Folk management

How do you think organisations work?
This is how Jeremy thinks his boiler works….

This is what a fair few people including me think a boiler works like. Not in as obviously ludicrous way, but  comments I’ve sourced from nearby people are similar…

  • I’d turn it high, so it gets really warm quicker, then turn it down to the temperature I want”
  • “If you whack it up high, it makes it hotter, which is what you want. Then turn it down”
  • “When it’s cold, turn it much hotter to reverse the cold then put it to the heat you want”

This isn’t how thermostats work, but it’s how people think they work.

Most people don’t give it much thought, instead they use the nearest metaphor they have to imagine how it works. Probably something like putting your foot down on an accelerator hard, so you speed up faster, until you reach the desired speed then you take your foot off the pedal. Or closer to the actual situation, turning on a gas fire full until it heats up a room, then turning it down again.

When people don’t know how something works, they imagine how it works. But crucially, they’ll not know that there’s a difference between imagining and knowing. There’s something called folk physics, which is the study of how people imagine the world works when they don’t know how it does.

For example people think that when water is piped through a coiled spiral of pipe, that when the water emerges from the end it will continue to spiral, in a coil of water. It doesn’t, it comes out in a straight line, but surprisingly large numbers of people think it comes out all wiggly.

What are trees made of? Where does all that wood come from? Lots of people think it comes from the soil, water and something to do with leaves and sunlight.

Trees come from fresh air. 95% of a tree come from carbon dioxide, the air around it turns into tons of wood. Sounds quite weird and unlikely, but only if you don’t know how photosynthesis works. 

This is why normal ordinary command and control management is so dumb. Because it actually is dumb. Or rather, it’s the equivalent level of dumbness as thinking that a cannonball falls faster than a marble. Just an incorrect model of how reality works, easily tested by empirical investigation. But startlingly dumb, if intelligence is the ability to acquire knowledge, then the failure to test assumptions of normal models of work is dumb cos no new knowledge is acquired.

Do targets work to make services better? No, you can test that and find out.

Do appraisals work to make services better? No, you can test that and find out.

Folk management is the result of the ongoing inability to generate new knowledge by testing the underlying theory that it relies on. Most organisations don’t know the theory that they operate under, only the visible manifestations of it. They know they do annual plans, budget monitoring, have service standards, but not that this is a choice driven by an assumption about how the world works.

As the Deming quote goes, without theory there is no learning. Without knowing the theory of how boilers and thermostats work, you can’t use it properly to keep you at a pleasant temperature. Without knowing how work works, or at least what your own theory of work actually is, then you can’t learn how to get better at it.

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9 Responses to Folk management

  1. Ian_in_Budapest says:

    Fitting analogy! “Let’s aim a little higher so that we’ll be sure to get the results that we really want. But don’t let your people in on this.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mark says:

    Great post, for people who understand how thermostats work.

    I work in a building entirely occupied by electrical engineers, software developers and mechanical design engineers. All graduates with engineering degrees.

    I regularly enter a conference room where the temperature is set 5 degrees hotter or colder than you would ever want it.

    I despair

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Charles Beauregard says:

    There was a study done similar to this. Participants were asked to rate their knowledge of how toilet flushing works. They were then asked to write detailed step-by-step instructions, and to rate their knowledge again. The study showed that the ratings were significantly lower the second time around:
    I daresay that if you asked most managers to rate how well they know their own organisation they would score themselves pretty highly. I guess the key is getting them to discover for themselves that things aren’t quite how they think they are.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      theres a thing that Tim Harford did about similar, The Problem With facts.
      My favourite bit in it is how knowing MORE facts makes you LESS likely to change your mind on charged issues that people have “political” beliefs about. So two groups of people , “pro” and “anti” climate change are MORE likely to vociferous disagree, the MORE knowledge that have on the subject.
      And the bit at the end that there is a solution, curiosity. Wanting to know about something trumps knowing something

      Liked by 2 people

      • Charles Beauregard says:

        That’s interesting – you’d normally think the more data the better wouldn’t you – or at least I would.

        Using climate change and an example, it’s worth checking out this 2 minute clip from Merchants of Doubt to see how normative experiences trump data:

        (no pun or irony intended with the use of the word ‘trump’)


  4. Peter says:

    Great stuff as ever


  5. Pingback: Five Blogs – 10 Augustus 2017 – 5blogs

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