Double Trouble

Double troubleThere’s a lovely idea which I’ve known about for some time but which I haven’t yet written about.

The reason for my sluggishness is that the idea sounds so simple…but (as is often the case) there’s a lot more to it. It’s going to ‘mess with my head’ trying to explain – but here goes:

[‘Heads up’: This is one of my long posts]

Learning through feedback

We learn when we (properly) test out a theory, and (appropriately) reflect on what the application of the theory is telling us i.e. we need to test our beliefs against data.

“Theory by itself teaches nothing. Application by itself teaches nothing. Learning is the result of dynamic interplay between the two.” (Scholtes)

Great. So far, so good.

Single-loop learning vs. Double-loop learning

Chris Argyris (1923 – 2013) clarified that there are two levels to this learning, which he explained through the phrases ‘single-loop’ and double-loop’1.

Here are his definitions to start with:

Single-loop learning: learning that changes strategies of action (i.e. the how) …in ways that leave the values of a theory of action unchanged (i.e. the why)

Double-loop learning: learning that results in a change in the values of theory-in-use (i.e. the why), as well as in its strategies and assumptions (i.e. the how).

That’s a bit of a mouthful – and (with no disrespect meant) not much easier to comprehend when you read his book!2

If you look up ‘double loop learning’ on the wonders of Google Images, you will find dozens of (very similar) diagrams3, showing a visualisation of what Argyris was getting at.

Here’s my version4 of such a diagram:

Double loop 1

You can think about this diagram as it relates either to an individual (e.g. yourself) or at an organisational level (how you all work together).

Start at the box on the left. Whether we like it or not, we (at a given point in time) think in a certain way. This thinking comes about from our current beliefs and assumptions about the world (and, for some, what might lie beyond).

Our thinking guides our actions (what we do), and these actions heavily influence5 our performance (what we get).

And so to the ‘error’ bit:

“Organisations [are] continually engaged in transactions with their environments [and, as such] regularly carry out inquiry that takes the form of detection and correction of error.” (Argyris & Schon)

We are continually observing, and inquiring into, our current outcomes – asking ourselves whether we are ‘on track’, or everything is ‘as we would expect’ or perhaps whether we could do better. Such inquiry might range from:

  • subconscious and unstructured (e.g. just part of daily work); right through to
  • deliberate and formal (such as a major review producing a big fat report).

Argyris labels this constant inquiry as the ‘detection of error’. The error is that we aren’t where we would want to be, and the correction is to do something about this.

Okay, so we’ve detected an error and we want to make a corrective change. The easiest thing to do is to revisit our actions (and the strategies that they are derived from), and assess and develop new action strategies whilst keeping our underlying thinking (our beliefs and assumptions) steadfastly constant. This is ‘single-loop’ learning i.e. new actions, borne from the same thinking.

I reflect that the phrase ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ fits nicely here:

If the reason for the ‘error’ is within your thinking, then your single-loop learning, and the resultant change, won’t work. Worse, you will re-observe that error as it ‘comes round again’, and probably quicker this time…and so you make another ‘action’ change….and that error keeps on coming around. You have merely been making changes within the system, rather than changing the system.

A previous post called ‘making a wrong thing righter’ demonstrates this loop through the example of short term incentive schemes, and their constant revision “to make them even better”.

So, the final piece of the diagram…that green line. Many ‘errors’ will only be corrected through inquiry into, and modification of, our thinking…and, if this meaningfully occurs, then this would result in ‘double-loop’ learning – you would have changed the system itself.

Right, so that’s me finished explaining the difference between single-loop and double-loop learning…which I hope is clear and makes sense.

You may now be thinking “great, let’s do double-loop learning from now on!”

…because this is how most (if not all) those Google Image diagrams make it look. I mean, now you know about it, why wouldn’t you?

But you can’t!

The bit that’s missing…

Unfortunately, there’s a wall. Worse still, this wall is (currently) invisible. Here’s the diagram again, but altered accordingly:

Double loop 2

Right, I’d better try and explain that wall. Argyris & Schon wrote that:

“People learn collectively to maintain patterns of thoughts and action that inhibit productive learning.”

What are they on about?

Imagine that, through some form of inquiry, an error (as explained above) has been detected and a team of relevant people commence a conversation to talk about it:

  • The hierarchically senior person begins with a ‘take charge’ attitude (assuming responsibility, being persuasive, appealing to larger pre-existing goals);
    • it is typical within organisations that, once goals have been decided, changing them is seen as a sign of weakness.

  • He/she request a ‘constructive dialogue’, thereby stifling the expression of negative (yet real) feelings by themselves, and by everyone else involved…and yet acts as if this is not happening;
    • each person in the group is therefore being asked to suppress their feelings – to experience them privately, censor them from the group, and act as if they are not doing so.”

  • He/she takes a rational approach and asks the group to develop a ‘credible plan’ (which becomes the objective) to respond to the error…and so has skipped the necessary organisational self-reflection for double-loop learning to occur.
    • Coming up with a plan is ‘jumping into solution mode’ before you’ve properly studied the current condition and asked ‘why’.

So how does this affect the group dynamics?

“The participants experience an interest in solving the business problem, but their ways of crafting their conversation, combined with their self-censorship, [will lead] to a dialogue that [is] defensive and self-reinforcing.” (Argyris & Schon)

Given that this approach will hide so much, we can expect lots of private conversations (pre-meetings to prepare for meetings, post-meetings about what was/wasn’t said in meetings, meetings about what meetings aren’t happening…). Does this describe what you sometimes see in your organisation? I think that it is often labelled as ‘politics’…. which would be evidence of that wall.

Taken together, Argyris and Schon label the above as primary inhibitory loops.

Argyris sets out a (non-exhaustive) list of conditions that trigger and, in turn, reinforce, such defensive and dysfunctional behaviour. Here’s the list of conditions, together with how they should be combated:

Condition Corrective response
Vagueness Specify
Ambiguity Clarify
Un-test-ability Make testable
Scattered Information Concert (arrange, co-ordinate)
Information withheld Reveal
Un-discuss-ability Make discussable
Uncertainty Inquire
Inconsistency/ Incompatibility Resolve

”[such] conditions…trigger defensive reactions…these reactions, in turn, reduce the likelihood that individuals will engage in the kind of organisational inquiry that leads to productive learning outcomes.” (Argyris & Schon)

i.e. If you’ve got defensive behaviour, look for these conditions… and work on correcting them. Otherwise you will remain stuck.

Unfortunately, primary loops lead to secondary inhibitory loops. That is, that they lead to second-order consequences, and these become self-reinforcing.

  • Managers begin to (privately) judge their staff poorly, whilst the staff, ahem, ‘return the compliment’, with “both views becoming embedded in the organisational norms that govern relationships between line and staff”;

  • Sensitive issues of inter-group conflict become undiscussable. “Each group sees the other as unmovable, and both see the problem as un-correctable.”
    • A classic example of this is the constant conflict in many organisations between ‘IT’ and ‘The business’.

  • The organisation creates defensive routines intended to protect individuals from experiencing embarrassment or threat”with the unintended side effect that this then prevents the identification of the causes of the embarrassment or threat in order to correct the relevant problems.”

From this we get organisational messages that:

  • are inconsistent (in themselves and/or with other messages);
  • act as if there is no inconsistency; and
  • make the inconsistency undiscussable.

“The message is made undiscussable by the very naturalness with which it is delivered and by the absence of any invitation or disposition to inquire about it.”

Do you receive regular messages from, say, those ‘above you’ in the hierarchy? Perhaps a weekly or monthly Senior Manager communication?

  • How often are you amazed (in an incredulous way) about what they have written or said?
  • Do you feel welcome to point this inconsistency out? Probably not.

We end up with people giving others advice to reinforce the status quo: ‘Be careful what you say’, ‘You’ll get yourself into trouble’, ‘I wouldn’t say that if I were you’, ‘Remember what happened last time’…etc.

In short, there are powerful forces* at work in most organisations that are preventing (or at least seriously impeding) productive learning from taking place, despite the ability and intrinsic desire of those within the organisation to do so.

(* Note: Budgets – as in fixed performance contracts – are a classic ‘single-loop reinforcing’ management instrument. Conversely, Rolling forecasts can be a ‘double-loop’ enabler.)

So what to do instead?

Right, here’s my third (and last) diagram:


Double loop 3

It looks very similar to the last diagram, but this time there’s a ladder! But where do we get one of those from?

“For double-loop learning to occur and persist at any level in the organisation, the self-fuelling processes must be interrupted. In order to interrupt these processes, individual theories-in-use [how we think] must be altered.” (Argyris & Schon)

Oooh, exciting stuff! They go on to write:

“An organisation with a [defensive] learning system is highly unlikely to learn to alter its governing variables, norms and assumptions [i.e. thinking] because this would require organisational inquiry into double-loop issues, and [defensive] systems militate against this…we will have to create a new learning system as a rare event.”

There’s two places to go from here:

  • What would a productive learning system look like? and
  • How might we jolt the system to see the wall, and then attempt to climb the ladder?

If I can begin to tease these two out, then BINGO, this blog post is ready for print. Right, nearly there…

A Productive learning system

Argyris and Schon identify three values necessary for a productive learning system:

  • Valid information;
  • Free and informed choice; and
  • Internal commitment to the choice, including constant monitoring of its implementation.

Sounds lovely…but such a learning system requires the fundamental altering of conventional social virtues that have been taught to us since early in our lives. The following table ‘compares and contrasts’ the conventional with the productive:

Social Virtue: Instead of… Work towards…
Help and Support Giving approval and praise to others, and protecting their feelings Increasing others capacity to confront their own ideas, and to face what they might find.
Respect for others Deferring to others, and avoiding confronting their actions and reasoning. Attributing to others the capacity for self-reflection and self-examination.
Strength Advocating your position in order to ‘win’, and holding firm in the face of advocacy. Advocating your position, whilst encouraging inquiry of it and self-reflection.
Honesty Not telling lies, or

(the opposite) telling others all you think and feel.

Encouraging yourself and others, to reveal what they know yet fear to say. Minimising distortion and cover-up.
Integrity Sticking to your principles, values and beliefs Advocating them in a way that invites enquiry into them. Encouraging others to do likewise.

There’s a HUGE difference between the two.

The consequences will be an enhancement of the conditions necessary for double-loop learning – with current thinking being surfaced, publicly confronted, tested and restructured – and therefore increasing long-term effectiveness.

You’d likely liberate6 a bunch of great people, and create a purpose-seeking organisation.


The first task is for you to see yourself – you have to become aware of the wall…and Argyris & Schon are suggesting that you may (likely) require an intervention (a shake) to do this. Your current defensive learning system is getting in the way.

Let’s be clear on what would make a successful intervention possible, and what would not.

An interventionist would locate themselves in your system and help you (properly) see yourselves…and coach you through contemplating what you see and the new questions that you are now asking…and facilitate you through experimenting with your new thinking and making this the ‘new normal’. This is ‘action learning’.

This ‘new normal’ isn’t version 2 of your current system. It would be a different type of system – one that thinks differently.

Conversely, you will not change the nature of your system if you attempt to ‘get someone in to do it to you’.

Why not?

“Kurt Lewin pointed out many years ago that people are more likely to accept and act on research findings if they helped to design the research, and participate in the gathering and analysis of data.

The method he evolved was that of involving his subjects as active, inquiring participants in the conduct of social experiments about themselves.” (Argyris & Schon)

In short: It can’t be done to you.

That ladder? That would be a skilled interventionist, helping you see and change yourselves through ‘action learning’.

To Close

Next time someone shows you that lovely (as in ‘simple’) double-loop learning diagram, I hope you can tell them about the wall…and the ladder.


1. Chris Argyris is known as one of the co-founders of ‘Organisation Development’ (OD) – the study of successful organizational change and performance. Argyris notes that he borrowed the distinction between single-loop and double-loop from the work of W. Ross Ashby. For blog readers, we met Ashby in an earlier post on requisite variety.

2. Book: ‘Organisational Learning II: Theory, Method, and Practise’ (1996) by Chris Argyris and Donald A. Schon).

3. Diagrams: Many of the diagrams stay true to what Argyris wrote about. Some attempt to build upon it. Others (in my view) bastardise it completely!

4. Language: I should note that Argyris used different language to my diagram. Here’s a table that compares:

My diagram: Argyris and Schon:
Thinking (Our beliefs and assumptions) Values, norms and assumptions
Action Action Strategies
Performance Performance, effectiveness
Defensive learning system Model O – I
Productive learning system Model O – II

5. Influence: I haven’t used the bolder ‘cause’ word because there’s a lot going on that is outside the system (e.g. the external environment).

6. Liberate: You don’t need to bring in ‘new’ people, most of what you need are already with you – they just need liberating from the system that they work within.

7. Kurt Lewin: often referred to as ‘the founder of social psychology’. Much of my writings in this blog are based around Lewin’s equation that Bƒ(PE) or, in plain English, that behaviour is a function of the person in their environment.

The Seeker

The seekerTo seek: search for, attempt to find something.

Seeker: as in ‘a tenacious seeker of the truth’ or ‘a tireless seeker of justice’

Seeking is very different to conventional management.

Conventional Management

Conventional management constantly defines up front the ‘what’ and the ‘how’…and then toils to achieve the espoused ‘strategy/ plan/ target operating model…blah, blah, blah’ through pulling levers of (supposed) control.

It is about:

  • being (seen to be) certain of yourself;
  • having ‘an opinion’ and knowing ‘the answer’;
  • retaining confidence (at least outwardly); and
  • forcing through the barriers in your way (rather than contemplating why they are there).

Their drive is to be able to assert (whether through fear or power…or a combination of both) that they have conquered what they defined up front….and then repeat the (single-feedback) loop….and on and on.


A seeker has a deep-rooted resolve, but doesn’t know where they will be going – and is okay with this. Their journey will be ever changing (dynamic). Note the use of the words tenacious and tireless in the definitions above.

Their drive is to explore what is before them, whilst always seeking their ‘true north’. This will lead them on many collaborative adventures, much learning and growth and a constantly regenerating desire. They will continually question, and change, themselves (double-loop).

A purpose-seeking organisation

I love this phrase. For me, it says so much.

Breaking it down into its parts:

  • Purpose: a clear, meaningful, ongoing endeavour – for the fundamental reason why our system should exist (which will never be ‘to make money’);

  • Seeking: as above. Not a destination, but an ongoing quest;

  • Organisation: everyone, joined together. About how we all interact, not how we act taken separately.

A purpose-seeking organisation can do amazing things (that others wouldn’t dare put into a plan) and can sustain and reinvent itself. It will possess that most treasured of desirable system properties – self-organisation.

So what?

There is a gulf between conventional and purpose-seeking organisations…and much to do to bridge the gap.

But the first step is for those ‘in positions of power’ to see the gap. You can then question why it exists. If you rush into changing something before you have properly seen and questioned, then you will remain stuck in the same conventional loop.

Are you a seeker?


This short post comes about from re-reading my notes on ‘Organisational Learning’ (Chris Argyris).

I recognise that it might be a bit philosophical (bullshit?) for some. I have a couple of follow-up posts in mind that are perhaps a bit more practical 🙂

Memo to ‘Top Management’ – Subject: Engine Technology

I’ve just been searching for a post that is hugely relevant to a recent conversation, and have found that it was an old piece that didn’t get published onto this blog…so here it is:

Jet engine“Management thinking affects business performance just as an engine affects the performance of an aircraft. Internal combustion and jet propulsion are two technologies for converting fuel into power to drive an aircraft.

New recipes for internal combustion can improve the performance of a propeller-driven airplane, but jet propulsion technology raises total performance to levels that internal combustion cannot achieve. So it is with management thinking.

Competitive businesses require jet (even rocket!) management principles. Unfortunately, internal combustion principles still power almost all management thinking.” (H. Thomas Johnson)

And so Johnson nicely compares and contrasts the decades old ‘command and control’ management system with a new ‘systems thinking’ way.

Let’s take incentives as an important example:

You report to a manager, who reports to a manager, who…etc. You have ‘negotiated’ some cascaded objectives and you will be rated and then rewarded on your ‘performance’ in meeting them. Sound familiar?

Here are the fundamental problems with this arrangement:

  • Obey and justifyYou will tell your manager what you think he/she wants to hear, and provide tailored evidence that supports this, whilst suppressing that which does not;

  • If you are ‘brave’ and tell your manager something that they might not like, you will do so very very carefully, like ‘walking on eggshells’…and, in so doing, likely de-power (i.e. remove the necessary clout from) the message;

  • You realise that it’s virtually suicidal to ‘go above them’ and tell your manager’s manager the ‘brave’ thing that they should hear…because you fear (with good reason) that this will most likely ‘come back to bite you’ at your judgement time (when the carrots are being handed out);

  • You are locked into a hierarchy that is reliant on a game of ‘Chinese whispers’ up the chain of command, with each whisperer finessing (or blocking) the message to assist in the rating of their own individual performance;

  • Each layer of management is shielded (by their own mechanism) from hearing the raw truth and, as such, they engineer that they ‘hear what they like, and like what they hear’.

…and therefore this system, whilst fully functioning, is perpetually impotent! It has disabled itself from finding out what it really needs to know.

“Hierarchies don’t like bad news…. bad news does not travel easily up organisations” (John Seddon)

If you’ve been in such a system and HAVE broken one of the rules above through your passion to make a real difference for the good of the organisation you work for (or perhaps worked!), then you’ve probably got some scars to show for it.

If you’ve always played it safe, then this is probably because you’ve seen what happens to the others!

The ‘Bottom line’ for ‘Top Management’:

If you want to transform your organisation, change ‘engine technology’! Tinkering with your existing one is simply not going to work.

  • Managers should not be rating the performance of individuals. Rather, they should understand what the system is preventing the individual from achieving…and then work with them to change that system to release their untapped potential;

  • Managers should not be incentivising individuals to comply. Rather, they should be sharing the success of the organisation with them. (These are very different things!)

Neither of these fundamental changes is in the gift of ‘middle management’ – they belong to those that determine the management system.

… and so, if (and this is a big ‘if’) ‘top management’ want to know the raw truth (‘warts and all’) they must constantly remove, and guard against, system conditions (e.g. incentives, performance ratings) that would prevent the truth from easily and quickly becoming lucid and transparent.

Afterthought, to counter a likely retort from ‘Top management’:

I have often (professionally) provided well intended feedback to ‘management’ as to what’s actually ‘happening out there’, particularly when I believe that they may not be aware of this. Many an Executive has derived great worth from this feedback (and thanked me accordingly).

This isn’t saying that I’m always right, or that I know everything. Obviously I’m not, and I don’t. But I do know what I see and hear.

However, there has been a subset of deeply command-and-control executives that confidently respond with “no Steve, you are wrong – that’s not the case at all. My people tell me exactly what’s happening…and there’s no problem here”.

I find this interesting (sometimes amusing, but mostly disappointing).

A manager can never be sure that people are being totally open and honest with them…but they can constantly look for, and understand, what mechanisms and practices would put this desired feedback in doubt or at risk….and then tirelessly work to remove these system conditions, for the good of all.

Footnote: I wrote this post before I wrote ‘Your Money or your Life!’…which considers the question as to whether ‘Top management’ in large corporates CAN change.

“Citizens face many front doors…”

Doors-Doors-DoorsGovernments all over the world want to get the most out of the money they spend on public services – for the benefit of the citizens requiring the services, and the taxpayers footing the bill.

Government officials regularly devise initiatives, and even new departments, aimed at getting their myriad of agencies to work better together.

However, looking at this from the outside, the media regularly uncover seemingly daft (and sometimes tragic) instances where government agencies have failed to effectively act, connect and co-operate with each other. In such instances, each agency appears to ‘the person on the street’ to have been wearing blinkers with their ‘common sense’ radars turned to ‘exceedingly low’.

But is it right to lay blame on the agencies or, worse, the people acting within them? In the majority of cases, I’d suggest that the answer would clearly be ‘no’. We should be looking at the bigger ‘whole of public service’ system that they are designed to operate within.

A new phrase was termed some years back called ‘Joined up government’. The Oxford dictionary defines it as:

“A method of government characterized by effective communication between different departments and co-ordination of policies.”

When a dictionary defines a word, it usually provides the reader with an example sentence showing its proper usage. In this instance, the first example sentence given is a negative one, as in:

“There is an obvious lack of joined-up government here” (Oxford Dictionary)

i.e. Governments openly recognise that there is a big problem (a lack of togetherness)…and that they would love to ‘solve’ it…but it’s regularly in the ‘too hard basket’!

The purpose of this post is to share (what is to me) an important (and very well presented) 30 min. video by Jeremy Cox1: Budget Management and People Centred Services that nicely explains, by way of reference to a real case study, the ‘multi agency’ problem and how to go about changing it.

If you are interested (particularly if you work within the public sector) then I’d expect that watching it should be a worthwhile (and thought provoking) use of your time.

Right…if you’ve got to here then I’ll assume that you’ve watched the video…the rest of this post pulls out (what I believe to be) key things said by Jeremy Cox in his presentation (blue italics below) and my ‘wrap-around’ narrative.

Note: What follows is incomplete and not a substitute for watching the video. It’s just an aide-memoire so that I (and you) don’t have to watch the video every time to pull out the key points or discuss it with our colleagues.

Jeremy Cox starts at a summary level by walking us through “four critical steps”:

1. The first thing to do is to study your system…and, just to be crystal clear, YOU (those responsible for the system) have to study it, and do so WITH those who operate it. A consultant cannot do this for (i.e. to) you2.

“You have to go and study because if you see it with your own eyes, you can’t deny it. If someone ‘tells you’, then you can ‘rationalise’ it away quite easily.”

2. From studying your system, you can then see and understand the effects of (supposed) ‘controls’ on its performance.

3. Only when we understand (at a root cause) WHY the system operates as it does, should we redesign…because then, and only then, is such a redesign based on meaningful evidence…as opposed to the usual ‘conventional wisdom’ or ‘current in-vogue ideology’;

and finally:

4. Devise new measures, and move to a new model of leadership.

Cox then goes into each step in some detail.

Going back to Step 1: Cox talks about studying demand.

HelpHe takes us through a case study of a real person in need, and their interactions with multiple organisations (many ‘front doors’) and how the traditional way of thinking seriously fails them and, as an aside, costs the full system a fortune.

Understand demand in context….don’t understand people from the point of view of your organisation, understand the person and what matters to them about living a better life.”

The case study is sad…and yet not really a surprise – we all kind of know that it’s true. It shows the huge power of following some cases around the full system.

In explaining Step 2, Cox opens up the madness within silo’d (i.e. single department) thinking, which is driven by their ‘budgetary controls’.

Rules of playHe identifies three survival principles in play, and the resulting anti-systemic controls that result:

a) “We must prioritise [our] services for the most in need” which leads to attempts to stop entry into the service, and then the requirement to break through escalating thresholds of eligibility.

Such ‘screening out’ logic creates the following madness: “Your case isn’t serious enough yet…go away until things get worse!”

b) “We must stick to what we do” which leads to “I can see that you need A and B for you to get better…but, here, we only do A.”

Cox gives a real example of an alcoholic with depression being turned away by mental health practitioners because “we don’t work on alcoholism – you need to solve that first and then come back with your depression”. We can predict that such unhelpfulness will lead the needy citizen towards a rather large drink!

c) “We must limit service delivery” which leads to attempts at closing cases, doing things on the cheap, and setting time limits…all of which are about pushing things through at the expense of the needy citizen…which will lead to failure demand (probably popping up unexpectedly in another department…and therefore not seen as linked).

The redesign at Step 3 requires different principles.

IntegratedCox makes the obvious point that the actual redesign can’t be explained up-front because, well…how can it be -you haven’t studied your system yet!

…but, generally, it is likely that “genuinely integrated, local-by-default problem solving teams will emerge from [following the steps]”.

A clarification: ‘Genuinely integrated’ doesn’t mean a multi-disciplined shared building where people regularly come together for, say, case review meetings…and then go back to their ‘corners’ and work to their existing (i.e. competing) policies and procedures.

A nice test from Cox:

“How do you know a team is genuinely integrated rather than co-located?…All you have to do is look in the fridge – nobody’s written their department’s name on the milk!”

And so to Step 4: New measures and new leadership

shovelling sand with a pitchfork[Once you’ve successfully redesigned the system] “The primary focus is on having really good citizen-focused measure: ’are you improving’, ‘are you getting better’, ‘is the demand that you’re placing reducing over time’.”

Notice that these measures are about the purpose of the system (i.e. for the citizen), and NOT about the activities performed within the system. It’s not about the volumes of calls taken or visits performed or payments made or cases closed or…[carry on naming activities].

“You have to shift leaders from managing the budget top-down to adding value to the process of studying, and improving outcomes for individuals.”

The point here is that you are never done. The outcomes from a redesign can radically shift performance, but you’ll quickly be ‘back at square one’ if you haven’t grasped the WHY and don’t ‘kick on’ to yet more learning, and yet more improvement – becoming better every day – for the good of citizens, and (importantly) for the pride of your employees.

To close

What’s most interesting to me from the video is the graphic explanation of one unit of demand, a needy citizen in a really shitty situation, being bounced around – presenting at public service ‘front doors’ in multiple and seemingly unrelated ‘cases’, with each agency doing what they can but not what is required….and the needy slip ever further into their personal quagmire.

“We limit what we do to ‘what we do’, not to what the person needs.”

Cox makes the hugely important point that, once you open your mind, then the study and redesign of the work is relatively easy. The hard bit is re-conceiving the ‘system of management’. This takes real leadership and (perhaps most importantly) self-development.

Cox closes with the following comment:

“Some of the most rewarding work that I have ever done is just working with these integrated teams who are out…on the ground, with good leadership, learning how to solve problems for citizens. You actually see people’s lives turned around and people who otherwise would have been dead who are now still alive.”

This is powerful stuff! There can’t be much more meaning to anyone’s working life than that.


1. The video covers one session within a ‘Beyond Budgeting’ event run by Vanguard Consulting over in the UK. The first 3 mins. is an introduction from John Seddon, and then Jeremy Cox (a Vanguard consultant) presents the rest.

Note: Cox refers to names of UK government departments (e.g. The DWP). If you live elsewhere in the world then you are likely to have similar agencies, just with different names.

2. A consultant cannot do it for you: I should clarify that an experienced ‘systems thinking’ coach CAN facilitate you through studying your system and its redesign….BUT they aren’t ‘doing it’ – you are!

I have a post with the ink half dry that explains and expands this point called ‘Smoke and Mirrors’. I guess I should get on and finish it now.

3. The NZ government is setting up a Social Investment Agency. Its focus is fundamentally about changing the lives of the most vulnerable New Zealanders by focusing on individuals and families, understanding their needs better, and doing more of what is most likely to give the best results”. I like the intent.  I hope that those involved watch (or have already watched) the Jeremy Cox video, and consider the messages within.


Lions badgeFor those rugby fans among you – and virtually every New Zealander – the British and Irish Lions touched down in Auckland this afternoon.

They are here to play ten (daunting) games, including against all five NZ Super Rugby franchises and three All Black tests. I can hardly wait!

A Lions tour to NZ is special. It now only happens every twelve years….and the Lions have only ever won one series, way back in 1971. It’s going to be a tough gig.

I’ve recently been getting into the mood by listening to interviews with various Lions from past tours. Much of the material on offer understandably focuses on the last NZ tour, back in 2005 (when the Lions got well and truly thumped) and what went wrong….and how on earth can they win this time round.

One interview stood out to me – Matt Dawson with Sir Ian McGeechan1.

(I should explain, for those that don’t know, that ‘Geech’ is perhaps the most successful Lions Head Coach there has ever been).

Dawson was asking Geech about an incredibly tricky task – the process of selection (i.e. which players from the ‘squad of four nations’2 would get to play in a test).

GeechSir Ian explained that he would sit down with his team of coaches (perhaps five people) and work through all the analysis and then discuss, often for hours deep into the night. He provided this wonderful insight:

I’ve never voted in picking a test team, [I’ve] always talked it through until we get to what we want to see and are comfortable with.”

He doesn’t even mention that, as Head Coach, he had the power to force his views through (i.e. not even go to a vote)…because that’s not how he thinks.

I love the fact that (when he was the Head Coach) they never voted!

This fits really well with a few of my earlier posts:

Talk-back radio which has a dig at people using their opinions;

“What I think is…” which talks about moving from opinions to knowledge; and

Catch-ball which talks about moving from the (predictably) divisive process of ‘consultation’, to the inclusive process of ‘catch-ball’.

If you’re reading the above and you are a ‘tough’, ‘command and control’, ‘conventional wisdom’ type of person, then:

  • you may judge me (and Geech) to be weak; and
  • you may argue that talking it through would take forever to make any decisions.

Yes, it takes a great deal of effort to reach a consensus…but that’s the point – it requires you to actually invest in those around you, to listen to them, to test your own thinking, to draw out theirs, to connect, to understand, to appreciate, to grow…and to make monumentally better decisions, for the longer term, together, towards your shared purpose.


1. Sir Ian McGeechan (‘Geech’) is perhaps the most respected/revered/ loved Lion ever. He played for the Lions in 1974 and 1977 and then coached them in 1989, 1993, 1997 and then again in 2009.

He also coached the ‘mid-week massive’ during the 2005 tour of New Zealand whilst Sir Clive Woodward was Head Coach. Woodward (in my view) is a very different man to Geech.  Sir Clive ‘decided’ things, and often wouldn’t budge in spite of the advice being offered to him….which didn’t turn out too well.

2. The Lions are made up of the very best players from each of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

3. For long-term blog readers, you may recall from an earlier post that I would be torn as to which team I will be supporting. I have the good fortune to be going to the 3rd test in Auckland on 8th July with my oldest son, and with some great mates (thanks Jonesy!)

Let’s just say that I will be wearing red, and my son will be wearing black – which I think fits rather nicely with our past and our future.

4. As a bonus for reading this far 🙂 , here’s another nice ‘Geech’ quote to ponder regarding selecting the right people:

“It’s what’s happening off the ball that you watch….I spent as much time watching players off the ball as I did on the ball…Who’s putting themselves into the game? What’s happening off the ball? Who’s stepping up trying to make a difference when the team are under the cosh?”

Polishing a Turd

turd polishWhen I was growing up, I remember my dad (a Physicist) telling me that it was pointless, and in fact meaningless, to be accurate with an estimate: if you’ve worked out a calculation using a number of assumptions, there’s no point in writing the answer to 3 decimal places! He would say that my ‘accurate’ answer would be wrong because it is misleading. The reader needs to know about the possible range of answers – i.e. about the uncertainty – so that they don’t run off thinking that it is exact.

And so, with that introduction (and flashback to my school days) this post is about the regular comedy surrounding business cases, and detailed up-front planning…and what to do instead.

A seriously important concept to start with:

The Planning fallacy

Human beings who desire something to be ‘a success’ (e.g. many an Executive/ Senior Manager) tend to:

“make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on a rational weighting of gains, losses, and probabilities. They overestimate benefits and underestimate costs. They spin scenarios of success while overlooking the potential for mistakes and miscalculations. As a result, they pursue initiatives that are unlikely to come in on budget or on time or deliver the expected returns – or even to be completed.” (Daniel Kahneman)

This isn’t calling such individuals ‘bad people’, or even to suggest that their actions are in some way deliberate – it is simply to call out a well-known human irrationality: the planning fallacy.

We all ‘suffer from’, and would be wise to understand and guard against, it.

I’ve worked (or is that wasted time) on many a ‘detailed business case’ over the years. There is an all-too-common pattern….

“Can you just tweak that figure till it looks good…”

models are wrongLet’s say that someone in senior management (we’ll call her Theresa) wants to carry out a major organisational change that (the salesman said) will change the world as we know it!

Theresa needs permission (e.g. from the board) to make a rather large investment decision. The board want certainty as to what will happen if they sign the cheque – there’s the first problem1.

Theresa looks around for someone who can write a great story, including convincing calculations…and finds YOU.

Yep, you are now the lucky ‘spreadsheet jockey’ on this proposed (ahem) ‘transformation programme’.

You gather all sorts of data, but mainly around the following:

  • a ‘base case’ (i.e. where we are now, and what might happen if we took the ‘do nothing’ option);
  • a list of ‘improvements’ that will (supposedly) occur if the board says ‘Yes’;
  • assumptions relating to the potential costs and benefits (including their size and how/when the cash will flow); and
  • some ‘financial extras’ used to wrap up the above (interest rates, currency rates, taxes, the cost of capital…and so on)

You create an initial broad-brush model and then, after gaining feedback from ‘key’ people, you work through a number of drafts – adding in new features and much detail that they insist as being essential.

And voila! We have a beautifully crafted financial model that has a box at the end with ‘the answer’ in it2.

You show the model to Theresa.

Wow, she’s impressed with the work you’ve put in (over many weeks) and how sophisticated the model is…but she doesn’t like this initial answer. She’s disappointed – it’s not what she was looking for.

You go through all of the assumptions together. Theresa has some suggestions:

  • “I reckon the ‘base case’ comparison will be worse than that…let’s tweak it a bit”
  • “Our turnover should go up by more than that…let’s tweak it a bit”
  • “Nah, there won’t be such a negative productivity hit during implementation – the ‘learning curve’ will be much steeper!…let’s tweak it a bit”
  • “We’ll save more money than that…and avoid paying that…let’s tweak it a bit”
  • “Those savings should kick in much earlier than that…let’s tweak it a bit”
  • “We’ll be able to delay those costs a bit more than that…let’s tweak it a bit”

…and, one of my favourites:

“Mmm, the ‘time value of money’3 makes those upfront costs large compared to the benefits coming later…why don’t we extend the model out for another 5 years?”

And, because you designed a nice flexible model, all of the above ‘suggestions’ are relatively easily tweaked to flow through to the magic ‘answer’ cell

“now THAT looks more healthy! The board is going to LOVE this. Gosh, this is going to be such a success”.

Some reflections

John Dewey quote on learningSome (and perhaps all) of the tweaks might have logic to them…but for every assumption being made (supposedly) tighter:

  • one, or many, of the basic assumptions might be spectacularly wrong;
  • plenty of the assumptions are being (conveniently4) ignored for tweaking…and could equally be ‘tightened’ in the other direction (i.e. making the business case look far worse); and
  • there are many assumptions that are completely missing…because you simply don’t know about them….yet…or don’t want to know about them.

With any and every tweak made, nothing has actually changed: Nothing has been learned about what can and will actually occur. You have been ‘polishing a turd’…but, sadly, that’s not how those around you see it. Your model presents a highly convincing and desirable story.

Going back, your first high-level draft model was probably more useful! It left many ‘as-yet-unknowns’, it contained ranges of outcomes, it provided food-for-thought rather than delusional certainty.

We should reflect that “adding more upfront planning…tends to make the eventual outcome worse, not better” (Lean Enterprise). The more detailed you get then the more reliant you become on those assumptions.

The repercussions

Theresa gains approval from the board for her grand plan and now cascades the (ahem) ‘realisation of benefits’ down to her direct reports…who protest that the desired outcomes are optimistic at best, and sheer madness at worst (though they hold their tongues on this last bit).

Some of the assumptions have already proven to be incorrect – as should be expected – but it’s too late: the board approved it.

The plan is baked into cascaded KPIs…and everyone retreats into their silos, to force their part through regardless of the harm being caused.

But here’s the thing:

“Whether the project ‘succeeds’ according to [the original plan] is irrelevant and insignificant when compared to whether we actually created value for customers and for our organisations.” (Lean Enterprise)

The wider point…and what to do instead

validated learningIt’s not just financial models within business cases – it is ‘detailed up-front’ planning in general: the idea that we should create a highly detailed plan before making a decision (usually by hierarchical committee) as to whether to proceed on a major investment.

The Lean Start-up movement, led by Eric Ries, makes a great case for a totally different way of thinking:

  • assumptions aren’t true! (it seems daft to be writing that…but the existence of the planning fallacy requires me to do so);
  • we should test big assumptions as quickly as possible;
  • such testing can be done through small scale experimentation (which doesn’t require huge investment) and subsequent (open-minded) reflection;
  • we will learn important things…which we did not (and probably could not) predict through detailed up-front planning. This is a seriously good thing – we can save much time, money and pain, and create real customer value;
  • we may (and often will) find a huge flaw in our original thinking…which will enable us to ‘pivot’5 to some new hypothesis, and re-orientate us towards our customer purpose.

The big idea to get across is what has been termed ‘validated learning’.

Learning comes from actually trying things out on, and gaining direct feedback from, the end customers (or patients, citizens, employees etc.), rather than relying on our opinions about them.

Validated is about demonstrating what the customer (or patient, citizen, employee etc.) actually does (or doesn’t do), not what they say they would do when asked (i.e. from external market research or internal survey). It is to observe and measure real behaviours, rather than analyse responses to hypothetical questions.

…and to do the above rapidly by experimenting with ‘minimum viable products’ (MVPs).

Delay (whilst writing a beautiful document, getting it approved, and then building a seemingly golden ‘solution’) prevents the necessary feedback from getting through.

Caveat: Many an organisation has read ‘The Lean Startup’ book (or employed a consultant who has) and is using the above logic merely at the start of their legacy ‘investment decision’ process…but, through grafting new labels (such as Lean) onto old methods and retaining central hierarchical approval committees, their process remains ostensibly the same.

You don’t do validated learning merely at the start of an investment process – you re-imagine what ‘making investments’ means!

“It’s moving leaders from playing Caesar with their thumbs up and down on every idea to – instead – putting in the culture and the systems so that teams can move and innovate at the speed of the experimentation system.”

“The focus of each team is iterating with customers as rapidly as possible, running experiments, and then using validated learning to make real-time investment decisions about what to work on.” (Eric Ries)

 Notice that it is the team that is making the investment decisions as they go along. They are not deferring to some higher body for ‘permission’. This is made possible when:

  • the purpose of the team is clear and meaningful (i.e. based around a service or value stream);
  • they have meaningful capability measures to work with (i.e. truly knowing how they are doing against their purpose); and
  • all extrinsic motivators have been removed…so that they can focus, collaborate and gain a real sense of worth in their collective work.

Nothing new here

You might read the above and shout out:

  • “but this is just the scientific method”; or
  • “it’s yet another re-writing of the ‘Plan – Do – Study – Act’6 way of working”

…and you’d be right.

Eric Ries’ thinking came about directly from his studying of Deming, Toyota etc. and then applying the learning to his world of entrepreneurship – to become effective when investing time and money.

His book, ‘The Lean Startup’, and the ‘validated learning’ concept are an excellent addition to the existing body of work on experimentation towards purpose.


1. We should never present a seemingly certain picture to a board (or merely hide the caveats in footnotes)…and we should coach them to be suspicious if they see one.

2. For the financially aware: this will likely be a net present value (NPV) figure using a cost of capital (WACC) provided by the finance department, or some financial governance body.

3. The ‘time value of money’ reflects the fact that $1 now is worth more to you than $1 in a year’s time.

4. Conveniently doesn’t mean intentionally or maliciously – it can just be that lovely planning fallacy at work.

5. Pivot: This word has become trendy in many a management conversation but I think that its original (i.e.intended) meaning is excellent (as used by Eric Ries, and his mentor Steve Blank).

Eric Ries defines a pivot as “a structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis….”

6. PDSA: Popularised by Deming, who learned it from his mentor, Walter Shewhart. A method of iterative experimentation towards your purpose, where the path is discovered as you go, rather than attempted to be planned at the start. Note that, whilst the first step is ‘Plan’, this DOESN’T mean detailed up-front planning of an answer – it simply means properly planning the next experiment (e.g. what you are going to do, how you are going to conduct it, and how you are going to meaningfully measure it).


A kerfuffle over Coffee

Coffee beansI was having a chat with someone about ‘batching’ the other day, and wanted to point them to a short and simple post I wrote a few years ago that I thought would assist…so I looked for it…and couldn’t find it…and then realised that I’d never published it on this blog…so here it is:

I wrote a post a bit back entitled One at a time please. In it, I attempted to explain (using my washing up at home1) about the problems caused by doing things in batches, and that we should strive to shift our processes towards ‘single piece flow’.

This is such an important point that I thought that I would put forward another, hopefully more obvious, example.

Right, here goes:

What do you see here…

Coffee - both doors closed

…yep, we had two fancy coffee machines in our last works kitchen.

If you were to watch people using them you would note that it is rare that they are both being used…but it does happen…so having 2 machines helps cope with the variation in our demand for a coffee (with spikes in demand unsurprisingly occurring Monday – Friday at around 10:30 and 15:00)

These machines need regular cleaning. I think, from my observations that this is performed weekly.


How about this picture?

Coffee - both doors open

Yep, this is what happened when they were both being cleaned.

We used to have a cleaner that liked to come in at around 10:30 (not such a good time really…but that’s a different story), open up both machines and then proceed to perform his cleaning steps one-by one for both machines. Something like this:

  • Take out both sets of waste drawers, empty them and put them by the sink
  • Take out both drip trays, empty and put them by the sink
  • Open up both coffee hoppers and fill them
  • Open up both creamer hoppers and fill them
  • Open up both sugar hoppers and fill them
  • Clean the pipes and connectors of both machines
  • Wash and dry the waste drawers and drip trays for both machines
  • Put everything back together for both machines
  • Close the front drawers of both machines
  • Wipe the outsides of both machines
  • …and done. Nice job.

This takes some time…and what can’t happen whilst this is being done?

No one can make a coffee! (or hot chocolate or mocha or … some other weird drink made from permutations of powder)

What’s the purpose of the machine? To reliably make (good) coffee as and when someone wants one.

A change in cleaner

I noticed one day that we had changed our cleaner. I also noticed this:

Coffee - one open, one closed

Oh yes! She does exactly the same steps as the earlier cleaner…but she does it one machine at a time.

Now, for those die-hard ‘economies of scale’ fans out there:

  1. There is hardly any time difference between the two cleaning approaches; BUT
  1. We can all still make coffee whilst it’s being done!!!

Even better, she concentrates on one machine at a time (in a state of flow), likely making sure that all is okay with it, potentially causing her to think far wider than just repeating a set of standard steps.

So there you go: a short and simple example of the sense in reducing batch sizes as and when we can 🙂

Anyone for a coffee?


1: My earlier post: If this is the first time you’ve read about batches then please do read my earlier post  – it goes into more detail.

There was one among you who, in response to this earlier washing up ‘batch to flow’ post, spent quite some time explaining to me exactly how they emptied their dishwasher, specifying how they had experimented with which items of cutlery were best held between each digits. Nice! You know who you are…Tom 🙂

2: On cleaners: I don’t know why the cleaner changed or why they adopted their different approaches and I make no judgement on either of them. I just really like being able to get a coffee whilst the machines are being cleaned!

3. Simple, and complicated: I know that there are all sorts of batches ‘out there’ (whether temporal or quantity based)…and I know that there are constraints that need to be understood and worked with (you can’t usually just remove, or even reduce, batch sizes – you have to look at the ‘why’)….but the desired target condition of ‘single piece flow’ can be used as a vision to experiment towards, whatever the nature of your batch.