It’s not just that I look like Elon Musk— life is just more fun when you have a secret master plan, isn’t it?
You may be wondering, what in the world do manufacturing methodologies from the 1970s (which I’ve been writing about here the last few months) have to do with the future of productivity (the purpose of this publication)? It’s an excellent question, and a couple of you have written asking whether I plan on continuing the TOC series.
The answer is yes, in fact, I’m barely getting started on the Theory of Constraints. In this first members-only post, I want to take a pause mid-way through the series, and explain to you my most loyal readers (37 members as of today) what I have in mind for the series, for Praxis, and for my work.
My vision for the future of productivity has been shaped by two recent experiences, which I will tell you briefly about.
The first was my introduction to TOC. It was backwards, which I think has played a big part in helping me see its potential beyond mere historical interest. Back in June, a friend and mentor recommended I look into TOC and introduced me to a friend of hers, Richard, who credited it for the success of his business. I had just read the book Incomplete Nature, in which author Terrence Deacon makes the extraordinary case that constraints could be the key to answering the origin of consciousness — which I wrote about in my post Meta-Skills, Macro-Laws, and the Power of Constraints. I was intrigued, and hopped on a plane to Sydney to visit a company that uses the methodology as its Grand Unifying Theory, the true north guiding its operations and growth.
And quite a growth trajectory it has been. The company turned out to be WiseTech Global, Australia’s youngest tech unicorn, which IPO’d in April for just over 1 billion Australian dollars. Richard turned out to be Richard White, the founder, who had started the company out of his basement in the suburbs of Sydney in 1994, funding the startup with credit cards. The company makes customizable freight-forwarding and customs software-as-a-service, sort of like the Salesforce of the shipping industry.
I embedded in the company for a week, interviewing and talking to people from several departments about how they used Goldratt’s theories to manage a hyper-growth tech company. About half the 300+ employees have been through an intensive TOC training program called the “Black Belt in Thinking,” which includes 8 days of isolation in the mountains of New Zealand studying and practicing the tools 12 hours per day (I’m looking for someone to take this course with me, by the way, as training firm ViAGO is starting to do it in the U.S.). Every employee who had been through the course had a special placard sticking up from their workstation — a black belt tied around a brain, with a lightning bolt in the background.
What I saw there was a very different way of working. A different way of thinking, actually. It colored everything I learned about TOC and related ideas afterward. Arriving home, I could not accept the common wisdom that these were nothing more than manufacturing-era frameworks with little application to modern-day work. When I asked why, the reasons given I knew to be incorrect or trivial, nothing more than implementation details, based on the real living operation I had witnessed in Sydney.
What I’ve discovered is that many of the most innovative and popular approaches to productivity and innovation today are drawn directly from the insights of TOC. The Lean Startup, Scrum and Agile development, and DevOps are direct translations of its principles. The Goal is required reading for Jeff Bezos’ executives and Brad Feld’s startups. And yet their practitioners have forgotten where they came from. In many cases, the applications have wandered further and further from the original principles, causing these methods to become stagnant cargo cults, ritual for ritual’s sake.
TOC provides a set of tools for actually doing what most people just think about — systems doing, not just systems thinking. It describes universal and timeless principles that, once you understand them, show up absolutely everywhere. From how you wash dishes, to the micro-decisions you make about what to work on throughout the day, to traffic patterns on the freeway, to how you go about developing a new theory.
We know that what is needed to make progress in modern productivity is to design systems that can handle interdependency, non-linear complexity, scalable growth, and rapid change. We know that we need methods of identifying and activating sources of leverage, while respecting and actually utilizing the unique qualities of humans and machines. Could it be that the basic principles were worked out decades ago, and are just waiting for someone to translate them once again into modern terms?
The second experience was in August, when I attended a 3-day course known as the Landmark Forum. Two trusted friends had recommended it as one of the most impactful experiences of their lives, and I figured I might as well check it out. I was a skeptic that 3 days could have the effects they described, and wary of cult-like tendencies, but figured that at the very least I could do some competitive research on one of the most popular self-improvement courses of all time, with over 2.4 million graduates.
I walked in on the first day to find a large poster with the following phrase describing what would happen over the weekend: “The constraints the past imposes on your view of life disappear; a new view of life emerges.” A chill ran down my spine those first few hours as the facilitator explained what we would accomplish. It was the same principles, the same concepts, in many cases the same words, but applied to a different system: me.
Over the next 3 days, I did indeed have one of the most impactful experiences of my life. I may write about it at length another time, but the short version is that I learned what I didn’t know I didn’t know. I was shown my blindspots: my interpretations of what had happened in my past, of my family and past relationships, of life and how it works, were slowly and then quickly peeled apart from the reality they tried to describe, like peeling apart two tortillas that you felt sure were one. I came to see — not just understand theoretically — that I had confused my “self” with a persona that I had created. I had created it to survive, to get by, to solve a small set of problems I happened to have at a certain formative period of my life. And now I was facing problems that persona was not equipped to manage. It was creating problems instead of solving them, and I had to let it go.
Leaving the personal insights for another time, the months since that experience have been the most productive of my life. Productivity doesn’t describe it really. I started encountering projects and responsibilities free of the deafening stories I had told about what they meant about me. The voice in my head was quiet, more quiet than it had ever been after 10 days of silent meditation. I perceived the sequence of actions that was necessary to achieve a certain result, and…I executed them. There was only perception and action, layers and layers of defensiveness and avoidance suddenly gone. Tasks that had lingered for weeks or months of unexplainable resistance were, without exaggeration, gone in hours or days.
I can’t shake the sense that this experience gave me a small window into what humans are capable of, when the constraints on their perception and action are undone. All the tips and tricks and hacks that fill the productivity media feel like trivialities, when compared with the insurgent potential of a mind freed from the survival instincts of our ancestors. Now I just need to figure out how to make the effect last…
These two experiences together give me a tantalizing vision of what the future of productivity may hold. It is obvious in any study of productivity that it all begins and ends in the mind. And it is obvious in any examination of organizations that you must deal with interdependent systems to really change anything.
I want to combine the principles of TOC, Landmark, and other disciplines to develop a new framework for productivity. Is there any other game really worth playing in the productivity space today? I want to show that, as we peel away the physical constraints of the external world one by one, the constraints move into the mind. To our narratives, our interpretations, the assumptions we are willing to question and possibilities we are willing to consider. Everyone is looking for the “next big thing” that will define the future of work, and in order to succeed this synthesis will have to be intellectually rigorous, well-documented, beautifully communicated, and spearheaded by a tribe of ardent practitioners.
This is why I’m going back to the beginning, to the source. I have perhaps another 8–10 posts on the Theory of Constraints to lay a foundation and articulate the main concepts. Then I’ll explore related movements that are built on similar principles, such as Lean Production, Agile and Scrum, and DevOps. Then I should be ready to choose the most relevant concepts and map them to modern knowledge work. Along the way I’ll also need to draw connections to areas I feel are deeply connected, but we’ve lacked a rigorous explanation of how exactly: design thinking, mindfulness and self-awareness, OODA and other theories of combat and change, and art and creativity. And finally, we’ll need to develop the practical implementations that people can actually use. The goal is to make sure I understand these ideas myself, and to bring a small group of motivated individuals along with me to a level of fluency that they can begin to use these techniques in their day-to-day work. I am already using TOC tools in my consulting, training, and coaching, but we’re going to need far more diverse, simultaneous tests to evolve as fast as we need to.
This is where you come in. The goal of the Praxis membership is not primarily to make some extra pocket change. It is to recruit a group of high-performing and influential people willing and able to try new ways of working, and report back their results. I still have a long way to go tracing the history and intellectual underpinning of TOC through the present day, but soon I will begin to ramp up more ideas for how to apply it to information-intensive, technology-saturated, abstract-conceptual knowledge work.
I invite you to be part of this effort, to take these ideas, apply them, reinterpret them, mix and match them, put them to the test, and report back. If we can all prototype and experiment together, maybe we can create something that actually makes a difference. As we finish up 2016 and head into a new year, it sure is clear that the world badly needs new ways of thinking and creating together.
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