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:

People don’t change their minds!

hugh-title-pictureSo a manager stands on a stage and lectures a group of people (or is that ‘thrusts hero opinions upon them’?) about how they should behave at work, and what ‘check box’ traits they should be looking for in others.

Within the bluster is a seemingly bizarre sentence stated as fact: That people don’t actually change their minds.

Is this true? How about some excellent examples of where you might agree:

  • a ‘Boris Johnson-loving’ Brexiteer at loggerheads with a ‘Yes to Europe’ standard bearer;
  • a Trump ‘nut’ arguing with a Hillary ‘supporter’;
  • a French secularist quarrelling with a Burkini wearer;
  • [name any other issue around the world and find people from opposing camps]

…what do you expect will be achieved by holding a ‘debate’ between these two sides?

Well, the best case scenario is that they retain their current views…but the worst case is that their positions will become firmer, their views more militant, and their mindsets become less respectful of (those that have now firmly become) their ‘opponents’1.

(Why) don’t we change our minds?

I recall reading an article that said a similar ‘people don’t change their mind’ thing…so I searched around the inter-web to see what I could find. Now, there are plenty of articles out there with headlines like ‘Why people don’t change their minds – even when faced with the facts’ so, yep, I was getting warm in my search…

…and after digging, reading, and a bit more digging, I find that there are two parts to it:

  1. Why do we form the opinions that we do?; and then
  2. Why do we cling on to them so tenaciously?

Now, many brilliant books have been written on the 1st part, covering all the weird and wonderful irrationality going on inside the human brain so I won’t attempt to summarise them here. If you want to ‘see for yourself’ then pick one of these up2 and have a read – they can be very entertaining!

But let’s go to the 2nd point: why do we cling on to these views once formed?

Here are a couple of explanations given:

Self-affirmation theory: individuals are driven to protect their self-integrity.

Hence, once you’ve decided something (especially if you make this public) then you are into ‘protection’ territory.

Cultural-cognition theory: the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact…to values that define their cultural identities (i.e. with the view of the groups with which we most strongly identify).

The key to this is the presence of doubt in respect of facts. If there’s no real dispute about something (e.g. that it’s currently raining outside) then there’s no challenge of values.

The doubt point is important, and was called out within research conclusions from this field of study3:

“…doubt turns people into stronger advocates…this effect is stronger if someone’s identity is threatened, if the belief is important to them, and if they think that others will listen. It all fits with a pattern of behaviour where people evangelise to strengthen their own faltering beliefs.”

…and the following is worth reading a couple of times and pondering:

 “The present research also offers a warning to anyone on the receiving end of an advocacy attempt. Although it is natural to assume that a persistent and enthusiastic advocate of a belief is brimming with confidence, the advocacy might in fact signal that the individual is boiling over with doubt.”

So back to that lecture:

What struck me about being told the ‘we don’t change our minds’ statement is that it questioned the whole basis of the lecture being dealt out to the group of people listening. If people don’t change their minds then why lecture them on your opinions? (i.e. attempting power/coercive or rational change)…you’ve just implied that there’s no point!

Now, I’d like to suggest an obvious flaw in the presenter’s logic about change.

Yes, people may be devoted to their (currently held) beliefs but they (including you and I) demonstrably do sometimes change their minds…and perhaps it is worth considering the massively important question: What was it that got them to change their minds?

Enter that lovely idea of normative change – true change arising through experiential learning.

I’ll describe a rather nice example:

I was watching a TV programme recently presented by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (River Cottage chef).

Hugh is a favourite eco-warrior of mine and his programme was all about the amount of waste within our daily lives…and a call to action to do something about it.

hugh-binsHugh picked an ‘average’ street in a Manchester suburb and joined the bin (garbage) men and their truck, on the weekly rubbish collection. He then ‘went through their bins’ back at the waste processing plant, gathering together what he found – mounds of discarded clothes, wasted food, unwanted electrical goods….and so on.

Now, Hugh looked into lots of different waste angles during his programme…but I want to focus on one of these, which makes the relevant point for this post:

Of particular note was the amount of metal, plastic and glass that had been thrown into the general rubbish bin – i.e. unsorted and therefore due for landfill or incineration – even though everyone in the street had been provided with recycling bins and instructions on what should and shouldn’t be put in them.

Why weren’t people separating their recyclable waste from the rest?

recyclingA great question!

So, where would be a good place to investigate?

Well, with someone who utterly refuses to separate their waste because they “don’t believe in it”. Can you see where this is going…

You may be able to influence those already on the cusp of change but if you want to appreciate the real problem then, however uncomfortable this might be, you need to find and work with a ‘true disbeliever’.

Hugh asked around the street and found the perfect person to ask: A young women, perhaps in her 20s, with (what us old farts might think as) an ‘attitude’ on life and what it owes her (I’m sure she’s a great person 🙂 ).

…and so Hugh sat down for a cup of tea and a chat with her about recycling…BUT, the important bit, here’s how he did it:

He observed her environment and then, from asking some non-judgemental questions about her behaviours, he listened to what she believed….and when she said something of particular note, rather than pointing out the counter-logic he simply checked that he had fully understood her belief – perhaps with a further clarifying question and/or repeating it back to her to confirm.

Importantly, he never sneered or scoffed at her responses (which would have been a direct challenge to her self-integrity) – he politely listened and showed a genuine interest in what she thought.

…and she came out with the classics:

  • “Why should I be wasting my time separating stuff, it’s not my problem – it’s ‘theirs’ to sort out”;
  • “There’s no point in separating the plastic, metal and glass from the rest because they all go straight to the landfill anyway”;
  • “Even if they don’t go straight to landfill [i.e. they go somewhere to be processed], nothing actually of worth is done with the materials that they separate out”; and
  • “It’s just a waste of time.”

I hope you can see that, if this is what someone believes, you can tell them till you are ‘blue in the face’ that this isn’t the case, and even tell them why…but where would this get you?

Even more interesting is that if ‘I’ believe the opposite of her recycling statements, how do I know that I’m right? Perhaps she’s right!

…and so we can see that we have arrived at that point – two people holding opposing views. Arguing about it (even by producing supposed ‘facts’) isn’t going to be productive. This is no different to telling a Trump ‘nut’ why they should be a Hilary ‘supporter’.

So, given the ‘people don’t change their mind’ narrative, is this the end? Should Hugh ‘pack up and go home’? Of course not…

Hugh has nicely set up a potential dose of normative learning. He’s found out what she believes, so he now knows what experiences to provide her with…and given his genuine interest in what she has to say, he has established the necessary level of trust to take things further.

He therefore gets her acceptance to go along (with a whole group from her neighbourhood – spot the cultural identity bit!) to see the recycling plant. Importantly, he goes with them to show that he, just as much as they, needs to experience it – he could be wrong too!4

The visit

hugh-waste-visitSo they start at the beginning: a manual sorting line with workers at a conveyor belt removing all the things that the recycling plant can’t (currently) process. Eeeew – no one said it was going to be pretty!

Learning number 1: Seeing what waste the current process can and can’t cope with.

They move on to see an awesome magnet sucking the iron-containing metal off the moving line. Cool!

Next, the line goes over big crushing teeth – gravity bounces the glass over them and smashes it into little bits which fall through the gaps…but the plastic and aluminium glides over the teeth. Glass separated – Awesome!

After that, another magnet gets to work on the aluminium – but this is different than earlier because it repels it off the line. Groovy!

And the impressive finale: the remaining plastic goes over a conveyor belt ‘cliff’ containing sophisticated cameras. These cameras can ‘see’ the types of plastic, which then rapidly trigger lasers to shoot certain plastics in differing directions.  Amazing!

And so to the end, to see big cubes of metal, glass, aluminium and different plastics stacked to the ceiling.

Learning number 2: Our waste can be, and is, separated into types.

Hugh’s group of observers are really impressed. What a ride!

Except for that young women – our disbeliever. Yes, she thought it was really cool technology and all that…but “I still don’t believe anything gets done with it.”

But Hugh’s not done – he takes them to a display where he has gathered together examples of what each recycled material goes on to become, from clothes through to bike frames. She picks out a really cool branded jacket, puts it on…and it fits. She loves it…she wants it…Hugh tells her that it was made from a bundle of recycled plastic…and, yes, she can have it.

Learning’s number 3 and 4: Something is done with the recycled materials…and I like the result, so it’s not a waste of time!

People don’t change – really?

Well, you’ve guessed it, through the power of television Hugh goes back to see our disbeliever in her daily life some time later and she is happily sorting her rubbish into what can and can’t be recycled.

Let’s go back to the top: if Hugh had ‘given her a lecture’, then she wouldn’t have changed. Worse, her efforts at arguing back would have made her more militant – she would have justified herself!


I accept that there is likely to be a small percentage of people who, even after what might appear to be compelling experiential evidence, might not change their mind…but I believe that there are far fewer people like this than we might imagine.

The experiences required to alter our thinking will likely differ for each of us…and this comes back to the need to understand each of our underlying beliefs and behaviours if we are to effect meaningful change.

Further, some people might need several doses and a longer time period for the normative medicine to take effect on them. We each process our thoughts in some quite bizarre ways. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ operation….but that’s because we are all different…which is a great thing.


And, of course, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.” (Upton Sinclair)

So, back to the world of work

lecture“But that normative stuff will take far too long! We’ve only got time for a lecture.”

Hahaha…and look where all those lectures are getting you!

Such a response reminds me of a wonderful quote:

“Managers will try anything easy that doesn’t work before they will try anything hard that does” (Womack)

And to those of us trying to move our organisations from ‘command and control’ to a better place, we can ‘tell them’ about the effects of cascaded objectives, targets, ratings, rewards etc…but don’t expect change from this.

We need them to see reality for themselves.

You may find that you can’t just take managers ‘to the gemba’ (the place where the work is done) BUT:

  • you can talk with, and observe, them to find out what they believe; and
  • you can look for learning opportunities as and when situations arise

i.e. bide your time, look for the instance…and then engineer a chance for experiential learning…and keep doing this until they start to question their own beliefs.

A nice quote that fits with this: “Only describe, don’t explain” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

i.e. show them what is actually happening, but let them ponder and explain it for themselves….but provide them with help along the way.

To close:

So, do people change their mind? Of course they do…but not because you told them to!

And therefore, given all of the above, have I changed your mind? Of course not! I’ve merely explained something to you. You would need to go out and discover normative change for yourself….but I might have made you curious to do so 🙂


1. Debates: This is why the media just love the debate format. It does little for humanity, but a lot for ratings.

2. Irrationality: The first such book I read was called ‘Irrationality’, written by the late Stuart Sutherland (Professor of Psychology) – a good read. The last one I read was ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman.

3. Research: David Gal and Derek Rucker, North-western University referred to within this 2010 MINNPOST article

4. Could Hugh have been wrong? I realise that this is ‘Television’ and Hugh will have done his homework first (i.e. been to the recycling plant and seen for himself).

5. Note to councils around the world: If you really want people to recycle, and do so really well, then you need to show them (including me!) what happens….and every time that you make a step-change improvement in the capability of your process, you need to inform us of this and show us.

“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 mind (* Series 1, episode 4 for afficionados out there 🙂 )

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 – 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. (* 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!” – 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.