.
Change of context
One big factor for make it possible to suppress common sense, is when an organisation changes context. Let us, as an example take banks and insurance companies that has used to buy in all systems, hardware and software, but that is now more and more start to build their own software. These organisations have been used to buy in their systems work in a clear (easy) context, in this case in the service sector. An organisation in the service sector that starts to develop its own software, has entered a complex context for their software development, which means the need of understanding complexity (see the common-sense example above). To be crystal clear; different contexts mean different solutions, different methods, but all contexts of course need skilled people, it is only different skills.
The stupidity paradox
In a clear context, it is easy to divide the work of the wholeness, which means that it is also easy to divide the responsibility to smaller parts, which means that a line hierarchy will do the job. In a complex context we need to understand complexity (see the common-sense example above). To not understand complexity, is also in line with Mats Alvesson’s and Andre’ Spicer’s research, that they have summarised in their book “The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work” , pointing on many different reasons why people tend to think only within their own box and not about the wholeness. This means that people only think within the processes within their discipline and not transdisciplinary, which is always needed to be able to reduce complexity. What all people is doing in the different parts of an organisation that is used to work in an easy context, is seen as good, natural, and goes without saying, there is therefore no reason for questioning it. This kind of culture easily leads to that people stop thinking critical and instead always saying “yes” to everything. This makes transformations to a complex context extremely difficult, since every part of the organisation continue to make their own changes like they have always done. This means that the complexity on the wholeness regarding the new way of working have not been reduced first, leading to a false integration. The organisation has therefore taken an extremely high risk, where the false integration only by tremendous luck, will lead to a unified whole.
To go with the flow
Another ingredient is that organisations seem to go with the flow, so when other organisations change to something new, all other organisations follow and tries to copy the other organisations’ changes. This is a problem pointed out many decades ago by Svenska Handelsbanken’s former, very successful CEO (1970-1978) Jan Wallander, turning the company from close to bankruptcy to prosperity.
Master suppression techniques
This is the truly scary section. In order to be able to be sure to suppress common sense and outmanoeuvre the people in the organisation that presents written evidential doubts about a method or framework, there are some important parameters. First of all, these people never ever give written answers, instead they are very convincing orators, like politicians, i.e., without the need of scientific objectivity about for example economy. The reason for no written answers is clear. By only talking it is possible to turn a lie to a truth in many different ways, normally without answering the question, but with written answers the illogical reasoning, counterfactuals, change of subject, or similar, is soon exposed. The consultants of the method, keen supporters within the organisation and others urging the need of change, need to either use master suppression techniques or after being manipulated themselves, give their blessing to the continuous use of them. Other important ingredients to be able to turn unproven and clearly doubtful methods to the new truth, is to use red herring techniques, which move the focus from the actual method or framework to the effects that will be achieved, which means a counterfactual as well, since the effect has never happened. We have also stunning words, cliches, catch-phrases, all spin and no delivery, the list can be made very long.
When context is changed, going from a clear to a complex context, for example a deficient method as shown above, we need to be vigilant to master suppression techniques. People using them, will first try to suppress common sense about complexity to be able to prise the deficient method into the organisation anyway. If that is not straightforward, since some employees may be knowledgeable about the science behind the common sense in the context where the common sense originated from, in this case complexity, the level of master suppression techniques needs to accelerate (not in a good way). Because, the goal is to undermine the scientific knowledge in order to make their pseudo-science to become the new “common sense” in the organisation instead, seeking to hijack our true common sense. Truly scary.
An exaggerated believe in the consultant
The master suppression techniques is really empowered when the management believes more in the consultant than in the employee, that unfortunately is common in many organisations. If we think about it for a second it is really unbelievable. The employee has knowledge about the organisation, both the domain and the context, while many consultants have neither nor. The employee has knowledge about the organisational problems, the consultant has not, and seldom ask for them as well. The employee also works for the organisation’s best, but someone that need to sell something to the organisation, most probably have split interests. The latter means that an exact copy of the method means more consulting, as well as selling education, while a hybrid owned by the organisation, means context and domain dependence, where the consultant lack the knowledge.
The top management is short-circuited
The information that the transformation to the new method or framework, is not only beer and skittles, does not reach the top management, since this information, with help of certain tactics and strategies, are covered up. And once the top management has taken decisions to move on with the method or framework, even though they still want the people in the organisation to use their critical thinking, the “top management has decided” card becomes another popular master suppression technique. More people on the dubious side, will definitely at this point keep their mouth shut, to avoid further retaliations. The split interest mentioned above, many times also lead to that the consultant uses the “top management has decided” card more often than other employees and managers will.
The watermelon effect
In an organisation where only good reports/information/status/messages are reported upwards in the organisation, is subject to the watermelon effect, which means that only the green shell of the watermelon can be seen. The problems (the red meat) are covered up, and never reaches the top management, which then makes the wrong decisions, due to inadequate information. In an organisation facing this kind of problems combined with master suppression techniques and short-circuiting, leaves the whole top management on the gallery, not participating in the on-going game. See, this blog post for more details about an extension of the watermelon effect due to new methods.
The bogeyman of the method (or framework)
As soon as the top management have made their decision, the bogeyman of the method enters the arena from nowhere. In step with increasing problems due to the method’s deficiencies, the method is under its surveillance, i.e., making sure that the method still is to be followed in every element. This is of course eagerly supported by the consultants of the method or that is implementing the method, trying to keep context, domain and therefore experience out of the picture. By removing experience out of the picture, the new recipe can be implemented, since the ones having experience cannot any longer use their critical thinking, they cannot even make their voice heard, due to that the new shiny is said to change everything to the better. Here is an apt statement from Snowden: “The desire to ignore the past and start afresh each time which characterised early days process reengineering meant that much of value was lost because those involved in the practice were unaware of what they did, or they took it for granted that anyone with experience would understand. Too many of those exercises were designed and led by consultants with little practical experience and they simply didn’t see it. A lot of organisational change still suffers from that zero-base assumption.” . Organisations that are unlucky to come all the way to this miserable state can, most probably, only escape this death spiral by a severe failure. And on the way to the failure all other, by the organisation required, check points that could make this spiral come to an end earlier, are removed or changed, all together to fit the new method and not as earlier, to check that we are on the right track; traceability, quality assurance, system integration, system verification, etc. are all adulterated beyond recognition.
Putting it all above together gives us some conclusions:
We need to be vigilant so that common sense is not suppressed in our organisations, but it is not an easy task, due to the tactics and strategies to make people believe in erroneous things, are already fine-tuned for the purpose. An example is the actual transformation time combined with the mantra continuous improvement that is trumpet out. This means that first it takes years to transform, and then we need to make our new way of working efficient with continuous improvements, that is lately changed, making the transformation take another 3-5 years to be successful. Another example is when a transformation fails, then it was implemented wrongly, or when a new consultant comes in and states that the former consultant made the transformation wrongly. In all three examples, our common sense should tell us that something is fishy, since it is clear that the end will never come.
Organisations that used to operate in a clear context, and now have moved on to product development, a complex context, will be vulnerable, since many of the frameworks for agile scaling looks neat and tidy, due to they are originating from manufacturing methods.
If we look around the world, we can see the growth of alternative facts, so the question is if suppression of common sense is here to stay. In a twitter 2021-10-28, Dave Snowden stated: “We want to make it less academic” increasingly means making hawks into pigeons and an unwillingness to put in the effort to acquire the art of falconry”, which is an apt example of this. If this behaviour is countenanced for too long, we may soon have another common sense: common sense will always be suppressed. And finally in the worst-case scenario; subjectivity and opinions over science and common sense.
But the science that the common senses originate from is always context-free, so it is only in some contexts that the translation to common sense may be corrupted. That is a true blessing. We have hope after all.
C u soon again.
 Snowden, Dave. Blog post. Link copied 2022-01-09.
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