Monthly Archives: October 2013



“People are not the point of intervention.”

~ John Seddon

John uses “point” here to mean “locus”. Put another way, he’s reminding us that if we want to see things get better, we should avoid attempting to “fix” people and rather “fix” the systems – how the work works – instead.

I wrote a post some time ago on this very topic.

But people are the point of interventions.
Here I use “point” to mean “reason” (as in basis, cause, justification).

Changing the way the work works only makes sense if the changes meet folks’ needs (or allow folks’ needs to be met in better, more effective ways).

In Patrick Lencioni’s “Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive”, his fourth obsession is:

“Reinforce organisational clarity through human systems”.

I see this as a precursor to the Antimatter Principle. Specifically, that we CAN choose to construct ways for the work to work that allow our organisations to systematically “attend to folks’ needs”.

I’ll continue to write about the nature of such systems, with practical examples and useful techniques drawn from personal experience, over the coming months.

– Bob

What Are Needs?

The Antimatter Principle suggests we might like to approach “work” from the perspective of attending to folks’ needs. This in turn suggests that we might find it useful to have a shared understanding of what we mean by “needs”.

In software – and product – development, folks might feel they already have a working definition of the term “needs”. Many software and product development conversations revolve around what the (generic) customer might need, or even what a particular individual customer might need. Often these “needs” are expressed in the form of more-or-less elaborated User Stories, Use Cases, or some other form of so-called “functional requirements”. Some few teams may go so far as delving into the non-functional requirements of the software or products – or policies, or the way the work works – under development.

Deep Emotional Needs

These more or less familiar “needs” are not the needs I have in mind when proposing the Antimatter Principle. Rather, I’m thinking of the deep, emotional needs of the folks involved.

For example, we might all recognise a statement from a CFO like “I need to be able to close each month’s books within 3 days of the end of each calendar month.” Or even “I need to present monthly accounts within the first three days of each new month”. More unfamiliar perhaps might be a statement such as “I need to appear consistently competent in the eyes of the board, my peers, my staff, and the regulatory folks.”  Or “I need to feel confident that things are under control and running smoothly enough so I have time to be on the Golf course every week”. The latter statements open many more doors for discovering – and doing – what matters, than do the former.

This Needs Inventory illustrates a range of these deeper emotional needs.

Problems and Opportunities

This presents problems and opportunities both. The most obvious and immediate problem I have regularly seen is folks who – for various reasons – don’t want to express their real, emotional needs. After all, talking about one’s emotional needs to other folks in the workplace is not such a commonplace event. Add hierarchy and power structures into that melange and the difficulties can assume biblical proportions. In many organisations, even the whiff of being “needy” can quickly become career-limiting. Another challenge is in finding reasonably truthful representations of folks’ expressions of needs – so they can be shared with all those who might want to be aware of them, for example. And then there’s the question of confidentiality. Who gets to see these intimate expressions of needs?

All these challenges can quickly add up. And in organisations where trust is low and emotions, feelings and needs can get quickly swept under the carpet, even broaching the subject of the Antimatter Principle can prove, erm, fraught.

So why would we want to open up this particular can of worms? Well, for the benefits, of course. One immediately obvious benefit is in contributing to folks’ vulnerability and thereby the building of trust within and across the organisation. More beneficial though, although maybe less obvious, is the opening up of folks’ personal agendas. People can begin to work on meeting real needs, not just churning through make-work. This provides for both an immediate double-whammy and a virtuous circle.

The double-whammy is that a) more of the organisation’s resources are committed to things that really count for something – meeting people’s needs, and b) folks feel like what they’re doing has some real meaning for once.

The virtuous circle is that as folks talk more about their emotional needs, these conversations build trust, more humane relationships, and a healthier, more enlightened organisation, which encourages folks to open up and talk more about their emotional needs, which…. and so on.

Starting Small

From the outset, most folks will likely not want – nor know how – to talk about their deeper emotional needs. Nor share them with all and sundry. So early conversations will likely revolve around more prosaic and superficial needs. Such as product features, user stories, and so on. This is all to be expected, and any conversation in my book is an opportunity for folks to develop deeper relationships – as and when they feel comfortable in doing so. The Antimatter Principle plays a crucial role here in providing the necessary crucible for encouraging this kind of evolution of deeper dialogue.


Needs are not generally obvious at first sight, even to the person having the need. Rather, we might hypothesise about a need, then try to get it met – for example, by making one or more refusable requests. Only once we have seen our requests fulfilled can we evaluate whether what we thought was going to meet our need actually has.


Discovery of folks’ needs happens serendipitously. That is, we can never know just when someone might become conscious of a need (although we can choose to apply techniques which increase our chances). So discovery is an ongoing process, and the way our work works might benefit from recognising this. We’re always operating on imperfect knowledge, in any case. If we can line things up such that each newly discovered need – and the accompanying refusable request(s) – gets quickly shared and adopted into the general pattern of what it is we’re trying to achieve, then so much the better. So folks might already know this as “inspect and adapt”.

– Bob

Further Reading

Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together ~ William Isaacs

Who Needs Kanbans?

[Tl;Dr: Which elements of the way the work works in your organisation exist to serve a real need of an actual person? All elements which do not are waste.]

I don’t intend this as a rhetorical question. But rather as an opportunity to consider the Antimatter Principle via a practical example.

Note: This is a revision of my “Who Needs Retrospectives” post, for all the Kanban folks out there who may find the idea of per-sprint retrospective less than relevant.

Make Work Visible

By “kanbans” I’m meaning (here) the visible boards, cards, etc. that Kanbaners typically use to make the work visible.

On the face of it, Kanban teams often choose a kanban of some sort in order to help them make their work visible. Making the work (more) visible is one of the key practices (a.k.a. rules) of all the various flavours of Kanban. Visualising the work offers opportunities for the team to better understand their work, and how they’re handling it.

Making the work visible can be quite handy for those teams where folks have found they have a need to better understand their work; how it arrives, how it flows through the team, where the sticking points and issues are, and so on.

Aside: Some teams may have been ”told” to make their work more visible, and so have a need for a kanban to keep their employers happy. We might imagine that – in this case – the need is someone else’s. A higher-up, somewhere. A need often poorly articulated and maybe not well understood. Other teams may have decided themselves that making their work more visible affords them an opportunity to meet their intrinsic need for learning and improving the way they handle their work. Others again may have embraced the new frame of the Antimatter Principle, and become aware of the need to make more visible how well – or poorly – they’re doing, day to day, with getting everyone’s needs met.

No Need

But often, teams have no such needs. These teams may be in organisations where a shared understanding of the work is not a priority. Or the folks in these teams may not have found any intrinsic need to understand their work. Or they may not have yet embraced the Antimatter Principle. If no such needs exist, then any attempts at making the work more visible will never be anything more than “going through the motions”. In other words, a cosmetic exercise, busywork with no purpose. In such situations, how likely is it that anything of value will emerge from making the work more visible?

Of course, so-called kanbans may be serving other needs, such as a salve to higher-ups, who may have a need to be comforted by seeing one. Or folks’ need to understand more about kanbans, or their need to make their resumes look more attractive. Camouflaging these needs under the label “making the work more visible” may be necessary in certain organisational climes. But in these circumstances, these artefacts are kanbans in name only.

So, in your organisation, whose needs are the kanbans serving? Maybe if you can find out who, you can go ask them just what their need is, and thereby come up with some outcomes that your kanbans can deliver. Otherwise, you’re just expending wasted effort in making the work visible – or pretending to – without any impact.

– Bob

Who Needs Retrospectives?

[Tl;Dr: Which elements of the way the work works in your organisation exist to serve a real need of an actual person? All elements which do not are waste.]

I don’t intend this as a rhetorical question. But rather as an opportunity to consider the Antimatter Principle via a practical example.

Note: In a previous post I wrote about the problems with retrospectives, and some possible solutions to same. What I DIDN’T raise in that post was: the need for retrospectives of any sort.


On the face of it, a team – for example, a Scrum team – needs retrospectives, or something similar, to help them improve their ways of working. This is the “Check” step in the Plan-Do-Check-Act Shewhart Cycle. Retrospectives offer an opportunity for the team to check (study) their ways of working, and consider how well their ways of working are serving them – how well their ways of working are serving them in getting folks’ needs met more generally.

Retrospectives can be quite handy for those teams where folks have found they have a need to improve. We might choose to express this more specifically as “…teams where folks have found they have a need to improve their ways of getting folks’ needs met”.

Aside: Some teams may have been ”told” to improve, and so have a need to improve to keep their employers happy. We might imagine that – in this case – the need is someone else’s. A higher-up, somewhere. Other teams may have found some intrinsic need to improve, such as a desire to learn more, or “become all they can be”. Others again may have embraced the new frame of the Antimatter Principle, and become aware of the need to continually find better ways of getting everyone’s needs met.

No Need

But for the vast majority of teams I have seen, no such need exists. These teams may be in organisations where improvement is not a priority. Or the folks in these teams may not have found any intrinsic need to improve. Or they may not have embraced the Antimatter Principle. If no such need exists, then any attempts at retrospectives will never be anything more than “going through the motions”. In other words, busywork with no purpose. In such situations, how likely is it that anything of value will emerge from the retrospective sessions?

Of course, so-called retrospective sessions may be serving other needs, such as providing a collective break from the daily grind of sprints. Or the chance to get together to chat socially. Camouflaging these needs under the label “retrospective” may be necessary in certain organisational climes. But in these circumstances, these sessions are retrospectives in name only.

So, in your organisation, whose needs are retrospectives serving? Maybe if you can find out who, you can go ask them just what their need is, and thereby come up with some outcomes that your retrospectives can deliver. Otherwise, you’re just retrospecting – or pretending to – in the dark.

– Bob

The Tyranny of Method

Tl;Dr: The idea of “method” a.k.a. process, a.k.a. methodology as a means to improvement has had its day. The damage it has caused, and its occlusion of alternatives, must come to an end. Let’s bury the idea of “method”.



“Method” is a zombie meme. It’s been dead a long time, but still staggers on, seeking new brainzzz of the living upon which to feed.

It’s time to lay the idea of “Method” to rest.

Rest In Peace, Method.

[If you would like me to elaborate this post, please let me know. 🙂 ]

– Bob

Further Reading

Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method: A Brief Take ~ Blog post

One Principle, One Agendum

helping On the face of it, my most recent job was very different to some other gigs I’ve had over the years. A Novice Analytic organisation, trying hard to become Competent Analytical and spending untold millions of pounds in the process – on things like policies, structure, controls, compliance and the whole nine yards.

The Problem

The immediate problem was the borkedness of the organisation’s whole approach to software and tech product development. Like so many other organisations, quality was low, deadlines regularly and repeatedly missed, costs out of line with expectations – the usual problems.

The Answer

Yet “the answer” was, as ever, summed up by the Antimatter Principle:

“Attend to folks’ needs.”

Of course, given the nature of the organisation, there was from the outset a fundamental question as to whether this was going to fly, and after some six months it had become patently clear that the answer was “no”.

The folks holding the reins – and the purse strings – appeared unable to transcend their existing beliefs and assumptions, even as it meant they were frustration their own needs being met. Not to mention the needs of e.g. customers, shareholders, and employees.

One Principle

I’ve written several posts recently about the Antimatter Principle. This one principle is all any knowledge-work organisation need adopt. All things, all beneficial outcomes, can flow from a focus on this one principle. I suspect most folks don’t even begin to understand just how much of a sea change this is. Or maybe most folks believe that, like in my recent job, it’s never going to fly. Well, many things we see in the workplace now were once inconceivable. And ineffectiveness remains the rule throughout organisations of all kinds. Isn’t finding better ways what we’re focussed on? At least, for some of us? Personally, I’d much prefer working with those very few organisations where it could fly, today.

“Everything in Theory of Constraints comes down to one word: FOCUS.”

~ Eliyahu M. Goldratt

Similarly, one could say that – from the perspective of the Antimatter Principle – everything in making knowledge-work organisations more effective comes down to one word: NEEDS.

One Agendum

Implicit in the Antimatter Principle is but one agenda item: When we attend to everyone’s needs – including, don’t forget, our own – everything else takes care of itself. Or more exactly, everything else – all needs, of all folks – is taken care of by those folks. If some folks need effective services delivered to them by others, that’s what happens. If some folks need to see things improving, folks attend to that.

Modus Operandi

Neither “big change”, nor “start with the status quo”, but “start where folks feel they need to start, and change as quickly or as slowly as folks feel they each – and collectively – need to change”.


The healthy and effective application of the Antimatter Principle – if some folks need it applied healthily or effectively – is predicated on folks acquiring skills in e.g. meaningful dialogue and humane relationships. In a circular fashion, the Antimatter Principle – even from the outset, when folks may be quite unskilled – will contribute to the acquisition of those skills – as and when needed.


Some people have asked me what happens when different folks’ needs are in conflict. For me, this is a non-question, assuming as it does that folks will pursue their own needs at the expense of others’.

“What people enjoy more than anything else is willingly contributing to each other’s wellbeing.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Try this short thought experiment:

Think of an occasion recently when you’ve done something that has enriched some else’s life. How does it feel right now to be conscious you have this power to contribute to people’s well-being? Can you think of anything in the world that’s more enjoyable than contributing to people’s wellbeing?

I share the NVC view that:

“Compassionate giving is what people MOST enjoy doing.”

New Frame

I’ve written recently about the Antimatter Principle being a profoundly new frame. Marshall Rosenberg sums this up well:

“We need as a society to have a different consciousness, based on ‘compassionate giving’.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

The Commercial Angle

If you’ve managed to read this far without clicking away in disgust or exasperation, I’d like to close this post with a few words about the commercial angle. Most businesses exist (ostensibly) to make money. Even those who dispute this – such as Russell Ackoff, Bill Deming, and Art Kleiner – suggest other reasons for businesses to exist. In any case, I’m no hippy idealist, pleading for humanity (just) on the basis of moral or ethical arguments. Rather, I have seen so many times, in so many organisations, what happens when people’s needs are ignored – and what CAN happen when folks needs receive the focus of everyone’s attention. Outcomes (profits, status, lifestyles, or whatever we can agree is the goal) improve massively when folks come together as an active community engaged in compassionate giving. And the outcome that most occupies me – the realisation of human potential – is massively increased, too.


I remain flabbergasted at the number of organisations and people – executives, managers and workers all – who fail to realise this. Or choose to ignore it. It’s the world we live in, I guess.

“When I look at the world I’m pessimistic, but when I look at people I am optimistic.”

~ Carl Rogers

I remain hopeful that one day – please, oh please let it be one day soon – folks will wake up to the amazing possibilities at the heart of the Antimatter Principle. How about you? Have you awoken?

– Bob

Silos and Tribes

Of all the conferences I attend, I can’t think of one where this phenomenon is absent. The phenomenon I’m talking about is the tendency of groups of specialists to promote their own specialism as “the answer” to the ills of their organisations – or even of wider society.

UXers, UIers, testers, developers, Agile coaches, marketers, salespeople, accountants, HR, ops folks, architects, managers, psychotherapists, CxOs… the list goes on.

Of course folks want, and need, to believe that what they do – their skills, their experiences, their specialisms, their choices – matters.

And it’s a deeply human foible to feel safer and more comfortable when clustered together amongst like-minded fellows sharing an ostensibly common cause. Not that such tribalism is either good or bad, per se.

What is a Silo?

Just in case you’ve not thought too much about the term “silo”, I use it here in reference to the slicing of organisations along lines of specialism. Hence we find most organisations comprised of many “specialist” departments, such as Finance, HR, IT, Strategy, Ops, Manufacturing, Logistics, and so on.

Organisational silos are a classic manifestation of what Professor Russell Ackoff refers to as “Analytic thinking”. The – almost universal – belief that managing each silo to optimise its performance in isolation, will contribute to the better performance of the organisation as a whole, is a fallacy of the first order.

As he reminds us:

“Reductionistic and analytic thinking derives properties of wholes from the properties of their parts. Holistic and synthetic thinking derive properties of parts from properties of the whole that contains them.

In general, [most folks] do not understand that improvement in the performance of parts of a system taken separately may not, and usually does not, improve performance of the system as a whole. In fact, it may make system performance worse or even destroy it.”

~ Russell L. Ackoff

As long as we each try to improve the competence and contribution of our respective specialisms, we are in fact all playing an unwitting part in a giant conspiracy to make our organisations worse, and our lives within them ever more frustrating.

Tribalism and Factionalism

Outside of some in the Agile community, I don’t see many folks who understand the many dysfunctions inherent in silos – the organisational structure so beloved of the Analytic mindset. Nor, it would seem, do folks understand their implicit collaboration in perpetuating these silos – and thus these dysfunctions.

For the many folks who desperately want to make a difference – and are endlessly frustrated by the siloisation of their organisations – this seems to me like the deepest and saddest of ironies.

– Bob

Further Reading

Great Boss, Dead Boss ~ Ray Immelman

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