The Lab

The fruits of riotous experimentation.

Can you handle the truth - part I

Last year I read ‘The Ghost of the Executed Engineer’ by Loren Graham. The book focuses on Peter Palchinsky, a Russian engineer, who served both the Tsarist and Stalinist regimes. Using Palchinsky as a proxy for the Soviet Union, Graham proposes that it was the Soviet’s lack of appetite to receiving (negative) feedback that lead to a paucity of innovation in the centrally managed economy, and its ultimate failure.. In CE terms, solutions to complex problems were always treated as fail-safe, rather than safe-to-fail. The claim may be exaggerated, but should not be dismissed too quickly.
Peter Palchinsky loved presenting damming conclusions, but did so too gleefully. He seems never to have read the body language of the recipients of the feedback, and this lack of interpersonal awareness eventually cost him his life.

Born in 1875 to a large poor family in Kazan, Russia, he graduated close to the top of the class at the Mining School in St Petersburg. In 1901 he was sent to the Don mines where he was tasked to determine whether there was a link between mine productivity and working conditions. He established that a link did exist but his recommendations on how these should be addressed proved hard to swallow by the Tzarist regime. His subsequent refusal to modify the recommendations, and his enthusiasm for saying so in the newspapers, saw him dispatched to Siberia to undertake some ‘administrative service’.

A change of government ensues, and Palchinsky surfaces next in 1926, at which time his tasked by Stalin to review the feasibility of two projects; construction of the Lenin Dam, the world’s largest hydro-electric dam, and Magnitogorsk, the world’s largest steel mill. Stalin wanted to ‘go big’ and instructed Palchinsky to tell him how. However, for both of these projects, young Peter’s recommendations were the same:

  1. Take a more holistic view of the problem. The top down command-and-control approach to the projects did not take into account the local conditions such as geological faults and working conditions, both of which has substantial impact on the likely success of the projects. Devolve control locally, not from Moscow
  2. Start small and learn through failure. Palchinsky thought the steel and power demands were sufficiently unpredictable, that a series of smaller enterprises should be set up to test the market, and these could be scaled should the need arise. Smaller ventures too would be more responsive to the local challenges of geology and labour. Put your ego aside. Do not ‘go big’.

Unfortunately, this was not the feedback Stalin wanted. Compound this with the vigour and openness of Palchinsky’s communication style, and by contemporary accounts, the presentation did not go well.. The feedback loop to Palichinsky was direct and resolute. In April 1928, he was taken from his Moscow apartment, accused of attempting to restore capitalism into Soviet Russia, and shot in May 1929.

On a less dramatic scale, I have seen organisations stutter on their strategy generation and strategy implementation process because the climate prevents expression of feedback—even in positive, supportive environments, some element of fear does exist.

I have used an adapted version the Palchinsky Principles to get a sense of the climate.

I ask the team to address three questions:

  1. Are you actively in the market place to seek out new ideas and try new things?
  2. Do you test these ideas on a scale that is survivable should they fail?
  3. Do you seek feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along?

I then ask for high, medium and low responses (recognising that context is king of course), and inevitably I find that feedback is nearly always scored low.

As a result, I now commence all strategy interventions with this or a similar exercise. If feedback loops are highlighted as an issue, we attempt to resolve them through either an experiential exercise of stress inoculation in a self-defence setting (very effective and great fun), a variation of Snowden’s ‘crew’, or utilisation of a formal Devil’s Advocate—or a combination thereof.

The change is quite staggering. The result is a more fruitful, engaging and purposeful strategy process, with much higher levels of output, energy and speed.