Category Archives: Dr Rant

Trances and idols

draculaEuan writes about organisations apparently embracing a slow and willing death.

Realising that we are in a trance and breaking out of it, might be the essence of creativity.

In our trances, we worship idols. And some pretty ridiculous ones at that. I find it frustrating and hilarious how organisations will sometimes refuse to contemplate rearranging chairs or removing tables for meetings as if this is a tremendously dangerous idea. 

Or how meeting organisers pay top dollar to hold meetings in basements with no natural light. And then turn even the artificial lights down so we can worship at the shrine of powerpoint, panel and keynote. And then bemoan the passivity of the audience. (Which of course justifies the choice to practically anaesthetise them in the first place).

The mythology here is that of the vampire. That light will destroy us!

Actually, it’s just a cargo cult.

Why I won’t be rushing to attend KM conferences

This is a rant. I don’t rant much on the blog these days as I’d rather be doing stuff I like than railing against things I don’t. But once in a while the provocation gets the better of me.

When I read David Gurteen’s post, What is a Conversational Conference, I thought David was doing a good job of seeing the glass as half full. He quoted this blurb from KM Australia 2013:

What is a conversational event?

This congress will follow an interactive conversational format. Each speaker will present a case study for 25 minutes and conclude their presentation with a question to the audience.

The remaining 15-20 minutes of each session will be given to the audience to discuss the speakers talk and the question at their tables before going into a traditional Q&A.

This conversational format is intended to create an informal, relaxed atmosphere in which you, the conference participants, can get to know each other, learn from each other and build relationships.

Where to begin?

So basically they tweak the tired, standard conference format and insert a few minutes of highly controlled conversation. How much power does this give participants? No much. They are expected to answer a question set by the speaker; they must answer it with the people they are sitting next to. Not much freedom offered there. And then we hurry back to the weary old Q and A format.

I don’t know, but I wonder if they’re also going to sit people at those awful 8-person tables, where you can barely hear those sitting opposite you, but feel constrained to pretend that you can. Tables that so fill the room you are actively discouraged from moving around and deciding who to mix with? I wonder if the room will be semi-dark and gloomy, all the for benefit of some probably dead ugly slides that have print too small to read?

And this is the cutting edge of Knowledge Management? These are the folks who are supposed to be exploring the exciting frontiers of possibility? The ones who are here to revolutionise how organisations learn and relate?

This is their idea of a good time?

I’d rather watch paint dry.

Have any of these knowledge managers noticed this thing called the internet and the rise of peer-to-peer networks? Have they reflected that if you want to absorb a chunk of content, you can watch a youtube presentation at your own pace in your own time, so that when you actually meet people in the flesh you can actually talk?

Come to that, have they actually been to a coffee shop? Where they don’t have enormous tables and generally have daylight? And where people have loud animated conversations, amazingly without someone handing them a little card explaining (well, stipulating) what a conversation is, and what it would be wise for them to talk about, and who they should be talking about it with?

Dave Snowden tackles the same subject and offers an alternative approach. It’s not entirely my cup of tea but it’s an imaginative attempt to offer something different. I’d want to suggest something a bit more radical but that’s for another post.

I really hate panel sessions

I hardly ever go to meetings that promise a panel format. I was recently reminded why.

It seems to me that as humans we are hugely programmed to play together and conversation can be a very satisfying form of play. Somewhere in school or church we all got indoctrinated with the idea that it’s good to sit and just listen to some authority figure going on and on. If we are very lucky, after being bored to death for an indefinite time, we might get to ask a question if we try to be polite and as long as someone else doesn’t leap in first.

I suppose the idea of a panel is to provide more variety than some version of death by powerpoint but I think it can be even worse. Generally the killer-by-powerpoint might experience some motivation to prepare something mildly interesting but panellists usually show up hoping for the best. And the format of being on stage has the impact on most of them of inhibiting the spontaneity that might usually be the byproduct of less preparation.

And in the audience, I think it’s excruciating to have watch other people have the opportunity for the give-and-take conversation that we are naturally hungry to be part of ourselves. It’s bad enough to be hungry, but to hungry and forced to watch others eat, and usually eat carelessly?

Thank heavens that with things like twitter there is at least a backchannel where we can have some kind of interaction. But having gone to the massive trouble of putting human beings in the room, why use a format that so misses out an opportunity for real peer-to-peer engagement?

I suppose when the panel is on TV, at least I feel I can shout at the screen or go make a coffee… but when you’re mired in the audience that’s harder to do.

The other thing I strongly suspect is that a lot of people hate these sessions but feel it’s better to be polite afterwards and claim to have found them interesting. And so we get mired in an endless loop of this dreary format.

The futility of Q and A

I’m not saying it’s always a bad idea. But it usually is.

I mean the conventional thing we seem to do after listening to presentations: the audience is invited to take part in a question-and-answer session. We’re all so used to it it seems to go unquestioned (ironic, eh?).

Sure, like any ritual we can perform it may sometimes satisfy people but I can’t remember the last time that happened for me.

Here’s my beef. The presentation itself sets up a status game in which the speaker and chairperson start and usually stay high and the audience is low. Here are the various ways this gets manifested. For starters, the speakers are usually at the front of the room and often on a raised platform. Before a word is said, they’re already in high status. Then the chairperson offers a flattering introduction; if we’re lucky they merely flatter the speaker but a lot of them have found ways to flatter themselves by implication. The speaker gets a microphone and the licence to talk pretty much unconstrained. If there’s a time limit, it’s rarely enforced.

They get to use pictures too (of course that can be a great way to illustrate a point, but again it’s all a raising of status). Usually their chairs are smarter or more comfortable than the ones we sit in, and they probably are able to move around if they wish – while we have to sit still, squished in between other audience members. The speaker is in the light, and we are usually in the shadows.

I can live with all that for a while, if the speaker is good and the content works (and how often does that happen?). But note that by the time the speaker finishes, we in the audience are in a very low status place. The speaker’s brain and body have had plenty of exercise and freedom; our brains and bodies have been used only to heat the already stuffy room.

But although we’ve been forced to play low status, quite of a lot of us, consciously or not, are getting fed up by now and want to raise it. And the feeble Q&A format provides the only way to do so (other than leaving the room which becomes an attractive option, were we not all so bunched in).

But Q and A is set up to preserve, not relieve, the status game. Here’s how it continues: the speaker has a lapel mike, we either don’t get one or have to wait to be given one as a reward for raising our hands like schoolchildren. We’re only supposed to ask a question: again, inviting us to stay in low status, rather than say, being able to protest or make a point.

So what happens? The frustrated lizard brains of those lucky enough to get to ask a question make us leak out aggression, sarcasm or self-importance. Half the time whoever gets the mike rambles on because they’re giddy with pent up frustration; they’re only doing what most of us want to do i.e. get to talk and not just listen.

So the questions become tiresome. And in a very human way, the hosts often then do more of what is already not working. They add more constraints to the Q and A to lower our status even further. They batch questions in threes (and then often manage to forget one of them) and they badger us to come to the point or mock us for not framing our input as a question.

Far from being the way to improve meetings, Q and A is often worse than the dullest presentation. It’s a bit like tinkering with the lid of the radiator on your car when it’s still hot.

It’s a wretched format, and Harold Jarche offers some excellent related criticism of these hierarchical conversations. I like what he says about how twitter offers at least some partial relief to the madness.

I don’t have a magic solution for this. If you’re running an event you can stay in denial about the shortcomings of the format or you can take some risks, starting with abandoning Q and A and then trying something else.

Here are some options but if you don’t like them, please invent something else; it is unlikely to be worse than Q and A. Option one is the simplest: end sooner and have longer refreshment coffee breaks. The energy level of these is usually massive compared to the auditorium; everyone gets to exercise their brain in groups that self-organise; and those with real questions for the speaker can buttonhole them personally.

Or you could do some hybrid of open space, taking a few suggestions for themes for break out conversations and let people do small groups.

Or you could just set up smaller group discussions some other way though if you end up giving instructions to people on how many or who to talk to you risk annoying them further.

Another thing I’ve tried, when the audience is not too huge, is to pass a microphone around and invite everyone to speak a sentence or two about what has surprised, puzzled or excited them about what they’ve heard. It’s far from perfect, but it is at least a gesture towards allowing everyone to express themselves.

And if your audience is tech literate, I’m increasingly inclined to put a twitterstream up on stage.

As I say, none of these solutions is perfect but I think almost anything is better than Q and A.

And if you hate my argument, please don’t get me started on panel sessions.

Government reports

I have a longstanding beef about what I call celebrity government reports. The MO is this: some contentious issue arises in society. The government responds by appointing someone to do a report. The choice of author is often capricious but they’re usually either a Lord or someone skilled at having a high profile in public (ie a tendency to narcissism). This single person gets given a staff to labour in the salt mines. They produce a long report.

This is typically full of intense research on the problem. You could easily mistake the plenitude of footnotes for evidence of deep thought. This is followed by an enormous list of recommendations. The tone is rarely enquiring and the list often feels like something a PR agency would scare up in a one-hour brainstorm. The complexity of the issue is paid lip service and this simplistic list is rarely thought through in any detail. Rarely is it proposed to do limited trials or experiments. The possibility of alternative solutions or ways of interpreting the data is closed off.

There are plenty of examples but one in particular is the Laming report on social services in the wake of the Baby Peter scandal.

It turns out the cost of implementing his proposals is horrendous. Why am I not surprised?

Enough crappy conferences, already

I’m getting to a certain age and I think I’ve been to enough crappy conferences and events in this lifetime.

I am all for adventure and risking failure. But I’m also in favour of learning from experience.

So I’m not taking too many chances with future events that appear to fit my personal notion of crappy: ones that assume the audience are there to fawn at the feet of a select group of appointed experts.

Of course, I could just politely avoid them and not make a fuss. But where’s the fun in that?

I could be mistaken, but this looks like a case in point:The Conference for the Post-Bureaucratic Age.

Like so many of these events, the title excites and enthuses me. I would love to see us getting less bureaucratic as a society, and I see some signs of this happening. I would be happy to spend a day chatting to others who share my excitement, even if it’s misplaced.

And then I read the depressing detail, which really puts me off.

I don’t want to listen to a 30 minute lecture by David Cameron. I can download a Youtube of his stuff or read it online if I’m interested.

And let me take a wild stab in the dark here: I don’t suppose Cameron will stick around for the rest of the day to engage in impromptu conversation. Almost certainly he will conform to the mediocre standard for all leading politicians. Show up, say what a marvellous and important event this is… and then rush off. Tell me I’m wrong.

I don’t want to sit in claustrophobia while oversized panels of people every last one of whom appears to be at the top of at least one bureaucracy bore me to death.

I don’t want to listen to the chair doing the standard flattering introductions of the glitterati.

I don’t want to listen to the panellists waffling away.

I especially don’t want to wait for the few minutes of question time when the audience is instructed not to waste time by talking too long.

In a post-bureaucratic age, no one will run conferences focussed so obsessively on celebrity.

Perhaps the organisers are merely being highly ironic. But I doubt it.

So I hope they’ll forgive me for pleading a subsequent engagement. There is a patch of wet paint somewhere in London that I want to see drying.

Change myths

This HBR post attempts to evaluate Obama’s record on change management based on a four step model. I’m instinctively wary of models and this one strikes me as typically trite and questionable.

The first step is to “make the case for change”, which seems to assume that change is some rational and intellectual process. I suppose being a business academic is going to make you think that’s how the world works.

The second step is “Create a vision of what will be different” – another B School convention that sets us up for idealising the future and instead of getting grounded in the present. I concede that there seems to be a big market for grand visions, but if you want real change, they’re quite likely to set you up for failure.

The third step is “Mobilize commitment to change”. Ah the commitment word. Again, the idea is that we make a rational decision, commit to it, and lo it happens. I’ve been to way too many meetings where commitments are made to have much faith in this. I call them “commitment ceremonies” and I try hard to avoid them.

The fourth step is about creating early successes but I can’t help feeling this is another set up to avoid really honest evaluation of changes and complexity in favour of a simplistic pursuit of things going to plan.

And I find this sign off pretty patronising:

Clearly, there’s room for improvement in the President’s change management approach. Let’s hope that he learns from the experience of the first year and — like the best senior executives — gets better at managing change over time.

That word senior crops up all the time in consultant speak and it always puts me on guard. It feels like a status game. I’d call it elitist, if it wasn’t such a mediocre tactic.

Hat tip: Dominic Campbell

Behaviour change, revisited

Please don’t take this too literally, I just need to get this off my chest.

A while back, Mark posted some good provocative challenges to notions about behaviour change. Geoff has just weighed in with some good thoughts of his own.

The gist of it is (for me) that huge amounts of hand-wringing conversations go on in organisations about how to make people behave differently. These overlook the statistical evidence and common sense experience, that most of these efforts fail and/or have unintended consequences. Yet we continue to while away the time devising the next experiment in alchemy.

Our organisations seem to have a surplus of very intelligent people who are, unconsciously, sweating blood trying to sort out the perceived issues of lots of other very intelligent people, in a series of recursive loops of dizzying complexity.

Meanwhile, we’re so busy dreaming up desirable futures for each other, that we don’t notice all the subtle changes that are going on around us anyway. And while we craft our master strategies, we don’t even think about the little experiments we could make to nudge the system and see what happens.

You know, stuff we could do right now, or at least in the next day or so.

I’m starting to notice that the more discussions revolve around the importance of strategy, purpose and other such abstractions, the more likely I am to start daydreaming about what to have for tea or going for a nice walk somewhere.

Yes, I’m being a little facetious but I guess I’m saying it might be more productive to focus our energies on stuff in the here and now, to do with our immediate personal impact and well-being and possibly that of people we actually care about.

Heaven knows, the world faces some awesome problems but grandiosity is definitely not the answer.


Change management and mistaking green for gold

A few years back, a well-known consultancy business decided to abandon its dress convention of dark suits and white shirts and said folks could dress casual. But quite soon, they decided to make it a bit clearer just what counted as casual and what was unacceptably scruffy. They thought they’d changed cos people were no longer wearing the boring suits. But just below the surface, they remained a company fixated on telling people how to dress.

So often in life, we confuse surface novelty with real change. We bore ourselves and friends with some version of “Yes, but this time I’ve cracked it”.

We celebrate our discovery of gold, when in fact we’ve only produced some green.

I was reminded of this when reading this McKinsey article: The irrational side of change management. (Thanks to Shawn Callahan for tweeting it.)

It kicks off with John Kotter’s finding that only 30% of change management programmes succeed and goes on to explore how human foibles, cognitive biases and so forth derail so many of them.

It takes shots at the tired idea of change being about creating a compelling story. It suggests managers often overlook that different people find different things compelling. And they sometimes make their stories too weighted on the negative (depressing) or postive (implausible).

It says that leaders think they are exemplars of Gandhi’s “be the change” mantra, but (like the rest of us) are delusional about their own merits.

And Mark will be pleased with McKinsey’s debunking of influentials:

Our experiences working with change programs suggest that success depends less on how persuasive a few selected leaders are and more on how receptive the “society” is to the idea. In practice it is often unexpected members of the rank and file who feel compelled to step up and make a difference in driving change.

And I loved this nugget of psychology, used to encourage managers to let people create their own change ideas and not just impose them:

In a famous behavioral experiment, half the participants are randomly assigned a lottery ticket number while the others are asked to write down any number they would like on a blank ticket. Just before drawing the winning number, the researchers offer to buy back the tickets from their holders. The result: no matter what geography or demographic environment the experiment has taken place in, researchers have always found that they have to pay at least five times more to those who came up with their own number.

All interesting stuff. Which makes me wonder..

Why do I feel so frustrated with this article?

It’s the tedious management consultant tropes in here that raise my hackles.

There’s the fetishisation of numbers:

This relatively simple shift in approach lifted employee motivation measures from 35.4 percent to 57.1 percent in a month, and the program went on to achieve 10 percent efficiency improvements in the first year

I loathe this kind of fake precision about intangible beliefs and feelings. It seems endemic to the likes of McKinsey and it invents a delusional parallel universe that has nothing to do with gritty reality. Any conversation in which this sort of thing is spouted and someone doesn’t at least grind their teeth is going to go somewhere daft.

And I also detect an implicit reverence for hierarchy, even amidst the suggestions about empowerment (my italics):

Look at Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer’s approach of asking each of his top 75, “What should I do differently?”

Consider the top team of a national insurance company who routinely employed what they called the circle of fire during their change program

This finding has profound implications for leaders

Then there’s the drab, schoolmarmish tone of passages like this:

We advocate a number of enhancements to traditional training approaches in order to hardwire day-to-day practice into capability-building processes. First, training should not be a one-off event. Instead, a “field and forum” approach should be taken, in which classroom training is spread over a series of learning forums and fieldwork is assigned in between. Second, we suggest creating fieldwork assignments that link directly to the day jobs of participants, requiring them to put into practice new mind-sets and skills in ways that are hardwired into their responsibilities. These assignments should have quantifiable, outcome-based measures that indicate levels of competence gained and certification that recognizes and rewards the skills attained.

Jeez, would you want to work for someone who can take the language of Shakespeare and produce this kind of numbing dreariness?

And then, in a piece that at times dares to point to the complexity of managing human beings, we conclude with a paragraph that sounds oddly panglossian:

In the same way that the field of economics has been transformed by an understanding of uniquely human social, cognitive, and emotional biases, so too is the practice of change management in need of a transformation through an improved understanding of how humans interpret their environment and choose to act.

Translation: If we really, really work hard, all the complexity of human experience can be reduced to something that clever people (namely, us) can finally tame. Purest green.

McKinsey appear to be all about change, but I fear they really want a lot of things to stay the same. And be in charge of them.

So what’s the alternative?

Glad you asked.

In the little world of advertising, where I used to work, everyone would get very excited about the occasional brilliant ad they’d seen. It seems like the narrative around advertising was skewed to a few good ones so that we seem to forget that the vast majority of what’s produced is patronising, devious, intrusive drivel. Clients keep trying to emulate Apple’s 1984 triumph and ignore the massive statistical probability that their advertising will be rubbish. Why not forget advertising and do something more interesting instead?

So if most change programmes fail, do we really want to go through another attempt to hire the high rent Baldricks and their latest even more cunning plan?

When I graduated, I could never quite relate to my contemporaries who trotted off to the consulting firms and enthused about that wretched book, “In Search of Excellence”. With the confidence of middle age, I suppose I can say that I find people who blather about excellence are mostly ego maniacs and control freaks. If you wanna be excellent that’s great. Why not get on with it and stop trying to make everyone else live up to some ideals you want to impose?

And the further I read articles like this, the more at sea I find myself. I think it relates to the stuff about the Knowing-Doing Gap. Somehow leadership and management keeps being claimed by people who can churn out the clever writing and statistics… but real life just doesn’t work like this.

When I read this article, I find some good ideas but basically I fear the deeper narrative r
emains the same… we must have leaders who hire thinkerly consultants so that we can succeed.

If a company addicted to spending money on bad advertising one days stops, it’s not going to be easy. They’re not going to know what to do. Maybe they have to keep their nerve and realise now they’re going to take some real risks, makes some new mistakes and hopefully figure out a better way of doing things for themselves.

And the business that dares to just give up on the lexicon of change management is likewise going to have sit with the huge discomfort that comes when we admit we don’t really have an easy answer.

Maybe most of the conversations around change management fail because management and leadership are over-rated? And beneath the hygienic statistics and competitive cleverness lurk much more interesting, much less comfortable questions about who has real power around here, and why?

Bourn impudent

Warning: bad language ahead.

I rarely read newspapers or magazines, but I do regularly pick up Private Eye. Lately, the Eye has done a terrific job uncovering the lifestlye – and that is the right word – of Sir John Bourn. He is the UK’s Auditor and Comptroller General: in other words he’s the go-to guy for making sure that public money is spent wisely and without waste or indulgence. If the National Audit Office says a service is efficient, it would be nice to think that it is.

Over the last few weeks, the Eye has unravalled the astonishing story of Sir John’s lavish expenses, all billed to the taxpayer. Wikipedia – of course! – has some of the goods here:

Records show that he has stayed almost exclusively in five star hotels[3], such as the Hotel Sacher in Vienna, the Astoria in St Petersburg, the Gresham Palace hotel in Budapest and the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh. Sir John’s flights were exclusively first class on long haul and business class on shorter visits[5]. The C&AG has also travelled to Croatia, Turkey, Jordan and Bulgaria for discussions or the launch of twinning projects involving co-operation between the NAO and other state audit offices. The records show that the couple [yes, he took his wife] enjoyed a week-long stay in the Bahamas last year to attend the Caribbean Organisation of State Audit Offices Congress.

A spokesman for Sir John claimed that he normally stays at hotels which are “recommended by the host organisation”[6], however an investigation by The Daily Telegraph suggests that on several of the most expensive trips, no such recommendations were made. Sir John’s expenses emerged after a freedom of information request by the Private Eye magazine.

Note the footnote references, that’s auditing the way I like it. This Week’s Eye catalogues more of Bourn’s fine dining experiences at our expense and asks whether he’s planning to pay income tax on what is transparently a form of payment-in-kind.

Here’s the Eye on what strikes me as the pinnacle of Bourn’s chutzpah.

Most gratifying of all, however, must have been a dinner at the Ivy hosted by the biggest consultant on the private finance initiative (happily endorsed by the NAO) and provider of services to the NAO itself, PriceWaterhouseCoopers. The occasion? A thank you for the judges, including Sir John, of PwC’s, er, “Public Trust Awards”.

Whilst many things bring joy to my life and confirm my faith in humanity, this kind of thing depresses and infuriates me beyond words.

The sheer shamelessness of this man is unfathomable. His casual induldgence points to a level of denial that is systemic. Do I need to spell this out: if this is the accepted behaviour of our Auditor Fucking General, what hope is there for probity in our public life?

Here’s what the browntongues at Number 10 tell us about Bourn, in a press release from 2006:

As journalists no doubt recalled the Prime Minister had announced last week that he would appoint an independent figure. Sir John Bourn was the highly respected Comptroller and Auditor General and he would now advise ministers on ministerial interests and if necessary establish the facts for the Prime Minister….

Asked about the remit of Sir John Bourn and whom he reported to, the PMOS said that it was a Prime Ministerial appointment. The role would be as described last week, which was to advise ministers and their permanent secretaries on how to handle issues surrounding ministerial interests, and if necessary establish the facts of a case for the Prime Minister.

The old cliche about lunatics and asylum feels inadequate. I doubt very much that our new Prime Minister is capable of any better judgement.

I was momentarly heartened to learn that today, Bourn has resigned. But then I read this pofaced explanation from the NAO, as reported on Reuters:

Bourn said in a statement he would retire on January 31, 2008, in order to avoid any conflict with his post as chairman of the Professional Oversight Board, a body that has a corporate oversight role.

Because the National Audit Office recently took on new powers to audit companies, he said it would be incompatible to hold both positions at once.

It’s a wonder he has the time to step off his gravy train long enough to make this shit up.

And I feel like I did as an adolescent, devouring Hamlet and identifying with his sense of helplessness in the face of “the proud man’s contumely”. What a fucking disgrace.