This Is All Make-Believe

We like structure. We like meaning. We like to be able to make sense of the world. It is an essential part of how we function as human beings. You could argue it is in part what actually makes us human. We are able to reason, and analyze, and associate, and infer.

One of the ways that we do this is with models. Now, I use the term ‘model’ quite broadly here. There are a lot of different frameworks that we work with: processes, standards, assessment frameworks, standard operating procedures and more. We use them to build alignment and understanding. We use them to organize. We use them to create meaning.

What’s awesome and cool is when we find a model that works for us, that makes sense, and provides critical understanding at a time that we need it. All of a sudden, we’re provided with new insight that we didn’t have before. We gain new perspective. We see things through a different lens. And that’s basically what a good model does: it gives us a new way of seeing and interpreting what’s going on around us.

One of the simpler (but extremely useful) models I came across early on was what’s called the “Johari window.” It’s not a new model. It’s been around sine 1955, and was developed by Joseph Left and Harrington Ingham (the name Johari is an amalgam of their first names).

What the Johari window does, quite simply, is provides a view of our psychological state based upon how we see ourselves, and how others see us. It’s a simple two-by-two matrix. On one axis is an assessment of how we see ourselves: it delineates between those things about us that are known to ourselves, and those that are not known to ourselves. On the other axis is how others see us: it identifies those things about us that are known to others, and that are not known to others.

Meaning comes from which quadrant a particular attribute falls in. Something that is known to us and is also to others represents the visible aspects of our personality that are open; it’s the arena we consciously operate in as we negotiate and navigate the world. What we know about ourselves that others don’t know about us represents a façade, the aspects about us that we don’t reveal. What others know and are aware of that we ourselves are ignorant of represents our blind spots. And what is hidden from ourselves and from others represents the truly unknown.

Lots of insights can be gained from thinking about our personality and our interactions through this model. Without it, we don’t have a structure to work with. The model creates boxes that define meaning; its boundaries let us interpret individual concepts and ideas, and to which category a particular aspect belongs.

Depending upon what we are trying to understand, different models are more or less useful. That is their strength, and also their weakness. They aren’t universally applicable or relevant. Sometimes they are helpful, and other times they are less so.

The challenge is knowing when a model is helpful, and when it isn’t. That’s a judgement call. There are no carefully structured rules that say, “In this situation, use this model in precisely this way.” We are inferring, adapting, sifting and sorting as we navigate our way through life. We struggle with a problem, until all of a sudden we find a new way of solving it. What happened in that moment of insight is that we stopped using an inappropriate model, and replaced it with a more relevant one. We found a new perspective that worked.

Availability of models is important. The more open we are to alternative points of view, and different ways of thinking and seeing, the more likely we are going to find strategies by which to be successful. The more narrow our views and the more tightly we hang on to our models and perspectives, the more limited we are in our options. This is the cognitive equivalent of, “When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.”

None of these models are real, though. They provide real and useful insight, yes. But that insight needs to be interpreted. It needs context. We still need to sort it out. A model is like a map; it helps us make sense of what is going on around us, but the map is not the territory. The way maps work is by emphasizing some features of a landscape while deliberately ignoring others. Models work the same way. They throw aspects of a situation in to sharp relief so the we can see what’s going on that we care about, while ignoring other aspects of the situation that (we hope) are less relevant.

Models are artificial constructs. They are manufactured ways of thinking, seeing and discussing that allow us to have useful conversations. Each of us has particularly models that we find particularly helpful. They shape how we formulate our values, how we determine our politics, how we operate in our organizations and how we interact with others. When we become fixated on them, however, they stop being a useful tool and start being an unhelpful (or dangerous) crutch.

I was reminded of this in reviewing the comments of an article I had recently written (recognizing that you should never, ever read the comments). The column, like many of mine, was making the argument that flexibility and context is essential in figuring out what works. In this context, I was writing about portfolio management and how it applies in organizations, but the same can hold true in any number of other subjects and disciplines.

From my perspective, context and interpretation is fundamental. There are no black and white answers. The right answer, in all but the most transactional of situations, depends. What is important is defining what it depends on. Figure out that, and you can find a model that helps you evaluate the situation and figure out a strategy forward. Which is pretty much my worldview in a nutshell.

What’s interesting is how often this is seen as a controversial—or at least singularly unhelpful—perspective. I get where that comes from. People want answers. They don’t like uncertainty. They would feel far more comfortable knowing there was a clear, cut-and-dried answer to dealing with a situation.

In this article, though, most of the vehemence came not because I was an advocate of “it depends.” It’s because, in their view, I was undermining portfolio management as a useful tool for helping organizations make sense of their decisions. The argument was, in essence, that if you aren’t doing formal and robust portfolio management, then you are leaving organizations open to the influences of power politics and fuzzy thinking.

What that argument results in is a reductionist, black-and-white view that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things (while leaving little open to interpretation as to what the right way should actually be). Which pretty much conflicts with my argument that you need to do what works, you need to introduce perspectives that are valued and you need to adopt approaches that are acceptable and actually accepted. That might be portfolio management, but it might be something completely different.

What all of this highlights is the degree to which we become so enamoured of our models, our processes and our standards that we lose sight of a crucial and important detail: just because it makes sense to us doesn’t mean it will make sense to everyone else. Just because something works in one place does not mean that it will successfully translate to other places. It might, but it’s not likely.

And that’s okay, because it’s all made up to begin with. We think about portfolio management the way we do because someone defined it that way and said, “here’s how you do it.” We value it to the extent that we do because the way it has been traditionally defined provides a framework for thinking about project choices that some people and organizations find helpful. It’s not the only way of thinking about project choices, and it doesn’t always work. It may need to be adapted, it may need to be overhauled and it may need to be ignored. And that’s just fine. Use it where it works, and do something else where it doesn’t.

No only is the idea of portfolio management an artificial construct. So are projects. So is strategy. So is the idea of an organization as a real and tangible thing. So is the idea of a ‘job’ and a ‘career’ and a ‘destiny.’ We think about all of these things, because they are useful constructs to solve specific problems. But they are made up.

Organizations are socially-constructed realities that we’ve given legal meaning to. How they work, and what it means to work in one, has been changing since they were first established. We mess about with structure, process, relationships, roles, responsibilities and accountabilities because we are trying to figure out better ways of working and functioning. That’s what innovation and creativity are all about. That’s how we find ways of creating advantage. That’s how we strategically try to compete.

But every structure, every process and every rule exists because someone, somewhere found it useful, and those around them agreed that they should do things that way. When it stops being useful, invent something else. It’s all make believe, anyway. We have the power to build, to adapt, to change and to destroy. The more often we remember that is true, the more freedom we have to create what works. And that’s the most important part of actually being human.

3 Comments to “This Is All Make-Believe”

  1. Cheryl Dressler says:

    Mark, great article. Really hits home for me as I witness struggles between application of tools and methodology and the goal of ‘getting it right’. Sometimes the getting it right focus seems to be very heavy how to apply the tools correctly (like the book says and here’s my documentation to prove it!), vs focus on the outcomes desired from applying the tools/methods.

  2. Brent Horst says:

    I used to be much more of a black and white process person. If something could be repeated, it could be documented and “structured” by a process, standards and governance.
    What I found was that others ended up following the process, standards and checklists like “recipes” and the “it depends” aspect of our work disappeared in the black and white structure of process. Sometimes they even filled out the checklist after the work as an added task, rather than seeing it as helpful in their work!
    We now have much more general processes and guidelines. We still want to learn from our mistakes, pass on our learnings and help people be effective with some structure but if we bind them too much, we restrict their value and the need for continuous improvement.
    I still bristle at “ad hoc” work to some degree but realize that we need flexibility and innovation to progress.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

  3. Bill Neaves says:

    George E.P Box put it nicely 40 years ago, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Some models do indeed help us gain insight into some aspects of complex situations. But we too easily forget that any model is an approximation; the insight it provides is transient. Instead, we stubbornly forge on, trying to make our model more perfect.

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