Unknown…and unknowable

so much more than a bagSo it’s the beginning of an ‘Improvement through Systems Thinking’ course that I facilitate and I am asked a question from one of the attendees:

“What is the value, as in ‘return on investment’ (ROI), in me attending this training?”

Now, that’s a (sadly) all too common a question when someone working within a command-and-control environment has to guarantee a short term payback BEFORE they are authorised to spend time towards studying and improving their system.

Here’s my response:

1) It isn’t a training course. It is education, aimed at making you curious. No more and no less; and

2) The ‘value’ is unknown….and unknowable!!!

Sure, I can (and will) do my best in designing and delivering this course against its purpose but:

  • I cannot know (let alone dictate) which of you will speak to who during and afterwards, and about which bits. I cannot know when such conversation(s) will occur (tomorrow, next week, next month…or even after someone leaves for another organisation!) and I cannot know how the system will enable (or constrain) as and when these conversations eventuate; 
  • and perhaps the nub of it is that the ‘value’ is in YOUR hands to decide, not mine! YOU decide whether you will explore or ignore. YOU decide whether you are too comfortable in your current state or whether you desire growth. Not I.

…BUT that doesn’t make this a problem. It’s just ‘how it is’, whether you like it or not.

There is massive ‘organisation-changing’ value to be had…but it is for you to decide whether you pursue it.

The ‘ROI as permission to act’ view of the world is such a poor way to seek, and achieve, improvement.

I am reminded of a fabulous scene in the classic ‘Love Actually’ film between Rowan Atkinson and the late Alan Rickman: How much is that necklace there? (It’s only 3 mins. long and well worth watching 🙂 )

A course can be ‘so much more than a bag’…but that depends on you.


!cid_image001_png@01D18034So it seems that many an organisation repeats a mantra that we must “simplify, simplify, simplify”…they accompany this thrice repeated word with rhetoric that implies that this is so blindingly obvious that only a fool would query this!

As such, anyone questioning this logic is likely to hold their tongue…but I’ll be that fool and question it, and here’s why:

It’s too simple!

Here’s where I mention the ‘Law of requisite variety’ which was formulated by the cyberneticist1 W. Ross Ashby in the context of studying biological systems. Stafford Beer extended Ashby’s thinking by applying it to organisations.

Now, rather than stating Ashby’s technical definition, I’ll put forward an informal definition that I think is of use:

“In order to deal properly with the diversity of problems the world throws at you, you need to have a repertoire of responses which is (at least) as nuanced as the problems you face.” (What is requisite variety?)


Using the diagram above, let’s say that the problem types on the left (shown by different coloured arrows) represent the different types of value demands from our customers.

Let’s say that the responses on the right are what our system* is designed to cope with (* where system means the whole thing – people, process, technology – it doesn’t refer merely to ‘the computer’).

We can see that our system above is not designed to cope with the red arrows and incorrectly copes with some of the yellow arrows (with an orange response)….the customers with these value demands will be somewhat disappointed! Further, we would waste a great deal of time, effort and money trying to cope with this situation.

What on earth are you on about?!

“Management always hopes to devise systems that are simple…but often ends up spending vast sums of money to inject requisite variety – which should have been designed into the system in the first place.” (Stafford Beer)

Many large organisations engage in ill thought out and/or overly zealous ‘complexity reduction’ initiatives (incidentally, system replacement projects* are corkers for this!) that strip out more than they should and the outcome is unusable and/or hugely harmful towards satisfying customer value demands…which ends up creating un-necessary complexity as the necessary variety is ‘put back in’ via workarounds and ugly add-ons and patch-ups.

(* Large public sector departments have been excellent at this….often scrapping multi-million $ projects before a single live transaction gets into a database.)

Note: for readers aware of the ‘Lean Start-up’ thinking, you might cry out that this appears to go against the Minimum Viable Product (MVP)/ experimentation point…but it doesn’t…in fact it supports thinking in terms of target conditions rather than merely stating ‘make it simple’ objectives and setting related arbitrary targets.


You might think that, because service demand is infinitely variable 2, then I am suggesting that we need to build infinitely complex systems that can cope with every eventuality with standardised responses. Well, no, that would be mad…and impossible.

In service, we can’t hope to know every ‘coloured arrow’ that might come at us! Instead, we need to ensure that our service system can absorb variety! This means providing a flexible environment (e.g. guidelines, not ‘straight jacket’ rules), and empowering front line staff to ‘do the right thing’ for the specific variety of the customer’s demand before them, and pulling appropriate expertise when required.

Standardisation in service is not the answer.

Cause and Effect

Don’t confuse cause and effect. Simplification should not be the goal…but it can be a very agreeable side effect.

“To remove waste [e.g. complexity], you need to understand its causes….if the system conditions that caused the waste are not removed, any improvements will be marginal and unsustainable.” (John Seddon)

If you think “We’ve got too many products and IT applications…we need to run projects to get rid of the majority of them!” then ask yourself this: “Did anyone set out specifically to have loads of products and IT applications?” I very much doubt it…

You can say that you want fewer products, less technology applications, less complex processes…less xyz. But first, you need to be absolutely clear on what caused you to be (and remain) this way. Then you would be in a position to improve, which will likely result in the effect of appropriate simplification (towards customer purpose).

If you don’t understand the ‘why’ then:

  • how can you be sure that removing all those products and systems and processes will be a success? and
  • what’s to stop  them from multiplying again?

The goal should be what you want, not what you don’t want

“If you get rid of something that you don’t want, you don’t necessarily get something that you do want…improvement should be directed at what you want, not at what you don’t want.” (Russell Ackoff)

The starting point should be:

  • studying your (value stream) systems and getting knowledge; and then
  • experimenting towards purpose (from the customers point of view) , whilst monitoring your capability measures

The starting point is NOT simplification.

A classic example of the simplification mantra usurping the customer purpose is where organisations force their customers down a ‘digital’ path rather than providing them with the choice.

  • To force them will create dissatisfaction, failure demand and the complexity of dealing with it;
  • To provide them with choice will create the simplicity of delivering what they want, how they want it…with the side effect of educating them as to what is possible and likely moving them into forging new habits (accepting that this takes time).

In conclusion

So I’d like to end on the quote that I have worn out most over my working life to date:

“Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.” (attributed to Einstein)

The great thing about this quote is that it contrasts ‘relative’ with ‘absolute’. “As simple as possible” is relative 3 – it necessitates a comparison against purpose. “Simple” is absolute and, as such, our pursuit of simplification for its own sake will destroy value.

Thus, the quote requires us to start with, and constantly test against, customer purpose…and the appropriate simplicity will find itself.


  1. Cybernetics: the science of control and communication in animals, men and machines. Cyberneticians try to understand how systems describe themselves, control themselves, and organize themselves.
  2. Infinite variability: We are all unique and, whilst we will likely identify a range of common cause variation within service demand (i.e. predictable), we need to see each customer as an individual and aim to satisfy their specific need.
  3. There’s probably an Einstein ‘relativity’ joke in there somewhere. 

Pick me, pick me!

Thierry HenryI have an image in my head: I’m a small school boy on the playing fields at lunchtime. We are going to have a kick-around and, with the two most popular boys self-installed as Captains, me and my mates are all lined up trying to look good, with our eyes desperately pleading ‘pick me, pick me’no one wants to be left till the end, unwanted and discarded.

So, on to the mighty world of organisational strategy. There are two very different end points on the strategy spectrum. These have been labelled as:

  • Strategy as Fit; and
  • Strategy as Stretch.

Here’s a quick explanation:

Strategy as Fit:

  • The idea that an organisation analyses its external environment (including the forces* of Customers, Suppliers, Competitors and Substitutes) and then tailors its strategy to fit into this.
  • This then requires the necessary resources to be identified, obtained (if not already in place) and allocated
  • This (rather traditional) approach to strategy involves:
    • Market segmentation and positioning as against the competition and substitutes;
    • Logical hierarchical control structures, breaking the organisation into component parts of the so-called ‘value chain’;
    • Formal ‘Position Descriptions’ (PDs) in which roles are explicitly specified and then people fitted to them;

and when things change (as they frequently do)

  • Top-down ‘re-fits’, where defunct roles are disestablished and shiny new roles created…with people as pawns in this game (“Quick, everybody line up against the wall to re-apply for one of our shiny new PDs, you lucky things! I’ll be Captain making the picks)

* ‘Strategy as Fit’ harks back to the original strategy work of the highly respected Professor Michael Porter. His ‘Porters 5-forces’ model is ‘page 1 of Strategy 101’.

Strategy as Stretch:

  • The alternative idea that an organisation has a current set of resources and, rather than be dictated to by assumptions about, and posturing within, the external environment, the organisation creates an internal environment in which their people thrive and grow – they voluntarily stretch themselves;
  • The idea here is to leverage existing resources such that they achieve their potential: developing themselves, innovating, experimenting, collaborating…moving the organisation in new and unpredictable ways;
  • It’s not about roles (and PDs), it’s about human beings – who they are and what they can become;
  • The question changes:
    • From: what resources do we need to achieve what we’ve decided
    • To: where can we go with the resources we’ve got…where this will unfold and surprise as time passes

* ‘Strategy as Stretch’ comes from the work of Professors Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad. They wrote a 1994 book called ‘Competing for the Future’ in which they talk of stretch and resource leverage.

You can see that ‘fit’ will be preoccupied with doing things efficiently whereas ‘stretch’ will be constantly focused on being effective. Constraining vs. liberating.

So what about Dave?

Okay, so let’s see if I can make this a little bit more meaningful/ relevant with a hypothetical example. If you have a worker, let’s call him ‘Dave’, with:

  • Capability: He has a high level of skill in his chosen profession and clearly wants to learn more – both deeper and wider;
  • Experience: he has worked for the organisation for many years, knows who’s who, knows how the place works, knows what’s been done in the past, knows what worked, what didn’t and gained some valuable insights in the process;
  • Desire: he clearly wants to deliver value to the customers of the organisation, and is passionate about doing so
  • People-skills: he has natural social skills and can relate to and empathise with people, collaborate and contribute.
  • Professionalism: he is highly respectful of his customer and peers.

...then you’d be delighted!!! Dave is clearly a ‘good guy to have around’ – I’ll have a dozen please 🙂 . You’d be absolutely nuts to actively ‘get rid of him’!

So, let’s see how our two strategic logics deal with ‘Dave’ when the work that he has been doing to date appears to be no longer required.


  • “Sorry Dave, the PD that you were allocated to no longer exists…so we are going to have to ‘disestablish’ that PD…
  • ..but there’s some collateral damage from this ‘allocation issue’ – erm, you’ve no longer got a job. Sorry about that…but good luck though.
  • Now, yep, would love to stop and chat but I’ve got to rush off to interview people to allocate into our brand spanking new PDs – exciting stuff eh!”


  • “Okay Dave, we think your work is just great, but as you know things have moved on…we need to work out how to leverage ‘you’ (who you are and who you can be) and what your next challenge is going to be!
  • …you’ve got some ideas as to how you want to develop? You’ve been thinking about them for a while? Excellent – let’s hear them and work out how we best support you.
  • …great idea. That should be very beneficial for our customers (and therefore our organisation). What do you need to get going?!”

In short: If you’ve got a Dave, you’d be mad to drop him from your team!

Pick Dave every time: always make a position for him so that he can fully and freely express himself for the undoubted and ongoing benefit of the team!

…and look after Dave: Dave is a person, not a ‘PD filler’. Beware Top-down ‘refits’ and their massive long term effects on morale.

In summary:

If management think in terms of ‘fit’, then Daves are regularly shown the door as collateral damage from the resource allocation merry-go-round… not that management would know this: “Dave? Dave who?”

Of course, if management change to thinking ‘stretch’ then they will be astounded as to how many Daves they actually have (but didn’t appreciate because they were lying dormant)…and can leverage them to the delight of every Dave, and for the long term good of the organisation and its customers.

“…the only sustainable competitive advantage available to a firm in a fast-changing world (especially in a service business) lies with its people – especially their creativity, insights, and judgement – a model in vivid contrast to the numbers driven [inhumane ‘fit’] alternative so prevalent elsewhere.” (Source: ‘Beyond Budgeting’ referring to Dr. Jan Wallander of Handelsbanken)

Note: I write this post for all the Daves throughout my career that have been shown/ pushed through the revolving door at ‘re-organisation time’ (wisdom out, ‘fresh meat’ in, yet the system remains the same 😦 ).

Also, I don’t mean to be sexist – I just like the name ‘Dave’. I had a cat called ‘Dave’ for this same reason. I should add that I have seen many a female ‘Dave’ walk out the door too…I shall (from now on) refer to them as ‘Bob’…but then you’d have to be a Blackadder fan to get that 🙂

p.s. The picture is of Thierry Henry – you’d have been mad not to have picked him for your team.

“So, tell me about yourself”

InterviewA good friend of mine got talking to me about interview questions the other day.

She was having a laugh at the ‘creative’ questions that many interviewers can dream up such as “tell me what makes you special!”

I replied that I think the worst interview question is the “what are your greatest weaknesses”…and then I got thinking about why this is so.

Now, an interviewer can dream up all sorts of weird and wonderful questions that will allow you the space to sell yourself (if you are willing and able to) but this ‘weakness question’ is different. I suspect that it makes us all squirm because it causes a huge moral dilemma:

  • you want to be yourself, to be genuine, to be open and honest….


  • you also want the job!

So you’ve been put in a rather tight spot!

I’ve read all sorts of ‘clever’ (cheesy) responses. There’s plenty of advice on the web to answer this tricky conundrum, but they all try to do the same thing: get around the question rather than being brutally honest.

So, why am I bringing up this dastardly interview ‘weakness’ question?

Well, because I realised that this is an excellent parallel to the (ir)regular performance management meeting.

How so?

If you are part of a ‘set personal objectives – rate performance against – provide contingent reward’ Performance Management system then you too are in a rather tight spot.

Let’s imagine that you are in your annual performance review meeting:

  • on the one hand, you have a manager before you who has the job of developing you and, to do this, needs to truly know about how things are for you. They need genuine, open and honest ‘warts and all’ feedback;
  • on the other hand, this same manager has to judge you, which requires an interrogation of the available evidence and the scoring of it, as compared to your peers. You need to sell yourself.

What’s wrong with this?

These two ‘management’ roles are diametrically opposed. A manager cannot be judge and counsellor/coach at the same time.

If you were to lie down in a psychiatrist’s chair, you can expect that he/she will go to great lengths to put you at your ease, make clear that everything spoken is private and that no judgement of you will take place….and even then I suspect that it would take multiple visits before you truly opened yourself up….and in so doing, you provide the knowledge and insights required for you to develop.

Now, I know you won’t lie on a reclining chair in a performance review meeting (at least I don’t) but a similar environment of trust is required for a manager to truly help you (and, by extension, the organisation).

“When the person to whom you report decides how much money you will make (or what other goodies will be awarded to you) you have a temptation to conceal any problems you might be having. Rather than asking for help, which is a pre-requisite for optimal performance, you will be apt to spend your energies trying to flatter that person and convince him [or her] that you have everything under control. Moreover…you will be less likely to challenge poor decisions and engage in the kind of conflict that is beneficial for the organisation if you are concerned about losing out on a reward. Very few things are as dangerous as a bunch of incentive-driven individuals trying to play it safe.” (Alfie Kohn)

If you know that you are being judged (with a carrot or stick at the end of this) then you are going to be extremely careful (and selective) about what you do and say. You will likely:

  • seek, sift through and provide only positive evidence (choosing feedback wisely and carefully omitting what doesn’t fit your wishes);
  • talk up what has occurred, and you role within (it was all ‘because of me’!);
  • defend your position when it is challenged (presenting a strong case as to why something or someone else was to blame);
  • keep quiet about areas you have struggled with;
  • …[and so on – no doubt you can expand]

None of this is to call you a ‘bad person’…you would be merely playing your part in the game of survival that has been put before you.

You might get your carrot, but your organisation will miss out on what it really needed to know…and the game will continue on to its next round.

A better way

Wouldn’t it be just fantastic if you were willing to ‘share it all’ with your manager, and to do so without any salesperson’s spin. How about: where you got it wrong; where you didn’t understand; where you don’t agree, where you feel weak and exposed, where you’d really like some help… where it was actually a joint team effort (not just ‘me’)…basically what is really going on!

Even better, how about being willing to have these conversations as and when the need arises (and not, say, 6 months later in some staged meeting).

This is possible….but only with a different way of thinking.

Here’s where I repeat Alfie Kohn’s 3-step approach that I have already shared in an earlier post (The Chasm):

  1. abolish incentives: remove extrinsic motivators (incentives, competitive awards….);

“pay people well and fairly…then put money out of their minds.” (Kohn)

  1. then re-evaluate ‘evaluations’: move from formal time-batched judgement events to continual 2-way conversations divorced from the issue of compensation;
  1. then create the conditions for authentic motivation:
    • Collaboration: across the horizontal value stream
    • Work content: make it interesting
    • Choice: allow people to experiment and learn

There’s a reason for the order of these steps: True organisational success is unleashed by point 3…but, most importantly, is held back (even quashed) without first attending to point’s 1 and 2.


There are some people who are willing and able to say exactly what they think in a performance management review*, which they do because they have a desire to make their organisation a better place to work (for them, and everyone else)….and then risk the consequences of low(er) ratings and a poor ‘reputation’ with their manager (as in “s/he’s a trouble maker that one!”)…which may even then go on to be ‘shared’ with others in the hierarchy.

This is ironic madness. I favour any management system that encourages and supports open-ness and honesty that is devoid of personal agendas.

* I’m not suggesting that there is anything particularly great about such people. Such willingness and ability may come down to personality and economic circumstance allowing…which is not so for most.


“We have an ‘open door’ policy here!”


  • You are quite welcome to come up to me, and try to get my attention….otherwise you will be completely ignored;
  • If you do ‘risk it’ and open your mouth, just make sure that you say something I want to hear;
    • Every problem you have is your fault by default…so already know what you are going to do about it – you should merely be asking for my permission (as in begging);
    • …which I won’t give (at least not clearly or straight away or in any timescale that is of use to you)…but I will still hold you accountable.
  • Conversely, if I want you, I will summon you through my ‘open door’ and into my domain as and when I wish (I won’t pick up the phone or come to you).

Open door policy.gif

Meanwhile, in another Universe: Managers Leaders ‘go to the Gemba’.