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Have fun at work (Engineering Empowerment)

It is dangerous, and often fruitless, to try and solve problems without considering the underlying social system.

This is the message of William L. Livingston, a mechanical engineer with over 100 patents and decades of industrial experience. Several books and a newsletter detail his disturbing but important worldview. They are all available from FES Ltd Publishing, P.O.Box 158, Stuart, FL 34995, phone (407) 229-5654, fax (407) 229-5636.

``Have Fun at Work'' (1988, ISBN 0-937063-05-3, $24.95) is the basic work. It's also available from Amazon.com.

This book discusses chronic patterns of organizational malfunction that I have observed personally many times while working for computer firms (4 years at Hewlett-Packard and 6 years at Tandem, among others).

Man is not well-adapted for solving complex problems, he argues. Our brains and bodies and, to a large extent, our social systems evolved for the lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Faced with truly complex problems, our managers generally fall back on instinct. This can produce legendary debacles like the original baggage handling system at Denver International.

The book sketches a different social structure that is better equipped to cope with complexity: the Skunkworks. The term comes from a legendary aircraft development shop that produced the U-2 and Blackbird aircraft. In general, a Skunkworks is a small (3--5) team of battle-hardened, generalist engineers equipped with the latest in software tools for simulating the behavior of all the involved systems (mechanical, electrical, software, and social).

On a purely practical level, this book is an excellent survival manual for results-oriented engineers who have developed attitude problems about the structural barriers to success in their work environments. Livingston discusses how to evaluate your social structure's potential for success, ways to get working projects out the door in spite of these barriers, and how to tell when you're wasting your time even working there.

Livingston's more recent work, ``Friends in High Places'' (1990, ISBN 0-937063-06-1, $28.50), spends less time discussing organizational pathologies and more time discussing the Skunkworks procedure. It is a somewhat more positive, less bitter work than ``Have Fun at Work.''

Livingston's work has continued in a quarterly newsletter called ``Short Circuit.'' I find these newsletters very exciting, as Livingston and several colleagues report back from the cutting edge of the Skunkworks movement. They have thrown down the gauntlet: they will demonstrate the method to skeptics. They have asked for thorny problems to solve. The ones they have taken on have proved the method. The main reason why they haven't done more is that they almost always tell clients that their social system has to change if they want success---and people are often very reluctant to abandon their social system, however badly it may work.

Update: Livingston has put up a web with the latest material, The Front End. Please see this site for current information.

Also see Dee Hock's Institutions in the Age of Mindcrafting, which is strongly congruent with Livingston's ideas.


Next: Readings in human factors
See also: How organizations work (or don't)
Previous: Gandhi: an approach to nonviolent social change
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John W. Shipman, john@nmt.edu
Last updated: 2000/07/28 23:49:04
URL: http://www.nmt.edu/~shipman/org/hfaw.html