Musing gently about improvisation, permission and forgiveness

Have you heard of Sugata Mitra? If you haven’t, then please watch this video. And if you have, please watch this video. And if you’ve already seen it, please watch this video.

He’s an amazing guy; his ideas on “minimally invasive education” and “child-driven education” are fabulous; what’s more important is that he’s put his ideas into practice and shared the results with us. I had the privilege of watching him at TED Global at Oxford in 2010 (thank you Chris, thank you Bruno), and one phrase he used has stayed forever in my memory.

Teachers who can be replaced by computers should be replaced by computers

I may be paraphrasing him, but that’s the gist of what he said. That sentence, along with John Seely Brown’s deceptively simple question (How long does a five-year-old take to become a six-year-old? One year), have influenced quite a lot of my recent thinking on education. But that’s not what this post is about. Or maybe it is. Sometimes I get the feeling the answer to everything is learn, learn, learn. Learning is living. The willingness to learn fuels life.

When I first came across the concept of outsourcing I was mystified. The received wisdom was that we should only outsource operations that had well-defined and mature processes, standardised and repeatable. And a part of me was asking “Why? Surely those are the very processes that are prime candidates for automation? Why would we want to apply the sledgehammer power of human brains to such mundane things?”. I remained mystified as I watched the BPO market mushroom. Paraphrasing Sugata Mitra, I felt that processes that can be replaced by computers should be replaced by computers. And I could not understand why this didn’t happen.

Those were the days, eh? Times when we had regular, standardised, repeatable processes. Times when we knew when, where and how locked-in customers would consume products and services in a predictable, stable manner. Times when listening to the customer was easy because there was nothing they could say and nowhere they could say it. And even if they did say something, it was easy not to listen.

Today it’s a whole different ball game. And for some time now I’ve been stressing the importance of “designing for loss of control” as companies spend more and more time trying to fit square pegs into round holes, as engagement with the customer migrates and mutates away from standardisable processes; companies nowadays seem to spend more time “handling exceptions” than executing the unexceptional.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

Systems can ask for permission. Only humans can ask for forgiveness.

You can come up with rules for how people should do things, and come up with tables of authorities and permissions and what-have-you. Much of the time, all you’ve done is lay out a rulebase that can be automated. And perhaps should be automated. But maybe it’s too late for that. Today, we’re seeing a shift from process to pattern, a shift from rule to principle, a shift from hierarchical to networked, a shift from centralised to edge-based. No more repeatable processes. Values-based activity. With domain experts dotted throughout the organisation, engaging with customers who expect the people they’re dealing with to be empowered to deal.

Customers know all this.

Customers know that exception handling is now the norm. And they expect everyone to know this.

People in customer service will have to learn to improvise. Be creative. We’ve all heard tales about the helpdesk from hell of the type “My computer freezes every time I touch any key” “Well don’t touch any key then!”. That’s not going to work any more.

An aside. I was looking for recipes for jhal muri, street food from Calcutta. Extra-spicy puffed rice with dollops of mustard oil and lashings of fresh green chillies. And I found this site, which I loved. In fact the stimulus for writing this post came from reading the recipe. The author makes the point that there is no such thing as a recipe for the dish; just a set of ingredients that can be varied at will to suit tastes.

And I thought to myself, that’s how customer service will look in time to come. A set of “ingredients”, the things a company can do or make or provide, loosely coupled by the values and principles the company adheres to. A “cook” who puts those ingredients together, on order, to suit what the customer wants.

Creativity in customer service? Perish the thought.

But I’m being serious. It is possible that unless customer service gets creative, it will be the company that perishes, not the thought.

Which brings me to my final point. For this creativity to exist, we should look to the masters of improvisation, in music, drama, art. Before they could improvise, they had to have real in-depth knowledge of the domain, a feel for the space, an intuitive sense of what they do. [Maybe there’s a reason for knowledge workers to be called knowledge workers? Hmmm.] Before they could improvise, they had to understand the technical capabilities and constraints of the instruments they played, the tools they used. Intuition, coupled with technical skill, underpinned by experience.

That’s hard.

Or at least it used to be hard.

Now, with enterprise social networks, it’s become a whole lot easier. If they’re designed well, you’re able to able to propagate the principles and values consistently, develop both the tacit as well as the explicit knowledge needed, share and enhance experience, make it easier for people to build their intuition and their skillbase, grow their confidence via active feedback loops. All done in an environment where you can record and look back in order to learn and improve. [Of course this can be used to apportion blame as well, but that’s not a sustainable strategy]. That’s why I joined Salesforce just over a year ago, I was fascinated by what could be done with Chatter, how enterprises would be able to transform themselves.

Look around you. See if the culture of work you’re in is about permission or forgiveness. It’s a good yardstick for figuring out whether you’ve really grasped this new world we’re all entering.

8 thoughts on “Musing gently about improvisation, permission and forgiveness”

  1. I once knew a person who, when confronted with a missing ingredient or a small lack in the proportion called for – say 1/2 t instead of 1t of salt – was incapable of cooking the dish. It was maddening as I’ve seldom followed a recipe exactly. It hasn’t seemed to make much of a difference, except when I was a bit too heady with the resulting experimentation. Nevertheless, I’ve eaten well and learned quite a bit.

    I think everyone should be encouraged to educate themselves and given the tools with which to do it. I saw this video a couple of years ago and my thought was – of course – there were no teachers to get in the way of the children’s learning. Fascinating to see these ideas put to practice . . . and to prove just how wrong must educators are. The same goes for knowledge workers and I’ll bet it would work wonders for our organizational effectiveness, provided the wonder of learning hasn’t been too harshly beaten out of everyone.

    I could go on, mentioning Alfie Kohn and Russel Ackoff, amongst others, but this is a comment, not my blog. Thanks for the mind food, JP.

  2. I’m lucky to mentor a recent graduate knowledge worker at a major financial processor (understandably a stressful org). We power talk about the culture of work and how to shift from permission to forgiveness (some days she hates going to work). Feels like enterprise social networks almost need synthesizers to sample and remix explicit knowledge latent in corporate databases, to create new tacit knowledge. Not only to improve customer service, but also to feel better at work.

    FLOOD on making Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence with Synth

  3. Remarkable and charming man, Sugata Mitra. Thanks for pointing out JP.

    In the UK, we have ready access to computers and broadband connections, yet so many parents see it as something to be severely rationed for fear of damaging a child’s education.

    The more I look at how our education system works, and debate it with my children’s teachers, the more I’m convinced that we are squeezing the natural thirst for knowledge that our children have.

  4. Adding social allows for a collaboration layer on top of complex interactions/transactions, but if in the end you still just end up with more items for a traditional change management program, it won’t delight customers or unleash innovation. It’s more than just facilitating human learning, we do need adaptive systems designed for ‘loss of control’, otherwise context-free algorithms are just codified bureaucracy (per Dickens “the law is an ass”). That’s why we home-school.

  5. Looking at experiments such as those of Sugata Mitra and your reference to the grass-roots liberation from command and control, I wonder how long would it take for children to take over education into their own hands, forcing institutions to transform. Call it Knowledge Spring! It may take places such as India and China, where teachers (quality ones, obviously) are at a premium, to revolutionize teaching by “outsourcing” the mundane stuff to computers that increasingly do a better job e.g. Khan Academy or Hey Math!

    When kids are forced to be creative in how they learn, they don’t need to be taught to be creative! Companies have little time to reorganize before such a generation enters the workforce!!

  6. Reading this article, I was reminded about another one by Larry Downes on Best Buy: Larry’s experience with Best Buy is a rather startling illustration of the “old” way of doing things, set processes, low adaptability, while newer companies in its space are succeeding because they adapt.

    One corollary to your point, though, when you outsource processes that are well defined (i.e. should be automated), there is minimal incentive for the outsourcing provider to automate these (think revenue streams), so outsourcing can create a temporary blip in costs but ongoing, the costs slowly start to creep up again. No automation :-).


  7. I work with leaders and businesses who want to align their practices with their desired outcomes…in businesses this includes culture. From this perspective it really does beg the question: is your culture about permission or forgiveness? Your message truly resonates with me! Thank you so much for sharing!

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