This week’s podcast of This American Life opens with a story of a policeman who arrives at the scene of a traffic accident to discover that the driver was a chimpanzee, dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, who had freaked out in a thunderstorm, thrown his handler to the back of the van, and taken the wheel, only to crash into a streetlight.
As the cop arrives in the pouring rain, with the chimp hooting and screaming and the handler reeking of rum, he thinks to himself, “Now What? They never covered this back at the Academy…”
The point of the story (if one can be extracted from such a surreal turn of events) is that sometimes strange and unexpected things happen, and you will have to deal with it somehow. At some point, you have to operate with no map, no process, and often no idea of what to do next. You will have to use your best judgment.
This story got me thinking about the way people work. About business as usual. About information management systems, and business processes, and taxonomies. And the reason is… those things are all made by monkeys.
Nah, just kidding. The reason is that all of these things are maps — they’re operational guidelines for how to correctly perform tasks at work.
People are good at following processes. We’re naturally creatures of habit. There’s a comfort to be found in knowing just how to handle each event as it occurs. Although we possess the most complex brain on the planet, we’re really pretty lazy, and if possible, we will try to avoid using it. (We’ll just do what we did last time. After all, that worked out okay, right?) Harnessing this notion of “standard operation procedure” has proved spectacularly successful, particularly in manufacturing and construction.
“Bob, your job is to tighten these 4 bolts here as the car goes past, okay?
Either taking advantage of this success, or just doing what we did last time, we decided that perhaps the whole world of work could be automated. That we could encapsulate a bank or an insurance company as a giant binder full of operational practices that could be consulted at any time. A kind of information production line, just like the way we built cars.
But unlike the production line, the inputs into a knowledge system are much less predictable.
Manufacturing and construction are constrained by physical limits. There are well-defined boundaries. When things go wrong, it’s obvious — at least to a trained eye. Knowledge work is different. It’s creative, abstract, and often deals with situations outside the ideal and outside the norm. It’s about handling exceptions, not following recipes.
And curiously, it’s the successful handling of these exceptions that defines the success of an enterprise. Thomas Watson Sr famously said “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate”.
He wasn’t talking about process mistakes — like forgetting to tighten the fourth bolt — he was talking about those awkward times that you find yourself with No Map.
Rules are for fools — and the guidance of the wise. And when we’re making decisions for our organization, be it building a process, buying information systems, or implementing a taxonomy, we need to take this as our golden rule.