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MARY PARKER FOLLETT AND THE GURUS

(No, this is not a singing group.)

We are being told by gurus to flatten our organizations, grant more autonomy, work in cross-functional teams, and enhance learning and knowledge sharing. But we find that as flat organizations grow, they become hard to coordinate. Autonomy requires accountability. And cross-functional teams often become nothing more than the familiar committee. Although good ideas, there has been a great deal of trouble reported when it comes to implementing these ideas. The payoff is often not great enough to warrant the costs. 

We are, without realizing it, confronting a fundamental difficulty in how we solve complex problems. We need to rethink our problem solving methods. And since structure follows strategy, we might expect that a new problem solving approach will lead to a new form of organization. It does.

Trees have the nice characteristic that at any moment, or acting as any single person, we only have a smaller number of things to consider. Since our abilities to consider more than a few things at a time are quite limited, solving problems as trees makes a great deal of sense. 

The difficulty is that the problems we are trying to solve donít really have a tree structure. They are webs. But not knowing how to deal properly with webs, we had been using assumptions to hack away at the webs until what was left were trees. Unfortunately we were often unaware of what assumptions we had made. And we often chose the wrong assumptions to make, thus increasing times, costs and risks. 

These assumptions often bit us when we least expected them. Projects were thrown into chaos when an assumption we took for granted turned out to be invalid. Work had to be repeated with a new assumption, which extends the costs and time for the project beyond our projections. Overtime, frustrations and blood pressures rise, costs increase, delays occur and specifications are compromised. 

We have reached a new juncture where a new approach is required to solving problems is business, as well as in engineering. 

DSM allows us to look at problems as the webs they are. We still use assumptions to hack the web so only a tree is left. But it shows us exactly what those assumptions and when their consequences will be known so we can plan for their verification. It gives us a choice of where to use assumptions so as to minimize time, costs and risks. 

DSM also opens up a new dimension of planning. Not only do we deal with the dependencies between tasks and the resulting workflows, but we use the information flows to coordinate the efforts to solve the problem. And when we look into the implications of this new approach, we find a cornucopia of important new advantages.

For example, we need no longer measure progress by what tasks have been completed. Those tasks may have to be redone if they depend on assumptions that have not yet been verified. We can now measure progress by how many tasks have been done that no longer depend on unverified assumptions. We can keep track of what assumptions are still open that still expose us to risks and assure that they are closed as quickly as possible. Knowing about what assumptions are still present and managing them properly can simultaneously reduce time, costs and risks. 

We now have a new management paradigm to carry us into the future with greater capability and confidence.



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