Friday, May 7, 2010

An adventure into abductive reasoning?

When I was a lawyer in another country I had the experience of intuition clashing with analytics in a manner that is typical of many organisations.
I was called upon prepare some legal guidelines and procedures for 'dealing' with some supposedly illegal occupants. Diligent research (the kind you throw yourself into wholeheartedly and with much enjoyment when you're newly called to the Bar), revealed that the 'illegal' people were in fact quite legal and had certain rights which could not be contravened without due process. The Powers That Be had already drawn up a Proposal which included evictions of new illegals (as was within their right), and sought to  encourage the illegals to enter into instruments of tenure and pay premiums for those rights. Thing is, they were already legal and already had those rights. However by upgrading their rights it would be perfectly justifiable to ask for a premium in consideration.

We had these periodic meetings where representatives of all departments got together to give status reports of their accomplishments which formed part of the entire business objectives, of which my Unit was only a part. Every meeting was somehow documented into a matrix which would show updates on everyone’s tasks.
But I could not update on the original Proposal for my Unit because it was just not possible to proceed under the program as set out in that proposal. I realized that ‘It cannot be done that way’ just does not compute in the systemic world of institutional thinking. (When I think of that time, I keep getting these images of a “Lost in Space” type robot, waving his little arms about and exclaiming in robot monotones “This does not compute! This does not compute! )
They said “Update” and I said “Can’t be done. The assumptions are wrong”. And I just could not fit myself into the task matrix. In order to achieve the loftier goals of helping people, which was the real intention of the Powers That Be (apart from getting the odd political vote), what we needed was some new radical legislation.

Being exhorted to fit myself into the matrix was my first encounter with big institutions where rigid systems are developed to make things run smoothly. I’ve found that often the ‘System’ (whether it be software, platforms, or old fashioned charts on paper), often assume an inflated importance. Often people conceive of their jobs as learning and using the software or following the systems and lose sight of the real goals of the business or institution.
Don’t get me wrong, systems, procedures and guidelines are vital to the efficient running of a business. However when they become the only thing that is valued, then this is a sign of stagnation. It is not enough only to have people with certificates and experience in that kind of job. It’s also necessary to have people with experiences and ideas from other industries and walks of life. They are the ones with the potential to envision new ideas which the business has not seen before.
But coming back to me and the task matrix.
I was finally able to convince some People That Mattered that it wasn’t about filling in tasks in the matrix to show that you did do some work that week. In order to accomplish the objectives of helping people (and in the process get a few votes in) we needed to re-engineer the whole program and that required new legislation to enable certain things to be done. And I set about doing just that. Two versions of it actually, because of some changes in governments that occurred in that period.
To make a long story short eventually a new boss sailed in with a third change in government. And this boss was a thinker. He saw a future of what the world could be even when his contemporaries kept using words like ‘maintain the status quo’.
That boss was the Minister of Government who finally brought a third version of our Bill to Parliament and it became law. By this time I had official help from two colleagues and the professional legislative draftsmen to refine the Bill which was eventually read in Parliament.

Working within the confines of rules and structures can wear down even the most creative of people.  I think that is why many leave for environments that allow them the freedom to follow up on ‘crazy ideas’. When you think of it, every modern convenience including blackberries and computers started with somebody wondering, “What if?”  or “How about we try something that hasn’t been done before?”
Looking back at my role in making that law I realize that being the intuitive type of thinker that I am, I naturally resisted the attempts of the systems people to reduce an  evolving idea, into steps that would fit into a matrix. But eventually, learning to speak in the language of delivery and numbers is what got the support of the Powers That Be to break new ground and create a law which brought new rights for land security into existence. (Controversial as that may be).

I don’t know whether I used abductive reasoning as it is defined (see my last post “Mystery…heuristic…algorithm!! ). There was a business goal to give certain people security and the proposed way of achieving that was just not possible. I wondered what could be done to resolve this problem and came up with a set of procedures which had to be embodied in a new law. It was quite an adventure.
I learned that it is not enough to have a vision of what could be.
To implement it you need to lay out a pragmatic system of rules and procedures for it work. And in order to accomplish that you need to be conversant in the language of the people who are going to work the vision into a heuristic and then hammer out the algorithm to make the results reliable.

Thanks for the design thinking lexicology Roger Martin!

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