OK, conference blogging again, but it may not be posted real time (I really hate University firewalls). Our speaker is Fred Kofman former teacher at MIT where be handled Management Information Systems. First up, When I worked with Peter Senge. He now runs a 150 person consultancy company and is going to speak about A Post-modernist Perspective on Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. Rumour is he going to talk about memes, one those ideas with no real basis in science and a false and simplistic metaphor so I prepare the mantra of calmness;I will be good and suspend belief and see what happens. He starts with an engaging style and a little self-deprecation so I have hope.

Quoting Ashby’s law: If a system is to be in control the number of states in its control mechanism must be greated than or equal to the number of states in the system being controlled. Only variety can match variety. He interprets this as requiring a belief that a leader has to be in control of all the variables, and argues that this is limited. Well it would be, but its not what Ashby is saying, the variety can come from anywhere and be controlled anywhere. Now relating Morgan’s metaphor of a man asking Picasso to paint a picture of his wife, the man does like the abstract representation so he shows Picasso a picture from his wallet and Picasso says Oh, I didn’t realise she was so small. Arguing that there is no such thing as an absolute reality, everything is an interpretation. HELP, I really don’t like this form of extreme post modernism, the only good news it is never practised, just talked about. Apparently we all use different cameras, we have to choose things and make models so we multiple true co-existing views, but very few people take account of the camera. Ah here comes Nietzsche! Facts are subject to interpretation, the interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power, not truth. Talking about mental models, suggesting that we need to study the observers.

The theme develops, defines ontological arrogance as when I say something is difficult I am putting my interpretation onto the space, preventing discussion. Now a verbatim transcription Complexity is in the eye of the beholder there is no such thing as complexity in the real world. and (again verbatim) Too complex is how a controller calls a system for which it does not have the requisite variety. This appears to be an extreme form of post modernism. Lets see what he makes of it, but I don’t buy it. Reality exists and rubs up against our perceptions it is not defined by them.

Valid point that sub-optimal behaviour by sub-systems is necessary for system performance. I would prefer agents to sub-systems (I get a nasty feeling he going to combine a form of reductionism with post-modernism, something Senge does all the time). Another controversial statement: There is no such thing as a real problem, there is only my own opinion that this is a problem for me. Valid point that representations are not reality, but failing to realise that it does not follow from that that reality does not exist or is only the product of its representations.

Talks about traditional leadership models, not sure if he agrees or disagrees with this one: A leader is someone who can transform anxiety into confidence. OK I can buy that as an aspect of some types of leadership. Saying that they have to look at three questions: (i)Where are we; (ii) Where are we going (iii) How are we going to get there. The first question, from a post-modern perspective, is very difficult as there are different views. So Ashby’s law must be changed to: If a system is to thrive its leadership must have a level of consciousness able to acknowledge, transcend and integrate the diverse perspectives in the system being led. Only humility can navigate complexity. Now that is interesting, and at times it will apply but he is falling badly (as does Senge) into universalism. Moving on: Leadership effectiveness is a direct function of the leader’s ability to integrate multiple perspectives into a coherence world view. Using narrative a lot, but really as a way of describing someone’s perspective; they have their own story.

HELP, he has now moved on and the meme has arrived, he is using Dawkin’s dubious claim that memes attempt to reproduce themselves like genes. Adding techno-memes (ideas that spread through technology) and suggesting that they will take over. OH HELP PLEASE SAVE ME, he now wants to talk about the “The Selfless Meme”. He talks about this as a pill with a hard shell, you have to give business people a hard shell, but the payload must be soft. Admits this is a Trojan horse

The meme he offers people as a choice between a Knower (blue pill) or Learner (red bill), direct reference to The Matrix here. However he is defining a Knower as someone whose self esteem is wrapped up in the arrogance of their expertise. A Learner is interpreted very positively. The great irony here is that he is creating dichotomies between good and bad while talking about dialectic. Now wrapping it up with a crude privilege of a crude understanding of east v west. Saying that a human being is seen as a flow in the east not an entity. Partially true but its not something you can change over night, and some of it is hard wired anyway.

Classic Senge now, don’t say The room is too hot, say I feel that the room is too hot so we don’t have conflict. Arguing that this is a small change. Talking about the need for people to live in a world where they have no strong opinions but are open to all ideas. Simplistic statements now about seeing people I don’t agree with as idiots, people I agree with as intelligence. Saying that if you reveal the game its not possible to play it. This is arrant nonsense. I know plenty of people who disagree with me who are very intelligent, and plenty of people who agree with me who are embarrassing idiots. Making a link between three year old tantrums and 43 three year olds (a 43 year old is a three year olf with fourty years experience, clever, raises a laugh but trivial).

Back to Nietzsche and power again: You have my way, I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist. Now we get a two by two (I thought we might at some stage with an MIT consultant!)

You know You don’t know
I know what we share and any mutually observable or pubic informatio my private data emotions, concerns, intentions, standards, foals, etc. Impact of your actions on me
I don’t know Your private data, emotions, concerns, intentions, standards, goals, etc. Impact of may actions on you External facts we don; have. internal states of which each of us is unaware, other peoples views

Now into conclusions:

  • Don’t get mad get curious (not bad): that’s good, see things
  • Must love the truth more than face (Yoda): any truth, any perspective can be valid. So creationists are right are they? this is a contradiction anyway, Yoda talks about the truth not multiple-perspectives.
  • It’s not what you don’t know that will kill you, It is what you think you know but don’t: Good stuff but not original and not correct, what you don;t know can kill you as well.
  • Lead from ontological humility – If someone asks you Where are we going? say I don’t know we have to talk about it. OK, I can see times when that works but its not universal, its something that can work, but it depends on context. Another universal and typical of post-modernism, rejecting modernism but then assuming its form!
  • HELP, he is using socrates to support post-modernism, saying that socratic questioning means that socrates accepted that there was no reality! That’s a step to far.

Questions coming in now. How do you lead your boss, deal with hierarchies? Great question. Response stumbles, but then suggests that you redefine your ideas in terms of your bosses perspective or view. How could your view add value to his goal? Can I challenge him so my views will be seen in his service. Now playing games, raising voice and getting aggressive, saying that the boss may be right, you should not challenge, he has the property rights, do what he says or leave. Christ this guy is a managerialist, what if you have forty years service and boss is a new appointment? You know the work backwards, know that the customer will be punished or safety compromised? Far too top down focused.

He quotes Yoda, but he has just said he would fire any of his employees if at the end of the day they did not do what they were told. Now OK I would do the same, but then I haven’t spent an hour talking about ontological humility! Darth Vader under the surface I think!. OK final slide (moving away from questions) a quote from Maturana on love. To live in love is to accept the other and the conditions of his existence as a source of richness and not as an opposition, restriction or limitation. Well, it sounds good, but the lived life is a different matter, being fired is pretty limiting. So is this one rule for the boss, one of the rest?

My overall conclusion? A well delivered and engaging loose synthesis of Senge and Dawkins, with a loose misinterpretation of Morgan thrown in for good measure. Ok some of the language of complexity is used, but not much and its not clear if it is understood. Better material, better understanding of that material and consistency would have made this an acceptable main tent.

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