Retrospective Organization

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, July 2004

In the beginning, there was an organization chart. The speaker assumed that we would all share his enthusiasm for this chart – perhaps because his own name was at the top. The rest of the talk flowed seamlessly from the organizational structure we had been shown. The project being reviewed partitioned beautifully into the designated departments. There was a crisply-defined set of system requirements, which melded into a flowchart of milestones and schedules, apparently all being met exactly, and a series of chronological bullet points describing major decisions. It was all a great success for the person named at the top of the org chart.

I was suspicious. It was a talk I had heard many times before. There is even probably a template in Powerpoint for such a talk. “Insert name of project here,” it says. Or perhaps the dreaded paperclip pops up and says, “I see you are trying to prepare a project review.”

However, in my experience nothing in life proceeds in such an organized fashion as these presentations always convey. Things are inevitably messy and ill-defined. Mistakes are made, and decisions are often ambiguous and based on incomplete information. Work never partitions exactly according to organizational boundaries, and the workers sometimes pay little attention to what management is deciding.

But all this messiness is irrelevant when it comes to an oral presentation or a written report. Good talks and papers demand organization. Moreover, structure and organization are considered the hallmarks of good management, whether it’s the management of personal work of that of a group. So we retrospectively impose order on events that at the time might have been largely determined by chaos and happenstance.

I don’t mean to imply that people are disingenuous in preparing such presentations. I think we all do retrospective organization without even thinking about what we are doing. Somewhere in the dark uncharted parts of our brains an analysis process is going on. “Here’s where I am at this time in this project,” says the brain to itself. Let’s construct a definition of “success” that corresponds with this present state. Now the question is this: What is the most impressive sequence of logical steps could have led to this randomly-derived present state? It’s a standard problem in dynamic programming, like finding the shortest path through a maze. Working backwards, this little devious part of the brain constructs the viewgraphs in reverse order, thus producing retrospective organization and impressive structure.

The new charts, now so beautifully organized, are surfaced to our conscious minds. Of course, we say to ourselves. That’s exactly what happened. And we believe it. After a few briefings of this material, our memory has been indelibly altered. How organized we are! How impressed with our with ourselves.

I am reminded of a cartoon that I came across many years ago. It depicted a bedraggled man crawling across a desert on hands and knees. He had obviously reached the end of his resources under the remorseless sun beating upon a limitless sea of sand. Incredulously, he stared up at a signpost that constituted the only feature in this vast nothingness. It was a map. “You are here,” it said, pointing with an arrow to an “X” in the middle of an otherwise completely blank chart.

Maybe you have to see the cartoon to be amused, but I thought it was quite funny. Why, I wondered? Why do I laugh at a map with no features? A theory of humor is that it comes from suddenly seeing something from a different and unanticipated direction. It is impossible to have an empty map, to be in a position that can’t be described. We feel a compulsion to draw roads and boundaries on the blank map. It demands organization and structure. So do projects and problems.

Perhaps years from now, on the off chance that I should read this little essay, I will remember how I came to write it. I will remember how I conceived a wonderful and original idea – that of retrospective organization. I will remember how I prepared an outline of the column, how paragraphs were organized so as to flow from one to the other.

Alas, the truth is that I had only a half-baked idea, a shadow of a theme. The reality is that I had a deadline for submission and a fixed quota of words. All I could think of was the words, “In the beginning.” I have no idea where the rest of this came from.

Robert Lucky