Monday, November 24, 2014

Who is your Turing?

I saw the Imitation Game over the weekend, and I must say it's a fascinating movie, on several levels.  First there's the whole idea of cracking a secret code, one which even the senior leaders in the British and American forces thought was probably uncrackable.  The effort to "crack" the ENIGMA code was incredible, and probably shortened the war, along with the effort to crack the LORENZ cipher, which for some reason doesn't get the attention that the ENIGMA work does. While this isn't a movie review, I'll digress for just a second to recommend it highly.

The movie is interesting on another level as well, because the cracking of the code is just a way to tell some of the story of Alan Turing, an intelligent man who was quite simply different from many of the people around him.  Cumberbatch plays him as a man with little social grace or empathy, almost immune to the feelings of others, a version of his famous Sherlock Holmes transported to 1940s England.

Turing's work is revered today, but he lived a very troubled life.  He was arrogant, deeply intelligent and either unaware or unconcerned about social mores.  The movie, which admittedly takes liberties with the historical facts, portrays a team that could barely stand to work with Turing, and a man who could not understand the lack of faith in his ideas. 

These English set piece movies almost always revolve around a strong social culture and set of expectations and the rare individuals who don't fall in line or live to the beliefs or cultural expectations of the people around them. While World War I ended the Victorian era, the social expectations, class society and conformity of the English society and government at the time were still very powerful, and Turing's life and his actions often came into conflict with these expectations.

Are we so different today?

Think for a while about your corporate culture.  While we are much more tolerant about appearance, have fewer expectations about social classes and are more attuned to cultural and moral differences, corporate cultures don't suffer differences lightly.  Corporate cultures are constructed to repeat past performances and processes with ever increasing rates of throughput with decreasing costs and higher predictability.  Like Turing's team mates, we are all focused on breaking an individual message, taking very small, safe steps in our work.  Turing confronted his team, perhaps unnecessarily, but he made it known that he wanted to create a system to break every message, every day, not just occasionally decrypt one message.  His ideas and his vision, while poorly communicated, were more far-reaching and encompassing than those of his team.  Even how he framed the problem was different - his team (at least in the movie portrayal) were using methods to break individual messages when the codes were changed every day.  He was seeking a way to understand and replicate how the codes were developed, so they could break every code, every day.  Totally different definition of the problem, far more expansive, far more challenging.

But Turing's problem was in combining a relatively incompatible personality that often kept others on edge with a very expansive and potentially dangerous definition of the depth and breadth of the possible solution.   In wartime his mannerisms and long shot strategy might be tolerated (barely) but in a company with day to day operations, there's no way a corporate hierarchy or culture would tolerate these actions.  But given the pace of change, the level of competition and the dynamics of the market, we may need more Turings and fewer people who adjust to and live within the corporate culture.

Very few large corporations have cultures that will develop and encourage people who actively question the status quo, and even fewer will actively tolerate those voices within their ranks.  We create cultural conformity in our ranks in much the same way that pre-war England had permanent social strata, boy's clubs, stiff upper lips, a place for everyone and everyone in their place.  We may look back and laugh at the expectations of the culture and the rigid hierarchies, but are we really that different?  At a time when we need more innovation, are our cultures and management processes welcoming to the potential Turings in our midst, or do they reject and exclude the Turings and their radical ideas?

Visionary individuals and the teams that enable them

Note that I reject the idea that each business needs to find one Alan Turing and extract all the knowledge and ideas from that individual.  Innovation, as was demonstrated in the movie, is a team activity.  Others on the team contributed a number of ideas and improvements to Turing's "bomb".  Turing by himself would have probably failed to break the ciphers, but as part of a team that eventually accepted his intelligence and eccentricities they created something more.  No, the real question is:  what does your culture do to your potential Turings?  The people who have great ideas, who challenge the status quo, who want to define the problems you face in new and unsettling ways?  The more you constrain and reject your Turings, the more you practice "safe" and controllable innovation and new product development, the shorter your path to extinction becomes.  
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:29 AM


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