“Silver Bullets could actually be called Silver Boomerangs, because they keep coming back…”. A lovely observation from Matt Wyatt which doesn’t need much explanation, and I’ll pick it up again later.
It was prompted by the previous post, A lesson from the Lone Ranger on Pascale’e Management Fads and Silver Bullet Syndrome, which led to some thought-provoking comments, and a link from @BrianSJ3, to this really helpful paper: Life Cycle of a Silver Bullet by Sarah A. Sheard. It featured in the July 2003 edition of The Journal of Defense Software Engineering, which I must admit passed me by at the time.
However, don’t worry about the 2003 vintage, the paper could have been written yesterday, in 2023 or even 2053. The technology might have moved on, but behaviours haven’t very much, and if I’m being really sceptical, the 2053 prediction might actually be true (I hope not).
What are Silver Bullets? In organisational life the term Silver Bullet has come to mean anything new that can miraculously solve difficult problems. The idea of Silver Bullet Syndrome has been suggested where organisations constantly seek the next silver bullet.
The reasons why silver bullet syndrome exists are complex, and have been suggested as being linked to things like; Fundamental Attribution Bias, Organisational Tourists, Hindsight Bias and FOMO (fear of missing out), all eloquently explained in the comments on the previous post.
The Lifecycle of a Silver Bullet. The paper summarises the 11 stages in the lifecycle of a silver bullet, from the perspective of a new method being introduced into a manufacturing company, but it could by any organisation. I’ve taken the liberty of translating the text into this graphic which I’ll explain below.
- Stage #1 Back to Basics. This involves throwing out all of the existing silver bullets and having a good look at your organisation, because you really should know it better than people from outside.
- Stage #2 Understand Your Situation & Act. The most important part. This involves a proper examination of what does and doesn’t work for the organisation. Done by the people who are involved in the actual work, not external consultants. Managers listen (properly) and help to make good things happen.
- Stage #3 Success. The organisation reaps the rewards of having people working at the jobs they understand and are good at.
- Stage #4 Publicity. Peers and Sector Media. People start to notice good things happening and case studies and other reports start to emerge. I’m not against case studies, but beware. There is always a tendency to ‘re-imagine’ what happened in getting from A to B, so that it all neatly fits together and looks like there was glorious plan (Hindsight Bias).
- Stage #5 Hype. Wider Recognition and Momentum. People really start to pay attention now and look at how they might copy some of what the original origination did. This really helps if the original approach is given a name (The Balle-Argentee Method) and a ‘model’ created that you can easily draw on office flipcharts.
- Stage #6 First Replication. Things haven’t gone horribly wrong YET. The first people to replicate do a lot of work to understand why The Balle-Argetntee Method works. They probably talk closely with the people who originally used it, and modify the process to suit their own circumstances.
- Stage #7 Confirmation and More Hype. The First Replicators have success in using the method. This confirmation is all that is needed for the sector media and other commentators to ‘cash in ‘ and produce literature promoting the method. This is where the management consultant and others get involved offering to help organisations implement the Balle-Argetntee Method. (Does any of this sound familiar yet?)
- Stage #8 Standardisation and Superficial Copying. This is where things really start to go wrong. In a world of tight budgets, conflicting demands, initiative overload and dubious leadership, the people within organisations are forced to implement the Balle-Argentee Method. This will be fresh on the heels of the last improvement methodology that head office have sent down the line. Just to make things worse, it has been standardised and simplified by the Central Team so that anyone can understand it (this might get called ‘designing out the idiot’ in some organisations…)
- Stage #9 Diminishing Returns. No surprised here. Staff resist having something else forced upon them and The Balle-Argentee Method fails to solve the problems of the organisation.
- Stage #10 Blame the Method. The Balle-Argentee method is discredited. This is backed up by evidence from front line delivery where staff complain that the method makes them do stupid things (this always helps in getting shot of something).
- Stage #11 Start Afresh & Back to Basics. Someone sensible throws out the Balle-Argentee Method. They have a good look at their organisation, because they really should know it better than people from outside. And the whole cycle starts again, just like the Silver Boomerang mentioned at the start.
Who should do what to dodge a Silver Bullet? The paper helpfully suggests actions for the following people:
- EVERYONE – Remember that methods are just a means to an end.
- EXECUTIVES – Understand your organisation, and also understand the methods you are promoting and listen to messages from below.
- MANGERS – Really need to understand the methods they are pushing.
- PROCESS / POLICY STAFF – Push back if things don’t look sensible, especially any targets imposed.
Finally the big message here is to understand your own context and situation. Don’t rely upon ‘second generation silver bullets’, which are someone else’s solution.
So, What’s the PONT?
- The desire for Silver Bullets is common and driven by many complex factors. Like Silver Boomerangs they keep coming around.
- If anyone does offer you a Silver Bullet, just say no. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- One key to ‘dodging a silver bullet’ might be to make the best use of the ‘lead’ bullets you have already. However, this is hard to do and to quote Matt Wyatt from the previous post… this, “inconveniently requires insight into the context, longstanding relationships, and experience over time to work its way through.”