Tuesday, 18 October 2016

What modern organisations can learn from the Bletchley Park code-breakers



A few weeks ago I wrote about my eye-opening visit to Bletchley Park in a post called 'Huts and Silos'. This inspired me to arrange a KIN Site Visit to the home of WW2 codebreaking. The idea was
to see what modern organisations could learn from Bletchley Park's innovation, collaboration and organisation set-up. On Friday, 13 of us had an inspiring tour of the site; this is the result of our reflections at the end of the day.



Participant observations of the Bletchley Park operation
Possible lessons for modern organisations
1.
Diversity of backgrounds and professions represented. Unusually, class distinctions were immaterial.
Different perspectives & backgrounds = higher likelihood of finding solutions to problems. Complementary skill sets.
2.
‘Silo’ working at Bletchley Park was a necessity for security reasons
Sometimes there is a good reason for clear separation of operations, for example Chinese Walls for financial operations.
3.
Despite much of the work being tedious and the workers conscripted, morale was high and ambitious targets achieved
Intrinsic motivation (having a goal that workers believe in and work that plays to strengths) can compensate for difficult circumstances. It’s not all about pay and rations (literally!)
4.
Socialisation and relaxation was seen by senior management as an important factor in managing stress and keeping productivity high. Eg tennis, dances, beer!
Informal spaces to relax and converse with co-workers are vital in building relationships, trust and the exchange of ideas (clearly the latter didn’t apply at Bletchley Park)
5.
Unusually for the time, female staff at Bletchley Park (2/3 of the total) received equal pay to men. Note: we are unsure if this applied just to the code-breakers, or all female staff.
One hopes that equal pay is no longer an issue, but we must be vigilant with regard to biases. The KIN Spring 2017 Workshop will include this issue.
6.
Individuals with specialist skills were given very specific tasks; not asked to be generalists
Too often experts are asked to take on generalist roles (such as managing teams or budgets). This can be a distraction, or cause stress or under-performance.
7.
There were many failed attempts at problem solving. This was anticipated and processes in place to understand root cause of failure. In one instance, the Navy code-breakers took 9 months of repeated failure before cracking a problem.
We need to have a defined level of tolerance for failure, and ensure processes are in place to take action as a result. ‘Anyone who has not experienced failure has never tried anything new’ – A Einstein
8.
The code breakers had to deal with up to an astonishing 6000 messages per day. These had to be processed before midnight every day, when the Enigma settings changed. The industrialization of the processing and analysis may be the first example of Big Data and Data Analytics.
Processes and skills for the analysis of huge volumes of rea-time data are becoming ever more important. AI may be a way of understanding hidden patterns an inferences (see KIN Winter Workshop, 7th December).
9.
The actors in ‘The Imitation Game’ spent time talking directly with Bletchley Park veterans, to  understand what it was like to work there.
First-hand, verbatim knowledge is vital in understanding context and nuance for handovers and other knowledge transfer situations.
10.
Having tough targets and working under critical time constraints can sometimes foster ingenious solutions. For example the ‘cribs’ shortcuts.
Sometimes disturbing the staus quo or adopting counter intuitive approaches can bear foster innovation.
11.
A good source of personnel were cryptic crossword puzzle fanatics and other critical thinkers
Do we encourage critical thinking and individualism sufficiently in our education systems?
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