Smoke and mirrors

Smoke and mirrorsI drafted a post a few years ago, but never got round to ‘topping and tailing it’…and so it never got posted. However, I had a chance conversation with someone this week in which the content of the post became highly relevant. So, after searching around a bunch of digital ‘nooks and crannies’, I finally found it, dusted it down, and completed it:

Over the last few years I’ve run various education courses and coaching sessions to introduce people to the fundamentals of ‘Systems Thinking and Intervention’.

I deliberately ‘mess with their heads’ using questions, exercises and simulations that explore systems, value (in respect of purpose), measurement (of system performance), learning, motivation and leadership. It’s good fun but also serious and important stuff.

I sometimes1 experience somebody come up to me at the end of such a course, saying something like:

“Wow, that’s amazing…we need to do something about this NOW…but we can’t do anything without a clear plan of how other organisations have successfully implemented what you have told us about!”

A variation on this is:

“We accept your critique of how we are now, and the problems this causes…but that’s no good if you don’t tell us what to do instead! We need you (or others like you) to come in and sort this all out!

Now, before I go any further, I should write that I understand the burning desire to do something! The reality is that many of the insights (aha moments) in the education course/ coaching can be quite tender for people – they are having ‘known truths’2 spelt out in black and white to them, they feel uncomfortable about this and they want to go back and change their working reality.

There is a treatment…but it ISN’T me (or others like me) coming in to implement a plan that copies what others have (supposedly successfully) done.

If you want to read some earlier posts that get into the ‘why not’ then:

Often, the person that raised the question doesn’t like hearing this. It makes them think that I’ve just (painfully) diagnosed the truth of their working world but that I am deliberately withholding the cure.

Let’s see if I can provide a rational explanation of the necessary treatment (there’s some irony in that sentence – see footnote 1 again):


First, you must be curious….and if you are not, well there’s not much that I (or anyone) can do for you – except perhaps provoke you!

“And if you can’t come, send nobody” (Deming, quoting William E. Conway)

Okay, so let’s say you show some interest…

Mirror… if you are curious I can find you a mirror

  • that would be your system (which will be made up of its components, their interconnections, and its purpose…though you probably won’t clearly see these yet).

… if you are still curious I can then hold the mirror up for you

  • that would be to help you create meaningful measures as to how your system is actually performing for your customers (in terms of demands placed upon it, and its capability at meeting them).

… if you remain curious I can then help you stand in the right place to see your reflection

  • that would be to help you go to, and immerse yourself within, the place where the work is performed (often referred to by the Japanese word ‘Gemba’)…which will contain the reasons as to why the system performs as it does.

So, having helped you to stand directly in front of the mirror…

I can never see for you!

I would (and should only) be acting as a catalyst3 i.e. assisting, but not being part of, the reaction.

  • I shouldn’t be writing reports for you – because you won’t then own them…though I will certainly reflect on anything you consider necessary to write;
  • I shouldn’t be taking any responsibilities from you – because you won’t experience the feedback from your actions, and learn from this…though I will certainly stand with you, providing counsel and encouragement;
  • I cannot provide any guarantees as to what you can (and will) achieve – because this is in your gift, not mine. Such achievements will likely be hard to quantify, and should continue to flow long after I have carefully stepped away.


Dont smokeThe opposite of mirrors would be smoke. And this is where conventional ‘change’ resides:

  • ‘Going to the market’ to procure ‘solutions’ from (often self-anointed) experts;
  • Contracting with ‘outsiders’ who convinced you that they can ‘do it for you’, perhaps with attractive ‘benefits to be realised’ guarantees;
  • Dealing in reports of recommendations, business cases, ‘benchmarks’ on what others have done, methodologies, plans, resources…;
  • Setting up projects, seconding people away from the work and then requiring those in the work to comply with the outcome;

And, finally, at the end of it all, that champion imposter of ‘transformation’ jargon, the promised knowledge transfer!

…which usually means “we did it to you…and we’ll leave you with the ‘artefacts’ so that you can attempt to copy what we did after we’ve left the building.”


1. At first, I saw such a response as a failure on my part (i.e. as in not getting my message across). I don’t see it this way now – it doesn’t matter how good my rational explanations have been, I shouldn’t expect to have solved anything for people – they have to go and see it for themselves. All I can do in such sessions is create curiosity, and provide a language, concepts and frameworks which can assist what may happen next. Many will be curious. A few won’t.

Update: I (think that) I’m a lot clearer when attempting to educate people now.

2. ‘Known Truths’: Once uncovered, most people understand what is being put to them…and indeed, a number exclaim that they’ve thought like this for quite a while but have never had it articulated to them. In fact, for these people, it can be a release – like a valve on a pressure cooker.

3. Catalyst: My school boy chemistry reminds me that a catalyst is “A substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change” (Oxford Dictionary).

This isn’t strictly accurate because, since I am a human being, I (the interventionist) cannot help being changed by my (attempted) intervention. I hope you get the point though that ‘catalyst’ suggests that it’s ALL about you, and really NOT about me.

4. Source of the smoke and mirrors image: