He addresses the huge gulf between knowing what to do in a given situation and knowing how to do it. This chasm is an ever-present hazard both on the course and in an organization: By examining golfers' and managers' struggles for improvement, Hurst shows us why complex systems are so hard to change and how to set about changing them -- systematically.
LEARNING FROM THE LINKS: Mastering Management Using Lessons from Golf
Using the latest thinking from fields as diverse as neuroscience, artificial intelligence, art, and anthropology, Hurst's primary purpose is to help his readers make sense of their own experience -- to help them learn more effectively. His practical advice is profusely illustrated with examples from both golf and management, allowing the reader to move back and forth between his or her experiences in both activities. Part business management book, part strategy guide, these are more than just lessons for one's game or one's office: No Bodies of Knowledge.
The seeds of the disaster had been sown much earlier, however, back in , when Oxford had only , members. At that time, management set out to update Oxford's computer systems, which were slow, but forgiving. HMO computer systems are complex — they have to collect premiums from a membership that is continually changing jobs and health plans, while paying claims to a constantly mutating network of health-care providers. Wiggins, a technology enthusiast, decided new systems were to be custom-built in-house to accommodate all the flexible options that the company offered to its membership.
The variety that had delighted customers taxed designers of the computer systems to the limit. To make matters worse, Oxford opted for the aptly named "big bang" conversion process. It transferred the bulk of the database to the new systems all at once, and disaster was at hand. The messy data from the old fault-tolerant systems could not be processed in the new, demanding environment, and the entire conversion process broke down as the new systems rejected thousands of records. The failure of Oxford's computer systems, like the failure of the infamous "O" rings on the space shuttle Challenger 's solid rocket boosters, was the immediate cause of its downfall.
But it was only the last link in a complex chain of cause and effect.
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In the Challenger case, there were people in the system who knew there was a real risk to launching the shuttle on that cold January morning in Unfortunately, that knowledge was swept away by NASA's need to "perform," and could not be brought to senior management awareness in time. In the case of Oxford's downfall, there were warning signs for months beforehand, but senior management was insensitive to the feedback.
Shareholders learned that state regulators had been pressuring Oxford management for some time to supply detailed information to support its earnings estimates. And the superintendent of the New York State Insurance Department had been due to see the board on October 28, , the day after the company's shocking announcement. Indeed, one investment analyst had picked up clues as early as mid that not all was well in Oxford's administration.
When she voiced her concerns, however, Oxford management told her that her interpretation was "incorrect," and she was excluded from the corporation's inner circle of analysts. How did things get so bad? As is true in all human systems, a tangled mix of physical, developmental, and psychological factors was at work. Wiggins was a charismatic leader and entrepreneur with a flair for marketing. He had assembled around him an enthusiastic and loyal but inexperienced team, whose apparent success would make members' self-confidence grow to an almost cult-like belief in their ability to overcome adversity.
The emphasis was on innovation, marketing, and growth, apparently to the exclusion of concern for basic routines. Not only was there no powerful voice within the organization to make the argument for the basics, but when things began to go wrong, Oxford had no static control position to return to so that it could check itself. Further-more, through its continual use of cross-functional teams, the functional accountabilities had become blurred. Looked at through a systems lens, Oxford's experience illustrates many of the most important features of complex adaptive systems, all of which are familiar to every golfer.
At the Edge of Chaos Complex systems consist of many specialized agents. These agents interact with each other in many different ways and across several dimensions, none of which can be ignored. In business organizations, people are the most obvious examples of such agents. They are usually aggregated to form the functionally specialized organs of the corporate body, such as marketing, accounting, and manufacturing. They can also come together in project- or process-based task forces, so-called horizontal organizations.
Fast-moving firms like Oxford that come to rely exclusively on cross-functional teams, however, always run the risk of dangerously weakening their basic setup skills. Every golfer is familiar with this dilemma as he walks the ragged edge between sound mechanics and integration into a seamless whole. On the one hand, too much stress on the parts can easily lead to a breakdown in their integration.
On the other hand, too much emphasis on integration can easily lead to sloppy execution of the individual functions. It's not a question of either the parts or the whole, but of both the parts and the whole. Complex systems adapt at "the edge of chaos," on the boundary where their internal operations meet their external worlds.
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Organizations such as monopolies and government agencies stay away from the edge but tend not to learn very much. Many of Oxford's innovative ideas were developed at the edge of its system, where the company met customers and suppliers.
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The edge of chaos is, however, a challenging place to live, and, as Oxford found to the cost of its shareholders, it's easy to fall off. Golfers, too, live on the edge of chaos, never knowing when their most dependable skills might desert them, although they often push themselves over the edge by trying to pull off shots that exceed their skills. Even the finest professionals, however, are vulnerable to sudden, mysterious losses of competence. Hierarchy is essential to the development and stability of complex systems.
These are not hierarchies of command-and-control, where subordinate parts are told what to do. Conscious attention is far too limited for such a top-down instructional model to work. Rather, successful complex systems are built in modular fashion, layered in space and ordered in time.
The result is a multiplicity of tangled hierarchies of control-through-constraint. Typically the earlier, more primitive layers of a system set boundaries or limits within which later, more sophisticated functions must operate. Thus in golf the setup creates the context for — in essence it constrains — the backswing. The backswing, in turn, constrains the downswing. Small errors at the beginning of the process can have large negative consequences at the end of it. Stability in complex systems comes from larger, slower variables governing smaller, faster ones. Sudden change takes place when agents at one level escape the constraints usually exercised by agents in another part of the system.
The policies, procedures, systems, and routines that characterize large complex organizations have usually developed over long periods of time. Typically they change relatively infrequently, incrementally, and only after considerable experimentation and testing. Freedom Without Discipline At its peril, Oxford's management eschewed such traditional corporate policies and consistency in favor of freewheeling deal-making with its health-care providers and customers.
The small, fast executive decision-making processes were unconstrained, and the exercise of freedom without discipline led inevitably to disaster. In the golf swing, the big, slow muscles of the legs, hips, and trunk must govern through constraint the smaller, faster elements such as the shoulders, arms, and hands. Another way of saying this is that the center of gravity of the golf swing should be as low as possible, ideally at the base of the spine just behind the hips, say the pros.
Many amateur golfers believe that the center of gravity of their swing is much higher, in their chests or shoulders. Without the automatic routines in their legs and hips they are forced to compensate consciously using smaller, rapid variables, the right hand in most golfers. This is a recipe for instability in complex systems. Control of complex systems is highly dispersed. Therefore, cause-and-effect relationships are hard to identify, and efforts to change them can often have perverse outcomes.
Oxford's attempts to enhance its data-processing systems ended up severely damaging the business, because management was unable to anticipate the systemic consequences of what it was doing. Pinpointing the precise reasons for such a failure can be difficult, if not impossible. Like the causes of a bad golf shot, complicated webs of cause-and-effect exist at many levels: Causes may be separated in space and time from their effects, errors may offset each other, and correct moves at the wrong time may have disastrous consequences.
As all golfers know, a lesson from the pro often has a contradictory effect, degrading performance before sometimes improving it. History matters in established complex systems. Clean-sheet designs cannot be implemented easily.
Oxford could not escape the facts of its past and the impact of the astonishing growth that had fueled its success. Redesigning data-processing systems from scratch and implementing them using big-bang approaches is fraught with risk — witness the number of otherwise competent organizations that have had trouble implementing enterprise resource planning systems.
In fact, the decision to do a big-bang conversion required a large part of the process to be a completely ballistic move and made it needlessly risky. Making such projects modular — breaking them up into smaller segments — keeps the ballistic portions relatively short, and allows feedback to take place between them. It's exactly like a golfer playing three shots to a long par 5, instead of risking going for it in two. Without extensive practice — thorough testing of the conversion routines — the disaster at Oxford was inevitable. Management's Sweet Spot As noted, differences in level and scale between golf and management do not affect the systemic similarities between the two activities.
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