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

Short post time…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If not, why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which reminds me of that brilliant quote from Frederick Herzberg:

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addendum to my recent ‘Venn diagram’ post

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

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

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

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

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

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

My reply:

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

My thoughts on Dave’s four points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In addition:

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

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

My ‘Snowden – Seddon’ Venn diagram

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

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

These include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here goes…

1. On making sense of the problem space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. On working with complexity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. On the importance of failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. On facilitating change within the complex domain

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

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

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

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

5. On scaling change within the complex domain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. On measurement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Combining quantitative with qualitative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. On the use of tools

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

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

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

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

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

9. On ‘Systems Theory’

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

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

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

I think that they would align with the following quote:

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

 

“What a load of rubbish!”

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

 “So, it’s nirvana then?”

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

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

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

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

 Further work: On the other intersections

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting from the wrong place

It’s very short Friday evening post time 🙂

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

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

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

Step 3: …erm, now what? I’m stuck!

 

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

 

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

Then…think about what really needs to change.

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

Reflecting on reflection

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

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

So, the other day I was asked1:

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

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

So, here goes2

What is reflection?

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

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

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

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

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

Levels of thoughtfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On critical reflection

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

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

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

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

Presupposition:

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

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

I find that these definitions help me.

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

Examples:

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

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

Mezirow proposes that critical reflection might be viewed as:

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

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

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

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

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

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

A learning cycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The critical level has the power to transform.

On Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where’s the barrier?

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

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

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

A Summary In five bullets:

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

 A couple of extra thoughts…

A truth criterion as your anchor

Critical reflection sounds awesome…but against what?

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

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

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

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

Making critical reflection a habit

It’s worth pondering the well-known quote:

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

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

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

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

 

Footnotes:

1. Thanks Ange 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Spaghetti notes’ phenomenon

Most people I know like pasta. I don’t. I find it bland and boring (sorry Italy).

I find spaghetti particularly annoying. No matter how much I eat, the portion in my dish never seems to reduce. It gets all tangled on my fork, it dangles everywhere, and it makes a big mess.

Which is a nice segue to this post:

The more ‘functional’ (i.e. specialised/ compartmentalised) a service has been designed then…

…the more likely that a client must speak with lots of different people (‘a new person every time’)

and the more likely that the client’s needs are then broken up into ‘transactions’ and passed on (a.k.a ‘referred’) to lots of other people to work on…

…the more people ‘touch’ (i.e. work on) a client record…

…the more file notes are left on the client record…

…the harder it is for someone working on a client record to work out what is going on…

…the more likely that, during a client interaction, the person attempting to help can’t possibly read ‘all the notes’ and so only reads what is obvious to them in the time (that they feel1) they have available to them…

…the more likely that something important is missed from within the notes…

…the more likely that inappropriate/ incomplete actions are taken and, worse, serious errors are made…

…the more likely that a client needs more work done2 on their record (to deal with the resultant failure demands, to ‘undo’ the actions taken, and the knock-on effects)…

…the more likely that a ‘leaving good notes’ policy is rolled out (including ‘best practice note templates’ and ‘quality control’ by inspection of note taking)…

…the more time taken by everyone working on a client record to make detailed notes (and to ‘police’ this)…

…the more involved each note becomes…

…the even harder it is to work out what is going on (because there’s yet more notes and each one has become painful to read – even containing internal hieroglyphics to supposedly make an ‘easier to consume’ short-hand)…

…until we arrive at the ‘spaghetti notes phenomenon’ where it’s virtually impossible to know, let alone understand, what’s gone on when viewing a client record, and it would take days of effort from a dedicated and experienced worker to review all the notes and patch them together into a coherent whole…

…and if they do this, they will stand back and think “oh my @%&!, what a pile of waste it took to achieve a shite client experience.”

 

The final ‘nail in the coffin’: Someone helping a client can often look at the spaghetti before them in the client record and (rationally) arrive at the conclusion that it would be much easier to ignore all the notes and talk to the client as if they are starting all over again.

 

Reflection:

Focusing on making good notes is an example of single-loop learning (‘making a wrong thing righter’).

The real problem isn’t with the notes, it’s with the design of the system that means that so many people are working on the same client record, because it’s this that creates the spaghetti.

 

Clarification: I’m absolutely NOT against good notes – if I’d worked on a client file a month ago, I’d like to read my own note that effectively and efficiently reminds me where I left off. I’d also like any colleague to be able to read it and gain a similar understanding.

What I AM against is a system design that causes a ‘note making’ reinforcing feedback loop3.

 

Footnotes

1. A person helping a client could take a great deal of time to work through the notes – to make sure that they gain the necessary understanding – but does their working environment cause them to think that this time isn’t available to them?

Do they feel like they’ve got to get through x number of tasks today and so time is of the essence?

2. And, of course, this ‘more work’ needs yet more notes adding to the client record.

In my experience, a ‘here’s what we did to undo an error’ file note is a convoluted thing to read (let alone write), and almost impossible to follow because ‘you had to be there’ to actually get it…which means that such file notes are often glossed over because it’s easier to do so…which leads us back around into the same torturous circle.

3. For those readers that may not understand what this means, a reinforcing loop is one in which the result of an action produces yet more of the same action, thus producing growth (or decline depending on which direction the action in question is leading).

On Vector Measurement: the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of

I’ll start this post with an excerpt from a podcast in which Stephen Fry was the guest. He recalled the following passage from a Sherlock Holmes book:

“You know Watson, the statistician has shown that we can predict, to an extraordinary order of accuracy, the behaviour of the ‘average man’

…but no one has yet, and probably never will be able to predict how an individual will behave.” (Sherlock Holmes, ‘The Sign of Four’ as verbally recalled by Stephen Fry)

Fry went on to add:

“We can be talked about as ‘a mass’, and advertisers and politicians…and all kinds of other people are very good at knowing how we behave as a group, but as individuals we are unknowable without face-to-face conversation, and [knowing a person’s] history and so on.” (Stephen Fry)

This made me smile. He is discussing a point that is (for me) quite profound and I’d like to use it to link a few things together1.

A reminder about Complex vs. Complicated

I wrote a post ages ago that explained the difference between a complex and ordered system (ref. ‘It’s complicated…or is it?’)

If you’d really like to delve into this, then I’d recommend looking at the Cynefin sense making framework2.

In short3:

  • An ordered system (whether simple or complicated) is predictable. There are known or knowable cause-and-effect relationships.

There are right answers (which may be self-evident or may require expert diagnosis)

  • A complex system is unpredictable. The elements (for example people) influence and evolve with one another. The past makes sense in retrospect (i.e. it is explainable) BUT this doesn’t lead to foresight because the system, and its environment, are constantly changing.

 It’s not about having answers, it’s about what emerges from changing circumstances and how to respond.

The difference between the two is hugely important.

On working in a system with a purpose of helping people

There are many social systems that are put in place with the intent of helping people with their lives. As an example: most (so called) developed countries have social welfare systems that provide a level of income support. They also help people with their housing needs and gaining employment.

Each of these welfare systems has a choice as to how it sees the people that need their help, and therefore how they choose to design their response.

The ‘average person’ response

The welfare system can look at their population of ‘clients’ and create a host of data about ‘the average’.

They can even break this population down into cohorts and look at more detailed ‘averages’. They might even design ‘personas’ around the ‘average’ per cohort.

But, if they design responses to individuals with reference to these averages, then they are falling into Sherlock Holmes’ stated error – that they believe they can know about an individual from an average.

They would be presuming an ordered (complicated) system and designing answers in response.

Example4:, We can all understand that, on average, it is beneficial for a person to gain employment and thus be able to become independent from the welfare system…so the ‘ordered’ answer must surely be ‘get everyone into work’…so let’s direct all our focus (and targets) to achieving this!

The ‘individual’ response

Each person reliant on a welfare system has a complexity to their life (whether we see this or not).

Expanding upon this, the complexities for many ‘clients’ can be huge – such as:

  • dependents (children, and others that they care for)
  • lack of permanent address and other financial barriers
  • limited education and work experience
  • mental health (incl. depression, anxiety), habits and addictions
  • physical disabilities
  • family violence
  • criminal records
  • history of institutional care
  • …etc.

If those working in the welfare system want to achieve meaningful help, then the starting point is for them to know the client as an individual, and then iteratively work alongside them according to what emerges.

Measurement of success

We would hope that each welfare system has thought about what its purpose is, from a client’s point of view, and that this is the anchor point from which everything else is tethered.

Such a purpose will likely be about helping people towards ‘good’ outcomes (such as independence, safety, …and other dimensions of wellbeing)

A welfare system should want to measure its performance against that purpose.

If I’ve assumed an ordered system (via the ‘average person’ design response) then I will take my ordered answers (in this example ‘getting people into work’) and likely measure things like ‘Number of clients into employment this period’. I might even set targets to (ahem) motivate my staff….

…and I will predictably (though unintentionally) promote dysfunctional behaviour5:

  • A mindset of whose ‘on my books’? (and therefore, who can I get off them)
  • Who can I get into work quickly? (with the reverse effect of leaving the ‘difficult ones’ languishing to one side)
  • What work can I get them into? (as opposed to what will help them succeed)
  • Who needs coaxing/ persuading and what can I use as levers to do this?
  • Who got themselves into work by themselves (i.e. without any help from us)…so that I can ‘count them in my numbers’
  • ….

Attempting to push someone into work might be an incredibly dumb thing to do for that individual (and for those that depend upon them).

The above is not blaming anyone working in such a system. It is to say that these are, sadly, “healthy responses to absurd work” (Herzberg).

To Vector Measurement

If I correctly see that the welfare system is a complex one, then I realise that I need to work at the level of the individual.

The type of measure that fits for a complex system is a vector measure. A reminder from schoolboy maths that a vector has both speed and direction. It is especially used to determine the position of one thing, in relation to another.

I will know the performance of my system if I regularly measure, for each individual, their speed and direction of travel – from where they are now towards, or away from, a better place (as defined by them).

Such a measure causes a total focus on the individual:

  • whether things are working for them or not
  • whether to continue with the current stimuli and perhaps amplify them; or
  • whether to dampen them and work to stimulate new ideas

It’s very likely that there will be a collection of unique needs per individual, and therefore a set of vectors to be monitored (one per need). These may cluster around the various dimensions of wellbeing (see footnote for a wellbeing model6).

Example: My financial wellbeing might be slightly (and temporarily) better off because you pushed me into a job, but my mental wellbeing might be sinking like a stone because it really wasn’t appropriate.

Which leads to…

Measuring over time

Vector measurement shouldn’t be one-off thing. The individual is on a (lifelong) journey. The reference point is continually changing, but the question of ‘better or worse off?’ (or perhaps progressing vs regressing) is a constant.

As such, each person steps from one place to another, sometimes forwards (i.e. towards where they thought they wanted to go), sometime diagonally (to new possibilities that have emerged) and sometimes backwards (requiring reflection and perhaps some helpful interventions).

Playing with a way to visualise such a journey7, it might look something like this:

If we were measuring the performance of a system aimed at helping individuals, we would want:

  • the aggregate of our clients to be going forwards (and most certainly not be stuck and dependent on us); and
  • to spot the individuals who are stuck or, worse, going backwards, so that we can (quickly) help;

Returning to the ‘average person’

Every welfare system says that it wants good outcomes for those that they are tasked with helping. Whether this happens will depend upon how we think this can be achieved.

I contrast:

  • Fighting people into (what we have determined for them as) good outcomes;

with

  • Dancing8 with people towards what they arrive at as their good outcomes

I hope you can see that if we truly help ‘the individual’ then, on average, people are quite likely to move towards employment (and better mental health and…). But this is a case of ‘cause’ (helping individuals) and ‘effect’ (improving the average).

Conversely, I can ‘badger the non-existent average’ till I’m blue in the face…but it would be the wrong place to work from!

In summary:

I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes:

“Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex intelligent behaviour.

[Complicated] rules and regulations give rise to simple stupid behaviour(Dee Hock)

The simple, clear measure of ‘are you better or worse off (as defined by you)’? will give rise to all sorts of varied, individualised and highly relevant actions and interaction.

The complicated rules around, say, how many people a team is supposed to get into employment this period, what counts as ‘getting employment’, what rules determine who gets the credit, how long does this ‘employment’ need to be sustained to keep the credit,…and so on, will give rise to simple, stupid behaviour.

 

Footnotes:

1. Sources for this post: As is so often the case when I am energised to ‘write it down’ in a post, the ideas within are because of a coming together (at least in my mind) between a few separate things.

The main two for this post are:

Whilst the former is about ‘the individual’ and the latter is (I think) written with respect to, say, an organisation (or bigger system), I see them as complimentary.

Richard Davis’ Chapter 4 ‘Using data’ nicely shows an example of an individual with a set of needs (as defined by them), and how they are doing against each over time.

Dave Snowden’s piece adds to, and broadens, Richard Davis’s work by naming, and clearly articulating, vector measurement.

2. Cynefin: There’s also a useful book called ‘Cynefin: weaving sense-making into the fabric of our world’ by Dave Snowden and friends

3. Sensemaking framework: I have chosen to provide a very brief reminder here. I have omitted the ideas of chaos, disorder, and liminality.

4. Employment as an example: I could have used various examples to make this point. I picked employment after reading an article about a new UK Govt. initiative called ‘The way to work’, with a target to get 500,000 into work.

The article is titled ‘Way to Work Scheme: forcing people into jobs they aren’t suited for has damaging effects’.

The article also links on to a systematic review by University of Glasgow on the research in this area. The abstract notes

“…we found that labour market studies…consistently reported positive impacts for employment [i.e. yes, we can ‘force people into work’] but negative impacts for job quality and stability in the longer term, along with increased transitions to non-employment or economic inactivity. …increased material hardship and health problems. There was also some evidence that sanctions were associated with increased child maltreatment and poorer child well-being.”

5. Dysfunctional behaviour: A reminder that this isn’t a case of ‘bad people’; this is normal people attempting to survive within their system.

6. Wellbeing: Googling the (often referenced) notion of wellbeing shows that there are lots of different (though similar) n-dimensional models of wellbeing ‘out there’.

Using the Te Whare Tapa Whā model, as derived by Sir Mason Durie, four core dimensions of wellbeing are:

  • Taha tinana: Our physical health
  • Taha hinengaro: Our mental and emotional health
  • Taha whānau: Our social wellness (e.g. a sense of connection, belonging, contributing, and being supported)
  • Taha wairua: Our spiritual wellness (g. a sense of purpose and meaning in life/ the degree of peace and harmony in our lives )

Other dimensions that feed into (i.e. will likely affect) these four core wellbeing dimensions include:

  • Our financial/ economic situation (now) & outlook (expected)
    • e.g. access to resources (food, clothing, shelter,…)
  • Our environmental situation – where we live
    • e.g. safe, clean, pleasant, cohesive, with access to facilities
  • Our intellectual situation – what we do (education, work, and leisure)
    • e.g. stimulating/ creative, productive/ useful, learning/ developing/growth, autonomous (self-determining)

7. Visualising the journey: I’m sure that there are lots of people far more skilled than me that could really ‘get into’ how to visualise a person’s journey (and probably have).

The point is to be able to see it, as a vector, moving over time, comparing ‘where I was’ to ‘where I am now’ on some useful dimensions. These could be:

  • a set of needs as identified through actively listening to the person (as per Richard Davis); and/or
  • a set of wellbeing dimensions (as derived from a useful wellbeing model)

 To clarify: This would be the opposite of scoring where the person is at on a goal set by the welfare system that is ‘managing’ them.

A reminder that the former recognises the person’s complexity, whilst the latter assumes an ordered reality…which is not the case.

8. Re. Dancing with people: This phrase might sound flippant – I have no wish to be simplistic about people whose lives are really tough. It comes from the rather nice concept as explained by Miller and Rollnick in their book on Motivational Interviewing.

Part 2: The problem of changing from ‘this’ (Control) to ‘that’ (Autonomy)

This post discusses a ‘how’ and follows on from a discussion of the ‘what and why’ in Part 1: Autonomy – Autonomy Support – Autonomy Enabling (a Dec ’21 post – it only took me 7 months!)

I’ll assume you know that the ‘how’ I am writing about is with respect to an approach to moving a large people-centred system:

  • from (attempted) control
  • to autonomy (and its enablement).

Please (re)read ‘part 1’ if you need to (including what is meant by people-centred)

 Oh for the luxury of a ‘Green field’!

You could be fortunate to start in a relatively ‘green field’ situation (i.e. with very little already in place).

This is what Jos de Blok did in 2006 when he founded the community healthcare provider Buurtzorg in the Netherlands. He started with a few like-minded colleagues to form a self-managed team (i.e. an autonomous unit), and when it reached a defined size (which, in their model, is a team of 12), it ‘calved off’ another autonomous unit.

Buurtzorg carried on doing this until, 10 years later, there were 850 highly effective self-managing teams (autonomous units) in towns and villages all over the country.

In doing this, the autonomous units evolved the desire to have some (very limited) support functions, that would enable (and most definitely not attempt to control) them.

Sounds wonderful.

But many (most) of us don’t have this green field scenario.

We are starting with huge organisations, with thousands of workers within an existing set of highly defined (and usually inflexible) structures. The local, regional and (usually large and deeply functionalised) central model exist in the ‘here and now’.

So, the Buurtzoorg example (whilst recognised as a brilliant social system) is limited.

Rather, we would do well to look to an organisation that successfully changed itself after it had become a big control system. And Handelsbanken is, for me, a highly valuable organisation to study in this regard.

 

Some context on Handelsbanken

I recall writing about Handelsbanken and their forward-thinking CEO Jan Wallander some time back…and, after searching around, found a couple of articles that I wrote five years ago (how time flies!). A reminder if you are interested:

I’ve added some historical context1 in a footnote at the bottom of this post, but the upshot is that the results have been hugely impressive, such that they have been written into management case studies and books. Wallander successfully transformed the organisation, for the long term. It is now an International bank (across 6 countries) and turned 150 years old in 2021. It continually wins awards for customer satisfaction, financial safety, and sustainability.

I should deal with a likely critique before I go any further:

“But it’s a bank Steve!!!” Over the last few years, my area of interest has become the social sector (rather than ‘for profit’ organisations)…and, if you’ve noticed this, you may be questioning my use of a bank for this ‘Part 2’ post.

I’d respond that much of Jan Wallander’s thinking fits incredibly well for organisational design within the social sector. He saw that the answer was ‘about the long-term client journey’ (people-centred), within a community and NOT about pushing ‘products and services’.

 

An introduction to the ‘how’

I’ll break up my explanation into:

  • Some key ‘up-front’ points;
  • How Wallander achieved the transformation; and
  • The core of Wallander’s organisational design

 

Some key ‘up front’ points

“As a rule, it is large and complex systems and structures that have to be changed if a real change is to take place.” [Wallander]

  • There is no magic ‘let’s do another change programme’ silver bullet. It is a change in organisational paradigm
  • It will take time and, above all, leadership (in the true meaning of the word)
  • Most important for the ‘leadership’ bit is that those leading ‘get the why’. Constancy of purpose can only come from this

 

How Wallander achieved the transformation

Saying and doing are quite different things. I expect that I could have lots of agreeable conversations with people throughout an organisation (and particularly with those at its ‘centre’) about ‘autonomy at the front line, with enablement from the centre’and yet nothing would change.

The following quote interests me greatly:

“The reason why [such an ‘autonomy and enabling’ system] is so rare and so difficult to achieve is quite simply that people who have power…are unwilling to hand part of it over to anyone else – a very human reaction. So, if one is to succeed, one needs a firm and clear goal and one has to begin at the top…with oneself.” [Wallander]

Which leads on to…

Wallander’s head office problem

“The staff working at the head office saw themselves as smarter, better educated and ‘more up-to-date’ than the great mass of practical men and women out in the field. They also felt superior because they were in close contact with the highest authority [i.e. the members of the senior management team].

A steady stream of instructions…poured out from the head office departments…amounting to several hundred a month. Even if a branch manager was critical of these instructions and recommendations, he did not feel he had any possibility of questioning them.” [Wallander]

Wallander saw things very differently to this:

“The new policy…aimed at turning the pyramid upside down and making the branch office2 the primary units.

In the old organisation there was a clear hierarchy: at the bottom of the scale were the branch offices, and on the next step up the [regional] centres. [‘Success’ was] a move up to a post at the head office.

In the new organisation, it was service at the branch offices that would be the primary merit…[because] it was the branch offices that gave the bank its income [i.e. delivered value to clients, towards their purpose]

In the new organisation:

    • the branch offices were the buyers of [enabling services]; and
    • the [central] departments the sellers who needed to cover their costs.”

It’s one thing saying this. It’s quite another achieving it. So how did Wallander do it?

Put simply, he stopped ‘push to’ the front line and enabled ‘pull by’ the front line.

Initially, he wanted to ‘stop the train’:

“[Head office] Departments were forbidden to send out any more memos to the branch offices apart from those that were necessary for daily work and reports to the authorities [e.g. regulators].

[All the head office] committees and working groups engaged in various development projects…were told to stop their work at once and the secretaries were asked to submit a report on not more than one A4 page describing what the work had resulting in so far.”

Then he wanted to change the direction:

“An important tool in the change process was the creation of a central planning committee that had a majority of members representing the branch offices.

This committee summoned the managers of the various head office departments, who had to report on what they were planning to do… and how much it would cost the branch offices [i.e. what value would be derived].

The committee could then decide [what was of use to their clients] and [where they considered it was not] the departmental managers were sent back to do their homework again.

In short, those delivering to clients (the branch offices) were given ‘right of veto’ over those from elsewhere proposing changes to this.

This had a dramatic effect. If you are a central department and you don’t want to be wasting your time on unwanted stuff (and who does?), then you’d better (regularly) get out to the front line, observe what’s happening, understand what’s required and/or getting in the way, and then collaborate on helping to resolve.

Further, if (after doing this) a central department develops something that the branches don’t want to use, then the next step turns into dialogue (leading to deeper understanding and valuable pivots in direction), not enforcement.

…which would create adult – adult interactions (rather than parent – child).

 

The core of the organisational design

I’m going to set out a bunch of inter-related points that need to be taken together for their effect to take hold. Here goes:

1. The local team ‘owns’ the client (relationship):

A client isn’t split up into lots of ‘bits’ and referred ‘all over the place’. Rather, the local team owns the client, as a whole person, throughout their journey. This provides: the client with direct access to the people responsible for helping them; and the local team with meaningful work.

“If you want people motivated to do a good job, give them a good job to do.” (Hertzberg)

2. The local team functions as a semi-autonomous self-managing unit, and is the primary unit of importance:

They are fully responsible for their local cohort of clients and, where they need to, pulling expertise to them (rather than pushing them off to other places).

3. The local team manager is a hugely important role:

This is because they are the linchpin (the vital link). They are responsible for:

  • the meaningful and sustained help provided to their local cohort of clients;
  • the development and wellbeing of the local team helping clients; AND
  • ensuring that the necessary support is being pulled from (and being provided by) the enabling centre.

They are NOT the enforcers of the centre’s rules. Rather they are the stewards of their local community (clients and employees).  This is a big responsibility…which means turning the ‘local team manager’ into a highly desirable role and promoting highly capable people into it.

In a reversal of thinking:

  • the old way was that you ran a local site in the hope of one day moving ‘up’ to head office
  • the new way is that a job at the centre might be a stepping-stone to being appointed as one of the highly respected local team managers

4. The capability of the local team employees is paramount:

If the local team are to truly help clients, then focused, ongoing time and effort needs to go into developing their capability to do this.

They are no longer merely ‘front line order takers’…so they need help to develop and grow (‘on the job’, ‘in the moment’).

5. Local team employees must receive a reasonable salary:

If we want people to develop and grow such that they deliver outstanding help to their clients, then we need to pay them accordingly. This is not ‘unskilled’ work (whatever that means nowadays).

 

Putting points 1 through to 5 together creates a virtuous circle: meaningful work, self-direction, relatedness, growth, wellbeing…and back around to meaningful work.

 

We now turn to some enabling principles:

6. The centre’s job is to enable (and NOT control) the local team:

Basically, re-read (if you need to) what I’ve written above about Wallander’s head office problem and how to transform this.

THE core principle here is that the local teams (via representation) have right of veto over central ideas for change.  After all, YOU (the centre) are impacting upon THEIR clients.

For those of you ‘in the centre’ who are thinking “but this is Bullsh!t, the problem is that the local team just don’t get why [my brilliant change] is necessary!” then

  • either they know something you don’t…and so you’d better get learning
  • and/or you know something they don’t…and so you’d better get into a productive dialogue with them

…and whichever it is, a dose of experiential learning (at the Gemba) is likely to be the route out of any impasse.

In short: If the local team don’t ‘get it’ or don’t ‘want it’ then the centre has more work to do!

7. All employees (local team and centre) need clarity of purpose and a set of guiding principles:

Whilst we want each and every local team ‘thinking for itself’, we need them all to be going in the same direction. For this to occur, they need a simple, clear (client centred) purpose and principles, to use as their anchor for everything they do…and with this they can amaze us!

Which leads to one of my all-time favourite quotes:

“Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behaviour.

Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behaviour.” (Dee Hock)

We also need the ‘centre’ (and most definitely senior management) to live and breathe the purpose and principles*. Without this it’s just ‘happy talk’.

* Note: This list of nine points (and the context around them) is a good start on a core set of principles.

8. There needs to be transparency across local teams as to the outcomes being achieved (towards purpose):

A key role for the centre is simply to make transparent that which is being achieved, so that this is clear to all…and then resist dictating ‘answers’.

This means that each local team can see their outcomes and those of all the other local teams…and can therefore gain feedback, which creates curiosity, stimulates collaboration, generates innovation, and produces learning towards purpose…

…we are then on the way to a purpose-seeking organisation.

Once outcomes are transparent, then if the centre is demonstrably able to help, it is highly likely that local teams will pull for it.

 Clarification: Transparency of systemic outcomes towards purpose, NOT activities and outputs (i.e. how many ‘widgets’ were shoved from ‘a’ to ‘b’ and how quickly!)

 

and last, but by no means least…

9. The budget process needs to be replaced with something better:

I’m not going to write anything detailed on this, as I’ve written about this before. You are welcome to explore this point if you wish: ‘The Great Budget God in the Sky’.

In short, the conventional budget process is also a HUGE problem for a system in meeting its client defined purpose.

 Right, I’m one point short of ‘The Ten Commandments’…so I’ll stop there. This isn’t a religion 🙂

 

To close

The above might seem unpalatable, even frightening, to the current ‘Head Office machine’ but there’s still seriously important work for ‘the centre’ to do…but just different to how you do it now.

In fact, if those in the centre really thought about it (and looked at the copious evidence), how much of what the head office machine currently does provides truly meaningful and inspiring work for you? Perhaps not so much.

Sure, we tell ourselves that we’ve ‘delivered’ what we said we would, according to a budget and timescale…but how are those clients going? Are things (really) getting better for them, or are they stuck and perhaps even going backwards?

How would you know? I expect the local team could tell you!

 

Footnotes:

1. Historical context: Handelsbanken was, back at the end of the 1960s, a large historic Swedish bank that had got itself into an existential crisis

It was run in the typical functionalised, centralised command-and-control manner, according to the dominant management ideas emanating from American management schools (and which still leave a heavy mark on so many organisations today)

The Handelsbanken Board decided to headhunt a new CEO in an attempt to turn things around (i.e. ‘transform’ in the proper use of the word)

Dr. Jan Wallander was an academic who, through years of research and experience, had arrived at a systemic human-centred management philosophy. To test his thinking, he had taken up the role of CEO at a small Swedish bank (which was becoming an increasingly successful competitor of Handelsbanken)

The Handelsbanken Board were struck with the highly successful outcomes that Wallander had achieved, and they wanted him to rescue them from their crisis.

In 1970 he said yes to their request…but with strings attached: They had to allow him the time and space to put his ideas into practice.

2. ‘Local team’, ‘Branch’, ….: Organisations choose various words to refer to their local presence, be it office, site, shop, outlet, etc. What matters most is the decentralised thinking, not the word chosen or even how the ‘localness’ manifests itself.

I’ve used the generic phrase ‘local team’ in this blog because it implies (to me) a distinct group of people looking after their clients. You’ll note that Jan Wallander refers to the ‘Branch’ in this respect (which fits with his banking world). You can substitute any word you wish so long as it retains the point.

3. The detail for this post comes mainly from Jan Wallander’s book ‘Decentralisation – Why and How to make it work: The Handelsbanken Way’. It is an interesting (and relatively short) read.

I found this book a bit hard to get hold of. I got mine shipped from Sweden…though I had a little mishap of accidently procuring the Swedish language version – sadly, not much use to me and my limited linguistic skills. I happily amended my order to the English version.

4. ‘Within a community’: The conventional public sector model is to have a huge number of branches within a given community – one for each central government department, one for each separate NGO, etc. etc. They are (virtually always) at cross purposes with each other, causing vulnerable clients to have to adopt the inappropriate (and unacceptable) position of trying to ‘project manage’ themselves through the malaise.

The need is to replace this controlling central-ness (lots of central Octopuses with overlapping local tentacles) with meaningful local teams. This is a huge subject in itself, and worthy of another post (or a series of).

Control Charts: A ‘how to’ guide

A key component of Deming’s ‘Theory of Profound Knowledge’ is in relation to the measurement of performance (of a system) and the ‘Theory of Variation’.

I’ve noticed over the years that, whilst the foundational points around variation can be well understood, the use of control charts within operational practice can be ‘absolutely butchered’ (technical term 🙂 ).

 

This caused me to write a ‘how to’ guide a while back, for me and my colleagues.

I recently ‘dusted it down’ and tidied it up into a version 2.0 in order that I can share it more widely, for anyone who can find value within.

I attach it as a pdf document for anyone interested:

Control charts – a how to guide V2.0

It doesn’t replace the excellent writings of Donald Wheeler…though it hopefully makes you curious to ‘pull’ his writings towards you.

It doesn’t tell you what to measure…because it couldn’t!

It doesn’t ‘do it for you’…but, hopefully, it does give you enough so that you can experiment with doing it for yourself.

…and it can’t beat working alongside someone who knows what they are doing, and can act as your coach.

 

Note: If you do end up using/ sharing this guide then I’d be grateful if you could add a simple comment at the bottom of this page so that I am aware of this. Not because I’m going to invoice you (I’m not!)…but because I would find this knowledge useful (#feedback).

You might tell me: what you thought of it (warts and all), where you might use it, whether you have shared it with others (and whether they appreciated this or not!)… and if it has improved your measurement practices.

Thanks, Steve

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