Monthly Archives: July 2012

Leadership or Fellowship

“The 21st century doesn’t need more leaders – nor more leadership.”

~ Umair Haque

I used to be a fan of leadership. I saw it as a way – maybe THE way – out of the dismal, bean-counter, management factories of the Analytic mindset. Although, truth be told, and upon reflection, even when I was running my own business (Familiar) I didn’t do much “leadership”. Even now you can go to my website and see my thoughts (as they were several years ago – and yes, I know, the whole thing needs a serious overhaul, for any number of reasons).

Update: 16-Nov-2012 I’ve now overhauled my website, so its incongruity is now consigned to the obscurity of the Wayback Machine.

And even recently, I generally took the notion of leadership as a given, and a “good thing”, without really ever thinking about it much.

But in the run-up to ACE Conference 2012, and the preparation of my keynote on the topic of Alienation, something began to quietly nag at me. With the opportunity to reflect a little more, and as I teased at the loose ends, the fabric of the leadership ideal began to unravel before my mind’s eye.

Fish in Water

“I don’t know who discovered water, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.”

~ Marshall McLuhan

This quote is getting a little threadbare now, I think, but still relevant.

The idea of leadership, and preoccupation with it, seems to be about as old as history itself. Much of modern society has come to regard leadership – at least, of a certain sort – as a noble and revered calling. Accordingly, there is a wealth of research, opinions, models, etc. exploring leadership. Not to mention the global leadership “industry”. It’s as if it’s the only game in town for go-ahead businesses.

Setting aside the specific issues of pathological leadership (Caligula, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Gaddafi, et al), and the crimes committed thereby, I have come to believe there are fundamental flaws in the whole notion of leadership (however well-intentioned or competent). Be that Servant Leadership, Host Leadership, leader-as-coach, joint or shared leadership, whatever. To me they are all tarred with the same brush.

Leadership is a Sensemaking Construct

In his paper The Romance of Leadership and the Evaluation of Organizational Performance James R Meindl describes how the concept of leadership has all but transcended rational enquiry and passed into the realms of romantic myth.

In a nutshell, he observes that people overrate the value of leadership; external influences appears to have more impact on the performance of organisations than we generally assume.

“The significance placed on leadership is a response to the ill-structured problem of comprehending the causal structure of complex, organised systems.”

He asserts that the concept of leadership emerges from this sensemaking process “guided by the psychology and sociology of the observer”.

“The romanticised conception of leadership results from a biased preference to understand important but causally indeterminate and ambiguous organisational events and occurrences in terms of ‘leadership’.”

The Ideal

Let’s take a look at what we’re trying to accomplish in highly effective knowledge-work organisations. Dan Pink cites “Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose” as the key elements for intrinsic motivation in knowledge-work contexts. Anyone who has this software development thing figured out knows that great teams don’t need – or have – conventional “leadership”.

“When you ask people about what it is like being part of a great team, what is most striking is the meaningfulness of the experience. People talk about being part of something larger than themselves, of being connected, of being generative. It become quite clear that, for many, their experiences as part of truly great teams stand out as singular periods of life lived to the fullest. Some spend the rest of their lives looking for ways to recapture that spirit.”

~ Peter M Senge

Peter Senge suggests the ideal social environment for knowledge work is the learning organisation:

“…where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together”

~ Peter M Senge

Senge postulates five “disciplines” of the learning organisation:

  • Shared Vision aka Common Purpose

    “The organisational vision must not be created by the leader, rather, the vision must be created through interaction with [and between] the individuals in the organisation.”

    ~ Peter M. Senge

  • Systems Thinking

    “The defining characteristic of a system is that it cannot be understood as a function of its isolated components. First, the behavior of the system doesn’t depend on what each part is doing but on how each part is interacting with the rest … Second, to understand a system we need to understand how it fits into the larger system of which it is a part … Third, and most important, what we call the parts need not be taken as primary. In fact, how we define the parts is fundamentally a matter of perspective and purpose, not intrinsic in the nature of the ‘real thing’ we are looking at.”

    ~  Kofman and Senge, 1993, p. 27.

    Which, to my mind, applies at least as much to the (undesirable) partitioning of roles into ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ as it does to partitioning of the organisation into e.g. silos.

  • Personal Mastery

    “Individuals who practice personal mastery experience other changes in their thinking. They learn to use both reason and intuition to create. They become systems thinkers who see the interconnectedness of everything around them and, as a result, they feel more connected to the whole. It is exactly this type of individual that one needs at every level of an organisation for the organisation to learn.

    ~ Peter M. Senge

  • Team Learning

    “[In Team Learning] all participants must ‘suspend their assumptions;’ all participants must ‘regard one another as colleagues;’ and there must be a facilitator (at least until teams develop these skills) ‘who holds the context of the dialogue.’ [David] Bohm asserts that ‘hierarchy is antithetical to dialogue, and it is difficult to escape hierarchy in organisations.’

    ~ Peter M. Senge

  • Mental Models

    “Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.”

    ~ Peter M. Senge

And not just any old mental models. A shared mental model of how the world of work should work, with the nature of that shared world-view dictating the effectiveness of the organisation as a whole.

The Dysfunctions of Leadership

The concept of leadership introduces a number of dysfunctions. Rarely are these discussable or discussed in our romanticised conception of the mythological leader:

  • Leadership inevitably produces implicit (or even explicit) Parent-Child relationships cf Transactional Analysis

“Just one of many examples of this type of parent/child exchange is the unwritten pact that if employees do whatever their bosses ask of them (regardless of whether it makes good business sense) the boss will take care of their next promotion/career move.”

  • Leadership validates “followership” and thus increased risk of “social loafing
  • Leadership cultivates “learned helplessness”
  • Leadership can increases alienation, tribalism and the formation of in-groups
  • Leadership often encourages favouritism, patriarchy, deference, sycophancy and obsequiousness, with a consequent reduction in both the quality and quantity of meaningful dialogue.
  • Leadership compounds and perpetuates the Analytic mindset
  • Leadership subtly undermines systems thinking, by breaking the social body into discrete parts (leaders, followers), and focussing attention on those parts rather than on e.g. the relationships between them, and the whole itself.


“People hate to be managed, but love to be led.”

~ Scott McNealy

And people love sitting on the couch, with beer and pizza, watching a game on TV, too. This doesn’t mean it’s good for them (at least, health-wise), or productive. By all means, folks should be free to choose their own poisons, but from the perspective of the effective organisation, we might hope that we’re working alongside folks that do have some motivation towards the well-being and productivity of themselves, their colleagues and their collective endeavours.

So to Fellowship

I posit that, unlike leadership, fellowship is much more congruent with the ideal social environment for knowledge work, as outlined above. I recently wrote a post describing the idea of fellowship and contrasting it with the more established concept of leadership.


In conclusion then, I believe the idea of leadership has some merits – generally in the context of Ad-hoc and Analytic mindsets (cf. the Marshall Model), but popular mythology, plus certain pernicious cognitive biases, crowd out the greater benefits that fellowship can offer. I feel the Synergistic mindset offers a great opportunity to leave behind us the dysfunctions inherent in the idea of leadership, and thus open the door to the uptake of the idea of fellowship.

– Bob

Further Reading

The Romance of Leadership and the Evaluation of Organizational Performance ~ Meindl, Ehrlich and Dukerich (1985 paper, pdf)
You Are The Messiah And I Should Know – Why Leadership Is A Myth ~ Justin Lewis-Anthony
Leadership Becomes Fellowship ~ Bruce Morton (MIX article)
First Break All the Rules ~ Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman
The Builder’s Manifesto ~ Umair Haque (blog post)
Leadership is Overrated ~ Rick McLaughlin (pdf)
Could Leadership Not Matter At All? – article
Good to Great ~ Jim Collins


Let’s talk about stigma. Specifically, let’s talk about the stigma organisations feel in admitting there’s anything wrong with them. I mean, customers will feel disturbed and anxious, won’t they? How would you feel if one of your suppliers admitted they weren’t perfect? That admission might come as a shock. If they hadn’t ‘fessed up to it, you would still be thinking they were perfect, wouldn’t you? Deflated illusions, shattered dreams. Heroes with feet of clay.

Or maybe we should just be more realistic? It’s an old adage of therapy that folks who don’t admit to a problem rarely make much progress in dealing with their issues.

Tough, Man

Traditionally, organisations seem to think that they must promote a Marlboro Man ideal – tough, independent and unemotional. And incompatible with even the consideration that there might be scope for improvement.

I have heard folks express disconcert at the very idea that there might be something “wrong” with their organisations, that they might need therapy. These concerns are widespread, and real – if rarely voiced.

Out of Touch

Organisations have emotions, and emotional states. We’ve all heard folks describe their organisations as e.g. “happy”, “sick, “dour”, etc.. And, almost by definition, organisations are rarely in touch with their emotions. Being out of touch, most organisations do not even realise that they are, for example, depressed or otherwise emotionally challenged. Maybe we can co-opt the term “normative organisational alexithymia” – literally “without words for emotions” – to describe this phenomenon?

Received Wisdom

Many organisations learn from their peers that they are not supposed to show vulnerability, or imperfection. They learn to suppress or hide their inadequacies, so much so that they are genuinely unaware of both their emotional state (not to mention their relative effectiveness) and how to express that emotional state in words.

Even when an organisation comes to awareness of its emotional state, and the effect this state is having on e.g. effectiveness, employee engagement, customer relations, and the bottom line, it is still unlikely to seek help – and highly unlikely to seek any kind of therapy.

To benefit from therapy, an organisation must admit that it needs help, must form a bond of trust with the therapist, and must openly discuss and express emotion. These requirements…conflict with traditional ideals of what it means to be in business: toughness, independence and absence of emotion.

Social Norms

Some organisations may also worry that customers, peers, and even society at large, will look down on any organisation that can’t “tough it out” on its own, and that seeking – or even needing – help is not “normal”, “healthy” organisational behaviour. Even organisations who do seek therapy may worry about what others think of their choice.

In general, organisations are much more likely to seek help with problems that they think are normative – that is, problems that many other organisations share (and seek help with).

If an organisation perceives that being depressed or otherwise dysfunctional is not ‘normal,’ then even if it does try to get help it may feel shamed and aberrant. So, instead, it might try to keep its depression or dysfunction(s) quiet, and maybe self-medicate with merely palliative interventions.

What Can We Do?

One way to convince more organisations to seek help, then, is to demonstrate that the things they need help with are “normal.” In this regard, we might take a cue from the erectile dysfunction drug industry:

“Men are going in to see their doctors much more about erectile dysfunction now, after the ads for Viagra and other drugs, because there’s so much more awareness”

This, in a nutshell, is what Rightshifting is all about. Demonstrating that ineffectiveness is normal, and increasing organisations’ awareness of what effectiveness means.

We can also work to make more palatable the words we use in describing therapy, and emphasise e.g. self-help, organisational capabilities, and achievement.

Is it reasonable to expect that organisations will ever acquire the capability to self-counsel and self-treat? Maybe some, now, and maybe in a hundred years, more. But until the majority do, there will be a role for specialist therapists, and a need for organisations to seek help.

What are the contexts that influence organisations to seek help, and why? That’s the challenge for us all to figure out, in terms of both theory and practise. Right now, we don’t seem to have even the beginnings of the answers.

– Bob

Further Reading

Helping Men to Help Themselves – How help-seeking is gender-related
Therapist Self-Disclosure Decreases Stigma of Therapy for Clients – Online article
Don’t ask, Don’t tell: The Stigma of Going to Therapy – Online Article
The Stigma of Therapy – Online article
Is There a Social Stigma Associated With the Words Psychotherapy, Therapy, and Counselling? – Blog post


“A sect or party is an elegant incognito devised to save a man from the vexation of thinking.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Following on from my previous post The Shrink is IN, I’d like to clarify one aspect of the term “organisational therapy”.

The more important word of the two is “organisational”. I see little practical distinction between therapy and e.g. coaching (or some other mode of intervention). But I see much distinction between working with individuals (or teams of individuals) vs working with a collective organisational psyche.

Why go to all the trouble of working with a collective organisational psyche? That sounds hard, doesn’t it? Not to mention esoteric. And vexatious.

Let’s return to the basis for this whole scheme of things: the Marshall Model. If we accept that significant improvement in organisational effectiveness requires a transformation of the collective organisational psyche (a.k.a. organisational mindset – see: What Is a Mindset?) then we are challenged to find some means to effect a “transition” of that organisational psyche from one memeplex to another.

We could choose to tackle this by working with each individual, team or group within the organisation, but case studies (and personal experience) suggests this has a very limited chance of succeeding. (Some estimate in the order of 2% of attempts).

Accordingly, I posit we can improve the chances of success by acting on the organisation (i.e. its collective psyche) as a whole.

Whether we call this organisational coaching or organisational therapy matters little in comparison. Aside: I do prefer the latter term, as it’s less widespread and thus may prompt more folks to think about the scope, rather than just automatically assume we’re talking about working with individuals in limited parts of the organisation.

What do you think?

– Bob

Further reading

Intentional Revolutions ~ Edwin C. Nevis, Joan Lancourt, Helen C. Vassallo

The Shrink is IN

I have struggled for many years to find a model for positive and effective engagement with organisations looking to improve their effectiveness. Agile coaching has not worked for me – or for clients, much – because of its generally limited (i.e. individual, team or departmental) scope. Ditto Scrum Mastering (and this compounded by a widespread misconception about what Scrum Mastering even means, and just why it might offer any value).

Consulting likewise misses the mark, not least because clients rarely understand how to get anything like the best out of consultants and consulting advice. It’s often like the organisation needs consulting on how to use consultants. Of course great consultants should and can do this – clients permitting – but Sturgeon’s Law tells us these folks are rare.

So I’ve been on the lookout for a model of engagement that affords the following opportunities:

  • Models positive behaviours, such as fellowship, mutual respect and collaboration.
  • Promotes introspection and self-renewal, allowing folks to find their own way.
  • Respects the individual.
  • Avoids compounding common dysfunctions, such as parent-child dynamics (c.f. Transactional Analysis) and alienation.
  • Replaces dependency and learned helplessness with self-reliance and self-confidence.
  • Congruent with positive psychology (i.e. PERMA): Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships (social connections), Meaning (and purpose) and Accomplishment.
  • Offers incremental and tangible progress at a pace set by the folks involved.
  • Therapeutic (i.e. healing, curative, but also sometimes preventive or supportive).
  • Social and humane.

Accordingly, I have come to regard “therapy” as a model closely matching these attributes, and specifically, “psychotherapy“. But, from a systems thinking perspective, the clients or “patients” are not the individuals in an organisation, but the organisations themselves.

So these days I choose to call myself an “Organisational Psychotherapist”. What does that mean, exactly? What does Organisation Psychotherapy look like in practise? And how can an approach founded on the principles of therapy help  organisations improve their effectiveness?

Aside: We have to assume that an organisation wants help, wants to improve its effectiveness (or maybe some other aspect of its “personality”, functioning, or well-being). If thirty years of coaching has taught me one thing, it’s that there’s no helping folks (or organisations) that don’t want to be helped.

Why Therapy?

Maybe the first question folks have is “why therapy?”. Why take a therapy stance when most other folks choose to act as consultants, or coaches? Fundamentally, it’s because I believe an organisation, as a whole, has to work its issues through, and take responsibility itself for doing that. Too often, consultants get hired to shoulder responsibility on behalf of the organisation. And when these consultants leave, clients all too often find themselves back at square one – or worse. Like a game of Snakes and Ladders.

snakes and ladders

So, to organisational psychotherapy. As an analogy, we might consider the work of Virginia Satir, widely regarded as the “Mother of Family Therapy”.

“Families and societies are small and large versions of one another. Both are made up of people who have to work together, whose destinies are tied up with one another. Each features the components of a relationship: leaders perform roles relative to the led, the young to the old, and male to female; and each is involved with the process of decision-making, use of authority, and the seeking of common goals.”

~ Virginia Satir, Peoplemaking, ch. 24 (1988).

“It is now clear to me that the [organisation] is a microcosm of the world. To understand the world, we can study the [organisation]. Issues such as power, intimacy, autonomy, trust, and communication skills are vital parts underlying how we live in the world. To change the world is to change the [organisation].

~ Virginia Satir (paraphrased)
The New Peoplemaking, ch. 1 (1988)

Organisational Psyche

In The Nine Principles of Organisational Psychotherapy, I stated as principle 3:

3. Organisations Have a Collective Psyche that Responds to Therapies

Organisational therapy procedes on the basis that the collective psyche of an organisation is similar in nature to the psyche of the individual, and is similarly amenable to therapeutic interventions (although the actual techniques and underlying concepts may differ).

That’s to say, the collective consciousness of an organisation is a thing in its own right, and we can examine it, interact with it and (help) alter it, for better – or worse.

“…the qualities that all human beings need and yearn for in other humans, a sense of being cared for, valued, wanted, even loved…what for a lifetime, human beings strive to find. Some of the most important :  empathic concern, respectfulness, realistic hopefulness, self-awareness, reliability and strength –  the strength to say ‘yes’ and the strength to say ‘no’.

~ Stanley S. Greben

I believe organisations, too, need these qualities. All too often organisations – in part or as a whole – come to regard themselves with some degree of self-loathing.

Where’s the Value?

Paul DiModica, in his excellent book “Value Forward Selling” suggests that people appreciate a clear communication of the value of an idea or proposition. To that end, here’s what I believe is the (unique) value in taking a therapy stance with respect to e.g. improving organisational effectiveness (a.k.a. Rightshifting):

The organisations with which I work consider therapy because some aspect or aspects of their “cognitive (brain) functioning” is not working as well as they would like. Despite these organisations’ basic competence, they have not been able to resolve these issues to their own satisfaction, from their own resources.

With improved functioning comes an improved ability to cope, to grow, to mature, and to build necessary capabilities. And with these comes increasing effectiveness, revenue growth, margins, and customer, employer, employee and shareholder satisfaction. Not to mention organisations which are able to play a more positive role in wider society.

How Does It Feel?

So, what does it look like and feel like to be an employee of an organisation that has chosen to work with an organisational therapist?

Firstly, it’s probably useful to understand that therapy does not try to “fix” anyone or anything. Personally, I most often choose  to approach a new engagement from a perspective akin to Solution Focused Brief Therapy:

“SFBT focuses on what [the client organisation] wants to achieve through therapy, rather than on the problem(s) that made it seek help. The approach does not focus on the past, but instead, focuses on the present and future. The therapist/counselor uses respectful curiosity to invite the client to envision their preferred future and then therapist and client start attending to any moves towards it – whether these are small increments or large changes.”

Given that we’re talking about organisational therapy, there’s the added dimension of working with many different folks within the client organisation – as opposed to working with just one person in individual therapy, or maybe half-a-dozen or so people, in family therapy situations.

This typically involves helping these folks improve their ability to think collectively and purposefully. I believe the key to this is the – often missing – ability to have effective, purposeful dialogue. For those (very few) organisations already skilled in this, little need to be done, but for the majority, basic work on dialogue, and thence to focus, shared visions, etc. will be required.  

What to Expect From Organisational Therapy

Some folks might have some experience of one-to-one, or group, therapy. But few indeed will have had any experience of organisational therapy. Here’s a brief run-down of what folks might reasonably expect from organisational therapy.

Who Receives Psychotherapy

Most organisations, at one time or another need some help. For some organisations, talking together, and assisted by a therapist, helps them understand ways they can improve things. Sometimes organisations seek therapy at the advice of a consultant, coach, executive or investor. Sometimes it is overwhelming stress or a crisis that causes an organisation to decide to choose therapy. In addition, many times organisations might choose therapy to gain insight and acceptance about themselves and to achieve growth and improved well-being. Therapy offers these benefits to any organisation that is unhappy with the way it acts, performs or feels, and wants to change.

What Is Organisational Psychotherapy?

Organisational Psychotherapy is a relationship in which an organisation, as a whole, works with a professional in order to bring about changes in its feelings, thoughts, attitudes, and/or behaviour. The task of the therapist, therefore, is to help the organisation as a whole make the changes it wishes to make. Oftentimes the organisation entering therapy knows changes are needed but does not know what changes to make or how to go about making them. Often, too, the organisation is fragmented not used to holding an organisation-wide “internal dialogue”. The organisational psychotherapist helps the organisation figure these things out. Therapists help clients in many ways. Exactly how depends on the orientation (approach to therapy). Here the therapist’s training and beliefs on how therapy should work can have some influence. The most common therapy approaches I use are Positive Psychology, Solutions Focus, Dialogue, Scenario Modelling and Clean Language, with influences from Eastern wisdom including Buddhism, the Tao, and Zen.

Positive Psychology

“We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise, which achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving individuals, families, and communities.”

~ Professor Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Positive Psychology involves the use of findings from positive psychology research. It helps organisations to change – in the ways they would like to change. Positive Positive psychologists seek “to find and nurture genius and talent”, and “to make normal life more fulfilling”. There is an emphasis in positive psychology on promoting well-being, as opposed to treating illness.

Solutions Focus

While the method and scope of the Solutions Focus approach to organisational therapy are wide-ranging and comprehensive, the basic principles are simple:

  • identify what works and do more of it
  • stop doing what doesn’t work and do something different.

The Solution Focused approach was developed in America in the 1980s. Two simple ideas underpin Solutions Focus organisational therapy:

  • Even organisations with major dysfunctions will occasionally do good things, and achieve positive results. Solutions Focused practitioners will help uncover these exceptions –  whatever the organisation is already doing, which might contribute to progress on, or resolution of the issue(s) at hand.
  • Knowing where you want to get to, makes the getting there much more likely. Solutions Focused practitioners ask lots of questions about what life might be like if the problem was solved. As the answers to these questions gradually unfold the client begins to get a picture of where the organisation should be focusing.

Choosing a Therapist

“A psychoanalyst’s personality is his [or her] major therapeutic tool.”

Henri F. Ellenberger

You will probably want to ask potential therapists about their orientation. Ask them what this will mean for your therapy experience. Most therapists are not rigid in their orientations. You should also ask a potential therapist about use of evidence based practice. Ask them if they use methods that have been found to have evidence that they work for organisations like yours. Organisational therapy is provided in many ways, with a prevailing focus on the  organisational psyche, not individuals per se.

“…it is becoming increasingly obvious that the (psycho)therapist’s personality is a more decisive factor than the school to which he belongs.”

~ Arthur Koestler 

“Psychotherapy…is a craft, the aptitude for which derives more from a general experience of living than is generally supposed.”

~ Peter Lomas

What Happens in Psychotherapy?

The therapy process varies depending on the approach of the therapist. It also differs for each individual organisation, and its situation. However, there are some common aspects of therapy that organisations are likely to experience when they enter a therapy relationship.

The first session with a therapist is often a consultation session. This session does not commit the organisation to working with the therapist. This session helps you to find out whether psychotherapy might be useful to you. In addition, you decide whether this particular therapist is likely to be helpful. During this session, you may want to discuss any values that are particularly important to you and your organisation. This first session is a time for you to decide if you and your organisation will feel comfortable, confident, and motivated in working with this particular therapist.

You should also feel that you can trust and respect your therapist. You should feel that your therapist understands your organisation’s situation. This is also the time for the therapist to decide whether he or she is a good match for your organisation. At times, a therapist may refer you to another therapist who may be able to work better with your organisation.

After an initial assessment stage, the rest of therapy is to help your organisation gain insight and address current problems. It can also help your organisation alter the emotions, thoughts, and/or behaviours it wants to change. The therapy process focuses on the goals which the organisation surfaces during therapy. How these goals are met depends on the orientation of the therapist and the methods the therapist may use.

Organisational therapy typically requires more activity than just talking about particular issues. These activities may include such things as role-playing or homework assignments. This is where parts of your organisation can adopt and develop the new skills it decides are valuable for the future.

The amount of therapy an organisation receives will vary depending on the orientation of the therapist and the specific treatment plan used. Some interventions are relatively short. Others require a longer time commitment.

Each session of therapy usually lasts about an hour, with members of some part of the organisation. Longer sessions, with wider participation, are also sometime advised. The therapist will generally visit with your organisation once or twice a month. However, therapy timelines are rarely rigid (or predictable). Your organisation may change the schedule to fit the needs of various groups and/or the therapist.

It is a good idea to ask your therapist about the general methods he or she may use with you in therapy. Also, ask about the length and frequency of therapy you might expect.

Some therapists suggest other treatments in addition to talking therapy. These may include workshops, off-sites, conferences, reading or other things. They may also use support groups, with members drawn from different organisations.

After a period of time, you and your therapist may agree that therapy has been successful in helping your organisation achieve its immediate goals. Even after therapy has ended, some therapists may suggest a follow-up e.g. several months later to check on how you are doing. If your organisation has new problems or feel that past problems still are not better, it may choose to return to therapy.

One important thing to remember is that all types of therapy do not automatically work for every organisation. You should always consider other options when a particular therapy is not working.

What Makes For Good Therapy?

Even as far back as the 5th Century BC, Hippocrates had apparently expressed the greater importance of studying the patient than of studying the patient’s disease.

Rather than assert my own opinion directly, allow me to share the selected views of some noted folks:

“Experience has taught me to keep away from therapeutic ‘methods’ as much as from diagnoses … everything depends on the man and little or nothing on the method.”

~ Carl Gustav Jung

“Some years ago I formulated the view that it was not the special or professional knowledge of the therapist, nor his intellectual conception of therapy (his ‘school of thought’), nor his techniques which determine his effectiveness. I hypothesised that what was important was the extent to which he possessed certain personal attitudes in the relationship.”

~ Carl R. Rogers

“…the crucial factor in psychotherapy is not so much the method, but rather the relationship between the patient and his doctor or … between the therapist and his patient. This relationship between two persons seems to be the most significant aspect of the therapeutic process, a more important factor than any method or technique.”

~ Victor E. Frankl

“…however much therapists may focus on the technical aspects of their procedures, an increasing body of evidence suggests that it is the personal relationship between themselves and their patients which is experienced by the latter as the most potent therapeutic force.”

~ David Smail

“There are many schools of psychotherapy but results appear to depend on the personal qualities, experience and worldly wisdom of the therapist rather than on the theoretical basis of the method. … There is growing evidence that effectiveness in (psycho)therapy is primarily dependent on the quality of the relationship between the quality of the relationship between therapist and patient and that, in turn, depends on the quality of the therapist.”

~ Robert M. Youngson

“If any single fact has been established by psychotherapy research, it is that a positive relation ship between patient and therapist is positively related to therapy outcome.”

~ Irvin D. Yalom

Organisational therapy works as it does because it is not a pseudo-science, magic or a kind of medical treatment, but simply because it is a highly refined method of therapeutic co-operation, both between the therapist and the organisation’s psyche, and between the folks in the organisation itself.

– Bob

Further Reading

How Psychotherapy Works ~ Online article

What is a Mindset?

In Rightshifting and the Marshall Model, I use the term mindset quite frequently. For me, this term has taken on a very specific meaning – a meaning which I can appreciate may not correspond to others’ understanding of the term. In this post I’ll be defining the term as it pertains to the Rightshifting canon.

Memes and Memeplexes

According to Wiktionary, a memeplex (n.) is “A set of memes which interact to reinforce each other”. So, a mindset is very much like a memeplex – a set of ideas, assumptions, beliefs, heuristics, etc. (e.g. memes) which interact to reinforce each other.

“A memeplex is a set of memes which, while not necessarily being good survivors on their own, are good survivors in the presence of other members of the memeplex.”

~ Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion

In his book “Radical Management”, Steve Denning makes the point that the conventional organisational mindset is a set of beliefs about the world and the world of work which act to reinforce each other.

These interlocking beliefs tightly bind organisations into a straight-jacket of thought patterns which many find inescapable. Simply tackling any one of these interlocking beliefs just causes the other (memes) to tighten their grip to compensate – and so preserve the memeplex. Without coordinated interventions at multiple points in the memeplex simultaneously, these interactions will prevail, as will the status quo.

“But if we consider culture as its own self organizing system,—a system with its own agenda and pressure to survive—then the history of humanity gets even more interesting. As Richard Dawkins has shown, systems of self-replicating ideas or memes can quickly accumulate their own agenda and behaviours. I assign no higher motive to a cultural entity than the primitive drive to reproduce itself and modify its environment to aid its spread. One way the self organizing system can do this is by consuming human biological resources.”

~ Kevin Kelly, Out of Control 1994, p.360

We can identify many memes in the world of work – management, hierarchy, power, relationships, remuneration, direction, outcomes, stakeholders, customers, value;  to name but a few. And in a sense each meme is its own memeplex. But it’s when certain of these memes combine, in a give configuration – a.k.a. set –  that the pernicious homeostatic effects of the whole collective memeplex becomes significant.

And we can label many, many distinct memeplexes, or mindsets. The Marshall Model isolates and contrasts just four (i.e. Ad-hoc, Analytic, Synergistic and Chaordic). For the purposes of the model, only these four seem required. The infinity of other mindsets remain, even in the context of the world of work, but the model settles on just these four to explain the variation in organisational effectiveness (of knowledge-work organisations everywhere).

Conversely, others, such as Dean Leffingwell with his “Six Legacy Mindsets”, use the term “mindset” quite differently. (I’d rather call these six “Legacy Memes”).

Change as Punctuated Equilibria

If we reflect on mindsets as self-preserving, self-reinforcing memeplexes, we can begin to understand how a transition from one mindset to another requires a more or less comprehensive, simultaneous overthrow of one memeplex for another. In any given memeplex, attempting to simply swap out selected memes, one for another, on an incremental basis appears infeasible. I have seen evidence of this in many organisations with whom I have worked over the years.

William Bridges also talks about this in his books “Transitions” and “Managing Transitions”, which in turn draw on Kurt Lewin‘s basic “unfreeze-change-refreeze” model for change. When applied to organisations, the first step is to let go of existing certainties (abandon the prevailing memeplex). This leads to a state of flux (or even chaos), which is a necessary condition from which to proceed on to acquiring (at least some) core elements of a whole new memeplex. This is also not dissimilar to the Satir change model.

This in turn suggests that transitions of this nature are, in fact, a form of Punctuated Equilibria.

How does this match with your perspective, experiences? I value your contribution.

– Bob

Further Reading

The Meme Machine ~ Dr Susan Blackwell
Cultural Selection Theory (A branch of Universal Darwinism)
Emergent Norm Theory
Virginia Satir page at Wikipedia
Satir/Weinberg Change Curve or “That Modei is Wrong?” ~ Blog post by Bas Vodde

Perspectives on Rightshifting


As this is a long post, here’s an index to each slide / dimension in the post:

Dimension: The Software Development Life Cycle
Dimension: Flow Mode
Dimension: Feedback Delay
Dimension: Administrative Project Management
Dimension: Perspective on the Individual
Dimension: Measurement
Dimension: Inductive vs Deductive
Dimension: Toolheads
Dimension: Quality and Testing
Dimension: Development Focus
Dimension: Risk Awareness
Dimension: Systematic Learning
Dimension: Design Loopbacks
Dimension: Conformance to Schedules
Dimension: Use of Third Parties
Dimension: Deployment Problems
Dimension: Variability in Project Success
Dimension: Metaphor in Use


Way back in 2008, the first public outing for my ideas about Rightshifting was a forty-five minute presentation at Agile North 2008. The slides for this presentation have been online at AuthorSTREAM ever since (including, incidentally, a Part 2, that was not presented, featuring an introduction to FlowChain).

The presentation was very well received, but one thing that has rankled me since then has been the absence of any narrative to accompany the slides. I can appreciate that this absence limits the usefulness of the slide pack. As a remedy, I have reproduced the slides here, accompanied by a brief commentary, or explanation, for each slide.

[Note: the slides in this first draft, acting as placeholders, are taken from the original presentation. I may update them later, to the more recent 3D-effect format, if there’s any demand for that.]


The presentation as a whole attempts to address the question “given that there is such a wide range of  effectiveness between different knowledge-work organisations out there in the world, how does life – and work – in these organisations differ? What makes Rightshifted organisations so different (and thus, more effective) from their less effective cousins?”.

What is a Dimension?

What is a “dimension“, in this context? It’s a slice through – or aspect of – how things look or work in knowledge-work organisations everywhere. We might imagine mapping each organisation in the real world to a (fuzzy) n-dimensional point in an n-dimensional hypercube. This mapping reveals certain clusters, or commonalities between organisations.

The slides, one by one, each illustrate a different dimension of life and attitudes to work in organisations, accompanied by a commentary.

Note: These charts and their accompanying narratives illustrate tendencies, not so much hard and fast delineations.

Dimension: The Software Development Life Cycle

This chart illustrates the kind of software lifecycle prevalent in organisations at various stages of effectiveness:

Code and fix” refers to the disorganised, seat-of-the pants approach to developing software systems and products. Some folks refer to this as “cowboy coding”.

Waterfall” (more accurately described as “batch and queue”) refers to those particular approaches to software development where each stage of transformation e.g. Analysis, Coding, Testing, etc.) is completed as a large single batch of work, before passing on to the next stage.

Agile” refers to the various approaches to software development where work is conducted incrementally and iteratively, with early and regular delivery (into production) of increments in e.g. functionality.

Beyond” alludes to other approaches to software development “beyond agile”.

Note: This slide preceded the Marshall Model by some two years. Even so, one can see the boundaries of the fours mindsets emerging.

Dimension: Flow Mode

This chart illustrates the prevailing (collective) mental model (and thus operational practices) with respect to how value flows through the organisation (e.g. from order to delivery, or “from concept to cash”):

Random” refers to the absence of any understanding about “Flow” (of value) , and thus an absence of any specific practices to enable flow, meaning that flow of value within the organisation happens at random. For example, the actual schedule of product releases – or due date performance – will be highly variable and unpredictable, to the point of being essentially random.

Batch and Queue” Value flows through these organisations in (often, large) batches, with each batch – for example, an entire software product – queueing at various points during its passage through the organisation. These organisations generally have little conscious understanding of the idea of flow, of queueing theory, or of the other issues that contribute to smooth, predictable flow. Consequently, the actual schedule of product releases – or due date performance – will show marked variation and a significant lack of predictability.

Sprints, etc” These organisations have a conscious understanding of the advantages of flow, and structure their operations around improving the flow of value through the organisation.  However, these organisations have not yet transcended siloisation to the point where they can optimise flow across the whole organisation as a joined-up system. Thus, we may see the use of agile practices, such as iterative – or even continuous – delivery of user stories, features or use cases. As a  consequence, the actual schedule of product releases – or due date performance – will show limited variation and reasonable predictability.

Systems Thinking” refers to the mindset that embraces the whole organisation as a system, and optimises flow through this system as a whole. In concert with techniques like Statistical Process Control (SPC), this means that the actual schedule of product releases – or due date performance – will show generally predictable and minor variation.

Note: The boundary between “Sprint, etc.” and “Systems Thinking” segments may lie somewhat further to the left of the 3.2-3.5 position than it appears on the above chart.

Dimension: Feedback Delay

This chart illustrates organisational thinking on how long the feedback loops in the organisation should be:

Random” refers to the absence of any conscious attention to feedback and the length of feedback loops. Thus any feedback received from e.g. retail channels or customers about new products, product features, and the like will be acted on (or ignored) essentially at random, with the timescales (delays) for such action also, essentially, random.

3 – 6 Months” these organisations regard a three to six month time frame for acting on e.g. customer feedback as quite normal and acceptable. Produce release cycles are typically geared around this timeframe. The concept of “cost of delay” is not often known.

2 -4 Weeks” here, the concept of “cost of delay” is understood, and these organisations work towards quantifying and tracking these costs, and base their product investment and prioritisation decisions, at least in part, on these factors. This typically sees dramatic reductions in cycle times, bringing the time it takes to incorporate feedback from the market down to less than a month.

Daily” highly-effective organisations tend to have a very clear understanding of their own cost-of-delay, and of the impact of feedback, and feedback delays, on their effectiveness. Not least because these kinds of organisation tend to be in the web space (c.f. Forward, Facebook,, etc.), where cost-of-delay can be high, these organisations focus on cycle times and feedback delays of a day or less.

Dimension: Administrative Project Management

This chart illustrates organisational thinking on how work (in particular, product development work) should be structure and managed:

APM” shows the prevalence of Administrative Project Management as correlated with organisational effectiveness. Least-effective organisations have little or no project management, nor indeed even projects, as such. Moving to the right, some slightly more effective organisations adopt the idea of conducting work within structures or containers called “projects”. Pretty soon after this comes the full panoply of Administrative Project Management, as typified by e.g. PRINCE2, PMBoK, etc.. As organisations’ effectiveness continues to improve, these (fewer) organisations come to understand the limitations of both the project concept itself, and the dysfunctions inherent in Administrative Project Management. The role of APM thus tails off.

Fun” shows that although quite (relatively) ineffective, organisations to the left (little APM) are fairly fun places to work. People have a degree of autonomy, rules are absent or at least lax, and work is not so regimented or controlled. As APM increases, fun goes into a tailspin, reaching its nadir as APM reaches its zenith. This is no mere coincidence. As APM goes into decline, further to the right, fun rises again, and indeed reaches new heights, driven on by the satisfaction inherent in doing good work, delivering real value, and generally making a real difference. Highly-effective organisations tend to provide high levels of job satisfaction (aka fun).

Wasted Potential” illustrates the correlation between APM and the waste of people’s innate potential (e.g. for doing good work). The key mechanism here is engagement. As fun drops (in line with rising APM), engagement with the work also drops away, and people have less incentive, motivation and thus inclination to do good work.  See Dan Pink’s book “Drive” (and associated videos, etc.) for an in-depth explanation of the role of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in the intrinsic motivation of knowledge-workers.

Dimension: Perspective on the Individual

This chart illustrates how organisations at different levels of effectiveness have different attitudes towards individuals (e.g. workers):

Respect” maps the degree of importance which organisations attach to the idea of respect for the individual. The chart illustrates how the least-effective organisations, on the left-hand side, have some level of respect for their staff. This may be patchy, but overall, it’s about what you’d expect to find in wider society. As we consider slightly more effective organisations (progressing to the right), here we see respect for the individual decreasing as effectiveness increases. Respect reaches a nadir around 1.5 or the chart, (see also the preceding chart on Administrative Project Management) – here organisations tend to treat people as fungible, interchangeable “cogs” in the “machine” of the organisation. As this machine view of organisations begins to wane (further to the right again), respect accorded to folks in the organisation rapidly rises, easily exceeding the levels seen in wider society.

Heroism” portrays the way in which highly-ineffective organisations attribute success and e.g. productivity to the heroic acts of individual “rock-stars”. As organisations progressively become more effective (rightshift), they likewise progressively tend to realise the role played by the system (the way the work works) relative to the contribution of “heroic” individuals. This realisation has knock-on effects on hiring, remuneration and a host of other organisational policies.

Dimension: Measurement

This chart illustrates the preferred role of measurement a.k.a. metrics in organisations at different levels of effectiveness:

“Metrics Effort” illustrates how highly ineffective organisations place very little emphasis on measuring things, and thus on the place of evidence, facts and data, more generally, in the operation of the organisation. When organisations (eventually) do begin to value measurement, they tend to go overboard on the idea, spending much effort on collecting all kinds of measures, much of which has little relevance or utility. As effectiveness continues to increase, organisations’ focus tends to resolve onto the measures with most relevance to the effectiveness of the organisation, whittling-away the less useful measures. Also, these more effective organisations tend to embed measurement – and the use of measures – into daily operations (business as usual), rather than have special (out-of-band) measurement efforts.  c.f. Basili et al –  GQM.

Dimension: Inductive vs Deductive

This chart illustrates the balance of focus on working practices (sometimes called “best practices” as against principles (the ideas underlying working practices) – in organisations at different levels of effectiveness:

Here we see a direct correlation between effectiveness and a focus on principles over practices. That is to say, highly-effective organisations understand the principles underpinning their working practices, whereas ineffective organisations have little or no understanding of the fundamental principles involved. The latter organisations are much more likely to simply copy “best practices” from others. Often this amounts to no more than “cargo-culting“.

See also: “The Inductive Deductive Schism” for more context.

Dimension: Toolheads

This chart illustrates the general disposition towards the buying and using of tools – whether physical tooling (plant), software tools or indeed, methodologies – in organisations along the Rightshifting axis:

Highly ineffective organisations tend to see little value in buying or using tools to e.g. improve productivity or reduce variation. As effectiveness improves, organisations tend to go overboard, buying tools left, right and centre in the belief that tools improve efficiencies, and that tools compensate for a lack of specialists and their know-how. For organisations that continue to improve their effectiveness, however, comes the realisation that a blanket predilection for tools does more harm than good, and these organisations become much more selective about the tools they acquire and use, even to the point of retiring or disposing of much of their existing tooling.

See also: “Watch Out For the Toolheads” article by John Seddon

Dimension: Quality and Testing

This chart illustrates the general attitude towards quality, and incidentally, the role of testing, in organisations distributed along the Rightshifting axis:

Quality philosophy” speaks to organisations’ general philosophy on the matter of quality. Highly ineffective organisations, if they have any overt philosophy at all regarding quality, tend to believe that quality can be tested into their products and services (despite, incidentally, more than thirty years of TQM, Crosby et al., advising to the contrary). Highly effective organisation come to the realisation that quality is – at least in part – an economic concern, and whereas sometimes it may be cost-effective to retain some testing, more often the effective path to quality lies in reducing or eliminating defects.

Testing effort” reflects the cost of testing, as seen in organisations at different levels of effectiveness. Highly ineffective organisation have low testing costs, simply because they have little or no testing (or any other quality efforts, for that matter). Organisations of moderate effectiveness tend spend a great deal of time, money and effort on testing things, primarily because they have little or no focus on reducing or eliminating defects, and thus have to rely on testing (a.k.a. inspections) to prevent defects reaching their customers. Highly effective organisations have discovered that by reducing or eliminating defects at source, the need for testing (a.k.a. inspections) reduces markedly.

Defects see by users” illustrates the combined effect of an organisation’s quality philosophy and testing effort. Customers of highly ineffective organisations tend to see many defects and quality problems,  whereas customers of highly effective organisations tend to see far fewer quality issues.

Dimension: Development Focus

This chart illustrates the typical stance of developers and product development groups in organisations distributed along the rightshifting axis:

CV-centric” refers to the tendency of developers and other technical specialists in e.g. highly ineffective organisations to focus on selecting and using technologies and tools that will enhance their CVs and give them interesting and cool new things to “play” with.

Code-centric” describes the tendency for technical staff in low-effectiveness organisations to believe that code and code quality is the be-all and end-all with regard to producing successful software products and services.

Requirements-centric” relates to moderately effective organisations’ belief that ongoing commercial success stems from understanding customers’ requirements and delivering against those requirements. Note: This does not necessarily imply a big-design-up-front or batch-and-queue approach to requirements gathering. Indeed, many requirements-centric (development) organisations quickly learn that iterative approaches to exploring requirements can afford more effective means for understanding.

Learning-centric” pertains to the focus of highly effective organisation on continual, organisation-wide learning – including learning about customers and markets and their evolving needs and perceptions of value, but more importantly, continually learning more about how best to make the whole organisation work ever more effectively.

Dimension: Risk Awareness

“Greater risk brings greater reward, especially in software development. A company that runs away from risk will soon find itself lagging behind its more adventurous competition. By ignoring the threat of negative outcomes—in the name of positive thinking or a can-do attitude—software managers drive their organisations into the ground.”

This chart illustrates the awareness of, and approach to handling, development risk in organisations across the spectrum of organisational effectiveness:

Highly-ineffective organisations not only remain unaware of risk and risk management disciplines, but often have a pathological fear of even discussing issues from a risk perspective (hence the negative portion of the line on the chart). Risk awareness rises oh-so-slowly as organisational effectiveness increases, with only the reasonably effective organisations achieving significant levels of awareness (and hence, effective ways to handle risk). The line tails off for the highly effective organisations, as these eschew some aspects of risk management in favour of effective and disciplined means of opportunity management.

See also: “Waltzing With Bears” by DeMarco and Lister.

Dimension: Systematic Learning

learning (ˈlɜːnɪŋ)
— n
1. knowledge gained by study; instruction or scholarship
2. the act of gaining knowledge
3. (psychology) any relatively permanent change in behaviour that occurs as a direct result of experience

This chart illustrates the typical attitude, of organisations distributed along the rightshifting axis towards, systematic (i.e. deliberate, organised and organisation-wide) learning:

Highly ineffective organisations tend to be blind to the value of systematic learning. Moderately effective organisations, once awake to the possible commercial advantages of a systematic approach to learning, begin to institute means to encourage such learning. Highly effective organisations recognise the need for such learning to be integrated with Business as Usual (BAU) and to ensure that what is discovered is actually “learnt” – i.e. new knowledge actually modifies organisational behaviour.

Dimension: Design Loopbacks

“One of the fundamental problems companies have is this practice of continual loopbacks, where they think they made the right decision, but it was the wrong decision and they end up continually in firefighting mode, fixing problems on the back end.”

“If you look at the continual state of loopbacks and lost knowledge in companies, something like 70 percent of engineering talent is used to solve problems that should have been solved early on.”

 ~ Michael Kennedy

This chart illustrates the frequency and impact of “design loopbacks”, in organisations at different levels of effectiveness:

See also: “Product Development for the Lean Enterprise” by Michael Kennedy

Dimension: Conformance to Schedules

This chart illustrates the ability of organisations, at different stages of effectiveness, to deliver new products into production on time (i.e. on schedule, or on the due date):

Here we see how well organisations meet their own development schedules. It’s probably no surprise that highly ineffective organisations struggle to deliver anything on time – with high variation and low predictability in their schedule conformance. But most (averagely-effective) organisations do little better. And few of these less-effective organisations realise that the best performers (the highly effective organisations) can have highly reliable and predictable schedule conformance as high as 98%.

Note: It may be apparent that to achieve such high levels of schedule conformance requires fundamentally different approaches to product design and development that those more commonly employed. Such approaches can include Set-based concurrent engineering (SBCE a.k.a. set-based design), trade-off curves, and other measures seen in e.g. the Toyota Product Development System (TPDS).

See also: Lean Product and Process Development by Dr Allen C. Ward

Dimension: Use of Third Parties

This chart illustrates the strategic role of third-parties (specialist suppliers, consultants, sub-contracting companies, etc.) as seen by organisations distributed along the Rightshifting axis:

No organisation, however large or diverse, can hope to have all the specialist skills and know-how that might be needed to design and deliver new products and services into ever-changing markets. Thus working with specialist third-parties is often a necessity. Highly-ineffective organisations have little or no understanding or capability for finding, and working with third parties. Generally, these organisations will treat each such relationships as an entirely novel and unusual situation, discovering how to make it work as they go along. And repeating the whole exercise the next time…ad infinitum. Thus, these organisations, also often victims of NIH (not invented here) syndrome,  rarely use third parties.

Moderately effective organisations come to realise that  working with third parties is an inevitable part of doing business and evolve means to make this part of Business As Usual. Thus, these organisation come to use and rely-on third parties in many aspects of their business.

Highly-effective organisations, not least because of their fundamentally different approaches to doing things, find it increasingly difficult to find third-parties with the necessary specialist skills and cultural (mindset) “fit”. Hence, these organisations find themselves using third parties less than they perhaps might like.

Dimension: Deployment Problems

This chart illustrates the likelihood that organisations, at different stages of effectiveness, will have significant problems with their new products (or updates) after they’ve “gone live”:

Many highly-ineffective organisations see it as inevitable that their customers, users, etc. will find problems with their new product designs when released (put into live production). Moderately-effective organisations begin to regard this as undesirable, realising the cost involved – both remediation costs and reputational costs, not least. These organisations, however, typically have an uphill struggle to reduce their level of deployment problems, basically because of their piecemeal approach to the “whole product” notion, borne of years or decades of incrementalism and local optimisations. Highly-effective organisations, often by dint of radical overhaul of their approach to “whole product” issues, have minimal deployment problems.

Dimension: Variability in Project Success

This chart illustrates variation in project (i.e. new product or service development) success, along the effectiveness spectrum. More significantly in my view, it also illustrates the different causes to which organisations at different levels of effectiveness attribute such variation:

Here we see that highly-ineffective organisations have high levels of variation (and thus low levels of predictability, certainty) in their new product development efforts. Levels of variation fall in line with increases in organisational effectiveness.

As to causes, highly-ineffective organisations tend to attribute success (and variability thereof) to the heroic (or paltry) efforts of specific individuals. Moderately effective organisations tend to let go of that simplistic notion, but often get lost in their search for the root causes of the variability in their record of success. Highly-effective organisations have discovered that, as Deming suggests, circa 95% of their success at delivering projects is down to their organisational systems – or “the way the work works”.

Dimension: Metaphor in Use

This chart illustrates the prevailing metaphor for knowledge work, as it varies in different organisations along the effectiveness axis:

Highly ineffective knowledge-work organisations have yet to realise even the nature of the work in which they are engaged, choosing, mostly by default, to regard it as just another kind of “office work”. This choice of metaphor leads to certain choices regarding e.g. the layout of the work space (cube farms, segregation of specialists, absence of team spaces, etc.).

Organisations of limited effectiveness choose to adopt the “software factory” metaphor for work, with an abundance of manufacturing/factory related metaphors for all aspects of work, such as “production line”, “batch and queue”, “conformance”, etc.

Reasonably effective organisations eschew these metaphors in favour of work as “product design” or  the “design studio”, choosing to regard the workers as “creatives”, and understanding the value of flow (in the Mihály Csíkszentmihályi sense of the word), creativity and innovation.

Highly-effective organisations, whilst appreciating the “design studio” metaphor and values, choose to adopt a “value stream” or “value network” metaphor for work, and place emphasis on the flow of value.

See also: “Principles of Product Development Flow” by Don Reinertsen.

– Bob

The Inductive Deductive Schism

The rain continued to fall as the car swung onto the bridge. The dark was of a soft, velvety kind, softened the more so by the occasional halo of a street light or a warm kitchen window.

My week at the client had been eventful, in a low-key way, but puzzling. And not for the first time had I been puzzled by such events. The comforting gabble of a BBC Radio 4 documentary continued to keep me company:

“..,.and the Protestants have an entirely different approach to making decisions…”

I paid a little more attention to the voice on the radio:

…we finally realised that the negotiators from the Protestant and Catholic communities approached decision-making from opposite ends of a spectrum…

That sounded strangely familiar. The radio documentary was discussing the travails of the mediators in trying to bring the two communities of Norther Ireland together, and agree ways forward acceptable to both.

…one set of negotiators approach an issue from a deductive logic position, whereas the other side approach the self-same issue from a position of inductive logic. Whilst the one want to start out with general principles, the other always want to start from specifics. We made no headway until we realised this…

Upon hearing this, and the subsequent further elaboration of the documentary, I began to recall an article I had read only a few weeks previously in a trade journal. I continued to ponder the idea, and its connection to my puzzle, until I reached home, several hours later.

Once home, I found the article and read it again. It explained that business folks and technical folks – such as IT people – approach making decisions using the same four questions, but in exactly the reverse order, the one from the other:

The Business Person’s Logic

Business folks generally start out by asking themselves first and foremost “do we trust them?” (the supplier, the advisor, the salesman, etc.), and proceed clockwise around the diagram (above), until arriving at – for them – the least important question: “will it work?”.

The Technologist’s Logic

Technical folk more often start out by asking themselves first and foremost “will it work?” (the tool, the product, the solution), and proceed anti-clockwise around the diagram (above), until arriving at – for them – the least important question: “do we trust them?”.

In itself, this mismatch of priorities explains, for me, hundreds of occasions where I have seen technical and business folks discussing a seemingly simple issue, and yet completely failing to arrive at a consensus.

Putting the radio documentary together with the article, and at the time being interested in identifying “patterns” and, specifically, a pattern language for project management, I created a pattern for this case and named it “The Inductive / Deductive Schism”.

Maybe you’ve had the same kind of puzzling experience? Might you find this idea useful in your practise?

– Bob

Further Reading

Deductive Reasoning Versus Inductive Reasoning ~ Sociology article at
Notes on the Synthesis of Form ~ Christopher Alexander
How Buildings Learn ~ Stewart Brand

Make Bad Hires!

Conventional wisdom, oft repeated on the intarwebs, cautions us to take great care when hiring people. Some folks go to the trouble of quantifying the costs of just one bad hire. But what about the costs of such caution? Here’s a few (sincere) arguments in favour of making bad hires:

  • However much of a misfit someone may seem at the outset, most people have the ability to learn, grow and develop. Recognising this can send a warm, reassuring and respectful message to everyone in the organisation – including the new hire.
  • Sticking with a new hire – even when recognising that the hire was “questionable” – can earn much loyalty and commitment from the person in question.
  • Finding bad hires is a lot quicker and a lot simpler than finding good hires.
  • Who’s to say that someone that looks like a bad hire will in fact turn out to be such? Kahneman cautions against the cognitive biases that makes us think we can predict people’s performance in advance. (This also reminds me of the Zen story “Farmer’s Luck”).
  • If we accept making bad hires as policy, our organisation can gear up for it and streamline the procedures for taking people on and letting people go. Much like the agile policy of “deliver early, deliver often, get feedback.” (See also: Zappos). The increased frequency can help us learn faster.
  • The stigma associated with making ‘bad hires’ decreases or disappears, reducing the delays inherent in people (well, managers, really) avoiding taking “risky” decisions.
  • People other than managers can be “entrusted” with making hiring decisions.
  • If you subscribe to the idea of “Deming’s 95%” – that 95% or the performance of any employee is down to the system (the way the work works), not to their own innate skills, experience or talent, then any gap between “good” and “bad” hires will be minimal (5% of overall performance) in any case.
  • Seemingly “bad hires” will bring diverse perspectives into the organisation, perhaps much more so than “good hires” might.

Note: I would advise retaining one “good hiring” filter: the “No assholes” rule (including filtering-out of folks with sociopathic and/or psychopathic tendencies).

Can you think of any more good reasons for making bad hires?

– Bob

Further Reading

Thinking, Fast and Slow ~ Daniel Kahneman
7 Reasons Why Not Making Mistakes Is The Biggest Mistake ~ Blog post from PurposeFairy
Everyone sucks at Interviewing ~ Blog Post from Jason Freedman
“Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs” ~ Online article by Dr. Peter Cappelli
“Bad Hires Have Cost Zappos Over $100 Million” ~ Tony Hsieh
What’s Wrong with Job Interviews, and How to Fix Them” ~ Adam Grant

Uncovering the Learning Habits of Leaders and Managers

[A snippet]

“The top five most frequently mentioned management challenges were having difficult conversations, managing performance, coaching/training, dealing with resistance to change and the management of remote teams.”

via Uncovering the learning habits of leaders and managers | GoodPractice.


  1. Interesting survey
  2. Notable that managing performance, coaching/training and resistance to change are non-problems (at least, from the perspective of the Synergistic mindset).

– Bob

The Face of the Mind

I write fairly regularly about how organisational effectiveness is a function of the prevailing collective mindset in an organisation – i.e. how everyone in a given organisation, collectively, sees the world of work. (Aside: This also assumes that organisations each have a collective psyche a.k.a. a shared memeplex – see the apocryphal story of the Monkeys and the Banana for an illustration of this idea).

organisational effectiveness = ƒ(organisational mindset)

I see many other writers and commentators sharing the view that it’s the culture of an organisation that determines – or at least significantly influences – its effectiveness.

We could just put this down to a minor difference in emphasis, or a slight variation in the choice of a word, and move on. But I think it’s much deeper than that, and that our choice of terminology constrains our ability to think about and discuss the issue – the cause(s) of organisational effectiveness. (See also: Linguistic relativity)

Why it Matters

I suggest the apparent slight difference – mindset or culture – masks a huge gulf in our ability to make practical interventions to change things for the better (or understand why things are changing for the worse).

How does one get a grip on “culture”? What levers exist to change the collective culture of an organisation? Given the vast number of words written on this subject, it seems that few folks have much practical advice or experience to share in making this happen. And I find this unsurprising. Let me use a simplistic analogy:

If we want to change the speed of a motorcycle, we might look at the speedometer and see how fast we’re going, but unless we know that the speed is (primarily) a consequence of the amount of power being delivered to the back wheel and thereby to the tarmac , we have no understanding of how to effect a change of speed.

“Culture” is like our speedometer – an outward, visible sign of other phenomena at work within the organisation. And like the speedometer, we have no means of interacting with it – it’s a read-only display.

A Vista of Viable Interventions

I suggest that if we realise that culture is just the “Face of the organisational Mind”, then we can choose to interact with the mindset of the organisation, via numerous paths and means – not least, systems thinking and organisational (psycho)therapy. Thus a vista of viable interventions opens up to us.

What do you think?

– Bob

Further Reading

Culture Change is Free ~ John Seddon (video)

The Wedge and the Cheese

What is Vision?

Recent conversations on Twitter concerning the topic of leadership have raised the question of “vision”. What is it? Where does it come from? What is its purpose? Who should provide it? I have lost count of the number of organisations I have seen where some kind of vision, if it exists at all, is confined to a scant few executives. Executives who seem mystified that their organisations could benefit in any practical way from having a (shared) vision of the future, either for the organisation as a whole, or even just for a single product, or service.

Aside: My late colleague Grant Rule always made a point of canvassing his management audiences regarding how many of them understood, or even knew about, the vision their organisation had for its future. The numbers replying in the affirmative generally hovered around the 15% mark.

Current and Future States

Before Lean and Agile gained traction in knowledge-work organisations, circa the 1990’s, there was BPR (Business Process Reengineering). Now largely discredited – and for much the same reasons as Lean and Agile are now falling into disrepute – I liked the ideas in BPR for the “whole-system” viewpoint it encouraged. In many ways I’m sorry to see its demise.

One key idea I learned from BPR, and have continued to use ever since, is the idea of the wedge and the cheese.

The Wedge

The wedge represents the reason for embarking on an endeavour, such as a programme for change (Kotter, in his change model, call this the “Burning Platform”, Sinek with his Golden Circle calls it the “Why”). This reason should be the “wedge” that gets people moving, that disturbs the status quo, that shifts the organisation away from its current state.

The Cheese

Conversely the cheese represents the desirable future state, the attractor that pulls people along and towards the new form, or new ways of working for the organisation. Assuming folks like cheese.

In Practice

Hammer and Champy suggested that  the wedge and the cheese translate to a Business Case or Case for Action, and a VIsion, respectively. In practice we have used these two artefacts, in every project since the mid-1990, to provide development- or change-team members and other stakeholders with context and clarity of shared purpose, essential to effective collaboration and teamwork. I’ll leave specific details of these artefacts – including some examples – to another post.


And so, to return to the opening questions about vision:

What is Vision?

Vision. a.k.a. Goal; Objective; End; Desired Outcome or Result.

More specifically, I see a Vision as some more-or-less easy to communicate articulation of a desired future state. Peter Senge in his book “The Fifth Discipline” lists Building Shared Vision as one of the five disciplines of the Learning Organisation.

Where does vision come from?

Fundamentally, a specific vision comes from a view of the future and how it might unfold. Most visions arise from some kind of opportunity, be that commercial, social, or personal. In other words, a vision is not so much something to be “created”, “invented”or “imagined” so much as “discovered” or “uncovered”.

What is the purpose of a vision?

Senge suggests that an effective vision “fosters genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance.” For me, its about giving people enough context to help them better make the hundred-and-one little decisions (choices, trade-offs) that they may be faced with at work, every day. Sir John Whitmore in “Coaching for Performance” states that teams are about goal-alignment, and I concur, suggesting that a clear vision of the goal(s) is an essential component of such alignment. Further, in my recent post on Fellowship I mention Ackoff’s idea of “Idealised Design”, and its value in allowing us to slough off our collective “assumptions , history and associated intellectual baggage”.  Having a vision of a more-or-less idealised future speaks to this purpose, too.

Who should provide it?

In my view, vision can come from many quarters. From an executive, a leader, a manager, some team or even an individual employee. But wherever it comes from, people need to buy into it and turn it into a shared vision before it becomes truly useful.

“When there is genuine vision (as opposed to the all-too-familiar ‘vision statement’), people excel, and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to.”

~ Peter M Senge

I believe that the best visions are not only shared, but built together by the folks that have to live with them (and live them). So, yes, I’d suggest that fellowship is a great way to build shared vision, and that  a great shared vision can only emerge from some kind of fellowship.

What value does an effective shared vision offer?

Bottom-line, an effective (shared) vision gets everyone engaged and rowing in the same direction, with the information (context) they need to make better choices, all day every day. That is, more engaged and more aligned and making better choices than they would be without an effective vision. And that’s the best test of a vision, too.

What’s the vision in your organisation? Does it, as Marcus Buckingham asks in his book “First Break All the Rules”, make you feel like your work is important? What kind of vision would make you feel that way?

– Bob

Further Reading

Our Iceberg is Melting ~ John Kotter
The Golden Circle ~ Simon Sinek (Video)
Mission Statements ~ Russel L Ackoff (pdf)

Ten Lessons for World Class

John Black writes about the Ten Lessons for World Class manufacturing organisations. I thought it might be interesting to update and amend his list,  as it might apply to knowledge-work (e.g. software development) organisations:

Lesson 1: People are the key to world class, not technology. More specifically, it’s the quality of the relationships between people that count, not the individuals themselves.

Lesson 2: If you are going uphill (to the Right) and taking one step at a time you are headed in the right direction.

Lesson 3: Without the understanding and knowledge of the Toyota Product Development System, you are a small ship in a heavy fog without a reliable compass.

Lesson 4: Involved, engaged and motivated people is the foundation. Without this foundation in place, you can’t build a world-class knowledge-work system (a.k.a. learning organisation, thinking environment).

Lesson 5: The methods, revolutions, thresholds – and transition zones between different kinds of collective mindset – that must be crossed to compete effectively in a global market can not be accomplished from the bottom up: they have to start from the top down.

Lesson 6: The goal of a world-class knowledge-work system can only reliably be achieved with a collective Synergistic (or Chaordic) mindset throughout the organisation.

Lesson 7: If you’re not simple, you’re not fast, and if you aren’t fast, you can’t win.

Lesson 8: Hiring consultants to come to your company, collect data, and feed it back to you with a strategy that requires you to spend money, add people and adopt by-the-book approaches like Scrum and Kanban (which although seemingly free, often turn out to be very expensive) means one thing…you are really stupid.

Lesson 9: In measuring progress toward the vision, metrics must be few, simple, meaningful, and directly linked to visual displays in the workplace.

Lesson 10: The greatest opportunities to eliminate delays, add value and reduce waste are in the corporate “wasteland”: the boardroom, the general office, the engineering (product development) floors, and in the whitespace on the org chart.

What do you think? Do you see anything missing from this list, for knowledge-work businesses?

– Bob

Further Reading

The Fifth Discipline ~ Peter M Senge
More Time to Think ~ Nancy Kline
Lean Product and Process Development ~ Dr Allen Ward
Product Development for the Lean Enterprise ~ Michael Kennedy

ScrumMaster or TaskMaster?

Linguistic Relativity

Maybe better-known until recently as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the principle of linguistic relativity states that:

“the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers conceptualize their world, i.e. their world view, or otherwise influence their cognitive processes.”

Whether we realise it or not, software development has a language all its own, and Agile software development a variant of that again. Linguistic relativity suggests that the structural terms we choose to use affects the way we conceptualise our world.

One of the most pernicious and unexamined of these is the term “task”. The connotations implicit in this term include :

  • Activity
  • Work
  • Atomicity
  • Completion
  • Dependency

These connotations have unfortunate implications for developers and development teams everywhere. Put simply, by using the “task” as the atomic unit of work management and control, people automatically and pervasively assume that they have to do some work – e.g. spend some time and effort – to see the task completed.


In our work, we have long (since 1995) eschewed the “task” as the atomic unit of work, preferring instead to use the term “artefact”. Doing so has afforded us the following advantages:

  • Focus on outputs, rather than inputs
  • Focus on completion (90% of an artefact is no artefact at all)
  • Avoidance of unnecessary drudgery (work for the sake of working, busywork)
  • Closer fit with quantification of “quality attributes” (cf Gilb)
Put another way, by referring to e.g. a User Story or Use Case (and their component elements) as artefacts, we constantly remind ourselves that it’s the output that we want, not the work (activity) to produce it. In this way we encourage and remind ourselves to find means other than working to come up with the necessary artefact. For example, if the artefact in question is a source file for a particular class, we might think about producing it by searching for something suitable that exists already, or generating one somehow, rather than working on writing it from scratch. With a task-orientation, in contrast, we may overlook possibilities for creating the artefact by means other than writing (coding) it.
And we all know what it means to be a Task Master, don’t we?

Examine Your Language

How much longer are you going to allow the terms you use in your daily work to dictate the way you do that work – unexamined and unchallenged? What other terms in regular use are constraining your effectiveness and causing you unforeseen consequences?
– Bob

Further Reading

Competitive Engineering ~ Tom Gilb

Ackoff Contrasts Efficiency with Effectiveness

When I’m talking about Rightshifting, folks often ask me to define “effectiveness”, and to explain the difference between “effectiveness” and its often conflated cousin, “efficiency”.  I generally explain Drucker’s take on the question, but just for a change here’s an extract from a paper by Russell L Ackoff:

“Science, technology, and economics focus on efficiency, but not effectiveness. The difference between efficiency and effectiveness is important to an understanding of transformational leadership. Efficiency is a measure of how well resources are used to achieve ends; it is value-free. Effectiveness is efficiency weighted by the values of the ends achieved; it is value-full. For example, a men’s’ clothing manufacturer may efficiently turn out suits that do not fit well. Another less efficient manufacturer may turn out suits that do fit well. Because “fit” is a value to customers, the second manufacturer would be considered to be the more effective even though less efficient than the first. Of course, a manufacturer can be both efficient and effective.”

“Put another way: efficiency is a matter of doing things right; effectiveness is a matter of doing the right things. For example, the more efficient our automobiles have become, the more of them are on city streets. The more of them on city streets, the more congestion there is. The efficiency of an act can be determined without reference to those affected by it. Not so for effectiveness. It is necessarily personal. The value of an act may be, and usually is, quite different for different individuals. The difference between efficiency and effectiveness is also reflected in the difference between growth and development, and development is of greater concern to a transformational leader than growth.”

– Bob

Further Reading

Efficiency vs. Effectiveness: What’s The Difference? (With Examples). Article at 


Bugs Are a Signal

Most development teams and organisations seem to accept that “bugs happen”. It might not be a stretch to say that most developers [and testers] seem to accept it, too. Few seem inclined to look at the origins of bugs in their software products.

Aside: Some few teams and organisations do have some kind of “causal analysis” for defects a.k.a. bugs. I wonder how many of these get down to the real root causes?

Many external observers (external to the systems within which bugs are created) suggest that bugs are due to a number of causes, including:

  • Unclear requirements
  • Coding errors
  • Gaps in communication
  • Complexity of the software
  • Shortage of time to do an adequate job

As a practitioner and observer, I have a different proposition:

Bugs are caused by
a lack of engagement,
a low level of commitment to the work,
absence of motivation.

Allow me to make the case for this proposition, with reference to the above list of causes:

Unclear Requirements

If the requirements are unclear, why do developers not seek clarification? Because they are not motivated to do so. This may be due to a number of different reasons, including lack of convenient access to customers, product owners or business analysts, or because they see the quality (clarity) of the requirements as somebody-else’s-problem.

Coding Errors

Coding errors typically stem from developers lacking sufficient knowledge of the tools (languages, libraries, APIs, etc.) at hand. A lack of knowledge illustrates a lack of learning, this in turn due to a lack of motivation to learn. Some might say that some coding errors are simply “unavoidable human error” – this may be so in the first instance, but what prevents developers from diligently proof-reading and otherwise testing their own code (or each other’s) for such errors? What indeed, excepting low motivation?

Gaps in Communication

If there are gaps in communication, why do developers (and other parties) not seek to close those gaps? Again, I posit a lack of motivation to do so, including a lack of motivation to identify and acquire the relevant skills.

Complexity of the Software

Complexity generally arises from developers taking the shortest path between problem and solution. I suggest a lack of motivation is the causal factor in developers not investing the extra time and thought into simplifying things. Some might say that some developers lack the skill or talent to reduce complexity. That may well be true. But what prevents these more “challenged” developers from seeking help from specialists and senior people – what but a lack of motivation so to do?

Shortage of Time

Rarely do developers have the time they would like to do an adequate job. Again, I posit that a lack of motivation plays a key part in persuading them to not push back against unreasonable demands and schedule pressures, instead resigning themselves to quietly do a half-assed job, rationalising away their chagrin at the “necessary” ugly compromise (see also, below). And from the other side, what but a lack of motivation accounts for managers’ not understanding the developers’ concerns, not listening to their explanations of how long it will take to do an adequate job, not reaching a consensus on what “adequate” even means?

Other Sources

If you can think of any other sources of bugs (a.k.a. defects), I invite you to consider how such a source (cause) might be explained by a lack of motivation, engagement, interest and/or commitment.

The Impact of Low Motivation

In general, a lack of motivation increases the likelihood that folks will skimp on the quality of their work, most often with rationalisations (be they conscious or subconscious) such as:

  • “No one will notice.”
  • “It’ll probably be OK.”
  • “They’ll catch it in testing.”
  • “I’ll come back to that later.”
  • “Someone else can fix that.”
  • etc..

Motivation is a System Condition

I am not suggesting that developers need to “take more care” or “get motivated”. I’m not attempting to blame folks for not caring enough about the quality of their work. Far from it. I’m suggesting that the way the work works lies at the heart of whether folks are motivated or not.

Bill Deming also points out that:

“A bad system will defeat a good person every time.”

and attributes circa 95% of a worker’s contribution to the way the work works, and only 5% to their own motivation, skills, talent, etc. Is this a paradox? Not if we consider that the system (the way the work works) has an overwhelming impact on the motivation of the individuals working within it.

The Science of Motivation

Dan Pink talks and writes extensively about the things that affect motivation of i.e. knowledge workers. He attributes motivation (aka engagement, commitment) to three main factors:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

Accepting this, we might care to ask: how to arrange things such that folks have autonomy, mastery and purpose (Pink), or joy in work, cooperation, intrinsic motivation, self-esteem and learning (Deming) in their work? How should the work work, to optimise these factors? And, by the way, who typically has the whip-hand in such arrangements?

In closing, I’d like to suggest that the presence of bugs most often indicates low morale and a lack of motivation. Organisations can chose to act on this signal, and seek to address the contributing system conditions, or go buy a bug (tracking) database and bury the signal there.

– Bob

Cognitive Easement

It was #Gilbfest in London last week, and amongst other things the week provided a rich lode to mine for blog posts, including this one. The proximate trigger for this post was a discussion during a short presentation by Rolf Goetz (@rolfgoetz) concerning a better way to describe roles and responsibilities in a development organisation. The discussion touched on the RACI matrix, with most folks debating the relative merits of RACI vs Rolf’s suggested improvements, along with some number of other alternatives for clarifying roles and responsibilities seen “in the wild”.

Despite a few dissenting murmurs from the Agile end of the room, what was NOT discussed was the whole issue of whether making folks “responsible” for certain kinds of decision was in fact a good idea at all.

It’s one of the many hallmarks of the Analytic mindset – more specifically, of the Theory X worldview – that someone should “be responsible” for things. In this worldview, ideally, every possible decision should have a “responsible person”. Implicit in this worldview is the assumption that without such “responsible parties”, decisions will be overlooked, and important issues might “fall through the gaps”, disrupting the operation of the organisation and the quality of service to customers. Never mind that in most organisations having this worldview – and with e.g. their corresponding RACI matrices well-defined – operations of the organisation ARE regularly disrupted and the quality of service to customers is typically poor.

“If everyone is responsible then no one is.”

Most of these Analytic organisations unconsciously attempt to substitute “accountability” – aka responsibility – for the commitment they regard as both unreliable and unlikely to be forthcoming from their staff.

Instead of working on the root cause, – the lack of engagement and commitment in their staff – such organisations rely on the idea of the “Single Wringable Neck” or “One Throat to Choke”, expecting (with little supporting and much contrary evidence) that “accountability” – aka the blame game – will bring about the desired effect (a smooth-running, well-oiled machine of an organisation).

Roger Martin describes all this, and more, in his great book “The Responsibility Virus”. He also describes how the Single Wringable Neck idea drives alienation, siloism and other organisational dysfunctions.

Commitment Trumps Responsibility

Actually what we should be looking for most often is not responsibility, but commitment. Commitment to keeping things running smoothly. Commitment to giving the customer a great experience. Commitment to excellence.

Deming’s 14 Points have some advice here too:

  1. Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.
  2. Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team, to foresee problems of production and in use that may be encountered with the product or service.
  3. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the workforce asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.
  4. a) Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute leadership
    b) Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.
Note the key elements:
  • working as a team
  • leadership instead of management (by numbers) – and see also “Fellowship
  • elimination of fear
All these elements suggest individual accountability has little to zero part to play in the “transformation of organisations” (Deming’s intent).

An Alternative

So, what to do instead of assigning roles and responsibilities to specific individuals? How to avoid the disruptions and wide variations in service quality that characterises the Ad-hoc mindset, the disruptions and variations that the Analytic mindset so eagerly wishes to extirpate? Let’s look at this as two separate issues:


Instead of well-defined roles, have ‘T’, ‘π’ or even “\(;,,,;)/” (Cthulhu) -shaped people (aka generalising specialists). Have people who can step into whichever roles needs filling at the time. Have well-understood means to recognise when a role needs specialist skills, as well as the means to “pull” someone with those skills when necessary.


Instead of tightly-defined – and often, imposed – responsibilities assigned to specific individuals,
  1. work to raise the level of commitment and engagement of staff to the point where they can both recognise when some action or decision is required, and are willing to step in and take that action or decision – or at least, act on the recognition and get other involved in taking the necessary action or decision jointly.
  2. Improve the way the work works (“the system”) to the point where the system takes care of the common, routine decisions more or less automatically, leaving humans the space and time to focus their time, attention and special skills on dealing with the wide variety of uncommon, one-off and unusual actions and decisions that inevitably arise every day in the course of running an organisation.

Cognitive Easement

This term refers to the second point in the above list – improving the way the work works.
In situations of potentially high cognitive load (such as flying a fighter aircraft), designers take great care to reduce (ease) the cognitive load on the humans involved by automating as many routine cognitive tasks as possible, leaving e.g. the pilot to focus on the mission at hand as well as dealing with non-routine events.
I have seen few organisations where this principle applies to the design of the work, and almost none where it is applied to the design of “managerial” work. Accordingly, organisations inevitably have decision-makers overloaded with a wide range of cognitive tasks, resulting in poor or delayed decisions or worse. Ironic then, that a focus on making individuals specifically responsible increases the cognitive bottleneck and thereby exacerbates exactly those issues – smoothy, timely operations and quality of service – which e.g. RACI and the like claim to help solve.
– Bob

Further Reading

The Responsibility Virus ~ Roger Martin
The Fallacy of “One Throat to Choke” ~ Post on Mike Cohn’s blog
In Search of Excellence ~ Tom Peters
A Twist of the Wrist – Keith Code – On Cognitive Easement in motorcycle racing

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