f-Lawed molehills

What could possibly be wrong with making mountains out of molehills?

Management f-Laws
Systems theorist Russell Ackoff and two of his co-authors (Herbert J. Addison and Sally Bibb) invented the term “f-Laws” in 2006 to describe their collection of aphoristic truths about a large number of management issues in organizations. In many instances, these truths may be quite difficult to pinpoint. Everybody involved may just have an uneasy inkling that something is wrong, without quite knowing what it is or what caused it. If properly understood, however, the f-Laws can function as simple and reliable guides to interpreting and perhaps changing managers’ and their subordinates’ everyday behaviour. All to the benefit of the organization as a whole.

The f-reaking distribution of knowledge
The first of the f-Laws quoted in A little book of f-Laws: 13 common sins of management is: The lower the rank of managers, the more they know about fewer things. The higher the rank of managers, the less they know about many things. As a result executives make mountains out of molehills, while subordinates make molehills out of mountains. Is this molehills-mountains thing simply a perspectives issue or is there more about it? Is it just one of those facts of life that must be accepted or should it be addressed?

What does it mean?
I couldn’t help attempting to clarify the (problematic) situation in a  little cMap. The point is that executives and the management layers below them are all trapped in a game. As one of their functions, the former set the goals and make sure that the latter work to attain them. The game that unfolds between them involves fear to lose control for the one, and the fear to go wrong for the other. As a result, the confidence and collaborative spirit that are necessary for proper communication go down the drain. In Ackoff’s words “the consequences are devastating: neither knows why the other does what they do, nor cares about it.” Top-level goals no longer benefit of lower-level insights and vice versa.

How to address the situation?
Bibb points out that “the best organizations provide the environment in which collaboration can flourish.” Key questions to improve the situation concern the nature of the goals and the mutual support necessary to achieve them. To this end, there is a need for sufficiently confident, competent people at all levels who are pursuing and readjusting goals in a spirit of collaboration and mutual understanding. No amount of power could possibly short-cut that.

Where is the systems part in f-Laws?
Well, it isn’t there! That’s the whole point. Systems thinking according to Ackoff focuses on the importance of organizational communication at, and between, all levels. The best way to bring that message home is to let the subversive message of the f-Laws sink in. More is explained in the Introduction (page v-ix) of Management f-Laws: how organizations really work (with a free preview of 81  f-Laws).

Where is the development part in f-Laws?
This blog is entitled Concept & Systems Learning for Development, because we believe concept mapping and systems thinking can enhance knowledge and learning capabilities for the benefit of development, be it urban, rural, human, social, or economic. The link between Ackoff’s prescripts for organizational learning and systems thinking in international development may be found in Communication for another development: listening before telling (free preview), which contains a very challenging message of turning top-down development efforts upside down. But that is for a future post. Time, also, to translate the management f-Laws to development f-Laws and add a few fresh ones, too …

PS (to DM): How clear was that? Clear as: ◊ day,  ◊ mud,  ◊ a bell,  ◊ other.

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About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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