Monthly Archives: August 2012

The CI Vaccine

It’s probably fair to say that most folks have had little to zero experience of Continuous Improvement (CI) at work.

Let’s use the analogy of a vaccination to explore what it might mean for an organisation to first dip its toes in the CI waters.

When an organisation adopts CI, it’s essentially attempting to boost its immunity to germs like waste, rework, quality problems, inefficiencies, and the pernicious effects of trying to do business-as-usual in an ever-changing world (a.k.a. the status quo). In principle, the antibodies to these germs, arising from the introduction of CI, should stay with the organisation for a long time.

Understanding CI

First off, there’s the question of whether people understand what CI is about, what it’s going to mean for their organisation and their work, and whether they even need to know. I can still remember being vaccinated at school, many years ago now. Standing in line in a draughty corridor, half-dressed, waiting for a “vaccination” – something that no one had explained to us, apart from the fact that it involved a needle, a (probably) painful injection, and a bonbon. And that it was compulsory.

Selling CI to the Workforce

Change specialists, and some managers, often take this stage for granted. Their relative familiarity with the principles of CI can blind them to the possibility that other folks don’t know what CI is, what the implications may be, and how it’s going to be introduced. All too often it’s assumed that CI is so obviously “a good thing” that people will jump at the chance to help adopt it and make it work. Generally, nothing could be further from the truth.

Resistance and Avoidance

As (yet) another management change initiative, folks are likely to be at best skeptical, and more often downright hostile (in an understated, job-preserving, passive-agressive way). Some parents reject vaccinations for their children, after all, despite the best medical advice.

Life with CI

Another aspect of CI rarely considered is the way in which it changes employee participation and collaboration. It’s very hard to realise any benefits from CI unless and until folks are intimately involved in spotting the dysfunctions in their ways of working, and in finding or helping find solutions or improvements. Yes, introducing CI can be driven by management edict, but at some point that approach has to give way to consultation and collaboration for CI to deliver its real benefits.


Here are the steps that you might like to consider when approaching the introduction of CI into an organisation.

  • Introduce the idea of Continuous Improvement to folks across the organisation, along with the new elements of vocabulary inevitably required.
  • Discuss, or at least communicate, the reasons for (the likely benefits of) its introduction.
  • Help people understand the timeline for CI’s introduction, the scope of the likely changes, and the names or job titles of the folks likely to be involved.
  • Share the practical day-to-day changes its introduction is likely to bring to the organisation and the people working in it.
  • Discuss the possible knock-on effects for e.g. suppliers and customers.
  • Make an effort to understand people’s reservations and their buy-in to the whole idea of continuous improvement – do they think there’s any point to it?
  • Consider and share the impact CI might have on existing standard processes and procedures.
  • Tell people how they’re going to have time to learn about and then implement this stuff alongside the demands of their normal day job.
  • Explain how things are going to get worse for a time, whilst the CI changes bed-in.
  • Make it clear that each and everyone’s participation is voluntary, not compulsory.

Whether all this information is “pushed” at the workforce in e.g. briefings, emails, workshops or one-to-ones, or whether there’s more dialogue and debate, will be a question of the cultural norms already in place in the organisation in question.

Typically, we’ll automatically trust someone in a white coat (like a doctor or a nurse). Trust in the folks involved in “pushing” the CI implementation can help things go smoother. (Absence of trust can make the whole thing more difficult).

[Update: 20 October 2014]

Recent neuroscientific research suggests that trust is not as important for the introduction of change as we may have thought. Rather more important, it seems, is normative learning a.k.a. experiential learning. The argument, in a nutshell, is that if someone experiences the postitive impact of an improvement – an improvement they have chosen to try out for themselves – then they are likely to adopt that improvement, long term. And place more trust in the person who suggested it, too. See: Changing Behaviours.

And like a vaccination, there’s the possibility that the patient is going to feel a little unwell for a while, after taking the needle.

How about you? Do you think your organisation needs CI? Or is the status quo good enough?

– Bob

Further Reading

What is a Vaccine and How Does it Work? – Online article
How to Make Change Happen – Theory Of Constraints on implementing change
Kotter’s Eight Step Change Model – Online article

On the Radar

Pawel wrote a nice blog post recently about using radar charts (a.k.a. spider charts) to visualise the maturity of a Kanban implementation.

In formulating a treatment plan (forthcoming blog post) at the outset of an organisational therapy intervention, it can be useful to visualise how the organisation sees the world of work, i.e. how it thinks that work should work. At the very least, this visualisation allows each person to relate their own personal beliefs, ideas and assumptions about work to the collective viewpoint.

Further, we can use visualisation as a basis for encouraging dialogue on the direction in which folks would like the organisation’s perspective to evolve in the future.

Starting Out

When starting out on mapping an organisation’s perspective on the world of work, it can help to come up with a starter-list of “dimensions” or axes to bound the visualisation. How any one organisation arrives at such a list will, of course, depend on how that organisation believes how such things should be done – autocratically, by an expert or experts, through a special team, via collaboration and joint discussion, etc..

In any case, I’d expect this list to evolve as people discuss and decide what’s important, and as priorities change.

Here’s a sample list of dimensions (also used in the later examples):

ABCCo Mindset Dimensions [Top Level Critical Dimensions]:

Note these are not yet defined in more (quantified) detail
Version: Initial illustrative list, rough draft 23.08.2012 by RWM, author
Owner: Bob Marshall,

    • Breadth of participation in decision-making
    • Alignment of preaching with practice
    • Regard for happy, healthy staff as a business advantage
    • Focus on customers
    • Collaborative, win-win approach to customers
    • Use of quantification
    • Accounting principles (0: Cost accounting; 5: Flow/Throughput accounting)
    • Conformance to process (0: Irrelevant; 5: Essential)
    • Workflow model (0: Big batches and queues; 5: Single piece, continuous)
    • Team longevity
    • Rapid feedback
    • Respect for the individual
    • Use of appropriate measurement and metrics
    • Understanding of principles
    • Emphasis on learning
    • Mutuality
    • Emphasis on product quality
    • Flatness of management structure (hierarchy)
    • Explicit risk management
    • Importance of due date performance
    • Tolerance of cost issues
    • Emphasis on continual improvement
    • Eagerness for change
    • Perspective on change initiatives (0: entirely local, 5: systemic, holistic)
    • Eagerness to seek out new ideas, methods, thinking tools, principles
    • Clarity and ubiquity of shared purpose
    • Self-awareness (as an organisation)
    • Organisational health
    • Purposeful discussion and mutual learning

Note: I’ve described/labelled each dimension so that we can represented each data value by a single number in the range 0-5, where 5 is ‘best’. This makes plotting, reading and comparing the charts simpler.


Here’s a simple sparkline-ish chart showing a (current) consensus view of an organisation’s perspective on how it believes work should work (a.k.a. mindset). Note: order of the columns corresponds to the list, above:

Following discussions and/or deliberations, we might imagine another chart illustrating the desired target-condition (a.k.a. mindset), say at a point in time some  months hence:

Of course, if you’re using e.g. a spreadsheet to make these charts, you could slice and dice the data in other ways, to show e.g. the dimensions of greatest difference (and thus maybe requiring greatest effort or attention).


One thing to look for: how will the organisation in question (here: ABCCo) respond to this kind of visualisation and quantification? It may not appear too contentious, but for severely left-shifted organisations, even these simple formalisms may be too much to stomach.

Conversely, for devoutly Analytic-minded organisations, this simple formalism may prove insufficient. And for significantly right-shifted organisations, entirely other approaches may find favour.

Know thy client!

Further Reading

Competitive Engineering ~ Tom Gilb
Spider Chart Alternatives ~ Jon Peltier

Dumb Fraud

This post (*link amended to a Wayback Machine archive) – and its assenting commenters – illustrates why folks lauding Agile are irredeemably screwed. For as long as folks are dumb enough (ignorant of the facts) or fraudulent enough (in possession of the facts but choosing to ignore or suppress them) to believe that we can improve organisations without regard to the issue of local optima, Agile implementations will continue to fail by a ratio of 3:1 or greater (*link amended to a Wayback Machine archive).

So, I’m kind tired of dumbsters and fraudsters whining that the issue of local optima doesn’t matter.

Here’s just one note from Ackoff on the subject: “70% of Business Improvement Programs (TQM, Downsizing, Benchmarking) Decrease Performance” (*link amended to a Wayback Machine archive). If you think the same issues do not apply to Agile, then you’re dumb – or in denial, which is much the same thing in my book. And if you think they do apply to Agile, but you’re not going to mention it to your customers and clients because it’s, ahem, inconvenient, then you’re a fraud. Or worse.

If you’re looking for a non-ranty, reasoned explanation of the subject, may I refer you Ackoff, Senge, or most relevant I think, Goldratt (Theory of Constraints)?

But perhaps despite the opening, the aforementioned post (re: Bitching about local optimisations) was more about making a start, doing what you can, and gaining data from experimentation. Well, I’m all for that, with the important caveat (irony of medical analogy not lost here) of doing no harm.


And if you’re hoping (for indeed it is much more of a hope that a certainty) that “making the true bottleneck apparent” to your paying customer or client will have a positive effect, then maybe you might like to exhibit the integrity, courtesy (and courage) to place the risks and possible outcomes (scenarios) on the table before deciding whether to play the cards you’ve been dealt – or to fold?

I think Argyris would approve of that.

– Bob

Further Reading

The Goal ~ Eliyahu M Goldratt
Agile Coaching – Maybe All You Can Do Is Send a Hallmark Card ~ Eric Laramée


Hands up all those who read or have read science fiction? I was an avid reader of science fiction in my youth, particularly of the “Golden Age” writers, including: Harry Harrison, Norman Spinrad, E.E. “Doc” SmithFrank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Michael Moorcock, Isaac Asimov, and above all A.E. van Vogt.

In some strange way, these authors and their works helped me make sense of a chaotic youth, and laid some foundations for my future.

The most enduring of these influences was, and is, A.E. van Vogt and his Null-A series. In these books, van Vogt explores meta-systems, and in particular Alfred Korzybski‘s General Semantics, through the adventures of his aptronymous hero Gilbert Gosseyn.

“…he’s at least as great a man as Einstein. At least – because his field is broader. The same kind of work that Einstein did, the same kind of work, using the same methods; but in a much broader field, much more close to human relationships.”

~ Heinlein on Korzybski


For me, one of the core differences between, on the one hand Adhoc and Analytic mindsets, and on the other Synergistic and Chaordic mindsets (see: The Marshall Model), is the kind of logic at work (sic). The former seem to use Aristotelian logic exclusively (on those occasions where logic is used at all), whilst the latter appear to favour some form of Non- Aristotelian logic.

What Does it All Mean?

I’m sure I don’t know. But I suspect the inclination of some folks (and by extension, organisations) to think in black-and-white, zeroes-and-ones terms (cf. Aristotle, Newton, Euclid, etc.), and others to (sometimes) think in probabilistic, many-shades-of-grey terms (cf. Leibnitz, Bayes, Keynes, Zadeh, Cox, Prigogine, etc.) has something to do with it (the ‘it’ here being organisational effectiveness).

“Had Aristotle been a bit smarter, we could have saved a few thousand years of muddle by doing logic the proper way from the beginning.”

~ Mike Alder

What do you think?

– Bob

Further Reading

The World of Null-A ~ A.E. van Vogt
The Pawns of Null-A ~ A.E. van Vogt (a.k.a. The Players of Null-A)
Null-A Three ~ A.E. van Vogt
Aristotelian and Non-Aristotelian Logic ~ Gotthard Günther
An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems ~ Ben Hauck
Fuzzy Thinking ~ Bart Kosko
Non-Aristotelian Logic in Practice ~ Mike Alder (Excellent)
Probability Theory: The Logic of Science ~ Ed Jaynes (‘Unfinished’ online version)

Creating Sane Organisations

Premise: If we want to work in sane organisations, and given that many organisations are quite insane, we are faced with the challenge of improving “organisational sanity”.

What is Insanity?

“insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.”

~ Benjamin Franklin

Whilst cute, and widely quoted, this definition doesn’t quite cut it for me. I prefer:

“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”

~ Friedrich Nietzsche

or this:

“Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.

~ R. D. Laing

And perhaps the best quote I’ve found – in the context of organisations, at least:

“Insanity is knowing that what you’re doing is completely idiotic, but still, somehow, you just can’t stop it.”

~ Elizabeth Wurtzel

So What is Sanity?

Alfred Korzybski wrote in his Theory of Sanity,

“Sanity is tied to the structural fit or lack of it between our reactions to the world and what is actually going on in the world.”

He expressed this notion as a map-territory analogy:

“A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.”

Given that science continually seeks to adjust its theories structurally to fit the facts, i.e., adjusts its maps to fit the territory, and thus advances more rapidly than any other field, he believed that the key to understanding sanity would be found in the study of the methods of science (and the study of structure-as-revealed-by-science).

Organisations and Sanity

Wouldn’t it be great if society and business knowledge had advanced to the point where creating sane organisations was a well-understood problem, with trusted and well-tried solutions? I have hopes that one day we may get there, although I doubt whether it will be in my lifetime, or yours.

“I have found that humans, even ‘insane’, are extremely logical provided you trace their premises – except their premises have no realization in actuality. So that’s the main point, not a problem of logic. From some premises, some consequences follow.”

~ Alfred Korzybski, 1947

Until that far-off day, we must accept that organisations are born, and grow up, with precious little thought to their sanity – or otherwise. This being the case, and assuming that we would like the organisations within which we work to be sane – or at least, saner than they are presently – we are faced with the challenge of improving “organisational sanity”.

What is a Sane Organisation?

Korzybski believed that sanity is the ability to consciously adapt to a changing environment (model it, map it). If the world changes, the sane change with it, while the insane refuse change.

Erich Fromm wrote in his book “The Sane Society” that not only can individuals be insane, but entire societies (and by reduction, organisations):

“It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas or feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing is further from the truth… Just as there is a ‘Folie à deux’ (madness shared by two) there is a ‘folie à millions.’ The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same form of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”

So what is a sane organisation?

For me, it is any organisation which thinks for itself, in context. Which knows itself, and recognises that it needs to continually monitor its context, in case that context changes.

And by “knows itself” I mean something akin to the inscription in the pronaos of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: “Know Thyself”, and in particular in the manner Plato uses the phrase as a maxim for Socrates in describing his motive for dialogue.

“To find yourself, think for yourself.”

~ Socrates

See also: Self-knowledge (Psychology) and in particular, Self-perception Theory, the latter involving as it does validation or ‘testing’ of one’s supposed presuppositions, attitudes, and beliefs through examination of actual behaviours.

Is a Sane Organisation More or Less Effective?

Whilst sane organisations sounds like it might be a good idea, not least from the perspective of the folks that have to work in organisations, can we justify the effort in improving sanity? Do saner organisations have any tangible advantages over their typically less sane cousins? Does it translate to the bottom-line? And is that a sane question, in itself?

Personally, I think it’s self-evident that saner organisations have advantages, both for the folks working in them, and for the folks who have to deal with them (e.g. customers, suppliers). And if we believe (many do not, it seems) that happier employees means more productive employees (and happier customers too, btw) then we can predict a positive impact on the effectiveness of the organisation (and thence to the bottom-line).

Caveat: In an insane world, sanity may be less of a commercial advantage than we might first think?

“We cannot live better than in seeking to become better.”

~ Socrates

Sanity, Enlightenment, Love and Wholeness

In a recent post i wrote about Zen and the enlightened organisation, making a plea for the benefits of bringing “enlightenment” – in the classical Zen sense – to organisations.

“Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.”

~ Erich Fromm

I’ve also written before about the problems of balkanisation and alienation within organisations – both aspects of a lack of wholeness c.f. David Bohm:

“A corporation is organised as a system – it has this department, that department, that department… they don’t have any meaning separately; they only can function together. And also the body is a system. Society is a system in some sense. And so on.”

~ David Bohm, Thought as a System (1992)

For me, these four ideas – sanity, love, enlightenment and wholeness – seem inextricably interwoven.

– Bob

Further Reading

Sanity – Wikipedia entry
Science and Sanity ~ Alfred Korzybski (full book online here, quick intro here)
Korzybski Quotes in Context – Web page
Neurological Relativism and Time-binding – Interview with Robert Anton Wilson (audio)
Symptoms of the Dysfunctional Organisation – White Paper
Wholeness and the Implicate Order ~ David Bohm

Debate to the Death

I’m stupid. Real stupid. Time and again I get sucked into debating with people who quite clearly are only interested in exercising their enormous intellects (and egos) in some internet version of the College Debating Society. Maybe it’s because I’m too interested in others’ opinions that I stick at it. Maybe it’s just politeness. Maybe it’s down to my value system. FWIW StrengthsFinder has told me that one of my signature themes is Includer. In any case, it sucks.

I’d be much happier if we could more often find the charity and humility to do more mutual learning, and less ego-wanking. Actually, now I’ve go that off my chest, I’m resolved to break the pattern. I’ll use the keyword “Squirrel!” to remind myself.

So if you see or hear me say “Squirrel!”, you’ll know what I mean.

And please, don’t try to debate this with me. Squirrel!

– Bob


I’d prefer to have the luxury of being able to share this pain with folks whenever a debate hove into view, and yet I struggle with my Ladder of Inference telling me that the folks who choose the debating route will only continue to debate, albeit on the new topic of whether debating has any merits. If anyone has any ideas about how to get out of this doom loop (a.k.a. bind) I’d be grateful.

Further Reading

Using a Case Study to Learn the Mutual Learning Model ~ Benjamin Mitchell
Towards a Culture of Mutual Learning ~ Ilana Nevill

Speaking at Lean Agile Scotland 2012

My thanks to Karl Scotland for allowing me to (re)use his blog post.

I am delighted to have been invited to speak about “Organisational Effectiveness: Rightshifting and the Marshall Model” at the upcoming Lean Agile Scotland, which is being held September 21-22 in Edinburgh. In fact, the whole Saturday morning looks like being a Rightshifting-fest, with Ian Carroll talking about Systemic Flow Mapping in “Rightshifting in action, using Kanban for organisational change”, and Torbjörn Gyllebring talking about reciprocity in “Faith, Science & Rightshifting”.

If you want to go, I have a code which gives a discount of 10% on the ticket price. However, this will expire on the 6th of September. Let me know if you want the code, and then go to and and follow the eventbrite steps.

– Bob


Why Does Agile Work?

From the response to my recent post, Barking Up The Wrong Tree, it seems like I did a good job of “burying the lede“. So here’s the key thought:

We don’t know why Agile works.

Oh, there’s a whole bunch of theories, beliefs, assumptions and what have you. But no definitive evidence as to the key ingredients, and how to combine them. Like a Christmas Pudding, which ingredients do we need for a good pudding? Which can we safely leave out? Which ingredients simply add to the flavour or texture, and which constitute the essence of a Christmas Pudding? How does the mixing and cooking affect the result? How should it be brought to the table and presented? What ingredients does a software development team or organisation need to be effective, whilst still calling what they do “Agile”?

And most importantly of all, can we have a nice dessert without having a Christmas Pudding? Would Plum Duff or Mince Pies serve us just as well?

It seems like a lot of folks – including consultants, coaches, etc., seem unconcerned over this. “Given that the developers are happier, I don’t need to know any more” seems to be the general position of some. I gasp in astonishment at this. Maybe it’s just me. I was always taking things apart to find out how they worked when I was a child (but see the section “Complexity”, below). And I subscribe to William Kingdon Clifford’s arguments about the ethics of belief, too.

Let’s set aside the issue of why Agile doesn’t work, for another time (more Agile adoptions fail to deliver the expected benefits than succeed, by a ratio of at least 3 to 1).

Instead, let me make the case for why knowing matters:

Why We Need to Know

“He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.”

~ Leonardo da Vinci

If we have no understanding of why our practice(s) work, we are like Leonardo’s sailor, rudderless and at the mercy of fickle fortune. With even a modicum of theory, however, we can at least begin to make choices about where we’re going. Actually, the thought occurs to me that maybe some Agile consultants and the like don’t worry because they have no destination (future state) in mind. Maybe, for them, just being “at sea in the Agile boat” is all they need. Especially if there’s wonga in it. Sounds like being “all at sea” to me.

And maybe some know the waters in which they sail, and the regular tides and the winds, well enough to arrive where they intend. All very well for the knowledgable, in familiar waters.

Do you need to know?


Of course, a development team or organisation is a social system, not a machine. So we’re in the realm of complexity, and complex adaptive systems. This means that we can’t simply take the system apart, to examine how it works by considering its individual constituents. That would be Analytic thinking, in any case.

So I don’t propose it’s easy to understand why Agile works (when it works, if it works), or even that it’s possible, in any absolute, mechanistic, definitive sense. Nor do I claim to understand it myself.

But I do claim to understand some of the attractors and barriers involved, and so, some of the ingredients of our Christmas dessert. And in my experience, there’s only a limited overlap between those and the ingredients of the Agile Christmas Pudding.

We all know the proof of the pudding is in the eating, but what proficient chef would not want to know the likely ingredients involved?

– Bob

Further Reading

The Ethics of Belief (1877) ~ William Kingdon Clifford

An Open Letter to the Project Management Community

Occasioned by this discussion on LinkedIn, I wanted to write to Project Managers everywhere…

Dear All

Dear Project Managers everywhere,

I hear you have mixed views about the recent, er, “developments”, in the field of Software Development, commonly referred-to as “Agile Software Development practices”. I won’t call them “advances” as we may not be able to agree that they have, in fact, advanced anything. Incidentally, I share some of your likely skepticism on that front.

I am writing to you today to share some opinions and observations about the changes in train in the software development field, globally. Whilst patchy in their uptake, changes are afoot. I can relate to your professional concerns that we retain the best of what we have learned from decades of successful project management (this also, we have to admit, being very patchy, too).

Many who look to advance the field of software development also have concerns. Concerns that some of the received wisdom of project management professionals has been rendered redundant or even dysfunctional by recent advances in fields such as psychology, neuroscience, sociology and evidence-based management.

These bilateral concerns have lead to understandable, yet vexing, tensions and misunderstandings between the various communities. Nowhere have these been more evident, perhaps, than between ‘traditional’ project managers and the Agile crowd.

I find it helpful to characterise this conflict as a clash of world-views. In a nutshell, a clash between what McGregor has called “Theory X” and “Theory Y”.

I hope I’m right in thinking that we all share a common objective – a desire to see better outcomes for our customers, delivered within timescales and at a cost that delights everyone involved. Oh, and maybe improving effectiveness of the organisations within which we work, too.

Whilst it may appear the arguments and contentions arise from our different ways and means for achieving this objective, I’d like to suggest that the conflict – as a product of conflicting world-views – is more deep-seated, and all the more pernicious for that. We can hardly expect folks, of any persuasion, to change their world-views overnight, if at all. Nor blame them for that aspect of their humanity.

And given the fundamental differences between these world-views, it seems overly optimistic to expect these world-views even to coexist peacefully and productively.

All we might hope for is a little more understanding, a little less fractiousness, and a future where we can all at least agree to disagree.

More optimistically, we might also realise that everyone has much to learn – and unlearn – from each other. That, perhaps, is something we can all work on together.

Thanks for listening,

– Bob

Further Reading

Power And Love ~ Adam Kahane
Power and Love – RSA video

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Blind Faith

What if we’re wrong? What if we’re all unwitting participants (and victims) in a mass delusion of biblical proportions?

“Not creating delusions is enlightenment.”

~ Bodhidharma

What if the past thirty years of so-called progress in the field of software development has all been one vast waste of time?

What if we’ve fooled ourselves by one huge placebo effect? Or by a combination of placebo effect and other similar pernicious delusions and cognitive biases?

“It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know.”

~ Henry David Thoreau

What if what we think we’ve learned turns out to have no validity at all?

Scrum, Waterfall, Agile, Kanban, Xp, etc.. “Process” itself. Could these all in fact be no more than the most egregious of red herrings?

What if it’s really some other factor – or factors in combination – that accounts for some, or indeed all, of the differences we observe from improvement initiatives? Honestly, I don’t think we can discount this possibility. Personally, I am coming round ever more to this belief.

Let’s take a look at some of the pernicious delusions and cognitive biases that may be at play here:

The Hawthorne Effect

The central idea behind the Hawthorne Effect is that changes in participants’ behavior during the course of a study may be “related only to the special social situation and social treatment they receive”.

The Feedback Effect

Improving folks’ performance by improving e.g. their skills may be a consequence of their receiving feedback on their performance (and not as a consequence of any improvement in skills per se). An “agile adoption” may give folks feedback for the first time in their working lives.

The Observer-Expectancy Effect

The observer-expectancy effect (also called the experimenter-expectancy effect, expectancy bias, observer effect, or experimenter effect) is a form of reactivity in which a researcher’s cognitive bias causes them to unconsciously influence the participants of an experiment.

“Any of a number of subtle cues or signals from an experimenter can affect the performance or response of subjects in the experiment.”

Sounds pretty much like agile coaching or scrum mastering, just about everywhere? Of course, the role of a coach or Scrum Master is indeed to affect their team(s) in such ways (at least, for the better).

The John Henry Effect

The John Henry effect is an experimental bias introduced into social experiments by reactive behavior by the control group (i.e. a group of people, not the subject of the experiment, used as a “control” against which progress in the subject group can be compared.)

As applied to organisations adopting agile, this effect may account, at least in part, for the improvement (if an) in teams, and other departments, not immediately part of the agile adoption (a.k.a. pilot).

The Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect, refers to the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon a group of people, the better they perform.

In agile adoptions, managers typically place a great deal of expectation on the first agile team(s). According to this effect, these teams may improve simply as a consequence of those expectations (and not, for example, as a consequence of any changes to the way the work works).

The Placebo Effect

The placebo effect refers to the phenomenon in which people receiving a fake or otherwise intentionally ineffective treatment improve to more or less the same extent as people receiving a real, intentionally effective treatment.

“Placebos have been shown to work in about thirty percent of patients. Some researchers believe that placebos simply evoke a psychological response. That the act of taking them gives you an improved sense of well-being. However, recent research indicates that placebos may also bring about a physical response.”

The Subject-Expectancy Effect

The subject-expectancy effect is a form of reactivity that occurs when someone, e.g. a research subject, expects a given result and therefore unconsciously affects the outcome, or reports that expected result.

When people already know what the result of a particular “improvement” is supposed to be, they might unconsciously change their reaction to bring about that result, or simply report that result as the outcome – even if it wasn’t. Some researchers believe that people who experience the placebo effect have become classically conditioned to expect improvement from a change. Remember Dr. Ivan Pavlov and the dog that salivated when it heard a bell? In the case of people and placebos, the stimulus is e.g. the “ceremonies” of the new development method, and the response is real (or perceived) improvement and feelings of well-being and positivity.

“The expectation of pain relief causes the brain’s pain relief system to activate.”

The Novelty Effect

The novelty effect, in the context of human performance, is the tendency for performance to initially improve when a new approach to work is instituted – not because of any actual improvement in learning or achievement, but in response to increased interest in e.g. the new approach.

Self-determination Theory

Self-determination theory is concerned with the motivation behind the choices that people make, absent any external influences. The theory focuses on the degree to which an individual’s behavior is self-motivated and self-determined. Key studies that led to emergence of this theory include research on intrinsic motivation.

In effective Agile adoptions, for example, increased self-determination (self-managed teams and the like) may be a causal factor in increased motivation, and thus in increases in e.g. productivity, quality, or what have you. Note here I’m saying that the benefits accruing (if any) are not the result of any material changes in the process (the way the work works), but in the social, motivational context for the work.


Just as in the Hawthorne experiments, we who (merely) observe are part of the system too. Objectivity is delusional. How much else of what we induce and convince ourselves to believe, is delusional too? And how would we know? As part of the “system”, could we ever know?

The Hawthorne experiments – contention over their validity and interpretation notwithstanding –  stand as a warning about us viewing even simple experiments on human participants as if the people are only mechanical systems.

“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience?”

~ George Bernard Shaw

Given all the research into how our brains work (and more often, fail to work), should we not be at least open to the possibility that the results we think we have achieved in the world of software development have little or nothing to do with the things we think are important?

What do you think?

– Bob

Further Reading

The Nocebo Effect – A Contributory Factor in Failed Agile Adoptions?

Grassed Up

Software folks always seem to be on the lookout for analogies to explain software development to interested lay colleagues, friends, family and the like. Here’s one I haven’t come across before (with photos!).


Software development is like… mowing your lawn. Let me explain…

Firstly, there’s getting started. We need some developers (“the team”, analog: the lawn-mower, in this case a venerable Murray 125/96 ride-on tractor mower). The task is to cut all the grass on the lawn.

What the customer wants is a nice, neat, stripey lawn:

The team is going to deliver on this requirement by converting, inch by inch (a.k.a. continuous delivery), un-mown lawn into mown lawn. Let’s take a look at what’s involved.

The team has three basic controls; height of cut, speed over the ground, and direction.

Height of cut. This governs the height of the rotating blades carried under the mower, which in turn controls the amount (length) of each stalk of grass removed as the mower passes.

Speed over the ground. This is the rate at which new work (uncut grass) enters the team.

Direction. This allows us to select which work (area of grass) to work on next. Our choice is somewhat limited owing to the customer wanting nice, straight stripes. Sometimes (e.g. at the end of a stripe) we have to raise the blades and NOT cut some  grass (i.e. run the team without doing any real “work”) in order to best position the team (mower) for the next stripe.

Grass in Progress

The amount of grass cut, but not yet ejected from the mower, is the “grass-in-progress”.  The mower pictured is not very tolerant of high levels of grass-in-progress. Its motor is relatively small, and setting the height of cut too low (cutting too much of each grass stem in one pass) or the speed over the ground too high (increasing the rate of entry of new grass into the mower) will increase the level of grass-in-progress to the point where the motor will stall out. Listening to the motor’s note, it will complain by sounding increasingly laboured just before reaching the point of stall. Anyone who has driven a vehicle with a petrol engine will recognise this situation instinctively.

Further, damp or wet grass, and long grass, increases the friction of the grass-in-progress.

So, to mow happily at top speed, we need, primarily, to limit the grass-in-progress at an optimum level, through judicious and continual adjustment of the speed over the ground and the height of cut (and taking into account the condition of the grass, too).

One serious constraint on throughput (how quickly we can mow the lawn) is the little bastard seen in the next picture. This is the grass exit nozzle. Cunningly (mis) designed so as to clog up with cuttings anytime we try to have too much grass-in-progress. But it has one redeeming feature, too. If we notice that cuttings have stopped exiting the nozzle, the operator can reach down and lift up the plastic chute, allowing a clod of cuttings to vomit directly out of the blade housing, a bit like a hairball.

Of course, life, and this team (mower), is not perfect. In particular, corner-cases and edge-cases are problematic. The limited manoeuvrability (skill set) of the team, and the awkward shape of some parts of the lawn and its boundaries, means that some areas of the lawn don’t get cut (some corners of the requirements are left undelivered). A conscientious operator (product owner) might choose to use another, more specialised team (like a strimmer) to finish up these little pieces more neatly.

And the operator is at risk of injury too, not from the team –  which has numerous safety features – but from things in the wider environment, not directly part of the work (lawn), but close enough nearby to intrude. Here we see some pretty berries, but what we cannot see are the vicious thorns on the branches carrying the fruits.

Such risks suggest some combination of:

  • a risk-mitigating tour around the lawn prior to starting to mow, with a pair of secateurs to remove the risks
  • a not-fully-mown lawn (avoidance of the danger areas, requirements partially unmet), or
  • some inevitable damage to the operator

Fuelling the Team

No team runs on air, rather it needs fuel in order to run, and do the work. Here’s the fuel container (jerry-can) for this team. This team runs on petrol, but a software team runs on knowledge – both knowledge it already has in its tank, and new knowledge added to the tank (through e.g. learning, recruitment, etc.), as the work requires. (and no, not on wages, nor even beer & pizzas).

Here’s the fuel funnel for this team. In software development, it would carry learning into the team, rather than two star. I almost named this the “HR and training department/funnel”.

Rework,  Refactoring and Technical Debt

The thing that started me off on this analogy was the topic of refactoring. As the mower (team) works along one stripe of the lawn, it deposits a thin layer of cuttings on the adjacent stripe (no cuttings catchment here) – sometimes an already-cut stripe, sometimes a yet-to-cut stripe. When deposited thinly, they present no real problem if cutting them again on the pass down the next stripe. But ingesting the hairballs I mentioned above, suddenly and unpredictably increase the grass-in-progress for the team (technical debt). This generally requires operator intervention (lifting the nozzle), and sometimes can stall out the machine. An alternative intervention is to anticipate the problem, and reduce the grass-in-progress (by raising the cutting height and/or slowing the team) in advance of the hairball – i.e. refactoring.

As for rework, this simply means cutting the same area of grass more than once. Necessary either when we’ve ‘missed a bit’ (failed to meet quality standards) or when we’re repositioning the team and can’t be bothered to raise the blades. (Analogy: Type II and type I muda, respectively).

Team Maintenance, Breakdowns and Reliability

This poor mower rarely sees any maintenance. Hence it’s always a gamble whether it’ll start when it’s needed. And the jockey wheel/tensioner for the drive belt powering the gearbox and wheels has definitely seen better days. Often, at the end of a day’s cutting, the belt will jump the idler, requiring some faffing around to set it up again next time the mower is used.


For the literal-minded, here’s the analogous terms, laid out for you:

  • Mower: Software Development Team
  • Operator: Product Owner
  • Lawn: Work
  • Thorns: Risks
  • Petrol: Know-how
  • Stripes: User stories
  • Grass in/under the mower: Work in progress
  • Jerry-can: Sources of new know-how
  • Strimmer: alternate “finishing” team or specialist(s)
  • Cut grass: Code (and other artefacts)
  • Mossy patches: Hmm, what would you say?

– Bob


Balkanisation. The dis-integration, fragmentation and breakdown of cooperation within e.g. organisations.

I’ve previously both written, and spoken publicly, about alienation in the workplace. Given alienation’s deleterious impact on the effectiveness of organisations everywhere, I don’t see it ceasing to be an issue in my lifetime.

“Modern science is characterized by its ever-increasing specialization, necessitated by the enormous amount of data, the complexity of techniques and of theoretical structures within every field. Thus science is split into innumerable disciplines continually generating new subdisciplines. In consequence, the physicist, the biologist, the psychologist and the social scientist are, so to speak, encapsulated in their private universes, and it is difficult to get word from one cocoon to the other…”

~ Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General Systems Theory

For those who have experienced the Agile way of being, the benefits of collaboration, co-location, integration of specialists from different domains and different parts of the business are manifest.

The Analytic mindset, founded as it is on the idea of breaking an organisation down into parts, and attempting to manage the parts separately, offers fertile conditions for balkanisation – and the various forms of alienation arising from it.

The Synergistic mindset, by way of contrast, with its emphasis on the whole, significantly reduces the scope for balkanisation, and thus the impact of at least one source of alienation in the organisation.

Why then do we see so few organisations where these issues are even recognised, let alone addressed?

Attempting to address symptoms of organisational dysfunction, like lack of innovation, poor engagement and motivation of staff, or high staff turnover, without understanding the root conditions, seems to me to be a fool’s errand.

– Bob

Further Reading

The Concept of Alienation in Modern Sociology ~ Igor S. Kon
General Systems Theory ~ Ludwig von Bertalanffy
Ackoff’s Fables ~ Russell L Ackoff

Dare to Disagree

Although in the same general vein as “On the Morality of Dissent“, a post I wrote some months ago, this TED video featuring Margaret Heffernan (a five time CEO) actually makes a great argument for Thinking Differently (in case you hadn’t noticed, the title and theme of this blog).

“We have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking and different experiences – and find ways to engage with them… that’s a kind of love.”

~ Margaret Heffernan

If it took 25 years for doctors to stop killing children (with X-rays), what chance do we have to bring significant change to the way organisations work – in our lifetimes?

“How do organisations think? Well, for the most part, they don’t. And that isn’t because they don’t want to. It’s really because they can’t… And they can’t  because the people inside of them are too afraid of conflict… so they can’t think together.”

~ Margaret Heffernan

– Bob

Further Reading

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team ~ Patrick Lencioni

Zen and the Art of Organisational Enlightenment

The Enlightened Organisation

I think it’s fairly safe to say that most organisations lack enlightenment. That is, few indeed are those that perceive their true nature, are self-aware (in the sense of consciousness of their own thought processes, motivations and behaviours) and can act on that perception for positive change. I think it fair to say that most organisations exist in a perpetual state of dukkha.

Does this matter? Does it, for example, impact the bottom line? I’d say yes on both counts (yes it matters, and yes, it impacts the bottom line).

The Buddha described it thus:

Insight into the Four Noble Truths we call “awakening”. This awakening allows us to attain the unattained supreme security from bondage.

Ok, enough of Eastern mysticism already. (BTW There’s a similar Western tradition, Transcendentalism, exemplified by Emerson, Thoreau, et al.).

How does this all relate to “the enlightened organisation”?

Self Awareness

If a person lacks awareness of themselves, of their own thinking, of their way of being in the world, then:

“The more asleep we are, the more out of touch we are with what we are doing, the more unaware we are likely to be of consequences, and the more unaware we will be regarding how what we are doing is affecting us and others – so the fewer opportunities we will have to recognize how often we create our own problems…”

~ Milton Dawes

Or from the Mahout and the Elephant perspective: the reflective, self-aware part of our brain governs our ability to overcome the strong psychological hurdles to our understanding ourselves – and why we do things.

In the context of the collective organisational psyche, I suggest that self-awareness (the organisation’s collective awareness of and sense of self) poses the same kinds of challenges and offers the same kinds of benefits if achieved – but at the organisational level.

By What Method

If the goal is a healthy, self-aware organisation, then how can we set about making this happen?

“A goal without a method is nonsense.”

~ W.E. Deming

Personally, I’d suggest taking a look at how individuals go about transforming their outlook and self-awareness. Effective techniques I myself have used include:

  • Meditation
  • Zen and zazen
  • Coaching
  • Therapy (i.e. help from experienced helpers)
  • Dialogue on the subject (i.e. with others)
  • Reading and study (including much study of Koans and the ineffable Tao)

For me, the organisations I see are much like those individuals trapped in a cycle of self-ignorance – unwitting prisoners of their own psyche.

In Conclusion

A thunderclap under the clear blue sky
All beings on earth open their eyes
Everything under heaven bows together
Mount Sumeru leaps up and dances.

~ Wumen

– Bob

Further Reading

Satori – Japanese term for “Enlightenment”
Samadhi – Buddhist term for “mindfulness” or “no mind” (Japanese; mushin), Flow
The Wedge of Consciousness ~ Online article by Milton Dawes
Knowing Why Beats Knowing How ~ Whitney Hess (blog post)
Innovation and the Art of Riding an Elephant – Online article by Bengt Järrehult
Self-awareness is Vital to Self-improvement ~ Blog Post at PsychologyToday
The Polar Opposite of Self-Awareness: Image Management ~ Steve Beckow (blog post)

Power, Hierarchies and other Dysfunctions

I’m thinking that some folks may interpret my stance on leadership (dysfunctional) and fellowship (beneficial) as fanciful or idealistic, borne of personal bias and certain marxist tendencies.

Actually, my stance is based on emerging research and reasoning-from-first-principles. (Inevitably, some biases will be at play, though).

I accept that neither evidence nor reason seems to sway the majority of folks in the field of leadership or management.

Here’s just some papers related to the dis-benefits of power hierarchies and the command-and-control style of management (and, often, leadership):

Having Less Power Impairs the Mind

“New research (2008) appearing in the May issue of Psychological Science, suggests that being put in a low-power role may impair a person’s basic cognitive functioning and thus, their ability to get ahead.”

~ Smith, Galinsky APS (Association for Psychological Science), May15, 2008

Cognitive Disenhancement

22 May 2008
From The Economist print edition (via Jeff Sutherland’s blog)


NEW drugs may help to enhance people’s mental powers (see article). But a study carried out by Pamela Smith, of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and her colleagues suggests a less pharmacological approach can be taken, too. Their work, just published in Psychological Science, argues that simply putting someone into a weak social position impairs his cognitive function. Conversely, “empowering” him, in the dread jargon of sociology, sharpens up his mind.
Dr Smith focused on those cognitive processes that help people maintain and pursue their goals in difficult and distracting situations. She suspected that a lack of social power may reduce someone’s ability to keep track of information and make plans to achieve his goals.
To explore this theory, she carried out three tests. In the first, participants were divided at random into groups of superiors and subordinates. They were told that the superiors would direct and evaluate the subordinates and that this evaluation would determine the subordinates’ payment for the experiment. Superiors were paid a fixed amount. The subordinates were then divided into two further groups: powerless and empowered. A sense of powerlessness was instilled, the researchers hoped, by having participants write for several minutes about a time when they were powerless or by asking them to unscramble sets of words including “obey”, “subordinate” and so on to form sentences. The empowered, by contrast, were asked to write about when they had been on top, or to form sentences including “authority”, “dominate” and similar words.
The first test was of concentration. Participants saw words that meant colours—red and blue—written in different colours on a computer screen. They were asked to name the colours of the words (as opposed to the colours described by the words) as quickly and correctly as they could. Because most people read words more quickly than they can identify and name colours, this widely used method tests their ability to inhibit the urge to read what is written and instead focus on the task of naming the colour.
The second test was of memory. It involved a series of black letters presented in the centre of a white screen. Each letter was shown for half a second and followed by a blank screen for two seconds before the next letter appeared. Participants were instructed to indicate, as quickly and accurately as possible, whether each letter matched the letter shown to them two letters previously.
Finally, the volunteers were given a planning task that required them to move an arrangement of discs from a starting position to a final one in as few moves as possible. To perform this task well, they had to realise and accept the need to move their discs away from their intended goal before moving them closer.
In all three tests Dr Smith found that low-power participants made 2-5% more errors than their high-power counterparts. She argues that these results were not caused by the low-power volunteers being less motivated, as they had the same financial incentive as the high-power volunteers to do well. Instead, she suspects that those lacking in power suffered adverse cognitive effects from that very lack, and thus had difficulty maintaining their focus on the tasks.
If this is borne out by later experiments, it has important implications. Managers, always suckers for jargon, talk a lot about empowering their workers. However, they often fail to do so in practice. This is another reason why they should—unless, of course, they fear for their own authority.”

Jeffrey Pfeffer Testifies to Congress About Evidence-Based Practices

“I am pleased to be able to offer my thoughts and evidence as the Federal Government thinks about how to manage its substantial civilian workforce to ensure even higher levels of performance and service. There is no doubt that people and how they are managed matter tremendously for organizational success — as literally scores of studies show. However, much of the conventional wisdom about and current practices in managing people are inconsistent with both theory and evidence about how to attain the best from a workforce.

~  Jeffrey Pfeffer, Hearing on the Status of Federal Personnel Reform

Power and Moral Hypocrisy – Dan Ariely

Update: 18 August 2013

My thanks to @drunkcod and @jchyip for this contribution:

The researchers found that compared to participants without power, powerful participants were stricter in judging others’ moral transgressions but more lenient in judging their own: “power increases hypocrisy, meaning that the powerful show a greater discrepancy between what they practice and what they preach.”

~  Dan Ariely, Power and Moral Hypocrisy

Please Contribute

If you find, or know of, any other papers on the subject, please let me know so I can cite them here.

– Bob

Further Reading

Freedom From Command and Control ~ John Seddon
Jane Elliot’s Blue Eyes / Brown Eyes experiment

Prod•gnosis in a Nutshell

As the regular readers of this blog (thanks folks!) may know, I believe that to make truly amazing things happen, we have to Think Different. In my posts I offer folks the opportunity to Think Different on a range of issues related to effective knowledge-work organisations. Today’s post is about product development and the product development process.

“The very aim of the product development process is to create profitable operational value streams.”

~ John Shook & Durward K Sobek II, Lean Product and Process Development, Prologue, p.xiii

Quite often too, I offer up a sacred cow or two along the way. Today’s sacred cow, for what it’s worth, is the IT department, and its bizarre role in, and stranglehold on, product development.

Whole Product

“Turns out that the CEO of Jet Blue made one critical decision on day one: He got the head of Marketing involved in product design and training as well.

Marketing is built into the product

If a company is failing it is the fault of the most senior management, and the problem is probably this: They’re running a company, not marketing a product.

If you are a marketer who doesn’t know how to invent, design, influence, adapt, and ultimately discard products, then your’re no longer a marketer. You’re a deadwood.”

~ Seth Godin, Purple Cow

This is not just true with respect to marketing. The Whole Product concept – as practised by, amongst others, Toyota with their TPDS “Big Rooms” (Obeya) – says that businesses need to involve every area of the business in new product development.

Aside: I happen to subscribe to the view that everything, including what we call “products”, are in fact services. So when I write “products” here, I actually mean “products and/or services”.

So, is it a good idea to give IT departments the starring role in new product development? In coordinating folks across the business in one concerted effort to get each new product designed and into production? I say not. And if IT shouldn’t have that central role, why then should IT departments even have anything to do with software development (surely, these days, a core activity in most new product development)?

Aside: What is an IT department? In case the term “IT department” confuses, here’s how I’m using the term in this post: An IT department (a functional silo) generally looks after everything to do with Information Technology within the wider business. This means making sure everyone’s computers and networks remain up and running, acquiring and running the enterprise applications such as customer (CRM) databases, sale and purchase ledgers, financial reporting, and so on. In most organisations, the IT department also looks after all the software development in the organisation, both of internal software systems, and of software for use in customer-facing products and services.


I coined the term “Prod•gnosis” some years ago as a label for a different way of thinking about new product development. (It’s a portmanteau word, formed from Product, and Gnosis – meaning knowledge).

Any organisation with aspirations of longevity and growth will (sooner or later) have more than one product. In fact, we can regard an organisation as a pipeline of new products, in various stages of development, each coming to market as resources and priorities dictate. So, I suggest it benefits organisations to take a considered, disciplined approach to managing this flow of new products into the market. Indeed, to have an evolving – continually improving – capability for doing this.

I use the term Prod•gnosis primarily in the context of this evolving capability.

Where to Put Software Development

If we accept that the IT department is poorly suited to play the central role in a Prod•gnosis-oriented organisation, and that it is ill-suited to house or oversee software development (for a number of reasons), then where should software development “sit” in an organisation?

Returning to the idea of “whole product”, and inspired by the ideas of Dr Allen Ward, I suggest that we regard each “product” (or more specifically “product line”) as an operational value stream. The task of new product development then becomes the task of designing and implementing the operational value stream through which instances of that product will be manufactured, packaged, shipped, sold, and serviced. Each new product line will have its own, custom-built operational value stream, which once up and running – building and shipping product – can use its own personnel to begin its continual improvement journey. The design of the product itself is then integral to the design of the operational value stream dedicated to that product (or product line).

Aside: Each operational value stream may call upon some central, shared (organisation-wide) services, such as billing, or logistics – but that’s no more than an optimisation-led implementation detail, in this picture.

Thus, the organisational capability we spoke of earlier is the capability to create and launch these operational value streams.

I suggest the effective place for software development is in the “Product Development Value Stream” (PDVS for short) – that part of the organisation which is responsible for creating each and every operational value stream. As the PDVS “cookie-cutter” folks crank the handle, they can rapidly improve their own performance through short iterations and continual feedback. And this avoids a key dysfunction in the more conventional “project team” (one project per product) approach – the continual setting-up and tearing-down of project teams, with all the cost overheads, waste and loss of learning this entails.

Getting to Prod•gnosis

Of course, getting there from here is the real challenge. the Lean literature is replete with stories of organisations failing to move from vertical silos to horizontal values streams. The idea of Prod•gnosis also layers on the additional challenge of wresting software development from the IT crowd and creating a whole new part of the organisation to contain it.

“How will you make such a large change in your organisation?

You won’t. Change will occur when the majority of people in the organisation have learned to see things in a new way.”

~ Dr. Allen C Ward, Lean Product and Process Development, p.205

It’s this kind of systems perspective that offers the prospect of dramatic performance improvements. Another example of the power of choosing to Think Different.

What do you think?

– Bob

Further Reading

In Praise of the Purple Cow ~ Fast Company article by Seth Godin
Lean Product and Process Development ~ Dr Allen Ward



babble (ˈbæb ə l) (v)
1. to utter (words, sounds, etc) in an incoherent or indistinct jumble
2. ( intr ) to talk foolishly, incessantly, or irrelevantly
3. ( tr ) to disclose (secrets, confidences, etc) carelessly or impulsively
4. ( intr ) (of streams, birds, etc) to make a low murmuring or bubbling sound
5. incoherent or foolish speech; chatter
6. a murmuring or bubbling sound

[C13: compare Dutch babbelen , Swedish babbla , French babiller to prattle, Latin babulus fool; probably all of imitative origin]

babblement (n), babbling (n, adj)

It seems these days that every man and his dog has a recipe for “the single greatest advantage any company can achieve”. I can imagine how all these competing (and dissenting) voices must sound like pure babblement to folks of a more practical, let’s-just-get-on-with-it bent. Like many developers, for example. Or middle-managers.

“The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”

~ Arie de Geus

 “The most meaningful way to differentiate your company from your competitors, the best way to put distance between you and the crowd is to do an outstanding job with information. How you gather, manage and use information will determine whether you win or lose.”

~ Bill Gates

  “Our organization just has to outfox our larger competitors by really emphasizing our value proposition…”

~ Charles Schwab

“An organization’s ability to learn and translate that learning into action rapidly is the ultimate competitive advantage.”

~ Jack Welch

“A society’s competitive advantage will come not from how well its schools teach the multiplication and periodic tables, but from how well they stimulate imagination and creativity.”

~ Albert Einstein

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

~ Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage

So, even a few quotes pulled at random from the intarwebs shows the diversity of opinion on the subject. Speed. Creativity. Ability to learn. Value proposition. Management of information. Customer satisfaction. Organisational health. Oh, and collective organisational mindset (that’s from me, btw).

Well, they can’t all be right. Can they? And why should we care? It’s just babble.

Part 2: The Implications

So, why should we care?

For a start, even if you don’t care, then there are probably other folks in your organisation that will. And the more you have no viewpoint, no opinion, the more likely others’ opinions will hold sway. Which means your day-to-day work will be governed and directed by their rationale (whether rational, or not). How do you feel about that? Can you happily buy into someone else’s purpose and direction? With no input or influence? And remain engaged and motivated? Let alone satisfied with your job?

Or maybe you’re already resigned to disaffection and alienation? Many are, it seems. Good luck with that.

And if you do retain some lingering hope that your organisation might change for the better, might begin to involve people (like you) more in things like purpose and direction, then are you ready to step up when the call comes? Would having an opinion on such matters put you in a better place to meet that challenge, and join in the party?

Or conversely, you could accept the status quo, accept your marginalisation at the hands of the autocrats, and remain a serf. After all, it pays the rent, I guess. And there are many folks who expect nothing more from a job. I have to say I find it all terribly sad. But entirely understandable. And this is beginning to sound like babble, too.

“If anyone wants to make a difference, they can.”

~ Giles Duley

– Bob

The Advantage – A Book Review

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

~ Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage

I don’t usually indulge in book reviews as blog posts (for which check out my Goodreads page), but the new book from Patrick Lencioni has prompted me to make an exception.

Not that I think it’s a great, must-read book. Far from it. But because its topic – organisational health – is sufficiently close to my core focus (organisational psychotherapy), I’ve decided it’s worth mentioning by way of this review.

“After two decades of working with CEOs and their teams of senior executives, I’ve become absolutely convinced that the seminal difference between successful companies and mediocre or unsuccessful ones has little, if anything, to do with what they know or how smart they are; it has everything to do with how healthy they are.”

~ Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage


For those unfamiliar with Patrick Lencioni and his works, he has written a number of great (IMO) books including:

  • The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive ★★★★★
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team ★★★★★
  • The Five Temptations of A CEO ★★★☆☆
  • Getting Naked ★★★☆☆
  • The Three SIgns of A Miserable Job ★★★☆☆
  • Death By Meeting ★★★★★
  • Silos, Politics and Turf Wars ★★★★

Each of these, in their own way, has been great reading; informative, thought-provoking and grounded in Lencioni’s 20+ years of consulting practice. Each has been a notable influence in my own practice.

The Advantage

Simply put, I found this book a disappointment. I guess this is because it’s mainly a rehash of much of his other work. I had been hoping, from the free sample, to find a book centred on the issues of organisational health. But apart from the first chapter, there’s nothing much here about organisational health per se at all. It’s as if the author has suddenly found a smart label to stick on his collective works, and tied a whole bunch of stuff together under one umbrella. Kudos for the marketing chops, at least.

His continual emphasis on the role of leaders and leadership also grates with me. For the majority of organisations – i.e. those of the Analytic mindset – I’d agree that leaders (senior execs in particular) set the tone and model the behaviours that the rest of the organisation tends to follow. But doing the wrong thing righter is, I posit, not anywhere near as useful as doing the right thing – for which I offer fellowship as a prime candidate. Ironically, then, it seems to me that an organisation that emphasises the hegemony of leaders (and the relative diminution of the role of others) is likely less healthy than it might be.

These things being said, you might like to read this book if you haven’t read much or any of his other works before. The Advantage offers a convenient entry point into his collective works, with sufficient references into his other books for following up on details and specifics.

The Advantage is also a departure from the author’s more usual business novel (a.k.a. ‘Fable’) format. So if you shy away from business novels, then this more prosaic, text-book approach might appeal to you. ★★☆☆☆

– Bob

P.S. For the Rightshifters amongst you, I suggest that the author’s enthusiasm for organisational heath, and the benefits he attributes to it, correspond fairly closely to an organisation’s relative position on the horizontal (rightshifting) axis (i.e. the healthier an organisation, the more effective it is). More specifically, I’d say that organisational health corresponds more or less to the green (fun) line on this ‘Perspective on Rightshifting’ chart.

Further Reading

Flourish ~ Prof. Martin Seligman See also: PERMA and the Positive Business
Table Group website page for The Advantage

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