Friday, January 8, 2010

Plan & Execute for Results

Good SOPs are a starting point, but there's more under the surface that will affect results

Shyam Ponappa / New Delhi January 7, 2010

What is a good way to plan and build enduring systems, e.g., for sanitation and water in our cities and countryside, roads (rail/waterways/air for logistics), or a broadband network for communications? Some thoughts on Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) — beginnings, processes and ends — and on some “invisible” aspects that facilitate good outcomes.

The Big Picture

Start with the big picture: the engineering background of China’s leaders has no doubt contributed to their conceptualisation and achievement so far. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao were engineers, as were former President Ziang Zemin, and Premiers Zhu Rongji and Li Peng. While pondering if that’s what it will take to improve India’s record on conceptualisation and execution, we find that former President Deng Xiaoping, who got China going on its current track, didn’t have it. No engineering degree, although he went to France when he was 16 for a work-study programme. Despite a difficult experience with entry level jobs in shoe manufacturing, metals, automobiles, and restaurants, he was very effective in applying himself to building China. So, there’s hope if our leaders apply themselves to long-term solutions, rather than to self-aggrandisement. This might be of their own volition, or because the public and/or circumstances force them to do so. For instance, if RTI activists concentrate on one major objective at a time, while paying attention to facts, thinking, talking and acting logically in close cooperation and coordination, i.e., with sound direction, we might get results.

Fundamental SOPs

Some fundamentals are clear enough, although we rarely seem to follow them, like an integrated systems perspective with disciplined project management (listed below). There are, however, many assumptions and enveloping circumstances that affect the drivers directly, as well as their boundary conditions and interactions. These can be easily lost sight of in pursuing a line of thought or action, or even particular disciplines. This is valid for all issues, for instance, increasing the hit rate for road projects put to bid by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), or the successful completion of power projects, or efforts to structure and manage spectrum for broadband. Therefore, for user-centric area planning/spatial planning, the overriding emphasis is necessarily on an interdisciplinary (i.e., multidisciplinary) approach. This is because societies and their needs are multi-dimensional, and solutions must work in a complex set of circumstances. Silo thinking and action won’t work.

This is true whether for neighbourhoods or for country-wide networks such as road systems, railways, or broadband. It is also true for the content, i.e., for broad areas like education from kindergarten to postgraduate levels including vocational training and Continuing-Education for all people, or for a single vertical space, such as health care or hospitality.

The fundamental elements (SOPs) include:

  • End-to-end systems, i.e., comprehensive, integrated pieces that fit.
  • Convergent objectives.
  • Systematic, disciplined project management, starting with the desired end results, and a backward induction for intermediate goals at each step with the required resources and time, all the way back to the start.
  • An interdisciplinary/multidisciplinary approach, because sound inputs are required from multiple perspectives, such as overall strategy, structure, systems, technology, human resources, finance, and markets, tailored to our culture and practices, even as we improve them.
  • Coordination & Direction: above all, there needs to be convergence of efforts to achieve a desired goal or direction. Without coordination and direction, efforts are unlikely to converge, and therefore unlikely to achieve desired outcomes.

Other Essential Aspects

1. Self-Governing Systems vs Government Intervention

Much has been made recently of Prof Elinor Ostrom’s ideas on polycentric governance and self-regulation. However, there is insufficient appreciation of and attention to her stress on (a) trust as the most critical attribute, and (b) checks and balances (incentives/penalties) that are “accepted”, as she understates it. Cooperative action is certainly a winner, provided there is an effort by players to build trust, and sound rules are devised and applied impartially. Can you imagine a country-wide highway system or broadband network in the public interest, designed and developed by independent commercial interests? Possible, but unlikely. That’s why governments need to act in the public interest.

2. Allowing for the Non-Rational & Emotional

Years ago, Carl Sagan popularised the ideas of Paul MacLean, who headed the Laboratory of Brain Evolution and Behavior in America’s National Institute of Mental Health. The concept was of a three-part structure of the brain: the deep down R-complex (for reptilian-complex) where aggression resides, the limbic system which is the seat of emotions, and the neocortex, which is rational and cognitive. While neurology has moved on in the details, e.g., the hippocampus is now apparently thought to be less important in emotions than in MacLean’s view, and the brain may be less simply compartmentalised, the idea of rational man is no longer assumed as a truism.*

The takeaway: allow for the irrational, emotional, and aggressive underlay or substrate in all of us in developing processes, systems, and institutions. Translation: “nice” systems need effective checks, balances, and give for human fallibility to result in good outcomes.

3. The Normal Curve & Dysfunctional Elements

For those not familiar with statistics, there is a universal phenomenon of distribution along the “normal” curve (see figure below): any group of objects (or people) measured for any attribute — height, weight, goodness — is likely to be distributed along a probability curve, as in the graph above, with some outliers spread over the lower and higher ends or “tails”, and the rest bunched around the middle/mean/average.


Source: Copyright © 2006-2009 Jesse E. Farmer

The takeaway: plan for the dysfunctional elements in the left tail, and build protection mechanisms in systems. Consideration with item 2 above indicates the kind of protection robust systems might need.

Good SOPs are a starting point, but there’s more under the surface that will affect results, regardless of external factors.

* For details, see: “The emotional brain”, Dalgleish, T, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5 (2004), 582-585:
Dr Tim Dalgleish is a clinical psychologist who with Dr Phil Barnard runs the Cognition, Emotion and Mental Health Programme at the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University