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The Plowman Effect and the Importance of the Big Picture

It is one of those givens in life that the law is a social good as are oxygen and water. However, if we have too much oxygen things are likely to explode. If there is too much water we are likely to drown. The Fog of Law, a report produced by the Policy Exchange, provides us with a warning that too much law can create problems that have unintended and detrimental consequences. When the law can be used to stop our armed forces acting to defend our society, surely something has gone wrong.

 The report describes how the law has evolved to the point that the authors feel that it is no longer, in this case, acting in society’s best interest. They explain how each well intentioned act by law-makers (I am making the assumption they were well intentioned) and well-argued decision by the judiciary has taken us to a position which I suspect few would want us to be in.  From the report we can see that some of the drivers have been legitimate calls from the families of the dead to understand what happened to their loved one. We can also see that some of the forces at work are less constructive. We see situations where lawyers receive personal gain through being employed within the legal process, without having due regard to or taking responsibility for the wider interests of society. They justify their action as being a social good where the self-justification itself can be seen as a way of avoiding any cognitive dissonance associated with any unintended consequences that may emerge. In the case of the “Fog of Law”, we see the concerns, of those who have the best of intentions that such things “should never happen again”, being used in such a way that rather than preventing future casualties, they generate the conditions likely to induce casualties. Finally we are given examples of where those who have a clear interest in harming our society use our law at our expense to make it more difficult for our armed forces to defend us in the future.

 So why do I bring this piece of work to your notice?  The answer to this is, what I have labelled, the “Plowman Effect”.

May I draw your attention to work by Donde Plowman and her 5 co-authors (2007)[i]. This research looked at how multiple small changes can take you in a direction never intended.  They conclude that “the radical change was unintended, emergent, and slow, (that) destabilizing conditions helped small changes to emerge and become radical, (and) subsequent actions amplified an initial small change and, though not intended to do so, promoted radical change”. I shall refer to this as the “Plowman Effect” and note that while these emergent radical changes may be beneficial (as in Plowman’s case study), they may conversely be disastrous as in the case of the Fog of Law.

 If you ask whether the Plowman Effect is supported by any other strands of academic work, the answer is “yes”.  In Vaughan’s work on the Challenger Disaster she says “we are reminded of how repetition, seemingly small choices, and the banality of daily decisions in organizational life – indeed, in most social life – can camouflage from the participants a cumulative directionality” (1996:119). Irwin (1977) gave us the idea of compounded abstraction (where new data is added to old conclusions which lead us down a path different to the one we would have been on if we had added data to data before reanalysing it). Klein (1998) talks of the garden path fallacy where “Taking one step that seems very straightforward, and then another, and each step makes so much sense that you do not notice how far you are getting from the main road”. All these ideas add up to an awareness that progress does not necessarily take us to where we thought we were going. From this we can derive the importance of appreciating that change with adverse consequences does not need a mistake or error to precipitate it. A warning of this can be seen in Charles Perrow’s (1999) warning that normal accidents are inevitable in systems that are complex and closely coupled. We can also see the Plowman effect in practice when we observe the multiplicity of regulators producing contradictory regulations and guidelines and now, in the “Fog of Law”, we see how individual decisions of the courts can have the (hopefully) unintended consequence of detracting from the country’s ability to defend itself.

 What is the implication for performance management? To me, this highlights the importance of what have been referred to as success mapping or strategy mapping. What it says to me is that these holistic overviews need to tell the story of how success will be achieved and how each measure (metric) employed will indicate where you are on track to success or are drifting towards failure. These forms of mapping may also be seen as being just a more explicit mental model, that is, “an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world”. To me the importance of these schematics is that they should provide a point of reference against which each decision can be judged in order to see whether it may take the organisation in a new direction or it may lead it to somewhere it does not want to be.

In summary, while the report might appear to be a minority interest, it has great relevance for both management scholars and practitioners. It provides a vivid description of how individually seemingly valid decisions can lead a collective away from where they want or need to be. The paper points to the need to keep the big picture in mind and the dire consequences if you don’t. As someone concerned with improving performance management practice, how would or do you do this?

Mike Lauder 


[i]  “Radical Change Accidentally: The Emergence and Amplification of Small Change”, Academy of Management Journal 2007, Vol. 50, No. 3, 515–543.



2 thoughts on “The Plowman Effect and the Importance of the Big Picture

  1. Mike is right, there is the fabled saying “it is hard to remember that you are trying to drain the swamp when you are up to your arse in alligators!”

    But what does this mean in practice, Let us take a widely used performance management system; the performance appraisal. How does this work? Well someone at the top of the organisation has a conversation with their direct report. This conversation should include their goals for the coming year. They both go away very happy. Now the subordinate goes to one of their direct reports and the exact routine is repeated. Again, everyone is very happy. But after 4 or 5 iterations, how often have we reached the stage where we are walking off the main road and don’t know how far or why? And what is worse, no one in the process can see it as they all see their individual conversation and believe they are translating the objectives on down the organisation in the right way.

    So that is the advantage of having a strategy map, success map or explicit mental model which is out there for everyone to see and be guided by. Keeping the end in mind at all times is really important. When you write a policy, start by stating the intent, “what you are trying to achieve with the policy,” rather than just write it and leave the interpretation to chance.

    Now we are in a world where people have to think just not blindly copy the process. That has real implications for how you train and educate people. It has real implications for culture and trust too!

    Soo keep the goal in mind.

    Mike Bourne

    Posted by Prof Mike Bourne | December 12, 2013, 12:43 pm
  2. Mike

    Is it the “Ploughman effect” because we need to keep people on the straight and narrow?


    Posted by Prof Mike Bourne | December 12, 2013, 12:58 pm

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