Monthly Archives: December 2012

Beware Eumemics

Image of a defaced alphabet reader book

Have you ever wished folks would see things more like the way you do? Of course you have. I know I have. Rosenberg might say this wish is a tragic expression of an unmet need.

In my case, most often it’s related to my need for meaningful connection. I find it that much more difficult to have meaningful connections when I’m not “on the same page” as someone else. And sometimes it’s related to my need for social justice, and seeing people realising more of their innate potential (both of which, most likely, signify deeper unmet needs).

Maybe other folks, when they experience people seeing things differently, also feel some kind of discomfort. Discomfort related to their own particular unmet needs.

I see this discomfort manifest often in the world of Agile adoptions. Where folks who “get” Agile, (or think they do) express their frustration with others who don’t “get it”. The most common form of such expression being something like:

“I wish they could just see things the way I do. We could all be so much more productive / happy / etc. if that were so.”

The Standard Response

We typically try to help others “get onto our page”, through e.g. discussion, argument, persuasion, influencing, “thought leadership” and what have you. Organisations – and society generally – seems tolerant even of coercion and compulsion as means to this end.

“Be reasonable… see things my way.”

~ Anonymous

But whence our arrogance to believe that our way of seeing the world it the “right” way? Or that there is ever even one “right way” of seeing?

“There are no facts, only interpretations.”

~ Friedrich Nietzsche

We could just attribute this need – to have other folks see things our way – to human nature, and move on. Or we could take a closer look, and explore some of the implications.

“It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.”

~ George Eliot

I’m not, in this post, going to look at all the implications of influencing, cajoling or coercing others to see things our way. I’m interested today in the question of eumemics.

“Our society tends to regard as a sickness any mode of thought or behaviour that is inconvenient for the system – and this is plausible because when an individual doesn’t fit into the system it causes pain to the individual as well as problems for the system. Thus the manipulation of an individual to adjust him to the system is seen as a cure for a sickness and therefore as good.”

~ Theodore Kaczynski

What’s “eumemics”? The word derives from “eugenics” and “meme“.

Eugenics: the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.

Eumemics: the science(?) of improving a population by controlled alteration of prevailing memes to increase the occurrence of desirable behaviours, assumptions and other such belief-oriented characteristics.

Both of which definitions beg the question: desirable to whom?

We see every day folks who wish that others would see the world their way.

I’m not questioning these folks’ good intentions. Before the 1940s, few questioned the good intentions of the eugenicists. But eugenics now has few supporters.

And I certainly believe that Mankind could benefit from thinking differently.

No, I’m bothered by the implication of the seemingly widespread attitude we might label as “eumemics”.

“The 20th century suffered TWO ideologies that led to genocides. [One was Nazism.] The other one, Marxism, had no use for race, didn’t believe in genes and denied that human nature was a meaningful concept. Clearly, it’s not an emphasis on genes or evolution that is dangerous. It’s the desire to remake humanity by coercive means (eugenics [or eumemics] or social engineering) and the belief that humanity advances through a struggle in which superior groups (race or classes) triumph over inferior ones.”

~ Steven Pinker

You might like to read the article “Memetic mesmerism and Eumemics” for some more context, and food for thought.

Respect for People

Eumemics seems, to me, fundamentally at odds with the idea of respect for people. Client-centered Therapy, for example, holds that people have all they need within themselves (including, by implication, their own way of seeing things) to find their own answers.

Hence the title of this post. Expanded, this could read:

“Would you like to be on the look out for the tendency to try to direct others towards your own way of seeing things? How do you feel about being alert to the consequences – potentially both negative and positive – of such a tendency?”

I’d be delighted to hear your responses to these questions.


It struck me while working on the idea for this post that maybe some folks might interpret the title of this blog – “Think Different” – as some kind of exhortation or attempt to influence. Personally, I see it as rather more of an invitation: “Would you like to consider the implications of thinking differently?”.

– Bob

Approaching Change

Graphic arrows

It can seem like there are almost as many options for approaching major organisational change (a.k.a. trans-mindset Rightshifting) as there are organisations looking to change.

Indeed, when introducing Rightshifting to people, the second question they most often ask, once having grasped the basic idea, is: “How do we go about rightshifting, then?”. And in particular: “How might we go about effecting a ‘transition’?”.

I’ve listed hereunder some twenty three options presently known to me, either from personal experience, or from relevant case studies documented in the literature.

Deciding on Approach

The most interesting question for me, however, is not which option is best, nor even which option may be best in a given context or situation, but how best to decide which option to focus on, in any given instance. This seems a specific case of the more general issue of Focus, about which I wrote a post some months ago.

In other words, how we choose to go about making our selection (of approach) is at least as important as the approach eventually selected.

Are the options listed here mutually exclusive? Not at all. I can envisage some of them complementing each other nicely. But that does not detract from the aforementioned need for focus, and the benefits of a clear focus on just one (main) approach.

And even before spending time on deciding which approach might suit best, I’d want to understand the purpose of the proposed change effort (along with the purpose of the organisation in question). Something along the lines of OODA.

Agency and Engagement

Aside: I believe organisational change has more chance to go well, and has more chance for sustainability, when folks across the whole organisation have the opportunity to get involved and contribute. This applies as much to the choice of approach as it does to the day-to-day work of change within the chosen approach. See: Sense of Agency.

And let’s not overlook the fact that, for transitions in particular, we’re talking about change involving the wholesale replacement of one memeplex for another – involving the organisation-wide adoption of a host of new and counter-intuitive “truths”.

“It’s hard to teach counter-intuitive truths by explanation.”

~ Taiichi Ohno

And once we have decided on a specific approach, it might be well to consider how to continue to involve as many folks as possible. A recent blog post “The CI Vaccine” talks about involving folks in a Continuous Improvement programme – I’d suggest the same issues apply in the context of more general organisational change, too.

Option 1 – Productive Dialogue first

This option places the development of an organisation-wide capability for productive dialogue at the tip of the spear. This may often require education, training and practice in basic dialogue skills.

Once a basic facility for productive dialogue has emerged, the organisation can then begin to explore what’s important, including perhaps these two questions:

Q1: “What is the purpose of this work, from the paying customers’ (end-users’) point of view?

Q2: “What measures will the workers choose and use to understand and improve their work?”

Option 2 – Get knowledge (with a view to changing the System)

This option presumes that knowledge of what’s really happening in the organisation is crucial to instituting effective change. To get knowledge the change agents might choose to:

  • Go to the Gemba, accompanied by the managers
  • Study the system (the way the work works)
  • Understand the work
  • Follow the path of PURPOSE – MEASURES – METHOD

Some more astute readers might recognise this option as, essentially “the Vanguard (UK) approach”.

Option 3 – Kanban

The Kanban option suggests we apply the principles of the Kanban method to organisational change:

  • Make things visible
    (NB Consider the side-effects of this new transparency, especially re: salaries, etc.).
  • Limit WIP
  • Manage flow
  • Make policies visible
  • Improve collaboratively

Option 4 – Positive Psychology / Solutions Focus

This option places the principles of Positive Psychology at the tip of the spear:

  • Asking “What’s going well?”
  • Deciding “What should we do more of?”
  • Posing “The Miracle Question” c.f. Solutions Focus
  • Adopting the position that “People already have all the resources they need to achieve their goals”
  • Following the precepts of e.g. P.E.R.M.A.

”If you want well-being, you will not get it if you care only about accomplishment [e.g. profit]. If we want to flourish, we must learn that the positive business and the individuals therein must cultivate meaning, engagement, positive emotion, and positive relations – as well as tending to profit.”

~ Martin Seligman

Option 5 – Coaching and Conversations

This option takes its cue from e.g. Sir John Whitmore’s “Coaching For Performance” (and, by implication, The Inner Game). This is centered around the acronym G.R.O.W:

  • Goals (What are we trying to achieve?)
  • Reality (Where are we now with respect to our goals?)
  • Options (What options do we have?)
  • Will (What will we commit to doing?)

Option 6 – Selling the Dream

This option pursues Guy Kawasaki’s advice as detailed in his book “Selling The Dream”. We might sum this up through the following quotation:

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

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

In the context of organisational change, then, this option suggests engaging folks emotionally in a common “cause”. I’d further suggest that things might go even better should the folks involved get to decide what their common cause might be. (Sense of Agency, again).

Option 7 – Capture the Flag

This is the “JFDI” option. Exercise authority (or build consensus), declare an objective (“take Hill 927”) and just get started on making some changes, and see where that leads. When it looks like it might be time to consider a transition, just make that happen, too. In a nutshell, then, this option argues for action over deliberation, and accepts the role of failure and evolution in learning and moving towards a new (and fuzzy, at the outset) “future state”.

Option 8 – Timeline driven (Context-driven)

This option represents the more traditional – in some ways – PDCA approach. I.E. Understand the current state (A), map a future state (B), and plan a path from A to B (whether iteratively or not being a moot point). In other words:

  • Identify the prevailing mindset
  • Decide (through leadership or consensus) on the desired rate of rightshift
  • Schedule transitions
  • Work from that timeline

Option 9 – Emotioneering

This option posits that engaging people (i.e. the workforce) emotionally offers a good chance for effective, sustainable change. If we see the workforce as “the customer” in this context, then this Steve Jobs quote seems apposite:

“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology – not the other way around.”

~ Steve Jobs

And indeed, we could image an option 9a, where the (end) customer experience is the thing we identify first and foremost, and all other decisions and changes flow from the desire to effect (and then improve) that customer experience.

Option 10 – The Last Mile First aka Servant Leadership

This option encourages (even requires) the workers to come up with their own solutions, using the middle management, specialists, functions etc. as their resources, to “pull” support as needed.

For an example, see: In a Change Effort, Start with the Last Mile ~ Ron Ashkenas in HBR

Option 11 – Consensus

This option begins by exploring the possibility of building a consensus about what matters, and how to proceed:

  • Is purpose important?
  • What about consensus?
  • And Dialogue?
  • Which of the principles mentioned herein (see: at end) do we think count?
  • And in what order (of e.g. significance, impact), if any?

We might choose to use something life World Cafe or Open Spaces to help approach the building of such a consensus.

Option 12 – Reference Projection / Interactive Planning (Ackoff)

See: Interactive Planning

“The best place to begin an intellectual journey is at its end.”

~ Russell Ackoff

Option 13 – Theory of Constraints

This option, perhaps the most developed, documented and widely-practived of all the options listed here, follows the path laid down by Goldratt in his Theory of Constraints work. In essence, this approach is predicated on the three focussing questions:

  • What to change?
  • What to change to?
  • How to effect the change?

Theory of Constraints has a well-developed toolkit to help address each of these questions.

Option 14 – Scenario Modelling (Kahane)

See: “Solving Tough Problems” ~ Kahane, and Scenario Analysis.

Option 15 – Identify Needs, Quantify Objectives, Prioritise by Impact

This option is based on the approach of Tom Gilb as described e.g. in his books “Principles of Software Engineering Management” and “Competitive Engineering“. At its core is the idea of getting everyone on the same page with respect to what we’re trying to accomplish, through the use of quantification (expressing objectives in numerical or quasi-numerical terms).

Once most folks are on the same page with respect to the objectives, impact mapping can rank the sequence of necessary actions to achieve said objectives.

Option 16 – Kotter

This option uses John Kotter’s Eight Step change model, which he introduced in his 1995 book, “Leading Change”:

  • Step 1: Create Urgency
  • Step 2: Form a Powerful Coalition
  • Step 3: Create a Vision for Change
  • Step 4: Communicate the Vision
  • Step 5: Remove Obstacles
  • Step 6: Create Short-term Wins
  • Step 7: Build on the Change
  • Step 8: Anchor the Changes in Corporate Culture

Option 17 – Tribes

This option leverages folks innate tribal tendencies to turn them away from internecine strife and towards bonding together to compete with external competitors. This is explained in detail e.g Ray Immelman’s book “Great Boss, Dead Boss”.

Option 18 – Skunkworks

This option concedes that changing any non-trivial organisation in-situ may prove more disruptive, and more disconcerting to the status quo, than the organisation is prepared (sic) to tolerate or accept. Under this option, significant changes are limited to a small section of the organisation (either an existing or a new unit). This selected unit is kept at arms length from the core organisation, so that changes in the given unit (the skunkworks) do not affect (“contaminate”, disrupt) the status quo of the main organisation.

Option 19 – Pouring aka Phoenix

This option, like option 18, concedes that an in-situ change may prove more disruptive and more disconcerting to the status quo than the organisation is prepared to tolerate or accept. However, certain parties may be keen to see the existing organisation and its status quo die out over time, to be replace with a new organisation fulfilling all the function of the old, albeit in dramatically different ways. To this end, this option posits the creation of a new, empty “vessel” into which selected (suitable) elements of the old organisation are selectively “poured. This transfer of people, plant, market segments, etc, continues, at a pace dictated e.g. by events, until the rump of the old organisation can be disposed-of.

Option 20 – Organisational Health

This option places the health of the organisation at the tip of the spear. Patrick Lencioni in his most recent book “The Advantage” suggests that:

“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

In his several other books, Lencioni has argued for placing trust and the development of (vulnerability-based) trust at the heart of any approach to change. Cf. The Lencioni pyramid from “Five Dysfunctions of a Team”.

Option 21 – The Enlightened Organisation

An option related to option 20, but focussed on enlightenment rather than mental health per se. You can read more about this in a post of mine titled “Zen and the Art of Organisational Enlightenment”.

Option 22 – Frame and Reframe

This option draws on experience and practice in both cognitive therapy (where it’s often called Cognitive Restructuring) and life more generally. This approach makes the phenomenon of frames and framing visible and explicit, and then builds on this new knowledge to identify the current frame(s) in which the organisation is operating/thinking. Then potential new frames are discussed, with the existing situation recast in those new frames (reframed).

Option 23 – Nonviolence

“Make things more wonderful for everyone, mutually.”

This option applies the principles of Nonviolent Communication, as laid out by Marshall Rosenberg in his book of the same name:

  • Empathy
  • Observations
  • Feelings
  • Needs
  • Requests

Practically, in this approach we ask people how they feel (about their role in the organisation, the present, the future), and what they need from the organisation. From their needs we build (and evolve) a coherent collection of specific, positive, actionable requests, which together constitute a practicable, actionable agenda for our approach to change.

These agenda items can play the role of stories in e.g. a change backlog and maybe we can use e.g. Kanban to work through them systematically.

In this way we progressively evolve an organisation which meets the needs of all its stakeholders (cf Covalence).

Note: We might regard this option as a particular instance of a Therapy-based approach – and in particular a Client-centered Therapy approach.

Note: I’ve written more about this particular option in a more recent post.

Some Principles

Most if not all of the above options have some core principles in common:

How to Choose

Ah, well. That is the 64,000 dollar question.

I’m not going to pretend that I have a general, universal approach to the question of how to go about choosing one of the above options, in any given situation. You’ll probably not be surprised when I say “It depends (on context)”.

But I would say that choosing is as much of a challenge as, subsequently, effecting that so-chosen option.

Personally, I prefer to build a consensus, involving as many folks as possible in the choosing process. That way, by the time a particular option is selected, and the change journey itself begins, folks have already bought into the option – and the need for change. And embraced the chosen option as – at least, partially – their own. In fact, any one, or combination of, the above options are as relevant in the choosing as in the subsequent change journey itself.

What if things go less-than-well? What if the option we chose turns out to be not such a good choice after all? What if, in the light of experience, we find we might like to change horses mid-stream? I see this as feasible, and even probable. And made much less of a challenge if folks generally have had a meaningful part to play in the initial choice – and in the subsequent questions of “should we now change?” and “what to change to?”, too. You may even see – as I do – some parallels with the Lean Startup ideas, and in particular the idea of “pivots”.

Loose Ends

One thorny question is: What to do about new hires, folks who join the organisation after the initial consensus-buliding, dialogues, or whatever, has happened?

Another concerns the unintended consequences that naturally and almost inevitably follow when we try to intervene in complex, non-linear systems.

“Be careful of what you wish for.”

– Bob

What is Violence?

Photo of a hand writing the word "violence" on a chalkboard

I guess it’s fair to say I’ve been writing (and moreover, thinking) a lot about nonviolence over the past year. That reflection has raised the question not only of “what is nonviolence?”, but more fundamentally, “what is violence?”.

Some folks have expressed confusion or even disbelief over the kinds of things which nonviolence includes under the heading of “violence”. The term “violence”, in this context, does not refer soley to acts of physical violence, such as assault, but also to psychological violence (often referred-to as “abuse” or “mental cruelty”) and, most notably, to passive violence:

“Passive violence is the conscious ignoring of the physical, psychological, and emotional needs of a person; the conscious failure to ensure the safety of someone under one’s care; or the failure to ensure the development of well-being of someone under one’s care.”

~ Glen Anderson

Here’s what Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication, has to say:

“Classifying and judging people promotes violence.

“At the root of much, if not all, violence – whether verbal, psychological, or physical, whether among family members, tribes, or nations – is a kind of thinking that attributes the cause of conflict to wrongness in one’s adversaries…”

And the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi has written about his experiences as a child, learning about nonviolence with his grandfather:

“We often don’t acknowledge our violence because we are ignorant about it; we assume we are not violent because our vision of violence is one of fighting, killing, beating, and wars – the types of things that average individuals dont do.”

~ Arun Gandhi

The World Health Organisation defines “violence” thus:

“Violence is the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”

Note here the inclusion of “the use of power” or “the threat of the use of force or power” which “(may) result in…psychological harm, or deprivation“. Although couched in somewhat bureaucratic language, the gist of this definition remains very much in line with that of the nonviolent community.

Aside: the implicit notion that violence requires intentionality is not a premise to which I subscribe. I believe that unintentional violence can be at least as harmful and pernicious as violence wreaked intentionally.

Domination Systems

Walter Wink was a scholar, Christian theologian and activist, who spent his life studying the roots of violence. He died earlier this year. His writings refer often to the idea of “Domination Structures”, “Domination Systems” or a “Domination Culture”.

He also coined the phrase “The Myth of Redemptive Violence“, and its ubiquity and dominion:

“The greatest religion on the planet is not Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Judaism but the pervasive faith in violence.”

~ Walter Wink

The Myth of Redemptive Violence provides Domination Systems with a narrative that can be reproduced in an infinite number of ways. A narrative which convinces all involved in Domination Systems (oppressors and oppressed alike) that without the Domination System the world would collapse, and only the violence perpetrated by it (or in its name) can save us from this fate.

“Instead of defining domination systems as one set of clearly defined behaviors in opposition to partnership as another set of clearly defined behaviours, we might begin from a view that all human behaviors and structures lie somewhere on a domination / partnership continuum…

“The domination end of the spectrum is characterized by hierarchy (a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority), authoritarianism (favouring or enforcing strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom; showing a lack of concern for the wishes or opinions of others), enforcement of the status quo through systemic beliefs, training, and often coercive violence.

“The partnership end of the spectrum is characterised by egalitarian (of, relating to, or believing in the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities), mutually respectful and affirming relationships, with teachings and beliefs that teach and value empathy and understanding.”

~ Eric Mosley

In this video introduction to nonviolence, Marshall Rosenberg explains e.g. Walter Wink’s perspective on how, circa eight thousand years ago, today’s pervasive language of domination emerged to support the emerging Domination Structures of that time.

And let’s not delude ourselves that violence is predominantly the domain of rebels, revolutionaries, free thinkers or the “mentally ill”:

“The horrors that we have seen, the still greater horrors we shall presently see, are not signs that rebels, insubordinate, untameable men are increasing in number throughout the world, but rather that there is a constant increase in the number of obedient, docile men.”

~ George Bernanos

The Connection With Business and Software Development

Why is the topic of violence relevant?

How likely is it that folks see the connection between nonviolence and the day-to-day work of business, and in particular, software development?

How likely is it that folks see the domination structures within which they live and work, and the harm done to individuals within such structures?

My own personal commitment to nonviolence is borne of the same motivations that led me to start the Rightshifting campaign some years ago. Namely, the egregious waste of people’s lives and talents that come from working in ineffective organisations.

I believe it’s no coincidence that there’s a close correlation between ineffectiveness and domination structures, in knowledge-work organisations in particular. In the Rightshifting vernacular, the more left-shifted an organisation, the more violence and domination we are likely to see.

Indeed, it’s been my experience over many years that there is not just a close correlation, but a causal link, between domination structures in organisations and ineffectiveness (including a lack of employee engagement, low morale, social loafing, etc).

I’ll be writing more about the harm done by violence and domination structures in the workplace, and perhaps more importantly, what to do about it, in a forthcoming post.

– Bob

Further Reading

How Walter Wink Confronted Violence ~ Ken Butigan
The Albert Einstein Institute – Website
The Myth of Redemptive Violence ~ Walter Wink
Nonviolent Communication ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

Wax On Jerk Off

Photo of a white duck shaking off water

Or, the perils of judging people…

Seventeen years ago Jim McCarthy said “don’t flip the bozo bit“.

“By taking that lazy way out, you poison team interactions and cannot avail yourself of help from the “bozo” ever again.”

~ Jim McCarthy

Yet every day we see folks writing off other folks as “jerks”, “assholes”, “know-nothings”, “lamers” and a whole host of other uncomplimentary epithets.

And regularly we see folks opine that some others have “no talent”, “no ethics” or some other supposedly fundamental character flaw.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

~ Elie Wiesel

When we judge someone we are saying, in effect, “I am indifferent to you, who you are, what’s happened and happening in your life, what you care about, your needs.” When I see this happening, I feel profoundly despondent (and also, in a bind), as it fails to meet my need for mutual respect and meaningful connection.

“Judgment is one of the Crimes. We go on judging other people, and we do the same with ourselves. We go on judging our thoughts, our actions, what is good, what is bad, what should have been done, what should not have been done; and we are constantly creating conflict and duality.”

~ Osho

Marshall Rosenberg, found of Nonviolent Communication, writes about the spirituality at the heart of helping people recognise (and then meet) their needs.

Many have spoken of the need for love, rather than judgement. Reflecting, I suppose, the wide preponderance of the latter over the former.

“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

~ Mother Teresa of Calcutta

And the essential role of empathy.

“Don’t judge any man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.”

~ Native American Proverb

As I mentioned in a previous post “Respect for People“, we can regard judgement as a bright, flashing neon sign of unmet needs:

“[Our] judgements of others are alienated expressions of our own unmet needs.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Some see love and judgement as being in implacable opposition:

“The more one judges, the less one loves.”

~ Honoré de Balzac

And much as the cause of our feelings always lies within us (other people may be a trigger of our emotions, but never the cause), judgement tells us much more about ourselves than about those we judge:

“When you judge another, you do not define them, you define yourself.”

~ Wayne Dyer

Have we still learned so little from Deming (95% of people’s performance is a consequence of the system within which they’re working), the psychology of cognitive biases (e.g. the Fundamental attribution error), Kahneman (Ego depletion), etc.?

And even if it were true that some folks were less blessed with “gifts” than others, what benefits does it bring to continually grump through life in an unremittingly judgemental frame of mind?

How likely is it that judgment will bring ennoblement or insight? The stress it induces makes us tired, physically tired. We feel compelled to pronounce our judgments and to correct the errors of the world around us – an onerous, even distasteful task that drains our energy. Yet, ironically, we appear to cherish judgmentalism. We constantly choose to judge, and we find the idea of giving up judgment to threaten “who we are” (ironic self-judgmentalism, there). Why? Why is it that we want to continue with judging others, when the effect on ourselves (and them) can be so negative?

Aside: Katherine Kirk has spoken eloquently on the topic of equanimity.

Of course, there will be folks with undiscovered talents, and those with talents that don’t match their current role too well. To write them off as “useless” or worse, “worthless”, strike me as inhumane, and wasteful, in equal measure. Toyota has long had a more humane – and respectful – policy in this area. Called the Three Rs, their policy is to first

  • Retrain the individual (make sure they have the information necessary to do the work well), then if that doesn’t work out too well,
  • Redeploy them to another role, and only (finally and in extremis)
  • Release them from the company.

Toyota understands the investment they make in their people, moral as well as commercial. And the value – not least, to their business – of respect for the individual. Although maybe they haven’t managed (sic) a complete adoption of the precepts of nonviolence, just yet.

I recently tweeted several variations of a (nonviolent, non-judgmental) definition for “idiot”. The most-retweeted variant was:

 “Idiot”: Anyone who is just trying to meet their needs, in the best way they know how, where their way makes little or no sense to us.

How do you feel about judgmentalism? Is it part of what defines you? Do you see the violence inherent in the system?

– Bob

Further Reading

Thinking, Fast and Slow ~ Daniel Kahneman
First Break All the Rules ~ Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman
The Talent Code ~ Daniel Coyle
Bounce ~ Matthew Syed
Talent is Overrated ~ Geoff Colvin
Why Judging People Makes Us Unhappy ~ article
Emotional Energy is More Real Thank You Might Think ~ Blog post at People-Triggers (cf Ego depletion)
Rule 7: Don’t Flip the Bozo Bit ~ Jim McCarthy (video)

Nonviolent Conferencing

Photo of some folks in a nonviolent conference

OK, not so many Agile or business conferences end up in a brawl or other such overt violence. But I have been at several conferences where violent language was rife.

In any case, this post is not about that.

It’s about the use of the principles of nonviolent communication in making better conferences.

“The number one rule of our [NVC] training is empathy before education.”

~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

So, how to encourage and maybe even assure empathy as the primary objective for a conference? Well, having it as the explicit objective might help, for starters. I’ve never been at a conference (of any format) where empathy has been the declared goal.

Of course, many folks in the Agile community are quite close, like family almost, so I note Rosenberg’s caution:

“It may be most difficult to empathize with those to whom we are closest.”

~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

Having been practising nonviolent communication with my nearest and dearest recently, I can attest to the truthiness of this caution.

What is Empathy?

According to Rosenberg:

“Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing.”

I’m thinking here more about sharing an understanding about what folks are experiencing in their at-work situations – although what they’re experiencing at the conference itself has some relevance and interest, too.

The Four Steps of Nonviolent Communication

So, if we take empathy as our primary goal, how might we address the question of a suitable format or structure of a Nonviolent Conference? I suggest the four steps of Nonviolent Communication can guide us:

  1. Say what you saw, or heard (a simple evaluation-free statement)
  2. Say what you felt (it can help, initially, to pick from a list)
    “I feel…”
  3. Say what you need (again here’s a handy list)
    “…because I need/value…”
  4. Make a request (the concrete actions you would like taken)
    “Would you be willing to…?”

How can we convert these steps into a conference format? Here’s my take.

  1. Folks share with each other their observations (things seen, heard or otherwise observed at their places of work, free from judgements or evaluations).
  2. Folks then share what they felt about these things observed.
  3. Folks state what they needed, needs which caused them to feel that way.
  4. Folks make requests (non-demanding, positive, actionable) of the other folks gathered together (i.e. their fellow attendees), in the hope that someone (or some number of those folks, together) might be able to meet that request.

To recap, this is suggesting that:

a) Someone states a context for a request
b) They then make the relevant request

Rinse and repeat. Easy as.

Of course, this might be new to most if not all the attendees. And identifying one’s own feelings, and the needs which cause them, is a skill that develops only with practice. It would be great to have Dr. Rosenberg there to facilitate, of course, but given his busy schedule, maybe we could find some other experienced NVC practitioner(s) to help things along. And the day could open with a demonstration of these four steps by someone who had either rehearsed or was practiced in them.

As to format, I can think of several options:

  • One large room, with everyone taking turns (or drawing straws) to share their context and request.
  • Several smaller rooms or areas, each with some means for serialising access to the “speaker’s” slot.
  • A goldfish-bowl or park-bench setup, with a small self-selecting queue of folks in line to “share and request”.
  • A World Cafe arrangement, where each table is seeded with a “share and request”-er and the other three people at the table attempt to meet the request. This may need some coordination to improve the odds that the three have the wherewithal to meet the request.
  • A series of Pecha Kuchas, with each 20-slide presentation setting the context and closing with a request, subsequently responded-to by members of “the audience”.
  • I’m sure you can come up with other ideas too. Would you be willing to share?

Some Other Pertinent Advices

Other aspects of nonviolent communication have relevance to conferences too, I believe, including:


“Never do anything that isn’t play.”

~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

Which may appeal to the Legoists out there, but let’s also remember Rosenberg’s definition of play. “Play” is any activity where we

“make choices motivated purely by our desire to contribute to life, rather than out of fear, guilt, shame, duty or obligation.”

Aside: I have myself experienced too many “play” sessions where judgement, fear, guilt, shame, duty or obligation were writ large in the proceedings.

Absence of Judgement

“When we judge others we contribute to violence.”

~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

How to give feedback to e.g. speakers and yet remain true to this advice? See the Fours Step of NVC for guidance on that, too. As well as my past blog post “How to Give Feedback“.

“Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need.”

 Absence of Coercion

“Learning is too precious to be motivated by coercive tactics.”

And I’d include “making” people sit and listen to speakers (through social expectations, politeness or lack of alternatives) under the soubriquet of “coercion”.


Not particularly a concept from nonviolent communication, but congruent, and an idea I’d like to see more in conferences everywhere. It’s been my experience that some Open Spaces and Unconferences have scratched the surface of creating a sense of fellowship amongst the folks involved. And I think we can all do so much more in this regard.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”

~ Rumi

– Bob

Further Reading

Beyond Good and Evil: Marshall Rosenberg On Creating a Nonviolent World ~ Dian Killian


Photo of a man revealing a superman logo on his chest under his shirt

Most of us have experienced, or at least heard of, occasions where a potential new hire has been rejected by the hiring company because someone thought the candidate was “overqualified”.

I can understand some hirers fearing candidates that appear to be smarter than they are. There’s that old saw about “‘A’-grade players hire other ‘A’ players, ‘B’s hire ‘C’s – people who don’t threaten them”.

And I can understand the fear that a highly-qualified candidate might find themselves in a job which fails to stretch them, and thus the possibility that they might not stick around in that job for long. Which would entail going through the whole hiring process again in just a few weeks or months.

Note: I say I can understand these fears, not that I regard them as having any merit.

But actually, these two issues are much more often about capability than qualifications (the latter being a poor indication of capability in any case). I suspect people use the term “over-qualified” rather than “over-capable” to cover up their fears – in the hope of making them undiscussable.


So, to speak plainly, some folks are fearful about hiring people who appear more capable than themselves, and some folks fear that highly-capable candidates might not tolerate a situation where their capabilities are being under-used.

To my mind these are two separate issues.

The first – fear of hiring capable people – speaks to the attitudes which might prevail in particular hirers.

I’m more interested in this post to look at the second issue – the fear that highly-capable candidates might leave out of boredom or lack of challenge.

The Path of Decline

Basically, what this says is that in the hiring organisation, good (capable) people will not have the opportunity to do good work. Which speaks to the system (the way the work works) in that organisation. It means that people already within the organisation realise (implicitly or explicitly) that the way the work works is borked. But rather than fix it, hirers choose to hire second- or third-rate candidates. It means that hirers accept that the organisation is going to be stuffed with less-capable people. It means that the organisation – probably unwittingly – has accepted a path of decline (a.k.a. left-drift).

How does your organisation deal with the over-capable candidates? And how often have you been declined, after interview, as over-capable?

– Bob

Further Reading

Discussing the Undiscussable ~ Willam R. Noonan
Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: Chasing After the ‘Purple Squirrel’ ~ Knowledge@Wharton (Book review, interview)

Damning with Fulsome Praise

A cartoon dwarf

Many folks write about how Positive Reinforcement is a Good Thing. Some folks use the grander (yet, smellier?) term “Appreciative Performance Remediation“.

Yet Rosenberg said

“In Nonviolent Communication, we consider praise and complimentsviolent form of communication.

I’m so much with Rosenberg on this one. Here’s a longer extract, with Rosenberg explaining the issue, from the Nonviolent Communication perspective, in some more depth:

“In NVC, we consider praise and compliments a violent form of communication. Because they are part of the language of domination, it is one passing judgment on another. What makes it more complex is that people are trained to use praise as reward, as a manipulation to get people to do what they want. For example, parents I work with, teachers, managers in industry have been trained in courses and by other people to use praise and compliments as rewards. In a family, we are taught that if you praise and compliment children daily, they are more likely to do what you want. Teachers do the same in school to get children to work more. And managers in industry are trained to do this, showing them how to use praise and compliments as rewards. To me, this is a violent form of communication because it is using language as a manipulation that destroys the beauty of sincere gratitude. So in NVC we show people to make sure that before you open your mouth to get clear that the purpose is not to manipulate a person by rewarding them. Your only purpose is to celebrate. To celebrate the life that has been enriched by what the other person has contributed to you. Then, once conscious to make clear three things in this celebration; first, what the person did that enriched your life, not a generality, like ‘your so kind, beautiful, or wonderful’ but what concretely did they do for you. Second, how do you feel inside about their action? And third, what need of yours was fulfilled inside you by their contribution?

“I had just finished saying this to a group of teachers, telling them about the dangers of using praise and complements as rewards. I showed them how to do it this other way and I must not have done a good job of explaining this because afterward, a woman came up and said, ‘You were brilliant.’ I said, ‘That is no help. I have been called a lot of names in my life some positive and some far from positive and I could never recall learning anything of value from someone telling me what I am. I don’t think anybody does but I can see by the look in your eyes you want to express gratitude.’ She said, ‘yes’ and I said, ‘I want to receive it [the gratitude] but telling me what I am doesn’t help.’ She said, ‘What do you want to hear?’ ‘What did I say in the workshop that made life more wonderful for you?’ She said, ‘You are so intelligent.’ I said, ‘That doesn’t help.’ She thought for a moment and then opened her notebook and said, ‘Here these two things that you said really made a difference.’ I said, ‘How do you feel?’ She said, ‘Hopeful and relieved.’ I said, ‘It would help me if I knew what needs of your were met.’ She said, ‘I have this 18 year old son and when we fight, it is horrible. It can go on for days. I have been needing some concrete direction and these two things have made such a difference for me.’

“When I give this example, people can see the difference between praise and gratitude and how different in value both are. In the case of celebration, you can trust it is being done with no manipulation so that you will keep doing it or say something nice about them. Instead, it is really coming from the heart. It is a sincere celebration of the exchange between two people.”

Application to Organisations

This same perspective – that praise and compliments are a violent form of communication – applies at least as much to groups as it does to individuals. And, ultimately, to organisations in toto.

Are you motivated to praise or compliment your teams? Where did you learn that? Do you have any evidence for its efficacy? How likely is it that praise is actually causing more harm than good? How would you know?

Oh yes, praise or compliments may be better than harsh words, criticism, and punishment. But how likely is it that there might be a better way?

Personally, I can imagine some folks subconsciously resenting the attempt at manipulation implicit in receiving praise or compliments.

Might it not be more likely to see folks’ needs met by taking the path of Nonviolent Communication?:

  1. Say what you saw, or heard (a simple evaluation-free statement)
  2. Say what you felt (it can help, initially, to pick from a list)
    “I feel…”
  3. Say what you need (again here’s a handy list)
    “…because I need/value…”
  4. Make a request (the concrete actions you would like)
    “Would you be willing to…?”

Further Reading

Speak Peace in a World of Conflict ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg
Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job” ~ Alfie Kohn
The Four-Part NVC Process
Praise vs Encouragement, Gratitude ~ Duen Hsi Yen

The Ties that Bind

Picture of someone wandering in a maze

Recently, I’ve been studying and practicing Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, along with the ideas of his mentor, Carl Rogers – the founder of the client-centered therapy movement. At the heart of both methods (and many other modern humanistic psychotherapies besides) is Rogers’ idea of Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR).

The idea seems simple, but I find the practise of it extremely challenging – even though the idea is quite congruent with my long-standing Theory Y disposition towards people.

This post explores the concept of UPR, and its relationship with a particular bind I have, and which I see many other folks, especially coaches, struggling with too.

The Bind

The “bind” (for many, a double bind) in question revolves around wanting to change things. In particular, the wish to change things that depend on people (other people) changing e.g. their behaviours, attitudes, assumptions or mindset.

Let’s use an example to help illustrate this general nature of this bind – animal cruelty.

When I see reports of animals, such as cats, dogs or horses, suffering through neglect, starvation, isolation, and other such travails, it makes me sad. It contradicts my need for seeing compassionate treatment for all living things. I realise this as an attachment to a moral or sentimental position, and as the Buddha said:

“Attachment leads to suffering.”

~ Siddhārtha Gautama

So in this example I feel I have at least two options:

  1. Change myself – become more equanimous – so that I might be feel less troubled by, in this case, the actions of others as they affect “innocent” animals.
  2. Change others – i.e. feckless owners – so that fewer animals might suffer from uncaring or otherwise intentionally or unintentionally harsh treatment.

My bind arises because I don’t much like either option. I’m not averse to changing myself, in principle, but abandoning poor defenceless animals forevermore to the whimsy of brutes seems unappealing. Yet the thought of approaching others from a position of wanting them to change, even maybe coercing them to change, however much kindness and Unconditional Positive Regard I might feign, seems at least as unappealing.

UPR – A Definition

Carl Rogers describes Unconditional Positive Regard as “a quality of a therapist’s experience towards their client”.

  • Unconditional
    Someone experiencing UPR holds ‘no conditions of acceptance… It is at the opposite pole from a selective, evaluating attitude.’
  • Positive
    One offers ‘warm acceptance . . . a “prizing” of the person, as Dewey has used that term…It means a caring for the client…’
  • Regard
    One regards ‘each aspect of the client’s experience as being part of that client… It means a caring for the client, but not in a possessive way or in such a way as simply to satisfy the therapist’s own needs. It means caring for the client as a separate person, with permission to have their own feelings, their own experiences.’

Rogers noted that far from being a black-and-while, all-or-nothing experience for the therapist, UPR probably occurs sometimes (‘at many moments’) and not at other times, and to varying degrees.

Rogers theorised that the therapist’s modelling of UPR allows the client to build-up or restore their own positive self-regard.

The Bind in Mind

Moving on then from a general example of the kind of bind I have in mind, we come to my specific case, in the world of organisations. Organisations are of course made up of people. And some of those people sometimes, for their own reasons, can do things which make other folks’ lives less rich and less worth the living.

So, as in the more general example, I see “change agents”, myself included, as having at least two options:

  1. Change myself – become more equanimous – so that I might be feel less troubled by, in this case, the actions of others as they affect their employees and co-workers. After all, I have in some sense chosen to care about this issue.
  2. Change others – i.e. feckless managers, etc. – so that fewer folks might suffer from uncaring or otherwise intentionally or unintentionally harsh treatment.

I find option one highly unpalatable, yet I find option two reeking of judgementalism and contrary to the idea of Unconditional Positive Regard.

I’m sure I’m not the only one struggling with this question. I’m not sure even the Buddha had a good answer. Excepting perhaps:

“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”

~ The Buddha

And although I have no clear answer as to the better (less worse) option, I have at least made peace with myself – and the question. The idea of Unconditional Positive Regard has helped me greatly in finding a nonviolent way forward.

So, I have chosen the path of the humanistic therapist, making myself available to those who have some wish to change themselves, but maybe feel that they need some help in tackling that, someone to walk with them on their journey.

Or more accurately, I have chosen the path of the humanistic organisational therapist, making myself available to those organisations who have some wish to change themselves, but maybe feel that they need some help in tackling that, some companion to walk with them, for a while, on their journey of improving self-regard and well-being.

in other words, and to paraphrase Gandhi:

“We can choose to model the changes we need to see in the world.”

How about you?

Do you struggle with the question of which is the best option?

Do you just let folks get on with their lives? Keep you head down and turn a blind eye to their potential sufferings? Choose to let them – or fate – sort things out?

Or do you try to help, try to get involved when e.g. injustice, ignorance, egregious self-interest or other circumstances cause folks worry, suffering and pain?

And where, if anywhere,  does Unconditional Positive Regard come into that, for you?

– Bob

Further Reading

Unconditional Positive Regard – Constituent Activities ~ James R. Iberg
When Bad Things Happen to Good People ~ Rabbi Harold S Kushner
Nonviolent Communication ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

Who Watches the Watchmen?

A Smiley badge with a bloodstain

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

~ Juvenal (Satires)

No, this ain’t about governance, corruption, Leveson, or our drift as a society towards a police state (maybe another time).

Nor about the Agile community, and the question of who might hold all the pontificating bastards like me to account (deffo one for another day).

It’s about the comic series (and book, film) “Watchmen“.

“Series writer Alan Moore created the main characters to present six “radically opposing ways” to perceive the world, and to give readers of the story the privilege of determining which one was most morally comprehensible.”

~ Wikipedia

Ways to Perceive the World

There’s probably more than Moore’s six ways to perceive the world, and in the Marshall Model I’ve chosen to show only four.

Which of the six main Watchmen characters map to which four organisational mindsets? Not that there’s an obvious or direct mapping, but here’s my take on the question:

The Comedian


“He believes that humans are savage in nature, and that civilization can never be more than an idea.”

This reminds me of the Adhoc mindset, where there’s often a belief that organisation and discipline can never be more than an idea.

Doctor Manhattan


Harder to find a correspondent for Dr Manhattan. Given his affinity with technology and science and his tendency to “grow away from human habits and humanity in general” I might choose the Analytic mindset. But his superhuman powers, especially near-total clairvoyance, make the mapping less than satisfactory. And I’m saving the Analytic mindset for…



A “child prodigy” – as so many Analytic-minded organisations are in their “youth”, he “learned the art of lying” in childhood. Like Alexander the Great, Ozymandias seeks to control the world by any and all means at his disposal. Sounds like a sociopath of the first order, to me.

“One of the worst of his sins is kind of looking down on the rest of humanity, scorning the rest of humanity.”

~ Dave Gibbons



“Rorschach sees existence as random and…this viewpoint leaves the character ‘free to ‘scrawl his own design’ on a ‘morally blank world'”.

Rorschach consistently refuses all compromise. It’s also interesting to note that Wikipedia suggests “he loses all faith in humanity”, whereas I see a different interpretation.

In any case, of the six main Watchmen characters, I see Rorschach as closest to the Chaordic mindset. Even his ever-changing black-and-white mask seems appropriate.

Night Owl II and Silk Spectre II

Nite_Owl Silk_SpectreBoth of these characters are the “good guys” of the plot, with Night Owl II interested in technology and Silk Spectre II (at the outset) girlfriend to Dr Manhattan. Later she becomes the catalyst for Dr Manhattan to rediscover his conscience regarding humanity, albeit briefly.

They both have “difficult childhoods”. And both have more compassion and humanity than the other characters.

Accordingly, I’d say these two are closest of the six to the “Synergistic” mindset. Although they don’t seem to do much systems thinking.


How do you see these mappings working out? And at least as interestingly, perhaps, which character, which way to perceive the world, resonates best with you? And which way to perceive the world is most in line with your current workplace?

– Bob

Fellows of the Human Spirit

I love this recent article by Margaret Wheatley. As it was buried in a larger document (see p32-34), I thought I’d extract it and share it here.

Meg uses the term “Warriors” (explained in the piece), in a way that for me seems very much like my understanding and usage of the term “Fellowship”. Hence the title chosen by me here.

Margaret Wheatley

An invitation

For many years now, I have been inspired, motivated and comforted by a prophecy from Tibetan Buddhism of impending darkness and the summoning of the warriors. Although this word ‘warrior’ has connotations of force and aggression, it means something very different in Tibetan culture. The Tibetan word for warrior, pawo, means one who is brave, one who vows never to use aggression. I practice for this kind of warriorship in a lineage based on the prophecy of the Shambhala warriors. My vow is to refrain, as best I can, from adding to the aggression and fear of this time.

The story (and prophecy) of Shambhala and its warriors concerns an ancient kingdom of wise and conscious people, ruled by enlightened kings. Its people were unusual in that they had no anxiety. Free from fear, they were able to create an enlightened society.

The prophecy states that when all life on Earth is in danger, and the future of sentient life hangs by the frailest of threads, the kingdom of Shambhala emerges. You cannot tell who these warriors are by their appearance; they look like normal people. Their weapons are compassion and insight. Well-trained in their use, they go into the corridors of power and dismantle the beliefs and behaviours that are destroying life. When I first heard this, I was moved by the description of the warriors. Perhaps you see yourself in this description, or are curious to see what it might mean. This is my invitation to you, and all of us caught in systems of degenerate power. We are free to choose a new role for ourselves, to transform our grief, outrage, frustration and exhaustion into the skills of insight and compassion, to serve this dark time as warriors for the human spirit.

Images for this time

I’m sitting on the banks of the Virgin river in Zion National Park in Utah, my favourite place on the planet. The river has been flowing through this magnificent canyon for two million years, creating one of earth’s most sacred places. It’s a dry winter, the river is low, ambling along. I’ve been here at other times when it’s fierce and destructive. Next time it will be different again. I’ve learned a lot from rivers. They take many forms, yet never lose their way, to the ocean.

The Hopi Elders describe our time as a river flowing very fast, great and swift. They warn us not to hold on to the shore because those who do “will be torn apart and suffer greatly.” They encourage us to push off into the middle of the river and to keep our heads above water. These river images however, even the turbulent ones, no longer describe this time for me. and what I’m seeing and how I’m feeling. It is Yeats’ dark vision that speaks to me, written in 1919 in the troubled years of the first World War:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned …”

A confession of innocence

Many of us, certainly I’d describe myself in these terms, were anxiously engaged in “the ceremony of innocence.” We didn’t think we were innocents, but we were. We thought we could change the world. We even believed that, with sufficient will and passion, we could “create a world,” one that embodied our aspirations for justice, equality, opportunity, peace, a world where, in Paulo Freire’s terms, “it would be easier to love.” This vision, this hope, this possibility motivated me for most of my life. It still occasionally seduces me but I’m learning to resist the temptation. I no longer believe that we can save the world.

Powerful, life-destroying dynamics have been set in motion which cannot be stopped. We’re on a disastrous course with each other and with the planet. We’ve lost track of our best human qualities and forgotten the real sources of satisfaction, meaning and joy. I feel clear in saying that greed, self-interest and coercive power are destroying the very life force of this planet. I don’t know whether such destruction is intentional or not, but I observe it happening everywhere. I was hit in the face with this while in South Africa in November 2011. South Africa is the country of my heart, always teaching me about the depths of human experience – I’ve been working there since 1995, this was my fourteenth visit. In the years of Mandela, hope was palpable. Everyone seemed to be starting projects to tackle huge social problems, eager to work with others to create the New South Africa. They understood the complexity of all the issues, they knew it was ‘a long walk to freedom’ and they had great faith in their future.

But now, for many reasons, hope is hard to find and the good people who have created successful projects and built effective NGOs are exhausted & demoralized. They keep doing their work, but it’s now a constant struggle. They struggle for funds, they struggle with inept, corrupt bureaucracy, they struggle with the loss of community and the rise of self-interest, they struggle with the indifference of the newly affluent. The dream of a new nation of possibility, equality, and justice has fallen victim to the self-serving behaviours of those with power. Please do not think this is only true in South Africa. It’s happening everywhere, as you may have noticed.

Indestructible motivation

By stating that we cannot change the world, I do not intend to bury our motivation in despair. Quite the contrary. My intention is that we do our work with greater resolve and energy, with more delight and confidence, even as we understand that it won’t turn this world around. Our work is essential; we just have to hold it differently. This was beautifully described by Vaclav Havel, leader of the Velvet Revolution, the poet playwright who then became president of the new Czech Republic: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

How do we find this deep confidence that, independent of results, our work is the right work for us to be doing? How do we give up needing hope to be our primary motivator? How do we replace hope of creating change with confidence that we’re doing the right work? Hope is such a dangerous source of motivation. It’s an ambush, because what lays in wait is hope’s ever-present companion, fear – the fear of failing, the despair of disappointment, the bitterness and exhaustion that can overtake us when our best, most promising efforts are rebuked, undone, ignored, destroyed. As someone commented, “Expectation is premeditated disappointment.”

My great teachers these days are people who no longer need hope in order to do their work, even though their projects and organizations began with bright, hope-filled dreams. As “the blood-dimmed tide” of greed, fear, and oppression drowns out their voices and washes away their good work, they become more committed to their work, not because it will succeed, but just because it is right for them to be doing it. I watch their inner struggles and bouts with despair, but mostly what I notice is their perseverance and confidence. They see how bad it is, they know it is getting worse, they realize their work won’t create the changes they have worked hard for all these years. Yet they continue to do their work because they know it is theirs to do. Sometimes they say, “I can’t not do this.” Other times they ask, “What else would I be doing if not this?”

These brave people are true warriors. Seeing as clearly as they can, hearts as open as they can bear, they keep doing their work. They know how systems of power work and they try to discern wise actions. Though in frequent battles with politicians, leaders and bureaucrats, they strive to keep their hearts open, to not succumb to anger and aggression. Work is filled with constant challenges, and they know there will be many more.

Perhaps you see yourself already working in this way, persevering because you feel you have no other choice. Or perhaps you still feel you can save the world by work- ing harder, faster or by connecting with others to take on big change projects. My only request is that as you do your work, you become curious about finding a more enduring source of motivation than needing your work to bear fruit, to be successful in creating positive and enduring change. Beyond hope and fear, there is clarity available, the clarity of knowing that this work is ours to do no matter what. We may succeed, we may fail – but no matter what, we will continue to persevere on behalf of other human beings.

As we do this, we learn how to be warriors for the human spirit, and we find the few others who have also claimed this role.

– Bob

Further Reading

Margaret Wheatley Archive

How Likely is It?

Photo of an 8 ball

This month’s Vanguard Newsletter arrived in my inbox today. There’s always something interesting in it. This time I found this sentiment:

“No amount of evidence can shift a mind-set.”

~ John Seddon

Coincidentally, I came across this Feynman quote this morning and wondered.

“A scientist is never certain. We all know that. We know that all our statements are approximate statements with different degrees of certainty; that when a statement is made, the question is not whether it is true or false but rather how likely it is to be true or false. ‘Does God exist?’ When put in the questional form, ‘how likely is it?’ It makes such a terrifying transformation of the religious point of view, and that is why the religious point of view is unscientific. We must discuss each question within the uncertainties that are allowed.”

~ Richard Feynman

So, how likely is it that evidence will shift organisations out of their ineffective mindsets?

Maybe if we phrase our “challenging questions” as Feynman suggests, we may at least begin to make these topics discussable, and thence amenable to ‘scientific’ enquiry? Would this be one possible entry point into the shifting of mind-sets?

Some Examples

“How likely is it that ‘management’ is an idea still relevant for business? For our business?”

“How likely is it that if we place trust in people, things will fall apart?”

“How likely is it that if we coerce people they will appreciate it and work harder?”

“How likely is it that punishment or the implied threat of punishment will motivate people to do a better job?”

“How likely is it that avoiding conflict and the discussion of ‘taboo’ subjects will help us address our problems?”

“How likely is it that us focussing our attention on controlling costs will help our customers better achieve their purpose?”

“How likely is it that expecting folks to be busy all the time will produce the good behaviours – like innovation, creativity, engagement, quality and customer service – we want to see?

“How likely is it that the way we hire people, and the people we hire, will help our business change in the ways we’d like to see?”

How likely is it that reframing these questions will encourage folks to more often and more effectively consider the issues?

– Bob

Further Reading

On the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society ~ Richard Feynman

Memes of the Four Memeplexes

In the course of working to Map the Memeplexes of the Marshall Model, I’ve got as far as listing what I regard as key memes in each of the four memeplexes (a.k.a. organisational mindsets). To remind myself – and to keep you dear readers posted – here they are. (Expect some further amendments, not least in the light of hoped-for comments and suggestions).

What are these memes?

The memes listed below are the various – and interlocking – assumptions or beliefs held by the folks working in an organisation, in the context of their membership of that organisation. Any individual may hold some other beliefs or assumptions outside of “work”, but these are the prevailing – and most often, implicit – beliefs and assumptions when they are a member of a group.


  • Being “organised” takes too much time, doesn’t pay back, and isn’t much fun
  • “Stability” is outside of our vocabulary
  • “Discipline” is outside of our vocabulary
  • “Planning” is outside of our vocabulary
  • Personal advancement comes from visibly working hard (long hours)
  • Hard work (long hours) brings results
  • Focus is random and ephemeral
  • “Communication” is outside of our vocabulary
  • We have little to learn from e.g. outside
  • “Justice” is the prerogative of the owners (aka feudalism)
  • Work should be done any way possible (JFDI)
  • “Theory” (particularly, about people) is outside of our vocabulary
  • “Slack” is outside of our vocabulary
  • “Organisation” is irrelevant


  • People aren’t up to – nor up for – being trusted
  • Avoid inter-personal conflict
  • Deny emotions
  • Discipline must be imposed (extrinsic)
  • Stability is paramount
  • Predictability is desirable – and best secured through control (coercion, compulsion)
  • Personal advancement comes from looking busy whilst keeping your head down
  • Hard work is someone else’s problem
  • The organisation is a machine
  • Focus is unusual and hard to sustain
  • “Communication” is (simply) what happens when people interact
  • Too much “communication” is dangerous
  • Learning is overrated (too much trouble, insufficient payback)
  • “Justice” should be punitive a.k.a. authoritarianism
  • Work should be done in projects
  • Theory X applies (cf McGregor)
  • Slack is bad, busy is good, utilisation is all
  • Homogeneity, uniformity is good
  • Optimise the separate parts of the organisation to ensure optimisation of the whole
  • Improvement comes about out-of-band, through e.g. carefully managed change programmes
  • Common sense is just that – common
  • Decision-making is a natural talent, and requires drive and dynamism
  • Productivity is a consequence of individual efforts and talents


  • Shared, common purpose is the key to effectiveness
  • Transparency is good
  • Dialogue is good and requires skill, and practice to develop
  • Discipline comes from inside (Intrinsic)
  • Much work is planned, each plan becomes irrelevant over time
  • Trust is necessary, and based on vulnerability and openness
  • Conflict can be productive if approached skilfully
  • Embrace emotions
  • The organisation is like a living organism (complex adaptive system)
  • Stability is desirable
  • Personal advancement is a chimera
  • Hard work is pointless (the way the work works is the governor)
  • Focus is constant
  • “Communication” is an organisational capability which requires conscious development (of e.g. skills)
  • One can never have too much communication
  • We place much value on learning
  • “Justice” should be remediative (restitutional)
  • Work should flow
  • Theory Y applies (cf McGregor)
  • Slack is good, busy is bad, utilisation is madness
  • Heterogeneity, diversity is good
  • Optimising the separate parts of the organisation will ensure sub-optimisation of the whole
  • Improvement comes about in-band, through e.g. a separate focus on continual improvement
  • Common sense is highly counter-intuitive, and thus uncommon
  • Decision-making is prone to all kinds of hidden cognitive biases, and requires care
  • Productivity is a consequence of the system (the way the work works), not individuals (Deming’s 95/5 rule applies)


  • Instability is desirable, a necessary capability
  • Discipline is a given (self-discipline, organisational discipline)
  • Awareness is a given (self-awareness, organisational awareness)
  • All work is planned, plans are immediately redundant
  • Focus is laser sharp and yet capable of instant redirection
  • Hard work (long hours) undermines positive opportunism
  • Too much communication can hamper instability and a rapid reaction to events
  • We just can’t ever learn fast enough
  • Work should be in a “constant state of ship”
  • Heterogeneity, diversity is essential
  • There’s no time for optimisations
  • Improvement happens as a natural, automatic consequence of doing business (BAU)
  • Decision-making cannot be trusted, experimentation can reduce hidden biases
  • Productivity is a consequence of the opportunities pursued

As mentioned above, I’d love for you to contribute to this shared endeavour. Maybe you’d care to post a comment, below?

– Bob

Further Reading

Product Development for the Lean Enterprise (“The Blue Book”) ~ Michael Kennedy
Goodbye, Command and Control ~ Margaret Wheatley
Freedom From Command and Control ~ John Seddon
Leadership and the New Science ~ Margaret Wheatley

Peter Picked a Peck of Profound Purpose

Photo of a knot in a thick sisal rope

The one key thing that most clearly separates typical organisations from their more effective cousins is purpose. Not just having a purpose – god knows few enough typical organisations can lay claim to that – but having the conscious understanding that a well-understood, over-communicated and widely-shared purpose is crucial to effectiveness in general, and their own effectiveness, in particular.

“A shared purpose is… a force in people’s hearts, a force of impressive power… At its simplest level, a shared purpose is the answer to the question, ‘What do we want to create?’ A shared purpose is a picture that everyone in the company carries in their heads and hearts.”

~ Peter M. Senge

So we all know this, yes? Why write (yet) another blog post on this sad and sorry topic? Is there anything left to say?

Aside from recent constructive suggestions I’ve received regarding the value of repetition, it seems the basic message regarding the power of purpose is not reaching the folks who, typically, have the nominal responsibility to set and communicate said shared purpose.

Not that “set” is such a good verb to use, nor a beneficial strategy for arriving at a shared purpose. After all, the “shared” is as relevant as the “purpose”.

“The modern organization, cannot be an organization of boss and subordinate. It must be organised as a team.”

~ Peter Drucker

Anyways, back to the knitting: Why do so few organisations and senior management invest in the discovery, sharing, and evolution of their organisation’s purpose? It seems a very common observation, this lack of investment. Of all my clients over the years, each and every one has played the “let’s talk about purpose” game, has nodded sagely every time the subject comes up, and yet not one has actually done anything material about it.

I propose it has to be, ultimately, a normative experience. That is, it’s so fundamental, so far-reaching in its import and impact, the power of shared purpose is not something ever likely to be taken “on faith”. Or on the say-so of a consultant, or a book. After all, moving from unilateral control to something closer to consensus and mutual learning can seem very scary. Jack Stack for one writes about this, very entertainingly.

I believe that it’s only by seeing the power of purpose, in their own organisations, that folks can begin to realise that the idea really does have power. It’s only by seeing the power of purpose in action that folks can come to see how it catalyses collaboration, trust, engagement, synergy, and all the other good things that organisations wish for – but so rarely experience.

I’m not suggesting that it’s a magic bullet, or that it’s the only meme that needs to take root for the synergistic mindset to flourish. But absent shared purpose, the other memes of the synergistic mindset will have next to zero chance to germinate.

So, don’t take my word for it. How about making a start on discovering and sharing your organisation’s true purpose – and seeing the results, one way or another –  for yourselves? Are you even just the teeniest bit curious now to find out?

– Bob

Further Reading

The Fifth Discipline ~ Peter M. Senge
The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook ~ Peter M. Senge et al.
Common Purpose ~ Joel Kurtzman
The New Realities ~ Peter F. Drucker
Solving Tough Problems ~ Adam Kahane
The World Cafe ~ Juanita Brown and David Isaacs
Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive ~ Patrick M. Lencioni
The Great Game of Business ~ Jack Stack


The Next Revolution

Photo of some fists held high in common protest

I’m not given to pontificating on the future, but I do like to keep an eye on trends and the bigger (emerging) picture. Not least because I enjoy learning about new ideas, and so as to be ready to take things – such as effectiveness – to the next level, as the world allows.

In the unlikely event you’ve not noticed, I’ll just remind you that my focus over the past year has been on things psychological, and in particular, Organisational Psychotherapy. I’m sure a whole passel of folks think this quite strange for someone who has been up to his eyeballs in technology for over thirty years.

“A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

~ Wayne Gretzky

I’ve become increasingly convinced over the past several years that the “puck” is going to be in the psychology half of the rink in the future. Actually, I don’t think it’s ever really been elsewhere – but folks are going to begin paying real attention to all aspects of psychology sometime soon.

Just this week Rory Sutherland (“the fat bloke at Ogilvy”) has been speaking at TEDxAmsterdam about how

“The next revolution will be psychological, not technological”.

~ Rory Sutherland, Ogilvy

I find myself in complete agreement with his general premise, as explained in his video from TED Athens recorded late last year (circa: 09:23, in particular).

Slide showing venn diagram of technology, economics and psychology intersecting

This slide from his talk illustrates his point about the value of looking at all three of Technology, Economics AND Psychology – the “sweet spot” where all three intersect – in making business decisions.

“Google is as much psychological success as it is a technological one.”

~ Rory Sutherland

Many in the software field focus on technology – still, although less so these days. Some, particular those with a Product Development bent (cf “The Don” Reinertsen) on economics. And some, like coaches, on aspects of psychology. I feel we’re overdue in taking the latter seriously.

How Soon?

So just how soon is all this likely to happen? How long will it be before things psychological begin to noticeably impact business, politics, and society too?

I’ll hazard a guess and say In my lifetime. Before I retire, even. Although I’m not confident in making a prediction much more specific than that.

As the novelist William GIbson – a much more renowned futurologist – famously said:

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

~ WIlliam Gibson, in “The Science in Science Fiction”
on Talk of the Nation, NPR

Implications for Business

Think of the pervasive influence technology – under the label “IT” – has had on the structures of businesses everywhere.

Think of the IT department for example…, the IT helpdesk…, or the CIO and CTO roles.

Will we see a “Psych” department emerge, with a “Psych helpdesk” offering real-time advice on psychology issues across the business? Will we see a “Head of Psych” or a “Chief Psych Officer”? Will a “Psych department” undertake “psych” projects to deliver psychological improvements and psychological “infrastructure” into the wider organisation?

Maybe, during the transition. But the lamentable –  from a psychological perspective, not least – dysfunctions inherent in these ideas will become apparent soon enough.

I’m sure you can make some extrapolations and predications based on this scenario, too.

Organisational Psychology

Group Dynamics and group psychology has been around as a field of psychology since at least the 1890s. Although (individual) psychology and its close cousin neuroscience will be applied more and more to e.g. marketing, I believe it’s organisational psychology in all its forms and applications that has most to offer business, and society as a whole.

Let’s not forget though, that the concept of an organisational psyche is just a model of reality, and although useful, somewhat “wrong”  (cf. George Box).

To paraphrase Ludwig von Mises:

“It is an enormous simplification to speak of the organisational mind. Every employee in an organisation has their own mind.”

Are You Ready?

Are you ready for the coming shift from technology to psychology? What are you doing to get ready? Is it even a shift you want to be a part of?

I know some folks who live and breathe to work with tech. Working with people from a psychological perspective seems like it might be a nightmare for some.

Even for coaches, and other folks whose roles already involve working with people and their psyches more than technology, it’s going to be a major shift of focus.

Not all at once, of course. But over time, seismic.

Further Reading

Perspective is Everything: Rory Sutherland (TED Athens, video)
The Dilution Model: How Additional Goals Undermine the Perceived Instrumentality of a Shared Path ~ Ayelet Fishbach et al.
Chunking as a Decision Making Tool ~ Jon Griffin
Emotioneering at the BCS ~ Bob Marshall
The Twelve Points of Leverage in a System ~ Donella Meadows

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