Lessons from “The Logic of Failure”

Viv and I have been talking a lot about this book: Dietrich Dorner’s, The Logic of Failure. It’s a fascinating exploration of how easily we humans mismanage complex systems.

Dorner bases his work on a series of computer simulations of real world challenges (such as managing a drought-prone region of Africa).

The advantage of simulations is that they can be run multiple times to compare many different people’s approaches to managing the same system. Dorner uses this to identify the patterns of the majority of players who end up causing catastrophic droughts and crop failures,. He compares these with the minority who learn to manage successfully.

We can only summarise here, but we see useful ideas for facilitators – we also have to engage with complex systems (people!) and try to avoid catastrophes.

One of the key reasons people fail is they make assumptions about what will work. They get attached to rigid goals, and focus on implementing their idea rather than testing it. As a result, they tend to ignore the feedback they get from the system.

In Dorner’s simulations, for example, some participants focussed on reducing tsetse flies. The idea was to allow stronger cattle populations to feed the people. This led to unsustainable cattle growth which eventually caused a collapse of the ecosystem. Others focussed on solving water shortages by drilling more wells – but these eventually caused the exhaustion of the water table leading to a drought.

By fixating on simple outcomes, unsuccessful players missed the subtle signals of the complexity of the system.

The more successful players understood that they were generating hypothesesabout the system and then testing them – rather than formulating “truths” and executing them. They were more attentive to feedback, and thus tended to make more decisions, adapting as they learnt.

In our facilitation practice, we often talk about the power of tweaks. We’re interested in how small changes can lead to interesting consequences. We are not operating groups like a machine, instead we are working with living systems.

We’re often asked if a process is “working” as if there is some simple pass/fail test. We’d argue that it’s more important to notice how things are working, and not to get wedded to a simple outcome. It’s easy to get attached to a list of deliverables and miss the richer learning that can happen when a group of people interact.

One example: many clients get attached to events ending on a high. This can create a lot of pressure to generate a list of actions or end with a boisterous game. We often prefer a more open feedback process that encourages people to share the full range of their experience, including what they are struggling with. This may not create a high, but it usually provides a much greater sense of the aliveness and diversity that happens among groups that work together.

We’ll be exploring these ideas more at our forthcoming workshops in Melbourne and Cambridge

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Reflecting on four years of unhurried conversations

Since 2014 I have run over a hundred Unhurried Conversations. These use a simple talking-piece process to allow participants to take turns to speak without being interrupted. I run them most often in a cafe, where any member of the public can join in (organised on meetup.com). Viv and I also use the process in some of the organisations we work with.

I described the process in more detail in this post. There’s also a website about Unhurried as an approach.

What started as an experiment has become a practice – although the method is routine, each time it leads to subtly differing results. What I’ve experienced has had an impact on all the work I do. Here are some of the things the conversations have reinforced about working with people.

People are not blank slates

The conversations are a constant reminder of the richness and variety of human experience. I’ve heard an incredible range of people’s stories. The retired serviceman managing his relationships with multiple girlfriends, parents dealing with the crises facing their adolescent children, hilarious stories of dating triumphs and disasters, shared experiences of triumph and loss.

People don’t come to meetings as blank slates but with rich and complex life experiences. If we see them simply as people in need of training or direction, we may miss much of the experience they can contribute, and the place where they are starting from.

People connect from where they already are

Whether people share moments of joy from their lives, or talk about things that cause them despair, both create connection. Life’s struggles and adventures honestly shared allow us to build connection. Equally, we sometimes connect through the apparently mundane shared experiences as well as the more dramatic moments.

Organisations often act as if we connect through a vision of the future, which may be possible. But perhaps we can begin with the connections that are possible from where we are now?

Listening isn’t necessarily hard

Many participants are surprised at their capacity for listening, and some find they can connect without speaking.

As there are several listeners for each speaker, we can all relax as the work of listening is shared. Instead of having to hang on every word we’re allowed to let our minds wander if we want to. In other words we’re free to respond imaginatively as we wish, rather than as we should.

Some organisations teach active listening as if this is some special skill we have to learn. But what if the capacity is innate, and comes through easily if the context allows it? In some cases, “training people to listen” may distract us from a more interesting question about the circumstances in which they’re expected to do it?

Keeping it simple

Lots of people are puzzled, even slightly alarmed, when I say most of the cafe conversations are run without a theme. People are simply asked to share whatever is on their mind. And people are pretty satisfied by what happens.

We assume meetings will somehow end in disaster or despair if we don’t constrain the topic and “stick to the agenda”. But with patient listening, we may realise that contributions that may seem “off topic” are, in fact, at least tangentially connected.

When we try to constrain a meeting to a predetermined outcome, we believe we are promoting efficiency. And sometimes we are. But without noticing, our agenda blinds us to a lot of what is going on in the space, and this means we miss out on a lot of the experience and ideas there.

In opening, I keep things short and simple. I don’t usually mention some of the principles many people articulate for this kind of turn-taking process. I tend not to mention the idea of sharing from the heart, or talking to the whole group. These things usually seem to take care of themselves. I often don’t talk about confidentiality, it seems to me that people implicitly understand how to keep themselves safe in the space.

How often, when facilitating, do we overdo the instructions? When we use simple structures, we may be allowing people to do more complex things.

Deeper structures beneath the surface

There’s a lot more going on when we talk to each other than an exchange of information. There’s a dance of conversation, where we viscerally respond and reflect to each other. There’s more happening than any transcript could convey.

Many familiar facilitation processes focus on generating explicit results – we want answers on post it notes, ratings on evaluation forms, documented action plans. It’s possible that these keep us at that surface level, not recognising the subtler connections that are possible with a group.

Facilitators often focus on explicit structures – we love sharing new processes. And clients often panic if they don’t see detailed structures for meetings. But this can often mean we never slow down enough to experience the deeper, more organic, less linear structures that we start to sense when conversations are unhurried

Waiting with anticipation

Hosting so many of these meetings has built up my expectation that people have great capacity to share deeply without the need for clever probing questions from the facilitator. My willingness to wait, sitting with silence, is greater. I still have anxiety in these moments, and as a facilitator worry about people expecting me to do something to keep things moving. But I can suspend the urge to nudge people along. I can wait for them to generate ideas and insights themselves, often much more interesting and useful than might result from my clever interventions.

In briefings and projects, I say less and wait more. Silence and pauses often do the work for me, and bring richer results.


Although every conversation is different, one common theme is that people share many concerns about the fast pace of life and how much frustration and waste we experience and see in others. On the other hand, there’s a lot of satisfaction found in the simple experience of talking together. The process invites us to work with who we already are, and doesn’t involve a lot of consumption beyond a cup of coffee.

Perhaps an unhurried approach will help us to live together more sustainably?

(I’m offering a webinar about unhurried facilitation – details here.)

Being Wrong

I watched this TED Talk by Kathryn Schulz yesterday: On Being Wrong.

One thing stuck in my mind. Schulz asks a few people what it’s like to be wrong, and they reply – “dreadful, thumbs down, embarrassing”. Which makes sense until she points out that this is only what we feel when we discover that we are wrong. Being wrong, otherwise, feels just fine.

She likens this to Wile E Coyote running off a cliff, and acting normal until he looks down and realises he is in mid-air, at which point he drops.

I looked at Schulz’s material on a prompt from Tim Harford’s book Adapt. Harford talks a lot about the value of making sure we get really effective, robust criticism of our plans. To avoid being wrong but not reacting because we don’t feel it. The Wile E Coyote syndrome.

None of this is startling stuff really. And organisations understand the need to counter it, hence the use of processes like devil’s advocate or Dave Snowden’s rather more rigorous ritual dissent. The trouble here is that when people are only playing a role, at some level we’re going to question their sincerity and motives. We can easily get distracted by wondering if they are genuinely concerned about something or just either (a) doing their best to be someone they are not or (b) using this process as cover to be exactly who they are. (Richard Stallman reflects on this stuff at greater length here.)

I think some of the best critical thinking is found not in fierce deconstruction, but in noticing the slight raised eyebrow or being curious about the slightest wry smile or frown. Being attentive to the tiny signs that something isn’t quite right, and then being really interested in them. I’ve got a lot better at this over the years, noticing tiny unexpected reacti

ons and responding with good natured curiosity to see what else is there. On the flip side, I also continue to learn the often high price of rushing things and not being sensitive to the small clues.

It’s a slower paced way of operating and it requires a kind of vulnerability to work. And I would say it’s a practice rather than a technique. A technique is something we expect to work, so it’s a way of feeling safe. Whereas a practice is a commitment to doing something that’s always a bit uncomfortable in the hope of learning something unexpected.

(I’m exploring this kind of practice in my online coaching webinars.)

Emotional debt

(Cross posted on Medium)

Technical debt is a term used by programmers. Referring to the ever rising cost to projects when short term fixes get applied over time to writing code. Over time, these quick fixes make the overall design inefficient.

We can all see how this applies to many projects outside programming. It’s like building a haphazard building that grows and grows but becomes increasingly unstable.

I’d like to introduce a similar term for what happens with quick fixes in our working relationships. Teams tend to gloss over difficulties in how they relate — often because of pressure of work, and because we all tend to avoid having awkward conversations.

Thus teams tend to build up what I call emotional debt: the weight of unresolved questions, frustrations and past conflicts that reduce a team’s ability to respond to challenges.

Emotional debt is often harder to pin down than technical debt: after a while, the limitations of sloppy code become fairly clear, and at least this stuff is written down someplace we can all see.

The law of ruts

Often we don’t know how much emotional debt we’re carrying until some of it is resolved. The CFO finally asks the CEO about something that has niggled him for two years, but was wary of asking. He gets a clear answer and suddenly realises what a relief that is.

I sometimes call this the Law of Ruts: You only realise how deep they are when you finally step out of them.

Clearing emotional debt is risky work

In my experience, emotional debt is rarely cleared by reaching agreements on general principles. Appealing to a list of values won’t stop people from the moment-by-moment quick fixes that lead them to avoid conflict.

Emotional debt is cleared by people taking risks. Making themselves vulnerable. Risking upsetting others by offering a challenging view. I reckon this takes constant practice: being willing to pay attention to discomfort and giving it a name, rather than just hoping for the best.

It’s hard work and it generally can’t be done in a hurry. This is the point in articles where you might generally look for top tips, but I am reluctant to give any. Asking genuinely challenging questions, owning up to more of our hunches and feelings, is never going to be easy.

When we find ways to take those risks, the results are not entirely predictable, but are often much more satisfying than we expect.


I’m running a free webinar called Unhurried at Work on July 13th. Unhurried is an approach to work that I think helps make people feel safer to take the risks I’m talking about here.


Unhurried news

In the last three years I’ve run over a hundred Unhurried Conversations. Most of these have been open to the public, while others have been inside organisations as part of the work I’ve been doing with them. I ran them in Sydney and Auckland on a recent trip down under. Others are running here in Cambridge, plus London, Olympia, Santa Cruz and Mallorca.

The format remains essentially the same: we use a simple object as a talking piece, so that one person speaks at a time, without risk of interruption. It’s remarkable how many satisfying conversations arise in the space this creates. One of the most interesting things is that we keep the rules of engagement very simple indeed, as groups seem to self-regulate. For instance, I don’t ask people to “speak from the heart”: it seems they feel able to do this without being told. And I like how this allows groups to range from more emotional topics to lighter ones in a way that seems natural and unforced.

Quite a lot of people have talked about the shadow side of social media, which can sometimes feel frenetic and competitive and like how in unhurried they get a greater sense of connection and fellowship – even with people they’ve not met before.


Forthcoming Unhurried Events

We’ve got a few Unhurried events coming up…

Our new group in Olympia, Washington, is having its first Conversation on Friday April 17th

The next Unhurried Santa Cruz is on Sunday April 23rd (waitlisting)

I’m hosting Unhurried Conversations in Sydney on Friday April 28th and Saturday April 29th

Unhurried Cambridge meets again on Thursday May 11th

I’m also hosting a webinar about Unhurried on Monday April 10th at 11am GMT and again on Thursday May 11th at 20.00 GMT

And coming soon, we’re hoping to offer unhurried conversations in Auckland and Melbourne.

An update on unhurried at work…

Three years ago I first blogged about the idea of Unhurried. It emerged from a series of conversations with my friend Antony Quinn. We share an interest in improv theatre and were reflecting on scenes that were satisfying to take part in and watch – and those that weren’t. We realised that the best improv has an unhurried quality – the players seem to relate to each other and build the scene together without panic.

As in improv, so in life: I think this quality has a huge impact on how people work together. I’ve been experimenting with a number of ways of exploring how unhurried can guide creativity, collaboration and leadership.

One way I’ve applied this is in hosting unhurried conversations, using a simple talking piece format. I’ve now run over 50 of these in Cambridge. They’re advertised on meet up and open to the public. I’m now doing them in London too, and friends have started unhurried groups in Mallorca and Santa Cruz. I’m planning to kickstart a group in Sydney after Easter. Several people are talking to me about getting conversations started in other cities around the world.  I’ve also used a similar format in my work as facilitator in organisations, sometimes with remarkable results.

Of course, this particular conversation process is just one way applying the idea of unhurried to work. But it has certainly helped me to flesh out what I think are the elements of unhurried as an approach. I’ve summarised them here on the unhurried website. As you’ll see, I don’t see unhurried as necessarily slowing down, although that is often the case. It’s really a mindset of being open to the possibilities of any given moment and being alive to them. And getting comfortable with both the anxiety and excitement that this brings.

It’s an approach that brings new insights to all kinds of things, from how we run meetings, to how we create new products, to how we lead organisations.

I’m hosting a free webinar about unhurried at work, on March 13th with two alternative times – full details here.

11.00 GMT (07.00 New York; 12.00 Paris; 19.00 Hong Kong; 22.00 Melbourne)
20.00 GMT (16.00 New York; 13.00 San Francisco; 21.00 Paris; 07.00 Tuesday Melbourne)

I’ll be sharing more ideas about unhurried in facilitation at my workshop in Cambridge on May 8 and 9.  And when Viv and I run our three-day residential this year, we’re going to explore unhurried facilitation in lots of different ways.

Navigating a post-modern economy

Roland Harwood at 100% Open describes five vectors of our postmodern economy. We do seem to be living in confusing if interesting times, where the benefits of hyper-connectedness are coming into question. Roland refers to Tom Friedman’s division of web people and wall people, and offers five guiding ideas for how we cope with uncertainty. They are at the least a great jumping off point for a conversation.

Much of what Roland says aligns with what I’ve been assembling under the heading of unhurried. We have to get better at living with uncertainty – which doesn’t mean despising experts but being willing to listen to them but still reach our own conclusions, among other things. As computers appear to get better and better at doing things many of us earn our living from, we need to think carefully about what it is that humans can do that the machines can’t.

Roland quips that

If you are not living on the edge you are taking up too much space. The future has always revealed itself from the peripheral so we all need to surround ourselves with independent and diverse perspectives with a mechanism to turn that into collective decisions in spite of imperfect data.

Being alive in uncertainty means getting better at sitting with discomfort, and we need lots of practice at that. Without it, we risk getting drawn into destructive battles between vehemently held but incoherent fake certainties.

I’m very much in agreement with Roland about the need for reciprocal relationships. And in workshops, I keep noticing how even tiny signals of connection and reciprocity can have a  profound impact on relationships,

Bohm and dialogue

I spent Friday at a meeting experimenting with holding a Dialogue, based on the ideas of David Bohm. I was invited by Peter Kajtar who has dedicated a large part of his life to exploring Bohm’s ideas.

Bohm’s writing is dense and often hard to understand but I have always sensed his wisdom; the experience of reading is a mixture of moments of clear insight alternating with frustration. The same is true of participating in a Dialogue using his framework.  Peter has a great gift for helping to navigate that experience.

Peter shared the Nasrudim parable, where our hero is searching for his keys under a street light. He explains to a friend that the keys are not there, but he wants to look where he can see and not in the darkness. Many of our arguments end up with us all staring in the pools of light created by each other’s mental torches. Dialogue is, in part, an attempt to increase our awareness of what is in shadow. When the dialogue hits a conflict, we may take the opportunity to look beyond the content (which is in the light). Instead we can explore the structure – our deep unquestioned assumptions about thought and language (which is in shadow).

It’s hard to explain, and this may not really do justice to the process: you had to be there.

Reflecting over the weekend, I went back to Donald Factor’s comments about frustration and how we normally avoid or transform it, rather than enquire deeply into it. And I also took comfort from this post by Chris Corrigan on accepting, rather than denying, when we don’t know what we are doing.

Although Unhurried Conversations don’t use Bohm’s framework, and follow a simpler explicit process, I think they often also create opportunities to at least sense that there is that shadow, and that in it lies enormous potential if we can create some kind of intelligent relationship with it.

Fast, slow or unhurried?

Neil Perkin describes two contrasting talks about Fast and Slow in Marketing. Adam Morgan shares some interesting examples of businesses that thrive on speed:

a 2014 Harris Poll.. found that 90% of respondents… expected real-time customer service from brands and as many as 48% expect that services will be delivered before they order them. ‘Uber’s children’, said Adam, have different expectations, wanting everything at the speed of Prime. Speed is, increasingly, money. A tenth of a second delay in page load time on Amazon is equivalent to a 1% sales decline. Organisations are focused on doing more with less.

Fast can be great, but an awful lot of organisations seem in a permanent state of “doing more with less” and I feel a lot of concern about that. Morgan goes on to explore the ups and downs of creating speed and, as he puts it, reducing drag.

The second talk was from Martin Weigel, expanding on his post about kicking the marketing crack habit with some great examples of the toxic effects of rush and short-termism in planning.

He began by talking about how we live in impatient times, and how we’re naturally biased to favour short-term gain over long-term (what psychologists call ‘temporal discounting’). This happens not only at an individual level, but an organisational one. Whilst management is pre-occupied with what is happening over the next three months, McKinsey has shown that between 70 and 90 percent of a company’s value is related to cash flow which expected three or more years out. The tenure of CEOs is becoming ever-shorter (in 1995 it was just under ten years amongst the world’s largest corporations, in 2009 it was just six). 95% of S & P company profits are spent on share buy-backs and dividends according to Forbes. The average agency-client tenure has reduced to around 3 years. The average tenure of a football manager in the premier league is heading towards a single season. Half of video viewers stop waiting for a video to load after 10 seconds.

Weigel goes on to look at some longer term, more sustainable principles for business, worth checking out.

I think a side-effect of living with the internet, building on an existing culture of high stimulation, is that we are in danger of becoming so anxious that our actions are driven increasingly by panic and short-termism. We end up operating at the pace of computers rather than the very different capacities for changing speed in our biological heritage.

Part of what gets lost is the value of changes of pace, and fluency in acceleration and deceleration. I keep coming back to unhurried as my personal mantra, to capture the flow state we can reach when our pacing and synchrony with others is most satisfying. It’s not always slow; a well tuned Formula team servicing a car in a few seconds is going fast but is also, in its way, unhurried, everything is timed to co-ordinate.

Unhurried is not about being laid back and ignoring the deep fears and problems our world presents. It is about finding a way to meet them that is serious but not rooted in panic.

Hat tip to Lee Ryan for steering me to this.