Freedom from Flatland

Many years ago1 I was introduced to a wonderful little book – a satirical novel called ‘Flatland: A romance of many dimensions’.

It was published way way back in 1884 by an English schoolmaster, Edwin A. Abbott, and sits within the rather specialist genre of ‘mathematical fiction’. The book explores the nature of dimensionality.

By chance, after various books, experiences, thoughts and conversations, Flatland came back into my mind as a metaphor for explaining something seemingly far removed. I realise that, for regular readers of this blog, you may be struggling to find the link…so here goes my explanation:

Explaining Flatland

Abbott describes, in wonderful detail, a society that exists on a 2-dimensional plane (hence its name of Flatland).

Imagine a vast sheet of paper representing Flatland, with the ‘people’ that live there only existing two dimensionally ‘on’ the page. They can move freely about their world – that being forwards, backwards, left and right…but they can’t move up or down. Put more accurately there is no such thing as up or down…at least not to them.

The people

Flatland is populated by a society of people that vary in (2-dimensional) shape: from triangles, squares and upwards through ever-increasing polygons, all the way to (almost) circles.

There is a strict hierarchy2 – a class system according to a person’s shape – and a way of ascending it3.



Societal roles


Isosceles (irregular) triangles

Soldiers and Workers


Equilateral (regular) triangles

Middle class









Beginnings of Nobility


…(increasing sided Polygons)

…higher degrees of Nobility


(almost) Circles4


Here’s an extract to show the delightful effort that Abbott took to explain Flatland to a 3-dimensional being (like you and me):

“Place a penny on the middle of one of your tables in Space; and, leaning over it, look down upon it. It will appear a circle.

But now, drawing back to the edge of the table, gradually lower your eye (thus bringing yourself more and more into the conditions of the inhabitants of Flatland), and you will find the penny becoming more and more oval to your view; and at last when you have placed your eye exactly on the edge of the table (so that you are, as it were, actually a Flatlander) the penny will have ceased to appear oval at all, and will become, so far as you can see, a straight line.”

He goes on to explain that:

“If [a Flatlander] comes closer to another, he sees his line become larger; If he leaves us, it becomes smaller; but still, he looks like a straight line.”

Abbott explains how the shapes (people) move around and ‘see’ each other. He makes clear that it’s rather hard to work out the nature of the person coming towards you, and so Flatlanders have evolved various social conventions around:

“discriminating by the sense of touch, between the angles [of each shape]”.

Coming into contact with a triangle is rather a sharp (and risky) experience, whilst touching a hexagon is less so5.

There are then pages and pages of highly descriptive detail about the laws and culture of Flatland…which I will skip…to get to:

Our hero the Square, and his household

The story is based around our (hopeful) hero, a humble Square, and his household. He’s an unassuming stalwart of his community, with a desire to uphold the traditions and culture of Flatland.

Here’s an excellent reproduction of Abbott’s original drawing of the Square’s household at night-time whilst most of the inhabitants are asleep in their rooms. It is drawn from the (seemingly non-existent) perspective of ‘above’:

Notice that:

  • the directional N-S-E-W arrows shows (as a diagrammatic key) the four directions that a Flatlander can move (an X and Y axes, but no Z)
  • Flatland houses are Pentagon shaped
  • the doors into the house and the rooms within are merely 2-dimensional gaps
  • the ‘workers’ (from the Policemen outside to the Butler within) are irregular triangles; and
  • the sons and grandsons (in their rooms) are pentagons and hexagons respectively (showing how they have been born into successively higher classes).

Right, so that’s the set up to the main event…

The Sphere that came to visit

Now, unbeknown to the Square, it turns out that 2-dimensional Flatland sits within 3-dimensional ‘Spaceland’…and an inhabitant of this Spaceland, a Sphere, was looking at the Square’s house from afar.

The Sphere chose to visit the Square in his house and, because he could, he came in from (the seemingly impossible) ‘above’. To be clear, he didn’t come in through the door, he simply ‘appeared’ in the Hall.

This caused quite a shock to the Square. Where had this uninvited stranger come from? and who/what was he? On using the power of touch, the square found that he was in the presence of a perfect Circle6 and recoiled in horror.

The Square: “Can it be that I have misbehaved to [i.e. touched] a perfect circle?”

The Sphere: “I am in indeed, in a certain sense, a circle…and a more perfect circle than any in Flatland; but to speak more accurately, I am many circles in one.”

There is then a long conversation between the two, with the Square utterly confused as to what is before him, and the Sphere trying, in vain, to rationally explain that he is, in fact a 3-dimensional person from Space.

The conversation reaches a rationale impasse…and so the Square asks for some sort of proof of this mysterious ‘height’ thing (i.e. ‘above’ and ‘below’).

The Sphere (to himself): How shall I convince him? Surely a plain statement of facts followed by an ocular demonstration ought to suffice.

The Sphere proceeds as follows:

“Your country of 2-dimensions is not spacious enough to represent me, a being of 3, but can only exhibit a slice or section of me, which is what you call a circle…but now prepare to receive proof positive of the truth of my assertions…

…you cannot see more than one of my sections, or circles, at a time; for you have no power to raise your eye out of the plane of Flatland; but you can at least see that, as I rise in Space, so my sections become smaller. See now, I will rise; and the effect upon your eye will be that my circle will become smaller and smaller till it dwindles to a point and finally vanishes.”

The following diagram shows a) what the Sphere was demonstrating and b) what the Square, on his plane (‘My eye’), could see.

The Square: There was no ‘rising’ that I could see; but he diminished and finally vanished. I blinked to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming. But it was no dream.

The Sphere (a voice now seemingly coming from nowhere): “Am I quite gone? Are you convinced now? Well, now I will gradualy return to Flatland and you shall see my section become larger and larger.”

The Square: Although I saw the facts before me, the causes were as dark as ever. All that I could comprehend was, that the Circle had made himself smaller and vanished, and that he had now reappeared and was rapidly making himself much larger.

When he regained his orginal size, he heaved a deep sigh; for he perceived by my silence that I had altogether failed to comprehend him.

And, indeed, I was now inclined to believe that he must be no Circle at all, but…some Magician.

There is a fair bit more discusion and debate between them until the Sphere becomes exhasperated…

Experiencing Spaceland

The Sphere: “Why will you refuse to listen to my reason?…

I have it! Deeds, and not words, shall proclaim truth…out of your plane you go!”

The Square: An unspeakable horror seized me. There was a darkness; then a dizzy, sickening sensation of sight that was not like seeing; I saw a Line that was no Line; Space that was not Space; I was myself and not myself. When I could find voice, I shrieked aloud in agony, “Either this is madness, or it is Hell.”

The Sphere: “It is neither. It is knowledge; it is 3-dimensions: open your eyes once again and try to look steadily.”

The Sphere succeeds in pulling the Square out of Flatland and into Spaceland. The Square is utterly amazed as he looks down on to his house from this new ‘above’!

He goes on to be “awestruck at the sight of the mysteries of the earth, thus unveiled before my unworthy eyes.”

(Where) does it end?

There’s an interesting twist in the tale: When the Square is being shown around the wonders of Spaceland, he eventually asks the Sphere a challenging question…

The Square: “My Lord [referring to the Sphere], your own wisdom has taught me to aspire to one even more great, more beautiful, and more closely approximate to Perfection than yourself.

As you yourself, superior to all Flatland forms, combine many circles into one, so doubtless there is One above you who combines many spheres into one…, surpassing even the solids of Spaceland.

And, even as we who are now in Space, look down on Flatland and see the inside of all things, so of a certainty there is yet above us some higher, purer region [e.g. a 4th dimension].”

This gets the Sphere into an angry debate with the Square:

The Sphere:There is no such land. The very idea of it is utterly inconceivable.”

The ensuing rage of the Sphere from the ‘insult’ that there must be ‘something above him’ causes him to throw the impertinent Square back into Flatland.

Explaining Spaceland to others!

As you might imagine, once the Square is (ahem) ‘returned’ by the Sphere back into his home of Flatland, he is desperate to impart this amazing, wondrous, new 3-dimensional wisdom to his fellow countrymen – first to his family and then onwards to the authorities.

However, no matter how hard he tries, every attempt falls on deaf ears:

“My knowledge cannot be made intelligible to a single one of my country men; and I am mocked at – the possessor of the truths of Space and the theory of [3 dimensions] – as if I were the maddest of the mad.”

He ends up locked away in prison by the High Priests of Flatland.

An analogy: ‘Control Land’ and ‘Learning Land’

Wow, that was a full-on explanation of Flatland. I hope that you stayed with me…and that it got you thinking in some of the directions that I will now (with some poetic licence) go…

Many an organisation lives in ‘Control Land’7 which has a defined way of being, and a certainty about itself.

‘Control Land’ involves things like:

…and, to those who have operated in this conventional way for all of their working lives, it all seems so obvious!

Now, a metaphorical Sphere could ‘appear’ and attempt to rationally explain to a Control Lander why it’s not such a great way to be…but this would likely leave a highly bemused Square, seeing the Sphere as either a Magician or a Fool8.

For any well-meaning Square to ‘get it’, they likely need to be physically taken out of Control land on an adventure up into…

‘Learning Land’ in which you:

  • (habitually) ‘go to the Gemba’ and study the reality of the system from the point of view of its customers (objectively – outside the system boundary looking in – rather than being subject to it)
  • discover what constraints are in place causing it to perform as it does
  • work out what thinking needs to change to (meaningfully and sustainably) alter these constraints
  • (systemically) experiment with new thinking and new ways of working; and thus
  • transform the organisational paradigm (not just attempt ‘process improvement’).

…where this would create a resilient purpose-seeking organisation.

Linkage with presumptions of Order vs. the Complex reality.

Much of the apparatus of ‘Control land’ assumes (desires) an ordered domain, with implausible certainty as to what will and won’t happen in the future and how people will act and interact. This supposed control is an illusion.

  • It leads to fear. Fear of not achieving what has been predetermined (a target, an objective, a budget, a plan, a deadline). Fear of being judged, of not looking good. Fear of (supposed) failure

‘Learning land’ needs to be predicated on variety, on uncertainty, on agency, on emergence…on humans, not widgets – a complex reality.

  • There isn’t (doesn’t have to be) any ‘failure’ from finding out that what you thought would happen didn’t. In fact, quite the reverse. If you critically reflect, you will have learning.

Summarising the Square’s journey to a higher level of understanding:

  • explanations won’t do it (though it might create curiosity in some)
  • there will be tension along the way (with points of frustration and discomfort – how could there not be?)
  • those involved are unlikely to be able to ‘unsee what they have seen’ (they have seen something that has amazed, and changed, them)
  • they won’t be able to return and merely ‘tell the rest’ (they will be put into a metaphorical prison if they do)
  • if Learning land is found, then thought is required on how to stay fully connected to (and not ridicule) those who currently reside in Control land, and how to grow (NOT push) the new…so that they wish to ‘cross the Rubicon’.
  • Important: ‘Learning Land’ is not a destination (an answer, a solution). There will always be more. Every Sphere [beware of any Guru] is merely a Square to a higher (and potentially ‘yet to be discovered’) dimension. If anyone insists that they have ‘the answer’, work to move on past them.


1. Whilst I was studying Mathematics at University back at the beginning of the 1990s.

2. A (misogynistic) book of its time: I have left out the details of (the Victorian era) Abbott setting women at the bottom of the hierarchy (as having no shape at all, merely being ‘sharp’ straight lines) but I reference it for completeness.

3. Class ascendance and control: Abbott goes into detail about how, with the right conditions, a (male) child may be born with ‘one more side’ than his father and thus rise one step up the class system…and how rebellion by the lower classes is brutally stamped out!

4. (Almost) Circles: Abbott reserves a perfect circle for a God figure.

5. Touch:…though it is culturally unacceptable to touch higher nobility and the priesthood.

6. A true circle would represent a god figure and touching him was the rudest thing one could do.

7. On naming it Control Land: I’ve called it ‘Control land’ because that is what the nobility and priesthood within think is being achieved. However, those looking in from, say, ‘Learning land’ would likely refer to it as ‘Attempted Control Land’ because they can see that the supposed control is an illusion.

8. Sphere or Fool: Of course, they might be a fool, so rather than wasting time on explaining and debating, let’s just go and take a look…and go from there.

9. Flatland – The Movie: I sent my draft post around to a few colleagues to review (as I usually do) and one of them (thanks Sarah) pointed out that Flatland was made into a short cartoon movie back in 2007. I had no idea! I’ve looked it up and, whilst the movie script fits with the gist of the original book, it has been Hollywood-ised to a certain degree, particularly with the addition of the obligatory happy ending.

‘Bob the Builder’: Push vs. Pull analogy

Let’s suppose that I have the first world problem of having my home bathroom renovated. Lucky me.

I (the client) want others to do this work for me. I’m not competent/capable of doing it myself, so I contact a qualified builder.

Now, given this ‘scene setting’, I want to compare and contrast two vastly different ‘system designs’ in dealing with my need – I’ll label them as ‘Push’ and ‘Pull’…and I’ll then use my builder analogy against many a conventional service system.

Note: The Push and Pull concept can be used in several ways. In this scenario I am using:

  • ‘Push’ as the client being pushed around an inside-out focused design (as if they were merely a ‘widget’); and
  • ‘Pull’ as ‘value’ being pulled towards the client by their helper (builder), making for an outside-in flow.


So I’ve contacted ‘Mike the Builder’ and he comes round to take a look. We have a dynamic discussion about what needs doing, my design preferences, and any constraints I have (e.g. timescales, site access…dealing with the dog!).

The conversation comes to a close…

Builder Mike: “Great, thanks Steve, I’ve captured what I think you need. I’ll write that up and pass it on to Builder Trevor”.

Me: “Eh? I thought you’d be doing the work! I’ve just spent an hour with you, and you now understand my situation and requirements. Why are you now passing [pushing] me onto another builder?”

Builder Mike: “Oh, sorry, no, I just do the set-up part. This then gets streamed to another builder according to some criteria. It’s now with Builder Trevor. He’ll contact you about starting the work”.

Me: “I’m less than happy about this. I’ve spent time establishing a rapport with you. You now understand me and my situation. Surely, I now need to wait for Trevor to become available and then repeat this detailed conversation all over again with him?!”

Builder Mike: “Oh no, you don’t need to do that, I’ll write it all up carefully1 and make sure Builder Trevor gets this. He’ll contact you as soon as he can”.

So, a bit of time goes by and then Builder Trevor calls me. We arrange a start date, and he arrives on site to get stuck in.  I’m a bit nervous as to whether he understands what is needed but he assures me that Builder Mike passed on his notes.

After a few days’ worth of work (lots of banging and ripping going on), Builder Trevor contacts me one evening:

Builder Trevor: “Hi Steve, just to let you know that I’m passing [pushing] you on to Builder Sam. It turns out that, once we’ve stripped everything out, your build is far more complicated than Builder Mike had realised. You’ve got a really old house and I’ve uncovered some ‘gremlins’ behind the walls/ under the floors. It needs some specialist work to sort out.”

Me: “Er, okay…it is what it is…but why can’t you sort these complications out? Why do you need to pass me on to someone else? How does Sam get up to speed as to what needs doing?…aaargh!!!!”

Builder Trevor: “Well, Builder Mike streamed the work to me because I do the non-complicated jobs. Builder Sam does the complicated jobs. I’ve now found out that you were streamed incorrectly2 so I’m sorting that out by passing [pushing] you over to Builder Sam.”

Me: “Well, that may be how you’ve chosen to organise…but that isn’t what I want/need. I want to work with one builder!”

Builder Trevor: “Oh, it won’t be a problem. Builder Sam is very good – he’ll sort out all the complicated stuff that needs doing. You just need to wait for him to contact you.”

And so, after Builder Sam contacts me, and a bit of a delay, he comes onto site to start the work.

Builder Sam: “Blimey, I wouldn’t have done it like that!”

Me: “no, no – that’s what I wanted doing! I explained it all to Mike…and again to Trevor…I need to explain it all to you now.”

A long, detailed, careful [and exasperated] explanation is then given by me to Builder Sam.

Builder Sam: “Okay, now it makes sense. I’ve got it. I’ll crack into it.”

Builder Sam gets ‘on the tools’ and work resumes. A week later, Builder Sam calls me:

Builder Sam: “Hi Steve. Good news – we’ve sorted out the complicated stuff…so your job is now back to being a simple one. I’ve passed you on to Builder Jim.”

Me: “oh for f@#k sake! Why are you passing [pushing] the job on again??? Why can’t you finish it? And who on earth is Jim?!”

Builder Sam: “Well, I’m only streamed to do the complicated stuff…and yours isn’t complicated anymore so I’ve got to put you back into the ‘non-complicated jobs’ queue”

Me: “So, presumably you mean to pass me back to Trevor then? …and not some Builder called Jim!”

Builder Sam “Oh no, Builder Trevor is busy on another job now. You’ve been allocated to Builder Jim.”

Me: “You are joking aren’t you?! Trevor knows what to do. This ‘Jim’ doesn’t know anything about what’s needed, what’s been done so far, why the complicated work was required, how you’ve sorted it…and what is left to do.”

I’ve not had a usable bathroom for a few months now, and I desperately need to get it back functioning. I don’t really have a choice – I’m a hostage to the Builders. I ask for Builder Jim to get onsite asap and finish the job.

And so, after a bit of a delay3, another round of introductions, and an attempt by me to bring Builder Jim up-to-speed on everything, work resumes.

A week later:

Builder Jim: Right, I’ve finished everything and I’m all packed up and ready to leave. Just ‘sign off’ on this completion form – put your signature here”.

Me: “Before I do that I want to check the work.”

Builder Jim: “Oh, er, okay – but I’ve done everything that’s on my job sheet.”

I take a really good look around…

Me: “That’s not the toilet that I asked for…that’s not where I asked for the attic hatch to be positioned…why have you put in a fancy heated mirror that I didn’t ask for and then charged me for it…grrr – I explained this ALL to Mike at the very start!!!!”

Builder Jim: “Well, that’s not down on Mike’s notes. If you’ve got a problem with the work done, then you’ll need to contact our complaints department. They will then assign you a ‘Complaint resolution’ Builder to look into it.”

Me: “I don’t want to be assigned another f@#!ing Builder!!!!!!!!!”

Builder Jim: “Steady on mate. It’s not my fault. I’ve done the best I can with what I knew.”

The above (I hope) reads as being rather ludicrous, and so to…


I contact ‘Bob the builder’ and he comes round to take a look. We have a dynamic discussion about what needs doing, my design preferences, and any constraints I have (including that dog).

Builder Bob: “Right, that’s all understood. I’ll be back next week to make a start.”

Me: “Great stuff, I’m looking forward to working with you to get this sorted.”

Builder Bob: “Now, just to be clear, I’ve got a fair bit of experience but there are often unexpected things that I uncover. These might be new things that I haven’t seen before. If that happens, then I’ll bring in [Pull] appropriate expertise to help me get it sorted…but don’t worry, I’ll be taking responsibility for what’s needed and making sure that it gets done.”

Me: “Sure, makes sense. Sounds good to me.”

Builder Bob gets to the stage where he’s stripped everything out and, sure enough, there’s some gremlins hidden behind those walls. I get a call one evening:

Builder Bob: “Hi Steve. Just to let you know that I’ve uncovered some tricky stuff behind the walls. I’m pulling Wendy onto site to get it sorted – she’s seen this a number of times before and knows just what to do. Actually, I’m really looking forward to it as I’m going to learn some cool new stuff from her.

I’m always learning on this job, that’s what I love about it 🙂 ”

Me: “Fair enough, an old house was always sure to present some roadblocks, but great that you can bring in Wendy to sort it.”

…and, behind my smile I’m thinking I’m really happy that I selected Bob as my builder – it’s great that he’s owning the job. I will use Bob for all the other (big list of) stuff that needs doing to my old house!

So, it comes to the end of the job and Bob asks me to sign off on his work.

And, because I started the process with Bob, and have been keeping up with him along the way, there’s very few issues. However, the world’s not perfect and I notice something which isn’t what I had asked for…so I let Bob know.

Builder Bob: “Oh bugger, yep, I remember now – you did ask for that didn’t you. No worries, I’ll get that rectified asap.”


Now, you might have a pessimistic view of builders (perhaps through experience or folklore) and think that this ‘end of job’ scenario is a bit fanciful…

…but I expect you’d agree with me that I’ve got a massively better chance of communicating with Bob about a missed requirement and getting it sorted as compared to attempting communication with the Mike/Trevor/Sam/Jim/A N Other ‘tag team’ of builders.

Applying the analogy to many a conventional service system

There are numerous examples of service organisations that are built and operated along the ‘push the client around’ design (ref. ‘tiered models of service’)…with all those daft situations that I have attempted to show above…and much more besides.

And, rather than the 1st world (and relatively short lived) problem of a new bathroom suite, these systems are trying to help people with fundamental aspects of their lives, often over substantial periods of time (e.g. physical and mental health, social and economic wellness, …)

Such a client needs someone to take responsibility for helping them, and to pull this help towards them. This can only happen if this is ‘designed in’. It won’t (and can’t) happen simply by imploring workers to be ‘client centric’.

To clarify: This isn’t a case of bad workers, it’s a case of workers with great potential to ‘do good’ but who are hampered, prevented, and blinded by an inappropriate system design.


1. On ‘writing it all up carefully’: The spaghetti notes phenomenon

2. On being ‘streamed incorrectly’: One of the major ‘wrinkles’ within streaming logic is the belief that people can be ‘correctly’ streamed before they and their situation is actually understood. A second ‘wrinkle’ is that the world is dynamic (things always change)…so even if something was streamed ‘correctly’ at a point in time, it will often not remain that way.

3. On waiting: You’ll note that, within the ‘push’ scenario, there is a fair bit of waiting time, whilst I (the client) am ‘parked’, waiting for the next builder to become available, to pick my ‘job’ out of their bucket of work, and to contact me to get it (re)started.

4. The names of builders:

  • the pushing scenario: I was looking for inspiration as to names to use, so I’ve used the names of local builders that I know. Please note that I am not casting aspersions on them! I’m just using ‘poetic licence’. In fact, the reality is quite the opposite – I’ve heard great things about all of them 😊.
  • the pulling scenario: I’ve gone with the much-loved UK Children’s cartoon characters ‘Bob the Builder’ and ‘Wendy’. I left out Scoop, Muck and Dizzy…

Just another ‘religion’…or something much more?

I feel like the phrase ‘Systems Thinking’ is, unfortunately, regularly abused/ misused/ confused and I wanted to write a post that causes me to set this out.

Further, I’ve read several articles online that attempt to define systems thinking and many of them (I think) fall into the same hole.

It’s a tricky area (no one ‘owns’ language) …so you’ll have to judge how I do…and where it can be refined and matured.


There have been a couple of triggers for me to write this post:

  • I heard about a conversation whereby a member of staff asked a senior manager if their organisation would continue its ‘systems thinking’ journey and the response was “well, there are many religions” and then referred to Agile, Design Thinking etc. as if these were competing and it was a matter of choosing which one to concentrate on (“because we can’t do them all”)
  • I regularly read blog posts comparing ‘systems thinking’ with various approaches (such as Agile, Design Thinking…), often in some sort of ‘battle of methods’

I don’t think the phrase systems thinking is being used well. It might even be the wrong phrase1. My point is (I believe) that the ‘many religions’ response shows a big problem (in understanding, and in enabling meaningful systemic change).

I’d like to set out the important difference between the words ‘theory’ and ‘method’…and then re-examine the ‘systems thinking thing’.


Beginning with the word ‘theory’: It’s used a fair bit, and in different senses, so what do I mean when I use it within this post?

In everyday parlance, the word ‘theory’ might be used to mean a hunch/ guess/ feeling/ intuition [ref. a hypothesis].

“I’ve got a theory that the dog did it whilst we weren’t looking!”

However, for a scientist, the word theory means virtually the opposite. A theory refers to something that has a clearly substantiated explanation, and thus can be relied upon to understand, explain, and predict (albeit within the limits of a theory’s boundaries).

The theory of gravity can be used to explain why the apple falls to the ground…and can be used to reliably predict how other objects will behave.

And so we get the distinction between a hypothesis (I think that this explains it…which I could go on to explore) and a theory2 (this really does explain it…so I’d be wise to act accordingly).

Perhaps the most important point about theory is that I can use it to intervene and bring about change.

By understanding the theory of gravity, I can make use of it to handily move objects from one place to another (e.g. down a chute).

Conversely, if I try to go against the theory of gravity, I could make life extremely hard for myself. I could find myself stuck…or going in the opposite direction!

Note that the words ‘principle’ and ‘law’ fit in a similar space with, and are relatable to, the word ‘theory’.


Turning to the word ‘method’: which means a way of doing something, hopefully with the aim of achieving something useful.

The words ‘technique’ and ‘approach’ fit with the word ‘method’.

Putting the two together:

  • If you consistently act in accordance with the theory (which probably requires you to understand it at some level), then lots of different methods could provide value to you3. You might even be able to ‘mix and match’ methods
  • However, if you fall foul of the theory, then it won’t matter which method you use or how meticulously you attempt to follow it4. Your failure to conform with the theory will hinder, and perhaps prevent, you from achieving the desired outcome

…and so to the phrase ‘Systems Thinking:

Put simply: When people write/ talk about this thing called ‘systems thinking’ there is often confusion as to whether they are referring to theory or method.

When I refer to systems thinking, I’m thinking about theory, and I realise that there are many methods out there that can assist.

In respect of theory: there are some fundamentals that we would do well to understand5.

The work of Mike Jackson

I’ve got a rather nice book on my shelf by Prof. Mike Jackson titled ‘Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity’.

Mike’s book brilliantly demonstrates the point: He catalogues, organises, sets out and critiques a compilation of ‘systems thinking’ approaches6.

Just to give you a flavour of what I mean, here’s the set of approaches that Mike’s book covers:

Type of Approach Example Approaches (with a note on their origin in brackets)
For Technical complexity Operational Research

Systems Analysis

Systems Engineering

For Process Complexity The Vanguard Method (Seddon)
For Structural Complexity System Dynamics (Forrester)
For Organisational Complexity Social-Technical Systems Thinking (Tavistock Institute)

Organisational Cybernetics & The Viable Systems Model (Beer)

For People Complexity Strategic Assumption Surfacing & Testing (Churchman inspired)

Interactive Planning (Ackoff)

Soft Systems Methodology (Checkland)

For Coercive Complexity Team Syntegrity (Beer)

Critical Systems Heuristics (Ulrich)

In addition to these approaches, there are lots of other methods out there that, whilst not formally attached to systems science, are ostensibly aimed at making our work systems7 ‘better’ (such as Agile, Design Thinking,…). Whether they do or not, well, that would depend on how their usage fits with the theory…

A side note on the ‘religion’ thing:

With reference to the trigger for writing this post, I was struck when the senior manager used the ‘many religions’ analogy as this (to me) reflects an ancient homo sapiens mess:

  • Each religion is (I think) a method/ approach for how a community might live together. If you have a darker view of the world, you might see them as a method by which to control the masses
  • Underlying each religion is likely some fundamental truths (theory) of how a group of people can best live together (probably learned through an evolutionary process)…which is perhaps why so many of the basics are the ‘same but different’ across the world’s religions

…and so, we get to the same underlying point: Don’t get stuck on ‘which religion to adopt’ or in arguing that “my religion is better than yours!”. Rather, ponder what any social grouping is trying to achieve…and move forwards accordingly8.

Going back to the beginning:

For anyone and everyone in management: Rather than trying to juggle the selection and implementation of (supposed) competing methods, go beneath them, to a principled level. Then use appropriate methods, grounded in the theory, to help you.


1. Re. might be the wrong phrase: I often find myself saying ‘systemic thinking’ because, for me, it conveys my message better.

2. For those deep philosophers out there: I recognise that I am barely scratching the surface of what the word ‘theory’ means, that there are different types of theories, and that there is whole body of knowledge around theory. My intent is simply to make the clear distinction between theory and method.

3. Re. Theory: I’ve seen people ‘do amazing things’ because they intuitively understood about people, about inter-relationships, about purpose. They had great success, often without having any idea about specific methods.

4. Re. Method: I’ve observed loads of (as an example) ‘Lean Six Sigma’ initiatives over the years, trying to push a method whilst falling foul of basic principles about systems and people. They (told themselves that they had) delivered lots of little ‘projects’ and yet transformed nothing.

5. Fundamentals: I’ve recently enjoyed reading an interesting book by Patrick Hoverstadt called ‘The Grammar of Systems’, in which he usefully sets out a core set of nine systems principles (from Emergence, through Holism…right through to Complexity and Uncertainty)

6. Mike Jackson’s compilation: I expect that others more knowledgeable than me might critique Mike’s selection of approaches and his considered opinion on how to usefully label/ structure them. My point is not that Mike has a perfect answer, but that he nicely demonstrates that there is a huge difference between the theoretical ideas within systems thinking, and that different approaches may be chosen (and perhaps partnered together) depending on the context.

I’ve also stuck with Mike’s use of the word ‘approach’ in the table rather than substituting the word ‘method’…as I didn’t want to take up words discussing the difference between a method and a methodology. If you are interested, then Checkland had much to say on this.

7. Systems: I ‘get’ that, in the tradition of hard vs. soft vs critical vs complexity vs…, we could discuss what’s a system anyway. I’ve got a post half written on the importance of this question (but then I’ve got lots of half written posts!)

8. Just as an FYI (if you are wondering): I’m not religious. In fact, quite the reverse. I simply make the observation about ‘any given religion’ vs. ‘the rationale for religions’ (or any approach to living, such as humanism).

Two different words: Support vs. Enable

Short post time…

I was listening to some seasonal ‘organisational comms’ when I noticed two words being used in a way that felt problematic – they were being used the wrong way around. I’ve come to view the two words as important1 so their usage ‘stood out’ and made me pause for thought.

The two words were ‘support’ and ‘enable’.

I reflected that these two words are sometimes used interchangeably, which caused me to:

  1. look up whether my thinking was ‘correct’ (as in the dictionary definition); and
  2. ask myself why I think it matters

Here’s a quick write up:

1. What do they actually mean?

Using the wonders of the internet, and the various dictionaries on offer, we get the following definitions:

Support: “to give assistance, to help carry the weight of”

Enable: “to make it possible for

      • somebody to do something; or
      • something to happen or exist

by creating the necessary conditions”

When trying to nail down a definition in my head, I find it useful to also consider its opposites:

The opposites (antonyms) of support include oppose, contradict, and undermine

The opposites of enable include prevent and inhibit.

2. Why it matters!

Whilst both words seem related, there is a big difference between them.

‘Support’ is about being ‘part of the action’, helping in the moment: A ‘thing’ is happening, and this is either being supported to occur/endure/ succeed…or not.

‘Enable’ is about providing the conditions such that desirable ‘things’ can occur, (and hopefully) easily. Whether a specific ‘thing’ happens, and the who/how/where/when of it don’t need to be (and usually can’t be) known upfront. The point is ‘can it happen?’ and ‘is it more likely that it will?’

On the relationship between the words: I could be desperately trying to support someone to do something and yet be in an environment that is inhibiting or (worse) preventing us from succeeding. This is, sadly, a very real scenario for many people working within conventional service systems.

This shows why the concept of enabling is sooo important – without it we can devote HUGE efforts on attempted support and yet be constantly thwarted from achieving anything meaningful and sustained.

To reiterate a central point:

The structural ‘centres’ role is to enable value to be delivered ‘at the coal face’. This is VERY different from (attempting to) merely support.

Many (most) conventional ‘management systems’ think that their constant attempts at ‘support’ (via organisational restructures, detailed policies and business rules, activity reporting and quality inspection…) is helping. However, it regularly inhibits and prevents.

Senior Management need to oversee a shift from (attempted) support to enabling…which starts with them.


1. A few of my recent posts are based around the concepts of ‘autonomy support’ and ‘autonomy enabling’.

If you want to go further into this point then here’s a link to the first post in a series: Autonomy – Autonomy Support – Autonomy Enabling

The ‘Supermarket shelf’ analogy

I’ve had many constructive conversations with people about a ‘way of thinking’ regarding the relationship between those helping people (value creating) and those enabling this to happen (value enabling).

I wrote this up in a two-part post, which is linked here:

In addition to these two posts, I often use an analogy1 of a supermarket shelf to assist me in explaining the desirable inter-connectedness between those helping clients, and those (tasked with) enabling this.

Now, whilst every analogy is limited2, humanity has derived great value in using them. So this post is my attempt at writing down my ‘supermarket shelf’ analogy for others to ponder and play with.

Here goes…

So, how does a physical supermarket shelf work?

A simple diagram to assist:

In pulling according to their needs, the customer determines:

  • whether what’s available is suitable for their needs (ref. autonomy);
  • whether to try a product;
  • what they think about the product once they’ve used it; and
  • what’s missing from the selection (ref. not engaging/ going elsewhere)

In observing the customer, the supplier uses this as feedback to determine:

  • which products are being selected, and therefore need restocking (ref. capacity);
  • what new products to develop and test (ref. experimentation); and
  • which products to improve or discontinue (ref. learning)

Note that the customer decides what combination of products goes in their basket (i.e. what selections work for their needs) …no matter how unexpected these may appear to the supplier.

The supplier’s role is to (safely) enable the selection, whilst providing knowledge to the customer as to what they are selecting and how to get the best out of it.

…and what doesn’t happen?!

The supplier DOES NOT decide what products to put into the customer’s basket.

The supplier DOES NOT decide whether the product worked out for the customer.

In short, the supplier DOES NOT control the customer. Rather, they aim to understand and enable them.

 The analogy with People-centred services

If a social system wants to truly help people (its clients) then it will achieve this through autonomy support (rather than attempts at control).

The following diagram applies the supermarket analogy to a social system by using the roles defined within Part 1: Autonomy – Autonomy Support – Autonomy Enabling:

THE big point within this analogy is that ‘the centre’ (i.e. those removed from the client relationship) DOES NOT determine what services a given ‘client – helper working alliance’ is provided with/ can access.

Rather, their role is one of enablement: to ‘stock the shelves’ with a full range of useful tools that will assist, to ensure that it is clear and easy as to how to get the best out of these tools, and to constantly monitor and improve what’s available.

The ‘client – helper working alliance’ decides what combinations to pull and when to pull them as they progress on their relational journey to a better client life.

As set out within an earlier post on Vector Measurement, each client is unique, and their situation complex…so the journey will be about iteratively working alongside them according to what emerges.

This would be the opposite of putting people into a tiered model of services…and moving them up these tiers as things deteriorate (see below on this).

Clarification as to why the shelf is required

You might think “Yes! I agree…we need to get the (attempted) centralised control out of the equation!!” As such, you might be wondering why the helper (the ‘front line’ worker) even needs the centre.

Well, they do…but in a different way than has become the norm.

The helper needs to focus on the client – who they are, what’s going on for them, why this is so, what they need to move forwards.

The helper doesn’t have the time, capability, and resources to develop the host of necessary tools to help. Instead, they need to rely on others to enable them. NOT to dictate to them or refer onwards to…but to focus expertise where it is required.

Example: a client might want/need help in getting an appropriate job. Their helper would really like to be able to pull useful tools like:

      • careers advice with respect to a client’s strengths and experiences
      • knowledge as to what’s available to help develop a client in desirable directions (e.g. education courses, work experience opportunities…)
      • knowledge of the local recruitment agencies, their specialisations, and who/ how to contact
      • guidance on how to write a good CV, and some templates to get the client going
      • interview coaching/advice
      • financial assistance with logistics (e.g. transport, clothing…)

All of these things would be very useful for the client & helper to have available to them, to pick and choose. It would be mad for each helper to have to design their own.

Conversely, none of this is the ‘centre’ dictating specific responses when a client’s attributes fit certain criteria, such as ‘you need to attend this work seminar, take part in this course/ programme, apply for these available roles, reapply for this benefit, …move from service tier x to service tier y’.

We could find lots of other examples (e.g. in health, education, corrections…), and the point would be the same. The client and their helper are on a journey. The service design needs to enable them, not attempt to categorise and control them.

What has become the conventional norm?

i.e. why is it necessary for me to have to write this post?

The current norm in many large service organisations is to adopt a centrally designed tiered model of services. Such a design involves multiple tiers of escalating service support.

A customer typically starts at ‘tier 0’, where the aim (from the organisation’s point of view) is for the customer to self-solve their needs (#digital).

‘Tier 1’ usually involves the need to ‘talk to a person’ but these ‘generalist’ processors are only allowed and/or equipped to answer the very basic needs.

‘Tier 2’ involves escalation to ‘specialists’ (people who may be able to help absorb some aspects of a client’s instance of variety)

…and we may go up to ‘tier n’ according to how specialised we choose to design.

The thinking is that such a model is cost-efficient (ref. front office – back office).

What’s not seen, let alone appreciated, is that such a design causes huge waste (and therefore cost) and significant client distress:

  • of people steadily progressing up the tiers because the one before couldn’t meet their needs:
    • particularly between tiers 0 and 1 (“I tried online but…)
    • and again, between tiers 1 and 2 (“sorry, I can’t help with that. I’ll refer you onwards to…)
  • of the wasted time and effort involved in managing this transferring of people between tiers (including the recording, and then deciphering of the notes in the system)
  • of people not being able to access obvious and immediate help that could avert things getting worse (“sorry, your situation isn’t bad enough yet to access ‘tier 2’. Go away until you can show that ‘the wheels have really fallen off’ ”)
  • of people getting ‘stuck in the system’ (“I can’t help with your actual underlying needs…but I can put this ‘sticky plaster’ over it”)
  • of things getting worse for people as these transfers occur (“My initial problem was x…but now it’s morphed into 3x, y and z!”)
  • of the confusion between those working within the various tiers (e.g. tier 2 getting frustrated with tier 1: “why did you do that for/to them? They’re my client!”)
  • of the disengaged workforce who, confined to their allocated service tier, aren’t allowed to develop and use their capability to actually help the clients before them. They aren’t ‘helpers’ (as per the supermarket analogy). They are merely ‘processors’ (according to a centralised design).

If you operate such a system design, you could go and look (#studyyoursystem) …and see all of this. You probably won’t believe it until you do.

In summary

There’s a paradigm shift between attempting to efficiently handle volumes of events (transactional mindset), and effectively helping people move forwards (relational mindset).

The ‘tiered services’ model is focused on events and efficiency…causing yet more events to occur.

The ‘autonomy – autonomy support – autonomy enabling’ model is focused on journeys and effectiveness… leading to stability and independence.

The source of the analogy

I like to make clear how I got to my (current) thinking. Three stimuli for this post:

  • In the 1950s Taiichi Ohno (Toyota production system) saw photos of American self-service supermarkets showing products arranged on shelves, available to be selected by customers as and when they required them.

He marvelled at how customers chose exactly what they wanted and how much of it, and then at how the products were replenished (Japan didn’t have self-service supermarkets at that time).

This led to Ohno and his colleagues devising the pull system of production (the opposite of the conventional push), and tools such as Kanban cards to convey the necessary information.

  •  In the 1970s Jan Wallander (Handelsbanken) set out a system whereby the bank’s central services worked to define useful banking products (to put on the shelf), and local branches decided (with their customers) which of these products to use (pull from the shelf), and in what combinations.

Wallander removed the ability of the centre to dictate the usage of their products. He turned them into suppliers to the branch. The branch ‘owned’ the customer relationship and determined if/how the available products helped.

Note that Buurtzorg, and its ‘onion model’ of care, is a modern example.

  • Over the last few decades John Seddon and his colleagues have repeatedly demonstrated the effectiveness of pulling interventions according to customer need in people-centred services (rather than pushing according to centralised, standardised, specialised design). He’s written several books that clearly set this work out.

A valid criticism of this post

I expect that John Seddon would quite rightly ask of me “why are you writing this down for others to rationally read and then merely apply to their current thinking?”…and thus achieve very little change.

I would like to prompt a level of curiosity: to open ‘managements’ eyes4 to the simple fact that the conventional ‘tiered model of services’ isn’t the only way (or even a good way!) …

…and I would then want them to (meaningfully) go to the Gemba, to see the evidence of the dysfunctional performance caused by the current system design, looking at this from the customer/ client’s point of view. #Normative

“The starting point for designing a better system is understanding what’s wrong with the current system.” (Seddon)

The most important part of doing such a thing would be to critically reflect on why things are as they are (which, if we ‘dig deep’ we will find to be ‘thinking things’).

If we don’t uncover this then we will likely just ‘rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.’ i.e. the same, but different.


1.Analogy: a comparison between one thing and another, typically for the purpose of explanation and clarification” (Oxford Dictionary)

2. Limitations of the analogy: All analogies are limited and, if you have the desire to do so, you could choose to kick giant-sized holes in this one. A few example holes that I see:

a) Psychology: those of you aware of the world of consumer products marketing may push back at me with something like “but the supplier IS controlling the customer with the psychology around placement of products on the shelves, packaging, advertising….”

The usage of this analogy is about the customer choosing whether to select, what to select and whether it works for them (ref. autonomy). I ‘get’ that the supplier will use whatever it can to influence the client.

This also applies in people-centred services. A supplier of help (enabler) may want people to, say, stop smoking. As such, it is reasonable for them to understand what interventions work and to use psychology to ‘nudge’ the customer in desirable directions. However, attempts at control will likely backfire (ref. disengagement, defiance)

b) The language of ‘products and services’: A big part of the problem within many service organisations is a ‘product/service’ focus rather than a ‘client need’ focus.

I’d note that service organisations will likely need to create services to help clients, but the analogy is suggesting that these services should be the slave to the client’s needs, not the master. Further, it is making clear that any services need to be able to flex to absorb the variety of the clients before them.

c) Instantly: In a physical supermarket we usually get our need met ‘there and then’. In a people-centred world, it can take time and perseverance for help to ‘take effect’. I’m not wishing to trivialise this.

If I butcher George Box’s ‘model’ quote then “All analogies are wrong, but some analogies are useful”. The question I would wish the reader to ask: ‘is this analogy of some use [to them and others around them]?’

4. Autonomy support: This analogy requires the ‘client – helper working alliance’ to be seen as the customer ‘at the shelf’. It’s not saying that a client can do whatever they want. The autonomy support aspect (the helper role) is critical.

5. On opening eyes: Some will be curious. Some need to be re-awakened from their ‘conventional’ slumber. Others require (what I refer to as) ‘professional provocation’.

The marvellous concept of ‘give-a-f*ck”

Short post time…

I recently saw a meme that made me smile. In an expanded form, it goes something like this:

People have three resources [e.g. when at work]:

    • Time
    • Energy; and
    • Give-a-fuck

Time is the cheapest of the three resources. It replenishes one hour, every hour.

Energy is more expensive. When you’ve exhausted your supply, you need time off to recharge.

Give-a-fuck is the magic ingredient. If someone has this, then they (and those around them) can achieve amazing things! Conversely, once it’s been destroyed1, it can be very hard to recreate.

Management might have engineered a situation whereby they have lots of people spending lots of time and lots of energy ‘doing stuff’, but do the people ‘give-a-fuck’?

If not, why not?

In the main, it won’t be because of the person. Hint: Look at the nature of the system they are working within.

Conventional management puts a great deal of focus on people’s time and energy:

Re. time: “what time did you get in today? what time did you leave? How long did you take for your break? How much leave are you taking?”…etc

Re. energy: “are you busy? How much have you done today? How quickly are you working?”…etc.

The somewhat obvious point is that, if management2 put THEIR time and energy into creating an appropriate environment3 such that people ‘give-a-fuck’, then they wouldn’t have to be concerned about the time and energy of the people…because this would take care of itself.

So, it begs the question, why would people want to ‘give-a-fuck’? Well, perhaps if they had a meaningful job to do.

Which reminds me of that brilliant quote from Frederick Herzberg:

“Idleness, indifference and irresponsibility are healthy responses to absurd work. If you want someone to do a good job, give them a good job to do.”

Clarification: Most conventional managers won’t be able to tell whether people have ‘a good job to do’. Looking at management reports won’t tell them. Surveying people4 won’t tell them. Doing management roadshows won’t tell them.

To find out, they would have to get out of their offices and meetings, habitually go to where the work is done, respectfully observe it actually taking place, and critically reflect on what happens, with a laser-focus on the outcomes being achieved by/for the customers of their system.

Then, and only then, would they truly understand whether the people have good jobs to do.


1. Technically, being in this state is called ‘don’t-give-a-fuck’. Extreme cases add the ‘flying’ adjective to the lack of giving (as in ‘I-don’t-give-a-flying-fuck’)

2. I’m aware that, by writing ‘management’, it looks like I’m presenting a ‘them’ and ‘us’ situation. However, management is fractal in nature. One person’s ‘manager’ is another person’s ‘worker’…and so the value of the message within this post increases (likely exponentially) the higher up the hierarchy it goes…all the way up to those who are accountable for the system.

3. Appropriate environment: which would include a huge focus on clarity, and constancy, of purpose [ref. customer purpose as the anchor].

4. On surveying people – Two obvious problems with this are that:

a) many people don’t even realise that they ‘don’t-give-a-fuck’ anymore. Sure, they turn up on time and look busy…but have they become institutionalised into a state of being? [ref. turning the handle merely so that the cogs go around]

b) for those that DO realise that they are working within a system such that they no longer ‘give-a-fuck’, don’t expect them to reveal this to Management simply because they were asked to. People are far more astute/ risk averse/ protective to tell those accountable for the current system what they can’t (and/or don’t want to) see.

Running a survey is the ‘easy but wrong’ answer. Those accountable for a system need to  habitually ‘get their hands dirty’ [ref. Gemba walking].

5. Explaining the image for this post: I went with a duck. Just change the ‘d’ for an ‘f’.

Addendum to my recent ‘Venn diagram’ post

After publishing My ‘Snowden – Seddon’ Venn diagram post on this blog, a reader decided to share it via LinkedIn (which I appreciate – many thanks Sam).

I (usually) choose not to ‘push’ my material onto social media – I’m not trying to sell something (I don’t derive income from it) or gain any ‘influencer’ status.

However, if someone ‘pulls’ it to themselves and for others (e.g. by reposting etc.) then this gives me useful feedback that they see some utility within (even if it is just to prompt a level of reflection).

The loading of the blog post link onto LinkedIn prompted one of the subjects, Dave Snowden, to provide a response. In the interests of transparency (i.e. if you have, or go on to, read the post) I think it’s useful for you to know what Dave wrote, and my thoughts on this:

Dave’s comment on LinkedIn (with me splitting it into – what I see as – the four distinct points within):

“[1] You only have 2 of the 5 (9 if you include liminal) Cynefin domains & [2] even then they do not equate to a split between manufacturing & service. [3] CAS of which Cynefin is a part would reject the whole idea of archetypes. [4] Your descriptions seem designed to support your thesis 🙂 “

My reply:

“Hello Dave, thanks for providing some thoughts on my recent blog post. Rather than attempting to add my thoughts within a small LinkedIn reply box, I’ve chosen to add an addendum to my post that a) makes your comment transparent to any readers and b) provides some thoughts in reply. Regards, Steve”

My thoughts on Dave’s four points:

1. Yes, I am aware that I am only referencing a small part of the Cynefin sense-making framework, hence me writing in the post (emphasis added): “it very usefully differentiates (amongst many other things) between ordered and complex domains”; and me providing a reference in the footnotes to where readers can find out more about Cynefin; and me noting that there is a Cynefin wiki…which I’m happy to link to here.

For the avoidance of doubt: I find the full (and regularly maturing) Cynefin framework interesting. However, it was a particular aspect of it that was the focus of my reflection in my post.

2. Yes, I realise that (emphasis added) “they [Complex vs. Ordered] do not equate to a split between manufacturing and service”, which is why I wrote what I did, how I did, under the subheading title of ‘Making sense of the problem space’ (i.e. the intersect). I am not attempting to argue that anything is ‘the same’ within the post. I am setting out ‘the bones’ of useful linkages (as I currently see them). My last sentence was deliberate in writing (emphasis added) “I see people-centred as being the closest intersection with Snowden’s complex problem space.”

Note: If anyone wanted to understand what I was meaning by the phrase ‘people-centred’ then I provided a link to go to within the post.

3. Archetypes: I’m not sure what Dave is saying is being rejected within CAS (by which I think CAS is short for Complex Adaptive Systems)

  • the basic definition of an archetype? (“a typical example of something, or the original model from which others are copied” – Cambridge Dictionary); or
  • how the word has been used in, say, the school of System Dynamics?

For clarity: Seddon’s use of the word ‘archetype’ within his writings (as I understand it) does not equate to its usage by the likes of, say, Peter Senge within System Dynamics.

For example: the archetype of what Seddon refers to as a ‘break – fix’ service may be seen in many different settings (ref. an IT support desk, a social housing repairs service, an insurance claims process…)

4. Yes, I agree that my thinking cannot help but be shaped by my experiences to date, and so (like all of us) is biased accordingly. I’m not attempting to put forward some new theory. I’m choosing to use the medium of ‘writing it down’ to cause me to think and of ‘sharing it’ (via a personal blog) to cause me to think more carefully.

Regarding my bias: I don’t consider myself to be a ‘Seddonista’ or a ‘Snowdenite’ (no disrespect meant by using these terms), although I enjoy exploring, and considering if/how I can usefully apply both of their bodies of work (amongst many others).

In addition:

I also noted a number of comments from others in the related LinkedIn thread(s) making essentially the same point: that I had chosen to use the phrase ‘systems theory’ (in my Venn diagram and in my point 9 intersect), when I should probably have written ‘systems theories’. I’m more than happy with this suggested improvement.

Anyone reading Mike Jackson’s book (as referenced in footnote 4 of the post) would appreciate why the point is a good one.

My ‘Snowden – Seddon’ Venn diagram

This post is a long, meaty one. So, if this interests you, make yourself a cup of tea and settle in. If it’s not for you, no worries, ‘as you were’…but still make yourself that cuppa 🙂  

I first ‘got into’ systemsy stuff about 20 years ago1. I began with W. Edwards Deming (a peripheral figure in the systems literature) and then went in a variety of directions.

These include:

  • A number of ‘systems theorists’, such as Forrester, Meadows, Beer, Ackoff & Checkland
  • John Seddon’s work (noting his down-to-earth writings2)
  • Dave Snowden’s work (noting his desire for precision3)

As an aside: I’m a big fan of Mike Jackson’s work4 to clearly lay out ‘who’s thought what’ in the systems space, and his aim of providing a balanced ‘value vs. critique’ review on each.

During my journey – and most recently via the wonders (or is that curse?) of social media – I’ve noted what I might describe as various ‘turf wars’ going on. If you’ve been following along (e.g. Twitter, LinkedIn,…) then you could be forgiven for believing that the three groups noted above (or at least their thinking) are ‘poles apart’.

I’d agree that it’s very healthy for people to robustly test their thinking against others5 – it’s incredibly useful to understand a) boundaries of application and b) where there is more work to be done.

However, I feel that those trying to follow along could end up ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ because we fail to see (or acknowledge) the significant intersections between the groups.

This post is about me exploring (some of) what I see as useful intersections.

I love a diagram, so I’ll use the one below to anchor what follows. It’s the typical Venn diagram, highlighting three sets and the relationships between them. The overlaps are the intersections:

I’m mainly concerned with the ‘Snowden – Seddon’ intersection within this post (because this currently interests me the most). You’ll have to bear with me on this because the intersections may not be apparent to those reading their work or listening to them speak. Further, they themselves may not accept my (current) view about if, and how, they intersect.

As an aside: I’d note that it’s not uncommon for similar things to be discovered/ worked out by different people in different settings…and this (almost inevitably) means that they will talk about similar things but use different language (or notation) to each other.

A couple of celebrated examples that I’m aware of:

  • Newton and Leibniz re. the invention of calculus
  • Darwin and Wallace re. the theory of evolution

The trick (so to speak) would be to spot the intersections and then build upon them. Newton and Leibniz (and their supporters) had an argument. Darwin and Wallace entered a collaboration.

I’ve thought about the following ‘Snowden – Seddon’ intersections:

  1. On making sense of the problem space
  2. On working with complexity
  3. On the importance of failure
  4. On facilitating change within the complex domain
  5. On scaling change within the complex domain
  6. On measurement
  7. Combining quantitative with qualitative
  8. On the use of tools
  9. On systems theory

Each explanation below will have two halves. I’ll start with a Snowden perspective, and then move to a Seddon viewpoint. Each half will deliberately begin with “as I understand it” (I’ll underline these so that you can clearly see me swapping over).

Here goes…

1. On making sense of the problem space

As I understand it, Snowden’s Cynefin framework6 aims to help decision makers make sense of their problem space…so that they respond appropriately. It very usefully differentiates (amongst many other things) between ordered and complex domains. In short:

  • An ordered system is predictable. There are known, or knowable cause-and-effect relationships and, because of this, there are right answers;
  • A complex system is unpredictable. The elements (for example people) influence and evolve with one another. The past makes sense in retrospect (i.e. it is explainable) BUT this doesn’t lead to foresight because the system, and its environment, are constantly changing. It’s not about having answers, it’s about what emerges from changing circumstances and how to respond.

As I understand it, Seddon realised that there is a seriously important difference between a manufacturing domain and a service domain and that this difference had huge implications as to how decision makers should act.

  • A widget being manufactured requires a level of consistency. Further, it is an inanimate object (ref: I’m just a spanner!);
  • A human being needing help from a service is unique. Further, they have (a degree of) agency;
  • As such, any system design needs to properly take this into account. An ordered response (e.g. pushing standardised ‘solutions’) to a complex problem space will not work out well (ref. failure demand7).

Of interest to me is that, whilst the widget production line may fit the ordered problem space, it usually involves human beings to run it. So, at a 2nd order level, it is complex – those workers are unique and possess agency. It would be a good idea to design a system that engaged their brains and not just their motor skills.

From reading about the Toyota Production System (TPS) over the years, I believe that this is perhaps what Taiichi Ohno and his colleagues knew… and what those merely trying to copy them didn’t (ref: Depths of ‘Transformation’).

As I understand it, Seddon would suggest that there are a number of service archetypes8 (from transactional…through to people-centred). I see people-centred as being the closest intersection with Snowden’s complex problem space, which leads on to…

2. On working with complexity

As I understand it, Snowden would suggest that the appropriate way to work with complexity would be to:

  • encourage interactions
  • experiment with possible ways forward
  • monitor what emerges and adjust accordingly
  • be patient: allow time for outcomes to emerge, and for reflection

I understand that this may be summarised as probe – sense – respond.

As I understand it, Seddon would suggest that the appropriate way for people-centred services to work would be to:

  • provide ‘person – helper’ continuity, to build trusting relationships between them
  • take the time to understand the person, their situation, and their needs
  • provide ‘person – helper’ autonomy: to try things, to reflect, to adjust according, to go in useful directions according to what emerges

I understand that this may be summarised as designing a system that can absorb variety rather than trying to specify and control.

I see a very strong intersection between the two. I see Seddon as arguing against an ordered response within a people-centred domain.

I note that Snowden uses the metaphor of the resilient salt marsh as compared to the robust sea wall. The former can absorb the variety of what each ‘coming of the tide’ presents, whilst the latter predictably responds but can’t cope when its utility is breached. Seddon is arguing for a ‘salt marsh’ people-centred system design, rather than the conventional sea wall.

3. On the importance of failure

As I understand it, Snowden is clear that we humans learn the most from failure – because we are exposed to the unexpected, and have to wrestle with the consequences (ref. reflection).

We may learn little from supposed ‘success’, where everything turns out as expected. We risk complacency.

As I understand it, Seddon arrived at the definition of failure demand7 because he realised that:

  • those accountable for the performance of a system are often (usually) not aware of the types (and frequencies) of failure demands caused by its current design
  • the act of seeing, and pondering, failure demand exposes them to reality, and provides a powerful lever for reflection as to why it occurs…and to new ways of thinking about design.

I would link the idea of ‘inattentive blindness’ (as regularly explained by Snowden) – where we may not see what is in plain sight (ref. the case of the radiologists and a gorilla).

Seddon’s method of uncovering failure demand is to enable management to begin the journey of seeing their gorilla(s).

4. On facilitating change within the complex domain

As I understand it, Snowden and his colleagues have defined a set of principles to follow, a key tenet of which is to design the change process in such a way that participants ‘see the system’ and discover insights for themselves (as opposed to being given answers).

As such, the role of the facilitator [interventionist] is to provide an environment in which the participants’ learnings can emerge. Those facilitating do not (and should not) act as ‘experts’. Further, the responsibility for producing an outcome shifts from facilitator to the group of participants.

As I understand it, Seddon’s life work centres around intervention theory and that ‘true human change is normative’ – people changing their thinking, where this is achieved through experiential learning. This would be the opposite of rational attempts at change via ‘you talk, they listen’.

As such, the role of the interventionist is to provide a method whereby they act as a ‘mirror, not an expert’ (ref. ‘Smoke and mirrors’). Further, the responsibility for outcomes lays squarely with those who are accountable for the system in question (ref. ‘leader-led’). ‘Change’ cannot be outsourced to the interventionist9.

5. On scaling change within the complex domain

Given the intersection above, it follows that it matters how we go about scaling change.

As I understand it, Snowden lays out the principle that:

“you don’t scale a complex system by aggregation and imitation. You scale it by decomposition and recombination.”

This area of thinking is currently a stub within the Cynefin wiki, which suggests that it is yet to be clearly set out. However, (to me) it is stating that you can’t just ‘copy and paste’ what apparently worked with one group of humans onto another. Well, you could try…. but you can expect some highly undesirable outcomes if you do (ref. disengagement, disenfranchisement, defiance…)

It also says to me that you can expect different ‘solutions’ to come from different groups, and this is completely fine if they are each ‘going in a useful direction’. Further, they can then learn from each other (ref. parallel experiments and cross pollination of ideas).

As I understand it, Seddon makes clear the problem with ‘rolling out’ (attempting to implement) change onto people. Instead, he defined the concept of ‘roll in’:

Roll in: a method to scale up change to the whole organisation that was successful in one unit. Change is not imposed. Instead, each area needs to learn how to do the analysis for themselves and devise their own solutions. This approach engages the workforce and produces better, more sustainable results.”

It’s not about finding an answer, it’s about moving to a new way of working whereby it is the norm for those in the work to be experimenting, collaborating, learning, and constantly moving to better places (ref. Rolling, rolling, rolling)

6. On measurement

As I understand it, Snowden holds that the appropriate way to measure change within a complex system is with a vector – i.e. speed and direction, from where we were to where we are now. This is instead of acting in an ordered way of setting a goal and defining actions to achieve it (which incorrectly presumes predictability).

As I understand it, Seddon’s colleague, the late Richard Davis, set out measurement of people-centred help in a similar ‘speed and direction’ manner (ref. On Vector Measurement for a more detailed discussion).

“But what about ‘Purpose’?”: You may know that Seddon is laser-focused on the purpose of a service system, from the point of view of those that it is there to help (e.g. the customer). This purpose acts as an anchor for everyone involved.

You might think that Seddon’s ‘purpose’ view clashes with Snowden’s ‘don’t set a goal within a complex system’ view.

I don’t see ‘purpose’ (as Seddon uses it) to be the setting of an (ordered) goal. I see it more as setting out the desirable emergent property if the system in question was ‘working’.

I probably need to set that out a bit more clearly. Here goes my attempt:

Definition: Emergent system behaviours are a consequence of the interactions between the parts.

Example: The individual parts of a bird (its bones, muscles, feather etc) do not have the ability to overcome gravity. However, when these parts usefully inter-relate, they create the emergent property of ‘flight’…and yet ‘flight’ is not a part that we can point at. It is something ‘extra/ more than’ the parts.

…and so to Purpose: The definition of the desirable emergent property (i.e. what we would ideally want ‘the system’ to be achieving) allows a directional focus. It’s not an ordered goal, with a set of specified actions to achieve. It’s a constant sense-check against “are we (metaphorically) flying?”

In a people-centred service, it would be “are we actually helping people [with whatever their needs are]?

7. Combining quantitative with qualitative

As I understand it, Snowden would say that there is a need to combine stories and measurement.

“Numbers are objective but not persuasive. Stories are persuasive but not objective. Put them together.” (Captured from Snowden workshop Aug. ‘22)

The power in stories is that they are authentic – they possess many useful qualities such as:

  • an actuality (evidence rather than opinion)
  • showing variation (noting that ‘the average’ doesn’t exist)
  • revealing ambiguity (causing us to think deeply about)
  • …etc.

However, given this, those wanting to understand at a ‘system level’ need to combine the micro into a macro picture – to see the patterns within (ref. Vector Measurement as per above).

As I understand it, Seddon tells us to study ‘in the work’ (get knowledge) and that this can be done by observing demands placed on the system in focus, and in following the flow of those demands – from need through to (hopefully) its satisfaction, and everything that happens (or doesn’t) in-between.

A case study can be a powerful story, providing an authentic understanding (from the customer’s point of view) of:

  • why this particular scenario arose
  • what happened10 and the associated ‘lived experience’, and
  • (with the appropriate reflection) why it occurred in this manner (ref. system conditions)

However, whilst such case studies can be eye-opening, they may be dismissed as ‘not representative’ if used on their own – the risk of ‘just dealing in anecdotal stories’.

They need to be combined with macro measures that show the predictability of what the stories evidence (ref. demand types and frequencies, measures of flow,…[measures against that desirable emergent purpose])

In short, the micro and the macro are complimentary. Both are likely to be necessary.

8. On the use of tools

As I understand it, Snowden and his collaborators are clear that there may be ‘lots of tools out there’ but its very important to ‘know enough’ before applying a tool (ref: ‘bounded applicability’):

“If we work with tools without context, in other words we don’t know enough to know the tool doesn’t fit the situation, the intervention will suffer, as will the overall outcome.” (Viv Read, Cynefin: weaving sense-making into the fabric of our world)

As I understand it, Seddon sets out the dangers of attempting to produce change via merely applying tools (ref. Seddon’s ‘Watch out for the Toolheads’ admonition) and the risk of using the wrong ‘tool’ on the wrong problems:

“The danger with codifying method as tools is that, by ignoring the all-important context, it obviates the first requirement to understand the problem” (Seddon)

I believe that Snowden and Seddon would concur that the start is to understand the problem space, and then (and only then) pick up, or design, applicable tools to assist. Conversely, I believe that they would rebuke anyone carrying around a codified method (‘tool’), looking for any place to use it.

9. On ‘Systems Theory’

As I understand it, both Snowden and Seddon are critical of aspects of systems theory.

  • Snowden argues against the (so called) hard forms of systems theory (ref. Cybernetics, System Dynamics)
  • Seddon argues for a practical approach that starts with studying ‘in the work’, to get knowledge.

Whilst their critiques may differ, the fact that they think differently to others re. systems theory is an intersect 🙂

I think that they would align with the following quote:

“[Theory] without [method] is a daydream. [Method] without [theory] is a nightmare”


“What a load of rubbish!”

To those ‘Seddonistas’11 or ‘Snowdenites’ out there who may baulk at the intersections above, I’m not suggesting that John Seddon and Dave Snowden think the same. I’m also not suggesting any superiority (of ideas) between them. Far from it. I believe that they’ve been on very different journeys (haven’t we all?).

 “So, it’s nirvana then?”

Nope – I’m not proposing that I’ve solved anything/ moved things to new places. I just find (what I see as) intersections to be interesting and potentially useful to ponder/work with/ build on.

I don’t expect that Snowden and Seddon are fully aligned – I’m (almost) sure that there’s plenty in the Venn diagram that doesn’t overlap.

As an aside, I think that Snowden and Seddon have both developed a reputation for ‘saying what they think’. I really like their desire, and ability, to provide solid critique – that ‘cuts through the crap’.

I do hope, though, that those geniuses amongst us ninnies (e.g. Snowden, Seddon) focus on education, rather than guru status.

 Further work: On the other intersections

I expect that there are lots of ‘thinking things’ that fit into the other intersections:

  • Where Snowden overlaps with the systems theorists
  • Where Seddon overlaps with the systems theorists
  • Where all three overlap

You may also be able to point to yet more ‘Snowden – Seddon’ intersections.

You are welcome to take this on as ‘homework’ 🙂


Addendum: Please see this link to an addendum referring to a response from Dave Snowden.



1. I’m not claiming expertise. I am but an amateur with a great deal more to learn.

2. An enjoyable read: John has written a number of books to date. I’ve found them a joy to read. This contrasts with other books, which can be torture.

3. Precision and words: If you know of Snowden’s work, you’ll probably be aware that it’s littered with (what I see as) ‘new words’, or at least new uses for them.

4. Mike Jackson’s book is called ‘Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity’.

5. Robust testing: personally, I’d like such testing to be carried out in a highly respectful (mana enhancing) way.

6. The Cynefin framework is set out (amongst other places) in Snowden and Boone’s ‘A Leader’s framework for decision making’, HBR Nov. 2007.

7. Failure demand was defined by Seddon as “Demand caused by a failure to do something, or to do something right for the customer”. It might also be called/ thought of as ‘preventable demand’. Its opposite is Value demand.

8. Service archetypes: See ‘Autonomy – autonomy support – autonomy enabling’ for an explanation from my perspective.

9. Attempts at outsourcing change: This is why all those outsourced improvement projects, carried out by specialist improvement roles don’t result in transformational change (ref. all those typical Lean Six Sigma ‘Green belt’ projects etc.).

10. What happened: the scope of a case study could range from a journey:

    • over a couple of days (likely relevant to a transactional archetype)
    • over weeks/ months (likely relevant to a process archetype)
    • to many years (a people-centred archetype)

11. ‘Seddonistas’ is a playful term I read in Mike Jackson’s book (ref. the chapter on the Vanguard Method). It refers to those that passionately ‘support’ John Seddon. I’ve made up the ‘Snowdenites’ word to provide a pairing (I think it’s fair to do so as I believe that I have noted a similar ‘supporters club’ phenomenon for Dave Snowden).

12. Image credits: Climber scaling cliff image by ‘studio4rt on Freepik’

Starting from the wrong place

It’s very short Friday evening post time 🙂

So, you want to transform your organisation? Here’s the conventional recipe:

Step 1: Lay out some beautiful ‘sunlit uplands’ statement that everyone but an anarchist would find obviously desirable!

Step 2: Break down the output from step 1 into some pleasing themes (‘strategic shifts’) to focus on

Step 3: …erm, now what? I’m stuck!


Not many organisations actually understand ‘where they truly are’…and so, no matter how much brilliant imagining of perfection is done, and the subsequent strategic planning, they will likely be working in the wrong way on the wrong stuff.


The place to start is to really understand your system, from the perspective of how well it meets its purpose (as defined by its customers, not you), and then critically reflect on what this tells you, and why it is like this.

Then…think about what really needs to change.

This will be different to what you are currently thinking. If not, you probably haven’t seen what you needed to see.

Reflecting on reflection

As part of the work that I do, my colleagues and I help people observe the systems that they manage and work within, to cause them to see important stuff which has ‘been hidden in plain sight’ and to think about what’s going on underneath, and why…with the aim of improvement.

In doing this, we use a great deal of (what is often referred to as) reflective practice.

So, the other day I was asked1:

“What have you written on reflection that you can share with me?

…and I reflected that I haven’t specifically written anything on reflection 🙂

So, here goes2

What is reflection?

The Oxford English dictionary defines reflection as serious thought or consideration”.

Some key synonyms (in addition to thinking and consideration) are contemplation, study, deliberation, and pondering.

Underlying the desire (or need) to reflect is its role in achieving valuable learning.

“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” (John Dewey)

Dewey was clarifying that experience may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient. A good dose of reflection is required to make that experience valuable.

Levels of thoughtfulness

The following diagram (that I’ve fashioned from reading a paper by Jack Mezirow3) makes the point that we might categorise our thoughtfulness when performing actions:

The lowest level4, habit, is where something is done regularly, to the point at which we aren’t consciously thinking about it. We are likely to become relatively consistent (perhaps fixed), almost automatic about it.

One step up is thoughtful action. Here, we must use information to decide what direction(s) to take but, importantly, we are doing so without questioning ‘what we already know’:

It “takes place in action contexts in which implicitly raised theoretical and practical validity claims are naively taken for granted and accepted or rejected without discursive consideration.” (Habermas)

I think you’d agree with me that, if we are operating any work system just at the habit and thoughtful action levels, we can expect its performance to be, or become, ‘stuck’. Further, it’s likely to struggle with the unexpected.

And so, we get to reflection, which is broken into two levels:

Basic reflection is where we pause to consider what happened, or is happening, and what we think about this. Note that, to reflect, there is likely a need for the time and space to do so5.

Critical reflection is at a deeper level: It’s about ‘thinking about our thinking’. More on this below…

On critical reflection

I think that it’s become common for the word ‘critical’ to be put on the front of the word ‘reflection’ in conversations, as if merely saying this makes it so.

And it can be argued that reflection, by definition, is about critiquing something. But I think making the distinction between (basic) reflection and critical reflection is important. Here’s what Mezirow says on the subject:

“While all reflection implies an element of critique, the term ‘critical reflection’ will here be reserved to refer to challenging the validity of presuppositions in prior learning.” (Mezirow)

On reading this, I thought that it was saying something important, but I was unsure about the ‘presupposition’ word…so I looked it up:


Simple definition: something that you assume to be true, especially something that you must assume is true in order to continue with what you are saying or thinking.” (

Deeper definition: “any supressed premise or background framework of thought necessary to make an argument valid, or a position tenable.” (

I find that these definitions help me.

We ‘do stuff’ without realising the foundations on which we assume them to be reasonable things to do…and if these foundations are limited, problematic, flawed, or even false, we are usually blind to this.


  • We break our organisations into specialised component parts, and pass stuff between them, assuming that this is a sensible thing to do
  • We formulate fixed budgets, and ‘explain’ variance from them, assuming that this is a sensible thing to do
  • We devise detailed rules and procedures, and check compliance with them… [you know what comes here]
  • …I could go on

The assumptions in these examples are based on deeper ‘frameworks of thought’ which we are (typically) unaware of. Critical reflection would be to get down to this level – to ‘think about our thinking’.

Mezirow proposes that critical reflection might be viewed as:

premise reflection – i.e. question[ing] the justification for the very premises on which problems are posed or defined in the first place.”

And so we get to (what I think is) quite a clean, working distinction between (basic) reflection and critical reflection:

“Critical reflection is not concerned with the ‘how’ of action, but with the ‘why’, the reasons for and the consequences of what we do.” (Mezirow)

I see a similarity between reflection vs. critical reflection, as described above, and single vs. double loop learning

(Basic) reflection might help us ‘do the wrong thing righter’ (ref. Ackoff)

Critical reflection might help us to move towards doing the right things’.

A learning cycle

The above may be of interest, but you might now be wondering whether there are any models that could ‘help you get there’.

I want to share the idea of a learning cycle…which has the beauty of containing three (seemingly) simple, yet powerful, questions to ask of ourselves/ of the system(s) we play roles within:

The ‘What?’ is about doing something (or observing it being done) and describing what happened. E.g.

  • What triggered the event to occur?
  • What was trying to be achieved?
  • What actions were taken?
  • What basis was used for doing these things, in the way(s) they were?
  • What was the response, and the consequences?

The ‘So what?’ is about reflecting on the experience6, to derive valuable insights. E.g.

  • Why did it turn out that way?
  • What could have made it better?
  • What broader issues arise from seeing this?
  • What is my/our new understanding?

The ‘Now what?’ is about action-oriented reflection7, to consider what might be done based on what’s been learned. E.g.

  • What could be done differently?
  • Why would this be better?
  • What might be the consequences?
  • What barriers need to be overcome?
  • Who needs to be involved?

If you ponder these questions, you’ll note that they can be explored at a basic reflection and/or a critical reflection level.

The basic level may lead to modest, highly confined, and likely temporary, improvement.

The critical level has the power to transform.

On Transformation

If we want (real) improvement, we must cause ourselves to ‘see the unseen’…but that sounds like a hard thing to achieve.

How might we do this? Well, we probably need to put ourselves in a position to have eye-opening experiences!

“Our [perspective] may be transformed through reflection upon anomalies.

Perspective transformation occurs in response to an externally imposed disorienting dilemma…[which] may be evoked by an eye-opening experience that challenges one’s presuppositions.

Anomalies and dilemmas, of which old ways of knowing cannot make sense, become catalysts or ‘trigger events’ that precipitate critical reflection and transformations.”

“Reflection on one’s own premises can lead to transformative learning.” (Mezirow)

Those eye-opening experiences are sat, waiting for all of us, ‘at the Gemba’ (the place where the action happens).

If you’d like a guide to help you with this then here’s one I prepared earlier.

Where’s the barrier?

Perhaps THE critical part of reflection is to find the actual barriers (constraints) to improvement, to then drill down to their underlying causes and to establish where the power lies to tackle them.

This is important to retain your sanity! There’s little point trying to change something when it’s not in your gift to do so.

  • If the power is with you (e.g. in exploring yourself, altering your worldview and/or developing your capabilities), then great. Jump on, strap in, and enjoy the ride!
  • If it is elsewhere, then your role (if you so choose to take it) is to work on causing ‘them’ to see what you have seen, via eye-opening experiences, just as you did. Don’t resort to merely writing it down in a report.

A Summary In five bullets:

  1. ‘Go to the action’ (whatever that is for you) and observe what happens (regularly, respectfully, rigorously)
  1. Have eye-opening experiences (encounter anomalies to your thinking)
  1. Pause to reflect (wrestle with those disorienting dilemmas)
    • The learning cycle may assist
  1. Ask yourself, and those with you, what’s beneath this? (what premise(s) do you need to re-examine?8)
  1. Locate the power to change the premise (ref. dichotomy of control) and act accordingly:
    • …it’s likely to be a combination of the two!

 A couple of extra thoughts…

A truth criterion as your anchor

Critical reflection sounds awesome…but against what?

I’m reminded of Peter Checkland around the need for an ‘advanced declaration of what constitutes knowledge of a situation.’

It’s all very well having oodles of reflections, but we could do with an anchor from which to tether them to…such as a desirable purpose.

Otherwise, we might find ourselves indulging in copious amounts of navel-gazing9 and going nowhere.

…and, of course, critical reflection would also include regular reflection on what you’ve defined as your purpose anchor.

Making critical reflection a habit

It’s worth pondering the well-known quote:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (Will Durant, writing about Aristotle’s work)

This seems to contradict the ‘thoughtfulness staircase’ picture above…but perhaps it’s elegantly linking the top step back around to the bottom step, in an endless loop.

If we want to become comfortable with, and competent in, critical reflection, we perhaps need to purposefully work on exercises and routines that cause us to experience it repeatedly…thus making it a habit.

I won’t presume to tell you what your routines should be. That’s for you to reflect on…



1. Thanks Ange 🙂

2. On the topic of reflection: As ever, I am straying into a large field of knowledge, so what I write will be biased to what I have read/ understood (vs. what I have not) and constrained by how deeply (i.e. shallow) I dive within a short blog post.

Reflection could be written about in many different ways e.g. about oneself or about the world around us (and the systems within). A big part of reflection should necessarily be about becoming aware of our own social conditioning and (current) ‘lens’ on the world (including the biases within).

3. Mezirow’s paper (sourced from here) is titled ‘Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: How critical reflection triggers transformative learning’

4. A staircase: I’ve chosen to visualise these four definitions on a staircase (Mezirow did not). I’m not criticising ‘habit’…it’s rather good for when I’m driving my car etc. However, it is the bottom step of the stairs if I want to improve.

5. Time & Space: Many organisations appear not to value time spent (or is that wasted?!) on ‘reflection’. It’s seen as ‘people not doing work’…and yet there’s often a ‘poster on the wall’ championing a learning culture.

6. The ‘So what?’ reflection: This can be difficult to do well because it’s very easy to self-justify and get defensive (and not realise this). This is where Argyris and Schon’s work on productive reasoning fits well.

7. The ‘Now what?’ reflection: Sadly, many people skip getting to the critical ‘so what’ reflections and jump straight into the action piece. However, if we do the ‘so what’ properly, we’ll be working on the ‘right stuff’ in the ‘now what’.

8. Premise to re-examine: This may be the very nature of the system you presume you are working with (ref. ordered vs. complex vs….)

9. Navel-gazing: I’m using this term here to mean ‘becoming excessively absorbed in self-analysis, to the detriment of actually moving forwards.’ However, on checking the definition of navel-gazing online, I love the fact that I find the practice of Omphaloskepsis (navel-gazing in Greek) to be an aid to meditation 🙂 .