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How far should your company go to address touchy workplace issues?

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When you don’t pay on time, your business is bound to pay some bad consequences.

Theory to Practice: Thinking With Emotions

Learning new things demands resolving old conflicts between feelings and logic.

Openers: Just Say Yes?

Avoiding groupthink begins with what’s in your own head.

It’s Not in the Manual

Fall 2012

Soundings

It’s Not in the Manual

By Frank J. Barrett

Frank J. Barrett is an associate professor at the U.S. Navy’s Graduate School of Business and Public Policy. From Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons From Jazz (Harvard Business Review Press). ©2012

Organizations tend to forget how much improvisation, bricolage, and retrospective sense-making managers need to complete daily tasks. In an effort to control outcomes and deskill tasks, managers often attempt to break down complex jobs into formal descriptions of work procedures that people can follow automatically. In a perfectly rational world, such strategy makes perfect sense, but that’s rarely the way work actually gets done. Many, perhaps most, tasks in organizations are indeterminate, undertaken by people with limited foresight. To meet their duties, employees frequently need to apply their own resourcefulness, cleverness, and pragmatism. They play with various possibilities, recombining and reorganizing, to find solutions by relating the dilemma they face to the familiar context that preceded it.

Consider the study of Xerox’s training for service technician representatives. In an effort to down-skill the task of machine repair, the trainers attempted to document every imaginable breakdown in copiers so that when technicians arrived to repair a machine, they could simply look it up in the manual and follow a predetermined decision tree to perform a series of tests that dictated a repair procedure. The premise was that they could devise a diagnostic sequence to respond to the machine’s predictable problems. However, the study revealed that no amount of documentation could include enough contextual information to understand every problem.

In a 1990 essay, Xerox business anthropologist Julian Orr relates the story of a technical rep confronting a machine with error codes and malfunctions that were not congruent with the diagnostic blueprint. Nothing similar had been documented or covered in his training, and both the original rep and the technical specialist he called in to help were baffled. To simply give up the repair effort and replace the machine would have been a solution, but this would have meant loss of face with the customer—an unacceptable course of action. After exhausting the approaches suggested by the diagnostic, they attempted to make sense of this anomaly by connecting it to previous experiences and stories they had heard others relate. Finally, after a five-hour session of trials and errors, they came upon a solution.

So it is with many jobs in organizations. They require bricolage—fumbling around, experimenting, and patching together an understanding of problems from bits and pieces of experience, improvising with the materials at hand. Few problems provide their own definitive solutions.

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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.