The Problem is Everywhere

The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate “given” resources—if “given” is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these “data.” It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality. – Friedrich A Hayek “The Use of Knowledge in Society”

Yesterday I met with an organisation that wanted some of my help as they sought to solve a problem. The organisation was developing a new knowledge sharing system to enable is staff to be better informed about products and processes. There was one slight issue with this problem. The organisation already had multiple systems to enable its staff to be better informed about products and processes: intranets, social networks, training, help & support tools, automation, etc.

Problems Everywhere

As we asked why these other systems didn’t work it became clearer that the project team’s issue was that it was solving a problem for others, rather than with others. The explanations for needing a new system did’t stack up and suggested there was more that needed to be learned from the users:

  • ‘Most of the learning is peer to peer. We need to give them better options’: Why do they prefer to learn from peers who might be inaccurate or unavailable? Why will they change this if you offer a new system? 
  • ‘They won’t use a collaboration system because they say they don’t have the time’ : if time is a question of priority, why isn’t it a priority? To what extent is the culture, leadership and performance management of the team driving this lack of priority? If they won’t collaborate why will they have the time to use something else? What is there time actually spent on? What do they do instead?
  • ‘Those system don’t give them the answers they need so we are building a new one’: If the last system didn’t understand what was required, how do you? What does relevance look like to each user? What does relevance look like to their customers?
  • ‘They want help with process X, but we are building something innovative for all processes’: Why do they want help with that process? What’s innovative about ignoring the demand?

The Answer is Everywhere

The answers to these questions are dispersed in a wide range of people beyond the project team. They draw in questions of culture, of practice, or rational and irrational behaviour by real human beings doing real work under the daily pressures of customers and a large organisation. There’s a lot of learning to do.

We have the tools to solve this dispersion and gather insights into what needs to be done in the practices of Big Learning:

  • we can actively collaborate with the users and other participants in the system to get under the pat answers and explore the deeper reasons and problems
  • we can use the practices of design thinking to better understand and shape employee behaviour & the systems involved in action
  • we can analyse data to understand in greater detail what is going on
  • we can experiment and iterate to ensure that proposed changes work the way that we expect
  • we can enable and empower the users to create changes to their work
  • we can accelerate the interactions and the cycles of learning to move faster to better solutions

These aren’t parallel techniques to be applied independently. The practices of Big Learning work best as an integrated system that draws together the insights from all of these approaches to help organisations learn and work. Big Learning enables organisation to work with and through its employees to deliver change. Change does not have to be done to them.

The reason organisations need to develop systems to facilitate Big Learning is elegantly described by Hayek in the conclusion to his essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society”.  Hayek was critiquing the schools of economists who thought that centrally planned interventions designed by experts would be effective. The context may differ but organisations still use forms of central planning by experts to create change. These changes fall short for a fundamental reason – experts can’t know enough alone:

The practical problem, however, arises precisely because these facts are never so given to a single mind, and because, in consequence, it is necessary that in the solution of the problem knowledge should be used that is dispersed among many people

The practices of Big Learning help bring people together to share insights, learn and work as one.

The Normative Value of Failure Comes from Your Next Act

Embrace failure. Fail fast. Fail small and early. Everyone has failures. Few failures are fatal. 

Despite all the good advice about failure, people find it very hard to sit comfortably with failure. When outcomes matter and achievements are celebrated failure is often a disappointment regardless of the amount of official imprimatur. Failure attracts a whole lot of personal and cultural baggage. This is a significant issue when willingness to risk failure is a large part of an organisations ability to adapt.

Reading The Pirate Organization by Durand and Vergne gave me a somewhat different perspective on failure. Noting that many pirate organisations were short-lived and easily defeated by the forces of the state, Durand and Vergne still noted that pirate organisations helped establish new norms for international trade and even the way organisations worked. Pirates showed where states were weak, where trade was broken and where traditional organisations needed to become more agile and adapt. Their thesis is these fragile and often failing pirate organisations are a critical part of the process by which sovereign states and capitalist organisations adjust to new territories of economic endeavour.

Failures Create Norms Too

Projects that end in failure can play a critical role in defining norms in an organisation in a similar way. They also set norms that shape future activity as well. Failure draws human attention and with that attention there is a chance to influence the way that people perceive culture – the how we work around here expectation. Critically culture is an expectation of how we will interact. It is shaped more by what you do about failure than what you say.

Failure has a big influence because the activity that follows failures sends signals that shape people’s perspective on a few key elements of organisational activity:

  • People worth supporting: How do you treat those whose projects fail. Give them the plum choice of the next project. Support them to learn what they need to learn to make their next efforts more successful. Whatever you do, don’t pretend the failure didn’t happen. They know it did. Hiding it loses the lessons and the uncertainty of silent treatment can be worse for people involved than blame. 
  • Purposes worth achieving:  The surest way to signal that a purpose is important, is shared and is worth achieving is that people persist after a failed attempt and start developing new ways to achieve the goal based on the lessons from the failure.
  • Problems needing fixes: Failures often highlight problems in supporting areas, systems or processes that need attention. This is how lessons are revealed by a chaos monkey. Whether or not people are prepared to learn and adapt to remedy these problems following failure is a major signal of the culture of an organisation. Do nothing and you can’t expect anyone else to care for those issues.
  • Ways worth working: Failures often take down more than just a specific objective or a specific project. Small specific failures in organisations can be used as a weapon to sabotage wider transformations, particularly ones that change the way an organisation works. We’ve all heard some version of the refrain of the cynics “How can they succeed in the whole organisation if they can’t get their first pilot to work?” Whether an organisation persists, adapts or abandons a new way of working following a related failure sends a critical signal.

Norms Come From Actions. Not Posters.

You are going to struggle to convince people that you love and desire failure. The achievement orientation in your organisation culture will work against you all the way. Hiring a few change agents will help show tolerance and foster some adaptation but it won’t necessarily make failure acceptable.

Take down the posters encouraging people to risk failure. Show them instead how you act after failures happen. That moment is when you get to signal what matters to your organisation in terms of purposes, people and processes.

Corporate Chaos Monkeys

The resilience of your organisation depends on the people willing to risk breaking things.

Bringing Chaos

Chaos Monkey is an open source application created to test the resilience of web services. By intentionally creating failures in random ways, chaos monkey helps engineers discover where there are shortcomings in their systems.

Many organisations have business continuity tests to help them learn how to manage failures. These exercises can be valuable learning experiences when done well. However, many are also predictable, formal and artificial.  (If your business continuity test isn’t allowed to fail you won’t learn anything) Further many of these tests don’t go far enough because they test the continuity of defined current systems and processes internally, not the resilience of these in a wider dynamic ecosystem. 

Chaos at the Centre and the Edge

How do create a corporate chaos monkey that helps your organisation learn how to improve its resilience in a rapidly changing environment? 


Creating a way for your people to run small scale tests of new ways of working, new processes, new products and services acts as a chaos monkey in your corporate environment. Lots of change and experimentation will expose your weaknesses and keeps you engaged with the dynamic environment around your organisation. This is the usually reason that wide scale experimentation is resisted in large organisations. However, experimentation lets you learn and build capability to fix issues when they are still small. Experimentation builds resilience.

In most complex systems, the traditional approach of defence from failure will fail anyway. Building the capability to learn and adapt to failure is far more valuable than a Maginot line of corporate defence. Experimentation will help supply the needed chaos at the centre and the edges of your organisation.

Once you accept that a little chaos is required you need your own monkeys to bring chaos. Find and embrace your Change Agents. In every organisation there is someone willing to risk breaking something to make the world better. Change Agents are the corporate chaos monkeys.

Every responsive organisation needs its Change Agents to bring just the right amount of chaos, adaptation and learning.

What’s your experiment?

Yesterday a conversation about experimentation, inspired by the Responsive Organisation, prompted this reflection:

To grow in life and work we experiment

We like the comfort of plans, order and progress. We hope that our lives will deliver a straight-line path to our goals. We feel the pressure to be able to lay our actions to others in a plan with a high degree of certainty. This pressure is magnified in a work context where the expectation of  managers is often to demonstrate confidence, certainty and control.

Life is chaotic, uncertain, creative and constantly changing. Just like us.

The only way to manage that volatility is to experiment, to grow and to change a little bit at a time. If we don’t become more responsive, we wither:

  • Some people let the uncertainty overwhelm them. Paralysed by fear they stop and wait for some clarity. Success moves by them.  
  • Some people let the scale of the challenge overwhelm them. They are concerned that they they won’t finish. If you don’t start, you can’t grow the ability to solve for the scale.
  • Some people fear their own goals, worrying that they might be too daunting or not bold enough. Without confidence in a direction to start, they don’t start and miss the chance to shift to better goals as they learn more about the world and themselves.
  • Some people worry about being changed. They experience change is their external environment forces them to change and that’s rarely a path to success.

In every case, the alternative is to do something small one thing at a time, to experiment, to learn and to grow. My experience is that success follows those times that I took a chance.  I grow when I put myself in a place where I have to learn more to get the job done. I may not have known how it would end, often it ended up somewhere new and better, but the lessons of the experience will showed me what I needed to know & do next. You don’t need to be reckless, but take small actions to experiment with the water in the deep end.

It won’t be easy. Success never is. Success is rare and precious. Success is the reward for risk, learning and effort. Success comes when you respond better to the opportunities before you.

Start today

What experiment will you try today that takes you one step closer to your goals?