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The Heretic's Guide To Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations Paperback – December 2, 2011
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From the Author
We humans are a bizarre lot because our ability to work together on complex endeavours - a skill that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom - can also operate in negative ways. For example, we can put a man on the moon, yet many couples who have committed to a partnership based on love, fidelity, trust, respect and mutual support, cannot so much as rearrange furniture without having a domestic dispute.
Why do some projects end up like domestic disputes, yet others that are infinitely more complicated succeed, and thus push the boundaries of what humanity is capable of? Can we learn something about what makes successful projects by focussing on (seemingly) trivial matters such as who does the dishes after dinner or who holds the remote control while watching TV? We believe so. Our book justifies this claim, and provides rigorous, field-tested ways to tackle such social complexity in organisations and projects.
We assert that the number one reason organisational initiatives fail is because they attempt to implement solutions without first developing a shared (or common) understanding of the problem. This leads to chaos, confusion and unhappy stakeholders. Yet even when these symptoms are recognised, the solutions that are applied generally hinder rather than help. Whilst there is substantial published research that offers insights and answers as to why this happens only truly nerdy people ever bother to read it. Consequently there is a gap between professional practice and research.
We've studied the work of many academics who have recognised and written about this. The problem is that these works challenge many widely accepted managerial practices. As a result these ideas have been rejected, ignored or considered outright heretical, and thus languish (largely unread) in journals.
We love heretical ideas - particularly when they support conclusions we have reached through our professional experiences. However we like readability even more - interesting ideas are no good if they can only be understood by PhDs. We believe such insights are best conveyed through stories and analogies that people can relate to and so we have written this book in an accessible, relaxed and conversational style.
From the Back Cover
When it comes to solving complex problems, we often perform elaborate rituals in the guise of best practices that promise a world of order, certainty, and control. But reality paints a far different picture, which practitioners are often reluctant to discuss. A witty yet rigorous journey through the seedy underbelly of organisational problem solving, The Heretic's Guide to Best Practices pinpoints the reasons why best practices don't work as advertised and what can be done about it.
"Hugely enjoyable, deeply reflective, and intensely practical. This book is about weaving human artistry and improvisation, with appropriate methods and technologies, in order to pool collective intelligence and wisdom under pressure." - Simon Buckingham Shum, Knowledge Media Institute, The Open University, UK
"This is a terrific piece of work: important, insightful, and very entertaining. Culmsee and Awati have produced a refreshing take on the problems that plague organisations... If you're trying deal with wicked problems in your organisation, then drop everything read this book." - Tim Van Gelder, Principal Consultant, Austhink Consulting
Top customer reviews
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The first couple of chapters of this book launch a critique of "best practices" in project management, and of related organizational platitudes; the second and third chapters give an overview of cognitive biases and methodological myths; the fourth and fifth chapters discuss the "demise of command and control" in management and the challenge of wicked problems; the sixth chapter argues that ideals of communicative rationality are important and can be realized, to some degree, in organizations, depending on certain conditions; the seventh and eighth chapters, which are profusely illustrated, demonstrate the importance of visualizing reasoning using simple argumentation-based graphical notation; the ninth chapter is an overview of a number of semi-formal problem-structuring methods; the tenth chapter discusses rationality and relationships in complex inter-organizational projects such as large construction projects; chapters eleven and twelve present some case studies; and the last chapter presents tips and tricks for the practice of dialogue mapping.
Despite the title, the book's critique of "best practices" is just a prelude or pretext for the book's principal teaching: how to reason more effectively in groups about difficult practical problems. Many books have already been published on this topic, and I've read a few of them. But I think this book stands out from the crowd in the way it homes in on the most important practical conditions for effective reasoning in groups. A couple of these conditions come straight from Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom: (1) lots of face-to-face communication involving exchange of mutual commitments, and (2) a governance structure (or group norms) for the group's work that is designed by the group itself. Examples of how this can be done are given in detail.
The book's discussion of methods for visualizing reasoning is one of the most thought-provoking analyses of this topic that I've read, and I consider myself well read in this area. I would call this book a "must read" for anyone who wants to learn how to create a better world through practical argument mapping or dialogue mapping.
The paradigm shift at the heart of part one: rather than "cookie cutter" approaches that are SPOZED to "work for all" (but never do!) we can work collaboratively to create custom solutions based on real participation from everyone involved. (Old-timers may remember that this is what the field of Organization Development once did, before being taken over by the "change management" corporate consultancies...) Culmsee and Awati make a brilliant case for this; a deceptively folksy intro, full of Dilbert and Aussie humor, segues into an in-depth exploration of the various sources of cognitive bias, a fascinating debunking of the PERT myth, and a close-up look at the challenges of moving from a bureaucratic to a post-bureaucratic organization...all building up to a whiz-bang weaving together of Rittel, Habermas, Ostrom, Winnicott, and Heifetz, as they articulate the need for creating "holding environments" that build adaptive capacity.
But wait, folks... that's just the preamble! : WHAT'S NEW HERE, is the high-tech support for taking real collaboration to scale: part two explores HOW we can create "holding environments" for building adaptive capacity, by using visual mapping practices, AND ALSO, by addressing issues of power. Again, no need to read all of this in order... if, after two chapters on visual reasoning, IBIS, and argumentation-based rationale, the esoteric comparisons of different problem-structuring methods in chapter 9 are feeling a bit too heady at the moment, SKIP RIGHT AHEAD, and by all means, DON'T MISS the last chapter of this section and the brilliant case study from the construction industry, of how to build collaboration into systems by addressing issues of power. (I can't tell you how many conversations I've been in among OD professionals, where everyone is lamenting how this is one of the most under-adressed issues in our field.. so PLEASE, don't miss this chapter!!!! )
Well, this brings us to the third and final section of the book, which as I mentioned earlier is chock-full of more juicy case studies. As I said, this is (at least) three books in one... three EXTREMELY WORTHWHILE books in one... not just for those of us who are working to help the emergence of shared understanding in organizations, but also, maybe especially, for those of us who are working to help the emergence of shared understanding among multiple stakeholder groups, facing wicked issues. Given everything that is happening in the world today, I can't think of a more timely or more useful message.
p.s. In re-reading my review, I realized I didn't say much about "agile". Here it is, in a nutshell: the ground-breaking collaborative "problem-dissolving" methodology that Culmsee and Awati describe, and use with great success in their detailed case studies, is based on "welcoming initial solutions" (i.e., prototypes), in a highly effective way. Thus the strong parallels with Agile, where rapid prototyping is a key feature. Both systems, Agile project management and Dialogue Mapping, thus feature a rapid, non-linear oscillation between the "problem space" and the "solution space" -- and both methods are highly effective for generating practical creativity in group settings. Make sense? For more... read the book!