October 24th, 2012

About that Chart: Embracing the Reality of How We Learn


The green-line/red-line chart that Joe Mathews referred to in his summary of the September meeting is based on published cognitive science research done in the 1980s. I’ve sketched it in thousands of courses and presentations and I’m always struck by the response.

First, people recognize that the green line really does depict the “seismic” process that individuals or groups go through when dealing with a complex and novel problem.

Second, they also recognize that they have been acting as if the red line, not the green line, was how things worked. It’s a lovely moment to behold, like that moment of truth in the Hans Christian Anderson story when the child points out that the Emperor has no clothes.

We need more of these moments, when a trance of social collusion in a myth is broken, and people are freed to trust their experience over proclamations from an authority. It’s good news, this freedom, except of course for the duped Emperor and his obliging court… and their proclamations!

After all, the red line can be managed. It lets you predict the time and money required to get to the solution, and manage the process to stay on schedule and budget. Much of the field of project management is founded on the illusion of the red line, with its orderly cascade from being presented with a new project to the ribbon cutting ceremony.

The green line, of course, is a force of chaos that managers know well, for they are skilled in suppressing that uncontrollable green line process. When the chaos can’t be suppressed, managers use another important skill: Telling a red-line story about the process (aka “status reports”), reinforcing the illusion that the red line really is the way things work.

The main problem with managing from a red-line perspective is that the chaos depicted by the green line is also known as “learning,” and it thus represents the emotional roller coaster familiar to anyone these days who is cursed to be working in a group on a “wicked problem.”

Countless hours are spent in meetings that go nowhere, and that, because of this lack of traction, must be repeated endlessly. There are always “bad stakeholders” who refuse to play by the rules of the game, and who have enough power to sabotage the implementation of the solution, if not the planning process itself. And just when a viable solution is in sight, some new stakeholder shows up and declares (without any gratitude for the hard work done by the other stakeholders to date) that the whole premise of the project is deeply flawed — that “the real issue is” some new factor that the project team has been avoiding. And so the planning process must be rebooted.

These are all symptoms of the process of being forced to wade into the swamp of possible solutions with a group of diverse stakeholders that doesn’t yet understand what the “real problem” is. Such is the territory of contending with problems that involve many stakeholders, have been around for a long time, and are steeped in immense technical and scientific complexity, aka wicked problems. There are no experts who’ve solved similar problems before, or who have the proven process that can guide the project directly to a robust solution. (Those were the days!)

Sure, it’s possible to create and follow a red-line cascade of steps from problem definition to robust solution. It happens all the time with tame problems. The red line is thus a depiction of already knowing, and if the problem you’re working on submits to a linear, red line set of steps to arrive at its solution, then lucky you!

You must resist the temptation, however, of “taming” a problem by artificially narrowing its scope to fit the circumstances, or by excluding stakeholders from your planning process because they’re likely to be unruly. For a professional to do so is unethical (hence the term wicked problem), and never ends well. Many of the most spectacular project failures in the past few decades took the low road of taming a wicked problem. And many times the results of such shortcuts just exacerbate the problem, making it that much harder to address effectively.

These Delta Dialogues are rooted in a new approach to planning, a highly inclusive approach that accepts the green line as essential, because it represents the learning process, and because it leads to shared understanding among the stakeholders, something more valuable and enduring than a mere “solution” to the Delta’s problems.