Monthly Archives: June 2012


We live – and work – in a world in which most folks have yet to understand the practical dysfunctions of having managers (and the inevitable accompanying hierarchies, power structures, etc.). So talking about leadership, its different forms and its distinctions from management, can seem like an irrelevance to many.

Going beyond the issue of leadership – into other forms of organisational guidance, coordination, inspiration and direction – might therefore seem even more irrelevant.

Nevertheless, and leading on from my recent ACE conference keynote, I have come to believe that leadership is in essence an idea mired in the Analytic mindset. No less dysfunctional, and more pernicious even, than the idea of hierarchical management. I invite you to consider that there may be more effective forms of organisational guidance, inspiration and direction, in particular the one I explore here: Fellowship.

Idealised Design

“Idealised design made me realize that if you never take the time to imagine what you really should be doing, as an individual or organization, you’ll never get there. It also brought home to me just how difficult a process redesign is, because we are so wedded to assumptions we don’t notice, historic business models and other, often dysfunctional baggage we take for granted.”

~ Jerry Michalski via the Ackoff Weblog

Idealised Design is an idea from Russell L Ackoff. Put simply, it asks the question: “If an organisation and all its assumptions, history and associated intellectual baggage were destroyed overnight, how might we reconceive and reconstruct an entirely new version of that organisation?”

In the context of organisational guidance, inspiration and direction, what kind of approach might prove most effective, if we could only let go of our existing preconceptions and assumptions, admit recent research from e.g. neuroscience and sociology,  and create an idealised design for a better solution than “Leadership”?


Influence, induce, guide. All terms implying coercion, or at least a negative impact on folks’ autonomy and intrinsic motivation. Our collective view of leadership, shaped as it is by millennia of history, rarely receives much critical examination. “Heroic Leadership” in the person of such “great” historical figures such as Napoleon, Alexander, Martin Luther-King and even Gandhi beguiles and seduces us, blinding us to the deleterious aspects of such a model.

Of course, in principle there’s nothing to stop anyone across the organisation from assuming positions of de-facto leadership. But in most organisations this is rarely seen, not least due to its career-limiting implications.

Gallup has recently published research showing the scale (and cost) of workplace alienation:

“Our estimates suggest that there are more than 22 million workers – in the United States alone – who are [alienated]. This rampant negativity is not only disheartening, it’s expensive: It costs the U.S. economy between $250 and $300 billion every year just in lost productivity. When you add workplace injury, illness, turnover, absences, and fraud, the cost could surpass $1 trillion per year.”

~ Gallup

And the impact is not limited to commercial considerations:

“One study of (healthcare) workers found that when employees were working for a boss they disliked, they had significantly higher blood pressure. According to British scientist George Fieldman, this boss-induced hypertension could increase the risk of coronary heart disease by one-sixth and the risk of stroke by one-third.”

~ Gallup

I posit that, even ‘good’ leadership risks perpetuating or even exacerbating workplace alienation and stress. There are other models of Leadership distinct from that of “Heroic Leadership”, (see: servant leadership and host leadership, below) but I suggest these are essentaily just attempts to “do the wrong thing righter”.

Servant Leadership

I find much to like in Robert Greenleaf’s revision of Leadership, as described in his book “The Power of Servant Leadership“. This is a radical revision of the notion of Leadership, in that it proposes the inversion of the classic management hierarchy pyramid such that the front-line workers, those closest to the customer, are at the top of the organisational pyramid, with middle managers below them, supporting them in their decisions, and with senior management at the very base of the pyramid (see rightmost diagram, below).

Host Leadership

Host Leadership, as proposed by Mark McKergow, takes the idea of Servant Leadership in a new direction, relying on folks’ natural understanding of the “party host” and the traditions of hospitality seen across many human cultures throughout history.


“There will never be real equality so long as one feels inferior or superior to the other. There is no room for patronage among equals.”

~ Mohandas K Gandhi

Is equality simply a moral issue, a nice-to-have, or are there good reasons for believing that equality contributes to the highly-effective organisation? I believe the latter. If you concur, then might we together consider ways to bring about “real equality”?

I propose the idea of “Fellowship”. Most everyone has read the book or seen the film “Lord of the Rings”. In this story, the Fellowship of the Ring consists of nine representative of the “free peoples of Middle Earth”. All nine are “bound together by a common doom”, i.e.  a shared purpose. The Fellowship has no leader; each member leads (or follows) as circumstances dictate. Even though differing greatly in size, knowledge, power, capability and insight, every member of the Fellowship is essentially “equal” – in the way I believe Gandhi meant.

I think such a kind of “Fellowship” offers us a great exemplar of a different and effective way of achieving guidance, inspiration and direction in the highly-effective organisation.

I suggest Fellowship consists of the following aspects:

  • Friendliness
  • Community
  • Harmony
  • Comradeship
  • Society
  • Mutual trust
(See the ACE conference keynote for expansion of these points, and see also the idea of Koinonia).

“If you could get all the people in an organisation rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.”

~ Patrick Lencioni

The question for me is: why do we still believe that Leadership (in any form) is the most effective way to make this happen?

– Bob

Further Reading

You are the Messiah and I should know: Why Leadership is a Myth ~ Justin Lewis-Anthony

The Games People Play

“Work is much more fun than fun.”

~ Noel Coward

Gamification bugs me. I mean, really bugs me. Specifically, it bugs me because I see it as too often just doing the wrong things righter. I can understand how teams – and their coaches – fret about how “boring” their group interactions might be on occasions (retrospectives are one kind of group interaction that often raises such concerns). Who would want to sit through a seemingly interminable series of such sessions? And yes, I can understand how folks might think that “spicing things up a bit” by making things “a bit more fun” could help. I’m not anti-fun btw. And as an inveterate gamer myself, not anti-games, either.

“If we just wanted positive emotions, our species would have died out a long time ago. We do things to pursue other elements of well-being. We want meaning in life. We want accomplishment.”

~ Prof Martin Seligman

No, the thing that bugs me is the way in which this seemingly simple and innocuous solution to “boring meetings” derails folks from addressing the root causes of the boredom, and thus from achieving any real and lasting improvement in the effectiveness of their interactions. And from any deeper sense of job-satisfaction and well-being, too.

“The work is the most fun; it seems illicit how much fun it is.”

~ Meryl Streep

Very simply stated, boredom arises from activities which the participants see as having little or no purpose or relevance. Attempts to spice up such activities with games and other “fun” distractions seem to me to be like sticking a band-aid on a broken leg. Palliative, but hardly an effective response.

Personally, I would much rather feel whatever I was spending a part of my time – my life – on was working towards a common purpose, with shared meaning, than some kind of specious, self-indulgent pleasure-seeking. Surely a better approach to dealing with boredom and poor ineffective group interactions would be to recognise the boredom as a signal and seek to restore purpose and  relevance?

Fun is the New Opiate of the Masses

The job satisfaction in doing purposeful, relevant work far outweighs the superficial attractions of having forced “fun” from time to time. Of course, many teams have little prospect of turning things around in their workplaces such that purpose and relevance manifest themselves in daily business. In these cases, maybe the empty joy of “fun and games” is all they have, within their limited remit. I feel deeply for these poor unfortunates. However, personally, I believe that, as ever, the old adage applies:

“Change your organisation, or change your organisation”.

In a previous blog post I described one way to restore purpose and relevance to the retrospective.

“Fun is a good thing but only when it spoils nothing better.”

~ George Santayana

In closing, I’ll reiterate: I embrace the value in enjoying what we do at work, and in finding well-being in (and through) our labours. My impetus fro writing this post is the concern that in attempting to inject some fun into sometime dull and unfulfilling work, we miss the real opportunities for deeply fulfilling experiences through a preoccupation with the superficiality of games disconnected from purpose.

What do you think?

– Bob

Further Reading

The Games People Play ~ Eric Berne (book on Transactional Analysis).
A New Gauge to See What’s Beyond Happiness – NTY article on Seligman’s PERMA model
The Antidote (Video intro to book)


Most developers are, how shall we say – somewhat detached – from the sharp end of the businesses in which or for whom they write software. I have also noticed than many other folks in organisations also have some trouble getting their heads around the practical implications of a period or programme of successful improvement. Of course things will be “better” – but just what kind of better?

In this post I provide an illustrative example of the benefits of a simple doubling of organisational effectiveness, i.e. a move from say “1” to “2” on the rightshifting scale – primarily from a financial perspective (acknowledging that many other, non-finacial, benefits can and do also accrue).

For the sake of keeping things simple, we’ll assume an organisation – say, a software house writing custom software solutions for a range of clients – of one hundred people in total, with a break-even (i.e. zero profits) revenue in year one of ten million rubber dolphins (a notional currency) i.e. RD10M . We will also assume (somewhat unrealistically) both that the organisation has no trouble selling all it can produce, and that its effectiveness doubles overnight, on the stroke of midnight at the end of year one.

Option 1 – Trousering the Benefits

This option supposes a doubling of effectiveness across the whole business, that is to say the organisation produces, in year two, double the amount of work, with the same number of staff – and thus revenues double to RD20M. Costs remain more or less the same (no growth in headcount, although maybe some nominal additional variable costs). So profits rise from zero (year one) to (revenue RD20M less costs RD10M = profits RD10M) in year two. As far as the folks in the business are concerned, they are working no harder than in year one. Product (or service) quality will also remain much the same (or continue to improve at the same rate).

Option 2 – Investing in the Future

This option also supposes a doubling of effectiveness across the whole business, but the business chooses to produce (and bill) the same as it did in year one, with the same number of staff, and thus revenues remain at RD10M. Costs will remain much the same (i.e. no growth in headcount). So profits will remain at break-even (RD0) in year two. However, in this case the workforce will only be half as busy on billable work as in year one, allowing for innovation time, holidays, social time and “doing things properly”. There will also be much time for improving the way the work works, automating suitable areas of the workflow, learning, personal and professional development, etc..

Option 3 – Move Upmarket and Segment

This option again supposes a doubling of effectiveness across the whole business, but this time the business chooses to increase the value-add, producing the same volume of work as in year one, but at a higher quality, spending more time working with clients on their issues, taking extra care to deliver the right things, producing more prototypes and experiments, and generally using the extra time to add extra (billable) client value and win business with higher-end clients. Extra value (should) mean higher prices, and thus revenues rise – let’s assume to to something like RD20M. Costs remain more or less the same (again, no growth in headcount). So profits rise from zero (year one) to (revenue RD20M less costs RD10M = profits RD10M) in year two. I would expect some amount of this profit to get re-invested back in the business, not least in more salubrious offices, cars, travel, facilities, etc. to go with the organisation’s repositioning and rebranding of itself as a “premium supplier”.

And Combinations

Of course, in any real scenario, the organisation will likely choose to combine aspects from all three of the above options.

Has this helped make the benefits of RIghtshifting more tangible, more apparent? BTW If you can think of any other likely scenario options, please let me know.

– Bob


It’s not often that my blog posts contain direct advice, preferring as I do the Socratic approach and the Veiled Magic of Questions.

But I HAVE done (and learned) some stuff over the years, and where this stuff is relatively context-free, I’m not averse to sharing.

This is also another in the intermittent series of posts highlighting observable differences between different mindsets – this time it’s office space.

The Rats’ Maze

In many businesses, much effort goes into making the workplace as well-suited as possible to the kind of work taking place. Think: factory floors, warehouses, artists’ studios, automobile workshops – even my local car wash has evolved a pretty darned effective layout for itself over the years.

In the classic, “Peopleware” by DeMarco and Lister – first published more than twenty years ago – the authors explain the significant impact that the physical environment can (and does) have on the productivity and effectiveness – not to mention engagement and motivation – of folks working in knowledge-work businesses.

I have yet to see (outside of Familiar) any organisation that even realises the scope for productivity that a suitable physical environment can offer, let alone take the trouble to find out what works (and what doesn’t) and organise their physical spaces accordingly.

At Familiar, we had around 1600 square feet of self-contained space (plus on-demand access to e.g. meeting rooms, cafeteria, etc). This self-contained space felt “full” with around eight people working in it. So, for us, our optimal density was around 200 square feet per person. This is way more that most every other work space I have ever seen. Recently I was in an office where each person had something like fifty square feet, and that’s including desk space, walkways, seating areas, etc.. Truly this was a daily game of “Sardines”.

Aside: Research has shown the deleterious effects on health, task performance and social behaviours caused by overcrowding.

The Analytic View of Knowledge Work

In most (i.e. Analytic-minded) organisations, folks simply assume that knowledge work is just some (slightly weird) variant of the office work we have known and loved(?) for nigh on a hundred years. Serried ranks of desks, sometimes in cube farms, or more likely these days, open-plan.

The Synergistic View of Knowledge Work

In Synergistic-minded organisations, folks recognise the fundamental differences between repetitive, relatively mindless office work, and the demands of effective knowledge work. These folks arrange their workspaces to better suit the style and nature of the work they’re doing day-in and day-out. Not only is sufficient space allocated, but the nature of the space (in fact, different kinds of space) is carefully tailored to the needs of the work. In general, these organisations perceive that knowledge work is much more like art, design, and learning than it is like office work.

In his recent video about NYU’s ITP projects “What I Learned About Creativity by Watching Creatives”,  Clay Shirky describes the ITP workplace, and how both faculty and students regard the physical environment itself as as much a raw material as the items, art materials, computers, etc. in the space.

– Bob

Further Reading

Teaching Binary Math to Third Graders ~ Rick Garlikov (The Socratic Method exemplified)



Skinny Dipping

The Pool

“The Pool of Shared Meaning is the birthplace of synergy

Kerry PattersonCrucial Conversations

Note: It’s no coincidence that I’ve chosen this particular quote, containing as it does a reference to synergy, and indirectly to the synergistic mindset (c.f. The Marshall Model).

In Crucial Conversations, Kerry Patterson et al use the term “Pool of Shared Meaning”.

“People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool–even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs.”

Two good things happen when the Pool of Shared Meaning swells:

1. More information means better decisions can be made. This just makes sense. The IQ of the group goes up with the addition of more information. And the EQ of the group goes up as people become more comfortable with revealing themselves and their thoughts, and build vulnerability-based trust.

2. More information from more people encourages “buy-in.” Buy-in means people are engaged in finding answers TOGETHER…and will be more willing to work to find solutions.

Skinny Dipping

What does it feel like when folks first realise they’re expected, or have the opportunity, to add to the pool of shared meaning in their workplace? A bit like skinny dipping. Embarrassing, awkward and a little exhilarating. Folks can feel shy, reluctant, and very vulnerable.

The water may be lovely, but folks are likely to avoid taking the plunge unless they feel safe and happy.  Even a few tentative toes in the water will be discouraged by the presence of onlookers who are just there to gawp rather than be prepared to strip off and join in, too.

And like skinny dipping, it’s pretty much impossible to force, mandate or cajole folks into taking part.

So if you want to see the Pool of Shared Meaning deepen and grow within your organisation, be sensitive to the feelings of the folks in question, take it gently, and bring some joy to the experience. After all, skinny dipping is meant to be fun!

– Bob

More Reading

Crucial Conversations – Kerry Patterson et al
Defensive Routines and Organisational Learning – blog post
Communicating Without Defensiveness – Article
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – Patrick Lencioni

Promotion Commotion

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

~ Mark Twain

When I’m explaining the Synergistic mindset to people, I’m often struck by the degree to which folks root their understanding in that which they know. Even though just about every aspect of the Synergistic mindset differs one hundred and eighty degrees from what most people regard as “normal” (i.e. aspects of the Analytic mindset).

One example came up during a Twitter conversation earlier this week, which I thought might make an interesting case in point.


We all love the idea of promotions, don’t we? A reward for a consistent job well-done. Some folks live for their next promotion. But in the synergistic mindset, promotions are a vice, not a virtue. A sign of some significant dysfunctions.

com·mo·tion   [kuh-moh-shuhn]
1. violent or tumultuous motion; agitation; noisy disturbance.
2. political or social disturbance or upheaval; sedition; insurrection.

Promotions are, by definition, extrinsic rewards. As such, there is much research to show that they demotivate the recipient. (See e.g. Dan Pink’s book “Drive”).

Promotions perpetuate the idea of hierarchy. Job positions, and the idea of “moving up the ladder” reinforce the notion of hierarchy within organisations. Hierarchy is a hallmark of Analytic-minded organisations, and is so ubiquitous as to be rarely noticed, let alone questioned. Yet, hierarchy is a core dysfunction of the Analytic organisation, enshrining as it does the notion of separating things into parts (and sub-parts, and so on) in the mistaken belief that optimising the parts will lead to an optimal whole (as Ackoff showed us, the reverse is in fact the case). Hierarchies also inevitably follow the Iron Law of Oligarchy.

Promotions increase alienation within the workplace. Many highly competent, highly qualified individuals are often passed-over for promotion for a number of reasons. More often than not, promotion decisions are made within and by the existing Core Group, and for reasons little to do with competency, productivity, etc. but along much more nepotistic lines.

Promotions contribute to the Peter Principle. That is, they help contribute to having people occupying positions in which they are ineffective at best, and often, incompetent.

Promotions run contrary to the principles of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. If other folks are deciding your future, this reduces autonomy. If you’re striving for mastery of a skill or skill-set, then who but you is best placed to decide where you are on that journey? And if you have found an engaging purpose, what chance the purpose will remain as valid in a different position – often in a different business unit or job role?

Promotions signify a lack of imagination, misunderstanding of human motivation. Progressive organisations believe that recognising folks and their efforts leads to better morale, engagement and thus productivity. Research shows this can be so. But why not recognise folks directly? Why conflate the whole process with the idea of promotion? Are organisations so lacking in imagination that they cannot find means to provide people with effective and useful feedback, and mark significant points in their progression towards e.g. Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose?

So, does anyone have a good word to say for promotions, aside from the fact that you might like one, soon? (Wry smile).

– Bob

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