Word soup: The ‘V’ words

A very short post…

I’ve written a fair bit on this blog over the years using the v word(s).

A useful interaction with a colleague1 today caused us to become clearer on our terms (always a good thing).

In the spirit of sharing (and at the risk of stating the bleedin obvious):

1. Variance = a difference, usually between what was expected/wanted and what happened (e.g. a discrepancy)

2. Variation = the act of varying (i.e. that something changes/ is changing)

3. Variety = the quality of being varied; diversity

4. A variant = a specific instance of variety

They are inter-related, though different terms. They vary 🙂

I’d add: beware of (improperly) analysing 1; constantly work to see and understand 2; embrace 3; and you are a great example of 4.

For those of you who are now wondering what on earth I’m on about, here are links to some previous posts that explain the importance of the V words (particularly variation and variety):

Footnote:

  1. Thanks Sarah

The Righting Reflex

So I overheard a conversation the other day: One person was desperately trying to convince another person of the ‘right thing to do’…

…and for every (highly rational) justification provided by the would-be ‘persuader’, a counter was volleyed back by the ‘subject’ of the persuasion….which led the (what we might loosely label as) ‘conversation’ onwards to the next round.

I listened until, eventually, the persuader had exhausted all avenues of logic, and ran out of steam. The subject had become quite entrenched and the persuader was frustrated and worn out.

The conversation ended at an impasse, with a solid divide achieved between its participants.

It was at this point that I reflected on an important few pages at the beginning of an excellent Miller and Rollnick book1. I searched out and re-read these pages to remind myself of the message within. I will now try to write a short post that I hope does them justice:

Ambivalence to change:

Ambivalence: the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.” [Oxford English Dictionary]

People partake in lots of risky behaviours, such as: smoking, drinking too much alcohol; eating a poor diet; not exercising; not taking their medication2

I’m sure you could keep adding to this list based on your experiences and of those around you.

Most people that do these things understand that there are ‘downsides’, whether it be their health, finances, relationships with others, environmental impacts…. They can also describe the positives that would come from a change in their behaviour.

Yet they experience a conflict.

Most people who need to make a change are ambivalent about doing so. They see both reasons to change and reasons not to. They want to change and they don’t want to, all at the same time. It is a normal human experience.” [Miller & Rollnick]

Miller and Rollnick go on to describe two kinds of talk:

Change talk: a person’s own statements that favour change; and

Sustain talk: the person’s own arguments for NOT changing, for sustaining the status quo

If we listen to a person who is in a state of ambivalence, we will usually hear both change talk and sustain talk occur, even in the same sentence. Such as:

“I’d love to…but I can’t because…”

“I know that I should…but how can I if…”

“I get that the right thing to do is… but what’s the point when…”

The cadence of the conversation is “yes, but…” i.e. [change talk] and then [sustain talk].

Miller and Rollnick go on to say that:

“There is something peculiarly sticky about ambivalence, even though it can be an uncomfortable place to be. People can remain stuck there for a long time, vacillating between two choices, two paths, or two relationships. Take a step in one direction and the other starts to look better. The closer you get to one alternative, the more its disadvantages become apparent while nostalgia for the other beckons.

A common pattern is to think of a reason for changing, then think of a reason for not changing, then stop thinking about it.

[However] the path out of ambivalence is to choose a direction and to follow it, to keep moving in the chosen direction.”

The ‘helper’ with the righting reflex:

Let’s suppose that we have an ambivalent person (i.e. most people) interacting with a person that wants to help them (again, most people).

The helper’s natural reflex is to champion the ‘good’ side of the argument for change, usually with explanations of why its good, and advice as to how to move towards it.

By doing this, the helper is idealistically supposing that the person is going to respond along the lines of “gosh, I hadn’t realised/ thought of that” and/or “yes, yes, you are sooo right!”

However, Miller and Rollnick point out that:

“Arguments both for and against change already reside within the ambivalent person”

Further, the ambivalent person has probably already heard the helper’s ‘good’ arguments from others, as well as from their inner voice.

If we recall from above that the cadence of ambivalent conversations is “yes, but…”, then all the helper is doing is starting the ‘yes’ (change talk) part of the sentence, with the predictable response that the ambivalent person falls into completing it with the ‘but…’ (sustain talk) part.

Argue for one side and the ambivalent person is likely to take up and defend the opposite. This sometimes gets labelled as ‘denial’ or ‘resistance’ or ‘being oppositional’ but there is nothing pathological about such responses. It is the normal nature of ambivalence and debate.”

You might think “mmm, I can see that such a conversation hasn’t moved the ambivalent person forwards… but what harm has been done?”

However, this pattern of conversation isn’t benign:

“Causing someone to verbalise one side of an issue tends to move the person’s balance of opinions in that direction.”

And so, to the monumentally important ‘punch line’:

‘If you as a helper are arguing for change, and [the person you are trying to help] is arguing against it, you’ve got it exactly backward.”

 Scratching the surface3 of what to do instead:

So, if the righting reflex4 is likely to send someone in the wrong direction, what should a would-be helper do instead? A couple of quotes to reflect upon:

“What people really need is a good listening to.” (Mary Lou Casey)

“Listen to the [person], and they will tell you [what you need to know]” (Hippocrates)

So, how about:

  • beginning with asking a thoughtful open question5 that invites the person to think, and choose how they respond
  • respectfully listening to what the person has to say; and
  • reflecting back (affirming, developing, summarising) what the person has shared

…which will likely lead to more open questions, more sharing and listening and more reflection.

A nice way of thinking about this is that the conversation should feel “like dancing rather than wrestling. One moves with, rather than against, the person.”

Such an approach is known as active listening.

Here’s a definition:

Active listening is…the process of listening attentively while someone else speaks, reflecting back what is said, whilst withholding judgement and advice.”

A great deal of the listening that we commonly do isn’t to understand, it is just ‘listening to respond’…which is highly limited in its effectiveness.

There’s a fantastic ‘side effect’ of active listening:

“It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens” (Carl Rogers)

Have you ever noticed that the act of being able to talk to someone about your problem6 (i.e. that they properly listen to you) is very often the catalyst for you to move yourself forwards? It’s as if the listener did nothing…and yet they changed everything!

Why is this?

“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they themselves discovered than by those which have come into the minds of others.” (Blaise Pascal)

 To close:

Going back to the very beginning of this post, and the conversation that I overhead, you can probably imagine the predictable and firm direction that it took as the (attempted) helper was drawn into arguing through the list of ‘good’ reasons for change.

It was like listening to a metaphorical car crash. Every attempt at help made things worse.

Footnotes:

1. Book: Motivational Interviewing – helping people change, 3rd edition by William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick. All quotes in the post above are from this book unless otherwise attributed.

2. Re. medication: which might include vaccination

3. Re. scratching the surface: There’s sooo much more on the why and how to doing this. I’m just ‘wetting the appetite’ by opening up the topic. Refer to reference 1. for a great book that will take you deeper…

4. A definition of the term ‘the righting reflex’: “the belief that you must convince or persuade the person to do the right thing…and that you just need to ask the right questions, find the proper arguments, give the critical information, provoke the decisive emotions, or pursue the correct logic to make the person see and change.”

5. Definition of open and closed questions:

Closed: “The question implies a short answer: yes or no, a specific fact, a number etc.”

Open: “Questions that are not closed, which leave latitude for response.”

6. Clarification: Don’t expect that one conversation can uncover and resolve everything. Our understanding of another person and their situation will likely emerge as we gain their trust. They will not tell us the things we really need to know unless, and until, they trust us.

7. The image at the top of the post is of a boomerang, because it refers to the ‘Boomerang Effect’: “the unintended consequences of an attempt to persuade resulting in the adoption of an opposing position instead” (Wikipedia). You can see that a helper adopting the righting reflex will likely experience the boomerang effect!

Part 1: Autonomy – Autonomy Support – Autonomy Enabling

I wrote the 1st of a 2-part post some time ago, but never published it because I didn’t get around to completing part 2. I’m finally publishing part 1 now…because it might ‘make me’ finish the 2nd part.

I’ve been on a book-reading1 and work-experiential journey over many years and have reached a place that I’d like to ‘set out clearly in writing’ (for myself, and others) …and yet I’ve struggled to do this so far (a.k.a writer’s block).

I’ve been talking ‘about’ (but not been writing) this post for months!

So here goes…

Some context:

I (and hordes of other people) work in, around, and across large, complex people-centred systems. Think government departments, NGO’s and so on who are trying to help thousands of clients2 better live their lives.

Such systems are usually highly bureaucratic, operating in an (attempted) ‘control system’ way.

They can be helped to see the problematic performance that this system design provides to their clients, but they (we) can then struggle with moving to a different way of thinking and being.

The aim of this post (‘Part 1’) is to set out the ‘what and why’ of moving to a different paradigm, where ‘control’ is replaced by ‘autonomy’. ‘Part 2’ will aim at discussing the rather important topic of a ‘how’ to get there.

As the title and opening image suggest, there’s an ‘autonomy’ chain (from the client, all the way through the system)

What follows is broken up into:

  • Link 1 (of the chain): Autonomy;
  • Link 2: Autonomy support; and
  • Link 3: Autonomy enabling.

Link 1: Autonomy – People-centred…what does that mean?

I used the term ‘people-centred systems’3 above and I should set out what is being meant, and its relevance.

(As usual) I am writing in respect of service systems (as distinct from manufacturing).

Service systems themselves have been broken into different archetypes. I’ve read various ways of setting these out4, but here’s a simplified version (of 3 archetypes) from me:

  • Archetype 1: Transactional where, given the nature of a customer’s demand (a.k.a. need), it should be able to be resolved in a single interaction.

Example: If I contact my home entertainment provider because I want to change aspects of my plan (e.g. gain access to a movie channel), then I should be able to achieve this by the end of that one interaction.

Note: this may or may not happen in the one interaction, depending on how they have designed their system to respond! It might turn into a right dog’s dinner!

  • Archetype 2: Process where, due to the nature of what the customer/ client needs, it could not be delivered in a single interaction. Instead it needs to enter a process.

Obvious example: If I contact a builder because I want an extension to my house, this can’t be delivered within an initial interaction. Instead, a bunch of (often well understood) stuff now needs to happen (and hopefully flow).

I should reach a point at which the process is completed: I’ve got what I wanted (hopefully efficiently and to a high quality) and I can go on my way.

  • Archetype 3: People-centred (or Relational) where the nature of the need is about the person (client) themselves. This is far more complex than a transaction or a process. All our social systems fit here.

Each person (client) is unique and recognising this is of fundamental importance if we are to help – we can’t just treat it like ‘a transaction’ or ‘put them through a ‘process’.

To help the person, we will need to achieve engagement with them (reaching and sustaining a trusting relationship), and then understand and support them through a (dynamic and evolving) journey in which they have the most important role to play.

The other word used here is relational, because THE important variable for successful change is the relationship between the person and their helper(s).

“At the heart of this new way of working is human connection. When people feel supported by strong human relationships, change happens. And when we design new systems that make this sort of collaboration and connection feel simple and easy, people want to join in. This is not surprising.” (Hillary Cottam, ‘Radical Help’)

The big mistake that many social systems make is that they are designed along transactional and process lines by a (centralised) control system. A relational response can’t be achieved transaction-ally. Sure, such a system might be able to ‘smash out’ transactions…but it will most likely keep its clients dependent upon it, with repeat visits and, sadly, relapses and deterioration.

So, I’ve tried to explain ‘people-centred’ and you might now think ‘er, okay, so what?’

Well, if we are talking about people, and them achieving meaningful and sustained change, then we need to understand the fundamental importance of self-determination (a.k.a autonomy).

People achieve true change when they choose to do so for themselves.

We end up with the (hopefully) rather obvious point that the best way to help another person is via autonomy support (with this concept set out in detail in a previous post), which can only happen via strong human relationships.

Link 2: Autonomy Support – Variety…and how best to handle it

So, we’ve got:

  • the uniqueness of every client and their contextual and dynamic situation;
  • each client (a human being) needing to ‘go there for themselves’; and
  • helpers (also human beings!) that need to travel alongside them, without judgement or attempts at control.

Looking at this, we can see that we have enormous variety in a people-centred system (in clients, in helpers, in ‘client–helper’ relationships). So, what’s the best way to handle this?

Turning to W. Ross Ashby’s Law of requisite variety to assist…this is explored by Gerrit Broekstra in his book ‘Building high-performance, high-trust organisations’:

“Variety is a measure of complexity and refers to the number of possible states of a system.

[There is a] colossal proliferation of variety in dynamic systems.

Applied to organisations in their complex environments, only matching the variety of the organisation can soak up the complexity of the situation with which it is confronted. No hordes of consultants, planning committees, surveys or management training courses can do the trick.

[The most effective way to deal with such variety is to] be organised on the basis of the principle of self-organisation….as exemplified in autonomous groups.

Or, to put it into a simple statement:

          “Only variety absorbs variety.” [Stafford Beer]

I recognise that the above reads as rather theoretical. Here’s a practical example:

Take any large social system. It is usually trying to serve a large geographic area (perhaps even a small country).

A central control system attempts to:

  • monitor what’s going on across the whole (ref. KPI’s);
  • judge from afar (ref. targets, comparisons);
  • design ‘solutions’ (ref. departments/ functions/ specialist roles, products & services, detailed policies and procedures…)

…and then push these out to all (to be ‘standardised’) and then…‘rinse and repeat’.

Not only does this fail to absorb client variety, it often (usually) frustrates it!

The opposite would be where each ‘locality’ functions, by design, as an autonomous unit – a group of peers who (are enabled to) take responsibility for the wellbeing of their local cohort of clients and helping them with their unique needs.

“Self-managed teams are far more productive than any other form of organising. There is a clear correlation between participation and productivity.” (Margaret Wheatley)

This creates that glorious (yet rare) combination of:

  • each client feeling that someone actually cares about them;
  • each front-line worker feeling like they have a meaningful job; and
  • each unique client situation (variety) being understood, with bespoke support provided (variety absorbing variety)

“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” (Frederick Herzberg)

We’ve now added the concept of autonomous units to deciding how best to help and support a cohort of autonomous clients.

So, if autonomous units are what’s required, where does that leave the concept of ‘organisation’?

Link 3: Autonomy enabling – Organisation…what should it be for?

This post is not suggesting that such autonomous units can, or even should, work on their own. It is saying that they pull for help from central support functions when they need to.

The (paradigm-shifting-ly) huge difference is that the front-line autonomous unit is the one leading what they need help with, rather than being dictated to.

They also decide whether any central support provided is actually helpful, and adopt or disregard it accordingly.

The onus is on the enabling centre to provide valuable support (as judged by those helping clients).

“The logical consequences of this way of viewing organisations, with its abundance of freedom of choice for its purposeful parts, unequivocally leads:

    • on the one hand, to the autonomy of the operating units and the people contained in it as purposeful entities; and
    • on the other hand, the remaining ‘upper part’ of the high-variety organisation as an enabling entity, actively involved in furthering the development of the autonomous unit and their people.” (Gerrit Broekstra)

A sense-check on the purpose of ‘organisation’:

“Hierarchical systems evolve from the bottom up. The purpose of the upper layers of the hierarchy is to serve the purposes of the lower layers…

The original purpose of a hierarchy is always to help its originating systems do their jobs better…

This is something …that…a greatly articulated hierarchy can easily forget.

Many systems are not meeting their goals because of malfunctioning hierarchies.” (Donnella Meadows)

Right, so we’ve worked our way through the concepts of self-determining clients (tick), autonomous units (tick) and an enabling (as opposed to controlling) centre (tick), but if this is sooo good, why doesn’t this eventuate?

That’s the subject of Part 2: the problem of changing from ‘this’ to ‘that’.


Addendum: Towards a picture…

If we’d like to ‘draw a picture’ of what the fundamentals of an effective people-centred system might look like, whilst remembering that “all models are wrong, some are useful” (George Box),

Then here’s an attempt from me…

I’ll build it up in three stages:

Picture 1 – The core:

1. The client (in green) is at the centre, along with the principle of self-determination (a.k.a. autonomy). It is about helping them on their journey, not (attempts at) pushing them through ours.

2. Their family/ Whānau and friends (in yellow) surround them, in recognition that:

  • no one is an island. The client exists within a social structure (for good, and sometimes, not so good)
  • to effectively support a client, we need to understand, contextualise and appropriately leverage their social network. This includes helping the client do the same. This might be the most powerful thing we can do.

3. The helper(s) (in blue) directly working with the client (‘value creating’). Their aim should be to create, and retain, a ‘working alliance’, in which there is mutual trust and respect. This will be about:

  • active/ reflective listening (truly seeing the world from the client’s point of view); and then
  • supporting the client through their journey, including resolving their transactional and process needs along the way

In doing this, we shouldn’t expect that helper(s) need to know everything. We would hope that they can easily ‘pull’ knowledge (from a useful source) as and when they need it. Note the deliberate choice of the word knowledge, rather than ‘policies and procedures’.

Picture 2 – adding support ‘in the work’:

We’ve now added a support ring around the core.

4. Local support (also in blue) that support the value creating workers in helping clients. Their aim is to be ‘in the work’, to observe the work as it happens, to be pulled ‘live’ as and when the value creating worker hits an obstacle.

 Such a pull may result in:

    • developing the capability of the helper (‘in the moment’ experiential learning); and/or
    • capturing evidence of obstacles outside of their control

5. Accessible help (in red) which represent those things that naturally sit outside the capability and/or capacity of local support.

It (deliberately) isn’t worded ‘available products and services’ because this isn’t the nub of what’s required. Sure, there might be a set of services available to be utilised, but it is up to the local team (with the client) to determine what to pull for, and when.

Further, the client isn’t being ‘referred over to’ the help. The help is being pulled into the client and their value creating worker…. who will also consider whether it is working for them or not.

Picture 3 – adding the enablement of those in the work:

6. Central roles (in purple) whose whole purpose is to enable those working with clients. They don’t attempt to control. Rather, they enable when they are pulled for help in removing obstacles in the way. This is a drastic change to the conventional central function.

The locus of control is with those directly helping the client.

An enabling response might include a focus on developing any of:

    • the knowledge available;
    • the tools (such as financial and technology support);
    • the accessible help (such as adding/ linking to new services, making them more flexible,…);
    • the capability of those helping clients (and those supporting this).

A note re. ‘Delivery engine’: Many central functions of large organisations are working hard to become ‘Agile’. I’d concur that it is important to work on ‘how’ to deliver (efficiency). However, of more importance is ‘what’ to deliver (effectiveness).

So, whilst we would want an ‘Agile’ delivery engine, we want it to be delivering to enable (from pulls), not to control (via pushes).

Being ‘Agile’ might be necessary….but it’s by no means sufficient.

And this completes an ‘autonomy – autonomy support – autonomy enabling’ model.

Or (if you are a Kiwi who watches the NZ comedy quiz programme ‘7 Days’) …”and this is my picture”

Footnotes

1. A book reading journey for this post – for those that are interested:

  • I first came across the idea of different system types and the transformational importance of matching the appropriate organisational model from reading a brilliant Russell Ackoff essay in his book ‘Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management’. If you’d like to understand (or remind yourself of) this, then I wrote a post some years back: “Oh, so that’s why command and control doesn’t work very well!” Today’s post picks up where the ‘what might that [social] model look like?’ question posed at the end left off.
  • Some years back I read Hope and Fraser’s 2003 book ‘Beyond Budgeting’, which gave me an initial introduction to Jan Wallander and his wonderful thinking in respect of how best to run a large service system for the good of clients, and employees. If you’d like a bit of an introduction to Wallander and his different thinking then I wrote about him here: Back to that ‘Profit Sharing’ Nirvana
  • This book led me to Gerrit Broekstra’s 2014 book titled ‘Building high-performance, high-trust organisations: Decentralisation 2.0’. This gets into some meaty understanding of the ‘what and why’ of a different model. Broekstra refers to the model as an ‘autonomy and enabling’ paradigm.
  • I was on a parallel path when I read Edward Deci’s ‘Why we do what we do’, which introduced me to self-determination theory and the hugely important concept of autonomy support.
  • I had original come across Deci from reading Alfie Kohn’s ‘Punished by Rewards’.
  • I then managed to get hold of Jan Wallander’s 2003 book ‘Decentralisation – why and how to make it work’, which nicely got me into the nuts and bolts of how he successfully led the change of a service system from centrally controlled to autonomous units. [This is the subject of my ‘Part 2’ post]
  • I also read Hilary Cottam’s 2018 book ‘Radical’ which cemented my thinking in respect of the need to create relational (rather than transactional) systems when we are trying to help people help themselves.
  • I then read Miller and Rollnick’s book on Motivational Interviewing (3rd Edition) which also connects extremely well.
  • And Motivational interviewing fits well with Gerard Egan’s book ‘The Skilled Helper’.

And this all comes together into an ‘Autonomy – Autonomy support – Autonomy enabling’ logic. Now you know why I was struggling to put something into a single post.

2. Clients, not customers: See footnote on my previous post for a comment on the difference

3. Person-centred system: I believe that the root of this phrase is Carl Roger’s person-centred approach.

4. Service system archetypes: Stuart Corrigan’s 2012 little book ‘The need for change’ was the first time I read about service archetypes. This thinking has been refined/ matured by others since then. Also reference Hillary Cottam and her setting out relational systems.

5. Re. people-centred/ relational: Amusingly (to me), many ‘for profit’ consumer businesses are desperate to be relational with us…even though they are, by their nature, transactional or process system archetypes. They want to forge a relationship with us (their customers) and yet we don’t want it! Think about that communications/ entertainment provider – they’ve often invested millions in expensive ‘Customer Relationship Management’ (CRM) technology that remembers your birthday!

6. Systems within systems: A tricky thing about people-centred systems is that they are likely to involve transactional and process sub-sets within. The important bit (I think) is to realise that the people-centred (relational) system is the master, and transactions and processes are its servant…. they aren’t separate.

A social system example: Let’s imagine that I am working relationally with a client on their journey.

  • Whilst doing so, they might move address – it should (probably) be a single and simple transaction to handle this change in circumstances.
  • Further, my relational work might lead to the client wanting help to, say, gain a qualification – this should be a smooth process to set up and then help them to achieve.

Both the transaction and the process sit within the relational journey of helping them better lead their lives (whatever that means for them). Here’s a diagram that hopefully visualises these words:

Thou shalt care for thy customer!

I haven’t published a post for ages. However, I was part of a conversation last week in which I realised that I’d drafted a relevant post a couple of years ago. Here it is:

Show me a service organisation and I’ll likely be able to show you posters on their walls imploring (or perhaps commanding) their front-line employees to ‘care about their customers’ (or clients1).

I expect that we are all in agreement that we should care about our customers – who they are, what their situation is, what they really need, how they are thinking/feeling (because of the past, the present and their view of the future)…

…BUT whether our employees can and will ‘see the customer’, and whether they act accordingly, will depend.

The conventional way to ‘convince’ employees to care is to roll out some form of a ‘we must be customer-centric’ programme (which likely includes those posters on the wall). There might even be some framework rolled out to score how well each ‘service agent’ did within each customer interaction or (so called) ‘moment of truth’.

However…

‘Customer-first programmes’ are essentially an attitude/orientation exercise.

All too often we discover that people return highly motivated from an excellent training experience only to find an organisation with procedures, systems and other conditions which do not adequately support the values expressed in the programme.

People can’t delight the customer if their organisation won’t let them!

(John Seddon)

Seddon is clearly questioning the simple (simplistic) notion that ‘our people’ are the problem…and therefore where to aim a (supposed) solution to this.

But what about the ‘bad eggs’?

You might respond with “Yes Steve, but I’ve got clear, undeniable evidence of some of our people providing really poor service to our customers!” and, yep, I’d expect that you do. Perhaps even bucket loads of it.

The fact that poor service often happens isn’t in doubt.

The question that needs asking is “why is this happening?” And just to be super clear, NOT “who did we catch doing it?!”

If you know the why, then you will know what to act upon to achieve meaningful and sustained improvement.

Conversely, you can spend all day rooting out the ‘who’, and perhaps publicly ‘parade them around’ with the aim of shaming them for all to see…but I doubt you will achieve any meaningful improvement to your system and its performance. In fact, likely the reverse.

A self-fulfilling prophecy

So, we want our front-line employees to be ‘customer-centric’ and yet we regularly see instances where it can be said that they weren’t…and it is very easy to fall into a ‘blame game’.

However, a quote to ponder:

“When we take people merely as they are, we make them worse.

When we treat them as if they were what they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of being.”

(Translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1795)

I really like these words, and they have been repeated in various forms by many since they were first written. In fact, it’s almost a perfect fit with the work of Douglas McGregor (ref. Theory X and Theory Y).

To me, there are three points worth drawing out from von Goethe’s quote:

  • ‘As they are’: If we look to blame a person for the poor performance that occurred during an event that they were involved in, then we’ll be heading in the wrong direction!

  • ‘What they ought to be’: If, however, we start from a position of presuming that a person would want to do the right thing (and was likely born that way), then we change the game completely. Clarification: This isn’t denial of what has happened, just a better starting point to move forwards.

  • ‘What they are capable of being’: What I particularly like about the quote is that von Goethe wasn’t suggesting that all people can do/be anything and everything.  Rather, he recognised that people are individuals and that, if they are treated accordingly, they can achieve what they are capable of…which is likely to be far greater than what we can currently imagine.

Do you believe your own rhetoric?

If you are employed in a ‘leadership position’2 then I expect that you often find yourself talking with your team about how they should behave. In fact, if you stood back, this might be somewhat of a ‘broken record’.

However, I am reminded of the proverb “do as I say, not as I do”.

Turning this around – and therefore realising why this proverb is often stated…to little effect – is to make clear that people take note of what you do and use this as their guide…no matter what you say.

Those in leadership positions are responsible for the organisational system – its purpose and the working environment. You can say ‘wonderful things’, but the system you preside over is the key.

“People’s behaviour is a product of their system. It is only by changing the system that we can expect a change in behaviour.” (John Seddon)

Management is responsible for that system, and therefore the behaviours that it produces. No amount of ‘training’ or exhortation will undo this tie.

In short:

  • beware the dissonance between management talk and management behaviour

  • don’t spend (waste?) time exalting people to ‘care for thy customer’, provide them with an organisational system in which this is the obvious and natural thing to do

  • to do this requires much reflection as to why things are as they are, which can be discovered  from regular and respectful ‘eyes wide open’ time ‘at the Gemba’

Footnotes

1. Customer or client?: I was interested as to whether there is a meaningful difference between the use of these two words…and, after a bit of a trawl through definitions, I think that there is.

The Oxford dictionary sets out the origin of the word ‘client’ as a person who is under the protection of another i.e. dependent upon them.

The normal use of the word ‘client’ (as opposed to ‘customer’) is when it is associated with the services of a professional (examples: lawyers, accountants,….plumber) and so this now makes some sense…

I am a customer where I am clearly in control of what is happening and can make my own choices e.g. transactional situations.

I am a client where I am highly reliant on another and their care over me.

2. Leadership position…which is very different to ‘leading’. Ref. an earlier post on the notion of leadership

Targets on measures of targets on measures of things

In this post I’m going to differentiate between:

  1. Measures of things
  2. Targets on (measures of things)
  3. Measures of (targets on (measures of things)); and
  4. Targets on (measures of (targets on (measures of things)))

Wow, that last one is hard to write, let alone say out loud! You might think that it’s a nonsense (which it is) but, sadly, it’s very common.

Note: I added the brackets to (hopefully) make really clear how each one builds on the last.

I’ll attempt to explain…

1. Measures of things:

Seems straight forward enough: I’m interested in better understanding a thing, so I’d like to measure it1.

Some examples…

A couple of personal ones:

  • What’s my (systolic) blood pressure level? or
  • How quickly do I ride my regular cycle route?

A couple of (deliberately) generic work ones:

  • how long does it take us to achieve a thing? or
  • how many things did we achieve over a given period?

Here’s a graph of a measure of a thing (in chronological order):

Nice, we can clearly see what’s going on. We achieved 13 things in week 1. Each thing took us anything between 2 and 36 days to achieve…and there’s lots of variation in-between.

It doesn’t surprise me that it varies2 – it would be weird if all 13 things took, say, exactly 19 days (unless this had been structurally designed into the system). There will likely be all sorts of reasons for the variation.

However, whilst I ‘get’ that there is (and always will be) variation, the graph allows us to think about the nature and degree of that variation: Does it vary more than we would expect/ can explain?3 Are there any repeating patterns? Unusual one-offs? (statistically relevant) Trends?

Such a review allows us to ask good questions, to investigate against and learn from.

“Every observation, numerical or otherwise, is subject to variation. Moreover, there is useful information in variation.” (Deming)

2. Targets on (measures of things):

Let’s say that we’ve been asked to achieve a certain (arbitrary4) target.

Here’s an arbitrary target of 30 days (the red line) set against our measure:

And here’s how we are doing against that target, with some visual ‘traffic lighting’ added:

Instance (X)12345678910111213
Target of 30 days met? (Yes/No)NYYNYYYYYYYNY

We’ve now turned a rich analogue signal into a dull digital ‘on/off’ switch.

If we only look at whether we met the target or not (red vs. green), then we can no longer see the detail that allowed us to ask the good questions.

  • We met ‘target’ for instances 2 and 3…but the measures for each were quite different
  • Conversely, we met ‘target’ for instances 5 all the way through to 11 and then ‘suddenly’ we didn’t…which would likely make us think to intensely question instance 12 (and yet not see, let alone ponder, the variation between 5 and 11).

The target is causing us to ask the wrong questions5, and miss asking the right ones.

3. Measures of (targets on (measures of things)):

But I’m a fan of measures! So, let’s show a measure over time of how we are doing against our target.

In week 1 we met our 30-day target for 10 out of our 13 instances, which is 77%. Sounds pretty good!

Here’s a table showing how many times we met target for each of the next five weeks:

Week12345
Things achieved1315141112
Number meeting 30-day target10141278
% meeting  30-day target77%93%86%64%67%

Let’s graph that:

It looks like we’ve created a useful graph, just like in point 1.

But we would be fooling ourselves – we are measuring the movement of the dumbed-down ‘yes/no’ digital switch, not the actual signal. The information has been stripped out.

For example: There might have been huge turbulence in our measure of things in, say, week 3 whilst there might have been very little variation in week 4 (with lots of things only just missing our arbitrary ‘target’)…we can’t see this but (if we want to understand) it would be important to know – we are blind but we think we can see.

4. Targets on (measures of (targets on (measures of things))):

And so, we get to the final iteration:

How about setting an arbitrary target on the proportion of things meeting our arbitrary target…such as achieving things in 30 days for 80% of the time (the red line)…

And here’s the table showing how we are doing against that target:

Week number:12345
80% Target on 30-day Target met?NYYNN

Which is a double-dumbing down!

We’ve now got absolutely no clue as to what is actually going on!!!

But (and this is much worse) we ‘think’ we are looking at important measures and (are asked to) conclude things from this.

The table (seemingly) tells us that we didn’t do well in week’s 1, 4 and 5, but we did in week’s 2 and 3…

The base data series used for this example:

In order to write this post, I used the Microsoft Excel random number generator function. I asked it to generate a set of (65) random numbers between 1 and 40 and then I broke these down into imaginary weeks. All the analysis above was on pure randomness.

Here’s what the individual values look like when graphed over time:

(Noting that instances 1 – 13 are as per the graph at point 1, albeit squashed together)

Some key points:

  • There is nothing special about any of the individual data points
  • The 30-day target has got nothing to do with the data
  • There is nothing special about any of the five (made up) weeks within
  • The 80% target on the 30-day target has got nothing to do with anything!

The point: Whilst I would want to throw away all the ‘targets’, ‘measures of target’ and ‘targets on measures of target’…I would like to understand the system and why it varies.

This is where our chance of improving the system is, NOT in the traditional measures.

Our reality:

You might be laughing at the above, and thinking how silly the journey is that I’ve taken you on…

…but, the ‘targets on (measures of (targets on (measures of things)))’ thing is real and all around us.

  • 80% of calls answered within 20 seconds
  • 95% of patients discharged from the Emergency department within 4 hours
  • 70% of files closed within a month
  • [look for and add your own]

Starting from a position of targets and working backwards:

If you’ve got a target and I take it away from you…

…but I still ask you “so tell me, how is [the thing] performing?” then what do you need to do to answer?

Well, you would now need to ponder how has the thing been performing – you would then need to look at a valid measure of a thing over time and ponder what this shows.

In a nutshell: If you’ve got a target, take it away BUT still ask yourself ”how are we doing?”

A likely challenge: “But it’s hard!”

Yes… if you peel back the layers of the ‘targets on targets’ onion so that you get back to the core of what’s actually going on, then you could be faced with lots of data.

I see the (incorrect) target approach as trying to simplify what is being looked at so that it looks easy to deal with. But, in making it look ‘easy to deal with’, we mustn’t destroy the value within the data.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” (attributed to Einstein)

The right approach, when faced with a great deal of data, would be to:

  • Look at it in ways that uncover the potential ‘secrets’ within (such as in a histogram, in a time-series plot); and
  • understand how to disaggregate the data, such that we can split it up into meaningful sub-groups. We can then:
    • compare sub-groups to consider if and how they differ; and
    • look at what’s happening within each sub-group (i.e. comparing apples with apples)

To close:

If you are involved in ‘data analysis’ for management, I don’t think your role should be about ‘providing the simple (often 1-page) picture that they’ve asked for’. I would expect that you would wish your profession to be along the lines of ‘how can I clearly show what’s happening and what this means?’

If you are a manager looking at measures: why would you want an (overly) simple picture so that you can review it quickly and then move on to making decisions? Wouldn’t you rather understand what is happening and why … so that good decisions can be made?

Footnotes

1. Measurement of things – a caution: We should be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that everything is measurable or, if we aren’t measuring it, then it doesn’t matter.

There’s plenty of stuff that we know is really important even though we might not be measuring it.

2. Variation: If you’d like to understand this point, then please read some of my earlier posts, such as ‘The Spice of Life’ and ‘Falling into that trap’

As a simple example: If you took a regular reading of your resting heart rate, don’t you think it would be weird if you got, say, 67 beats per minute every single time? You’d think that you’d turned into some sort of android!

3. Expect/ can explain – clarification: this is NOT the same as ‘what we would like it to be’.

4. Arbitrary: When a numeric target is set, it is arbitrary as to which number was picked. Sure, it might have been picked with reference to something (such as 10% better than average, or the highest we’ve ever achieved, or….) but it’s arbitrary as to which ‘reference’ you choose.

5. Wrong questions: These wrong questions are then likely to cause us to jump to wrong conclusions and actions (also known as tampering). Such actions are likely to focus on individuals, rather than the system that they work within.

6. ‘Trigger’: The writing of this post was ‘triggered’ the other day when I reviewed a table of traffic-lighted (i.e. against a target) measures of targets on measures of things.

On Resilience

Marcus AureliusA theme that has been trending for several years is that of resilience, and it’s especially topical in times of major events (think COVID-19). But it’s also of huge daily relevance in terms of being resilient when trying to change (by which I mean improve) a ‘big hairy’ system.

I’ve watched several talks on resilience1 (and coping with uncertainty) and dug around a bit for key insights…and I reflect that much of what has been learned (through considerable modern research) was apparently understood a couple of millennia back by the Greeks and Romans.

I’m referring to (what I consider to be) the highly useful Hellenistic school of Philosophy known as Stoicism2. I think that there’s a great deal of value that the ‘individual’ can gain across all walks of their life from understanding the basics. You might be surprised at how much of it you already know3.

What’s it all about?

The foundational idea within Stoicism is that we should live our lives according to (what we might refer to as) ‘nature’.

And looking at us as humans within nature, two points are relevant:

  • we are highly social animals; and
  • we are capable of reason.

…and, to a Stoic, it follows that the best kind of life is the application of reason to improve social living.

I like this. It’s succinct and highly appealing.

Scholars refer to ‘two pillars’ of Stoicism:

  • The dichotomy of control; and
  • The cardinal values

The Dichotomy of Control

Do you have a problemThe Greeks and Romans had a most useful concept – the goddess of Luck/ Fortune.

She represented life’s capriciousness – which could bring good or bad luck, where this is down to chance.

The point was that luck/fortune is outside of you.

And so, to the idea of what you can and cannot control4…and, importantly, how this is of enormous use to us in dealing with what goes on ‘in our heads’.

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; Not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Epictetus)

You’ve likely seen this logic before, whatever your tradition (Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism,….).

Some thoughts to expand upon:

  • Life is a dynamic and spatial ‘game’:
    • Dynamic – the now: We have no control over what has happened in the past, nor most of what may or may not be ahead
    • Spatial – the here: we have no control over that which is happening elsewhere without our knowledge (including in other people’s heads!)

We are just working on what is before us and known to us5.


  • In every moment of every situation:
    • Whatever we can do, then a Stoic would do it rather than worry
    • Whatever we can’t, then a Stoic would reason not to worry. It is what it is.

  • We may not be able to control our thoughts and feelings (which stem from our primitive brain), but we do have the power (if we so choose) over our responses to them.

To clarify: Stoicism isn’t about suppressing our emotions. It’s about recognizing them, reflecting upon them, and redirecting them for our future good.

“Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet. Just say to it: hold on a moment, let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.” (Epictetus)


  •  Be kind to ourselves: We should ‘forgive’ ourselves for decisions that we’ve already made. They’ve been and gone – out of our control. It is what it is.

  • We have the gift of thinking to the future and attempting to influence it, but we do not control it.

We should be concerned with our intentions and efforts, not with the outcomes.

 “Do not attach your self-esteem to the outcome, only attach it to what’s under your control – to your attempt.” (Cicero)


  • To be able to think about control in this way requires an initial understanding (such as the above) and then constant practice. We will never be perfect at it (we are human), but we can always get better.

As Dr Lucy Hone puts it1:

 “Resilient people ‘get’ that ‘shit happens’, and that suffering is part of life….and knowing this stops them feeling discriminated against when the tough times come.”

An appreciation of control isn’t a magic pill, just a way of thinking that will help us best survive and thrive (both physically and mentally).

The Cardinal Values

So, if we understand the difference between what we can control, and what we can’t, this raises another question: How should we act/ respond to the things we can control?

The Stoics identified four cardinal values to guide us:

  1. Practical wisdom: the knowledge of what is and isn’t good for you

“Resilient people ask themselves ‘is what I’m doing helping or harming me?’” (Dr Lucy Hone1)

  1. Courage (physical and moral): to stand up and do the right thing
  2. Temperance (or, in today’s language, moderation): do things in the right measure (not over or under do)
  3. Justice: which tells us what the right thing is (in interacting with others)

The Stoics considered justice to be the most important of the virtues. Justice wasn’t about a narrow definition of lawfulness. It was about living together in society:

“Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings.” (Epictetus)

And on to Serenity

Putting the ‘two pillars’ together gives us this rather nice, and simple, Venn diagram:

What you should focus on

“Resilient people are good at choosing carefully where to focus their attentions:

    • Appraising the situation; and then
    • Focus on the things that they can change; and
    • Accept the things that they can’t” (Dr Lucy Hone1)

If you can limit yourself to focusing on what you can control and then act in a way that has true meaning (for you, for society) then you are highly likely to live a calm life.

Not calm, as in leisurely. Your life might be incredibly busy!

Rather, an inner calm – what the Stoics referred to as serenity.

The goal is not to reach perfection, it’s just to be the best that you can be….and better than you were yesterday.

But there are obstacles in my way!

Things will always happen that you don’t want to happen, but you can use them to think about how to move forward because of it.

You may set out in one direction and become obstructed, but this then allows you to work on making progress in alternative direction(s).

‘Inside every obstacle is a chance to improve your condition’ (The Daily Stoic)

The obstacle in the path is the path.

A closing thought

When it comes to resilience, one might see Stoicism as the practical philosophy of how to be resilient. It is said to be practical because Stoicism is about our actions, not our words.

Resilience isn’t a fixed trait (that some do or don’t have). Rather, it requires us to practise with some very ordinary (i.e. do-able) processes.

It’s not always easy to ‘think’ in these ways, but it does help!

Footnotes:

Caveat: The above is written to help me and others who can help themselves (albeit with the application of effort).  It’s not ‘the answer’ for everything and everyone. I don’t wish to trivialise mental health issues that some may have. I’m not a clinical psychologist. I’m not suggesting that people with deeper problems can just ‘help themselves out of it’ on their own.

1. Resilience: Here’s a link to an extremely powerful talk in respect of resilience The three secrets of resilient people, by Dr Lucy Hone. You will likely see that the three ‘secrets’ (which I have slotted into my post above) could almost have been picked out of a Stoic’s ancient life journal.

2. The word ‘Stoic’, as distinct from Stoicism: The word ‘stoic’ has entered the modern English language as meaning ‘someone that doesn’t show their emotions’ (ref. the very British phrase of a ‘stiff upper lip’). However, this modern and simplistic translation isn’t what Stoicism is about. Rather, it’s misleading.

3. Why do we seem to know so much about Stoicism?: The Philosophy of Stoicism was born in Athens, Greece around the 3rd Century B.C. by Zeno. It was then adopted by the Romans (ref. Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius). It got replaced by Christianity around the 4th Century A.D. but many of its ideas were subsumed into the Christian writings.

Many well-known/ influential people have studied Stoicism over the years and have used it as a ‘way of life’ (kings, presidents, economists, artists, writers…) Some of the more recent Philosophers have used Stoicism as a basis for their ideas.

If you want to know more, here’s a nice 18 min. TEDx Athens talk by Massimo Pigliucci on Stoicism. Some of my summary of Stoicism above comes from this talk. If you’re interested then there are some interesting websites (The Daily Stoic and How to be a Stoic)

4. “No control-ness”: Our personal lack of control in the here-and-now covers a vast (infinite) expanse! From the gargantuan down to the miniscule. I had some fun putting together a graphic that (hopefully) paints this point:

No control spectrum

* The reference to farting is in honour of the highly practical 16th century philosopher Montaigne. He considered that Plato (and others) had done the ‘heavy lifting’ on the big stuff but had missed out pondering the important small stuff, to be found in our everyday lives (including farting).

Clarification: There’s no science to my spectrum. It’s just a device to assist my narrative.

5. You can likely see that the modern term of ‘mindfulness’ fits here, where this has been defined as the psychological process of purposely bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment” (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindfulness)

6. The main image at the top of this post is of a statue of the Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

7. Clarification: Stoicism is not a religion, and we are not being told (or even asked) to slavishly follow in their footsteps. Here’s a fantastic quote from Seneca in this regard:

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters to Lucilius, Seneca)

Yin and Yang

Yin Yang blankYou’ll probably be familiar with the ‘Yin – Yang’ symbol – a circle that is half black and half white, with a black and a white dot in each of the opposing ‘tear drop shaped’ halves.

So, where does it come from and what does it mean?1

As I understand it, the symbol can be traced back to ancient China and its meaning is utilised in the Eastern Philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism.

The symbol represents the idea that the universe, and what lies within, is governed by duality – sets of two opposing and yet complimentary forces.

These forces are not total opposites – they are relative to each other, two sides of the same coin. They don’t, and can’t, exist on their own. They are inter-related parts of a bigger whole.

Some examples:

  • Light and dark
  • Alive, and not2
  • Masculine and feminine
  • Good and bad
  • Asleep and awake
  • Hot and cold
  • Rest and movement
  • Front and back
  • …and we could keep on going!

Further, the two dots ‘within’ each half represent the idea that everything contains the seed of its opposite.

Given this duality, we are best to learn from both the Yin and the Yang, and their inter-relatedness3.

Context

Why am I writing this post? Well, I feel the need to point out – and open up – what I see as a duality.

Over the years I’ve been very aware of how many (most?) organisations, and their management systems, have dwelt on ‘the individual’:

  • ‘Here’s your target’ and ‘Here’s your score’
  • ‘Well done, here’s a pat on the back’ or ‘Must try harder’
  • ‘Here are your values…and the attitude you must adopt’
  • ‘It’s your personal responsibility to succeed and progress’
  • ‘Do the right thing!’
  • …and on and on

Further, much of the work of Deming, Seddon and other giants of mine has been to help organisations move away from focusing on (and usually ‘judging’) the individual and, instead, to work on the system that the individual is working within.

Some classic quotes fit here:

“95% of the reasons for failure to meet customer expectations are related to the deficiencies in the system rather than the employee…the role of management is to change the process rather than badgering individuals to do better.” (Deming)

“People’s behaviour is a product of the system. It is only by changing the system that we can expect a change in their behaviour.” (Seddon)

“A bad system beats a good person every time.” (Deming)

It’s the system, stupid!” (Seddon)

I strongly agree with the messages within the above quotes (and the accompanying bodies of work). However, I consider that we need to retain a focus on the individual, as well as massively working on the environment in which ’we’ work. But such a focus would be to help the individual rather than judge them.

This isn’t a criticism of Deming, Seddon etc. I expect that they would agree.

Two ‘angles’ interest me in this regard:

‘Individual A’ that comes to believe that, if it’s about ‘the system’, then it’s not really ‘their’ problem…so they’ll sit back and wait for ‘others’ (usually up the hierarchy) to ‘solve’ the system; and conversely

‘Individual B’ that really grasps that it’s about the system; takes a huge responsibility (burden) on their shoulders to ‘move’ the system; and then experiences great stress (and potentially depression) from limited successes.

So I’d like to bring it all back to a duality – the individual and the environment they are in.

The Yin – Our environment:

Yin halfI run a 2-day course based around Deming’s theory of profound knowledge. The psychology part includes some powerful considerations in respect of social psychology.

We discuss three of the classic experiments regarding the power of ‘being in a world of others’ (i.e. our environments):

  • Solomon Asch’s 1951 ‘peer pressure’ experiment on an individual’s strong urge to conform (fit in) with those around them, where this power can be stronger than their personal values or basic perceptions.
  • Stanley Milgram’s 1963 behavioural study on Obedience to Authority, where people do what they are told to, even where this conflicts with their personal values.
  • Philip Zimbardo’s 1972 ‘Stanford Prison’ experiment, where the existence (or not) of power led people to adopt abusive (or submissive) behaviours.

The reason for discussing these (in)famous experiments is to open people’s eyes to the huge power of the environment that people are working (and living) within, and that, if we work on getting our environment(s)4 ‘right’ then great things can happen5….and conversely, if we get it wrong, we end up fighting each other for survival.

However, the environment is only part of the picture. It is made up of individuals within, capable of making choices

It must be, else why would the system be ‘as it is’…and how could it be changed?

The Yang – Us as individuals:

Yang halfA (social) environment is made up of individuals.

Some of the nature of that environment is because of how individuals behave within it. Some of it comes from outside forces.

I think that it’s worth constantly thinking about, and working on, the things that ‘I’ (i.e. the individual) can control…and calmly coping with the things that I cannot.

  • I know that there are some huge system constraints as to why the current system(s) work as they do.
  • I know that they won’t change overnight, just because I ‘pointed them out’ or even because I (and others) tried to do something about them.

In terms of my role within:

  • I can choose to think about and (try to) modify my actions and behaviours
  • I can choose to ponder how to go about this
  • I can choose to persevere, or to pivot – to try different strategies and tactics as I learn what doesn’t seem to work.
  • I can choose my attitude about what is before me, and what to do about it.

Attempting to do this is not easy (it takes much thought and constant practice) but it is worthwhile (with meaning).

As an aside: If you want to know more about achieving meaningful change of a system, then you might want to read about normative change.

On Meaning

Victor FranklOne of the most renowned books written which considers, in part, the subject of attitude is Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s search for meaning’.

The first half of the book describes his terrible experiences as a prisoner spanning three years across four Nazi concentration camps. To put it mildly, it’s not pleasant BUT it is a hugely important piece of work. At his liberation in 1945 all but one of his close family members had died/ been killed.

He pondered much on what could be learned from his experiences. Who had survived? Who had not? And perhaps why? And, in his writings, he provided us with much to contemplate:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

But why would we choose one way over another?

“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails…gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.

It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.

Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities …that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”

What about trying to ignore our circumstances? Frankl reflects on many who took this approach:

“A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts…

…but in robing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger…instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength…they preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past.

Life for such people became meaningless.”

And, sadly, Frankl’s experience was that those who came to a point without meaning gave up living soon after.

Thankfully, our lives don’t come even close to that of Frankl’s. This fact makes his reflections even more powerful. If lessons on meaning and attitude apply even in a ‘hell on earth’ then they most certainly apply to our ‘ordinary lives’.

Frankl quotes the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his summing up:

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how” and

“That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

In short:

  • be clear on meaning (what is your longer-term, valuable-to-society, purpose?)
  • work through the constant challenges that you most certainly will encounter on the way
  • If you move onwards ‘knowing why’, then you can use this to ‘keep yourself grounded’ on the bumpy journey ahead.

Note: This line of thinking opens a related topic, which I hope to write about in a follow-up post in respect of resilience. It’s all very well ‘telling ourselves’ to be resilient, but some help in being so might be useful.

 Back to that duality:

B=fPEGoing back to one of the early social psychologists, Kurt Lewin, we find that he clearly saw the duality. He expressed it as a simple equation:

‘Behaviour is a function of the person in their environment.’

The equation has two variables: you, and your environment. One doesn’t exist without the other.

Yes, the environment can have a HUGE influence on you and I…but there is a capability within us (the individual) to choose (to a degree) what we think, and do, about it.

Further, within every individual is the seed of their environment influencing them and within every (social) environment there is the seed of the individual able to influence it right back!

Footnotes:

1. Yin and Yang explanation: Here’s a nice short 4 min. animated video that explains at a deeper level: Yin & Yang TED Ed video by John Bellaimey

2. Alive, and not: I’ve deliberately not written ‘life and death’ because the duality is much more than this. There was also a HUGE period of time (circa. 4 billion years) that I wasn’t alive before I was born.

3. Reductionism vs. Synthesis: The underlying message within the Yin and Yang sits very well with Systems Thinking and the truth that reducing a system into its parts will give a limited and limiting view.

4. Environments: We live within multiple, often overlapping, social environments. Our home life, our work life, our communities and our wider society.

5. Deming’s ’14 Points for Management’ are all about creating the right environment for an organisation to thrive.

Fight for Connection

When listening, it is extremely easy (and perhaps innate?) for us to look for, and find, ‘disconnects’. I know it is for me.

What do I mean by a disconnect? Some examples might be when we react to/ take issue with/ pick holes in/ disagree with what (we think) we are hearing1.

There will always be opportunities to find disconnects if we are looking for them.

Interactions:

Taking a simple view of a person-to-person interaction, we might consider four parts to each exchange within:

Communication

1. Intent: The person speaking has some intent (I’ll come back to this below).

2. Spoken: They will then attempt to ‘encode’ that intent into a form of words. However:

  • their success in doing so will be heavily reliant on the person’s skill with language; and even then…
  • a short, simple set of words can never accurately translate our full intent, even by the best orators amongst us.

It’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that, in the midst of a conversation, we don’t exactly give each other much time to ‘pick’ our words – and even less of a chance to go back over them to reframe or redact them.

3. Heard: The listener’s task is to hear the words being spoken to them. This would seem to be a simple job…and yet I expect most of you will probably agree with me that it’s not2.

The complexity of the ‘hearing’ task moves up several gears when there are many people involved in the conversation.

4. Interpretation: The listener will then attempt to ‘decode’ what they heard into what they think about it. In doing so, they can’t help but be ‘waylaid’ by lots of thoughts ‘flying around’ their heads (experiences, assumptions, biases, wants…).

Disconnections:

It’s extremely easy for the listener, at the end of these four parts of an exchange, to respond with something along the lines of “But I disagree…”

however, what am I disagreeing with?

Is it:

  • the intent?
  • how it was spoken?
  • how I heard it? or
  • how I interpreted it?

These are very different things!

On intent:

Of the four pieces in the exchange, it is often (usual?) that the intent is the least of the problem!

We can look at intent in two ways:

a) if the underlying intent is constructive, then we should be trying to bring this out and expand upon (rather than puncture) it; or

b) if there is some issue with the intent, then we should want to use the most effective way to surface and alter this, where this would be to help (invite?) the originator to do this for themselves.

I’d suggest that a) is the norm. People, in general, want to improve situations. This fits with the belief of the hugely respected psychologist Carl Rogers3 that people are, in their essence, healthy and good.

Turning to b): One of the fundamental principles within the work of Rogers is that of ‘Unconditional positive regard’, which is the concept of accepting and supporting a person regardless of what they say or do4.

A key point within Rogers’ life work is that we are all a continual work-in-progress, in “a constant state of becoming” and, as such, with greater acceptance and less unhealthy pressure/ criticism, we (you and I) are highly capable of growing and realising our potential.

To summarise: we would serve ourselves well to frame all interactions (whether at home, work or in our wider society) by assuming that the ‘other party’ has good intentions, or (if not in this moment) would want to have.

A constant battle

FightIt feels rather glib to have written the above (i.e. ‘just work with everyone unconditionally and everything will work out’) because it’s easier said than done. We are human after all.

And so, to the title of this post – a ‘fight for connection’.

It is easy to find, and widen, disconnects.

Conversely, it is a constant battle (if we so choose to fight it) to attempt to create, and remain in, connection.

A first step might be an attempt to attune ourselves to noticing when disconnects are happening, and to ponder what’s going on…and to think about how we might connect instead.

We (by which I really mean ‘I’) will fail regularly (and probably spectacularly) but each connection ‘won’ feels good!

We need to constantly fight for connection (in our work and private lives), rather than allow the disconnections to appear, fester and grow.

A caveat

A desire for connection should not trump authenticity. We should always choose authenticity over pretending to be someone we are not.

Connection requires both parties to fight for it. If one side refuses to connect, despite herculean attempts by the other, then sometimes this will mean ‘walking away’.

Footnotes

1. If you are in a face-to-face interaction, the disconnect may also come from and/or be exaggerated by what (you think) you are seeing e.g. some accompanying body language

2. On hearing: I had a job some years back that involved working in the Royal Courts of Justice in London. We would spend each day in Court and then the evening in Chambers preparing for the next day. We had the benefit of the day’s full transcript (i.e. written record) to work with. I was often amazed, when searching through the transcript, at:

a) what I thought had been said in Court during the day, but had not, and

b) what had been said but that I’d missed!

The differences were often quite subtle, and yet incredibly important.

3. Carl Rogers is a giant that I have yet to write about. I hope to fill this gaping hole soon. However, for the purposes of this blog, he was a giant within the field of psychology, with his person-centric (humanistic) approach.

Note: I am a novice when it comes to the work of Carl Rogers and so I’ve attempted to ‘go gently’ on what I’ve written so that I don’t butcher it too badly :).

4. This doesn’t mean accepting or ignoring their words and deeds. It means to accept the person underneath – and therefore that it is worth investing in helping them.

5. Source/ credit: I’ve been ‘working from home’ in COVID-19 lockdown for the last four weeks and this has given me the opportunity to watch a course on Udemy called ‘The Fundamentals of Skilled Helping and Problem Management’ with Gerard Egan and Kain Ramsay. This post is a write-up of a key reflection.

Coming out of lock-down with eyes wide open

Uniteagainstcovid19There’s a famous quote that goes something like

“those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)

In these COVID-19 days, and with the pressure from many an observer for governments to relax their lock-down measures, I think that we would do well to cast our eyes back to the 1918 – 1920* flu epidemic to see what we might find that strikes us as interesting.

* I’ve written ‘1918 – 1920’ rather than the usual shorthand of the ‘1918 epidemic’ just to point out that it lasted nearly three years! And I’d rather we did really sensible things so that it didn’t last anything like that long this time around.

I know that we live in different times and so comparisons should be done very carefully and with a good few caveats, but I suspect that many of the fundamentals remain the same (such as ease of transmission and the risk of exponential growth).

I found the Wikipedia entry on the ‘Spanish Flu’ to be an interesting read. One of the graphs within really stood out at me. It shows the mortality rate over time in the UK:

Spanish Flu

You can see that the UK endured three waves, with the second wave being extremely deadly as compared to the first (which was really bad anyway).

We can imagine that at the end of July 1918 (after the first wave) people thought they’d beaten the virus and so could go back to normal. We can also imagine that they might have thought the same in January 1919 (after the second wave).

Here’s a picture of New Zealand’s cases ‘over time’ as at 17th April 2020 (taken from the excellent ‘The Spinoff’ site):

17.4.20 Covid 19 NZ

We can look at this graph and be very encouraged by what we are seeing. However, we still have cases emerging even though we’ve been in a ‘Level 4’ lock-down for over three weeks.

Here’s the graph again, but with a really positive spin:

COVID Positive view

…and here’s the graph with an alternate ‘realism’ point of view:

COVID realism view

If we apply the ‘three waves of Spanish Flu’ graph learning onto our current graph you can see why we should take GREAT care about when to exit a ‘Level 4’ lock-down, and how (even then) we shouldn’t let things slip.

If we go too soon and/or we relax too far, what we’ve endured to date (socially and economically) might have been all in vain.

In short: Please don’t put pressure on our government to move out of ‘Level 4’ too soon, and when we do move down to ‘Level 3’, please follow the rules so we don’t go backwards.

And to our government: Please keep on listening to the experts over politically and capitalistically motivated parties. Thank you!

The blossoming of the ‘essential worker’ in the public conscience.

Tooth-FairyIn this time of ‘Covid-19’ and the wonderful blossoming of the ‘essential worker’ into the public conscience, I recall a post I wrote some 5 years back that (I believe) weirdly happens to fit oh-so-well.

We could have some very different conversations going
forward….or not.

Link: Social workers, Sociopaths and Politicians. (Oct, 2015)

I’m not claiming my writings provide the answers, just (hopefully) some rather important ‘food for thought’.

Note: The image is of the tooth-fairy, who has been deemed an essential worker here in New Zealand.