Category Archives: Miscellaneous (everything is)

Training, lists and that sinking feeling

I’ve been reflecting on the training business a lot lately. Partly because I’ve been experimenting with some ideas at Edges of Work.

So much training seems to lure us in with offers of highly structured content. I get it. There’s something very alluring about that promise of “You will learn…” followed by several bullet points. It’s a sweet poison. On one level we are being comforted by how useful this course will be and how much we will benefit. But what’s that slight feeling of discomfort that sense of our pocket being fingered?

I think it’s that these reductionist lists also intimidate us. Oh we didn’t know how little we actually knew. If we don’t go on this course and learn the seven secrets, what chance do we stand of survival in this cruel world?

But these lists are a bit of a con. They are really reductions of the truth, not the real thing, and their inauthenticity is what, I reckon, accounts for that sinking feeling. When knowledge is reduced to content, the real life goes out of it.

Spiders and spying

It’s been quite frustrating following the coverage of the PRISM scheme to monitor internet activity. I see again how people at the top of any hierarchy seem to think the answer to all issues is for them to have more power and control. The foolish objections of the citizenry are met the with almost contemptuous disdain: why can’t you just trust us to take care of this? These people can often talk the language of networks and freedom it’s just that they walk the walk of something altogether different.

The trouble with having centralised power is that you just can’t see how corrupting it is. The answer to the inherent defects of centralised power is… to centralise more power. All very spider vs starfish.

Just remembering…

I get to use the Cambridge University Library these days which I have to say is a pretty nice privilege if you can swing it. Perhaps that’s why i seem to be reminiscing more about student days.

I seem to remember that back in the day, we students seemed to organise all sorts of interesting things, many very successful. Some were just for fun, others were pretty serious, the best had some of both. There was a lot of energy and a pretty good amount of conversation, and a lot was organised. Somehow, a bunch of bright and not pliable characters could collaborate effectively.

I can’t remember anyone talking much about either leadership* and even less about management. There might be complaints about people and things, but no discussions about these ideas as abstractions.. And yet things seemed to get done. To this day, I find long discussions about these supposed qualities tedious. A lot of the time they seem to involve suggesting that people can be easily manipulated. I instinctively distrust anyone who seems to think he/she is good at either.

*Well actually, student politicians would throw the word around, but usually it was just a code for people they approved of (they had it); or to support unpopular ideas they wanted to impose (they were just being leaders!). That sort of thing.

The linearity of books vs the non-linearity of intelligence

Donald Clark observes

Knowledge is not held in our minds alphabetically or in a linear or hierarchical menu structure. Knowledge is held in different ways procedural, episodic semantic, and called up into working memory, but it is fundamentally a neural network, physically and representationally. A hyperlinked representation of knowledge is therefore a much more useful learning tool as it reflects this structure and allows us to learn new knowledge structures that fit into our existing pre-requisite networks. These networks are personal and hyperlinked networks allow us to move through knowledge in a way that fits our existing structures, expectations and intentions. The brain is hyperlinked and so knowledge needs to be for efficient learning.

Having laboured to produce a book with Viv I am very aware of how frustratingly linear the format is.

The first time we used that book, in an early draft, we stood in front of a group and ripped the spine off. Then we gave out different pages to different people. We invited them to read their one page and then find someone else to discuss what they thought of it. We got them to repeat that with several different people.

I liked that activity for all sorts of reasons. Not least because it lowered the status of our content and made it more of a jumping off point for conversation. That was the last time we really used the book in a week long workshop, and rightly so.

Report writers

Government seems to reverence a particular kind of cleverness. The lawyerly sort, that can write precise reports and prescribe best practices.

I would dearly like to see some of the sages that write these things put to a public test.

I want them to be put in a role play. So a Lord Laming could be made to play a social worker, where others play all the characters in a genuine child protection case, doing some of the crazy, slippery, confusing and all too human things that make all these cases truly complex. And let’s see how good he would be at actually performing in such a case.

It think it would provide useful additional information and experience for him and the rest of us.


Pomposity is a wonderfully plosive word.

I’ve been thinking lately that the first physical manifestation of pomposity is a failure to breathe out freely. It’s often an unconscious defence and it’s effect is literally to puff the perpetrator up. I suspect that pomposity doesn’t start out with the intention of attacking.

Still I think pomposity is probably the biggest barrier to innovation. When we don’t breathe well, we try to remove ourselves from intereracting with the real world, at a molecular level.

When we’re pompous, we become a human balloon. We can either resume breathing and get real. Or we can inflate ourselves until we burst. Or eventually just lose control, much like the balloon a kid releases that flies crazily around the room.

Training for surprise

I have to agree with Harold Jarche:

In the network age learning is conversation. But aren’t training courses more like “exhibit halls”? They are prepared in advance checked for quality control and delivered with the best look & feel. Conversations are messier with ill-defined boundaries; just like work and just like life.

I can’t bear most training offerings, especially those with confident lists of what you will learn. I like training to allow for messiness and surprise. Organisations find that a bit scary.

Concreting Complexity

I’ve been thinking about the urge to scale things lately – see here and here. I understand the concern with being able to effect big social change and simultaneously see how easily that urge can be used to block small changes in an unconscious urge to be in control.

Chris Rodgers is pretty vigorous in his scepticism about efforts to take control of complexity, as in this post – Mystic Megaproject – Predicting the future with Big Science and Big Data (or not)Chris argues:

A view of leadership and organizational dynamics that is congruent with people’s lived experience – in all of its hidden messy and informal ‘humanness’ – cannot be modelled by information and communication technology, however advanced it might become. And its very sophistication is likely to imbue the resulting analyses with a ‘false concreteness’ that is far removed from the complex and uncertain reality of everyday life.

I fear that any effort to produce hard data on a system must inevitably leave other stuff unsurfaced. I really understand the allure of producing intricate maps of attitudes and behaviour but I don’t see how they can penetrate what is “really going on”. That’s the problem with much of the hype around neuroscience – we might have some notion of which bits of the brain light up but we don’t really know why, or how the more and less and unlit bits influence each other.

Now if these models can be held lightly, then I can see how they might help to generate thought-provoking hypotheses about the future. But we don’t have to look very far to see how once you put numbers on something, the urge to manage by numbers seems irresistible. Chris picks out how descriptions of the project he criticises lapse into grandiosity and what I would call pomposity.

Scaling and Theory U

I really enjoyed Dave Snowden’s reflections on Theory U. I’ve been meaning to write a comprehensive post but those never get written so here are a few reflections for now. Definitely worth reading the whole thing.

He reflects more generally on approaches to management that draw on spiritual traditions such as meditation and reflection. This section really caught my eye:

Scaling and sustainability have always been the issue with methods that depend on changing the people rather than the process. You might achieve the change in an individual or a group of people for a period, but until you imbed the new way of thinking into the heart and soul of an organisation such change is only temporary.

I think a lot of management initiatives, and a lot of training budgets, can get squandered on misconceived efforts to change people, reflected in dubious language about “instilling values” or grandiose claims to change the “corporate DNA”. In therapy work, I’ve often experienced the wisdom of letting go of the idea of changing the other, in favour of changing something about myself and my response to the other. So Dave’s enquiry about changing the process is at the very least one worth holding when considering how to manage organisations.

The scalability challenge is a tricky one. Conversations about scale sometimes provide cover for idea-killing. The higher up the organisation you go, the more you are expected to have answers to scalability, and there is always the temptation to over-reach: responsibility + helplessness -> abuse. Balancing the desire for real, sustained change with the proper sense of humility is not likely to be easy.

I also share Dave’s concern about how Theory U gets used. I think he’s dead right to suggest it is about repeated iteration.

My overall point however is that the whole of the U curve needs to be less linear, more connected more real time. The danger is assuming you have gone all the way down one side when it fact you need to constantly itterate across the U.

I do get exasperated when people act as if everyone in a meeting needs to somehow traverse the U from beginning to end, and on a timescale. I have to bite my lip when someone opines about where in the U we all are right now. I think that’s a classic reduction of the complex to the merely complicated or simple – whilst maintaining an illusion of somehow really being au fait with complexity. And that’s the pitfall any conversation about scale seems to risk.