If you have ever planned an improvement initiative in your organization, you will know that the first step is the decision as to where to start. Usually there is no lack of options – many areas function below their potential and prevent growth, and often there is more than one aspect in need of urgent attention. Even a stable, growing organization will still find numerous parts that can be optimized. Of course, it is not possible to tackle everything at the same time.
It is no different in everyday life. Human beings have physical limitations which mean they cannot do everything they want to do. Consequently, they are constantly forced to make decisions, which take place on several levels. Herbert A. Simon, a sociologist and political scientist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1978 for his work on human decision processes, which he had developed in the course of his research on Artificial Intelligence.
Limited decision options
Simon explains that humans are by nature limited due to various restrictions on their options:
- Input capacity: our senses are limited from the start. For instance, we are unable to detect all sound frequencies, nor can we see all colors. In our day to day life, we automatically filter out countless sensory inputs which our brain has categorized as irrelevant. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is important to be able to concentrate on the approaching lion without being distracted by songbirds in nearby trees.
- Storage capacity: our brains cannot store unlimited amounts of data. We wouldn’t want to either: we would be overwhelmed by the information overflow. This is why our brains automatically “clean up” and only move the items deemed important enough from short term to long term memory.
- Processing capacity: although our brains were still a match for computers in Simon’s time, they do have a limited processing speed. It would be impossible for us to go through all potential scenarios or consider all possible consequences each time we make a decision.
Simon declared us to be “satisficers”, as opposed to the previously held idea of the “optimizer”. We’re simply not able to make an optimal decision in every situation – that is, the best possible of all. We will choose the option that appears the best to us within our limitations.
Do the right thing: but the correct right thing!
Bearing in mind the above limitations it becomes clear that the decision process which improvements to implement and which to leave aside happens on two levels:
1. Separate good from bad. We do not act on the bad, we do act on the good.
2. Deciding which good things to actually do, as we are unable to do them all.
Deciding what is bad is fairly easy simply by drawing on our ethical persuasions. Not implementing many other good initiatives is much harder, however. Sure – sometimes it may well be obvious which improvement has greater positive effects or which problem needs to be dealt with first. But that is not always the case by any means.
It is usually impossible to foresee all potential consequences of an improvement initiative, and sometimes we will be faced with several options which all look similarly promising. But we must not fall into the trap of wanting to do them all at the same time! “Too much of a good thing” is not just a saying. Just as with a tower of toy blocks, each new element affects the stability of those below it, eventually leading to total collapse – even if each block on its own was fully functional.
Types of change: mental or physical
In such a case one question invariably arises: where do I start? This is where Humberto Baptista of Vectis Solutions offers the following model of reality to assist in understanding various approaches to change and how they work together:1
We perceive our environment through a prism of perceptual assumptions and limitations, leading to our observations of reality. Along with our working assumptions (that is, our beliefs about how things work), we draw up a model of reality.
This generally works quite well (humans are masters at recognizing patterns and understanding functions) – but it is still a limited and biased “version” of what is out there guiding our behavior and ultimately our decisions.
Now if we want to effect a change, we have two options: we can modify the environment and thus force people to modify their behavior, or we can modify their mental processes (the assumptions and paradigms), causing people to modify their behavior of their own volition. These two options occur at different points in the model provided.
Since we are dealing with a cycle, both aspects are interdependent and each will eventually affect the other one. However, these processes tend to be fairly slow and arduous. To use an example: You want your sales department to take production capacities into consideration when confirming a delivery deadline to a customer. So, you will introduce an appropriate milestone (e.g. consulting with project manager) in the procedure before a contract is signed: a physical change.
The sales force however is used to doing it differently and will quickly find creative ways of circumventing the new procedure (e.g. by manufacturing an “exemption”). If, however, you take the opportunity to explain to them the dire consequences a delayed delivery can have and thus why this step is so important, they are much more likely to quickly incorporate the new procedure.
Over the course of the next two posts, we will explain how you can implement this in detail and ensure acceptance and integration of new changes in your organization.
1 Humberto R. Baptista, The Avenues of Change: Why people Change and How to Manage the Process, http://Tocio.net/TheAvenueofChange.pdf