“My Lord, I bring news!”

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

I was having a conversation with a colleague the other day and a particular scene from ‘The Queen of Spain’s Beard’* leapt into my mindย (* Series 1, episode 4 for afficionados out there ๐Ÿ™‚ )

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

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

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

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

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

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

– End of scene –

Ha-ha, but so what?

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

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

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

Frontal assault idiot

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

Stafford Beer was a master at explaining this point:

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

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

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

So, how to get a tough message across?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to from here?

John Seddon went on to write:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and finally

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

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

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

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