An inherent property of a chaotic system is that slight changes in initial conditions in the system result in a disproportionate change in outcome that is difficult to predict. Chaotic systems appear to create outcomes that appear to be random: they are generated by simple and non-random processes but the complexity of such systems emerge over time driven by numerous iterations of simple rules. The elements that compose chaotic systems might be few in number, but these elements work together to produce an intricate set of dynamics that amplifies the outcome and makes it hard to be predictable. These systems evolve over time, doing so according to rules and initial conditions and how the constituent elements work together.
Complex systems are characterized by emergence. The interactions between the elements of the system with its environment create new properties which influence the structural development of the system and the roles of the agents. In such systems there is self-organization characteristics that occur, and hence it is difficult to study and effect a system by studying the constituent parts that comprise it. The task becomes even more formidable when one faces the prevalent reality that most systems exhibit non-linear dynamics.
So how do we incorporate management practices in the face of chaos and complexity that is inherent in organization structure and market dynamics? It would be interesting to study this in light of the evolution of management principles in keeping with the evolution of scientific paradigms.
Newtonian Mechanics and Taylorism
Traditional organization management has been heavily influenced by Newtonian mechanics. The five key assumptions of Newtonian mechanics are:
- Reality is objective
- Systems are linear and there is a presumption that all underlying cause and effect are linear
- Knowledge is empirical and acquired through collecting and analyzing data with the focus on surfacing regularities, predictability and control
- Systems are inherently efficient. Systems almost always follows the path of least resistance
- If inputs and process is managed, the outcomes are predictable
Frederick Taylor is the father of operational research and his methods were deployed in automotive companies in the 1940’s. Workers and processes are input elements to ensure that the machine functions per expectations. There was a linearity employed in principle. Management role was that of observation and control and the system would best function under hierarchical operating principles. Mass and efficient production were the hallmarks of management goal.
Randomness and the Toyota Way
The randomness paradigm recognized uncertainty as a pervasive constant. The various methods that Toyota Way invoked around 5W rested on the assumption that understanding the cause and effect is instrumental and this inclined management toward a more process-based deployment. Learning is introduced in this model as a dynamic variable and there is a lot of emphasis on the agents and providing them the clarity and purpose of their tasks. Efficiencies and quality are presumably driven by the rank and file and autonomous decisions are allowed. The management principle moves away from hierarchical and top-down to a more responsibility driven labor force.
Complexity and Chaos and the Nimble Organization
Increasing complexity has led to more demands on the organization. With the advent of social media and rapid information distribution and a general rise in consciousness around social impact, organizations have to balance out multiple objectives. Any small change in initial condition can lead to major outcomes: an advertising mistake can become a global PR nightmare; a word taken out of context could have huge ramifications that might immediately reflect on the stock price; an employee complaint could force management change. Increasing data and knowledge are not sufficient to ensure long-term success. In fact, there is no clear recipe to guarantee success in an age fraught with non-linearity, emergence and disequilibrium. To succeed in this environment entails the development of a learning organization that is not governed by fixed top-down rules: rather the rules are simple and the guidance is around the purpose of the system or the organization. It is best left to intellectual capital to self-organize rapidly in response to external information to adapt and make changes to ensure organization resilience and success.
Companies are dynamic non-linear adaptive systems. The elements in the system are constantly interacting between themselves and their external environment. This creates new emergent properties that are sensitive to the initial conditions. A change in purpose or strategic positioning could set a domino effect and can lead to outcomes that are not predictable. Decisions are pushed out to all levels in the organization, since the presumption is that local and diverse knowledge that spontaneously emerge in response to stimuli is a superior structure than managing for complexity in a centralized manner. Thus, methods that can generate ideas, create innovation habitats, and embrace failures as providing new opportunities to learn are best practices that companies must follow. Traditional long-term planning and forecasting is becoming a far harder exercise and practically impossible. Thus, planning is more around strategic mindset, scenario planning, allowing local rules to auto generate without direct supervision, encourage dissent and diversity, stimulate creativity and establishing clarity of purpose and broad guidelines are the hall marks of success.
Principles of Leadership in a New Age
We have already explored the fact that traditional leadership models originated in the context of mass production and efficiencies. These models are arcane in our information era today, where systems are characterized by exponential dynamism of variables, increased density of interactions, increased globalization and interconnectedness, massive information distribution at increasing rapidity, and a general toward economies driven by free will of the participants rather than a central authority.
Complexity Leadership Theory (Uhl-Bien) is a “framework for leadership that enables the learning, creative and adaptive capacity of complex adaptive systems in knowledge-producing organizations or organizational units. Since planning for the long-term is virtually impossible, Leadership has to be armed with different tool sets to steer the organization toward achieving its purpose. Leaders take on enabler role rather than controller role: empowerment supplants control. Leadership is not about focus on traits of a single leader: rather, it redirects emphasis from individual leaders to leadership as an organizational phenomenon. Leadership is a trait rather than an individual. We recognize that complex systems have lot of interacting agents – in business parlance, which might constitute labor and capital. Introducing complexity leadership is to empower all of the agents with the ability to lead their sub-units toward a common shared purpose. Different agents can become leaders in different roles as their tasks or roles morph rapidly: it is not necessarily defined by a formal appointment or knighthood in title.
Thus, complexity of our modern-day reality demands a new strategic toolset for the new leader. The most important skills would be complex seeing, complex thinking, complex knowing, complex acting, complex trusting and complex being. (Elena Osmodo, 2012)
Complex Seeing: Reality is inherently subjective. It is a page of the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle that posits that the independence between the observer and the observed is not real. If leaders are not aware of this independence, they run the risk of engaging in decisions that are fraught with bias. They will continue to perceive reality with the same lens that they have perceived reality in the past, despite the fact that undercurrents and riptides of increasingly exponential systems are tearing away their “perceived reality.” Leader have to be conscious about the tectonic shifts, reevaluate their own intentions, probe and exclude biases that could cloud the fidelity of their decisions, and engage in a continuous learning process. The ability to sift and see through this complexity sets the initial condition upon which the entire system’s efficacy and trajectory rests.
Complex Thinking: Leaders have to be cognizant of falling prey to linear simple cause and effect thinking. On the contrary, leaders have to engage in counter-intuitive thinking, brainstorming and creative thinking. In addition, encouraging dissent, debates and diversity encourage new strains of thought and ideas.
Complex Feeling: Leaders must maintain high levels of energy and be optimistic of the future. Failures are not scoffed at; rather they are simply another window for learning. Leaders have to promote positive and productive emotional interactions. The leaders are tasked to increase positive feedback loops while reducing negative feedback mechanisms to the extent possible. Entropy and attrition taxes any system as is: the leader’s job is to set up safe environment to inculcate respect through general guidelines and leading by example.
Complex Knowing: Leadership is tasked with formulating simple rules to enable learned and quicker decision making across the organization. Leaders must provide a common purpose, interconnect people with symbols and metaphors, and continually reiterate the raison d’etre of the organization. Knowing is articulating: leadership has to articulate and be humble to any new and novel challenges and counterfactuals that might arise. The leader has to establish systems of knowledge: collective learning, collaborative learning and organizational learning. Collective learning is the ability of the collective to learn from experiences drawn from the vast set of individual actors operating in the system. Collaborative learning results due to interaction of agents and clusters in the organization. Learning organization, as Senge defines it, is “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspirations are set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”
Complex Acting: Complex action is the ability of the leader to not only work toward benefiting the agents in his/her purview, but also to ensure that the benefits resonates to a whole which by definition is greater than the sum of the parts. Complex acting is to take specific action-oriented steps that largely reflect the values that the organization represents in its environmental context.
Complex Trusting: Decentralization requires conferring power to local agents. For decentralization to work effectively, leaders have to trust that the agents will, in the aggregate, work toward advancing the organization. The cost of managing top-down is far more than the benefits that a trust-based decentralized system would work in a dynamic environment resplendent with the novelty of chaos and complexity.
Complex Being: This is the ability of the leaser to favor and encourage communication across the organization rapidly. The leader needs to encourage relationships and inter-functional dialogue.
The role of complex leaders is to design adaptive systems that are able to cope with challenging and novel environments by establishing a few rules and encouraging agents to self-organize autonomously at local levels to solve challenges. The leader’s main role in this exercise is to set the strategic directions and the guidelines and let the organizations run.
A lean financial infrastructure presumes the ability of every element in the value chain to preserve and generate cash flow. That is the fundamental essence of the lean infrastructure that I espouse. So what are the key elements that constitute a lean financial infrastructure?
And given the elements, what are the key tweaks that one must continually make to ensure that the infrastructure does not fall into entropy and the gains that are made fall flat or decay over time. Identification of the blocks and monitoring and making rapid changes go hand in hand.
The Key Elements or the building blocks of a lean finance organization are as follows:
- Chart of Accounts: This is the critical unit that defines the starting point of the organization. It relays and groups all of the key economic activities of the organization into a larger body of elements like revenue, expenses, assets, liabilities and equity. Granularity of these activities might lead to a fairly extensive chart of account and require more work to manage and monitor these accounts, thus requiring incrementally a larger investment in terms of time and effort. However, the benefits of granularity far exceeds the costs because it forces management to look at every element of the business.
- The Operational Budget: Every year, organizations formulate the operational budget. That is generally a bottoms up rollup at a granular level that would map to the Chart of Accounts. It might follow a top-down directive around what the organization wants to land with respect to income, expense, balance sheet ratios, et al. Hence, there is almost always a process of iteration in this step to finally arrive and lock down the Budget. Be mindful though that there are feeders into the budget that might relate to customers, sales, operational metrics targets, etc. which are part of building a robust operational budget.
- The Deep Dive into Variances: As you progress through the year and part of the monthly closing process, one would inquire about how the actual performance is tracking against the budget. Since the budget has been done at a granular level and mapped exactly to the Chart of Accounts, it thus becomes easier to understand and delve into the variances. Be mindful that every element of the Chart of Account must be evaluated. The general inclination is to focus on the large items or large variances, while skipping the small expenses and smaller variances. That method, while efficient, might not be effective in the long run to build a lean finance organization. The rule, in my opinion, is that every account has to be looked and the question should be – Why? If the management has agreed on a number in the budget, then why are the actuals trending differently. Could it have been the budget and that we missed something critical in that process? Or has there been a change in the underlying economics of the business or a change in activities that might be leading to these “unexpected variances”. One has to take a scalpel to both – favorable and unfavorable variances since one can learn a lot about the underlying drivers. It might lead to managerially doing more of the better and less of the worse. Furthermore, this is also a great way to monitor leaks in the organization. Leaks are instances of cash that are dropping out of the system. Much of little leaks amounts to a lot of cash in total, in some instances. So do not disregard the leaks. Not only will that preserve the cash but once you understand the leaks better, the organization will step up in efficiency and effectiveness with respect to cash preservation and delivery of value.
- Tweak the process: You will find that as you deep dive into the variances, you might want to tweak certain processes so these variances are minimized. This would generally be true for adverse variances against the budget. Seek to understand why the variance, and then understand all of the processes that occur in the background to generate activity in the account. Once you fully understand the process, then it is a matter of tweaking this to marginally or structurally change some key areas that might favorable resonate across the financials in the future.
- The Technology Play: Finally, evaluate the possibilities of exploring technology to surface issues early, automate repetitive processes, trigger alerts early on to mitigate any issues later, and provide on-demand analytics. Use technology to relieve time and assist and enable more thinking around how to improve the internal handoffs to further economic value in the organization.
All of the above relate to managing the finance and accounting organization well within its own domain. However, there is a bigger step that comes into play once one has established the blocks and that relates to corporate strategy and linking it to the continual evolution of the financial infrastructure.
The essential question that the lean finance organization has to answer is – What can the organization do so that we address every element that preserves and enhances value to the customer, and how do we eliminate all non-value added activities? This is largely a process question but it forces one to understand the key processes and identify what percentage of each process is value added to the customer vs. non-value added. This can be represented by time or cost dimension. The goal is to yield as much value added activities as possible since the underlying presumption of such activity will lead to preservation of cash and also increase cash acquisition activities from the customer.
“The reality distortion field was a confounding mélange of a charismatic rhetorical style, an indomitable will, and an eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand. If one line of argument failed to persuade, he would deftly switch to another. Sometimes, he would throw you off balance by suddenly adopting your position as his own, without acknowledging that he ever thought differently. “
– Andy Hertzfield on Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field.
Many of us have heard the word – Reality Distortion Field. The term has been attributed to Steve Jobs who was widely known to have communicated messages to his constituency in a manner such that the reality of the situation was supplanted by him packaging the message so that people would take the bait and pursue paths that would, upon closer investigation, be dissonant from reality. But having been an avid acolyte of Jobs, I would imagine that he himself would be disturbed and unsettled by the label. Since when did the promise of a radiant future constitute a Reality Distortion Field? Since when did the ability of a person to embrace what seemingly is impossible and far-fetched and instill confidence in the troops to achieve it constitute a Reality Distortion Field? Since when did the ability of leadership to share in the wonders of unique and disruptive creations constitute a Reality Distortion Field? Since when did dreams of a better future underpinned with executable actions to achieve it constitute a Reality Distortion Field?
The Reality Distortion Field usage reflects the dissonance between what is and what needs to be. It is a slapstick term which suggests that you are envisioning tectonic dissonance rifts between reality and possibilities and that you are leading the awestruck starry-eyed followers off a potential cliff. Some people have renamed RDF as hype of Bulls*#t. They believe that RDF is extremely bad for organizations because it pushes the people outside the comfort zone of physical and logical constraints and is a recipe for disaster. The argument continues that organizations that are grounded upon the construct of reality and to communicate the same are essential to advance the organization. I beg to differ.
So let me address this on two fronts: RDF label and if we truly accept what RDF means … then my position is that it is the single most important attribute that a strong leader ought to embrace in the organization.
The RDF label:
We all know this to be true: A rose by any other name is still a rose. We just happen to call this rose in this context a RDF. It is presumed to be the ability of a person to cast possibilities in a different light … so much so that the impossibilities are reduced to elements just within the grasp of reality. Now I ask you – What is wrong with that? For a leader to be able to cast their vision within the inimitable grasp of an organization is a huge proxy for the faith of the leader of the people in the organization. If a project realistically would take 3 months but a RDF is cast to get a project done in 15 days – that is a tall order – but think of the consequences if people are “seduced” into the RDF and hence acts upon it. It immediately unfolds new pathways of collaboration, unforeseen discoveries into super-efficient and effective methods, it creates trench camaraderie, it distills focus into singularity points to be executed against, it instills and ignites a passion and an engagement around the new stakes in the ground, people become keepers of one another for a consequential and significant conquest, it brings out the creative energies and the limitless possibilities, once the goal is accomplished, of disruptive innovation in means and ends. Of course, one could also counter-argue a plethora of incidental issues in such cases: employees would burn out under the burden of unrealistic goals, employees are set more for failing than succeeding, it would create a disorderly orientation upon groups working together to meet RDF standards, and if one were to fall short …it would be a last straw that may break the camel’s back. So essentially this speaks to the ordinal magnitude of the RDF schema that is being pushed out by leadership.
RDF and the beneficial impact to an organization:
It is the sine qua non of great leadership to be able to push organizations beyond the boundaries of plain convenience. I have, in my career, been fortunate to have been challenged and on many occasions, forced out of my comfort zone. But in having done so successfully on many occasions, it has also given me the confidence to scale mountains. And that confidence is a perquisite that the organization leadership has to provide on a daily basis. After all, one of the biggest assets that an employee in an organization ought to have is pride and sense of accomplishment to their work. RDF unfolds that possibility.
We hear of disruptive innovations. These are defined as innovations that leapfrog the bounds of technology inertia. How does a company enable that? It is certainly not incremental thinking. It is a vision that marginally lies outside our aggregated horizon of sight. The age today which is a result of path breaking ideas and execution have been a result of those visionaries that have aimed beyond the horizons, instilled faith amongst the line men to align and execute, and made the impossible possible. We ought to thank our stars for having leaders that emit an RDF and lead us off our tenebrous existence in our diurnal professional lives.
There is absolutely no doubt that such leadership would create resistance and fierce antipathy among some. But despite some of the ill effects, the vector that drives great innovations lies in the capacity of the organization to embrace degrees of RDF to hasten and make the organizations competitive, distinctive and powerful.