Muddling through

“I love ‘Talking Infrastructure’ – you ask questions that I have no answers to”. (recent email from an experienced asset management trainer)

Questions for which there are answers are ideal for training courses, manuals, and instructions. Asset management, where the task is to how to choose those asset activities that best achieve the organisation’s objectives, is now, after thirty years of development, at this stage. Not everyone may know the answers but an increasing number are learning the ‘how to’ from those who do. The procedures themselves may change, a little: they may be clarified, refined, improved, but they no longer need be ‘discovered’ for that has already been done. The reason I can say this with a certain amount of confidence is that the task of ‘achieving objectives’ is a technical issue, one of optimisation under constraints.

Choosing those objectives, however, is a different matter.  Clearly communicating the chosen objectives is yet another!   Here we are dealing with values, and with complexity. We are in the realm of ‘wicked problems’. According to Wikipedia. “A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The use of the term “wicked” here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil”.   Incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements, well describes the problem facing those who need to set infrastructure objectives today.  And, yes, they are also difficult to recognise.

How could it be otherwise where, for infrastructure decisions, the need is to plan ten, twenty, or more years into an unknowable future; where we need to juggle the needs of present v future generations, of present v. future technology, of present v. future needs, demands, values and expectations. What do we favour – economic, social or environmental outcomes?  With due respect to the ‘triple bottom line’ which implies that all can be accommodated, the truth is that all conflict.

We can act as if this complexity does not exist and ‘muddle through’, a long established British tradition.

But perhaps the complexity is ‘difficult to recognise’ because we are not examining it?

‘Talking Infrastructure’ is designed to explore these difficult, complex, issues, so that we become more aware, more able to see a path through the complexity, and to debate them so that we are more able to explain whatever path we have chosen to others.

Your view?

3 Thoughts on “Muddling through

  1. NSW local government (and I don’t suppose we’re alone) is certainly muddling through (acting as if this complexity doesn’t exist and so failing to examine it).

    My pet hate is that all councils must report on the “required annual maintenance” relative to “actuals” each year: councils are reporting that they’re only carrying out 87% of what’s “required”… or 108% (did they do too much?) or whatever. They’re projecting these figures 5 and 10 years into the future and NSW government is assessing whether or not councils are “fit for the future” against these benchmarks!

    But scratch the surface: “maintenance” includes activities like mowing and pothole patching which depend on how much it rains! These figures are afforded the veritable certitude of science, but it’s a muddle underneath.

    My view is that the more asset management professionals can help foster a CONVERSATION about what’s important – our objectives – despite the fact that there’s no right answer, that problems are often wicked, and focus less on coming up with the ‘right’ answer, the more we can actually help improve decision making not only about infrastructure but all the activities of our governments/communities.

  2. Ernst Krauss on February 26, 2017 at 8:59 pm said:

    A serious issue affects today’s corporations, whether they are Government Agencies or Private companies. I believe that the issue is related directly to the economic practice that crept in over the last few years (decades), namely growth – economic growth at all costs. For centuries, economies did not really grow much until the advent of the second (and specifically the third) Industrial Revolution. With that need for economic growth (at all or at least very high costs) comes increasing complexity. History teaches us that complex bodies fall in decline and disrepair rather quicker than these systems were built. Many examples but to stay with the economic theme, consider the Roman Empire. It’s governance and structures became so complex, it was not sustainable at a point. Are we headed in the same direction? US Infrastructure used to be very good, but today it has declined and does not really serve the population anymore. What are we doing in Australia? While building Infrastructure is good, can we really sustain it? I think that we need to seriously review our economic model and the need to create more complexity. It should be recognised that simplification is needed rather then creating more complexity. But are we ready for it or do we need to wait for a serious crash? More questions than answers I am afraid.

  3. Jeff Roorda on March 6, 2017 at 7:50 am said:

    Complexity and rapid change can create “management blindness” by our leaders.

    1. When thing go well our it is easy to claim credit even when the leader has no idea why things went well – and invent self serving reasons.
    2. When things go badly, blame others, circumstances even complexity itself.
    3. In both cases there is no attempt to understand the likely scenarios or to communicate what what failure or success looks like.

    Strategic Asset Management must develop scenarios that make clear that there is usually no “right answer” only trade offs that must be guided by wisdom and tempered by compassion.

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