From the desk of Mr. John Benfield
In the early 20th century, physicist Erwin Schrödinger proposed a thought experiment involving an unlucky cat in a box, a vial of poison and a device which would watch for a random particle decay. When the decay is detected, the poison is released and the cat dies. Rather than being a simple way to piss off PETA and other cat lovers, it was meant to illustrate what he saw as a logical flaw in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. The particle exists only as a probability, simultaneously in states of “decayed/not decayed” (superposition) until observed. Similarly, the entire contents of the box, the detector, poison vial and cat are tied to that observation and exist in superposition. The cat is simultaneously both dead and alive. As soon as the contents of the box are subject to observation (able to interact with the system outside of the box), the wave function collapses into one of the possible states and animal rights activists are immediately notified.
While the Copenhagen interpretation has been supplanted by newer interpretations, these “cat states” are very real and have been demonstrated at macroscopic levels, though at very small scales and without the assistance of willing or unwilling felines.
However, I believe that I’ve uncovered a practical macroscopic example that’s occurring every day in Corporate America.
Let me provide you with one of many real life dialogs that started me down this path:
SM (Schrödinger’s Manager): “Maybe we should look at moving everything into the cloud”
Me: “We’d love to see that as an option. It would reduce our infrastructure costs and help simplify the environment”
SM: “We’re not moving to the cloud.”
Me: “But you just suggested…”
SM: “We’re not doing that. Why are we talking about this?”
What I would have attributed to simple cognitive dissonance, I’m now starting to see as a brilliant management strategy. Like our Cat-in-the-box, Schrödinger’s Manager exists in a continual state of superposition until observed by someone outside of the system (their boss). This allows them to exist in all possible states and, by extension, keeps all downstream decisions and activities both “aligned”/”not aligned”. Everything contained within the organizational “box” can be temporarily protected from observation and, therefore, from accidental collapse of the wave function into a decision.
When an observer (generally someone above the level of SM) comes along, the interaction causes the collapse of all of the possibilities into a consistent system of aligned or not-aligned decisions and fired, not-fired, punished and not-punished conditions. SM, however, appears to the outside observer to have always been in the state that’s observed when “opening the box”. They’re perceived as brilliantly insightful for having perfectly anticipated the observer.
While this is great for SM, the individuals sharing the box with him are left trying to function within a system of continual uncertainty. While it leaves possibilities open, that also means that both failure and success exist in superposition and there is no outside observation or interaction to help guide behaviors. If anything, feedback is specifically designed to maintain that delicate entanglement and ensure that there are no accidental decisions that will collapse those possibilities.
So how do we mitigate this phenomenon?
It’s really quite simple; Trust.
When an Observer (senior leader) trusts an underling like Schrödinger’s Manager with a decision and implicitly agrees to support those decisions, they shift the role of Observer to that person.
By trusting people “in the box” to make decisions and communicate openly with others outside of the box, the trusted take on the observer role and they become empowered to collapse probabilities into realities.
Trusting people does mean that you have to relinquish some control and power. But a good manager will have prepared their people to handle that responsibility and accountability…. and doesn’t that beat being a dead cat in a box?