Determinism was a hot topic of conversation in a couple of my PhD courses this week. I thought I’d dedicate this post applying what I’d learned. While most of my cohort is focused on a audience of k-12 instructors, I am more interested in how our class discussions apply in a corporate setting.
Let’s begin with a brief explanation of terms. Determinism is a broad philosophical idea that has some stiff logic — very difficult to argue. Determinism postulates that every event, including every human decision and action, is the inevitable result of preceding actions and natural laws. Given these two conditions, there is only one outcome. Nothing else can happen.
Deterministic views of the world assume everything is a jigsaw puzzle rather then a chess game and that for every problem there is a single solution.
The logic follows that if this single solution can be identified, then all that’s required is for the series of steps to be described that lead to it and the outcome can be repeated at will. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, explains it best:
Although determinism is part of our world, we shouldn’t assume that its principles can be applied everywhere. Anyone who has even the most rudimentary understanding of chess knows that to adopt a strategy based on determinism is to often invite failure.
HR, L&D, and Training managers I know seem to be obsessed with identifying best practices and apply them where they can. “What processes are working? Which ones can we adopt?” Astute managers take it one step further by asking, “What principles can we apply from Company XYZ’s successful model?” (There’s absolutely nothing wrong with seeing how other organizations achieve their results and trying to learn from them.) But the best managers do not assume that if they do the same, then their results will mirror the model company’s. That is simply bowing to determinism. Human behavior and the nature of organizations both tend to be complex and highly variable, and neither lend themselves to deterministic approaches.
Conclusion: Best practice is the result of deterministic behavior and exists only in relatively simple systems. E.g. A good application of a best practice would be streamlining a mechanized workflow. A bad application would be re-organizing an entire department of people in an effort to attain a Google-like startup culture. A borderline application would be anything that involves human (very complex systems in and of themselves).
(Charles Jennings’s blog post on Determinism further discusses how and when training ought to introduced to improve performance.)