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ASAI: What If That Takes A Long Time?

 26. November 2017

We spoke of always-small-always-improve (ASAI), arguing for it as strategy against big-bang-change (BBC). In another part of the forest, someone has asked the question, “what if the cost of delay for starting small instead of going big is extreme?”

A situation where a BBC is better because the cost of delay implementing ASAI is extreme is an “on paper” situation, not an “in practice” one, and it only works on paper because we’ve embedded it in a nest of un-true-to-life assumptions.

One assumption is inertia-lessness: that orgs can change course and speed in quantum fashion – literal jumps in state with no in-between states. This is trivially false. While orgs are not in fact entirely newtonian in nature, they are certainly possessed of mass and momentum. If you doubt mass, then you hold a two-person org to be the same thing as a two-thousand-person org. If you doubt momentum, well, I’m not sure what to say except to point out that Amazon also sells books. It’s not possible to hold sanely the idea that all potential changes to an org are possible in an instant. The ordinary way to understand this is to use the metaphor of a ship on the water. Making a turn of more than a few degrees at a time is simply not possible. In fact, it’s even less possible if the ship is traveling at speed.

Related to the first, but not entirely fitting in it, is the second assumption: the on-paper case assumes a passivity of the org-under-change that is never ever present. I’m reminded of Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon: He watches a guy break a huge stack of planks with a strike. He never flinches, just says, “Boards don’t hit back.” An organization is not a piece on a playing board, to be moved from one location in org-space to another by an act of the mover’s will. Orgs are not remotely passive. They’re made of people and processes and techniques and attitudes and history. It would be a surprise if they werepassive, to be honest. This means that they are preternaturally hard to control. Orgs are complex systems, far closer in nature to an animal, and ecology, a meta-person, than to a playing piece on a board. Org charts don’t hit back, but organizations do, believe me.

The third assumption is about the knowability and correctness of the big change. It’s a doozy. In this on-paper situation, the would-be changer exhibits a startling certainty that her big-bang-change is the correct change to make. Is that a reasonable assumption? Well. given what we’ve just implied about the staggering complexity of organizations, not to mention the even larger complexity of the environments in which we hope for them to thrive, it’s certainly quite a claim. I’m an arrogant person, I assume that’s by now dreadfully clear to all of you. I daresay I play up there in the big leagues of smug conceit, and it’s especially marked in matters of intellect, of my confidence in how much shit I know. But the idea that I could know with certainty that a big-bang-change was the right change, given the reality of the complexities we’re dealing with, that idea seems outside the reach of even my overweening pride. And of course, the larger the change, the greater the risk that I’m wrong, and the greater the costif I am.

So? So I’ve got three baked-in assumptions in this on-paper situation, where the cost of delay caused by ASAI might make one prefer BBC. And all three of them seem highly suspect to me.

I’ll close with a story I’ve stolen from Jack Kennedy, who I’m reasonably confident came from a speechwriter, and reasonably confident was apochryphal at best. But it gives me a way to answer an implicit question in that on-paper scenario I’ve just doubted. That scenario posited a situation in which ASAI change was thought to take too long.

Kennedy: The great French Marshall Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow growing and would not reach maturity for 100 years. The Marshall replied, ‘In that case, there is no time to lose; plant it this afternoon!’