The Compression Thinking Challenge

The philosophy practiced in managing human institutions follows in the wake of scientific paradigm shifts. The table below illustrates some key points of these shifts, but it needs explanation of both the scientific shifts, and the changes in managerial philosophy patterning after them.

Taylorism;Business-as-Usual Cracks in Taylorism; Lean, Quality, Systems Thinking Compression Thinking Challenge
Seek answers. Seek countermeasures. Seek balance with nature.
Search for optimums, assuming static processes. Ask at least 5 whys; always seek a better process. Questions never end; ask why questions infinitely.
Quantity maximization dominates (max profit). Quantity maximization with quality and service. Quality dominates – quality processes for all stakeholders.
Investor & funder centered. Customer-centered. All-stakeholder “centered.”
Deterministic & reductionist.Command-and-control. Cracks deterministic shells. Eases command-and-control. Assume constant change.All stakeholders considered.
Bounded Processes: Agencies, companies, and “silos.” Opens cross-process communication (visibility). Nature-compatible processes.Visibility; stakeholder dialog.

During most of the 19th century, science followed a deterministic approach. A problem once solved stayed solved, as in Newtonian physics.

Determinism began unraveling, first with Darwin’s theory of evolution, then quantum mechanics, in which observation affects the state of a particle; then chaos theory in which small differences in a system’s beginning conditions alter the course of events, so they can never be totally predictable. Weather is one such system. However, in practice a lot of science remains deterministic. Critics reel off possible causes: pressure to “show results” because of corporate influence, competition for grants, and publish-or-perish peer ratings.

During much of the 20th century, core management philosophy was also deterministic. Much of it still is. Early on, practitioners of Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management often touted “one best way,” as if no better method could top one that experts had set up. Organization charts, job classifications, cost accounting, budgets, standard operating procedures, and similar “tools” spilled out of Taylorism. Command-and-control management wrapped itself in this logical veneer. By the 1960s, leading managerial practice was management-by-the-numbers, augmented by optimization models.

Wall Street earnings advisories and reports embody deterministic thinking. They assume that managers should use “tools” to work a plan that hits a financial forecast, and that furthermore, financial performance is the overriding purpose of any traded company.

People with behavioral insight and managers wrestling the externalities of a company – strategic thinkers – have long seen the holes in Taylorism, but its central pillar still props up its logic: managers should be “in control.”

Late in the 20th century cracks in Taylorism began widening. One crack is quality improvement and lean thinking – continuous improvement – now “becoming mainstream.” Serious practitioners no longer seek answers, or “permanent fixes” to problems. They seek countermeasures, better always being possible. Value stream maps enable seeing processes more holistically. Insightful practitioners realize that process flexibility improves long-term efficiency because operations can respond to changing conditions more quickly, and things are always changing. Finally, to allow continuous improvement to become bottom up, managers had to relax command-and-control.

Some kinds of software development like Agile software development are also opening cracks. Agile addresses the reality that the intent of a software package may change during its design, and after installation updates are necessary. In addition, software like genetic design algorithms moved system design toward becoming a “live” process.

Another crack is systems thinking in organizational development. Antecedents of systems thinking date to the 1950s or earlier, but the most popular version is attributed to Peter Senge, who wrote The Fifth Discipline. Senge fostered the idea of a learning organization quickly embracing the new and the unexpected – seeing things in new ways. This crack is propagating into the mainstream more slowly than lean and quality.

One reason for slow uptake is that systems thinking often entails upending basic beliefs and values. At best, most of us can only choke that down in small doses. Even if we shift our individual mindsets intellectually, our activity is still trapped in Taylorist operational and economic systems. Lean, quality, and systems thinking have not cracked the laws, customs, and economic self-interests with which Taylorism is now encrusted, consigning us to little mental prisons like independent companies, complex contracts, departmental silos, and so on.

Compression Thinking embraces systems thinking, but with a bias; that the world is finite; so is everything in it; therefore we must learn how to live well within its limitations. Doing this obviously requires a big reset in values and perceptions. What is success? What is waste? In the long run, who and what will be affected by our actions?

Compression Thinking also takes a very long, very broad view, so it is an even bigger break from Taylorism, which caught on fast a century ago because it rationalized the already existing paradigm of fast-growth, profit-maximizing, independent business. As with the case of lean and quality, Taylorist mindsets also stunt systems thinking by constraining its exercise to the boundaries of existing business interests and objectives. With that in mind, please examine the table at the beginning of this article. It is intended to show how dramatically our thinking needs to shift.

Different mindsets are needed to take some small slice of the environment and actually execute programs that substantially move toward it being regenerative, while also meeting important social objectives. Such a diffuse objective is hard to get in mind. And once in mind it is hard to keep in mind while involved in project execution.

The Compression Thinking Challenge is to crack existing business thinking (Taylorism) wide open by converting 30,000 foot-level concepts into actions doable at ground level. Taylorists regularly assume that superior technology and techniques will work miracles without having to change core thinking. That doesn’t get us past where we are.

Instead, we need demonstrations of projects that do more than just make our environmental problems “less bad” while also sustaining quality of life. Our rate of change re-conceptualizing how to do this project-by-project is slow, while the rate that new challenges are coming at us appears to be accelerating.



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