Measurement Shock, Self-loathing, and Organizational Learning

11 August 2005

by Michael Mah, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

Last week while playing tennis, my friend Holly sent her forehand sailing high into an adjacent court. “Aargh,” she cried. Then, with a casual grin, she said, “That’s what I love about this game — it gives you plenty of chances to practice self-loathing.” She reminded me of Lucy from the “Peanuts” comics.

Curiously, the same idea might apply to companies that benchmark their IT performance. I recently had the privilege of helping guide two companies through this process. They wanted to baseline their time-to-market and quality on about a dozen of their recently completed software projects. We compared their cycle time and defect levels against a worldwide database of over 7,000 projects. When we plotted their data on graphs against projects in their specific industry, they experienced what I call measurement shock. It sparked a significant case of self-loathing.

Measurement shock is like seeing a photograph of yourself and experiencing a wave of dread, because what you see isn’t what you imagined that you looked like. My spouse hates pictures of herself even though, honestly, she’s beautiful. My tennis coach and I recently did a video analysis of my serve and forehand. After I reviewed the tape, I wanted to crawl under a rock. I thought I might resemble my hero, Swiss star Roger Federer, who recently won the Wimbledon title, but I felt that I looked more like Woody Allen in the movie “Sleeper.” Self-loathing in action.

The challenge is to help organizations break through the barrier that this kind of experience might present to them. In their book Organizational Learning II: Theory, Method, and Practice, authors Chris Argyris and Donald Schon, researchers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describe what happens when an organization’s “theory in use” diverges from its “espoused values.” This is a fancy way of saying whether you “walk the walk” while you “talk the talk.”

Each of the organizations I was guiding through the process of benchmarking their IT espoused a cultural value of high-quality software. One CIO even self-rated her organization “above average,” perhaps a 7 on a scale of 10. They were indeed above average, but not what she was expecting. Their defects in some cases were three times higher than industry. They were trying to build too much in too short a time frame, and their projects were cracking under the pressure.

When measurement shock sets in, it poses a unique challenge for everyone involved. Argyris and Schon discuss the problem of cover-ups and “anti-learning behavior.” It’s a reactive form of self-preservation that falls into the realm of measurement dysfunction. Author and Cutter Business Technology Council Fellow Rob Austin also discusses dynamics like this in his book, Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations. Assuming that measures are reliable, cover-ups can range from discrediting them as unreliable to shutting down any additional gathering of data. It’s similar to disconnecting the oil-pressure warning light in your car or forbidding anyone to take your picture again. In my tennis example, I couldn’t bear to look at another video analysis of my once graceful (formerly in my mind) serve.

Argyris and Schon describe these cover-ups as “primary inhibitory loops” that have self-reinforcing patterns and anti-learning consequences. These are the “shoot the messenger” reflexes that can prevent insights, because defensive mechanisms take over and shut down information that feels threatening and difficult to accept. The loops result in dysfunctional responses that reinforce conditions for error and manipulate information so that error tends to be obscured and makes it uncorrectable. Skilled professionals can help open learning and break entrenched dynamics. My tennis coach, Gary, calmly walks me through my video-induced seizures and gets me on track to a more rhythmic serve. I try to compliment my wife every time I look at a great photograph of her, even though she might be cringing inside. The key to a breakthrough is to dare to look, and keep looking, in the calm presence of someone who will support the organization and not shame it, as thoughtful interventions are crafted and put into use. In doing so, real changes are possible.

In benchmarking IT organizations, the same applies. You have to be willing to take a hard look at what the data might be saying. Some of this also entails being able to “read the X-ray” films with the assistance of benchmarking professionals who can teach you how to read them. I’ve seen lots of companies break through their resistance, get over measurement shock, and achieve levels of performance that their competitors envy because, hidden inside the things that might be difficult to accept, are the breakthroughs that can accelerate improvement within the organization. They innovate more effectively, because as John Chambers, chairman of Cisco once said, “It’s really not just about time-to-market, it’s about time-to-learning.”

— Michael Mah, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

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