Controlling the Invisible

Recently, I was engaged in a listserv conversation (remember those?) regarding the balance between standards-based enterprises and the need to engage creative talent who may bristle at standard
processes. The conversation moved to the question of new processes and standards that respected the nature of complex organizations (rather than early 20th century bureaucracies), and I offered the rather offensive idea that we don’t know enough to ponder the appropriate intervention strategy.
Expanding a bit here, and testing out the GovLoop notepad:

An organization I observed had a tenuous and negotiated balance between horizontal teams and client-focused divisions. This balance was negotiated constantly, as new actors and situations questioned the flexible structures. While the negotiations resulted in oscillation, the situation “worked,” and value was created and delivered.

Over time, new leadership came on board, and began their due diligence to understand the “horizontals.” Using time-honored MBA tools, however, they could not grasp immediately the nature of the relationship. As is appropriate, they established new financial and reporting controls for “visibility.” These collected data, however, did not reflect the negotiations or relationships – as classical business measures rarely do. Thus armed with (incomplete) data, this new leadership determined new directions for the horizontal teams. One can write the ending to this tale. New directions meant new managers, who lacked the relationships that were invisible to the financial and reporting controls.

Management science has yet to catch up with the notion of networks and relationships that drive business value. There is some early work regarding complexity-informed leadership for organizations (one compilation I’m slogging through is referenced at the end of this post), but few tools to inform the praxis. Private sector firms are experimenting with various open models, to some success, and proving the theory: experimentation is critical to finding the ‘right’ set of standards and processes for a particular organization at a particular time. I was reminded this week of Gell-Man’s caution: The only valid model for a complex system is the system itself – we know to despise the notion of “cookie cutter” solutions, but lack alternatives, particularly in the public sector.
So how to proceed? We know we need accountability at every step, and we know experimentation is an unwelcome leadership tool in most agencies. How do we evolve the practice of public sector leadership to recognize what we already know: people are not fungible, the relationships they bring to the workplace are as important as their knowledge and skills, and what matters is often invisible – even when using a balanced scorecard. How do we control the invisible?

Referenced big sloggy book: Hazy, J. K., Goldstein, J. A., & Lichtenstein, B. B. (Eds.). (2007). Complex Systems Leadership Theory: New Perspectives from Complexity Science on Social and Organizational Effectiveness (Vol. 1). Mansfield, MA: ISCE Publishing.

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Like all great posts I come away with more questions than answers.

For years, salespeople are often asked about their rolodex when entering a job. However, as with this note, I think the ability to bring in a personal network is huge for a job. Especially as it shows the ability to potentially grow a network inside the new work environment. The most effective workers I’ve know have developed a wide-ranging network to accomplish work that often ranges from the security guard to randomly running/exercising and therefore knowing the senior execs.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Great post and especially relevant for today. I would argue that instead of controlling the invisible we determine how to reward employees who best utilize the invisible. When the value is in the employees, the best a manager can do is to enroll the employee in the organization’s vision.

Gary Berg-Cross


I heartily agree that we often don’t “know enough to ponder the appropriate intervention strategy (in a complex organization).
There has been quite a bit of thought about this but it is hard to apply. I wrote about this 7 years ago or so.

Among the things being tried was Checkland’s Soft-systems approach developed in the 80s and 90s to express and negotiate IT-related change outcomes. SSM was originally defined as an
action research approach, to enable organizational actors to jointly inquire into and learn about organizational problems and appropriate solutions, especially in the IT domain.

There’s a Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) too that uses a shared social cognition approach. SSM provides a set of modeling techniques that enable a systemic approach for inquiring about and theiry resolution.

Generally these “soft” systems perspective recognizes that:

“multiple, competing definitions exist for any purposeful system of human activity. Individuals may simultaneously define multiple purposes for which they understand a system of human-activity to exist. Some of these may coexist and some conflict. Individuals may only become aware of conflicts when called upon to resolve incompatibilities between activities required for one purpose and activities required for a conflicting purpose. But this depends upon those activities being
made explicit, though the definition of systems of human- activity, or “soft” systems.

Like many things these just use a lot of resoruces and not many people are well trained in them.

It takes tine for the separation and surfacing of multiple, “purposeful systems of human-activity”, and an inquiry into how each system view may be achieved.