Chapter 2: “That’s what WE do!”

Okay, so to recap, in Chapter 1 I took you back 100 years to consider the visionary Henry Ford and his foundational philosophies. I know he wasn’t a saint, I know he didn’t ‘solve the worlds problems’ and I know that he was lucky to be the right side of a technological disruption…but there’s bucket loads to learn from him.

what-peple-say-and-doThe ending of Chapter 1 was about Money power and, in particular, the idea of Dead Money provided by professional financiers – people focused on profit.

Now, I can almost hear any and every ‘large corporate’ executive, after reading Ford’s words, shouting back that “yes, yes, YES” – they understand ALL of this…they don’t run the business solely for profit…and this is why they have a rather wonderful Purpose Statement!1

To those ‘large corporate’ executives that would protest that they are ‘at one’ with Henry, I would reply with Stafford Beer’s acronym POSIWID, which stands for ‘The Purpose Of the System Is What It Does’.

To better explain this point I will borrow from my earlier post on this point:

“There’s a BIG difference in what we might like the purpose of our (organisational) system to be and what it actually is!

You can say that the purpose of the system is [XYZ] until you are blue in the face but, if this isn’t what it actually delivers, then by point of fact it ISN’T its (current) purpose.”

Every time I hear the ‘purpose’ words and then see the conflicting profit actions, I have to go and have a lie down.

Ford’s words are profound2 and agreeably fit with what has subsequently been written/said by all those giants I referred to in my earlier post ‘Oxygen isn’t what life is about’.

Here’s the summary from this post:

  • “You can state a purpose….but you’ve got to actually live it to move towards it;
  • An organisation’s purpose should NOT be ‘profit’, even though this outcome is necessary for the system and those that finance it;
  • If you think it’s the other way around i.e. that you need to state a purpose so as to chase profit, then you are likely to fall a long way short of what you could achieve…and will put your long term survival at serious risk;
  • A focus on short term profits and results for the market will likely destroy unknown and unknowable value.

For those of you who think ‘what a load of hippy liberal rubbish, of course it’s all about the shareholder’, here’s a really nice quote to consider from Sam Walton (founder of Wal-Mart):

“There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”

…how would those shareholders feel if their investment became worthless?”

i.e. Purpose is above profit…and you can’t just say this – it has to be so.

We seem to have a problem with understanding the ‘purpose isn’t profit’ thing.

So, what’s the difficulty here? Why can’t we fix this? What might be the cause?

And so to Corporations

shareholder-demandsIf you’ve not read it then I heartily recommend a well written book by Ha-Joon Chang (Economics Professor at Cambridge) called ’23 Things they don’t tell you about Capitalism’3.

‘Thing 2’ is that “Companies should not be run in the interest of their owners”.

Now this will likely confuse most people, provoking responses like “…but isn’t this a building block of capitalism?”

And yes, in Ha-Joon Chang’s words, here’s what we are told:

  • “Shareholders own companies. Therefore, companies should be run in their interests. It is not simply a moral argument…;
  • Shareholders’ incomes vary according to the company’s performance, giving them the greatest incentive to ensure the company performs well…;
  • If the company goes bankrupt, the shareholders lose everything, whereas other ‘stakeholders’ get at least something. Thus, shareholders bear the risk that others involved do not.”

Okay, that looks pretty cut and dry in favour of the shareholders – so what is he on about?!

…but here’s what they don’t tell us:

  • “Shareholders,…as the most mobile of the ‘stakeholders’, often care the least about the long-term future of the company;
    • On mobility: whilst shareholders can sell their shares in the blink of an eye, the other stakeholders (customers, employees, suppliers and even the lending banks) have far higher barriers to untangling themselves
  • Consequently, shareholders, especially but not exclusively the smaller ones, prefer corporate strategies that:
    • maximise short-term profits, usually at the cost of long-term investments; and
    • maximise the dividends [and share buy backs] from those profits, which even further weakens the long-term prospects of the company by reducing the amount of retained profit that can be used for re-investment.

 Running the company for the shareholders often reduces its long-term growth potential.”

This could just as easily be Ford talking about ‘Dead money’!

short-termismHa-Joon Chang goes on to tear apart the 1980s principle of ‘shareholder value maximisation’ (I won’t reproduce his critique here…but it is well worth reading4).

He concludes that “[shareholders] ease of exit is exactly what makes [them] unreliable guardians of a company’s long-term future.”

Jack Welch (then CEO of General Electric) was the darling of the ‘shareholder value maximisation’ ideology…and it seemed to work really well for the large corporations…until it all inevitably came crashing down5.

Welch, many years later, reflected in an interview with a financial journalist that:

Shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world…

…Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy… your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products.”

…and, whilst it’s good that I can use this quote here, I find it convenient (to put it mildly) that Welch utters these words after he has extracted his $$$ millions from the corporation he pillaged and the ‘Guru Management’ books he sold…and now earns yet more $ from the reflective books telling us it was such a dumb idea!

“So are you trying to argue that we shouldn’t have limited liability companies?!”

llc-pros-and-consNo, I’m not.

They have been rather useful to our societies in enabling large, risky and capital intensive ventures that, whilst important, wouldn’t have happened without risk sharing – e.g. large-scale industries such as the railways.

Prior to their existence, a business person had to risk everything (including the shirt on their back) in order to carry out business…and if they failed then it was off to debtors prison.

The idea of a limited liability company was invented back in sixteenth century Europe (known as a joint stock company back then)…but, due to constraints imposed upon them, they didn’t come into general usage until the mid nineteenth century.

So why might society have wanted those constraints? Well, they didn’t trust them! Even Adam Smith, often referred to as ‘the father of economics’, said the following:

“directors of [limited liability] companies…being the managers rather of other people’s money than of their own, it cannot well be expected that they would watch over it with the same anxious vigilance with which the partners in [their own business] frequently watch over their own.”

So, the idea of limited liability? – Yep, this is definitely of use to society.

But the idea of purely dead money in a business, or even of it being the master? – No, this is not healthy, for the business, for society or (for that matter) those free floating shareholders caught holding the dead money when the music for the ‘short-termism’ pass-the-parcel game stops.

The music stops when the business fundamentals bite…and they always do.

What about those businesses that buy businesses that buy businesses?!

fish-eating-fish-eating-fishDon’t they need barrow loads of private financier’s money?

…and so back to a lovely Henry Ford quote to close out this chapter:

“What seems to be a big business may be created overnight by buying up a large number of small businesses.

The result may be big business, or again, it may be just a museum of business, showing how many curious things may be bought with money.

 [True] Big business is not money power: it is service power.”

Many a big corporate has used dead money to pursue a strategy of mergers and acquisitions…and has often destroyed so much value in the process….and, after licking its wounds (and perhaps the convenient ‘retirement’ of those involved) has repeated the same mistakes, again and again.

A business becomes successful because of service power, not because it took actions that merely made it big.

The point is that ‘big is not beautiful’, service is beautiful…which will likely lead to a growing business. Cause and effect.

So…this chapter considered the likely protests from ‘large corporate’ executives that they are doing exactly as Henry implored…and why it’s really not as simple as that. In fact, if we look at the idea of ‘shareholder value maximisation’ then Henry’s definition of Dead Money appears to fit oh-so-well.

This is all very interesting…but what if this is just how it has to be! Chapter 3 will consider whether executives can do anything about this, for the good of the organisation.

Update: Link forwards to Chapter 3


1. I reflect that Simon Sinek’s excellent TED talk covering ‘Starting with Why’ has done extremely well in making its way around the world.

2. If you are a manager lecturing people as follows:

“We are here to make money and to [meet our purpose], in that order!…because if we don’t make money, we can’t [meet our purpose]”

…then PLEASE re-read and really think about what Ford (and the others) are saying.

Your ‘money comes first’ lecture is a classic case of ‘the tail wagging the dog’.

3. Anti-capitalism? Just in case you think Ha-Joon Chang, and perhaps I, a Communist, here’s a few lines from his concluding chapter:

“My criticism is of free-market capitalism, and not all kinds of capitalism….There are different ways to organise capitalism. Free-market capitalism is only one of them – and not a very good one at that…, capitalism, yes, but we need to end our love affair with unrestrained free-market capitalism, which has served humanity so poorly, and install a better-regulated variety.”

He goes on to set out eight principles to have in mind in redesigning our economic system.

4. Shareholder value maximisation: If you don’t want to buy Ha-Joon Chang’s book (it’s bloody good!) but do want to delve a little deeper in respect of “the dumbest idea in the world” then here’s a Forbes article that does similar.

5. General Electric: They became infamous during Welch’s tenure as masters of ‘legal earnings manipulation’ so that they always hit their earnings projections…and this was over a period of decades!

However, their underlying business didn’t look so hot when the pressure came on in the two crashes of the 2000s. Their share price (see graph below) tanked from $41 in Oct 2007 to $7 in March 2009.




Oh…so that’s why ‘Command and Control’ doesn’t work very well!

social systemWarning (or advert for some): Sometimes I write long(er) ‘foundational’ type posts – this is one of them 🙂

Russ Ackoff researched and wrote a great deal about systems.

It is within his writings1 that I find an excellent explanation about why many organisations adopted the command and control management model, why there is a major problem with this and, most importantly, why there is a better way.

First, A recap:

Before looking at types of systems, I should allow Ackoff to remind us what is meant by ‘a system’ and why this matters:

“A system is a network of inter-dependant components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system…

The two key pieces here are that:

  • there is an aim; and
  • it is made up of parts that need to work together (either directly or indirectly) to achieve that aim

If you have parts but no aim then you don’t have a system…you simply have a ‘collection’.

If you have a part that (truly) isn’t required to achieve the aim then it isn’t actually part of the system…which is why your ‘appendix’ body part got its name.

…If each part of a system, considered separately, is made to operate as efficiently as possible, the system as a whole will not operate as effectively as possible…

The heart and lungs are parts of the body but if they function according to what’s best ‘for themselves’ then they won’t function as required for the overall good of the whole. It’s no good if the brain is telling the heart and lungs to ‘work flat out’ to run like hell from a chasing pack of lions and these organs both respond with a “no thanks, this doesn’t suit  us!” The same is true for parts of (e.g. functions within) organisations.

…The performance of a system depends more on how its components interact than on how they act independently of each other…

You can buy a ‘light as a feather’ carbon frame, an awesome set of aero wheels and a precision engineered 11-speed group set but you can’t ride them as a bike if they don’t fit together. Further, someone with a basic ‘sit up and beg’ bike frame with cheap wheels and components that do fit will easily beat you in a bike race.

…When a system is taken apart it loses its essential properties.”

If you take apart an alarm clock, you will have all of the parts necessary for the system but the disassembled collection of parts isn’t sufficient to tell you the time.

The above has huge implications.

So, on to Ackoff’s system types:

Ackoff defined a number of types of systems2 and the problems that occur when an organisation adopts a management model that does not match the correct system type.

Here goes….

Type 1: Deterministic (e.g. mechanisms)

alarm clockA deterministic system is one which has no purpose and neither do its component parts. This might seem rather strange…”Erm, I thought you said a system had to have an aim?!” – the point is that a deterministic system normally serves a purpose of an entity external to it, such as its creator. Its function, and that of its parts, is simply to provide that service when required.

Mechanisms are the most obvious examples of deterministic systems: An alarm clock is such a system. Its purpose (to tell the time) has been provided to it by its creator (the clock maker)….and that is what it is for, nothing more and nothing less. It can’t decide to do something else!

Even a computer, whilst incredibly more complicated than an alarm clock, is such a system – it is reliant on the inputs and programs provided to it by its external sources.

Type 2: Animated (e.g. most organisms)

monkeyAn animated system is one which does have a purpose of its own but its parts don’t.

Animals (and therefore humans) are the most obvious example. They have a purpose of their own – where this might be argued as (at a minimum) survival, and (more optimistically) to enjoy doing so, in the manner of their own choosing.

The animal is made up of parts (e.g. organs) and whilst these parts have a necessary function for the good of the whole, they do not have a purpose of their own.

In this way we can compare a computer to a person and see that they are fundamentally different. The computer’s purpose is provided to it whilst the person provides their own.

Type 3: Social (e.g. organisations, societies)

flagsA social system is one which has a purpose of its own and so do its parts (the people within).

Indeed each social system is usually part of a larger social system (e.g. a family is part of a community, which is part of a nation, which is part of ….)

And even more complex, a person belongs to multiple social systems – which have different, sometimes conflicting, purposes3.

So, bringing these three types together, we have:

System Type4: The whole is: The Parts are:
Deterministic (e.g. a mechanism) Not purposeful Not purposeful
Animated (e.g. a human) Purposeful Not purposeful
Social (e.g. an organisation) Purposeful Purposeful

These three system types form a sort of hierarchy: The deterministic alarm clock is given purpose by the animated (clock making) person who also lives within their social group. The linkages don’t go the other way….or at least they shouldn’t…which leads on to…

Okay, interesting stuff but what’s the point?

Well, now that we have an understanding of three different types of systems, we can see the consequences of the misunderstanding of an organisation as a system:

A ‘deterministic’ model applied to an organisation:

Adam Smith (often referred to as the father of economics and of capitalism) wrote a famous book called ‘The wealth of nations’ (1776). In it, he used the example of a pin factory to explain the concept of ‘the division of labour’. He explained that one person performing all the steps necessary to making a pin could perhaps make only 20 pins a day but if the pin-making process were broken up into a series of limited operations, with separate people performing them in a joined-up line, productivity could rise to thousands of pins per day per worker.

Now that sounds fantastic doesn’t it! But for who?

Smith’s thinking was taken on board by industrialists who went on to employ vast factories of ‘unskilled labour’ in the new concept of ‘manufacturing’ (and who likely still do in the sweat shops of 3rd world countries).

Standing back, we can see that this is using people as replaceable machine parts i.e. we have a defined mechanism (the manufacturing process) which is given its purpose externally by its creator (e.g. make pins)…and wow, this mechanism sure can make pins!

Henry Ford’s phenomenal success worked in the same way. He designed a mechanism to make Model T Fords (his mass production factory) and installed workers as the mechanism’s parts. He (and other ‘owners’ at this time) could use workers in this mechanistic way because:

  • unskilled workers, whilst poorly educated, were adequate for the simple tasks required of them;
  • such workers were willing to tolerate being treated as a machine part since there was high unemployment and virtually no social security safety net…giving them little option (i.e. work as required or starve);
  • there was a large pool of available labour – the human parts of the machine were easily replaceable; and
  • such business owners were subject to very little societal controls (such as governmental interventions and constraints) limiting their treatment of their worker ‘parts’4.

It’s worth noting that, even though worker conditions were massively in his favour, Ford’s ‘mechanism’ had an astounding 370% turnover of workers in 1913, with new hires staying an average of only 3 months. Many workers simply ‘walked off the job’ without notifying anyone…which is what happens if you ask humans to perform monotonous (demoralising) work without having to use their brains.

An ‘animated’ model applied to an organisation

So times moved on. We had two world wars that caused/ enabled major societal changes – a major shakeup of the class system, the birth and rise of the Labour movement and worker unions, massive improvements in education, social security and welfare, and great advances in technology.

The other significant change was the raising of capital (necessary for post war growth and development) from the public and the consequent birth/ rise of publically owned corporations. This separated the ownership and management of these new organisations.

A big difference from before was that:

  • the workers were now far more educated and empowered; and
  • the required work had become far more skilled (utilising new technologies).

Managers were no longer able to treat workers as merely replaceable cogs in a machine – it took time to train them, and they now had worker rights and choice.

Now, rather than seeing an organisation as a deterministic system with the all-powerful owner dictating its purpose (as the likes of Ford had done), they operated as an animated system would6: with a ‘brain’ (senior management) and a ‘body’ (the various operating functions performing the work).

Such a model works by senior management providing the instructions (the what: commands) and procedures (the how: controls) and then the operating units carrying them out accordingly.

“Command and control represents the division of labour between decision-making and doing the work.” (Seddon)

We all know that the ‘operator’ parts within the organisations ‘body’ are actually human beings but the ‘command and control’ management instruments don’t really recognise this fact:

  • the organisational ‘brain’ (often annually) decides the strategy and breaks this down into a set of objectives for the parts of the ‘body’ and locks these into a cascaded grand plan;
  • the organisational ‘brain’ provides incentives for the ‘body’ to act as it requires: thus assuming that it is simply a matter of extrinsically motivating each part to comply as required;
  • the organisational ‘brain’ considers the performance of each part of the ‘body’, scores it and delivers this judgement back: thus assuming that each part can and will accept such feedback for the good of the whole;
  • the organisational ‘brain’ performs (frequent) reorganisations on the ‘body’ parts, as if shifting pawns around a game board. The brain does this by dictating such redesigns to the body rather than asking the body if (and how) it could better rearrange itself;
  • The organisational ‘brain’ thinks that the answer to an increasingly complex environment is simply to increase the quantity and regularity of communication with the ‘body’ parts. This fails to realise that communication is not the underlying problem.

But the reality for every organisation is that they have purposeful parts – you and I – whether they like it or not…and so to treat these parts as merely having a function for the whole is to inevitably generate conflict.

A social model applied to an organisation

…and so we reach the point at which we conclude the obvious that:

  • the organisation (hopefully) has a purpose;


  • the humans working within it have separate purposes.

…and therefore any management model that doesn’t understand and work within such a social system will be very limiting – causing loss of immeasurable value to the organisation AND to the people within.

Now you might say “okay, interesting stuff, but treating an organisation as an animated system and using command and control methods has worked fine so far…why do we need to change?”

The rate of change in our world has been massively accelerating. It used to be that change was seen as generational and this made it relatively easy for people to adapt but this no longer holds true.

Organisations are operating in more complex and less predictable environments with the result that:

“Over the last 50 years, the average lifespan of S&P 500 companies has shrunk from around 60 years to closer to 18 years.” (Source: The art of corporate endurance )

Here’s a classic Deming quote: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

But if survival is desired, then the best chance that an organisation has is to operate a management model that actually fits with the correct type of system! In so doing, it can get the best out of everyone within.

What might this model look like? Studying ‘Deming’s 14 points for Management’ would be a great start. A post to follow next.

Who’s been successfully operating a social model for decades? Two brilliant examples are Toyota and Handelsbanken.


1. Credit: The core of this post comes from learnings derived from a classic Ackoff essay entitled ‘Reflections on systems and their models’ which can be found in the book ‘Ackoff’s Best: His classic writings on management’.

2. I’m aware that other system thinkers have created other, more sophisticated, classification schemes (e.g. Boulding, Beer). Ackoff’s system types nicely serve the purpose of this post.

3. This fact is probably relevant to the need for, and creation of ‘soft systems thinking’…which is where Peter Checkland’s work fits in (A ‘giant bio’ currently in draft)

4. For those ‘system’ geeks out there: Ackoff explained a 4th system type, that of an ecological system – where the parts are purposeful but the whole is not. Ecological systems contain interacting mechanistic, organismic and social systems, but do not have a purpose of their own. However, their function(s) serve the purpose of the systems that are their parts.

Example: the purposeful use of fluorocarbons as propellants by humans (a purposeful part of the ecological system) affects the ozone layer in a way that is determined, and not a matter of choice for our planet (the whole)…the planet cannot decide that it is harmful to it and decide to ‘do something about it’– the outcome (even though we may not understand it) is determined.

5. Henry Ford realised the problem and, in an attempt to compensate for their conditions, paid his workers well as compared to what they could earn elsewhere.

6. Stafford Beer wrote a famous book called ‘The brain of the firm’ (1972) that explored in detail the analogy of an organisation working as the human body does.


!cid_image001_png@01D18034So it seems that many an organisation repeats a mantra that we must “simplify, simplify, simplify”…they accompany this thrice repeated word with rhetoric that implies that this is so blindingly obvious that only a fool would query this!

As such, anyone questioning this logic is likely to hold their tongue…but I’ll be that fool and question it, and here’s why:

It’s too simple!

Here’s where I mention the ‘Law of requisite variety’ which was formulated by the cyberneticist1 W. Ross Ashby in the context of studying biological systems. Stafford Beer extended Ashby’s thinking by applying it to organisations.

Now, rather than stating Ashby’s technical definition, I’ll put forward an informal definition that I think is of use:

“In order to deal properly with the diversity of problems the world throws at you, you need to have a repertoire of responses which is (at least) as nuanced as the problems you face.” (What is requisite variety?)


Using the diagram above, let’s say that the problem types on the left (shown by different coloured arrows) represent the different types of value demands from our customers.

Let’s say that the responses on the right are what our system* is designed to cope with (* where system means the whole thing – people, process, technology – it doesn’t refer merely to ‘the computer’).

We can see that our system above is not designed to cope with the red arrows and incorrectly copes with some of the yellow arrows (with an orange response)….the customers with these value demands will be somewhat disappointed! Further, we would waste a great deal of time, effort and money trying to cope with this situation.

What on earth are you on about?!

“Management always hopes to devise systems that are simple…but often ends up spending vast sums of money to inject requisite variety – which should have been designed into the system in the first place.” (Stafford Beer)

Many large organisations engage in ill thought out and/or overly zealous ‘complexity reduction’ initiatives (incidentally, system replacement projects* are corkers for this!) that strip out more than they should and the outcome is unusable and/or hugely harmful towards satisfying customer value demands…which ends up creating un-necessary complexity as the necessary variety is ‘put back in’ via workarounds and ugly add-ons and patch-ups.

(* Large public sector departments have been excellent at this….often scrapping multi-million $ projects before a single live transaction gets into a database.)

Note: for readers aware of the ‘Lean Start-up’ thinking, you might cry out that this appears to go against the Minimum Viable Product (MVP)/ experimentation point…but it doesn’t…in fact it supports thinking in terms of target conditions rather than merely stating ‘make it simple’ objectives and setting related arbitrary targets.


You might think that, because service demand is infinitely variable 2, then I am suggesting that we need to build infinitely complex systems that can cope with every eventuality with standardised responses. Well, no, that would be mad…and impossible.

In service, we can’t hope to know every ‘coloured arrow’ that might come at us! Instead, we need to ensure that our service system can absorb variety! This means providing a flexible environment (e.g. guidelines, not ‘straight jacket’ rules), and empowering front line staff to ‘do the right thing’ for the specific variety of the customer’s demand before them, and pulling appropriate expertise when required.

Standardisation in service is not the answer.

Cause and Effect

Don’t confuse cause and effect. Simplification should not be the goal…but it can be a very agreeable side effect.

“To remove waste [e.g. complexity], you need to understand its causes….if the system conditions that caused the waste are not removed, any improvements will be marginal and unsustainable.” (John Seddon)

If you think “We’ve got too many products and IT applications…we need to run projects to get rid of the majority of them!” then ask yourself this: “Did anyone set out specifically to have loads of products and IT applications?” I very much doubt it…

You can say that you want fewer products, less technology applications, less complex processes…less xyz. But first, you need to be absolutely clear on what caused you to be (and remain) this way. Then you would be in a position to improve, which will likely result in the effect of appropriate simplification (towards customer purpose).

If you don’t understand the ‘why’ then:

  • how can you be sure that removing all those products and systems and processes will be a success? and
  • what’s to stop  them from multiplying again?

The goal should be what you want, not what you don’t want

“If you get rid of something that you don’t want, you don’t necessarily get something that you do want…improvement should be directed at what you want, not at what you don’t want.” (Russell Ackoff)

The starting point should be:

  • studying your (value stream) systems and getting knowledge; and then
  • experimenting towards purpose (from the customers point of view) , whilst monitoring your capability measures

The starting point is NOT simplification.

A classic example of the simplification mantra usurping the customer purpose is where organisations force their customers down a ‘digital’ path rather than providing them with the choice.

  • To force them will create dissatisfaction, failure demand and the complexity of dealing with it;
  • To provide them with choice will create the simplicity of delivering what they want, how they want it…with the side effect of educating them as to what is possible and likely moving them into forging new habits (accepting that this takes time).

In conclusion

So I’d like to end on the quote that I have worn out most over my working life to date:

“Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.” (attributed to Einstein)

The great thing about this quote is that it contrasts ‘relative’ with ‘absolute’. “As simple as possible” is relative 3 – it necessitates a comparison against purpose. “Simple” is absolute and, as such, our pursuit of simplification for its own sake will destroy value.

Thus, the quote requires us to start with, and constantly test against, customer purpose…and the appropriate simplicity will find itself.


  1. Cybernetics: the science of control and communication in animals, men and machines. Cyberneticians try to understand how systems describe themselves, control themselves, and organize themselves.
  2. Infinite variability: We are all unique and, whilst we will likely identify a range of common cause variation within service demand (i.e. predictable), we need to see each customer as an individual and aim to satisfy their specific need.
  3. There’s probably an Einstein ‘relativity’ joke in there somewhere. 

“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.

It’s NOT about the nail!

It not about the nailSo there’s a fabulous (yet very short) YouTube skit called ‘It’s NOT about the nail’.

Many of you will have watched it…and if you haven’t then please watch it now before reading on – you won’t get this post if you don’t.

And I bet that those of you who have seen it before will want to watch it again (and again).

(though please see my ‘PC police’ note at the bottom 🙂 )

So, why am I using this clip? What’s the link?

Well it struck me that this is a brilliant systems analogy!

Let me explain:

Let’s assume that the woman is an organisation and the man is outside it, looking in.

The script might go something like this…

The organisation: “It’s just, there’s all this pressure you know. And sometimes it feels like it’s right up on me…and I can just feel it, like literally feel it, in my head and it’s relentless…and I don’t know if it’s going to stop, I mean that’s the thing that scares me the most…is that I don’t know if its ever going to stop!”

[Turns to show the outside world the reality of the situation]

Outside:     “…yeah…well…you do have…a ‘command and control’ management system.”

The organisation:     “It’s not about the management system!”

Outside:     “Are you sure? Because, I mean, I’ll bet that if we got that out of there…”

The organisation:     “Stop trying to fix it!”

Outside:     “No, I’m not trying to ‘fix it’…I’m just pointing out that maybe the management system is causing….”

The organisation:     “You always do this! You always try to fix things when all I really need is for you to listen!”

Outside:     “yeah…see…I don’t think that is what you need. I think what you need is to get the ‘command and control’ out…

The organisation: “See! You’re not even listening now!”

Outside:     “Okay, fine! I will listen. Fine.”


The organisation:     “…it’s just, sometimes it’s like…there’s this achy…I don’t know what it is. I’m not sleeping very well at all…and all my workers are disempowered and disengaged. I mean all of them.”

[Pause. Searching looks between the two]

Outside:     “That sounds…erm…really…hard.”

The organisation:     “It is! Thank you 🙂 

[Pause. Reach forward to reconcile….]

The organisation:     “Owch!”

Outside:     “Oh come on! If you would just…”

The organisation:    “DON’T!!!…”

[(usually) The end, unfortunately]

But let’s not stop there and just cope with the nail….

…to the point:

To successfully and meaningfully change a system towards its purpose, you need to look from the outside-in. You cannot achieve this looking from the inside-out.

Deming was very clear on this point: “The prevailing style of management must undergo transformation. A system cannot understand itself. The transformation requires a view from outside.”

Seddon wrote “When managers learn to take a systems view, starting outside-in (that is, from the customer’s rather than the organisation’s point of view), they can see the waste caused by the current organisation design, the opportunities for improvement and the means to realise them. Taking a systems view always provides a compelling case for change and it leads managers to see the value of designing and managing work in a different way…

…but this better way represents a challenge to current management conventions. Measures and roles need to change to make the systems solution work. You have to be prepared to change the system…”

In a similar vein Einstein is credited with the saying We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

A catch:

Gosh, it sounds so simple….let’s just look from the outside-in shall we? But, unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

Here’s Stafford Beer with why not:

“…a new idea is not only beyond the comprehension of the existing system, 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.

The innovator 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 resources that the adventurous idea needs…”

Blimey, that’s a bit depressing isn’t it!…which is an opportune moment to remind you of my earlier ‘Germ theory of management’ post.

You/I/we won’t succeed by trying to push the idea onto the system. We need to make ‘it’ curious and want to pull the idea at the rate that understanding, acceptance and desire emerges.

So it IS about the nail! …Oh never mind.

(if you watch the YouTube clip again, I expect you will find it hard not to mentally overlay the above script onto it now! I know I do.)

Comment for the ‘Political-Correctness’ police: I ‘get’ that the clip is stereotypical about the differences between men and women…I ‘get’ that men will likely find it funnier than women…but, come on, it is very funny.

Okay, okay…I am more than happy to post an equally funny clip (to address the gender balance) that sends up men…here’s a good one: ‘Man flu’


download (1)Professor Stafford Beer wrote that “the purpose of a system is what it does.” which is often stated by its acronym of POSIWID.

This is looking at systems via a kind of backwards logic. (See my earlier ‘harmony or cacophony’ post if you’d like to look at them going forward first!)

Another quote might help:

“Every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results it gets.” (Don Berwick)

Okay, so let’s see if these examples exercise your mind a bit:

 Example: Supposed purpose: (unintended?) Reality:
School (Teacher) Help our children grow into well rounded individuals capable of sustaining themselves in the world Train our children to pass tests on a specified curriculum and go up the ‘league tables’.
Parliament (Politician) Help deliver a better life for the electorate Get elected next time round/ get set up for a nice life ‘after’ politics.
Police Help keep us safe Meet targets for resolving reported crime and completing paperwork.
Call centre Satisfy the callers actual need (however long this takes) Deal with callers as ‘efficiently’ as possible (‘average handling times’).

In Stafford Beer’s words:

“The purpose of a system is what it does. This is a basic dictum. It stands for bald fact, which makes a better starting point in seeking understanding than the familiar attributions of good intention, prejudices about expectations, moral judgment, or sheer ignorance of circumstances.”

So, what’s the point? There’s a BIG difference in what we might like the purpose of our (organisational) system to be and what it actually is!

You can say that the purpose of the system is [XYZ] until you are blue in the face but, if this isn’t what it actually delivers, then by point of fact it ISN’T its (current) purpose.

How should we use POSIWID to assist us?

POSIWID is used to counter the belief that the purpose of the system can be understood purely from the intentions of those that design, operate or promote it. Complex systems (which organisations certainly are) are not controllable by simple notions of management. Interventions in complex systems can only be properly understood by observing their true effect on system behaviour.

This means:

  • listening to and observing demand*, particularly failure demand;
  • finding out:
    • what the system is currently capable of (using measures, NOT targets); and
    • how it actually works – get facts, don’t rely on opinions….which fits in perfectly with going to the Gemba; and
  • taking a scientific (open minded!) approach to interventions….which must avoid shonky experiments!

* a big part of the purpose of your system (at whatever level you define this) is to deal with the current demands coming into it….whatever they may be.

A final point on Management’s intent and Management controls

If we look above the value streams and observe an organisation’s management system, we are likely to see leaders saying wonderful things about respecting, empowering and supporting the process performers….yet people who work within a ‘command and control’ environment experience a set of management controls (cascaded personal objectives , numeric activity targets , contingent rewards , and performance appraisals ) that contradict and constrain these ideals.

“No matter what you say your values and beliefs are, the mechanisms of control define what your culture really believes about who can be trusted with what. [The desired management system] won’t work if you pay lip service to it.” (Mark Rosenthal)  

Note: Stafford Beer (1926 – 2002) was a theorist, consultant and professor and founder of the field of Management Cybernetics. He is another giant who, sadly, is no longer with us.