“My Lord, I bring news!”

Queen of Spains beardA TV program of old that is a huge favourite of mine is the 1980s British comedy ‘Blackadder’.

I was having a conversation with a colleague the other day and a particular scene from ‘The Queen of Spain’s Beard’* leapt into my mind (* Series 1, episode 4 for afficionados out there 🙂 )

The year is 1492 and Europe is in disarray as nations go to war and kingdoms rise and fall. In England, Richard IV’s court throbs with activity as he and his noblemen plan for war.

Picture the scene: The King of England is in his castle playing with model soldiers and horses on the floor of the war room.

Messengers keep on coming in with fresh news from the myriad of battle fronts…and so to a particular message that needs to be delivered:

Messenger: “My Lord, news. Lord Wessex is dead.”
The King: “Ah – This news is not good”
Messenger: “Pardon, My Lord”
The King: “I like it not. Bring me other news.”
Messenger: “Pardon?, My Lord”
King: “I like not this news! Bring me some other news.”
Messenger: “Yes, My Lord.”

The messenger leaves the room, turns around in the corridor and returns immediately…

Messenger: “My Lord, news – Lord Wessex is NOT dead.”
The King: “Ah! Good news! Let there be joy and celebration!”

– End of scene –

Ha-ha, but so what?

I am sometimes asked to change my message so that the receiver will accept it.

Now, I’m not writing about whether Lord Wessex was dead :). I’m referring to the more generic task of delivering a tough message (which might be phrased as an ‘inconvenient truth’) and getting the receiver to accept and act upon it.

Here’s a favourite cartoon of mine (borrowed from Bulldozer00’s blog):

Frontal assault idiot

I am acutely aware that I am so often caught up as the ‘Frontal Assault Idiot’ (as was the King’s messenger)…and the reaction of the system’s response is highly predictable – just look at the ‘status quo’ tanks surrounding the hierarchical system in protection mode.

Stafford Beer was a master at explaining this point:

“…the new idea [unexpected message] is not only beyond the comprehension of the existing system, but the existing system finds it threatening to its own status quo…the existing system does not know what will happen if the new idea is embraced.”

He goes on to suggest why the messenger is (in part) at fault:

“the innovator [messenger of the ‘adventurous idea’] fails to work through the systematic consequences of the new idea. The establishment cannot…and has no motivation to do so…it was not its own idea…the onus is on the innovator…[but] the establishment controls the resource that the adventurous idea needs…”

So, how to get a tough message across?

Now, to explain this bit I’ll use an email exchange I had with John Seddon a couple of years ago.

I was desperate to help the business I was working with to change. I had read a great deal of John’s ground breaking work and thought I would be bold and ask this ‘giant’ of mine a few questions to help me.

I laid out an email to John, asking some very rational questions about getting across my message…and here’s (part of) what I got back:

“You have fallen into an intervention trap. It goes like this: You explain to managers, managers map what you said onto their current world view, but it is their world view you want to change.

The way to do that [i.e. see the truth within the radical message] is to have them study the system. If they do that they will see how their current ‘controls’ send them out of control. Only then are they ready to change the system.

This change is a normative change (changing thinking), achieved through experiential learning (they never deny what they see), not a rational change (you speak, they listen).

If you engage in rational approaches you get the kind of thing you are getting…they will always defend; they know no better.”

This ‘hit me between the eyes’ (so to speak): John is an Organisational Psychologist and he was basically saying ‘you can explain all you like but they will be in denial. The only way you will get them to truly understand, and therefore want to do something about it, is to see it for themselves.’

Interestingly, my continually explaining via a rational tack could very well have the exact opposite effect to the one I desired. I am referring to the psychological human heuristic labelled the ‘Boomerang effect’: “the unintended consequences of an attempt to persuade resulting in the adoption of an opposing position instead”.

Namely, the more I (or you) push something that is the exact opposite of what a person has been taught and has potentially relied on/ believed in their whole lives, the more they will deny the rational explanations and defend ‘their way’ as being ‘right’.

Where to from here?

John Seddon went on to write:

“The thing you need to do is anything that will make your managers curious, so, like you did, read, watch videos etc. The important point is the curious will take their own steps in finding out more.

“[clients hear what others have achieved through Systems Thinking and] demand our [consulting] services…they ask for things like the ‘training’. We tell them there is no training, the first step is we help them study their system…they may start out reluctant but they soon ‘get it’ (and become very energised), then we help them redesign the system.”

So, if we ‘bring news’, the challenge is to get our metaphorical ‘King’* curious, and pull it for himself. (* I use ‘King’ merely to fit into the Blackadder sketch. It can just as equally be a Queen.)

The pulling will be achieved by the King (and his noblemen) studying his system and seeing the truth for himself. Even if the King is shouting at you to “just give me the @#$! answer will you!” – don’t. It would be the wrong thing to do. They will not ‘get it’ unless they work it out for themselves (albeit with your help).

Conversely, if the King says “I get it” but doesn’t go on to ‘do it’ then consider that…

“To know and not to do is not yet to know.” (Zen saying)

Not all ‘Kings’ and ‘noblemen’ will be curious. Rather than being sucked into continually pushing rational explanations onto such people (and risking going ‘barking mad’ in the process), move on to those that are curious. It is only these people that are likely to self-develop and grow.

…and finally

Many a person who finds that they can’t get a message across, decides that the best thing to do is to change the message so as to make it palatable.

Reflect on this quote, that “People should have strong opinions, which are weakly held” (Paul Saffo, Palo Alto Institute for the Future)

If you believe in your message (because you have the facts that back it up) and yet you remain totally open to new evidence and different perspectives (to constantly test and revise your thinking) then DON’T water down your (currently held) message….but DO consider how to better get it across.

Perhaps the King needs to see Lord Wessex for himself and then he will decide whether he is dead or alive.

10 thoughts on ““My Lord, I bring news!”

  1. I am in exactly this position right now with a piece of work and have sadly seen an increased entrenched position as described above. It is true, rationality and evidence can be ignored. My appeal – to go and study the work will be ignored as as Seddon describes, there is a lack of curiosity from those who know and acknowledge there is a problem but can’t recognise their command and control thinking inhibits solving their problem. Curiosity did kill the cat – the cat being sub-optimisation, waste and choosing not to trust people.

    Thank you for your post as always

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As Baz Thingy says up in the comment above mine, imploring managers to “go study the work” generally is not a thing that’s going to work. Even with practical and simple “come with me for half a day” next steps to go listen to demand.
    I am increasingly thinking that some sort of “Health Warning” should accompany systemsy stuff, that it REALLY is for senior managers and just for them and them alone. Or anybody with complete control of a business process. For anybody else it is likely to result in frustration and worse. Best put down and avoided as there is verging on nothing you can do with it.
    It’s harsh sounding but perhaps it’s like with cancer or some other horrible terminal, no-way-out illness. You’ve just got to face that there isn’t a cure and live your life having mentally adjusted to that.
    After all, senior managers ARE in charge, it’s THEIR problem not yours or mine. How they carry out that duty of “being in charge” isn’t your or my problem to solve unless they invite you in to help with the thinking around that. And personal autonomy being what it is, especially in large organisations, that isn’t likely to happen what with all the stuff that is usually going on in large organisations. They’re busy places, lots to do. so many meetings.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I hear about ‘listening to our people’ and ‘continuous improvement’ all day, but much of it is trying to do a ‘wrong thing righter’. I agree with TP in that systemsy things need senior leadership buy in. Part of my job is to ‘propose viable solutions’, is ‘viable’ code for, ‘Lord Wessex isn’t dead’. It can be quite lonely sometimes when you perceive things differently from others in how work is done, particularly when they say the right things whilst mired in c&c thinking.


  4. “Propose viable solutions” is interesting. Cos how would anybody know if something is viable until it’s done and it worked? If, as you say, it’s shorthand for “what we’re comfortable hearing” then that’s very different from experimenting in the real world. Imagine if instead of “propose viable solutions” it were “continuous experimentation to develop solutions in the real world”
    Yeah, imagine that.


  5. Hi bazhsw and ThinkPurpose. Thanks for leaving comments.

    Here’s a few random thoughts:
    – I think that the organisational form (e.g. whether founder run, mutual, state owned enterprise, large corp, not-for-profit etc) has a major effect on the likely management system in play and what’s possible for it to become…but there’s clearly a fair bit of luck as to the sort of person you are working ‘with’ (I won’t say ‘for’ as I don’t accept this hierarchical way of thinking)
    – I am a huge fan of the idea of value streams (as a system) and making their capability (against purpose, for the customer) transparent…such measures show what is actually happening, making it very hard to ignore/ argue against
    – a massive problem for Command-and-control organisations is that the whole management structure got there because they looked good at command-and-control, and are rewarded for being so – what’s not to like for them?!
    – This is why I see such huge value in Toyota’s leadership logic and who gets promoted – they do the exact opposite: It isn’t about being right/ knowing the solution, it doesn’t matter what an individual (supposedly) achieves. Instead it is about whether a person can learn and develop and can then go on to facilitate this in others….which is really the different between systems that reward competition vs. celebrate collaboration.

    I’ve had a draft post written for a few months now called ‘Crossing the divide’ which is a mix of Mike Rother’s thinking on achieving change, together with Seddon’s checking of a system. I’ll post it next week, though don’t get your hopes up…it’s just the squire writing about giants as per normal 🙂


  6. Great post, and I love the bulldozer pic too – have already saved a copy.

    @bazhsw I’ve find myself in that position a lot of the time too. Most of us know normative (i.e. learning by doing) work best, but we still often have to use rational methods in order for people (particularly leaders) to take the first normative steps. The advice in this post and the comments is very useful. Here’s a couple of things I’ve found helpful among my many failures.

    1. In this type of work, it’s worth having a read of Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting. It has nothing to do with the usual systems thinking or TPS literature. Also, it’s not just aimed at external consultants, but also internal agents of change like myself (and it sounds like you are).

    He talks a lot about ‘contracting’ – the initial conversations you have with the leader before starting the actual intervention. He sums up three potential roles you can play:

    – A ‘pair of hands’, who effectively does the legwork that someone higher up in the organisation doesn’t think they should do
    – An ‘expert’, who has unique expertise that will solve someone’s problem
    – Or, ideally, a ‘collaborator’. This is where you and leader enter the intervention as a joint undertaking, with a 50-50 responsibility. Rather than solving the problem for the leader, you help them solve the problem for themselves. This means the leader needs to be actively involved in data gathering, analysis, and making changes happen.

    It’s definitely not easy – and I don’t always achieve it – but I now try and position myself as a ‘collaborator’ whenever I’m working with a leader on a new piece of work. If I can’t do that I’ll attempt to walk away of lessen my involvement in it.

    2. I’ve met John Seddon once. I asked him for advice on how to bring about change to the system from a place low down in the hierarchy. His advice was very brief (and already mentioned in this post) – make them curious.

    Some years later, I came across a book called Curious by Ian Leslie. One section covers a lot of the research in to what makes people curious. There were two areas that stood out for me:

    – Get the balance right between low and high surprise – when a violation of a person’s expectation is more than tiny and less than enormous. If the violation is minor, people ignore them. When they are massive they refuse to acknowledge them.
    – First understand the person’s knowledge of the subject, and then pitch what you are saying to take this in to account. When they know nothing about something they’ll find it hard to engage their brains – they can’t imagine finding it interesting or are intimidated at the prospect of trying to learn something that will defeat them because it’s too big or complex. On the other hand, if they feel they already know lots about a subject they are unlikely to be interested in more information about it.

    Whenever I am using rational methods (reports, presentations, meetings, one-to-one conversations, etc) I’ve given up on trying to change thinking. My aim now, in these situations, it to tailor my message in a way that gets people curious enough to take the first normative steps. In doing this, I think about how much I’m surprising them and how much knowledge they already have of the subject.

    After many years of failing to change the system at work, things are starting to happen at the moment. I’d like to think that some of it is happening – partly and among other things – because of these approaches I’ve learned.

    Liked by 2 people

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