Posts Tagged ‘Behaviour’

How do we remember the vast amount of information that we seem to be capable of?

Our brains are comprised of billions of cells most of which are actually inactive and just there to support the active brain cells – the neurons.

Suppose that the active brain cell part is 50% and our brain has a volume of about 1.2 litres or 1,200 cu.cm or 1,200,000 cu.mm. We know from looking down a microscope that each neuron is about 20/1,000 mm x 20/1,000 mm  x 20/1,000 mm which gives a volume of 8/1,000,000 cu.mm or 125,000 neurons for every cu.mm. The population of a medium sized town in a grain of salt!  This is a concept we can just about grasp. And with these two facts we estimate that there are in the order of 140,000,000,000 neurons in a human brain – 140 billion – about 20 times the population of the whole World. Wow!

But even that huge number is less than the size of the memory on the hard disc of the computer I am writing this blog on – which has 200 gigabytes which is 1,600 gigabits which is 1,600 billion bits. Ten times as many memory cells as there are neurons in a human brain. 

But our brains are not just for storing data – they do all the data processing too – it is an integrated processor-and-memory design completely unlike the separate processor-or-memory design of a digital computer.  Each of our brains is remarkable in its capability, adaptability, and agility – its ability to cope with change – its ability to learn and to change its behaviour while still working.  So how does our biological memory work?

Well not like a digital computer where the zeros and ones, the binary digits (bits) are stored in regular structure of memory cells – a static structural memory – a data prison.  Our biological memory works in a completely different way – it is a temporal memory – it is time dependent. Our memories are not “recalled” like getting a book out of an indexed slot on a numbered in a massive library; are memories are replayed like a recording or rebuilt from a recipe. Time is the critical factor and this concept of temporal memory is a feature of all systems.

And that is not all – the temporal memory is not a library of video tapes – it is the simultaneous collective action of many parts of the system that create the illusion of the temporal memory – we have a parallel-distributed-temporal-memory. More like a video hologram. And it means we cannot point to the “memory” part of our brains – it is distributed throughout the system – and this means that the connections between the parts are as critical a part of the design and the parts themselves. It is a tricky concept to grasp and none of the billions of digital computers that co-inhabit this planet operate this way. They are feeble and fragile in comparison. An inferior design.

The terms distributed-temporal or systemic-memory are a bit cumbersome though so we need a new label – let us call it a systemory.  The properties of a systemory are remarkable – for example it still works when a bit of the systemory is removed.  When a bit of your brain is removed you don’t “forget” a bit of your name or lose the left ear on the mental picture of your friends face – as would happen with a computer.  A systemory is resilient to damage which is a necessary design-for-survival. It also implies that we can build our systemory with imperfect parts and incomplete connections. In a digital computer this would not work: the localised-static or silo-memory has to be perfect because if a single bit gets flipped or a single wire gets fractured it can render the whole computer inoperative useless junk.

Another design-for-survival property of a systemory is that it still works even when it is being changed – it is continuously adaptable and updateable.  Not so a computer – to change the operating system the computer has to be stopped, the old program overwritten by the new one, then the new one started. In fact computers are designed to prevent programs modifying themselves – because it a sure recipe for a critical system failure – the dreaded blue screen!

So if we map our systemory concept across from person to population and we replace neurons with people then we get an inkling of how a society can have a collective memory, a collective intelligence, a collective consciousness even – a social systemory. We might call that property the culture.  We can also see that the relationships that link the people are as critical as the people themselves and that both can be imperfect yet we get stable and reliable behaviour. We can also see that influencing the relationships between people has as much effect on the system behaviour as how the people themselves perform – because the properties of the systemory are emergent. Culture is an output not an input.

So in the World – the development of global communication systems means that all 7 billion people in the global social systemory can, in principle, connect to each other and can collectively learn and change faster and faster as the technology to connect more widely and more quickly develops. The rate of culture change is no longer governed by physical constraints such as geographic location, orand temporal constraints such as how long a letter takes to be delivered.

Perhaps the most challenging implication is that a systemory does not have a “point of control” – there is no librarian who acts as a gatekeeper to the data bank, no guard on the data prison.  The concept of “control” in a systemory is different – it is global not local – and it is influence not control.  The rapid development of mobile communication technology and social networking gives ample evidence – we would now rather communicate with a familar on the other side of the world than with a stranger standing next to us in the lunch queue. We have become tweeting and texting daemons.  Our emotional relationships are more important than our geographical ones. And if enough people can connect to each other they can act in a collective, coordinated, adaptive and agile way that no command-and-control system can either command or control. The recent events in the Middle East are ample evidence of the emergent effectiveness of a social systemory.

Our insight exposes a weakness of a social systemory – it is possible to adversely affect the whole by introducing a behavioural toxin that acts at the social connection level – on the relationships between people. The behavioural toxin needs only to have a weak and apparently harmless effect but when disseminated globally the cumulative effect creates cultural dysfunction.  It is rather like the effect of alcohol and other recreational chemical substances on the brain – it cause a temporary systemory dysfunction – but one that in an over-stressed psychological system paradoxically results in pleasure; or rather stress release. Hence the self-reinforcing nature of the addiction.  

Effective leaders are intuitively aware that just their behaviour can be a tonic or a toxin for the whole system: organisations are the the same emotional boat as their leader.

Effective leaders use their behaviour to steer the systemory of the organisation along a path of improvement and their behaviour is the output of their personal systemory.

Leaders have to be the change that they want their organisations to achieve.

Most of our thinking happens out of awareness – it is unconscious. Most of the data that pours in through our senses never reaches awareness either – but that does not mean it does not have an impact on what we remember, how we feel and what we decide and do in the future. It does.

Improvement Science is the knowledge of how to achieve sustained change for the better; and doing that requires an ability to unlearn unconscious knowledge that blocks our path to improvement – and to unlearn selectively.

So how can we do that if it is unconscious? Well, there are  at least two ways:

1. Bring the unconscious knowledge to the surface so it can be examined, sorted, kept or discarded. This is done through the social process of debate and discussion. It does work though it can be a slow and difficult process.

2. Do the unlearning at the unconscious level – and we can do that by using reality rather than rhetoric. The easiest way to connect ourselves to reality is to go out there and try doing things.

When we deliberately do things  we are learning unconsciously because most of our sensory data never reaches awareness.  When we are just thinking the unconscious is relatively unaffected: talking and thinking are the same conscious process. Discussion and dialog operate at the conscious level but differ in style – discussion is more competitive; dialog is more collaborative. 

The door to the unconscious is controlled by emotions – and it appears that learning happens more effectively and more efficiently in certain emotional states. Some emotional states can impair learning; such as depression, frustration and anxiety. Strong emotional states associated with dramatic experiences can result in profound but unselective learning – the emotionally vivid memories that are often associated with unpleasant events.  Sometimes the conscious memory is so emotionally charged and unpleasant that it is suppressed – but the unconscious memory is not so easily erased – so it continues to influence but out of awareness. The same is true for pleasant emotional experiences – they can create profound learning experiences – and the conscious memory may be called an inspirational or “eureka” moment – a sudden emotional shift for the better. And it too is unselective and difficult to erase.

An emotionally safe environment for doing new things and having fun at the same time comes close to the ideal context for learning. In such an enviroment we learn without effort. It does not feel like work – yet we know we have done work because we feel tired afterwards.  And if we were to record the way that we behave and talk before the doing; and again afterwards then we will measure a change even though we may not notice the change ourselves. Other people may notice before we do – particularly if the change is significant – or if they only interact with us occasionally.

It is for this reason that keeping a personal journal is an effective way to capture the change in ourselves over time.  

The Jungian model of personality types states that there are three dimensions to personality (Isabel Briggs Myers added a fourth later to create the MBTI®).

One dimension describes where we prefer to go for input data – sensors (S) use external reality as their reference – intuitors (N) use their internal rhetoric.

Another dimension is how we make decisions –  thinkers (T) prefer a conscious, logical, rational, sequential decision process while feelers (F) favour an unconscious, emotional, “irrational”, parallel approach.

The third dimension is where we direct the output of our decisions – extraverts (E) direct it outwards into the public outside world while intraverts (I) direct it inwards to their private inner world.

Irrespective of our individual preferences, experience suggests that an effective learning sequence starts with our experience of reality (S) and depending how emotionally loaded it is (F) we may then internalise the message as a general intuitive concept (N) or a specific logical construct (T).

The implication of this is that to learn effectively and efficiently we need to be able to access all four modes of thinking and to do that we might design our teaching methods to resonate with this natural learning sequence, focussing on creating surprisingly positive reality based emotional experiences first. And we must be mindful that if we skip steps or create too many emotionally negative experiences we we may unintentionally impair the effectiveness of the learning process.

A carefully designed practical exercise that takes just a few minutes to complete can be a much more effective and efficient way to teach a profound principle than to read libraries of books or to listen to hours of rhetoric.  Indeed some of the most dramatic shifts in our understanding of the Universe have been facilitated by easily repeatable experiments.

Intuition and emotions can trick us – so Doing Our Way to New Thinking may be a better improvement strategy.

Africa is a fascinating place.  According to a documentary that I saw last year we are ALL descended from a small tribe who escaped from North East Africa about 90,000 years ago. Our DNA carries clues to the story of our journey and it shows that modern man (Africans, Europeans, Asians, Chinese, Japanese, Australians, Americans, Russians etc) – all come from a common stock. It is salutory to reflect how short this time scale is, how successful this tribe has been in replacing all the other branches of the human evolutionary tree, and how the genetic differences between colours and creeds are almost insignificant.  All the evolution that has happened in the last 90,000 years that has transformed the world and the way we live is learned behaviour. This means that, unlike our genes, it is possible to turn the clock backwards 90,000 years in just one generation. To avoid this we need to observe how the descendents of the original tribe learned to do many new things – forced by their new surroundings to adapt or perish.  This is essence of Improvement Science – changing context continuously creates new challenges – from which we can learn, adapt and flourish.

To someone born in rural England a mobile phone appears to be a relatively small step on a relentless technological evolution – to someone born in rural Africa it is a radical and world-changing paradigm shift – one that has already changed their lives.  In some parts of Africa money is now managed using mobile phones and this holds the promise of bypassing the endemic bureaucratic and corrupt practices that so often strangle the greens shoots of innovation and improvement. Information and communication is the lifeblood of improvement and to introduce a communication technology that is reliable, effective, and affordable into a vast potential for cultural innovation is rather like introducing a match to the touchpaper of a firework. Once the fuse has started to fizz there is no going back. The name given to this destabilising phenomenon is “disruptive innovation” and fortunately it can work for the good of all – so long as we steer it in a win-win-win direction. And that is a big challenge because our history suggests that we find exploitation easier than evolution and exploitation always leads to lose-lose-lose outcomes.

So while our global tribe may have learned enough to create a global phone system we still have much to learn about how to create a global social system.

Ignorance means “not knowing” and as the saying goes “Ignorance is bliss” because we do not worry about what we do not know about.  Or do we?

We are not totally ignorant – because we know that there are “unknowns” that would be of value to us. This knowledge creates an anxiety that we are very good at pushing out of awareness and despite the denial the unconscious feeling remains and it is emotionally corrosive. Repressed anxiety leads to the counter-productive behaviour of self-deception and then to self-justification – both of which are potent impedients to improvement.

We habitually, continuously and unconsciously discount the importance of what we do not know and in so doing we create internal emotional dissonance.  Our inner conflict drives external discounting behaviour and the inevitable toxic cultural consequence – Erosion of Trust.  Our inner conflict also drives internal discounting behaviour and the inevitable toxic emotional consequence – Erosion of  Confidence. This is the toxic emotional waste swamp that we create for ourselves and is the slippery slope that leads down to frustration, depression, cynicism and apathy. Ignorance  leads to anxiety and fear – and because we have conditioned ourselves to back away from fear we reflexly back away from ignorance and we end up trading fear for frustration. We do it to ourselves first and then we do it to others.

The antidote is counter-intuitive: it is to actively acknowledge and embrace our ignorance – and to do that we have to deliberately expose our own ignorance because we are very, very good at burying it from conscious view under a mountain of self-deception and self-justification.  We need to become Ignorace Miners.

The opposite of ignorance if knowledge and the good news is that we only need to scratch the surface to find knowledge nuggets – not huge ones perhaps – but plentiful. A bag of small knowledge nuggets is as valuable as an ingot of insight!

Knowledge nuggets are durable because they withstand cultural erosion but they can get washed away in the flood of toxic emotional waste and they can get buried under layers of cynical-resentful-arrogant-pessimism (CRAP).  These knowledge nuggests need to be re-gathered, re-freshed and re-cycled – and it is an endlessly exciting and energising experience.

So, when we are feeling fustrated, demotivated and depressed we just need to give ourselves a break and indulge in a bit of gentle ignorance mining – and when we do we will start to feel better immediately.

It seems that some people are better than others at figuring out what to do when presented with a new challenge.

Every day we are all presented with new challenges – c’est la vie – and for one challenge some of us seem to know what to do and others of us are left scratching our heads.

Yet, when presented with a different challenge the tables are turned.

Why is that?

Until recently I believed that improvement was just a matter of accumulating enough knowledge and experience – but the pattern seems to be evident in people of all ages and experience: there seems to be more to it than just experience.

So, I searched the Internet on the topic of “problem solving” and many of the references mentioned the word “intelligence” – a word that generates mixed feelings for me.

My mixed feelings came from an experience I had as a student. I am, by nature, both competitive and curious and I felt it would be useful to know my IQ and to meet others who shared my curiosity – so I did the Mensa test. I “passed” and was duly invited to a get-together at a local pub and was informed that I only needed to look for the distinctive yellow magazine to identify the meeting table (mensa is latin for table). I did not need the magazine to identify the table of Mensans and after that first encounter I chose not to return.  I had a sense that there was something missing – high IQ was not enough – and it was that “something” I was looking for.

I now know that mixed feelings are often a symptom of an over-simplification; a signpost to a deeper awareness; and a hint to keep digging for the deeper meaning. Here is a definition of the word “intelligence” that I found on Wikipedia:

“Intelligence: A very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—”catching on,” “making sense” of things, or “figuring out” what to do.

This definition resonates and prompted a question:
“Are there more forms of intelligence than the ones we are familiar with in the Mensa-style Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests? And if so, how many forms of intelligence are there and what are their characteristics?”

My intuition said “Yes – there are more than one” and I had the sense that are at least two forms; one that is conscious and that deals with quantities – so I labelled that as quantity-intelligence or quantigence; and another that is unconscious and deals with qualities – so I labelled that as quality-intelligence or qualigence.

It also felt that these are not independent of each other – they do not feel like two separate dimensions – they feel like two views of the same thing.  It just did not feel right that we might be observed, measured and scored on independent IQ scales and then classifed, arranged, ranked, selected, compared, and improved; it feels more dynamic than that.

Perhaps it is how well we are able to employ the multiple forms of IQ in a dynamic and synergistic way to figure out what to do more easily, more quickly and more often.

But what does all this have to do with Improvement Science?

Well because improvement only happens after we figure out what to do and then we actually do it. Both diagnosis and treatment are necessary and the sequence order is important – treatment before diagnosis carries a greater risk of unintended consequences – and unintended consequences are usually negative.

Challenges that require a balance of qualigence and quantigence at the diagnosis stage will appear “tougher” to solve and siuch challenges will tend to accumulate as a list of long-standing, unsolved and unspoken niggles – like a veritable herd of emotional elephants in the room.

This niggle-mine seems to be where the greatest opportunities for improvement are buried – nuggets of new knowledge waiting to be uncovered.

How then do we know if we have a qualigence-quantigence gap?

I concluded that if we are continually struggling with the same old problems; are spending a lot of effort, time, and money; and are not making progress then we  can be sure we have a gap somewhere. The questions are “what, where and how to convert our niggles into nuggets – our weaknesses into strengths?”.


It would appear that we need three ingredients – qualigence, quantigence, and an ability to dynamically integrate them into something that is even greater than the sum of the parts – something we might call synergy-intelligence or synergence.

To test this idea I searched the Internet for the word “synergence” and found many hits that resonated with this concept. Good.

Our next step might be to look more closely at the three ingredients and to ask:

  • Q1.  What would I need to diagnose and treat a quantigence gap?
  • Q2. What would I need to diagnose and treat a qualigence gap?
  • Q3. What would I need to diagnose and treat a synergence gap?

These are powerful questions.

I love words – they are a window into the workings of our caveman wetware. Spoken and written language is the remarkably recent innovation that opened the door to the development of civilisations because it allowed individual knowledge to accumulate, to be shared, to become collective and to span generations (the picture is 4000 year old Minoan script) .

We are social animals and we have discovered that our lives are more comfortable and more predictable if we arrange ourselves into collaborative groups – families, tribes and communities; and through our collaboration we have learned to tame our enironment enough to allow us to settle in one place and to concentrate more time and effort on new learning.  The benefits of this strategy comes at a price – because as the size of our communities grow we are forced to find new ways to make decisions that are in the best interests of everyone.  And we need to find new ways to help ourselves abide by those decisions as individuals without incurring the cost of enforcement.  The word “civis” means a person who shares the privileges and the duties of the community in which they live.  And size matters – hamlets, villages and towns developed along with our ability to behave in a “civilised” way. Eventually cities appeared around 6000 years ago – and the Greek word for a city is “polis”.  The bigger the city the greater the capacity to support learning and he specialistion of individual knowledge, skills and experience. This in turn fuels the growth of the group and the development of specialised groups – tribes within tribes. A positive feedback loop is created that drives bigger-and-bigger settlements and more and more knowledge. Until … we forget what it is that underpins the whole design – civilised behaviour.  While our knowkedge has evolved at an accelerating pace our caveman brains have not kept up – and this is where the three “Poli” words come in – they all derive from the same root “polis” and they describe a process:

1. Politic  is the method by which the collective decisions are generated.
2. Policy is the method by which the Political decisions are communicated.
3. Police is the method by which the System of Policies are implemented.

The problem arises when the growth of knowledge and the inevitable changes that result starts to challenge the current Politic+Policy+Police Paradigm that created the context for the change to happen.  The Polices are continulally evolving – as evidenced by the continuous process of legislation. The Paradigm can usually absorb a lot of change but there usually comes a point when it becomes increasingly apparent to the society the the Paradigm has to change radically to support further growth. The more rigid the Policy and the more power to enforce if present the greater the social pressure that builds before the paradigm fractures – and the greater the disruption that will ensue as the social pressure is released.  History is a long catalogue of political paradigm shifts of every size – from minor tremors to major quakes – shifts that are driven by our insatiable hunger for knowledge, understanding and meaning.

Improvement Science operates at the Policy stage and is therefore forms the critical link between Politics and Police.  The purpose of Improvement Science is to design, test and implement Policies that deliver the collective Win-Win-Win outcomes.  Improvement Science is an embodiment of civilised behaviour and it embraces both the constraints that are decided by the People and the constraints that are defined by the Physics.

Have you ever had the experience of trying to help someone with a problem, not succeeding, and being left with a sense of irritation, disappointment, frustration and even anger?

Was the dialog that led up to this unhappy outcome something along the lines of:

A: I have a problem with …
B: What about trying …
A: Yes, but ….
B: What about trying ….
A: Yes, but …

… and so on until you run out of ideas, patience or both.

If this sounds familiar then it is likely that you have been unwittingly sucked into a Drama Triangle – an unconscious, habitual pattern of behaviour that we all use to some degree.  This endemic behaviour has a hidden purpose: to feed our belonging need for social interaction.

The theory goes something like this – we are social animals and we need social interaction just as much as we need oxygen, water and food. Without it we become psychologically malnourished and this insight explains why prolonged solitary confinement is such an effective punishment – the psychological equivalent to starvation.

The  emotional food we want most is unconditional love (UCL) – the sort we usually get from our parents, family and close friends – repeated affirmation that we are OK and with no strings attached.

The downside of our unconscious desire for UCL is that it offers others the power to control our behaviour and who can choose to abuse that power.  This control is done by adding conditions: “I will give you the affirmation you crave IF you do what I want“.  This is conditional love (CL).

When we are born we are completely powerless, and completely dependent on our parents – in particular our mother.  As we get older and start to exert our free will we learn that our society has rules – we cannot just follow every selfish desire.

Our parents unconsciously employ CL as a form of behavioural control and it is surprisingly effective: “If you are a good boy/girl then …“.  So as children we learn the technique from our parents.

This in itself  is not a problem; but it can become a problem when CL is the only sort available and when the intention is to further only the interests of the giver.

When this happens it becomes … manipulation.

The apparently harmless playground threat of “If you don’t do what I want then I won’t be your friend anymore” is the practice script of the appentice manipulator – and implies a limiting-belief in the unconscious mind of the child – the belief that there is a limited supply of UCL and that someone else controls it.

And because we make this assumption at the pre-verbal stage of child development, it becomes unconscious, habitual and unspoken – it becomes second nature.


Our invalid childhood belief has a knock-on effect; we learn to survive on CL because “No Love” is the worst of all options; it is the psychological equivalent of starvation.

We learn to put up with second best, and because CL offers inferior emotional nourishment we need a way of generating as much as we want, on-demand.

So we employ the behaviour we were unwittingly taught by our patents – and the Drama Triangle becomes our on-demand-generator-of-second-rate-emotional-food.

The tangible evidence of this “programming” is an observable behaviour that is called “game playing” and was first described by Eric Berne in the famous book “Games People Play“.

Berne described many different Games and they all have a common pattern and a common objective – to generate second-rate emotional food (or ‘transactions’ to use Berne’s language).  But our harvest comes at a price – the transactions are unhealthy – not enough to harm us immediately – but enough to leave us feeling dissatisfied and unhappy.

But what choice do we believe we have?

If we were given the options of breathing stale air or suffocating what would we do?

If we assume our options are to die of thirst or drink stagnant pond-water what would we do?

If we believe our only options are to starve or eat crap what would we do?

Our survival instinct is even stronger than our belonging need, so we choose unhealthy over deadly and eventually we become so habituated to game-playing that we do not notice it any more.

Excessive and prolonged exposure to the Drama Triangle is the psychological equivalent of alcoholic liver cirrhosis.  Permanent and irreversible psychological scarring called cynicism.


It is important to remember that this is learned behaviour – and therefore it can be unlearned – or rather overwritten with a healthier habit.

Just by becoming aware of the problem, and understanding the root cause of the Drama Triangle, an alternative pathway appears. A healthier one.

We can challenge our untested assumption that UCL is limited and that someone else controls the supply.  We can consider the alternative hypothesis: that the supply of UCL is unlimited and that we control the supply.

Q: How easy is it for us to offer someone else UCL?

Easy – we see it all the time. How do you feel when someone gives a genuine “Thank You”, cheers you on, celebrates your success, seeks your opinion, and recommends you to others.  These are all forms of UCL that anyone can practice; by making a conscious choice to give with no expectation of a return.

For many people it feels uncomfortable at first because the game-playing behaviour is deeply ingrained – and game-playing is particularly prevalent in the corridors of power where it is called “politics”.

Game-free behaviour gets easier because UCL benefits both the giver and the receiver – it feels healthier – there is no need for a payback, there is no score to be kept, no emotional account to balance.  It is like a breath of fresh air.


So next time you feel that brief flash of irritation at the start of a conversation or are left with a negative feeling after a conversation just stop and ask yourself  “Was I just sucked into a Drama Triangle?”

Anyone able to “press your button” is hooking you into a game, and it takes two to play.

Now consider the question “And to what extent was I unconsciously colluding?


The tactic to avoid the Drama Triangle is to learn to sense the emotional “hook” that signals the invitation to play the Game; and to consciously deflect it before it embeds into your unconscious mind and triggers an unconscious, habitual, reflex reaction.

One of the most potent barriers to change is when we unconsciously compute that our previously reliable sources of CL are threatened by the change.  We have no choice but to oppose the change – and that choice is made unconsciously.

We undermine the plan.

The symptoms of this unconscious behaviour are obvious when you know what to look for … and the commonest reaction is:

“Yes … but …”

and the more intelligent and invested the person the more cogent and rational the argument will sound.

The most effective response is to provide evidence that disproves the defensive assertion – not the person’s opinion – and before taking on this challenge we need to prepare the evidence.

By demonstrating that their game-playing behaviour no longer leads to the expected payoff, and at the same time demonstrating that game-free behaviour is both possible and better – we demonstrate that the underlying, unconscious, limiting belief is invalid.

And by that route we develop our capability for game-free social interactions.

Simple enough in theory, and it does works in practice, though it can be difficult to learn because game-playing is such an ingrained behaviour.  It does get easier with practice and the ultimate reward is worth the investment  – a healthier emotional environment – at work and at home!

It is often assumed that if you combine world-class individuals into a team you will get a world-class team.

Meredith Belbin showed 30 years ago that you do not and it was a big shock at the time!

So, if world class individuals are not enough, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a world-class team?

The late Russell Ackoff described it perfectly – he said that if you take the best parts of all the available cars and put them together you do not get the best car – you do not even get a car. The parts are necessary but they are not sufficient – how the parts connect to each other and how they influence each other is more important.  These interdependencies are part of the system – and to understand a system requires understanding both the parts and their relationships.

A car is a mechanical system; the human body is a biological system; and a team is a social system. So to create a high performance, healthy, world class team requires that both the individuals and their relationships with each other are aligned and resonant.

When the parts are aligned we get more than the sum of the parts; and when they are not we get less.

If we were to define intelligence quotient as “an ability to understand and solve novel problems” then the capability of a team to solve novel problems is the collective intelligence.  Experience suggests that a group can appear to be less intelligent than any of the individual members.  The problem here is with the relationships between the parts – and the term that is often applied is “dysfunctional”.

The root cause is almost always distrustful attitudes which lead from disrespectful prejudices and that lead to discounting behaviour.  We learn these prejudices, attitudes and behaviours from each other and we reinforce them with years of practice.  But if they are learned then they can be un-learned. It is simple in theory, and it is possible in practice, but it is not easy.

So if we want to (dis)solve complex, novel problems thenwe need world-class problem solving teams; and to transform our 3rd class dysfunctional teams we must first learn to challenge respectfully our disrespectful behaviour.

The elephant is in the room!

Improvement Science is about learning from when what actually happens is different to that which we expected to happen.  Is this surprise a failure or is this a success? It depends on our perspective. If we always get what we expect then we could conclude that we have succeeded – yet we have neither learned anything nor improved. So have we failed to learn? In contrast, if we never get what we expected then we could conclude that we  always fail – yet we do not report what we have learned and improved.  Our expectation might be too high! So comparing outcome with expectation seems a poor way to measure our progress with learning and improvement.

When we try something new we should expect to be surprised – otherwise it would not be new.  It is what we learn from that expected surprise that is of most value. Sometime life turns out better than we expected – what can we learn from those experiences and how can we ensure that outcome happens again – predictably? Sometimes life turns out worse than we expected – what can we learn from those experiences and how can we ensure that outcome does not happen again, predictably?  So, yes it is OK for us to fail and to not get what we expected – first time.  What is not OK is for us to fail to learn from the lesson and to make an avoidable mistake more than once or miss an opportunity for improvement more than once.

Historians tell us that in the Middle Ages about 25 million people, one third of the population of Europe, were wiped out by a series of Plagues! We now know that the cause was probably a bacteria called Yersinia Pestis that was spread by fleas when they bite their human hosts to get a meal of blood. The fleas were carried by rats and ships carried the rats from one country to another.  The unsanitary living conditions of the ports and towns at the time provided the ideal conditions for rats and fleas and, with a superstitious belief that cats were evil, without their natural predator the population of rats increased, so the population of fleas increased, so the likehood of transmission of the lethal bacteria increased, and the number of people decreased. A classic example of a chance combination of factors that together created an unstable and deadly system.

The Black Death was not eliminated by modern hi-tech medicine; it just went away when some of the factors that fuelled the instability were reduced. A tangible one being the enforced rebuilding of London after the Great Fire in Sept 1666 which gutted the medieval city and which followed the year after the last Great Plague in 1665 that killed 20% of the population. 

The story is an ideal illustration of how apparently trivial, albeit  annoying, repeated occurences can ultimately combine and lead to a catastrophic outcome.  I have a name for these apparently trivial, annoying and repeated occurences – I call them Niggles – and we are plagued by them. Every day we are plagued by junk mail, unpredictable deliveries, peak time traffic jams, car parking, email storms, surly staff, always-engaged call centres, bad news, bureaucracy, queues, confusion, stress, disappointment, depression. Need I go on?  The Plague of Niggles saps our spirit just as the Plague of Fleas sucked our ancestors blood.  And the Plague of Niggles infect us with a life-limiting disease – not a rapidly fatal one like the Black Death – instead we are infected with a slow, progressive, wasting disease that affects our attitude and behaviour and which manifests itself as criticism, apathy and cynicism.  A disease that seems as terifying, mysterious and incurable to us today as the Plague was to our ancestors. 

History repeats itself and we now know that complex systems behave in characteristic ways – so our best strategy may the same – prevention. If we use the lesson of history as our guide we should be proactive and focus our attention on the Niggles. We should actively seek them out; see them for what they really are; exercise our amazing ability to understand and solve them; and then share the nuggets of new knowledge that we generate.

Seek-See-Solve-Share.

Time is an intangible – we can’t touch it, taste it, smell it, hear it or see it – yet we do sense it – and we know it is valuable. A precious commodity we call lifetime. We often treat lifetime as it if were tangible – something that we can see, hear, smell, taste and touch – something like money. We often hear the phrase “time is money” and we say things like “spending time” and “wasting time” – as if it were money. But time is not money; we cannot save time, we cannot buy time, and we all get the same amount of time per day to use.

Another odd thing about time is that we sense that it moves in one direction – from past to future with now as the transition. This creates an interesting discontinuity: if we look forward from now into the future we perceive an infinite number of possibilities; yet if we look backwards from now into the past we see only one actuality. That is really odd – Now is when Infinity becomes One.

So, how does that insight help us make a choice?  Well, suppose we have decided what we want in the future and are now trying to make a choice of what to do next; to plan our route to our future desired goal.  Looking from now forwards presents us with a very large number of paths to choose from, none of which we can be sure will lead us safely to where we want to get to.  So what happens? We may become paralysed by indecision; we may debate and argue about which path to take; we may boldly step out on a plausible path with hope and courage; or we may just guess and stumble on with blind faith.  Which we choose seems more a reflection of our personality than a rational strategy. So let us try something else – let us project ourselves into the future to the place where we want to be; and then let us look backwards in time from the future to the present. Now we see a single path that led to where we are; and by unpicking that path we can see that each step of it had a set of necessary and sufficient pre-conditions which, with the addition of time, moved us forward along the path.  Hindsight is much clearer than foresight and each of us has a lifetime’s worth of hindsight to reflect on; and the cumulative hindsight of history to draw on.  This is not an exercise in fantasy; we already have what we need.

To make our choice we start with the outcome we want and ask the question “What are the immediately preceeding necessary and sufficient conditions?”   Then for each condition we ask the question “Does that condition already exist?” If so then we stop – we need go no further on this side branch; and if not then we repeat the Two Questions and we keep going until we have linked our goal back to pre-conditions that exist.  All the pre-conditions in the map we have drawn are necessary but we do not yet have all of them. Some are only dependent on pre-conditions that exist – these are the important ones because they tell us exactly what to focus on doing next. Our choice is now obvious and simple – though the action may not be easy. No one said the journey would be easy!

Later in his career, the famous artist William Heath-Robinson (1872-1944) created works of great ingenuity that showed complex inventions that were created to solve real everyday problems.  The genius of his work was that his held-together-with-string contraptions looked comically plausible. This genre of harmless mad-inventorism has endured, for example as the eccentric Wallace and Grommet characters.

The problem arises when this seat-of-the-pants incremental invent-patch-and-fix approach is applied to real systems – in particular a healthcare system. We end up with the same result – a Heath-Robinson contraption that is held together with Red Tape.

The complex bureaucracy both holds the system together and clogs up the working – and everyone knows it. It is not harmless though – it is expensive, slow and lethal.  How then do we remove the Red Tape to allow the machine to work more quickly, more safely and more affordably – without the whole contraption falling apart?

A good first step would be to stop adding yet more Red Tape. A sensible next step would be to learn how to make the Red Tap redundant before removing it. However, if we knew how to do that already we would not have let the Red Tapeworms infest our healthcare system in the first place!  This uncomfortable conclusion raises some questions …

What insight, knowledge and skill are we missing?
Where do we need to look to find the skills we lack?
Who knows how to safely eliminate the Red Tapeworms?
Can they teach the rest of us?
How long will it take us to learn and apply the knowledge?
Why might we justify continuing as we are?
Why might we want to maintain the status quo?
Why might we ignore the symptoms and not seek advice?
What are we scared of? Having to accept some humility?

That doesn’t sound like a large price to pay for improvement!

Have you ever have the experience of trying to work on a common challenge with a team member and it just feels like you are on different planets?  You are using the same language yet are not communicating – they go off at apparently random tangents while you are trying to get a decision; they deluge you with detail when you ask about the big picture; you get upset when their cold logic threatens to damage team unity. The list is endless.  If you experience this sort of confusion and frustration then you may be experiencing a personality clash – or to be more accurate a pyschological type mismatch.

Carl Jung described a theory of psychological types that was later developed into the Myers-Briggs Type Indictator (MBTI).  This extensively validated method classifies people into sixteen broad groups based on four dimensions that are indicated by a letter code. It is important to appreciate that there are no good/bad types or right/wrong types – each describes a mode of thinking: a model of how we gather information, make decisions and act on those decisions.  Everyone uses all the modes of thinking to some degree – we just prefer some more than others and so we get more practice with them.  The purpose of MBTI is not to “correct” someone elses psychologcial type – it is to gain a conscious and shared awareness of the effect of psychological types on interpersonal and team dynamics. For example, some tasks and challenges suit some psychological types better than others – they resonate – and when this happens these tasks are achieved more easily and with greater satisfaction.  “One’s meat is another’s poison” sums the idea up.  Just having insight into this dynamic is helpful because it offers new options to avoid frustrating, futile and wasteful conflict.  So if you are curious find out your MBTI – you can do it on line in a few minutes (for example http://www.personalitytest.net/types/index.htm) and with that knowledge you can learn what your psychological type implies.  Mine is INFJ …

Just two, innocent-looking, three-letter words.

So what is the big deal? If you’ve been a parent of young children you’ll recognise the feeling of desperation that happens when your pre-schooler keeps asking the “But why?” question. You start off patiently attempting to explain in language that you hope they will understand, and the better you do that the more likely you are to get the next “But why?” response. Eventually you reach the point where you’re down to two options: “I don’t know!” or “Just because!”.  How are you feeling now about yourself and your young interrogator?

The troublemaker word is “but”. A common use of the word “but” in normal conversation is “Yes … but …” such as in “I hear what you are saying but …”.

What happens inside your head when you hear that?  Does it niggle? Does the red mist start to rise?

Used in this way the word “but” reveals a mental process called discounting – and the message that you registered unconsciously is closer to “I don’t care about you and your opinion, I only care about me and my opinion and here it comes so listen up!”.  This is a form of disrespectful behaviour that often stimulates a defensive response – even an argument – which only serves to further polarise the separate opinions, to deepen the mutual disrespect, and to erode trust.

It is a self-reinforcing negative-outcome counter-productive behaviour.

The trickster word is “why?”  When someone asks you this open-ended question they are often just using it as a shortcut for a longer series of closed, factual questions such as “how, what, where, when, who …”.  We are tricked because we often unconsciously translate “why?” into “what are your motives for …” which is an emotive question and can unconsciously trigger a negative emotional response. We then associate the negative feeling with the person and that hardens prejudices, erodes trust, reinforces resistance and fuels conflict.

My intention in this post is only to raise conscious awareness of this niggle.

If you are curious to test this youself – try consciously tuning in to the “but” and “why” words in conversation and in emails.  See if you can consciously register your initial emotional response – the one that happens in the split second before your conscious thoughts catch up. Then ask youself the question “Did I just have a positive or a negative feeling?

If your delivery time targets are giving you a pain in the #*&! then you may be sitting on a Horned Gaussian and do not realise it. What is a Horned Gaussian? How do you detect one? And what causes it?  To establish the diagnosis you need to gather the data from the most recent couple of hundred jobs and from it calculate the interval from receipt to delivery. Next create a tally chart with Delivery Time on the vertical axis and Counts on the horizontal axis; mark your Delivery Time Target as a horizontal line about two thirds of the way up the vertical axis; draw ten equally spaced lines between it and the X axis and five more above the Target. Finally, sort your delivery times into these “bins” and look at the profile of the histogram that results. If there is a clearly separate “hump” and “horn” and the horn is just under the target then you have confirmed the diagnosis of a Horned Gaussian. The cause is the Delivery Time Target, or more specifically its effect on your behaviour.  If the Target is externally imposed  and enforced using either a reward or a punishment then when the delivery time for a request approaches the Target, you will increase the priority of the request and the job leapfrogs to the front of the queue, pushing all the other jobs back. The order of the jobs is changing and in a severe case the large number of changing priorities generates a lot of extra work to check and reschedule the jobs.  This extra work exacerbates the delays and makes the problem worse, the horn gets taller and sharper, and the pain gets worse. Does that sound a familiar story? So what is the treatment? Well, to decide that you need to create a graph of delivery times in time order and look at the pattern (using charting tool such as BaseLine© www.valuesystemdesign.com makes this easier and quicker). What you do depends on what the chart says to you … it is the Voice of the Process.  Improvement Science is learning to understand the voice of the process.