JLTalley & Associates

Making the complex clear

Organizational life is not a natural act. We should not be surprised when goals get lost in implementation, when personal agendas undermine corporate intention, or when documented procedures have no relationship to how people actually get work done.

Humans are hard wired for the tribe; everything more complex is a stretch. The real surprise in organizations is not that problems occur, but rather that we get anything done at all!

After over 450 client engagements, I have come to understand some of the basic principles of organizational success. At least I think I have; this site is designed so you can make your own judgment.

I have included an overview of my approach as well as particular articles that capture some of my opinions on organizational issues. You can also download slide presentations from recent talks. There is also a special section for materials relevant to current client work.

Making a Difference

A practice is more than a string of projects. Like anyone in the Second Half of life, there are some areas where I hope to make difference rather than just a dent:

  • Knowledge Capture is essential for process improvement and for better documentation; both require that we somehow characterize the work correctly. Too often we fall back to a linear, sequential recitation of how the work plays out in real time. Except for truly linear manufacturing processes, such an approach fails to capture the underlying structure of the work. We first need to understand the nature of the process, and then the structure of the action within it. Then we can capture the work in a way that supports redesign, continuous improvement, or transfer to the newbie.
  • Work Process Design would seem to be a well-developed field with plenty of advocates and adherents. My experience is that much of modern process improvement is off the mark. The original intent was to empower the front line worker; nowdays it seems more common to pursue ways to automate the work and replace the front line expert. My strategy is on characterizing the work in ways that make its structure and challenges visible to those who know it best, and thereby give them a venue for making improvements that managers, stakeholders, and IT staff would typically miss.
  • Living with Complexity is the new challenge for organizations. Markets and economies have always been understood best as complex adaptive systems, but the same perspective is the most useful for looking inside the company as well. Informal communication networks and corporate cultures mean that executives don't "run" the company, they "ride" it. The new rules for leading or managing are different than the traditional "command and control" approach. They require attending to the evolution of the firm rather than designing and directing it.
  • Problem solving is marred in this culture by a simplistic approach that is so deeply embedded it is difficult to even raise our consciousness about our commitment to it. It is clear that the problems we face in business today are more conflicted, more complex, and more varied than even 50 years ago. Yet we continue to apply a linear, "one-size-fits-all" approach. My research suggests there are 6 fundamentally different problem types, and each one requires a unique approach and a distinctly different final solution. This six fold typology is the model I use in my own practice, and whenever possible, I enjoy helping organizations learn and apply the model for their own internal work as well.
  • Nonprofit governance is a special concern in my work. Bright, well-meaning people who come together hoping to do good in the world often find that it seems much more difficult and elusive than they imagined. It turns out there are useful models for how to establish and run nonprofit ventures, but the simple extension of best practices from the for-profit world is sometimes more disruptive than helpful. Some of my most meaningful work is sitting with the boards of nonprofits and helping them clearly understand their challenge and crafting a path toward more effective and enjoyable governance.