Organisational Transitions

A ship all at sea on a stormy ocean

Some time ago I wrote three posts describing each of the three transitions in the Marshall Model. Just today, I was thinking that maybe it might meet some folks’ needs to describe “organisational transitions” in slightly more general terms.

Walk and Sail, Walk and Sail

The journey from ineffectiveness to effectiveness is often a long and winding one. With many a mis-step and wrong turn along the way. Notable during this journey are its several discontinuities. By which I mean, there come times when simple, incremental changes cease to make any significant difference. At times like this, organisations on the journey find themselves on the shores of a wide ocean. Here, they may camp for a while, considering whether to build ships and set sail, or settle on the shore, never quite finding the courage to search for the new world.

“Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.”

~ Greg Anderson

These are the times when the question of transition comes up. For the new world about which we’re talking is the new world of a different perspective. A quantum shift in mindset. A wholesale replacement of the organisation’s current memeplex with a new one. One that is wildly at variance with what has gone before.

Lewin’s Change Model

Kurt Lewin was a German-American psychologist, and one of the modern pioneers of social, organisational, and applied psychology. His work includes Lewin’s equation: B = ƒ(P, E), which states that human behaviour is a function of a person in their environment. He also developed a model of organisational and personal change, the Lewin Change Model, which describes change as a three stage process:

  1. Unfreezing
  2. Transition
  3. Freezing

“A change towards a higher level of group performance is frequently short-lived. After a ‘shot in the arm’, group life soon returns to the previous level. This indicates that it does not suffice to define the objective of planned change in group performance as the reaching of a different level. Permanency of the new level, or permanency for a desired period, should be included in the objective.”

~ Kurt Lewin, “Frontiers of Group Dynamics”, Human Relations, Volume 1, pp. 5-41

Bridges’ Transition Model

William Bridges created his Transition Model to describe what happens to a person internally, inside a person’s mind, as they go through change. This Model posits three stages:

  1. Ending, Losing, and Letting Go.
  2. The Neutral Zone.
  3. The New Beginning.

Organisations too (more specifically, the organisation’s collective mind, a.k.a. the organisational psyche) go through a similar three stages of transition – at each discontinuity. Somewhat like settlers setting sail in search of a new land:

  1. Casting off; setting sail; leaving one’s homeland
  2. All at sea
  3. Finding safe harbour in a new land

Stage 1: Casting Off; Setting Sail; Leaving One’s Homeland

Organisations enter this initial stage of transition when they first realise they are standing of the edge of a chasm (discontinuity). This stage is often marked with e.g. denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, maybe, ultimately acceptance that something must be done.

At this stage, people up and down the organisation may experience a range of emotions as they wonder if their needs will be met in the “new world”.

Until people realise that something is ending, they may struggle with these emotions. Acknowledging these emotions and atttending to folks’ needs can help people cope with their uncertainties.

Stage 2: All At Sea

In this stage, the organisation finds old certainties dissolving, business as usual is more or less broken, and different groups begin to pursue different agenda, often conflicting. Waste and rework will likely rise, and consequently so will workloads.

Think of this phase as the ocean between the old and the new worlds; in some ways, people will look back, fondly, towards their old homeland, while they are also trying – with excitement and trepidation, both – to find the new. And like the ocean, events can be unpredictable – by turn stormy and calm, with both fair following winds, headwinds, and doldrums.

Crossing The Open Seas

On the open seas, support is vital. Particularly mutual support. It’s likely few if any know where the new land lies, and the immensity of the sea, and being out of sight of land, can daunt even the bravest of hearts.

Stage 3: Landfall – Finding Safe Harbour In A New Land

The last transition stage is a time of homecoming, thanksgiving – and renewal. The organisation has landed in the new world. Everyone knows what to do – and there’s lots to be done!

At this stage, like Cortez, you may choose to burn your boats. The faint-hearted may wish to re-cross the ocean and return to their old world and old ways of thinking and being. And that would be a long and perilous journey indeed.

“Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.”

~ Arthur Ashe


Any transition is a major undertaking, Yet most organisations have no idea there is an ocean, let alone a new land. And when their steps bring them to the shore, many blithely carry on walking and get soaked – or even drown – before they even notice the ocean is there.

Is your organisation plodding along, step by painful step, through the hinterlands, or is it camped on the shore?

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

- Bob

The Business Case For Organisational Psychotherapy

I’m 99% certain that 99% of the people I meet have 99% of no idea what an organisational psychotherapist does, and moreover, the value that such a skill-set can bring to knowledge-work organisations.

In an attempt to clarify my value proposition in my own head, so as I might just be able to explain it a little better to those few folks who are kind enough – or interested enough – to ask, I’m writing this post.

The Ten Second Version

Organisational Psychotherapy:

“Helping folks find and adopt more effective strategies for getting their needs met (in group settings).”

Three Focii

Organisational Psychotherapy focuses on:

  1. Shifting the collective mindset of the organisation
  2. Improving the organisation’s health
  3. Improving the collective cognitive function of the organisation

Shifting Collective Mindset

The collective, organisational mindset is absolutely key to the effectiveness of knowledge-work organisations of every kind, everywhere. Who better, then, to work on shifting an organisation’s collective mindset than folks who understand organisational psychotherapy?

Note: In my work with Rightshifting and the Marshall Model I explain why mindset is the key to effectiveness – and the challenges involved in making the necessary shifts.

It follows, then that to shift an organisation to the right, to make a business significantly more effective, involves effecting major change in the collective mindset of that organisation/business. Who has the skills, experience and training to do this? Organisational psychotherapists.

Organisational Health

In addition to shifting collective mindset, and in some ways related, organisational psychotherapy delivers improved organisational health.

Patrick Lencioni writes in his book “The Advantage”:

“The single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organizational health. Yet it is ignored by most leaders even though it is simple, free, and available to anyone who wants it.”

What is a healthy organisation?

From an organisational psychotherapy point of view, it’s one where:

  • people find deep joy and fulfilment in working together
  • everyone actively and enthusiastically cooperates with one other
  • people are well-aligned to the shared purpose of the organisation
  • we see high levels of trust, self-organisation and mindfulness
  • thinking and feeling are natural behaviours
  • most folks strive to be the best they can be
  • everyone’s needs are being attended to

And why is it “the single greatest [competitive] advantage…”?

Because even the smartest organisation in the world, the one that has mastered strategy and finance and marketing and technology, will eventually fail if it is unhealthy. Because without the diseases of politics and confusion and piecemeal-ism, an organisation will inevitably become smarter and tap into every bit of intelligence and talent that it has. And because of the direct correlation between organisational health and cognitive function - and thus the performance of everyone engaged in knowledge-work.

And, why then is it not on most organisations’ radars?

Because it’s hard work. It’s neither a quick fix nor a silver bullet. It’s not sophisticated nor shiny-shiny nor sexy. It doesn’t excite those executives who like to find their next great idea in the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times. And it doesn’t play well with the mechanistic, Theory-X oriented mindsets so prevalent in businesses today. Nor with their Balance Scorecards and RACI matrices and coercive process-orientations.

Above all,

“…the biggest reason that organizational health remains untapped is that it requires courage. Leaders must be willing to confront themselves, their peers, and the dysfunctions within their organization with an uncommon level of honesty and persistence. They must be prepared to walk straight into uncomfortable situations and address issues that prevent them from realizing their potential.”

A Story About the Benefits of a Healthy Organisation

If you’re interested in a story about the tangible – and bottom-line – benefits of organisational health, you might like to read Lencioni’s “Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive“.

Improved Collective Cognitive Function

Knowledge work such as software development involve people working – thinking, feeling and learning – together. Most people are relatively unskilled and thus relatively ineffective at this. Organisational psychotherapy enhances collective mindfulness – from which emerges both improved awareness and improved group-oriented skills, and thus improved collective cognitive function. And people who are more skilled at working together do better work.


I’d love to hear why organisational psychotherapy and its benefits re: rightshifting mindset, organisational health and improved collective cognitive function isn’t on your organisation’s radar.

- Bob

Further Reading

Seven Reasons Why Every Business Needs A Therapist ~ FlowchainSensei
The Power of Meeting Your Employees’ Needs ~ Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath (HBR article)
Collective Cognition in Humans ~ Clément, Krause, et al.
5 Reasons Why Business Can’t Afford to Ignore Psychology For Another 100 Years ~ Louise Altman

Local Optima

Comparison of approaches

I’ve heard that a picture is worth a thousand words. And more recently, some research has shown that information presented visually has more likelihood of convincing.

So, here’s a chart. It illustrates relative effectiveness of the different approaches to e.g. developing software products and systems. The X-axis is the relative effectiveness, increasing towards the right. This same axis also maps from a narrow, local focus on parts of a system (left-hand side) to a broad, global focus on the interactions between the parts of a system (right-hand side).

Note: This chart represents aggregates – any given development effort may show some deviation from this aggregate. And also note, we’re talking about effectiveness from the broader perspective: meeting customer needs, whilst also satisfying the developers and other technical staff, managers, executives, sales folks, suppliers, etc. – i.e. all stakeholders. I also assume the aggregates exclude LAME, Wagile and other such faux approaches where folks claim to be working in certain ways, but fail to live up to those claims.

What Is a Local Optimum?

This post is primarily about the pernicious and dysfunctional effects of using approaches predicated on local optima. By which I mean, taking a narrow view of (part of) a “system of problems” aka mess.

Many folks seem to believe that improving one part of the whole organisation – e.g. the software development function, or an individual team – will improve the effectiveness of the whole organisation. As Ackoff shows us, this is a fallacy of the first order: it’s the interactions between the parts of the organisation-as-a-whole that dictate the  whole-system performance. In fact, improving any one part in isolation will necessarily detract from the performance of the whole.

This performance-of-the-whole is most often the kind of performance that senior executives and customers (those who who express a preference) seem to care about – very much in contrast to the cares of those tasked with, and rewarded for, improving the performance of a given part.

“When a mess, which is a system of problems, is taken apart, it loses its essential properties and so does each of its parts. The behavior of a mess depends more on how the treatment of its parts interact than how they act independently of each other. A partial solution to a whole system of problems is better than whole solutions of each of its parts taken separately.”

~ Russell. L. Ackoff


Also known as code-and-fix, hacking, messing about, and so on. Coders just take a run at a problem, and see what happens. Other skills and activities, such as understanding requirements, architecture, design, UX, testing, transfer into production, etc., if they do happen, happen very informally.

Batch & Queue

Perhaps more widely known as “Waterfall”. In this approach a big batch of work – often a complete set of requirements – passes through various queues, eventually ending up as working software (hopefully), or as software integral to a broader product or service.


One of the various flavours of agile development. Other dev-team centric approaches (xp, kanban, scrumban, FDD, etc.) have similar relative effectiveness, whether combined or “pure”.


DevOps here refers to the integration of dev teams with ops (operations/production) teams. This joining-up of two traditionally distinct and separate mini-siloes within the larger IT silo gives us a glimpse of the (slight) advantages to effectiveness resulting from taking a slightly bigger-picture view. Bigger that just the dev team, at least.


Lean Software Development aka Lean Product Development. The (right)shift in effectiveness comes from again taking an even broader view of the work. Broader not only in terms of those involved (from the folks having the original ideas through to the folks using the resulting software /product) but also broader over time. Approaches like TPDS – including SBCE – improve flow and significantly reduce waste by accepting that work happens more or less continuously, over a long period of time, not just in short, isolated things called “projects” nor for one-off things called “products”.


(Including e.g. Prod•gnosis.) My own thought-experiment at what a truly broad, system-wide perspective on software and product development could make possible in terms of improved effectiveness.


The best possible approach in an ideal world. I’ve included this, somewhat speculatively, as a milestone for just how far we as an industry have yet to go in embracing the advantages of a broad, interaction-of-the-parts perspective, as opposed to our current, widespread obsession with narrow improvements of individual parts of our organisations.

Please do let me know if you’d like me to elaborate any further on any of the above descriptions.

- Bob


For some reason which made sense inside my head at the time, I omitted Theory of Constraints from the above chart. For the curious, I’d place it somewhere between Lean and FlowChain.




My friend @RicZWest responded to my previous blog post by asking for some “integration” of the Antimatter Principle with some of my more established work, specifically the Marshall Model. I’m happy to be writing this post in response.

Context – The Principle

The roots of the Antimatter Principle go way back. Mutuality as a fundamental characteristic of the human condition is hundreds of thousands of years old. It’s literally in our genes.

Personally, I’ve seen the practical benefits of “attending to folks’ needs” in the context of software projects and businesses for the best part of twenty years. Yet it was only few years ago that Nonviolent Communication gave me a vocabulary to think and talk about this kind of thing. And it’s been less than a year since I chose – with some trepidation –  to put a name to the principle.

“I’m convinced that there’s nothing that human beings like more than to contribute to one another’s well-being.“

~ Marshall Rosenberg

I completely share this conviction. And have used it as the foundation of my work, my life, and FWIW the Antimatter Principle.

Context – The Model

The Marshall Model proposes that organisations exist in one of four states. Progression (and regression) between these states is rare, but possible. And progression – e.g. from left to right – is essential if a knowledge-work organisation is to become significantly more effective. Note: I choose to limit any claims as to the relevance of the model, to knowledge-work organisations.

The ‘trick’, of course, is in effecting the step-change from one stage to the next. Many have written about the challenges involved. I find much to like in William Bridges take on the issue (cf “Managing Transitions“).

My intent with the Marshall Model is to help folks remember that organisations at different stages might benefit from different styles of intervention. Different kinds of change initiatives. Initiatives tailored to where they’re at, so to speak. And to realise also that choosing ill-matched kinds of intervention can be dysfunctional and counter-productive. Hence its subtitle – “Dreyfus for the Organisation.”

Connecting the Dots

So, just how are these two things – the Antimatter Principle and the Marshall Model – connected?

Firstly, I believe the Antimatter Principle can help organisations progress – no matter which stage they’re at. The key challenge with making progress, particularly the quantum leaps from one stage of the Model to the next, is winning the engagement of the folks involved. Not just the workers, but the middle-managers, the executives, the customers – everyone.

The Antimatter Principle, as such, was born out of a recent experience working with a large multi-national. Senior management had all kinds of plans for a bright future – and all kinds of issues with a gloomy present. The core of the issue – at least for Product Engineering – was the logjam in making things better. In bringing about positive change. And in engaging everyone in that. Nothing was going to happen until that issue was addressed. Management fiats were not the answer. That would have only served to make things even worse. Creating an environment where folks could choose to make a difference and be effectively engaged in that – that was the future we saw as essential.

Secondly, the Antimatter Principle suggests a way of life in organisation founded on a shared purpose – the purpose of making folks’ lives more wonderful. Having one or two key individuals championing folks’ needs is all very well, but having a whole community with a common, shared purpose for that, with support for mastering the necessary skills – that’s infinitely more powerful.

Thirdly, and most pragmatically, organisations that begin to attend to folks’ needs are organisations that have taken the first step on a virtuous spiral of ever-improving alignment of their business with its people, its customers, its markets and the society in which it operates. And that has to be wonderful for everyone.

“Everything we do is to make life as wonderful as we can for our self. What makes life more wonderful than anything else is contributing to the well-being of other people.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

- Bob


Using The Marshall Model

[Please note: This is an early draft, with key omissions. I would value your help in bringing it closer to some kind of "completion".]

I’m guessing most folks don’t see themselves as change consultants, a.k.a. change agents. Which I find ironic, given the number of times folks have asked me questions like “how do I change my organisation?”.

The major reason I created the Marshall Model was to help folks approach change in their organisations. Absent an appreciation of where the organisation is, mindset-wise, any interventions (attempts at introducing change) are likely to be rather fraught, and involve much wasted time, effort, and yes, credibility, too.

Hence the subtitle for the Marshall Model – “Dreyfus for the Organisation”. Just like the Dreyfus Model of Skills Acquisition, the Marshall Model describes the different kinds of organisation a change agent might encounter (or be working in, or for, or with).

“All models are wrong – some are useful.”

~ George Box

Aside: The Dreyfus Model typically has five categories (of student), the Marshall Mode, seven (organisational mindsets). As a quick reminder, these are:

Dreyfus Model


Has an incomplete understanding, approaches tasks mechanistically and needs supervision to complete them.

Advanced Beginner

Has a working understanding, tends to see actions as a series of steps, can complete simpler tasks without supervision.


Has a good working and background understanding, sees actions at least partly in context, able to complete work independently to a standard that is acceptable though it may lack refinement.


Has a deep understanding, sees actions holistically, can achieve a high standard routinely.


Has an authoritative or deep holistic understanding, deals with routine matters intuitively, able to go beyond existing interpretations, achieves excellence with ease.

Marshall Model

Novice Analytical
Competent Analytical
Early Synergistic
Mature Synergistic
Early Chaordic
Proficient Chaordic

The Marshall Model suggests that, in each of these seven kinds of organisation (discriminating by collective mindset), change agents may find they get better results (quicker, cheaper, less push-back, more sustainable) if they adapt their style of intervention, and the advice they offer, based on the specific needs of that kind of organisation.

For example, there’s not much point in suggesting advanced project management techniques to non-Analytical-minded organisations. Ad-hoc organisations typically won’t have even discovered projects and the project approach. And Synergistic- and Chaordic-minded organisation will have likely transcended the typical project approach, and therefore project management as a discipline, too.

Of course, this example is, by design, somewhat simplistic. Anyone with their eyes open could probably see quite quickly whether the project approach was a given in the organisation, and refrain from providing project-management related advice if not. For a wide range of other aspects of organisational life and performance, though, just looking at what’s visible – what appears to be happening – can be misleading.


The Marshall Model also illustrates the memes associate with each category of mindset. It does so in the belief that, once so informed, change agents can be more sensitive to the specific needs of their clients. And suggest (more effective) strategies for getting those needs met. Strategies more likely to be acceptable to the organisation, in its prevailing mindset.


Many change agents – and in particular, outside consultants – may spend their entire careers working in, with, or for Novice Analytical and Competent Analytical organisations. This is what the Rightshifting curve tells us – that the large majority of organisations everywhere are of this kind of (BTW relatively ineffective) mindset. In fact, the mainstream consulting industry is set up to serve organisations of these mindsets, almost exclusively. No surprise, really, given the commercial drivers (size of market, willingness to buy, suggestibility, etc.).

And given the preponderance of organisations having these two mindsets, many change agents may naturally assume that only these mindsets exist. And that their “standard” (Analytical-mindset friendly) approaches to consulting to their clients are all that is needed. So when they stumble into organisations having other mindsets, there can be some nasty surprises in store. Consultants and clients alike can wonder “what went wrong?” when these “standard” approaches – approaches tailored to the typical Novice Analytical or Competent Analytic organisation – prove unsuited and unsuccessful.

And more than this, the situation is compounded by the reluctance of organisations outside the Novice Analytical or Competent Analyticsl categories to entertain the idea of bringing in outside consultants, in any case.

Aside: Ad-hoc-minded organisations have little or no experience with using outside consultants, and hence little capability to use them well and get value out of them. Synergistic- and Chaordic-minded organisations see little value in outside consultants for other reasons: They are aware of how few consultants can adapt to providing advice suited to their situation and mindset. And aware, too, that their own people are likely more useful, capable and valuable than most outsiders

Main Postulates of the Marshall Model

The Marshall Model implies the following postulates:

  • Mindsets are interlocking, self-reinforcing collections of “memes” stored in the collective consciousness of an organisation.
  • Effective interventions in an organisation must by definition take into account the prevailing collective mindset.
  • Migrations (“transition”) from one mindset to another is a form of punctuated equilibrium.
  • The model holds only for organisations largely or wholly engaged in knowlege-work.
  • The relative effectiveness of any knowlege-work organisation can be explained with this model.
  • Organisational effectiveness does not necessarily equate to commercial success.
  • The model implicitly views shifts in organisational mindset as an evolutionary process in several dimension: suddenly or gradually, over time; individually or collectively; smoothly or disruptively.

Brass Tacks

If you’re a change agent, whether internal or external, experienced or beginner, the Marshall Model provides categories that, once assigned, allow you to assess the likelihood of success for intervention ideas, without necessarily having to pilot or fully implement such ideas.

[I would love to have your advice and help in deciding what more to add, just here].

- Bob

Further Reading

Novice to Expert: the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition ~ Stan Lester (pdf)


Things We Could Be Doing

I’ve spent much of my career exploring the world of knowledge-work, and especially the world of software and product development. I’ve seen many businesses, most of whom share a common view of the way work should work, the way to design products, the way to find and organise people to staff the business, and so on. I’ve seen how these common approaches fall way short in terms of results. And I’ve seen, or imagined, other, less common ways which could make a huge difference to the success and profitability of businesses everywhere.

There’s a whole passel of things we could be doing, that we’re not, presently. We could be…

Creating Environments Better Suited To Knowledge Work

Most “environments” in which I have seen folks trying to get work done are woefully ill-suited to doing effective knowledge work. Very few businesses seem to understand even the interplay between environmental factors and outcomes. And fewer yet, those who have actually created and sustained effective working environments.

Aside: By “environment” I have in mind various aspects:

  • Physical – the floor layout of the office space; the decor, lighting and general ambience; the architectural style of the office buildings; the situation of the office buildings themselves (city, parkland, countryside, wilderness); facilities (shared spaces, dining, leisure and recreation, etc).
  • Technical – webtone; the choice of hardware, OS, tools; and so on.
  • Social – how people generally relate to one another and treat each other.
  • Dynamics – High-energy or plodding; stressful or laid-back; studious or action-oriented; high-risk or safety-conscious; etc.

Reliably Designing Products Which Buyers Crave

We know now that people don’t buy products or services on rational bases. Rather, they buy on emotional bases, and then, maybe, use rationality to justify those decisions, post-hoc. Why then do so many businesses still spend so much time and effort designing their products to appeal to rational buyers?

Designing “Whole Products”

Most businesses cobble together new products and services, conducting a more or less random walk through their vertical silos for each new product development. And then stuff these new products into the existing silos in the hope that sales and profits will accrue. We could be recognising that development of new products is the lifeblood of most organisations, and organising along those lines.

Organising Around Flow

One common strategy for businesses has long been managing to reduce cost. Much more effective would be to manage (e.g. constraints) so as to improve flow (of new products to market, value to customers, or of needs, to all stakeholders).

Having Everyone On the Same Page

Most businesses I have seen have folks running around like headless chickens, hither and yon, with precious little alignment or general understanding of common goals, strategies, and so on. Many tools, techniques and other means to get and keep folks on the same page exist. Few business use any of them. Nor realise the cost and other impacts of such chaos.

Improving The Effectiveness Of Our Businesses

More-or-less random local improvements seems to be the best most businesses aspire to. We could be systematically and progressively improving our businesses on a near-continuous or continuous basis. We only have to look as far as e.g. Toyota to see the stupendous rewards this can bring in the long term.

I see very little of any of the above happening in any businesses. After all these years, I still wonder why. Do you?

- Bob



The Future Of Work

[Tl;Dr: Most people, and in particular managers, have yet to realise the nature of work has fundamentally changed, and that the old ways are catastrophic for collaborative knowledge work.]

I love living in the future. Folks think differently there. I find I’ve spent my entire career some 5-20 years ahead of the mainstream. That can be frustrating, of course. But honestly, I’d have it no other way.

Aside from a bunch of technology and business ideas – some implemented, some not – I’ve seen hundreds of organisations close up and personal. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in the question “why is software development so broken, just about everywhere?”. In my journeys through these organisations, I’ve looked for clues which might furnish some kind of answer.

My sleuthing to date has led me to the hypothesis that most folks are unaware of a couple of things:

  • Software development work is not like classical “work” – it’s something new, something different.
  • It’s not irredeemably broken. Some very few organisations are quite effective at it.
  • Our most widespread mental models of work are catastrophically incompatible with this “new work”.

“The most important, and indeed the truly unique, contribution of management in the 20th century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the MANUAL WORKER in manufacturing. The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is similarly to increase the productivity of KNOWLEDGE WORK and the KNOWLEDGE WORKER.”

~ Peter F. Drucker

It’s clear to me that the future of work is what Drucker called “knowledge work”. More specifically, collaborative knowledge work.

“What differentiates knowledge work from other forms of work is its primary task of ‘non-routine’ problem-solving that requires a combination of convergent, divergent and creative thinking.”

~ Reinhardt et al., 2011.

And what differentiates collaborative knowledge work is the involvement of some number – greater than one – of agents (read: people) involved together in tackling any given task. We may cling to the image of the lone mad scientist, but today the nature of the challenges we face as a species demand groups or teams of people working together.

The Robots Are Coming

Why is collaborative knowledge work the future of work? Because other forms of work – manual labour; repetitive, routine tasks, etc. – will become more and more the domain of the robots. Sure, that may yet take some time to happen. But the writing’s on the wall. And writ larger every day. Maybe one day Artificial Intelligence will be able to out-perform people even in non-routine, highly variable and intuitive tasks, too. Maybe AI-driven robots will become at least as – if not more – “human” (read: humane) companions and social collaborators than people. But that day, if and when it comes, is much further off. And distant not least because most of the work in making it happen is collaborative knowledge work and we’re just not doing very well at that, as a species (yet).

Still Living in the Past

Most organisations, and the people working in them, have a mental model of work dating back to the late nineteenth century. A model predicated on the coordination and oversight of a largely illiterate and uneducated workforce. A workforce mostly engaged in repetitive, routine manual, manufacturing, clerical or administrative tasks. The modern workforce has changed out of all recognition. Organisations and their methods patently have not.


And not only has the nature of the workforce undergone a sea change. So have folks’ expectations. A basic “living” is becoming ever less attractive to people. Especially in the relatively privileged West. People are looking for more from a job. More meaning. More self-determination. More opportunities to “discover themselves” and become all they can be. And the role of organisations in our societies is ever more closely scrutinised and challenged. “Productivity” for its own sake – or simply for the sake of making the rich richer – is no longer something that folks regard as unequivocally desirable. These are all trends that are not going away.

Maybe, in time, the whole concept of a “job” or working for a living will find itself consigned to the trashcan of history. Switzerland is already exploring some of the implications of this possibility, such as a guaranteed basic income for all citizens.

But for the immediate future, we work. So it seems to me that finding ways to make that a more convivial experience for all, makes some kind of sense. Not that we humans are very rational animals.

The Future Is Bright

People can change. Organisations can change. Not yet perhaps in large numbers, and not each, overnight. But slowly, by degrees. Most organisations today are still woefully ineffective in their approach to collaborative knowledge work. Hamstrung by wholly unsuitable mental models of work from the past, they hobble along doing the best they can under their burden of their outmoded assumptions.

But there are some few organisations that have transcended this toxic inheritance, and found ways to be much more effective – and to be much nicer places to work, too:

The Rightshifting Chart (click to enlarge)

Few, indeed. But a few more, every day. There’s no reason why organisations have to be as lame as they are today, excepting our human fallibilities and lack of imagination.

It’s All Hidden

One key reason this state of affairs has come to pass is the very opacity of collaborative knowledge work. Observers (e.g. managers) not directly involved in the work have little visibility into what’s actually going on. And the ubiquity of collaborative knowledge work, like the situation of the metaphorical frog in slowly heated water, has come about barely imperceptibly, over many decades. Long enough that most folks have not (yet) noticed that the very nature of work has fundamentally changed.

“In the knowledge society the most probable assumption – and certainly the assumption on which all organisations have to conduct their affairs – is that they need the knowledge worker far more than the knowledge worker needs them.”

~ Peter F. Drucker

What We Might Learn

To paraphrase Betrand Russell:

“Most organisations would die sooner than understand knowledge work – in fact they do so.”

Is this wilful ignorance? I don’t see it that way. Rather, I see it as folks trying to get their needs met, through strategies familiar to them, without an awareness of – and confidence in – other strategies which could get those same needs met much more effectively. Their current strategies, predicated as they so often are on outmoded and inherited assumptions, are what leads to ineffective behaviours and disappointing outcomes.

The competition between Theory X and Theory Y (McGregor) is just one example of two strategies that different folks choose to get their needs met.

For those who are willing to consider alternative strategies for getting their needs met, and e.g. learn about collaborative knowledge work – what it is, the climate in which it thrives, etc. – what might they find? Here’s my list:

  • Cognitive function is a fragile thing, yet central to effective knowledge work (cf. Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)
  • Skilful social interactions – and especially dialogue – are central to collaborative knowledge work (cf. Idea Flow – Pentland)
  • Power structures by their very nature are toxic to collaborative knowledge work
  • People like to work, are creative, seek responsibility and can self-direct and self-coordinate (cf. Theory Y – McGregor)
  • Mutual joy is the strongest – and naturally occurring – form of human motivation (cf. Nonviolence – Rosenberg)
  • Free play brings profound benefits (cf. Psychology – Scott G. Eberle, Stuart Brown, et al.)
  • Environment matters. Both the physical working environment and the “collaborative climate”. (Cf. Peopleware – DeMarco & Lister)
  • Intrinsic motivation is all – extrinsic, a non-starter (cf. Drive – Dan Pink)
  • 95% of folks’ relative contribution is a function of the way the work works (cf. Deming)
  • Even the best, most engaged and talented workers can be defeated by “the way the work works”.

“Extrinsic reward systems have seven deadly flaws. They can undermine performance, creativity, good behaviour and intrinsic motivation, as well as encouraging short termism, unethical behaviour and become addictive.”

~ Dan Pink

Lots of people ask me “I’m not a senior manager or exec – what can I possibly do to contribute in some way to changing things for the better?”. Maybe one way forward is to empathise with how senior managers are, like everyone else, trying to get their needs met, but with outdated and unsuited strategies – and offer to introduce them to some new ideas.

- Bob

Further Reading

Management Challenges for the 21st Century ~ Peter F. Drucker
The Robots Are Coming ~ Gavin Kelly
The Importance of Play For Adults ~ Margarita Tartakovsky
Closing the Individual Productivity Gap: Putting First Things First ~ Franklin Covey (pdf)
Collaborative Climate and Effectiveness of Knowledge Work – an Empirical Study (pdf)
Extrinsic and Intrinsic Rewards ~ Jo Ann Sweeney



Flow, Shmo

We hear a lot from certain quarters about the benefits of flow – i.e. of value, through eg a value chain, or network, of suppliers to eg customers. I myself have written about it on occasion. And I even had the job title of Head of Product Development Flow, last year.

As a guideline for the initiated, this can work. See: the Lean Decision Filter.

But, as I wrote more recently, the Antimatter Decision Filter illustrates how flow, and even value, comes some way down the list of what matters to most people.

And all this finagling around flow (or value, or even needs, for that matter) is moot to the point of utter batshit irrelevance to most folks out there in businessland and beyond.

So what does matter to people? Don’t ask me. Why not ask them?

- Bob

Further Reading

Theory of Constraints 3 Bottle Demo to improve Flow ~ Youtube video

Eight Ways Customer Value is Killing Your Business

Tl;Dr – A blind faith in the idea of “customer value” can cause many more problems than it solves.

Some folks seem to believe in “customer value” like it was the New Church.

The idea appears to have transcended logical enquiry and consideration, and become some kind of sacred cow. So be it. I do not subscribe. I guess that makes me an apostate.

My view? I see organisations that focus on customer value putting their business in jeopardy. Of course, there are numerous other ways to do that, too. But this particular path seems deeply ironic, given the number of self-styled experts who hail “customer value” as the salvation of business.

So, here are eight ways in which an incautious and credulous emphasis on “customer value” can undermine business success:

  1. If you don’t mean it
  2. What about everyone else?
  3. Narrow definition of “Customer” and “Value”
  4. Confusion of Value Disciplines
  5. Unintended Consequences
  6. Choosing the Wrong Kind of Value
  7. Conflating means with ends
  8. Strangles Innovation

1. If You Don’t Mean It

Is your organisation just striking a pose with regard to caring about delivering value to its customers? If so, they will find you out soon enough, and quickly spread word of your duplicity far and wide. Poor service and/or product quality is the norm in most businesses today, but pretend that you’re different when you’re not, and the backlash increases dramatically. More than the effect on disaffected customers, consider the effect on staff, too. How long can they go on living a lie? How will their chagrin affect their attitude to customers?

Aside: Becoming really customer-focused demands fundamental changes in organisations – in their collective mindsets, in their structures and in their daily actions. I’d go so far as to say that it’s a challenge far beyond the capacity of the Analytic mindset.

2. What About Everyone Else?

When a business truly places its customers on a pedestal, other stakeholders typically suffer. Employees and their issues get short-changed, managers are overworked or trapped in continual fire-fighting, and other stakeholders similarly lose out. Disaffection in key stakeholder groups, especially front-line employees, leads to a poorer customer experience, too. How about considering the value of balance, rather than unilateralism? How about attending to everyone’s needs?

3. Narrow Definition of “Customer” and “Value”

Who do you regard as your customer? How do you decide what is of value to them? Do you define customers as (just) those folks that sign the cheques? And do you define value in terms of simple hard cash? If so, what about all those other folks who suffer your goods and services without a voice? And what about their (non-cash) experiences?

4. Confusion of Value Disciplines

Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersma describe three generic value disciplines: operational excellence, customer intimacy and product leadership in their book The Discipline of Market Leaders (1997). They go on to make the case that any given business can and must focus on just one out of these three disciplines. Many organisations have yet to realise this.

5. Unintended Consequences

In his book “Obliquity”, Alan Kay makes the case for approaching one’s goals obliquely. Rushing headlong at “customer value” can often result in many unintended consequences. A more indirect approach, such as providing value to customers by building an organisation or workforce with the capability to do so “baked-in”, and evolving continuously, can avoid many of these unintended consequences.

6. Choosing the Wrong Kind of Value

There’s a story about Frank WIlliams and his Williams Formula One team. When any of his engineers came up with a modification to the car he would ask “does it make the car go faster?” Some folks cite this as an example of excellence of focus, and a great heuristic or metric (how much faster will the car go). But in Formula One, having a faster car is not necessarily the optimal strategy, all things considered. Better questions might be “will we win more races?”, “will we take the Championship?”, or even “will we get more sponsorship?”. If you give folks a goal, they’ll strive to meet it, even when it’s the “wrong” goal. Even when it destroys the company. And how likely is it that, even if senior managers do choose the “right” kind of customer value, folks across the organisation will understand and deliver on that?

7. Conflating Means With Ends

In his book The Goal, Eliyahu Goldratt asks the fundamental question “Why are you in business? What’s your goal?” Having happy customers is a means to a commercial organisations’ goal, not an end in itself. Yes, even a necessary means (see: Necessary But Not Sufficient). But not sufficient.

8. Strangles Innovation

Focusing blindly on customer value can drive short-termism in the organisation, because the connection between longer-term investment in e.g. innovation and the customer value of such proposed innovations is often hard to see.

I hope this piece has provided you with some food for thought. Maybe even… some value?

- Bob


My special thanks to @drunkcod for his valuable contributions to this post.

Further Reading

The Discipline of Market Leaders ~ Treacey & Weirsma
Goals Can Kill a Company ~ Rafael Aguayo
7 Reasons Why Most Organizations Don’t Know Their Customer ~ Karen Martin


Can We Imagine?

Can we imagine alternatives to conventional management? Different ways of coordinating organisations, large and small?

“Finding deficiencies and getting rid of them is not a way of improving the performance of the system. An improvement program must be directed at what you want, not at what you don’t want. And, determining what you do want requires redesigning the system, not for the future, but for right now, and asking yourself what would you do right now if you could do whatever you wanted to. If you don’t know what you would do if you could do what you wanted to do how could you ever know what you would do under constraints?”

~ Russell L. Ackoff

Of course there are constraints on what we can do right now to improve the fundamentals of how we coordinate and direct our organisations. But if we can’t even imagine other ways, better ways, then what does that say about our imaginations?

As a starter for ten, here’s a comparison of just three alternatives for coordinating our organisations:

Different Forms of Organisational Coordination

Conventional Management


Lean Management













Give answers


Ask questions


Make refusable requests






Formal education


Gemba learning


Mutual exploration

Specialists own improvement 


Line manager and teams own improvement


Those doing the work own improvement

Data-based decisions made remotely


Facts-based decisons made at the gemba


Decisions made together

Standardisation by specialists


Standardisation by manager and team


Standardisation by team

Go fast to go slow


Go slow to go fast



Vertical focus


Horizontal focus


People-as-individuals focus

Fixed mindset (cf Dweck)


Growth mindset


Mutuality mindset

Extrinsic motivations


Intrinsic motivations


Mutual joyfulness






Imposed or opaque purpose


Shared (static) purpose


Mutually-evolving purpose

Key decisions made by a few


Key decisions made by a few


Key decisions made by consensus of all

Economics of Cost


Economics of Flow


Economics of Joy

What other forms can you imagine?

- Bob



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