Systems thinking

The Talent Mirage: How Systems Shape Our Success

Learn to see the world where our success isn’t dictated by innate talent, but by the powerful, often invisible forces around us. Discover how systems and culture play a crucial role in shaping our abilities and why the whole idea of talent is but a captivating illusion.

Let’s talk about the idea of talent and how it’s actually a total illusion. We often attribute a person’s ability, productivity, and success to their innate talent. But, in reality, around 95% of an individual’s accomplishments can be linked to the system in which they operate. Crazy, right?

Think about it this way: the way work works, the environment we’re in, and the support we receive all have a significant impact on an individual’s performance. The right context, resources, and opportunities can make all the difference in unlocking someone’s potential. So, when we see someone excelling, it’s not their raw talent at play, but the entire ecosystem around them. and especially the culture, that’s driving their contribution.

We may choose to recognise that the system plays a massive role in shaping folks’ abilities and contributions. When we do that, we can focus on creating more equitable systems that enable everyone, not just the “talented” few. After all, we’re all missing out on some incredible potential simply because we’re not nurturing it properly!


A Generic Conference Submission On Quintessence


Quintessence: A Radical Approach to Effective Software Development


In this session, we will explore Quintessence, an entirely new and radical approach to effective software development that eschews the whole idea of methodologies. We will discuss the challenges faced by organisations in improving their software development efforts, specifically the collective assumptions and beliefs that hinder progress. Through practical examples, we will demonstrate how Quintessence can help organisations address these challenges and achieve better outcomes, such as increased engagement, accelerated uptake of new ideas, methods and practices, increased productivity, reduced stress, etc.

Session Description In Full

Software development has been described as “the most complex endeavour known to Man”. Despite the prevalence of popular methodologies such as Agile and Lean, many organisations still struggle to improve their software development processes and achieve better outcomes. One of the main reasons for this is the collective assumptions and beliefs held by these organisations, which hinder progress and frustrate the effectiveness of traditional methodologies.

Quintessence offers a new approach to effective software development that goes beyond traditional methodologies. It emphasises a paradigm shift in the way we think about software development. Instead of focusing on processes and methodologies, Quintessence places emphasis on the social and cultural context of software development.

In this session, we will explore the challenges faced by organisations in improving their approach to software development and how Quintessence can help address these challenges. We will discuss how collective assumptions and beliefs impact software development, and how Quintessence offers a road map or guide book for overcoming these challenges. Through practical examples, we will demonstrate how Quintessence can help organisations achieve better outcomes and improve their organisational culture.

Join us for an insightful discussion on this paradigm shift in software development and the practical applications of Quintessence. Whether you are a software developer, manager, or executive, this session will provide valuable insights into improving software development in your organisation.

Session type

  • Talk


  • Paradigm shift in software development
  • Overcoming collective assumptions and beliefs
  • Practical applications of Quintessence
  • Systems Thinking
  • Psychology
  • Bigger picture

Who Was Peter Scholtes and What Did He Say About The System?

Peter Scholtes was a respected author, consultant, and expert on quality management and leadership. He was born on August 29, 1939, in Madison, Wisconsin, and passed away on February 7, 2009. He is best known for his work on quality improvement and management, particularly in the context of the Total Quality Management (TQM) movement.

One of Scholtes’ key contributions to the field of quality management was his emphasis on the importance of understanding and improving the system (the way the work works). He argued that problems are often the result of flawed systems, and that in order to truly improve quality, cost, etc., organisations must focus on improving their systems rather than blaming individuals.

Scholtes also emphasised the importance of involving all employees in the quality improvement process, not just those in leadership positions. He believed that by empowering employees to identify and solve problems within the system, organisations could achieve significant and sustainable improvements.

In his book “The Leader’s Handbook: A Guide to Inspiring Your People and Managing the Daily Workflow,” Scholtes famously stated, “95% of the performance of an organisation is attributable to the system (processes, technology, equipment, materials, and environment) and 5% is attributable to the people. The role of management is to change the system rather than badgering individuals to do better.”

Note: This is often attributed to Bill Deming as “Deming’s 95:5”.

Overall, Scholtes was a significant figure in the field of quality management, and his emphasis on understanding and improving the system continues to be influential today.


Why Coaching Is a Waste of Time: The Importance of Fixing the System

Coaching individuals is often seen as a valuable tool for improving organisational performance, but the reality is that it is a total waste of time and effort as it’s the system that accounts for 95% of any individual’s performance. “The system” refers to the environment, processes, structures, and culture within which individuals operate. While coaching can certainly help an individual improve their personal skills and abilities, it cannot fix a broken system. Many call this “fixing the five percent”.

Note that Gallup, a well-known research-based consulting company, has published studies and reports that support the idea that the system plays a significant role in individual performance.

The problem with coaching individuals is that it places the burden of improvement solely on the individual, ignoring the larger context in which they work. Even the most motivated and talented individuals will struggle to perform at their best in a system that is poorly designed, inefficient, or dysfunctional.

Furthermore, coaching is an egregious and seductive distraction from addressing systemic issues. Rather than focusing on fixing the root cause of poor performance, organisations invest in coaching as a band-aid solution. This not only wastes time and resources but can also be demoralising for employees who may feel that their performance is being unfairly blamed for systemic problems.

Another issue with coaching individuals is that it can lead to a narrow focus on individual goals and performance metrics, rather than the larger goals and mission of the organisation. This can result in a lack of alignment and coordination between team members, ultimately leading to decreased overall performance.

In contrast, a focus on improving the system can have a much more significant impact on individual performance. By improving processes, optimising resources, and fostering a positive and supportive culture, organisations create an environment where individuals can thrive. This approach can lead to not only improved individual performance but also increased innovation, collaboration, and overall organisational success.

In conclusion, coaching individuals is a total waste of time and effort when the system accounts for 95% of any individual’s performance. Rather than focusing on coaching , organisations may choose to prioritise the larger context within which they operate. By doing so, they create an environment where individuals thrive and ultimately achieve greater success.

Focusing on Individual Well-Being at Work is a Pointless Band-Aid Solution to Systemic Issues

The concept of individual well-being has become increasingly popular in the workplace in recent years. Companies are investing in wellness programs, providing resources to support mental health, and promoting work-life balance in an effort to improve the well-being of their employees. These efforts may be missing the larger point: that the vast majority of problems related to employee well-being are caused by the system itself, not by individual workers.

Research has shown that many workplace factors can impact employee well-being, including job demands, work hours, job insecurity, and poor management practices. These factors can lead to burnout, stress, and other negative outcomes for workers. However, many of these factors are systemic and cannot be addressed through individual well-being programs.

For example, research has shown that job demands, such as high workload and time pressure, can have a significant impact on employee well-being. However, reducing individual workload is not enough to address this issue. Instead, companies might choose to address the root cause of the workload, such as poor job design, inefficient processes, or understaffing.

Similarly, poor management practices, such as lack of support, poor communication, and unfair treatment, can also have a significant impact on employee well-being. However, individual well-being programs cannot address these systemic issues. Instead, companies might choose to invest in training and development for managers, as well as creating a culture that values employee well-being, along with policies that implement such a culture.

Ultimately, a focus on individual well-being is missing the larger point: that employee well-being is largely determined by the system itself. To truly improve employee well-being, companies may choose to address the root causes of workplace stress and burnout. This requires a systemic approach that includes job design, management practices, culture, policies, processes, and other factors that impact employee well-being.

In conclusion, companies may choose to take a broader, systemic approach to address the root causes of workplace stress and burnout. This includes addressing job demands, improving management practices, and creating a supportive culture. By taking a systemic approach, companies can choose to create a workplace that promotes employee well-being and supports the success of the organisation as a whole.


Hearts Over Diamonds: The Fundamentals of Organisational Psychotherapy

Cover of book "Hearts Over Diamonds"

Are you tired of working in a toxic work environment that is draining your joy and hindering your career?

Want to be part of a positive and inclusive culture that promotes growth and well-being?

Then look no further than Hearts Over Diamonds: The Fundamentals of Organisational Psychotherapy.

In this foundational ebook, you will discover the power of Organisational Psychotherapy in transforming corporate cultures. With the right tools and techniques, you can understand how to change collective assumptions, beliefs, and behaviors that have been hindering your career development and your success. By shifting focus to everyone’s well-being, you can be part of a supportive and nurturing work environment that fosters growth and collaboration for all.

The benefits of implementing Organisational Psychotherapy are numerous and far-reaching. From increased job satisfaction and reduced turnover, to improved communication and better problem-solving skills, you’ll be better equipped to face the challenges of today’s fast-paced business environment.

Don’t wait any longer to be an active and informed player in revolutionising your organisation. Get your copy of Hearts Over Diamonds today and start your journey to a healthier and more productive career.

Take a look Now!

More On Sea Change

Do you need to see a Sea Change in the software industry, or does the status quo suit you and your needs just fine and dandy, thank you very much?

As the inventor of Agile software development circa 1994, I feel uniquely placed to suggest the need for such a sea change,and what that sea change might look like.

It’s all laid out in my most excellent book “Quintessence“, along with its companion volumes “Hearts Over Diamonds” and “Memeology“.

How often have you discussed the subject with your peers, friends, colleagues, higher-ups, etc.?

Without your active support and involvement, a sea change ain’t never likely to happen. Until then, status quo FTW.

– Bob

Further Reading

Marshall, R.W. (2021). Quintessence: An Acme for Software Development Organisations. [online] Falling Blossoms (LeanPub). Available at:[Accessed 08 Jun 2022].
Marshall, R.W. (2021). Memeology: Surfacing And Reflecting On The Organisation’s Collective Assumptions And Beliefs. [online] Falling Blossoms (LeanPub). Available at: [Accessed 08 Jun 2022].
Marshall, R.W. (2018). Hearts over Diamonds: Serving Business and Society Through Organisational Psychotherapy. [online] leanpub.comFalling Blossoms (LeanPub). Available at: [Accessed08 Jun 2022].

A Conducive System

[Tl;Dr: What are the system conditions that encourage ethical – and productive, effective – behaviours (Cf William Kingdon Clifford) in software delivery organisations?]

In yesterday’s blog post “The System Is Unethical” I related my experiences of how businesses – and the folks that run them and work in them – remain ignorant of just how ineffective they are at software delivery. And the consequences of that ignorance on e.g. costs, quality, customer satisfaction, etc

To recap: an unethical system perpetuates behaviours such as:

  • Failing to dig into the effectiveness of the organisation’s software delivery capabilities.
  • Indifference to the waste involved (wasted time, money, opportunities, human potential,…).
  • Ignorance of just how much more effective things could be, with e.g. a change in perspective.
  • Bravado and denial when questioned about such matters.

The Flip Side

Instead of the behaviours listed above, we might seek a system that encourages behaviours that include:

  • Continual attention to the effectiveness of the organisation’s software delivery capabilities.
  • Concern over the waste involved, and actions to reduce such waste.
  • Investigation into just how much more effective things could be.
  • Clarity and informed responses when questions about such matters.

Conducive System Conditions

So what might a system conducive to such behaviours look like?

That’s what my book “Quintessence” illustrates in detail. But in case you’re a busy person trapped in a non-conducive system, I’ve previously written about some of the key aspects of a conducive system, here:

Quintessence For Busy People

BTW I’m always happy to respond to your questions.

– Bob





Why Value Streams?

Just Another Way of Dividing A Whole Into Parts?

Are value streams just one more way of dividing a whole organisation into parts? Isn’t “division into parts” a hallmark and defining characteristic of the Analytic mindset? And something we’re trying to avoid in pursuit of the Synergistic ideals presented in Quintessence? 

As the inimitable Russell L. Ackoff says:

A system is more than the sum of its parts; it is an indivisible whole. It loses its essential properties when it is taken apart. The elements of a system may themselves be systems, and every system may be part of a larger system.

~ Russell L. Ackoff

The Structure Of The Moment

At The Quintessential Group, we’ve chosen value streams as the structure of the moment. Not as a mean to subdivide the Group into parts, but as an experiment, as a way to encourage synergies within the whole. Our hypothesis is that by divorcing hierarchy from structure, we create an environment better suited to serving the needs of the Folks That Matter™.

We are concerned with total systems performance, and the relationships between the parts (value streams) much more than managing each part, each value stream, separately. In fact, the “management” of each part is pretty much irrelevant and not something we’ll be spending time on.

Even The Quintessential Group as a whole is part of larger, or containing, systems. We may choose to see the Group, and its value streams, as holons, as holarchies. As stable intermediate forms. See: The Parable of the Two Watchmakers.

Borrowing from the language of Arthur Koestler, a value stream serves as a subsystem within the larger system: We can regard it as an evolving, self-organizing structure while simultaneously a part of a greater system composed of other value streams i.e The Quintessential Group.

Enough With The Philosophy Already

So, what practical benefits do we foresee from the value stream approach?

  • More coherent (less fragmented) experience for clients.
  • Improved flow of value.
  • Increased synergies resulting in a more effective organisation and thus affording an improved customer experience.
  • Reduction in delays, wastes, and non-value-adding activities.
  • Improvements in takt time and smoothness of value flow.

How do you feel about value streams as e.g. a structuring approach for organisations?

– Bob


Specific organisational structures are irrelevant. It’s an organisation’s fluidity – the capabiliuty to morph and flow from one structure to another over time, and invent new and intermediate structures, as needs require, that’s the thing. Cf. Donella Meadows:

Quintessential Ways Of Working

I’m sure folks hearing about Quintessence wonder what it’s all about, and how it differs from other ways of working in the software development domain.

There’s much to absorb in my books on the subject, especially Quintessence itself.

But for those who prefer an “in a nutshell” explanation…



Products, designs, solutions, services – these are all a consequence of our culture. 

So the quintessential organisation focuses on its culture, not on its processes, technical practices, competencies, etc.. And builds cultural awareness and shift into its business-as-usual, into its ways of working.

As Kevin Weiss so kindly says in his foreword to Quintessence:

This is the real challenge to readers of this book – to consider these ideas as a wholly different way of working, rather than an à la carte menu of possibilities. If you can do that, you may have what it takes to be a leader in your company’s transformation. 

And if you do, jump at the chance! It will likely be the most rewarding time of your career. 

~ Kevin Weiss

Interpersonal relationships

Part of the quintessential way of working centres around the relations between people. Between individual teams members. Between teams and the folks they serve. Between folks inside the organisation and those in customer and supplier organisations. Between folks on the front line, and their managers and executive. The way the work works, whomsoever owns it, is oriented towards increased opportunities for dialogue, and fellowship, relationship- and community-building. Not so much towards producing stuff, like designs, solutions, code, etc..

Continuous Reflection

Regular dialogue enables the surfacing of and reflecting upon the organisation’s collective assumptions and beliefs – another key aspect of the way the work works in aspiring quintessential organisations. Such dialogue is literally built into the ways of working of quintessential organisations.

Attending to folks’ needs (the Antimatter Principle) also serves to strengthen and deepen interpersonal relationships.


A key principle in the quintessential way of working is excellence. The desire to do and be the best one can. No tolerance of complacency or slacking-off here. 

Working Together

Quintessential organisations feature people working together. I hesitate to say collaboration, because I have some reservations about that notion. But working together is an essential element of the quintessential organisation. Gone are the days when the heroic individual could make some lone breakthrough or discovery. Our world has become more complicated than that.

Systems Thinking

Quintessential organisations recognise themselves as complex adaptive systems, not just a collection of quasi-independent parts. Decisions are made and actions taken with this perspective fully in mind. And systems thinking permeates all aspects and all levels of the way the work works.


One aspect often overlooked in non-quintessential organisations is the formal management and control of risk. Many of the Folks That Matter within an organisation seek certainty and predictability, but rarely are the risks threatening those needs explicitly managed. See also: (DeMarco and Lister 2003).

Normative Learning

See: Toyota Kata (Rother 2010).

Social Sciences

The quintessential organisation draws on discoveries from many of the social sciences, including:

  • psychology
  • psychotherapy
  • group dynamics
  • cognitive science
  • neuroscience.

And builds the discoveries and practices from these fields into the way the work works.


The above are just the stand-out aspects of ways of working observable in quintessential organisations.

Take a look at Quintessence (the book) if you’d like to understand more and dive deeper.

– Bob

Further Reading

Rother, M. (2010). Toyota Kata: Managing People For Continuous Improvement And Superior Results. Mcgraw-Hill.

Demarco, T. and Lister, T.R. (2003). Waltzing With Bears: Managing Risk On Software Projects. Dorset House Pub.

The Key

The key to quintessential effectiveness resides in looking at organisations as systems. I.e. systems thinking. And nobody is up for that.

Put another way, improving the performance of silos in isolation only makes the overall performance of the organisation worse.

Not Up For Systems Thinking

Owners and proxy owners (executives) aren’t up for it because of the effort they assume will be required to convert all those not up for it, to being up for it.

Managers aren’t up for it (in those rare cases when they’re actually aware of the idea) because they assume it threatens their wellbeing and their control over their local fiefdoms (silos).

Consultants aren’t up for it because:

  • a) They assume their customers (i.e. managers, see above) won’t like it.
  • b) They don’t understand it.

Coaches aren’t up for it because their remit does not extent to the organisation, being rooted in the performance of individuals (and vey occasionally, teams).

And employees aren’t up for it because:

  • a) They don’t give a damn (disengaged).
  • b) They don’t see the success of the organisation as having anything to do with them.

What Does It Mean to Look At Organisations As Systems?

[I’ll complete this section if there’s any demand]

Where Do The Benefits Come From?

[I’ll complete this section if there’s any demand]

– Bob

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