Getting to Maybe

A book I recently read as part of my participating as a mentor and guest speaker at McMaster University’s Arts and Science Programme is “Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed” by Frances Westley et al. It is, like many books about organizational and societal change and improvement, probably about 25-30% longer than it should have been but is, nevertheless, a solid book with a number of good ideas and examples.

There were a couple of ideas that I made a note of and think are important concepts for performance improvement professionals:

Set information targets, not just performance targets: “Information targets are indicator points that, when reached, tell you to pause and look again at what’s going on. A gasoline gauge on an automobile provides an example of an information target. When the gauge shows a quarter full, you don’t say to yourself, ‘Good for me, I’ve succeeded in using three-quarters of a tank of gas.’ Instead you think about how much further you can go on the amount remaining. OP2000’s vision of raising two thousand people out of poverty by 2000 was a useful goal for attracting and motivating people. But such a clear goal can also become a liability if policy makers or funders fixate on it as a measure of success. For evaluation purposes multiple information targets are helpful. Who is coming to the Roundtable? Who is absent and why?” (Pages 156-157).

In classic process improvement terms, this is the age-old difference between knowing what process Xs (leading indicators) to measure compared to process Ys (outcomes) but an important and oft-forgotten point.

Results accountability and evaluation compared to learning (developmental) accountability and evaluation: “[The] tension between learning and accountability is seldom recognized, much less openly discussed. Accountability messages trump learning messages every time. As surely as night follows day, this attitude leads those who receive funds to exaggerate results and hide failures — the antithesis of genuine reality testing and shared learning…If a philanthropist asked us how to approach the evaluation of social innovation, we’d suggest the following: support learning as a meaningful outcome — and reporting on learning as a form of authentic accountability.” (Page 182)

The role of objective and frequent debriefing for the express purpose of learning what worked and what did not is seldom practiced with enough frequency or rigor; often it is a step left to the very end as opposed to conducted while things are in progress and many times the debrief and learning is stifled by defensiveness and lack of even basic data and facts.

This book portrays, I think correctly, change as much more nuanced than often portrayed in mainstream business books on execution. To draw an analogy, “Getting to Maybe” is akin to the tactics and fluidity of guerrilla warfare and insurgency whereas many business and political leaders tend to view change as a blunt exercise in classic army on army battles featuring heavy artillery, tanks, and heavy bombing runs by long-range bombers, fighters, and ship-bourne cruise missiles. In this view change is something achieved through a short-lived but massive application of project resources, propaganda (communication), technical updates and Gantt charts, a kind of organizational “shock and awe.” What we know from experience is that such change tactics tend to fail, just as traditional military campaigns usually fail to change “hearts and minds” because the important change levers are more subtle and local.

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