There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how’s the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"
None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness—awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: "This is water, this is water."
(David Foster Wallace, commencement speech at Kenyon College, Ohio).
Yeah, so if you care to Google it, you’ll find lots of articles pondering the reasons why the majority of Lean, Six Sigma, Agile, Kaizen, TQM, and name-your-poison adoptions "fail." People you and I know from conferences and books and such tell the same stories over and over again of the one big success they had with organizational transformation. Everyone was stoked about their branded re-packaging of old ideas made new again through the magic of buzzwords. They achieved improvements of 4x, 10x, 50x, or more X’s than you’d care to count. One or two years after the consultants left the building, those organizations were back where they started. I’ve seen it happen myself. The organizations snapped back to their old equilibrium state. Maybe they always do. The buzzwords haunt the place like fading poltergeists, and the stories live on, but the substance is long gone.
If you’ve done much Value Stream Mapping in information-shuffling organizations (as opposed to thing-making organizations), then you’ve probably done a double-take a few times, unable to believe process cycle efficiency could really be as low as that, and the company doesn’t sink through the earth’s crust like the superdense slug it is. It seems they’re happy as can be to spend 3 or 4 million dollars and burn up a year of 75 people’s precious time to build a routine, web-based CRUD app, fundamentally no different from a million others, that could have been delivered by a team of 4 in 6 weeks for the price of a few pizzas. Nor do they seem terribly worried about the opportunity cost of having all those people duct-taped to their desks for all those months, busily waiting for each other to "review" or "approve" things.
I’ve been wondering, lately, why none of those people wants to shoot himself in the head.
I mean, the dysfunction is obvious. The remedies are simple and painless, really. Sure, we all talk about how hard it is to change, but isn’t it really just a question of seeing the value and making the choice? It’s sort of like choosing to stop poking yourself in the eye with a stick. The more I study the phenomenon, the less I understand it. Positive change makes things easier, not harder. Better ways of doing things also happen to be easier ways. Come to think of it, I guess that’s more-or-less axiomatic. So, "change is hard" doesn’t seem like a satisfactory explanation. It seems like a cop-out. Still, when I mention these things, I tend to get a lot of "What the hell is water?" reactions.
The only explanation I can come up with is that there must be something in the status quo that brings people value. Clearly, they aren’t getting what they need as human beings directly from their day jobs. Maybe they fear that if they were expected to invest more of themselves in their day jobs, they would have proportionally less to invest in the things that truly define them.
Very few people are defined by their day jobs. Maybe someone like Steve Jobs, who self-actualized through his company. But not many. For some of us, the day job is part and parcel of who we are. In my case, for instance, helping people discover their own strengths and find their own path toward professional growth (that’s what a coach does, by the way) is an important part of my personal journey of self-actualization. But it isn’t my biography; not by half. For most people in the IT field, their day job probably accounts for considerably less than half of what makes them who they are. For many, I suspect, it’s just a paycheck. "I’d rather be flying," as the bumper-sticker says.
So, maybe people figure out how to get what they need from their day jobs without burning themselves out to such an extent that they can’t continue to develop as humans after work. Maybe they apply their intelligence and creativity elsewhere, on their own terms, for their own purposes. It would sure explain a lot.
That notion made me wonder how much more effective organizations could be, and how much better our societies could be, if we aligned natural human values with the values on which our organizations and societies are based; if we could have organizations that treated people as, you know, people, instead of as "resources;" if we non-machines were no longer trapped in a machine, like so many mouthless Harlan Ellison characters.
I started to examine this idea by exploring the premise that our society’s values are the values of a machine, and yet we ourselves are not machines parts. The situation creates a conflict between the things we naturally want from life and the things our society expects us to want; the things our society demands that we want. We are required to want to live in service to the Machine. Yet, this is contrary to our human nature.
We are thus compelled to lead a double life; a life of deceit. One side of our split personality pretends to be a dutiful machine part with no independent desires or goals. The other side seeks out the things that will enable us to reach the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Self-actualization. The crude beginnings of dot-connection activity are represented in the diagram below. No doubt it could stand some refinement. Feel free to offer suggestions.