There are many people who, whilst being highly competent and able as individuals, will undermine and negate all attempts to build an effective team / unit / capability.

But you don’t have to hire them. And if you inherit one, you can fire or redeploy him or her – always assuming the higher-ups choose to value the relative importance of community, esprit de corps and the social dynamic over individual skills.

What do you and your culture value more – going far together or going fast alone?


The Limits Of Quintessence

My dear friend Alessandro Di Gioia recently invited me to write a post on the limits of Quintessence. So here it is.


Maybe “limits” is not the most helpful frame. Perhaps “constraints” might better suit. As far as I’m concerned, Quintessence has no limits in terms of what can be achieved (hence the name), but it sure is subject to a host of constraints holding it back from delivering on it’s potential.

There are no speed limits on the road to excellence [nor on the road to Quintessence – Ed.].

~ David W. Johnson


Alex subsequently elaborated on his question at my invitation:

  • When does Quintessence not apply?
  • What are the most common misinterpretations of Quintessence?
  • Quintessence is not a silver bullet because…?

When Does Quintessence Not Apply?

I propose it always applies, at least in collaborative knowledge (grey muscle) work (CKW). Generally, it applies when results are contingent on the relationships between people, and on effective cognitive function. Quintessence describes an environment, and the beliefs necessary to creating such and environment, for improved interpersonal relationships and cognitive function.

So if those things are not relevant in your context, I guess we can say that Quintessence may not apply there.

What Are The Most Common Misinterpretations?

I hesitate to answer this question, as my answer will only be a guess. Yet I guess some folks may misinterpret Quintessence in the following ways:

  • It’s a method, or framework – like Scrum, Kanban, Waterfall, etc.
    It’s neither. It’s most like a blueprint or map of the landscape of beliefs (a.k.a. memeplex) within highly effective CKW organisations.
  • It’s about software development
    It’s not. It’s about folks working together, collaboratively with their brains. i.e. All CKW environments.
  • It can be handed down as an objective for the minions to implement
    It can’t. Shifting the collective assumptions and beliefs of a whole organisation (the basic premise) requires everyone to be involved, everyone to engage with surfacing and reflecting on the collective assumptions and beliefs of the organisation. In particular, those folks to whom the workforce look for cues.
  • It comes in a box
    It doesn’t. It comes in a book (two books, actually – Memeology and Quintessence). But there are no ceremonies defined, no practices required, no rules stipulated, no dogma. Just an invitation to ongoing dialogue.

Silver Bullet?

Quintessence is not a silver bullet because, although both magical (alien tech) and a solution to a long-standing problem, it’s in no way an instant solution. Becoming a Quintessential organisation is a long journey of self-discovery. Both for individuals, especially managers, and for the organisation as a whole. 

The long-standing problem it addresses is the myopia of organisations in respect of their real issues and challenges.


I hope this post has addressed the questions posed, and invites some further curiosity from y’all dear readers. AQA (All questions answered).

– Bob

Further Reading

Marshall, R.W. (2021). Quintessence: An Acme for Software Development Organisations. [online] Falling Blossoms (LeanPub). Available at: [Accessed 4 May 2022].

Marshall, R.W. (2021). Memeology: Surfacing And Reflecting On The Organisation’s Collective Assumptions And Beliefs. [online] Falling Blossoms (LeanPub). Available at: [Accessed 4 May 2022].

How To Run A Collaborative Knowledge Work Business

Collaborative knowledge work (CKW) is not like other kinds of work. And few realise this. Even fewer realise that CKW necessitates a kind of “management” entirely different from traditional management. So different as to be unrecognisable as “management”. 

As the world transitions to CKW as its predominant style of work, this realisation is spreading. And the ensuing confusion and distress spreads also. We see this already.

The Priorities for CKW

  1. Avoiding Cognitive Impairment

CKW involves, primarily, the use of folks’ brains. A.k.a. Cognition or cognitive function. Organisations that cultivate an environment conducive to CKW and “brain-work” are, however, few and far between. Much more often, environment-induced cognitive impairment is the order of the day, every day.

  1. Interpersonal Relationships

The second key aspect of CKW is the collaborative nature of the work. CKW involves folks working together to achieve shared goals.Thus, interpersonal relationships become paramount.

  1. Play

So, how to cultivate an environment conducive to cognitive function and relationship-building? I have found that play best enables and supported these things. Whereas in the above paragraphs I have used the word “work”, we’re better off when we substitute the idea of “play”. Can you see the connection between improved cognitive function and relationship-building, and play?

Aside: We can take some of the sharp edges off the unconscionable idea of encouraging “workers” to play on the company dime by using the term “serious play”. By justifying it as a key to innovation. And by further obfuscating the idea of free play by calling it “simulation” or “gamification”. But that’s only candy-coating.

At The Quintessential Group we’re putting this all into practice, as we did with great success decades ago at Familiar. We’d be delighted to share our insights, approaches, learnings and experiences with you, should you be interested.

– Bob

Further Reading

Schrage, M. (2008). Serious Play: How The World’s Best Companies Simulate To Innovate. Harvard Business School Press.

Dynamic Work Design from MIT

Nelson Repenning at MIT has come up with a general approach to knowledge-based employees finding and fixing issues, and make improvements, in real time (video).

Four Core Principles of Dynamic Work Design

  • Reconcile activity and intent.
  • Connect the human chain through triggers and checks (i.e .Escalation: when and how.
  • Structure problem solving and creativity.
  • Manage “optimal challenge” – problems are useful as signals, and create useful “tension”.

Further Reading

Baskin, K. (2018). The 4 principles of dynamic work design. [online] MIT Sloan. Available at: [Accessed 21 Jan. 2022]. (n.d.). Discover Dynamic Work Design with MIT’s Nelson Repenning. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Jan. 2022].

Getting Along

When all is said and done, all our artifices, all our strivings, all our efforts to organise work… it’s simply about figuring our how to get along (with each other). 

If we’re getting paid but not being productive, the payers will rankle and cavil, and they and we won’t get along. If we’re producing stuff that doesn’t meed the needs of our customers, they will feel frustrated and they and we won’t get along.  If we treat some folks like pariahs or cogs in our machine, they won’t feel valued or respected, and they and we won’t get along.

There’s really no more to work, and organisations, than getting along. In Rightshifted organisations, for example, such as the quintessential ones, folks simple get along better.

What does it take for us all to get along?

– Bob

We Can All Be Doing So Much Better

Looking on the bright side for 2022, there’s no real blockers to us and our organisations doing so much better in 2022.

And all it takes is reflecting upon, and surfacing, our collective and individual assumptions and beliefs.


The Rightshifting chart illustrates the awesome scope for “better” in our organisations:

Most organisations cluster around an effectiveness of “1”, whereas a simple shift in our assumptions and beliefs about the world of collaborative knowledge work could take us to becoming “3”, “4” or even “5” times more effective. That sounds like “better”, to me.

Quintessential Organisations

In my recent book “Quintessence“, I describe what organisations to the right of “4”, on the above chart, look like, feel like and work like.

– Bob

Still Rejecting the Idea of the Collective Psyche?

“Cognition extends into the physical world and the brains of others.”

~ Aron Barbey, Richard Patterson & Steven Sloman

A new research paper suggests that efforts to understand human cognition should expand beyond the study of individual brains.

Regularly readers will know that Organisational Psychotherapy rests, in large part, on the idea of the collective consciousness a.k.a. organisational psyche.

Check out this new paper for some confirming research (not that evidence or science sways people).

“Cognition is, to a large extent, a group activity, not an individual one,”

~ Steven Sloman

– Bob

Jira, Dogs and Chocolate

I’m a dog person. As such, I know that chocolate is toxic to dogs. They’ll happily wolf it down, of course. But then they’ll get sick, with a range of symptoms including vomiting, diarrhoea, increased thirst, panting or restlessness, excessive urination, and racing heart rate. In severe cases, symptoms can include muscle tremors, seizures, heart failure and death.

“Clinical signs of chocolate poisoning can take hours to develop, and last for days.”

Chocolate is toxic because it contains a chemical called theobromine, as well as caffeine. Theobromine is the main toxin in chocolate and is very similar to caffeine. Both chemicals are used medicinally as a diuretic, heart stimulant, blood vessel dilator, and a smooth muscle relaxant. Dogs cannot metabolize theobromine and caffeine as well as people can. That is why dogs are more sensitive to the chemicals’ effects.

So it is with teams and Jira. Teams will happily embrace Jira at first, but then quickly sicken as its toxicity kicks in.

Clinical signs of JIRA poisoning can take days to develop, and last for weeks or months, even when the ingestion has ceased.

Teams and organisations use Jira is a way of communicating without talking with each other. It’s an impersonal substitute for common forms of human communication, and offers only a fraction of the understanding we get from actually interacting with one other directly. It’s toxic to finding common ground, and common understanding, especially in its typical mode as a “communications” nexus.

As an expert in team health, I recommend you avoid exposing teams to Jira in any form. Jira is an example of a tool with which it is far easier to poison your teams’ relationships, than to enhance them. Much like chocolate and dogs.

– Bob



Also applies to Slack, and maybe other tools too.

Non-dog People

I can remember many occasions where clueless non-dog people insisted on feeding chocolate to my beloved hounds, even surreptitiously after I’ve requested them not to. So it is with many managers, who, heedless of the health and social dynamic of teams, feed them Jira, regardless.

Scope of Ignorance

Most of the developers and development teams I used to work with when I was a software development consultant had a relatively narrow view of the skills and knowledge necessary to be “competent developers”. Here’s an illustrative graphic:

Generally, to make progress on improving things, and to earn the moniker of “software engineers”, a wider scope of skills and knowledge was necessary. Not only did these development teams lack this wider scope, they were both ignorant of the many additional areas of knowledge and resistant to learning about them. The common response was “What are all these strange topics, and NO WAY! do we need to know about them”:

Aside: Now I’m an Organisational Psychotherapist, their ignorance is no issue – and no stress – for me. They can learn or not learn in their own time. Progress is on them (and their higher-ups).

– Bob

I’m presently reading (well, listening to) Adam Kahane’s 2016 book “How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust”. See his own introduction.

The books speaks to me because I’ve found myself in such situations many times throughout my career, most often choosing the “exit” option from his four options of “adapt, collaborate, force, exit”.

Why not choose to collaborate? Always my first choice, I’ve generally believed.that collaboration generally requires cooperation of some sort from “diverse others”. Maybe Adam’s “stretch collaboration” perspective will open up new opportunities for “collaborate”.

“Collaboration seems both imperative and impossible. What do we do?

“The reason such collaborations seem impossible is because we misunderstand collaboration. Our conventional understanding of collaboration is that it requires us all to be on the same team and headed in the same direction, to agree on what needs to be done and be able to get this done, and to do what the task demands of us. In other words, we assume that collaboration can and must be under control.

“But this conventional assumption is wrong. When we are working in complex situations with diverse others, collaboration cannot and need not be controlled.”

~ Adam Kahane

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