The Generalized Hawthorne Effect

by Venkat on July 13, 2012

The Hawthorne Effect is a basic idea in social science research that I first encountered in William Whyte’s Organization ManI remember making a note of it at the time but never got around to thinking more about it, until it came up again in a recent conversation.

It is a sort of Heisenberg Principle for social science. The effect hypothesizes that the changes in participants’ behavior during a study may be mostly caused by the special social situation and treatment they receive from management.

I think the principle has far greater significance than people realize.

The original effect was discovered by productivity researchers at the Hawthorne  Works of the Western Electric Company in the 1920s, who found that just about any intervention seemed to improve productivity, from minor changes in lighting to the kind of food provided. The researchers speculated that just being the focus of well-intentioned management efforts to improve their lot helped the workers’ morale (by leading them to trust management’s genuine concern for their welfare) and led to higher productivity.

Or to put it another way, given the same set of laborers, the management model that involves paying more attention will do better. Within limits, the model itself does not matter.

In an unrelated thought trail a few days ago, I was trying to dig deeper into the meaning behind the “people over process” idea, which is especially common in information work. The principle is usually stated as “good people working with a mediocre process will beat mediocre people working with a great process” (if I recall correctly, this particular form of the statement is in Good to Great but I’ve seen at least a few other versions of the idea).

A second apparently unrelated idea came up  in some excellent essays on military strategy that I’ve been reading. Many great military leaders in history have claimed that unless there is a radical technological breakthrough involved (like guns vs. swords), differences in weapons don’t matter. They make the claim that they would have won even if they’d exchanged roughly equivalent weapons. The Israeli Air Force commander, General Mordecai Hod, remarked after the victory over the Arabs in 1973 that even if the two sides had swapped planes, the Israelis would still have won the air war.

Thinking about these three apparently disconnected ideas (management experiments on workers, people/process trade-offs in information work, and people vs. tools in skilled physical work), it struck me that the key point in each case is the effect of paying mindful attention to the means being employed. 

In traditional industrial thinking, management is the tool user and (relatively unskilled) labor is the tool. In information work, educated humans are the tool users and abstract management processes are their tools. In skilled work, like fighting with a class of weapons, the tool is literally a physical tool.

The phenomenology in each case appears different, but it isn’t really. When you pay attention to tools, you trigger deliberate practice and mindful learning.

Of course, you cannot take this too literally. The human instrument, abstract process, or physical tool have to have certain minimum capabilities. Assuming General Hod was correct, you still cannot assume that the Israelis would have won with Wright-era biplanes. Even the low-skill workers of the industrial age who replaced the higher-skill craftsmen had to have certain minimal skills.

So we can formulate a generalized version of the Hawthorne Effect: the effectiveness of a tool depends almost entirely on the amount of mindful attention being devoted in its use, not the specific form the attention takes. 

I haven’t fully thought this through, but I figured I’d share what I have so far.

I believe there is a necessary condition here. For a tool to behave this way, it must be fundamentally finite and limited in its intelligence, or be used in a way that restricts its intelligence (or to make it more geekily precise, it cannot be an unfettered Turing-complete tool that might start thinking for itself in open-ended ways). Indefinitely increasing returns in the effectiveness of its use must come from the user. The tool needs to embody a certain minimum amount of intelligence (i.e. the design of a screwdriver embodies some minimal thinking about screws), but it cannot be generally intelligent. The reason is simply that generally intelligent instruments might have their own conflicting intentions about what to do, like Potterverse magic wands.

The original Hawthorne Effect is interesting precisely because the tools are not naturally finite or limited, but were made artificially so. For general attention to have positive effects, the tools must be somewhat dumb. The speculative psychology suggested as the mechanism is consistent with this idea: trusting management’s concern for its welfare makes labor more compliant and willing to be used in dumb-tool ways. They voluntarily shut off their critical thinking and become submissives.

Computers are today’s labor: capable of vastly more than they are normally constrained to do. More on that in a minute.

What about abstract processes that fill the pages of business books? Increasingly, I am turning into a radical minimalist as far as these are concerned. I think there are only two “minimum necessary tools” for all pure business thinking: written language and book-keeping (in the former, I include informal white-board level drawings and photographs used for appreciative purposes, but not formal, prescriptive diagrams or algorithms).

From what I’ve read of his management style, Jeff Bezos seems to operate by a similarly radical philosophy (he demands briefings in narrative form and bans PowerPoint apparently).

So that suggests a certain difference between physical tools and abstract process tools. A high-precision CNC milling machine really is a more intelligent tool than a flint axe. The full complexity of the tool plays a functional role in the work.

But formal abstract processes (information work algorithms and prescriptive process diagrams) that constitute management “tooling” seem on much shakier ground. If language and book-keeping are really the only minimal tools needed, then anything more complicated can be viewed as a non-functional thought starter, the stone in the stone soup.

Of course, this is a very valuable function, but it is not the advertised function. It’s as if all the complexity of a CNC milling machine were merely about getting you to think about submicron-level precision, with flint axes being sufficient to actually make modern things. In fact the advertised function is actively dangerous. If the point of a formal process model is to get you thinking about breaking beyond its confines, thinking of it as a prescription to follow religiously makes it dangerous. It would be the equivalent of trying to make stone soup without suckering the villagers into contributing additional ingredients.

Minimalism is motivated precisely by concern over these risks. The fewer and simpler the tools you use, the fewer the chances that you might buy into dangerously over-complicated delusions.

If this radical position is in fact correct, then every abstract management “process” is basically a strawman thought starter/stone-in-stone-soup. The effectiveness comes from the catalysis of mindful management thinking.  Or to cast it in a more positive light, good management models are necessarily appreciative views of management matters, not instruments for execution. Execution thinking can be done with basic writing, drawing and book-keeping skills.  If I ever taught a minimalist MBA course, that’s all I’d teach.

A good test is this: all management can be conducted entirely using whiteboards, spreadsheets and email. If you think you need something more, you are either confusing some specialized variety of engineering with management, or you are buying into some sort of management fad.  This is why PowerPoint is so dangerous: it is a Trojan horse medium that allows you to sneak in all sorts of other crud. It is a steroid booster to faddish thinking. These days, I find that I increasingly make minimalist slide decks as a result.

Computers present an interesting challenge. Like the industrial laborers of a century ago, they are mostly used in severely hamstrung ways today. A class of autonomous “information worker” computers has not yet arisen except in narrow areas like high frequency trading, where they already do what humans cannot.

Increasingly, we will need a theory of such “white collar computers.” I think all we need to do is teach them to write, draw and do autonomous management accounting. If we want to prevent the Singularity from happening, we need to make sure we teach these white collar computers all the management “theories” of the last 60 years. That’ll keep ‘em spinning their wheels for a while, buying John Connor some extra time. Skynet applying Lean Six Sigma to its operations should be easy to defeat.

Looking back, I’ve been getting slowly radicalized this way for a while now. This is why I believe the Turpentine Effect is a pathology: it is often motivated by the desire to make the wrong sorts of over-intelligent tools that attempt to capture generalized intelligence instead of attempting to create things that catalyze mindful attention.

Good toolmakers intuitively understand the generalized Hawthorne Effect, and realize that minimalist tools are the safest.

Or maybe I am just a management Luddite with a romantic view of pre-modern management methods.

GreenEngineer July 13, 2012 at 5:06 pm

This effect is known to gardeners too, as reflected in the proverb that the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow. The implication is that being present and paying attention matters more than what you actually do in the garden – and while that is not literally true, it’s more true than most non-gardeners would believe.

Mike July 13, 2012 at 6:29 pm

They’ve made a free PDF of the strategy book you mention available for download:

http://pogoarchives.org/labyrinth/full-labyrinth-text-w-covers.pdf

dave July 13, 2012 at 9:15 pm

Woohoo! Ribbonfarm Uni is back in session. This post really put a lot of previous posts into perspective. I feel like I could actually take the ideas from this post and improve my life here in Losersville, Midwest.

Makes me think of The Office and The Gervais Principle; Michael Scott is certainly an inept manager, but he is also ridiculously, farcically involved in trying to “manage” and “better” his workplace. Still, when he really messes up, it doesn’t become detrimental until a party outside of the workers at the branch get involved (like the police or corporate); in many cases, the workers talk things through w/ Michael and everyone feels better or learns something. Maybe it isn’t Michael Scott then that worsens life at the Scranton branch in most cases — it’s mostly the pressure/policies from corporate (see: Michael’s hatred for Toby) or the other Clueless character tendencies (two-person humor, etc) that are a product of culture or weird childhoods. This sheds some light on the newest season then, where corporate is even more involved at the branch. Hmm…maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about though.

Brilliant post Venkat!

jld July 14, 2012 at 5:17 am

“If we want to prevent the Singularity from happening, …”

Ha! Ha! So you are intent on derailing the Singularity?
I wonder how many self-proclaimed singularitarians are actually working on that too.

Venkat July 14, 2012 at 12:04 pm

That was a joke. The Singularity is completely capable of preventing itself from happening.

Julian Bond July 14, 2012 at 7:10 am

+1 for minimalist slide decks. Single sentence slides can take the place of 4*2 cards and keep you on track while giving the audience something to look at. Anything more and you’ll either commit the sin of simply reading it out, or confuse your audience.

Terry Cecil Elliott July 14, 2012 at 9:25 am

There is quite a movement behind this in presentation circles: Ignite (http://igniteshow.com/) and pechakucha (http://www.pecha-kucha.org/) are two forms. The focus is on a form that yields mindfully attention through minimal text, maximum image, closed form and voice.

Andrew B. Martin July 15, 2012 at 12:19 pm

The links are interesting Terry. The ignite shows look like something I may want to start in Halifax.

Have you taken part in a pecha-kucha or ignite show?

Terry Cecil Elliott July 15, 2012 at 6:52 pm

I haven’t done an ignite,but I have done pechakucha’s in my classes and have pechakucha nights for my classes. I will be participating in a Pechakucha at my University this fall.

Annie July 14, 2012 at 7:33 am

I used to be a “middle manager” and some of the stuff they asked us to do in the name of management process drove me crazy. The most useless waste of time was all those software tools for mapping project timelines. They only worked for the simplest projects involving the fewest inputs (so why not just draw a line on a piece of paper?), stickies worked way better for complex projects. Powerpoint is great for showing off your slide design skills and knowledge of all the features of Pp, but presenters stare at the screen and mumble and point, then get flustered when asked a question whose answer is not in a slide.

But before getting too excited about the Hawthorne Effect, I did read the Wikipedia article on it and in the detailed description of the experiments they point out that some changes produced negative results that may have been due to suspicion about motives on the part of the experiment subjects. If workers are suspicious of management motives, no amount of attention will produce positive results. And frankly, workers today have good reason to be suspicious.

Metatone July 14, 2012 at 2:36 pm

I don’t know if you’d argue that a database is just an extended spreadsheet, but I find them far more useful than spreadsheets for things like stock control (which is part of bookkeeping.)

Steven July 14, 2012 at 3:18 pm

Fascinating. I have the view of companies buying a software to replace people, and I can see this pattern: those who buy it and simultaneously pay attention to its inputs and outputs find great success. Those who buy it because its on a checklist of things to buy rarely get much out of it.

Another area where this is apparent: there are countless methods to lose weight or improve health, but in general the best method is the one you actually do. New books on dieting are actually valuable, then, because they direct attention toward healthier lifestyles.

Venkat July 14, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Yes, the second example is particularly good. I realized this after working out with a personal trainer for a while. I initially saw his job as teaching me a few good workouts and techniques so I could then get into a “routine” and not have to think too much about my working out.

Then I realized that his job was to keep me muscle-confused, so I’d be forced to pay attention to my body, both consciously and via muscle learning. That’s when I saw the sense in what he was doing: constantly making me do new things with every session, giving me very little chance to “learn” any one restricted routine. I think this has been the big learning and trend in the health industry in the last decade.

Andrew B. Martin July 15, 2012 at 9:10 am

I was speaking to a friend last night about the following General Patton quote: Plans are useless, planning is essential. It strikes me as apposite to this post that the quote suggests that the plans resulting from a planning session are irrelevant, but the fact that planning has been attempted, with a high enough level of engagement to generate plans, contributes positively to future performance. I imagine that after a threshold level of engagement, or mindful attention, is reached, further attention directed towards planning may yield diminishing, or non-existent returns.

To me, the Hawthorne experiments suggest a similar idea: it is not the amount of mindful attention directed towards tool use that matters, but that a certain threshold amount of mindful attention be achieved. Referencing the experiments, initially, increasing illumination led to increased productivity; however, as more managerial attention was lavished on workers, increases in productivity halted. In fact, after a point, further increases in managerial attention yielded negative returns, as workers become suspicious of the unusual amount of attention they were receiving.

A reasonable interpretation of this finding is that levels of attention above a certain threshold generate much greater benefits than levels of attention below it. But, levels of attention much higher than the threshold do not necessarily yield better results, they may even yield worse results, than levels of attention closer to, though above, the threshold. For this reason, the threshold level of mindful attention could be seen as the optimal amount.

The relationship between exercise intensity and resulting physiological benefits provides an illustrative example of threshold, optimal, attention. There are studies that suggest that exercise below a certain intensity (think long jogs) is dramatically less efficient than exercise at or above it (something like HIIT). This level of intensity could be seen as the optimal amount of mindful attention directed towards exercise. Anything less may not stimulate the body enough to kick start the wonderful metabolic processes that produce the health benefits sought by exercisers, and anything more may yield no additional benefit, or may even be harmful.

Patton’s words, the Hawthorne effect, and the intensity/benefits axis of exercise lead me to believe that the most important question to determine success in a tool based endeavor may not be how much mindful attention has been directed towards tool use, but whether or not a requisite amount of attention has been paid.

So, referring to the good people/mediocre processes v. mediocre people/good processes example in the post, what is the difference between having good enough people and great people?

Alexander Boland July 16, 2012 at 8:26 am

I wholeheartedly agree. Jensen’s Inequality seems to be the driving factor here: the benefits of a “workout” (or something similar) are convex, up to a point. Intermittent intense sessions are better than many not-so-intense sessions.

Toby Goodwin July 15, 2012 at 6:24 pm

Great post, as always! One pet niggle: it is wrong mention the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in this (or any other macroscopic) context. As Doug Hofstadter puts it “The uncertainty principle states not that the observer always interferes with the observed, but rather that at a very fine grain size, the wave-particle duality of the measuring tools becomes relevant… It’s not just that we cannot *know* a particle’s position and momentum simultaneously; it doesn’t even *have* definite position and momentum simultaneously.” (from the Metamagical Themas column, July 1981)

Wikipedia is good at debunking misinvocations of Heisenberg, too, and suggests that a better start to your second paragraph would be “It is a sort of observer effect for social science.”

Florian July 16, 2012 at 2:09 am

This is my frst coment on Ribbonfarm, so first of all thanks for the insight in group dynamics and all that comes with it and the great read your post are!

As for the post above, I’m wondering where you woud put the Toyota Production System. I mean the real one at Toyota (Japan if you want to be really narrow) and not all the bad to worse copies people implemented all over tha place. My impression after I read some articles about it in an Havard business manager issue (if it’s really called that, I don’t have it with me right now), especially one called “Learning to lead at Toyota”, was that it actually turns worker into tool users instead of tools while management becomes a teachers body of sort.

Again I can’t just put it in the picture you drew yet.

P.S.: The article I mentioned followed a new american born manager during his first months of in-house training at Toyota. After that some of mistakes western companies are making when they try to implement TPS, Lean and all that became a lot clearer to me. Ah, and still waiting for the final part of the Gervais Principle!

Best regards,

Florian

Markus July 16, 2012 at 7:33 am

“Skynet applying Lean Six Sigma to its operations should be easy to defeat.”
:-) Good one..

While I agree with your general argument, the mindful attention of management bit IMHO poses a challenge. I share your distaste for management fads, but I’m pretty sure they would work better, if they weren’t changed ever so often. It seems to me that they serve as a common mind map that enables management and workers to speak and think at least roughly within the same frame of reference, which in my experience is THE eternal challenge.
To be explicit (in my line of work): if email, whiteboard and spreadsheets were our only operation/project management tools, we would have to hire additional – or at least different people with much more specialist skills – to update the whiteboards intelligently, based on the info in the emails and spreadsheets. Actually, I think updating the whiteboards is the crucial step, and this task is what all the dysfunctional projects in CRM, ERP and whathaveyou is failing at: Automating the whiteboard update bit. To be able to do that well is not something computers will beat us at anytime soon.

As always, thoughtprovoking, Venkat. Don’t ever stop ;-)

Alexander Boland July 16, 2012 at 8:11 am

I always luckily had the instinct of feeling squeamish about overly-legible organization schemes. The sounds of things like “Lean-Six Sigma” make me almost feel physically uncomfortable.

The hard part is being honest with one’s self about mindfulness. The fact is that mindfully doing something is simultaneously blind and honest. I think doing something mindlessly and being overly “scientific” about something are two sides of the exact same coin–wanting to be lulled into the certainty of following an algorithm. People are allergic to uncertainty–and the only cure for that may be to embrace the challenge itself and (for all intents and purposes) not give a hoot about ultimate outcomes.

Alexander Boland July 16, 2012 at 9:04 am

Now that I think about it, that oft-repeated aphorism by Goethe best sums up what you’re saying:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

Markus July 16, 2012 at 1:35 pm

Thank you for that beautiful Goethe quote, Alexander, haven’t come across it before.
The hard part is getting everyone to jump in and commit wholeheartedly, though

Alexander Boland July 17, 2012 at 8:07 am

I agree. I came up with my own aphorism for that one:

“You can do just about anything if you set your mind to it. The hard part is setting your mind to it.”

Alexander Boland July 17, 2012 at 8:08 am

Also, on another note, this makes me realize that I believe in a slightly benevolent universe. Even though the universe is ever-increasing in entropy, there’s just so much negentropy out there to exploit, as suggested by the quote above.

Mike Barretta July 16, 2012 at 1:22 pm

The join between the Hawthorne Effect and the Heisenberg Principle is a good one, but I think it should be made more clear that the overlapping concept is that the measurement of a system impacts the dynamics of the system, thereby changing the thing you are trying to measure.

At Western Electric, I’ve always heard it concluded that the reason the works productivity improved was that they were aware they were being watched. It wasn’t that the manipulation (measurement) in itself was a positive variable. Similarly, there was a study done in the early 30’s that showed a decrease in productivity because the workers were suspicious that higher individual productivity may have allowed management to justify layoffs.

Kay July 17, 2012 at 12:51 pm

I think there are only two “minimum necessary tools” for all pure business thinking: written language and book-keeping

I think I lost you here. When you talked about “abstract management processes” as tools for “information workers”, I thought about something like the V-model, lean production, extreme programming, scrum sessions etc. and teams which are figuring out what works for them, not about white board drawings vs powerpoint slides, which are neither processes nor abstract nor coupled to management tasks specifically.

When it comes to the materiality of supportive tools and minimalism, nothing beats pure thinking in the mindful attention category. Computing science pioneer Edsger Dijkstra recommended “Mozart style” programming which means that a program is developed completely in ones head and finally be just written down – no drafts, no tinkering, no extended mind, no trial & error – which sounds great but I don’t believe it has many competent practitioners.

Goblin July 17, 2012 at 1:35 pm

This is the first post of yours that hasn’t really gotten my hackles up. I was, perhaps mistakenly, reading into your earlier writings an extreme disdain for modern skilled labor and the thought processess that evolve around the skill of fixing the things that neither the engineer nor the manager can or will or would even want to.

I am intrigued on where you might draw the “line” between the person and the tool. The metaphor you’ve chosen here confuses me, and not in a polite way. It shouldn’t be any suprise that on the shop floor talk of the “tools” in middle management comes standard. And in management lit it is the one subject that is glossed over if it is even mentioned at all (ie just about anything on Yahoo or Monster.com).

I think your right with the mindfulness though, its what makes production craftsman more likely to be a “checked-out loser” leaving the truly clueless somewhere lost in the titles of middle management. Lacking the assertiveness or informtion needed to know that he/she might be getting “used”. As assetiveness at the level is generally not tolerated like it is in either the boardroom or the shop floor.

Shop floor mindfulness brings with it a firm knowledge of how that corporation really functions (ie without products there are no need for even upper level management).

So in the modern economy you stand a better chance being a visonary skilled craftsman (ie an entrepreneur) then a chairborne byte-jockey who use CAN ONLY be defined insofar as he/she is related to their boss (ie an special assistant for “…”). Since there is no space for most college educated people to find their path through assertion within the ranks of middle management.

Kay July 18, 2012 at 3:51 am

I was, perhaps mistakenly, reading into your earlier writings an extreme disdain for modern skilled labor and the thought processes that evolve around the skill of fixing the things that neither the engineer nor the manager can or will or would even want to.

At least I haven’t expected reading concluding sentences like:

Or maybe I am just a management Luddite with a romantic view of pre-modern management methods.

Is this the same author who likes to reflect and embrace scalability ( as in the “Hall’s Law” post for example )? Maybe Venkat has no clue how “information work” scales and being abhorred by 6-sigma / scientific management he falls back into individualism, like Paul Graham before him, who coincidentally became a venture capitalist, funding Internet startups. I’m sure that he will figure this out by the time and companies will do this as well.

Goblin July 18, 2012 at 11:42 am

how “information work” scales

This is a huge question in and of itself. And one that all those involved in the production process should have great interest in.

Being the blue collar type I have a tendency (an unfounded/ untested hunch really) that “Data” of the type involved in informational networks is unscalable, in-so-far as scaliblity of data is expressed only via its relevance & applicability, and the skill(s) of the person (or group) thus applying it.

I would challange anyone to find a business that doesn’t base its process-data scaling on anything but applicability!

For example, a metallugist might know in great depth the chemistry and the physics behind a weld, and indeed he might well design the weldment, but he has no scale or frame of applicability to properly execute that weld.

Without either the engineer or the welder you have a corrrupted data-system that is incapable of any scaling at all. And in this instance it is impossible to “scale out” any componet with informational theory.

Now why can’t you scale out the engineer here as some might suggest? Its a one word answer, accountibility.

Too many theorist forget this angle in attempts to tout the benefit of scaled informational networks. Sure another engineer/ scientist (hell even hipster maker) might provide ‘our’ enginner with design insight over such a network, but the global network itself did not supply sufficient local, application based scalability.

Those sort of ‘local’ problems of scale can only be solved by those craftsman, engineers and scientists on site.

Aaron Davies July 17, 2012 at 10:17 pm

Apple’s Keynote software is designed for doing minimal presentations–it’s basically custom-written for Steve Jobs’ keynotes, so if you like those, try it.

Aaron Davies July 17, 2012 at 10:20 pm

People often note that any software development methodology (even waterfall!) works, so long as the people involved are implementing it conscientiously.

matt July 18, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Love to read these thoughtful, mindful, and engaging posts. I would really, really be interested in your take on how some of the ideas that you think/write about look in an applied version. held up as a template, so to speak. WHen I read your posts I do this intuitively – I hold the abstractions (gollum effect, Hawthorne effect, etc…) up against my own concrete lived experience. Remarkable how often that basic (although fallible) reality test holds up!

In short, I would love to see some of these ideas related to the world of education (public high school, in my case) and the education “reform” movement in general. I think it is one of the major, major ways in which our society is re-writing the script (the social contract) in real time and I think that lots of these ideas are relevant in whys that you may not even be aware of!

Best.

Farhat July 20, 2012 at 1:37 am

The point on minimalist tools reminded me of the Unix philosophy. The Unix philosophy, as summarized by Doug McIlroy, says

Write programs that do one thing and do it well.
Write programs to work together.
Write programs to handle text streams, because that is a universal interface.

The idea being that you chain together simple tools to perform complex tasks. But eventually minimalist tools are overloaded to the point where they are no longer simple or minimalist as can sometimes be seen in the myriad options that modify a tool’s output as exemplified by the command the command ‘ls’ which as James Hague points out

It’s the poster child for the UNIX way: a small tool that does exactly one thing well. Here that thing is to display a list of filenames. But deciding exactly what filenames to display and in what format led to the addition of over 35 command-line switches. Now the man page for the BSD version of ls bears the shame of this footnote: “To maintain backward compatibility, the relationships between the many options are quite complex.”

While minimalist tools may be the safest and, in the right hands, powerful, non-experts often prefer a swiss knife tool that does a bunch of things sub-optimally. Thus, you get tools like MS Word.

Alexander Boland July 20, 2012 at 9:39 am

On second look, the Hawthorne effect just seems to be a manifestation of dialectic–that is, if you believe that structures are arbitrary but create the necessary creative-destructive process to see the “essence” of something.

The paradox to me is that one needs to be “systematic” and act as if there were some true meaning to the structure that they’re imposing. It’s nature’s job to slowly tear down assumptions and create a greater sense of “mindfulness” in the learner. That said, I think less is more; I bounce way too much between not being systematic at all and temporarily deluding myself that some Tim-Ferriss style number-crunching is the answer.

Nancy Lebovitz July 23, 2012 at 2:15 pm

An ethnographer looks at teams of programmers– among other things, has a description of the need for just enough legibility. What’s wanted is clues so that a human being can easily find what they want, not total legibility, which is so much work that it wrecks projects.

Dan L. August 8, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Venkat, I think you should consider a different interpretation of the Hawthorne Effect. My father was a business consultant along efficiency lines for a long time. Specifically, he was trying to apply industrial engineering management techniques to knowledge work. He had some success streamlining processes at large insurance companies.

His working model of the Hawthorne effect was not that productivity improves when you pay attention to employees. It was that the variable under observation improves when you put a methodology in place to look at it. When employees aren’t presented with a particular measure on a regular timescale they ignore their performance on that measure. When they actually see the measure they get involved in a feedback loop and — probably unconsciously — take actions to improve the measure over time. For example, car insurance claims associates have the job of interviewing clients to determine the level of culpability (contributory liability). Simply by showing each associate their performance the previous week wrt contributory liability, you engage the associates in feedback loops that (under this model) would lead to improvement over time. I suspect even if you didn’t provide the feedback loop you would see some improvement as long as the employees knew or suspected someone was studying their performance wrt this particular variable.

This interpretation doesn’t lend itself quite as well to management minimalism but it does look a little more like the uncertainty principle than yours does.

George H August 14, 2012 at 5:57 pm

When coupled with the templates and various “How to Present” courses, Powerpoint reduces creation of presentations to a semi-formulaic behaviour; this is the core of what makes it valuable.
Management processes are explicitly intended to produce the same effect, namely the simplification and normalization of management duties. This reduces the spread of effectiveness by reducing the impact of extremely good or bad managers but, critically, increases predictability, accountability, auditability and possibly other -abilities.

I believe the same is true of various software abstractions, including those abstractions reified in hardware; they lower the barrier to entry for performing a given task and ensure that a marginally skilled user is more likely to succeed. The higher level the abstraction the lower the barrier to entry and the more constrained the scope of actions. Software’s somewhat unique currently as its potential unexplored scope is so huge that it creates the illusion of unbounded potential.

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