Blaming less, learning more

Matthew Syed has a powerful article in The Guardian, highlighting the toxic effects of blame on organisations. A bureaucratic over-reaction to errors is hugely counter-productive. Too much rigidity in pursuit of safety creates greater danger. Beware the “fundamental attribution error” which causes us to see bad people and overlook the stressful, poorly designed context in which they are working.

If we panic and lose our faith in people, we create structures than actually prevent them from doing their best work. Years ago, I learnt from Chris Corrigan to ask: what kind of people are we designing this meeting for? If we design for smart, caring, intelligent people, those are the kind who are likely to turn up. If we design on the assumption they will be lazy and disruptive, then we’ll probably create the very meeting we most fear.


The network of life

Manuel Lima challenges the prevailing metaphor of the tree for understanding systems. The metaphor has deep roots (see what I did there?), for instance when we casually say genetics is a branch of biology.

We can now visualise systems as networks, revealing far greater complexity and interconnectedness. A tree model of species creates categories that seem clearly divided; a network model reveals far more elaborate bacterial interconnection.

We can shift from seeing a tree of life, to seeing a network of life.

There’s an immediate connection to my work here. I’ve posted before about how many meeting formats reduce the potential for interconnection between participants. On the other hand, it’s possible for simple approaches to help make us more aware of the richness of connection that already exists. For instance, the Unhurried format I’ve been using for a while now.

Also, in doing training work, I’m really interested in seeing participants as a network in which all can create and share knowledge ideas, rather than as a tree in which knowledge cascades down from the expert.

Hat tip: Brain Pickings


A few years ago, I wrote this post about insight being the popcorn of therapy.

I quoted from the book, A General Theory of Love:

Patients are often hungry for explanations, because they are used to thinking that neocortical contraptions like explication will help them. But insight is the popcorn of therapy. When patient and therapist go together, the irreducible reality of their mutual journey, is the movie.

There seems to be strong research evidence that in therapy, the specific technique used is of relatively small significance to the outcome. What matters more are the unique circumstances of the client (e.g. what kind of support network do they have) and what is the quality of their relationship with the therapist.

I’m simplifying, of course, as I don’t want to write a long essay here. A therapeutic relationship is a rich and complex thing.

And that’s just two people.

How much more rich and complex are groups and organisations? Yet in some ways, the bigger the organisation, the more tempted we are to try to manage change with models and buzzwords. It’s so tempting for someone to draw us a nice grid or talk about “agile” or give us a six-step process. But often, we may be eating popcorn, and missing the richer movie.

Agency: noun or verb?

I’ve been thinking about, and working with, agencies lately: ad agencies, design agencies, innovation agencies…

In this context, an agency generally means “people who can do the things you can’t, or don’t want to do”.

Which is fine, if that’s really what you want – as in, I hate doing this, please take it away and do it for me.

But often in life, we say that’s what we want, and then it turns out that we want a bit more control. We have opinions of our own about it, and probably some latent capacity to do it ourselves. If this isn’t recognised there are all sorts of risks. The client gives too much power to the agency which turns into the Pied Piper, leaving the client bereft and exploited. Or the agency can’t deliver, leading to frustration of another kind – I could have done this better myself!

Hence all the talk about the desirability of co-creation.

Maybe we need to go back to the idea of agency from philosophy – the capacity of an entity to act in any given environment. Do you want

agency, verb – and therefore maybe some people who will help you develop your own capacity to act, or

an agency, noun people to do it for you?

I suspect an awful lot of grief in agency-client relationships arises when these choices aren’t explored.

Change and frustration

This diagram[1] pops up in my social streams from time to time. I grabbed it from this site.

Vision Table-2


It aims to show that you must have five elements in place in order to achieve change. It seems to reflect a common story about organisational change. At its worst, it appears to suggest that change is something that should happen without confusion or anxiety.  Or perhaps it is only saying things like “if you encounter resistance, you need to change incentives”. Either way, change is presented as quite a clean, rational logical business.

That’s not how I experience life: my own, other people’s, or in organisations.

I prefer to think of change as inherently messy and confusing. Confusion, anxiety and all those other uncomfortable feelings are not bugs but features.

Just managing oneself is a complex challenge. Managing whole organisations can’t possibly be easier. Ram Dass said, “If you think you’re enlightened go spend a week with your family.” I think there’s an equivalent wisdom needed for those writing about “organisational change”.

(I’m also reminded of Donald Factor’s insight about frustration.)

[1]  R. Villa & J. Thousand (Eds.), Restructuring for caring and effective education: Piecing the puzzle together (pp. 93-128). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.)

Emergence over conscious design

A fascinating article from Stop trying to be creative.

Researchers used an algorithm that generates multiple variations of simple graphics. Participants select one of these, and the program then evolves some new variations of that. Participants select again, and so it continues. Remarkably, over time, people end up with pictures with sophisticated images of things we can recognise from the real world.

People choose only on gut feel, and they don’t know where their choices will lead, but they do lead somewhere. It brings into question the assumption that we purposely design things.

It got me trawling through my blog for other posts that feel linked to these ideas:

The secret life of chaos, a BBC show showing complexity emerging without conscious design.

How network effects determine which songs go to the top of the charts, not so much the inherent qualities of the song.

How communities of species emerge but can’t be reverse engineered.

Our brains as evolved systems that can’t really be understood using engineering principles. Including this quote from Patricia Churchland:

Nature is not an intelligent engineer… It doesn’t start from scratch each time it wants to build a new system, but has to work with what’s already there… the result is a system no human engineer would ever design, but it is wonderfully powerful, energy efficient and computationally brilliant… Nervous systems evolved, and that makes it difficult for neurobiologists… to look at the wiring diagram and figure out what’s going on…. [Artificial intelligence researchers] tend to approach the problem within the framework of electrical engineering, and with prejudices about how they think brains should process information, instead of finding out what they do.

It also reminds me of the section of Nothing is Written where we talk about how you can’t really predict how people will connect new ideas to their existing map of the world.

Hat tip: Jon Husband (via Facebook)

Fixing and exploring

Chris Corrigan writes about the tension between theorising and doing – in the context of change in organisations:

Traditionally, academics are suspicious of practitioners who fly by the seat of their pants, who don’t ground their experience in theory and who tell stories that validate their biases.  Practitioners are traditionally suspicious of academics being stuffy, jargony and inaccessible, too much in the mind and engaged in indulgent personal research projects.  Secretly I think, each has been jealous of the other a bit: academics coveting the freedom of practice and practitioners wanting the legitimacy of academics.

He points to a new book about dialogic organisation development. The (free) introductory section of that book explores the contrast between what it calls diagnostic and dialogic approaches. Diagnostic approaches assume that the practitioner or consultant knows – at some level – what the problem is, and designs interventions to fix it. The dialogic approach sees the process as more organic, creating conversations between all participants to explore change and how it happens.

I’m simplifying a bit, but this dialogic approach resembles our thinking in Nothing is Written. In there, we’re pushing back against conventional teaching by the knowing expert, and towards more shared, exploratory methods that embrace ambiguity.

Conversations and dance

My work really revolves around conversations. I host unhurried conversations and I help people have difficult conversations. When facilitating meetings, I often work to shift away from unwieldly one-to-many formats towards more conversational ways of working.

The longer I work like this, the more fascinated I become with the patterns with which we converse. So much more goes on in conversations than the words exchanged. That’s true of fabulously satisfying ones as it is of deeply frustrating ones.

That’s because there is a dance in conversation. Beyond the words said and the ideas expressed   is  the dance between the speakers. Subtle pattens of pace and rhythm dramatically affect the experience. The origins of the word conversation lie in the Italian conversare, meaning to turn or dance together.

The dance can take many forms, and its nature will keep changing.

I can’t pass up the opportunity here for another Monty Python clip which I think about a lot when watching people try to be assertive. Often, when trying to say something challenging. people nervously say too much, too tentatively. They end up wittering on, which can be intensely frustrating to the other person – the opposite of the intended effect. The flip to this is that the other person will often become abrupt and fierce. The challenger provokes the very response they were afraid of.

And we get a fish dance.

What sort of dances do you get into in your conversations?