Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

When leadership means setting and following standards and when it means stepping away from the operational simplicity assembly line

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on January 18, 2013

I write a lot about standardization and systematization in business processes and operations, and on how important it is to move beyond ad hoc and one-off in developing consistent business best practices. But at the same time I write a lot about social networking and connecting with and communicating with others, and about creating shared value from that. I stand by my basic assertion as to the need for systematic, well considered simple, consistent structure, and I will continue to write about the value of best practices. And I add that I will continue to pursue these same approaches in my consulting practice and when working with client businesses. But at the same time I step back from that to consider the individual, with their particular and even unique set of strengths and weaknesses and their own perspectives, and their own values and sense of value. Systematization is important, and on many levels. But that does not mean purblind assembly line or cookie cutter exclusion of all differences. And in this, businesses and organizations in general are assemblages of people – of individuals. So I write in this posting about the sometimes collision course between organized and systematic, and personal and interpersonal.

I find myself thinking of William of Occam and of Occam’s razor as I write this, and note that the simplest explanation or description is not always best – and the simplest that we come up with is not even always the actual simplest or most likely anyway, depending on what we assume that might cut off consideration of other options or explanations.

• Occam’s razor and the approaches that are based on it in cleanly, simply streamlining and standardizing a business can lose track of the necessary and even essential messiness of working with individuals and of people working together to meet real needs.

And I find myself thinking of the toxic extension of Occam’s razor known as Occam’s Procrustean Bed. The basic principle there is fairly straight forward as it adds the illogical extreme of Procrustes and his iron bed to this process.

• Occam argued that the simplest explanation and approach was almost always the most correct and the best.
• Procrustes was the host of Greek mythology who had his visiting guests sleep on a special iron bed. And if a guest was too short for a perfect fit he stretched them until they did fit and if one was too tall he cut them to size. Occam’s Procrustean Bed is simply the application of Procrustes’ insistence that all conform to his one immutable set of standards and approaches, to Occam’s insight, cutting and stretching any seeming deviation from the “simplest” to fit that preconceived model.
• And in this context that means people as individuals getting lost in the “simplicity” of standardized processes. Just to cite one way too commonly observed type of instance of this, think back to your own experience as a customer of a business that seeks to “simplify” its customer service by automating it to the point where it is literally impossible to ever connect with someone at that business who is real, with a pulse.

I write this as a posting on operational processes and the ongoing search for cost-effective standardization, noting that this carries costs in all directions as well as offering potential savings. I also write this as yet one more posting in my ongoing if loosely organized series on what it means to lead and to be a leader. Sometimes the simplest, and the most cost-effective for a specific process or operation is not best. Sometimes it is more important, and of greater long-term and wide-perspective value to embrace the messiness of working with people as individuals and with their individual and even idiosyncratic needs and perspectives. And one of the most challenging sides to leadership can come when making the decisions as to where not to simply follow the simplifying and standardizing advice of others, including that of the experts in their fields on your C level executive team.

As a final thought in that, it is in acknowledging the messiness and the places where ongoing simple and standard is not best, where businesses and their operations – and their strategy grow and evolve if they are to remain relevant.

You can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations – 2, and also see Business Strategy and Operations.

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