Antimatter principle

The Antimatter Principle

Photo-realistic simulation of matter-anti-matter annihilation

Antimatter is by far the most valuable substance, by weight, known to Man (around $25 billion per gram). It’s incredibly rare, amazingly expensive and difficult to produce, and yet is by far the most powerful energy source we presently know of. It’s also the very epitome of alienness.

Seems like a good metaphor for the Antimatter Principle – the only principle we need for becoming wildly effective at collaborative knowledge work.

The Antimatter Principle

Inspired by Jim Benson’s Personal Kanban, which has just two simple “rules” – “make work visible, and limit wip” – I’ve been seeking to simplify software and product development – or, in fact, any kind of knowledge work – and reduce it to just one rule:

“Attend to folks’ needs.”

The power of this simplification may not be immediately apparent, so please allow me to explain…

Attend To

Meaning, “pay attention to”. In a complicated or complex group endeavour such as developing a major piece of software, or tech product, we have the opportunity to pay attention to many things. What we pay attention to determines what gets done. Traditionally, these kinds of endeavour might pay attention to value, flow, cost, quality, customers or profits – to name just a few. But if we accept that people are central to this kind of work, then all these typical foci pale into insignificance alongside folks and their needs.


Meaning, everyone involved. Software and product development endeavours typically involve lots of people. Not just the “doers”, but the “sponsors”, the “buyers”, and a whole host of other groups and individuals. Some folks will obviously be in the frame from the get-go, many other folks will only come into view as the endeavour unfolds. I have for many year used the term “covalence” to describe this perspective.


This reminds us that we’re working for and with people, and all people have needs, many of these tragically unmet. Needs are the universal lingua franca of the human race. Sadly, much too often overlooked or down-played. Here’s a list of needs as an example of the kind of thing I have in mind.

Expecting folks to gaily subjugate their personal needs for the Man’s coin is not only naive, but flies in the face of decades of research.

The Antimatter Principle asks us to remember to listen to our own deeper needs – and to those of others – and to identify and clearly articulate what “is alive in us”. Through its implicit emphasis on deep listening – to ourselves as well as others – the Antimatter Principle fosters respect, attentiveness and empathy, and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart. This is oh so simple, yet powerfully transformative.


Does the Antimatter Principle, and this explanation of it, meet *your* needs?

– Bob

The Antimatter Principle – the Metaphor


I call it the Antimatter Principle because, to me, it’s the most valuable insight by far I’ve ever had in my whole career.

Why “Antimatter”?

  • It’s a strange name to choose, and so may spur curiosity in the folks who hear it. And may more easily lodge itself in folks’ memories.
  • Antimatter is the most valuable substance, by weight, in the known universe. The Antimatter Principle, when applied in businesses and other organisations, has the potential to be the most valuable principle by far when it comes to the effectiveness of collaborative knowledge-work – creative work involving groups of people.
  • Antimatter is the most concentrated form of energy we know. Attending to folks’ needs is similarly the most concentrated form of energy available to organisations.
  • Antimatter is incredibly rare – at least as rare as the idea that attending to folks’s needs is a viable and worthwhile focus for e.g. commercial organisations.
  • Antimatter is just so weird and alien. As is the idea that people matter, and that putting their needs first is any kind of conceivable option for businesses.
  • Antimatter is simple in concept, but incredibly difficult to produce in actuality. Ditto the Antimatter Principle. Putting folks’ needs first is simple in concept, but difficult to produce in reality. We humans have been schooled (sic) for so long to ignore our needs – and those of others – that overcoming this conditioning can seem at least as challenging as the production of useful quantities of antimatter.
  • Antimatter is the annihilative “opposite” of matter. The Antimatter Principle is in many ways the annihilative “opposite” to all the process-oriented approaches – Agile, Kanban, BPR, CMMI, etc. – that have monopolised, and tyrannised, folks’ thoughts and actions up till now, in the field of organisational effectiveness.
  • It might help to remind us that things are not as they appear. The world according to Quantum Physics is a strange and unintuitive place for us puny humans – much like the typical organisation, where we take for granted all that’s going on around us and rarely if ever look beneath the surface, nor understand much about what’s going on if we do look.
  • I’m struck by the parallels between matter (the everyday common experiences of folks working in e.g. Analytic-minded organisations everywhere) and antimatter (originally at least as abundant as matter, but now so very uncommon).

– Bob

Further Reading

Leadership And The New Science ~ Margaret Wheatley
Ten Things You Might Not Know About Antimatter ~ Diana Kwon

A New Frame

For more than half a century, the software industry has been trying to find methods to increase the likelihood of successful software development. From Flowcharting in the 1960s, through to Agile methods today, the industry has gone through dozens of different approaches. And found them all wanting.

hart: David F Rico

All of these methods, diverse as they may seem, have at least two things in common:

  1. They all focus on various technical (aka mechanistic) aspects of software development.
  2. None of them have made much difference to the general level of successful software development aka “the software crisis”. Cf The bi-annual Standish Group “Chaos” reports (below).


I am convinced that the focus on technical aspects is a core reason – I’d go so far as to say the core reason – for the lack of progress in increasing our industry’s rates of success.

Having been in the industry more than thirty years, and having seen – and used – most if not all of the methods listed in the Rico chart (above), I suggest that we might do well to fundamentally change our frame.

Old Frame

The predominating frame for the past fifty years has been that of:

  • processes and a process-orientation.
  • technical practices (cf. CMMI, XP, Kanban, Scrum, etc.).
  • generic (one-size-fits-all) solutions – typically, imposed on those doing the work.

Hardly a surprising frame for an industry long dominated by engineers and scientists. Even though engineers and scientists are people, too (ironically).

And also less than surprising considering this frame has been ubiquitous in business – and much of wider society – for at least the past hundred years and more.

New Frame

Times are, however, a-changing.

Given that software development is perhaps the epitome of collaborative knowledge-work involving groups of people, I propose that we as an industry reorient ourselves and adopt a more useful frame.

The frame I have in mind (sic) is one embracing e.g.:

  • Sociology.
  • Psychology.
  • Anthropology.
  • Complex adaptive systems.
  • Group dynamics.
  • Personalised solutions.

In other words, a frame placing people, not practices, centre-stage. A frame focused on people – and their emergent individual and collective needs.

“You can’t really know what you need until you get it. Only then will you know whether you need it or not.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

You may appreciate that this frame is about as far as we might possibly imagine from the prevailing (old) frame that we all know and suffer.

Hence my recent posts introducing The Antimatter Principle:

“Attend to folks’ needs.”

~ The Antimatter Principle

A Challenging Request

Would you be willing to take a fresh look at your deepest foundational beliefs regarding how to approach software and product development?

Maybe by doing so we can move away from the mechanical, inhumane, violent and coercive frame within which we’ve all laboured so miserably and so ineffectively for so long.

Maybe we have to fundamentally change our frame before we can begin to build and work in effective organisations – organisations aligned to human nature, and celebrating humanity, joyful society and freedom of choice?

– Bob

Further Reading

Short History of Software Methods ~ David F. Rico
“If you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business” ~ Simon Sinek (video)



I first hit on the notion “Attend to folks’ needs” – only very recently named by me the Antimatter Principle – back in 1996. We had just launched Familiar Ltd, and our first big commercial project was to build a self-service web application for the corporate customers of a large Telco. As one of the first Agile software houses in Europe, we of course applied Agile principles (although not the label) in the conduct of the project.

Aside: Yes, we were still “doing projects” back then.

One key aspect of the project was discovering just what our Telco client – and, by proxy, their customers – wanted us to build. Most of us has been around the block enough times to know the importance of “building the right thing™”. Regular interim releases of the evolving product was one of our primary means to this end. But from the outset we also began asking, recording and sharing what all the folks involved in the project needed from it.

You can see a very simplified example of this approach described in the post “Nonviolent Project Management“.

Not Just Customer Work

We did not apply the Antimatter Principle just to our customer projects, though. We used the same principle in the inception and evolution of the whole company, too. For both our customer projects and the company, we sought the needs of everyone involved – developers, customers, suppliers, channel partners, everyone. Everyone, that is, that was willing to have a say.

Of course, it was early days for these ideas. We made some mistakes. And some useful discoveries along the way.

Since those days, I’ve applied much the same Antimatter Principle in just about every engagement and role I’ve had. Sometimes it’s coincided with stellar success (like the aforementioned Telco project). Sometimes it’s coincided with a train wreck. Most often, the latter has been in organisations where attending to folks’ needs has been unimaginably alien. I’ve learned some lessons from that, too. (And see cautions, at end).


Some folks have responded to my recent posts suggesting that they couldn’t imagine an organisation that cleaved to the Antimatter Principle. What it might look and feel like. How it might work in practice. Having not only imagined it, but experienced it for real, I thought some pointers might prove valuable. Here’s some of the things that made it not only possible, but a joy to be part of:


Quantifying folks’ needs – even in the most rudimentary manner – made discussing them much easier and less ambiguous. We happened to use a variant of Evo (cf. Tom Gilb) for this.

Fit Feedback

Our takes on our own – and other folks’ – needs were mostly educated guesswork. Conscious of this, yet not fazed by it, we tried to deliver quickly on a solution to each of these guesses – so that the person or group involved could try it on for size and determine how close to the mark our guesswork had been.

“You can’t really know what you need until you get it. Only then will you know whether you need it or not.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Integrated, Intentional

Over time, we invented various means to explain our approach, and to solicit, record and act on folks’s needs, and built these means into the way our work worked. “Stakeholders and their Needs” is one example of this kind of thing. The evolving record of who were our stakeholders, and their (ever-changing) needs formed one element of a broader “project control dashboard” (a.k.a. context radiator) – which also served to record and, more importantly, share and make visible other aspects of the work:

  • Project Name
  • Project Charter
  • Statement of Purpose
  • Case For Action
  • Vision
  • Stakeholders and their Needs
  • User Stories or Use Cases (derived from and traceable to Stakeholders needs)
  • Quality Objectives (also derived from and traceable to Stakeholders needs)
  • RIsk Parade and Top Risks
  • Critical Success Factors (key quantified aspects of the Purpose)
  • Outline Feature Schedule (including milestones or integration dates)
  • Glossary of project-specific terms
  • Project address book
  • Miscellanea (e.g. quality, test and change plans – depending on folks’ needs)

Aside: This general form served the fairly standard needs of a wide range of projects. Each particular element only appeared, and was elaborated, to the extent that some folks had expressed a need for the information. Further (one-off) coordination, etc. needs were met on an as-needed basis.


For some of our staff, and customers too, the whole idea of a company going out of its way to seek out and listen to their personal needs, and moreover act on them, in an organised and intentional way, was bizarre in the extreme. In a refreshing way. (We selected our customers and suppliers – and staff too – with much care).

For staff in particular, I can remember many intense conversations on the sofas or over a pint, exploring the implications of what I now know as the Antimatter Principle.


That this all began nearly twenty years ago causes me some chagrin. Not least because of how it’s taken me so long to come to appreciate the role of the Antimatter Principle in our success at Familiar – and other occasions since.

Having experienced it, I have little doubt that the Antimatter Principle was at the root of the joyous experiences I have both witnessed and participated in over the years since I first began to “Attend to folks’ needs”.

– Bob

WarningSign Caution! Attempting to treat people as if they matter, without winning the understanding and active support of your higher-ups and your peers, may cause alienation, organisational cognitive dissonance, damage to your credibility, and to your career.
WarningSign Caution! Attempting to treat people as if they matter, without first winning their trust and understanding, may cause suspicion, resentment, gossip, and unforeseen consequences.
WarningSign Caution! Attempting to replicate this story in your own organisation may require experimentation, adjustments for your own context, and sensitivity to the needs of the people involved. Your results may vary from those reported here.

A Finger Pointing at the Moon


I am indebted to @dagb for reminding me of this story.

“Always remember, truth cannot be said, it can be shown. It is a finger pointing to the moon. All words are just fingers pointing to the moon, but don’t accept the fingers as the moon. The moment you start clinging to the fingers – that’s where doctrines, cults, creeds, dogmas, are born – then you have missed the whole point. The fingers were not the point; the point was the moon.”

~ Osho

The Finger

For me, the Antimatter Principle is like the finger. It’s not the moon. A pointer only, to the kind of world we can create, should we so choose.

The Moon

There’s a wonderful, joyful glory in actually experiencing the feelings of attending to folks’ needs, theirs to each other’s, and theirs to ours. And in seeing those needs met. For me, this is the moon.

Oh, and not the actual, more prosaic outcomes from attending to folks’ needs, btw.

“So”, you may be asking. “You’re saying that hard-nosed commercially-driven organisations, and the suits running them, could opt to admitting feeling and emotions – of joy, of connection, of mutuality – into our workplaces? To adopt a new frame?”

Yes. That’s what I’m saying. And not just opt to admit feelings and emotions, but to embrace the new frame – the Giraffe Frame – and to act deliberately to encourage them. To place them centre-stage. To point their fingers at the moon.

“Human beings the world over say they want to contribute to the well-being of others, to connect and communicate with others in loving, compassionate ways.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Why would our jackal organisations want to do this? Well, apart from the suits being human themselves – a humanness for so long denied and suppressed – they might want to do this because it make ever-more commercial sense. Knowledge-work organisations are people places. Research is showing us the massive benefits that positive emotions and feelings bring to the workplace. Commercial benefits not least.

But that’s not the moon.

Like the Eightfold Path

As in Buddhism’s Eightfold Path, the Antimatter Principle is meant as a guideline, to be considered, to be contemplated, and to be taken on when, and only when it is fully accepted as part of the life you seek. I reject asking for blind faith, and would like rather to promote learning and a process of mutual self-discovery.

“My teachings are easy to understand
and easy to put into practice.
Yet your intellect will never grasp them,
and if you try to practice them, you’ll fail.

My teachings are older than the world.
How can you grasp their meaning?

If you want to know me,
Look inside your heart.”

~ Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching

Would you be willing to share your feelings about the “glory of the moon”?

– Bob

Further Reading

“if you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business” ~ Simon Sinek

Poka-Yoking The Method


Our methods – our methodologies – have failed us. Not because they don’t help us do better, when well-applied, but because they don’t help us apply them well. Lean, Agile, TOC, you name it. All promise massive benefits “when done right”. And all fail for the most part because they are so rarely “done right”.

Aside: It’s reckoned that Lean adoptions fail some 98% of the time, Agile (Scrum) adoptions at least 75% of the time.

I’m not anti-method. I’ve seen the benefits methods can bring, first hand. I’ve seen the key role a good method can play in reducing the waste of human potential – so prevalent in our knowledge-work organisations today. Hey, some folks might even call me a methodologist. God forbid. Over the past two decades I have regularly asked myself “Why?”. Why are methods so hard for folks to adopt? So unsuited to people getting to do them right?

Discongruent Mindsets

Discongruent mindsets go a long way to explaining the problem.

Folks in any given organisation typically have a bunch of common, shared assumptions and views about the way organisations should work, and about how work should work. Folks who design methods – and methodologies – also have their assumptions and views. Assumptions and views – aka mindset – which get “baked in” to the methods they design and promote.

All too often these two mindsets do not play well together. And all too often the discongruities only become apparent when an organisation has spent some considerable time and effort in attempting to adopt a particular method.

Few folks look at the two mindsets – their’s and the method designers’ – and consider the probability of a match, or mismatch.


Poke-yoke is a Japanese terms that means mistake-proofing. In the design of parts for assembly (DFA), poka yoke can serve to guide parts designers to take explicit steps to ensure parts cannot be assembled incorrectly.

“A poka-yoke is any mechanism that helps an equipment operator avoid making mistakes. Its purpose is to eliminate product defects by preventing, correcting, or drawing attention to human errors as they occur. The concept was formalised, and the term adopted, by Shigeo Shingo as part of the Toyota Production System.”

We can see many everyday examples of mistake-proofing.


Someday, people will design methods that explicitly take account of how people adopt new ideas and ways of working. Method designers will design their methods expressly to help people learn them more easily. People and organisations will select methods based on the ease of their adoption and the sustainability of their use.

Successful – more widely adopted – methods will be those more sensitive to the many foibles and failing of us puny humans. We might call these humane methods. DFA (Designed For Adoption) methods.

What if we applied the Poka-yoke principle to the design of our methods? What if we learnt from the decades of failure regarding the successful, sustainable adoption of Lean, Agile, etc. and applied our knowledge of people and the way they best absorb new ideas and ways of working?

What principles would guide us in such endeavours? What would be our analogies for offset holes, asymmetric flanges, digital counters, interlocks, guards, and so on?

One aspect of future approaches to the design of methods stands out – the need to find approaches that ordinary non-methodologists can pick up and apply. Approaches which play sympathetically to our basic skills and needs – as people. Approaches which suit our human nature. If experience with recent methods such as Agile and Systems Thinking have shown us one thing, it’s the value of having the folks doing the work also being the folks that design and redesign the way the work works.

The Antimatter Principle

“Attend to folks’ needs” is my candidate for improving the mistake-proofing of the designs of our methods. Of improving their Design For Adoption.

I propose that just this one simple principle makes it easier to come up with methods which people are more likely to adopt sustainably. As well as methods which are more likely to deliver real benefits to the adopting organisations and their people.

When considering the waste of human potential, consider not least the waste of enthusiasm, hope, and human potential inherent in failed method adoptions.

Of course, applying the Antimatter Principle well – doing it right – is not a cakewalk. But it seems to me to hold much more promise of folks “getting the hang of it” than all the more or less inhumane methods and methodologies we’ve been lumbered with to date.

– Bob

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 frustrating 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

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

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

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

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



“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

Looking After Each Other


Sometimes I mention to someone or other that the concept of management is past its sell-by date. I invite them to consider the implications for organisations when managers no longer prowl the cubes.

One question that often comes up is “who will look after folks’ career development?” As if managers typically do this. Well, maybe nominally they do. But I’ve never seen it happen.

In most organisations, folks who have some kind of explicit focus on their own career / professional / personal development take it on themselves to make things happen.

Bringing together the ideas of fellowship and the Antimatter Principle, I suggest that it might be beneficial for all concerned if folks attend to folks’ needs regarding career development – just as much as for other needs.

That’s not to say everyone will fall naturally into this way of being. Maybe some training or coaching might prove helpful. Ditto, dialogue and discussion. Some folks will put more into it than others, and some will get more out of it than others.

Talking of coaching, some suggest that great managers underscore their usefulness by coaching their people. Again, I’ve found this a very rare phenomenon. Coaching does seem to be increasing in popularity, albeit through the specialist coach, rather than managers. Again, folks ask “Who will do the coaching if there are no managers?” And again, I suggest that, apart from some pump-priming with specialist coaches (and maybe some periodic refreshers) , why can we not have everyone, potentially, attend to folks’ coaching needs?

I was working in one major global integrator some years ago. They had invested in training a cadre of some eighty or so volunteers in coaching skills (on top of their day jobs). The sad thing in that case was the extremely limited uptake from people at large, who seemed to not want coaching even when offered.

In so many ways, we CAN look after each other, given the collective will and explicit policies to enable it to happen. In other words, given a new frame.

– Bob

For The Rational Folks


I’m very comfortable with the Antimatter Principle. It came to me unbidden yet well-formed, I’ve seen it work in practice, in a number of different setting over nearly twenty years, and it just speaks to me on an intuitive level. I guess you might say I have faith in it.

I can appreciate that other folks may have issues. For example, with its relevance to them. Or with an apparent lack of realism – by which I mean it might seem unrealistic for it to gain much traction, or find favour, in the world as we believe it to be today, especially in the world of business and organisations with their prevailing Analytic mindsets.

Or maybe it just seems a tad too, well, fluffy. Soft. Californian.


But the Antimatter Principle is grounded in rationality and logical reasoning, too.

If we want to create a situation where we can contribute fully to our work, to realise most if not all of our innate potential, how might we go about that? Might it not serve us to understand people, human nature and its mores, the realities of sociology, how the brain works, and so on?

Aside: The Greeks, since ancient times, have had a word for this desirable situation: Eudaimonia.

Marshall Rosenberg is only one of many who have long studied these topics, and come to some understanding of the ideas upon which this eudaimonic situation might be founded.

“I would like us to create peace at three levels and have each of us to know how to do it. First, within ourselves. That is to know how we can be peaceful with ourselves when we’re less than perfect, for example. How we can learn from our limitations without blaming and punishing our self. If we can’t do that, I’m not too optimistic how we’re going to relate peacefully out in the world. Second, between people. Nonviolent Communication training shows people how to create peace within themselves and at the same time how to create connections with other people that allows compassionate giving to take place naturally. And third, in our social systems. To look out at the structures that we’ve created, the governmental structures and other structures, and to look at whether they support peaceful connections between us and if not, to transform those structures.”

~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

Specifically, Nonviolent Communication and other related fields – such as Positive Psychology – posit that we flourish in situations where we can relate to each other as human (social) beings. Where we can live in harmony with our emotions. Where we have autonomy, the opportunity to develop mastery, and share a common purpose. (See also: Seligman’s PERMA).

At the Heart

Above all, I believe, folks enjoy, more than anything else, opportunities to willingly contribute to each other’s wellbeing. The Antimatter Principle takes that belief and places it at the heart of our working together. At the heart of creating a healthy and flourishing workplace. At the heart of creating that shining castle on the hill: the eudaimonic situation.

And at the heart of intrinsic motivation.

How better to motivate ourselves than to harness the most compelling, positive principle driving the human condition, to help us in our journey?

Of course, history is replete with examples of people creating situations in which it’s inevitable that folks are NOT be able to flourish, grow, relate, be human, and become all they can be. But knowing otherwise, why would we want to continue doing that?

– Bob

Further Reading

Being Brilliant Every Single Day – Dr. Alan Watkins (video)


Hansel and Gretel

In the popular fairy tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm, two children, Hansel and Gretel, leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind them as they are led deep into the dark and forbidding woods to die. Nothwithstanding the plot twist in which their breadcrumbs are eaten by birds, more recently the term “breadcrumbs” has come to mean any series of links or steps which allow people to keep track of their location, by means of references to the way back “home”.

I often feel the whole tech industry is like a bunch of children lost in the dark and forbidding wood, lacking a trail of breadcrumbs, not knowing which way to turn to find their way out and back “home” – home where software and product development is warm, safe, secure, and successful.

With the Antimatter Principle, I see a path out of the darkness, and a way back home. A path of breadcrumbs (without those pesky birds).

The Idealised Design

If we had a blank slate, what kind of situation might we choose to create, in order to build organisations that are highly effective at knowledge work – and meeting customers’ needs?

Research in various fields such as psychology, neuroscience and sociology have provided us with breadcrumbs along the path to that “home”. Here are some of the breadcrumbs I have in mind:

Low Distress

Distress reduces cognitive function. That’s to say, when we’re stressed-out, we simply can’t think any where near as well as when we’re more calm and unworried. Distress also contributes to ill-health (both physical and mental) and even increased mortality rates (death).

High Eustress

Eustress (positive stress) gives us positive motivation, derived from feelings of fulfilment, increased attention and higher levels of interest in what we’re doing. Eustress correlates with challenging work (depending on our perception of that work). Stress in the workplace is unlikely to go away any time soon, but we can adjust our perceptions such that we derive more eustress and less distress from the inevitable stressful stimuli.


When we’re immersed, zoned-in, fully present in doing something, we derive feelings of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment. In other words, most people love the feeling of being completely absorbed in what they’re doing. The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi goes so far as to describe this state as one of “spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task.”


“We must completely abandon the goal of getting other people to do what we want.”

~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

Coercion and use of force tends to generate hostility and to reinforce resistance to the very behaviours we are seeking. Genuine autonomy – lack of all coercion – is so far from how most people see the world, it may be the most difficult breadcrumb of them all for us to embrace.

Absence of Fear

Fear (of e.g. punishment) diminishes our self-esteem and our goodwill towards the perpetrators. It also obscures any compassion underlying the perpetrators demands. We’d all like folks to take action out of the desire to contribute to life – rather than out of fear, guilt, shame, or obligation. Wouldn’t we?

A Multitude of Opportunities for Gratitude

Research in the fields of neuroscience and positive psychology show us that the expression of gratitude can have profound and positive effects – for example, making us happier, healthier and more positively-disposed towards others (pro-social motivation).

“A growing body of research shows that gratitude is truly amazing in its physical and psychosocial benefits.”

~ Dr. Blair Justice & Dr. Rita Justice


“Our goal is to create a quality of empathic connection that allows everyone’s needs to be met.”

~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

By empathy, I’m choosing to use the term as it’s often used in e.g. counselling: an expression of the regard and respect we hold for another – whose experiences maybe quite different from our own.

“I have a sense of your world, you are not alone, we will go through this together”.

Carl Rogers, the founder of person-centred counselling, concluded that the important elements of empathy are:

  • We understand the other person’s feelings.
  • Our responses reflect the other person’s mood, and the content of what has been said.
  • Our tone of voice conveys the ability to share the other person’s feelings.

“It’s harder to empathise with those who appear to possess more power, status, or resources than us.”


By presence I mean simply taking the time and effort to be present with one another, giving fully of our attention, with deep respect and genuine interest.

“Our presence is the most precious gift we can give to another human being.”

I share the view of Nancy Kline, author of “More Time to Think” and proponent of the idea of the “Thinking Environment”, that

“The quality of our attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking.”

~ Nancy Kline


We may choose to see the inherent beauty in being human, and thereby the beauty in our needs – needs related to our essential nature as human beings.

We are by nature compassionate. We are by nature alive. We are by nature creative.
We are by nature playful. All of these qualities manifest us as human beings.

And when we act as fully human, this beauty emanates, and we live it and we see it in other people, and in the wider world of Nature, too.


“I believe that the most joyful and intrinsic motivation human beings have for taking any action is the desire to meet our needs and the needs of others.”

~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

Isn’t joy the motivation we’d most wish folks to act out of? So much better than fear, obligation, guilt or shame. And so much more effective than e.g. money, fame, power-over or other such extrinsic motivations.


Most workplaces I have come across have been toxic to the expression of feelings and emotions. “Business” and emotions are not cozy bed-fellows, it would seem. Yet the irony is that all business is, at its root, driven by emotion. Everything we do as human beings is driven by emotion (and concomitant needs). People buy because of emotion. People make decisions and choices based on emotion. Even “hard” science is largely moderated by emotion.

Repressing our emotions causes us distress, and denies our humanity.


We can’t win at somebody else’s expense. We can only fully be satisfied when other folks’ needs are fulfilled as well as our own. This is not the common theory-in-use in capitalism.


“Unless we come from a certain kind of spirituality, we’re likely to create more harm than good.”


Constructing our idealised design, by following the path laid out by these breadcrumbs, we may just find ourselves living and working in organisations that better meet our needs as human beings, and that (better) meet the needs of ALL the folks – owners, shareholders, core groups, executives, managers, employees, customers and society at large – whom our organisations ostensibly exist to serve.

– Bob

The People vs. System Conundrum


I’ve seen recently that some folks have difficulty reconciling Deming’s 95% rule:

“Dr. Deming taught me that 95% of the performance of an organization is attributable to the system (processes, technology, work design, regulations, etc.) and [only] 5% is attributable to the individual.”

~ Tripp Babbitt

with Jerry Weinberg’s Second Law of Consulting:

“No matter how it looks at first, it’s always a people problem.”

~ Jerry Weinberg

I can appreciate the dilemma, but resolve it myself thusly:

It is always a people problem (as per Weinberg), but the solution is not to try to change the people (that’s a pointless red herring). Rather, the solution is to change the system (as per Deming).

Even better is having the people (the workers) change the system themselves (with the active participation of management, so everyone can share the normative learning experience).

“It’s easier to act our way into a new way of thinking, than think our way into a new way of acting.”

~ Jerry Sternin, The Power of Positive Deviance

And how might we all decide what changes to make to the system? Just apply the Antimatter Principle. The most effective knowledge-work system – and organisation – is one in which eveyone’s needs get attended to.

– Bob

The World As One

Apparently, I’m an “idealist”. As if that was some kind of bad thing.

“Oh, idealists. Pshaw! Here, we have to deal in realities.”

Yes. I am an idealist. In that I see myself as someone who chooses to imagine things as they might be, in addition to how things are – or, at least how most people regard how things are. I have no problem with that. Maybe this fits your definition of idealist. Maybe not.

Yet, I see no need for idealism to exclude realism. Why does a vision for the future need to exclude “reality”? Surely the challenge we all face is getting from where we are to where we’d like to be? From needs unmet to more needs met? Of course, that’s the unreasonable man’s point of view.

And somewhat at odds with the Buddha – of inner peace coming from an acceptance of the way things are. I can live with that cognitive dissonance. At least I choose to avoid complaining. Instead I try to find solutions. And solutions mostly require doing things differently, or seeing things differently. A change of perspective is as good as a rest.

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

~ Albert Einstein

I do find it strange that “idealist” has become inextricably associated with “impractical”. I choose to regard preserving the status quo in the face of changing situations, environments, contexts, as impractical.

I have to say I don’t much like reality. Particularly the current realities of software and product development. We could be doing so much better. That’s not vain idealism. Just observation. There ARE companies doing better. Much better. The reality is that few people know this.

My idealism is grounded in realities, though. For example the reality that I don’t expect more than a very few people will act on the knowledge of the existence of these outliers. The reality that the status quo is powerful beyond measure. And the reality that in most organisations, most people don’t need to be improving, and so don’t do much about that.

“Nothing is Nirvana, nothing is perfect.”

~ Jon Stewart

So should we just give up? Pursue our own narrow agendas, serve ourselves? Research tells us that’s not how we human beings are wired. We’re wired with a social conscience. With the need to see others fulfilled as least as much as ourselves. With the need to make a difference. Maybe we’ve all been denied such opportunities in work – and life – for so long, that we’ve forgotten the joy they bring us. But the wiring’s still there.


Having ideals doesn’t preclude a desire for action, either.

“You see, idealism detached from action is just a dream. But idealism allied with pragmatism, with rolling up your sleeves and making the world bend a bit, is very exciting. It’s very real. It’s very strong.”

~ Bono

When people dismiss ideas as “idealistic”, most often they’re saying that they can’t imagine how to bring about that idea. How to effect it. They’re rarely saying that such ideas have no merit, or wouldn’t meet folks’ needs. Failures of imagination seem quite widespread, I note – with some sadness.

“No period of history has ever been great or ever can be that does not act on some sort of high, idealistic motives, and idealism in our time has been shoved aside, and we are paying the penalty for it.”

~ Alfred North Whitehead

How do you feel about idealism? Is there a place for it in your world? It seems like we don’t hear so much about ideals these days as we used to.

“I am an absurd idealist. But I believe that all that must come true. For, unless it comes true, the world will be laid desolate. And I believe that it can come true. I believe that, by the grace of God, men will awake presently and be men again, and colour and laughter and splendid living will return to a grey civilisation. But that will only come true because a few men will believe in it, and fight for it, and fight in its name against everything that sneers and snarls at that ideal.”

~ Leslie Charteris


The anniversary of the death of John Lennon (8 December) is coming round again. For me his words say more about the idealist than any other:

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one”

~ John Lennon, Imagine

– Bob

What’s Wrong With Judgment?


Hands up all those on whom the (intentional) irony of the above title is not lost?


Most folks are habituated to being judgmental, without ever realising it. And most often blind to the effect this is having on themselves, on their well-being and on the well-being of those around them. Maybe an increased awareness of the habit might offer some scope for breaking out of the pattern and finding more joy in work and life.


This is bad. That is good. She is smart. He is cunning. That ceiling is a hideous shade of green. “Moralistic” judgments. We make such judgments a thousand times a day. Most often without even really being aware we are doing it. Judgments of others. Judgments of things. Judgments of ourselves. Negative judgments. Positive judgements.

“The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.”

~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

I find some irony in this quotation – the implicit judgmentalism makes me smile and wince in equal measure.


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

~ Marshall Rosenberg

If we accept this frame, then remaining blind to our own judgmentalism means we also remain blind to our own (unmet) needs. But if we can begin to become aware of ourselves doing it – being judgmental – then we have a tool we can use to start identifying and articulating our needs.

“I’m all for judgments. I don’t think we could survive very long without them. We judge which foods will give us what our bodies need. We judge which actions are going to get our needs met. But I differentiate between life-serving judgments, which are about meeting our needs, and moralistic judgments that imply rightness or wrongness.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg


Nonviolent Communication, through the words of its creator, Marshall Rosenberg, invites us to consider the effects flowing more or less inevitably from our habituation to judgmentalism.

“Judgment is just a recipe for suffering: start with our dissatisfaction over how a person happens to be and mix in our desire for them to be otherwise. To make that suffering nice and rich, be sure the desire clings tightly to the dissatisfaction!”

We are all, of course, victims of thousands of years of time-bound societal conditioning, wherein judgment is seen as natural, and even constructive. Society believes profoundly in the related Myth of Redemptive Violence, too.

“When we judge others we contribute to violence.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Research has indicated that judgmentalism is linked to raised negative affect (a.k.a. feeling “down”, or sadness of mood).

“Affect has been shown to alter a person’s ability to perform different types of tasks. Positive affect enhances creative thinking and novel problem-solving, but also increases susceptibility to distraction (thereby causing an inability to stay focused). Negative affect is believed to enhance focus, but hinder creative problem-solving.”

So, finding fault with judgement – being judgmental about it – seems…discongruent.

I’m not going to get all judgmental about judgmentalism (wink). But might we choose to consider the effects that our typical habit of judgmentalism can bring?

In essence this post is, like some of my others, a plea for a little-more self-awareness, a little more attention to our own needs – and those of others – and a reminder to myself for continued practice of same.

“Rather than educating people to be conscious of their needs, we teach them to become addicted to ineffective strategies for meeting them.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Judgment is also a sure-fire way of blocking empathy and understanding:

“One reason we rush so quickly to the vulgar satisfactions of judgment, and love to revel in our righteous outrage, is that it spares us from the impotent pain of empathy, and the harder, messier work of understanding.”

~ Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing

Would you be willing to monitor yourself for moralistic judgements, just for a minute, an hour or a day? I’d love to hear what you discover.

– Bob

Our Mutual Friends

Yesterday Tony DaSilva (@Bulldozer0) provided me with a wake-up call in the form of a tweet illustrating how a lack of mutuality commonly pervades relationships in our workplaces. A wake-up call, because I had forgotten just how strange the idea of mutuality must be for many folks, especially in the context of work.


When we talk about attending to folks’ needs, we’re talking about everyone attending to each others’ needs (although not to the complete exclusion of each attending to their own needs). You may not yourself have experienced the joy that comes from seeing other folks getting their needs met. It makes me sad to think just how many people may be in this situation. And I’m feeling thankful, even blessed, that I have experienced it myself, albeit rarely but at least occasionally.

When Rosenberg writes about this feeling, I can immediately and profoundly relate:

“… we have such power to make [everyone’s] life wonderful, and that there is nothing we like better than to do just that.”

“How basic is this need to give to one another? I think the need to enrich life is one of the most basic and powerful needs we all have.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Aside: When I’m thinking about mutuality – it’s generally in the sense of “common to or shared by both or all of two or more parties”.

So, how does Tony’s tweet fit here? As an example of the typical dynamic in so many organisations, and so many relationships:

  • Unilateralism rather than mutuality.
  • “What’s in it for me?” Rather than “What can I do to make someone else’s life more wonderful?”
  • Selfishly attending to our own needs and ignoring that others have needs too.
  • Missing out on the joy of serving others’ needs.

So how *could* this kind of dialogue have gone differently, had the participants been attending to each others’ needs?

Employee: “I feel depressed and frustrated because I work best and most creatively when what I’m doing feels like play. Would you be willing to let me play with this and see what emerges?”

Boss: “I feel uneasy when you mention play because I imagine my job’s on the line if this doesn’t get done soon. Would you be willing to tackle it urgently?”

Employee: “No problem. I feel energised when I have some purpose to my play, and joy when I imagine I’m making folks life more wonderful. Would you like me to keep you posted?”

Evolving Competence

A little futher down the line, time-wise, when these folks have had the opportunity both to practice, and to experience the joy that comes from seeing other folks’ needs being met, we might imagine a similar situation unfolding thusly:

Employee: “I’m guessing you’re feeling like your job’s on the line if this doesn’t get done soon?”

Boss: “Yes. I’m feeling reassured that you’ve picked up on that, because I need to keep this job at the moment, and I like to think of myself as being capable of doing a good job, generally.”

Boss: “I’m guessing you’d be happier if you could just play around with it some?”

Employee: “Yes. I feel happy and focussed because I work best and most creatively when what I’m doing feels like play.”

Boss: “Would you be willing to make it your priority?”

Employee: “Happy to. I feel energised when I have some purpose to my play, and joy when I imagine I’m doing what’s most important for others. I’m guessing you’d be happier if I kept you posted?”

Here we see empathy as the starting point for a dialogue in which each is attending more to the other’s needs than to their own. Of course, if the whole organisation has adopted this new frame, then the dynamics and context of such conversations might be somewhat – and fundamentally – different.

Absence of Judgment

We can also see, in both examples, an absence of judgment. Neither person is tied up with forming a moralistic judgment of the other person’s needs – e.g. whether they are “reasonable”, “valid”, “acceptable”, “outrageous” or whatever. Nor do they judge their own needs. Each simply takes the needs as “givens”.

Aside: In situations where folks are having difficulties in identifying or articulating their needs, it may take some mutual assistance and exploration to arrive at clarity. This is not the same as e.g. watering-down or otherwise negotiating on needs. And remembering:

“We can’t really know what we need until we get it. Only then will we know whether we need it or not.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg



Jon has posted a comment requesting a version of the example dialogue where only the employee is conscious of attending to folks’ needs. One of the many reasons I’m particularly fond of the Antimatter Principle is that it can start small, with just one person. However, it can take some patience to start with building the empathy necessary for the other person – in this case, the boss – to take the time to listen.

Here’s one way I guess such a dialogue might unfold:

Employee: “I’m guessing you’re feeling like all our jobs are on the line if we don’t get this done soonest?”

Boss: “Can you just get on with it, asap?”

Employee: “So I’m sensing that it’s important to you that the team’s in a focussed and creative frame of mind for this piece of work? That we’re able to fully give of our best?”

Boss: “Damn straight!”

Employee: “I also guessing you’re worried we won’t be able to meet the deadline, and we’ll all end up looking hopeless again?”

[It may take some time, like ten or twenty minutes maybe, continuing in this vein, with the employee reflecting back the feelings coming at them from the boss, until there’s – maybe – a ‘shift’. A shift wherein the Boss just may begin to consider the needs of the employee.]

Boss: “Yes. I guess how the team feels about this is going to impact its ability to meet the deadline…”



A Request

When writing these kinds of posts, I often feel uncertain and unfulfilled because I rarely know whether I’ve met anyone’s needs by writing them. Would you be willing to provide feedback in the form of e.g. a comment, below, about the extent to which this post has met – or failed to meet – your needs?

– Bob

Further Reading

Nonviolent Communication in Action – The REAL Center

Change, Kotter and Antimatter

[Tl;Dr: Let’s question the validity, applicability and utility of Kotter’s 8 Step Organisational Change Model – we can do better.]

I’ve assiduously read many books by Harvard Business School professor John P. Kotter – including his most prominent title, “Leading Change”. Back in the day, when I saw leadership as “the answer”, much of his writing made a lot of sense to me. The fact that it was “evidence-based” also added to its appeal.

“Kotter developed his change framework by observing transformation efforts in over a hundred businesses.”

~ Nitta et al.

The Kotter Model

For ease of reference, here’s one version of Kotter’s (1995) “Eight Steps to Transforming an Organization”:

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency
      • Examining market and competitive realities
      • Identifying and discussing crises, potential crises, or major opportunities
  2. Forming a powerful guiding coalition
      • Assembling a group with enough power to lead the change effort
      • Encouraging the group to work together as a team
  3. Creating a vision
      • Creating a vision to help direct the change effort
      • Developing strategies for achieving that vision
  4. Communicating the vision
      • Using every vehicle possible to communicate the new vision and strategies
      • Teaching new behaviors by the example of the guiding coalition
  5. Empowering others to act on the vision
      • Getting rid of obstacles to change
      • Changing systems or structures that seriously undermine the vision
      • Encouraging risk taking and nontraditional ideas, activities, and actions
  6. Planning for and creating short-term wins
      • Planning for visible performance improvements
      • Creating those improvements
      • Recognising and rewarding employees involved in the improvements
  7. Consolidating improvements and producing still more change
      • Using increased credibility to change systems, structures, and policies that don’t fit the vision
      • Hiring, promoting, and developing new employees who can implement the vision
      • Reinvigorating the process with new projects, themes, and change agents
  8. institutionalising new approaches
      • Articulating connections between the new behaviors and organizational success
      • Developing the means to ensure leadership development and succession

As the ideas of Rightshifting and the Marshall Model have evolved, though, I’ve come to place less and less faith in this 8 Step Model, a.k.a. change framework. And with the emergence of the Antimatter Principle, that faith has just about evaporated entirely.

Personally, the evidence of the successful application of his model – what little I’ve found – seems to point more to successful organisational change being a function of people approaching the challenge deliberately, seeking and applying knowledge, rather than slavishly following a prescribed set of steps.

I accept that failed change initiatives can be dissected – to reveal some contributory omission of one or more steps recommended in the model, or poor implementation of same. I don’t see such post-hoc analyses as endowing the model with the gravitas – or even utility for folks considering change – that it seems to have acquired.

Change in Context

My own interest lies mainly in the transformations described in the Marshall Model. That is, fundamental change in the prevailing collective mindset of an entire organisation. More limited change – even though it may seem far-reaching, such as a “major” restructuring, change of business strategy, or change of market – within one mindset seems less interesting.

Such more limited change offers only limited uplift in organisational performance – with an upper bound of say 10 percent per annum improvement. (And yes, I note with regular chagrin Jerry Weinberg’s First Law of Consulting: “Never promise more than 10% improvement”).

These kinds of “limited” change seem hardly worth the effort, especially when we consider that simple continuous improvement (e.g. kaizen, evolution) can offer the same kind of gains, without all the angst and brouhaha implicit in “big-bang” organisational change initiatives. Better, surely, to punt for the 100 percent plus per annum performance gains offered by changing mindset – that is, if one is “going all-in”?

The Psychologies of Organisations

The most common criticism widely levelled at Kotter’s change model is its top-down nature. By which I mean, the change initiative is conceived at the top of the organisation, and then “pushed” down from the top into the middle and then lower tiers of the classic organisation pyramid (left-hand pyramid, below):

Diagram of two leadership models

This approach may have some merit in “Analytic” minded organisations, where folks expect the higher-ups to dictate the structures, policies, etc., of the whole organisation. Although, even here, the nature of this “pushed” change, combined with the dysfunctional implications of “power-over” structures, hierarchy in general, and e.g. a prevailing Theory X orientation, means that any such top-down change is already on thin ice before it even starts.

But for the other kinds of mindset illustrated in the Marshall Model, Kotter’s model seem to lack relevance (cf Dreyfus, but for the organisation as a whole):

  • Ad-hoc minded organisations are unlikely to accept any kind of structured approach to change.
  • Synergistic organisations are unlikely to accept top-down change “pushed” onto people without consultation or meaningful participation.
  • Chaordic organisations are unlikely to want to take the extended length of time to implement change that’s implied by Kotter’s model.
  • And organisations “in transition” generally, are unlikely to realise what’s happening to them (absent familiarity with the Marshall Model) and attempt solutions unsuited to shifting their collective mindset (as the Kotter model has very limited applicability or utility in these situations, not least because it lacks any broad psychological or sociological underpinnings).

Attending To Folks’ Needs

Actually, there’s is a way to interpret the Kotter Model in harmony with the Antimatter Principle: If we establish the organisation itself as an equal stakeholder in things, and include its needs in the needs we’re all attending to, then we might begin to see how we can satisfy the various elements of Kotter’s Model:

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency
    • If the organisation urgently needs to change, and folks understand that, everyone may be willing to attend to the issue.
  2. Forming a powerful guiding coalition
    • By attending to everyone’s needs, we build the broadest-based and most powerful (motivated) coalition possible.
  3. Creating a vision
    • The vision, of course, includes everyone’s needs. Everyone gets to participate.
  4. Communicating the vision
    • Because everyone has been involved in step 3 (creating the vision), communicating it becomes much less of an issue.
  5. Empowering others to act on the vision
    • No empowerment necessary – it’s built in, because it’s everyone’s vision.
  6. Planning for and creating short-term wins
    • Whose needs come first? How do we spread the joy inherent in meeting folks’ needs?
  7. Consolidating improvements and producing still more change
    • The Antimatter principle is self-reinforcing.
  8. institutionalising new approaches
    • When the Antimatter Principle reaches a certain threshold, the organisation has “institutionalised” its new approach.


I hope this post has gone some way to answering those many twitter requests I’ve had this week about my position on Kotter and his model. Would you be willing to provide feedback in the form of e.g. a comment, below, about the extent to which this post has met – or failed to meet – your needs?

– Bob

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