How “Red, Amber, Green” Metrics are Blinding Us… Organizational Knowledge and the Illusion of Reification (in Military Affairs)by : Ben Zweibelson
Original blog post can be found here: https://benzweibelson.medium.com/how-red-amber-green-metrics-are-blinding-us-organizational-knowledge-and-the-illusion-of-bfdaf1662e9b
Inthe modern, data-hungry era of mainstream society, nearly all of us have experienced that sensation when the organization is unable to see the forest for the trees. We tend to become fixated on invented metrics that render us unable to gain critical or creative insight- and we often scurry down rabbit holes desiring greater metrics to reinforce hidden motives. This relates to the social construction that occurs often before our very eyes, yet we hardly realize it. This is also how social groups apply “reification” (the act of applying additional meanings to things that are lacking those qualities) to steer our organizational sense-making towards some things and away from others.
Reification is applied in multiple disciplines, so I am using it here specifically in a cognitive and language (semiological- how signs are symbolically constructed within our languages) sense, as well as an educational (pedagogical- thinking about how we teach and why) sense. The hardest thing about talking about reification is that it is so hidden from our everyday actions. We do this intentionally- because as humans we cannot waste precious time pondering things that prevent us from seeing a threat (like a saber tooth tiger, or enemy with a club) approaching. So, when you catch yourself driving your car and feeling like you are on “autopilot”, this is an example of how our large brains are able to filter out some information and create shortcuts for cutting down on where our consciousness is focused on. Reification shares in this, in a socially constructed way where the whole organization agrees.
In multiple combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, I often (as a staff officer but also in leadership roles) found myself in rather long meetings where slide after slide was briefed by some poor staff officer on the latest metrics for any given topic. It might be number of operations, the weather, drones, enemy group activities, or how well or poorly the local security force (Police, Army, local militia) element was doing. Nearly all of these metrics had some sort of “red, amber, green” coding assigned. In some instances, there were nuanced modifiers such as “this Police unit is red trending amber in their logistics, but a steady amber/green in their number of patrols.” Or we might see “today the local Afghan militia Commander is rated an amber trending red due to his lack of cooperation with his advisory team over the past week.” In all of these instances, no one is really green, amber, or red. This is our own reification process- and it relates to the western metaphor of a traffic light. Red means stop, or bad. Red is a negative. Amber is in-between (and depending on your local driving climate, it means punch the brakes or punch the gas), while green is seen as good, progress, success. But what else is organizational reification doing here?
The stoplight reification process actually does what all efforts to reify do, in that we collectively as an organization are “pre-configuring” our thoughts on reality before we think about the contextual facts at hand.What I mean by this is, before the slide is even up on the screen and the briefer begins his narrative on whatever metric we are pursuing as a group, the whole group pre-agrees that the stoplight metaphor is valid. This seems to happen more often in sociological or tacit conditions- in that it is difficult or even impossible to explain fully or describe with analytical accuracy.
Consider that an engineering company might never need the stoplight reification approach for discussing bridge structural integrity in upcoming highway projects. Yet in another meeting, that same company has to decide their next advertising plan and gets three different artistic ideas on selling their products in a changing, competitive market. Suddenly, the metrics of bridge components and mathematical rules become less applicable. Here, where the group is lacking the specificity of an objective reality, they might take on some reification approach and use a metaphoric color or value scheme to aid them in deciding which advertising concept to purchase.
Gone is the mathematical precision of bridge structures, and while some engineers may attempt to extend that analytical outlook into the world of creative advertising with big data metrics and test groups, we need only look to the hit-or-miss environment of the Hollywood film industry to see that quite often, the best social testing seems to miss the mark. Sometimes Adam Sandler makes a good movie, and sometimes even Tom Hanks cannot save a film from becoming a disaster. The subjective side of human existence is messy, fluid, and ever-changing. Reification, as a social process, is one attempt to extend the stable objectivity of our analytical preferences into what humans collectively make a largely irrational world.
So, what is so bad with “red, amber, green” in slippery metrics and organizational judgments on things that are not measured easily? This is not an argument to toss out all of those PowerPoint slides filled with a kaleidoscope of stoplight patterns, although in the military there would be a collective sigh of relief from legions of staff officers. What are the real hazards of reification?
First, when we reify, we often forget that we are doing it. We believe over time that the thing is really what we have reified it into. We begin to see Iraqi Police units or upcoming weather periods as RED, AMBER, GREEN, or BLACK (black is often added onto the stoplight metaphor as something empty, or below red). This is dangerous because we begin to both forget the reification process and begin to take things literally. When you combine this with our organizational penchant to employ linear causality (this leads to that; A plus B will always lead to C), we end up taking things in dangerous directions because we are thinking only about the reified symbols and no longer the actual things in question. Quickly, I saw entire regions of Iraq or Afghanistan become over-simplified into a swath of color codes and icons- which led to over-simplified decisions and actions. This can also quickly happen when maps in boardrooms take similar coded symbols and suddenly management is thinking within reified symbols and not the actual people, places, or things that require their attention.
Secondly, when we agree to reification, we are collectively as an organization agreeing to pre-configure our thinking in all future endeavors, for the sake of saving valuable thinking time. Thus, we pre-configure before we think about a problem because we are primed as people (and a company) to see a stoplight color, and immediately we flip into that metaphoric relationship. Things become limited in that when a “red” code is assigned to something, we know already (in a pre-configured way) that things are bad here. This is a value-hidden choice that as a group, we make without realizing it. It becomes implicit- we hardly realize it. But when we do this, we immediately eliminate those thoughts and choices (as well as creative new directions and connections) because they fall outside or beyond what the reification boundaries establish. Remember- red means stop.
Thirdly, there is another deeply held institutionalism that is prominent across modern technologically centric organizations. We seek analytical and objective solutions, as well as universal laws. This works fine in simplistic or even complicated contexts, such as building a house or planting fields of wheat. Seeking analytical solutions and extracting new universal laws upon largely complex and emergent conditions (what we always get when a group of humans interact doing, well, anything really)- we end up in what Carl Von Clausewitz, a popular military theorist of Napoleon’s period, called the “fog and friction of war”.
This fog and friction is also a metaphor- but if helps with appreciating that large groups of humans generate highly fluid and non-linear actions. By non-linear, we mean that you cannot connect the dots today for where the system is going tomorrow, and even if you could, you would lack the understanding today to even explain it. This is why weather cannot be accurate beyond a week, and why even next season’s fashion hit is unexpected. Music popular today does not indicate next year’s smash hit, and popular apps and social trends today are often unrelated to what the next big thing will be. Emergence and non-linearity are fundamental to complexity, and absolutely frustrate humans desiring the stability and objectivity we see in the traffic light. There, red does mean stop, and the stoplight helps us navigate roads regularly and reliably. The stoplight works for what it was designed for- but when we conduct the reification process and metaphorically assign the stoplight for other things- particularly complex things, our planning and ability to make sense of a complex reality seems to go off the rails.
So what else might our institutions do when deliberating over new doctrine, terminology, or sanctioned terms and language (all underpinned by metaphors enabled by our belief systems)? The best option for an organization is to iteratively retain critical thinking and reflect. We must reflect upon those very things that are usually implicit within our social construction, and think about our thinking frequently. Some meetings and group assemblies need to focus on why we do what we do, and what acts of reification seem to occur without notice. If we are fixated on metrics and traffic light metaphors in how we manage our data, is this a good thing? Is it helping us in the long run? In the case of the Iraqi and Afghan security forces over the past decade, I would argue as a participant in much of those endeavors that we failed in part because we were looking at the wrong problems and ignoring the right ones. The traffic light reification obscured the right problems further, because in a slide deck full of ambers, reds, and greens, that information can quickly get lost or drowned out by the competing erroneous information. The rapid collapse of the Afghan security forces last summer might never be understood fully- but a strong element of that organizational fragility relates to how our Coalition of military and security forces conducted decades of reification in how we wanted (not needed) those forces to develop, train, equip, learn and thrive.
The critical reflection and appreciation of what the reification process is will aid a company in dismantling those cognitive aspects of their collective knowledge management, and open the door for novel creativity. Connections and ideas might be formed that might never have been because the pre-configuring rules of the traffic light prevented them from ever being realized. If an organization is happy with a useful reification process, that process should still be regularly critiqued regardless of success. Military groups call this “red teaming” (which the traffic light metaphor again rises up!)- but whatever one calls it, a group that is free to question the unquestionable, and ponder deeply on the language and those reification processes that often are implicit in our work culture- these are the groups that will aid senior leadership in realizing danger before we are in deep water. We can use reification to our advantage in how we address cultural and organizational change- but only if we are willing to invest the necessary time and energy towards it.