Posts Tagged ‘leadership’

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 or 1,200,000 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 or 125,000 neurons for every 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.

We live in a world that is increasingly intolerant of errors – we want everything to be right all the time – and if it is not then someone must have erred with deliberate intent so they need to be named, blamed and shamed! We set safety standards and tough targets; we measure and check; and we expose and correct anyone who is non-conformant. We accept that is the price we must pay for a Perfect World … Yes? Unfortunately the answer is No. We are deluded. We are all habitual criminals. We are all guilty of committing a crime against humanity – the Crime of Metric Abuse. And we are blissfully ignorant of it so it comes as a big shock when we learn the reality of our unconscious complicity.

You might want to sit down for the next bit.

First we need to set the scene:
1. Sustained improvement requires actions that result in irreversible and beneficial changes to the structure and function of the system.
2. These actions require making wise decisions – effective decisions.
3. These actions require using resources well – efficient processes.
4. Making wise decisions requires that we use our system metrics correctly.
5. Understanding what correct use is means recognising incorrect use – abuse awareness.

When we commit the Crime of Metric Abuse, even unconsciously, we make poor decisions. If we act on those decisions we get an outcome that we do not intend and do not want – we make an error.  Unfortunately, more efficiency does not compensate for less effectiveness – if fact it makes it worse. Efficiency amplifies Effectiveness – “Doing the wrong thing right makes it wronger not righter” as Russell Ackoff succinctly puts it.  Paradoxically our inefficient and bureaucratic systems may be our only defence against our ineffective and potentially dangerous decision making – so before we strip out the bureaucracy and strive for efficiency we had better be sure we are making effective decisions and that means exposing and treating our nasty habit for Metric Abuse.

Metric Abuse manifests in many forms – and there are two that when combined create a particularly virulent addiction – Abuse of Ratios and Abuse of Targets. First let us talk about the Abuse of Ratios.

A ratio is one number divided by another – which sounds innocent enough – and ratios are very useful so what is the danger? The danger is that by combining two numbers to create one we throw away some information. This is not a good idea when making the best possible decision means squeezing every last drop of understanding our of our information. To unconsciously throw away useful information amounts to incompetence; to consciously throw away useful information is negligence because we could and should know better.

Here is a time-series chart of a process metric presented as a ratio. This is productivity – the ratio of an output to an input – and it shows that our productivity is stable over time.  We started OK and we finished OK and we congratulate ourselves for our good management – yes? Well, maybe and maybe not.  Suppose we are measuring the Quality of the output and the Cost of the input; then calculating our Value-For-Money productivity from the ratio; and then only share this derived metric. What if quality and cost are changing over time in the same direction and by the same rate? The productivity ratio will not change.


Suppose the raw data we used to calculate our ratio was as shown in the two charts of measured Ouput Quality and measured Input Cost  – we can see immediately that, although our ratio is telling us everything is stable, our system is actually changing over time – it is unstable and therefore it is unpredictable. Systems that are unstable have a nasty habit of finding barriers to further change and when they do they have a habit of crashing, suddenly, unpredictably and spectacularly. If you take your eyes of the white line when driving and drift off course you may suddenly discover a barrier – the crash barrier for example, or worse still an on-coming vehicle! The apparent stability indicated by a ratio is an illusion or rather a delusion. We delude ourselves that we are OK – in reality we may be on a collision course with catastrophe. 

But increasing quality is what we want surely? Yes – it is what we want – but at what cost? If we use the strategy of quality-by-inspection and add extra checking to detect errors and extra capacity to fix the errors we find then we will incur higher costs. This is the story that these Quality and Cost charts are showing.  To stay in business the extra cost must be passed on to our customers in the price we charge: and we have all been brainwashed from birth to expect to pay more for better quality. But what happens when the rising price hits our customers finanical constraint?  We are no longer able to afford the better quality so we settle for the lower quality but affordable alternative.  What happens then to the company that has invested in quality by inspection? It loses customers which means it loses revenue which is bad for its financial health – and to survive it starts cutting prices, cutting corners, cutting costs, cutting staff and eventually – cutting its own throat! The delusional productivity ratio has hidden the real problem until a sudden and unpredictable drop in revenue and profit provides a reality check – by which time it is too late. Of course if all our competitors are committing the same crime of metric abuse and suffering from the same delusion we may survive a bit longer in the toxic mediocrity swamp – but if a new competitor who is not deluded by ratios and who learns how to provide consistently higher quality at a consistently lower price – then we are in big trouble: our customers leave and our end is swift and without mercy. Competition cannot bring controlled improvement while the Abuse of Ratios remains rife and unchallenged.

Now let us talk about the second Metric Abuse, the Abuse of Targets.

The blue line on the Productivity chart is the Target Productivity. As leaders and managers we have bee brainwashed with the mantra that “you get what you measure” and with this belief we commit the crime of Target Abuse when we set an arbitrary target and use it to decide when to reward and when to punish. We compound our second crime when we connect our arbitrary target to our accounting clock and post periodic praise when we are above target and periodic pain when we are below. We magnify the crime if we have a quality-by-inspection strategy because we create an internal quality-cost tradeoff that generates conflict between our governance goal and our finance goal: the result is a festering and acrimonious stalemate. Our quality-by-inspection strategy paradoxically prevents improvement in productivity and we learn to accept the inevitable oscillation between good and bad and eventually may even convince ourselves that this is the best and the only way.  With this life-limiting-belief deeply embedded in our collective unconsciousness, the more enthusiastically this quality-by-inspection design is enforced the more fear, frustration and failures it generates – until trust is eroded to the point that when the system hits a problem – morale collapses, errors increase, checks are overwhelmed, rework capacity is swamped, quality slumps and costs escalate. Productivity nose-dives and both customers and staff jump into the lifeboats to avoid going down with the ship!  

The use of delusional ratios and arbitrary targets (DRATs) is a dangerous and addictive behaviour and should be made a criminal offense punishable by Law because it is both destructive and unnecessary.

With painful awareness of the problem a path to a solution starts to form:

1. Share the numerator, the denominator and the ratio data as time series charts.
2. Only put requirement specifications on the numerator and denominator charts.
3. Outlaw quality-by-inspection and replace with quality-by-design-and-improvement.  

Metric Abuse is a Crime. DRATs are a dangerous addiction. DRATs kill Motivation. DRATs Kill Organisations.

Charts created using BaseLine

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Donald Rumsfeld 2002

This infamous quotation is a humorously clumsy way of expressing a profound concept. This statement is about our collective ignorance – and it hides a beguiling assumption which is that we are all so similar that we just have to accept the things that we all do not know. It is OK to be collectively and blissfully ignorant. But is this OK? Is this not the self-justifying mantra of those who live in the Land of the Blind?

Our collective blissful ignorance holds the promise of great unknown gains; and harbours the potential of great untold pain.

Our collective knowledge is vast and is growing because we have dissolved many Unknowns.  For each there must have been a point in time when the first person become painfully aware of their ignorance and, by some means, discovered some new knowledge. When that happened they had a number of options – to keep it to themselves, to share it with those they knew, or to share it with strangers. The innovators dilemma is that when they share new knowledge they know they will cause emotional pain; because to share knowledge with the blissfully ignorant implies pushing them to the state of painful awareness.

We are social animals and we demonstrate empathy and respect for others, so we do not want to deliberately cause them emotional pain – even the short term pain of awareness that must preceed the long term gain of knowledge, understanding and wisdom. It is the constant challenge that every parent, every teacher, every coach, every mentor, every leader and every healer has to learn to master.

So, how do we deal with the situation when we are painfully aware that others are in the state of blissful ignorance – of not knowing what they do not know – and we know that making them aware will be emotionally painful for them – just as it was for us? We know from experience that that an insensitive, clumsy, blunt, brutal, just-tell-it-as-it is approach can cause pain-but-no-gain; we have all had experience of others who seem to gain a perverse pleasure from the emotional impact they generate by triggering painful awareness. The disrespectful “means-justifies-the-ends” and “cruel-to-be-kind” mindset is the mantra of those who do not walk their own talk – those who do not challenge their own blissful ignorance – those who do not seek to gain an understanding of how to foster effective learning without inflicting emotional pain.

The no-pain-no-gain life limiting belief is an excuse – not a barrier. It is possible to learn without pain – we have all been doing it for our whole lives; each of us can think of people who inspired us to learn and to have fun doing so – rare and memorable role models, bright stars in the darkness of disappointment. Our challenge is to learn how to inspire ourselves.

The first step is to create an emotionally Safe Environment for Learning and Fun (SELF). For the leader/teacher/healer this requires developing an ability to build a culture of trust by actively unlearning their own trust-corroding-behaviours.  

The second step is to know what we know – to be sure of our facts and confident that we can explain and support what we know with evidence and insight. To deliberately push someone into painful awareness with no means to guide them out of that dark place is disrespectful and untrustworthy behaviour. Learning how to teach what we know is the most effective means to discover our own depth of understanding and it is an energising exercise in humility development! 

The third step is for us to have the courage to raise awareness in a sensitive and respectful way – sometimes this is done by demonstrating the knowledge; sometimes this is done by asking carefully framed questions; and sometimes it is done as a respectful challenge.  The three approaches are not mutually exclusive: leading-by-example is effective but leaders need to be teachers and healers too.  

At all stages the challenge for the leader/teacher/healer is to to ensure they maintain an OK-OK mental model of those they influence. This is the most difficult skill to attain and is the most important. The “Leadership and Self-Deception” book that is in the Library of Improvement Science is a parable that decribes this challenge.

So, how do we dissolve the One-Eyed Man in the Land of the Blind problem? How do we raise awareness of a collective blissful ignorance? How do we share something that is going to cause untold pain and misery in the future – a storm that is building over the horizon of awareness.

Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865) was the young Hungarian doctor who in 1847 discovered the dramatic live-saving benefit of the doctors cleaning their hands before entering the obstetric ward of the Vienna Hospital. This was before “germs” had been discovered and Semmelweis could not explain how his discovery worked – all he could do was to exhort others to do as he did. He did not learn how the method worked, he did not publish his data, and he demonstrated trust-eroding behaviour when he accused others of “murder” when they did not do as he told them.  The fact the he was correct did not justify the means by which he challenged their collective blissful ignorance (see for a fuller account).  The book that he eventually published in 1861 includes the data that supports our modern understanding of the importance of hand hygiene – but it also includes a passionate diatribe of how he had been wronged by others – a dramatic example of the “I’m OK and The Rest of the World is Not OK” worldview. Semmelweis was committed to a lunatic asylum and died there in 1865.   

W Edwards Deming (1900-1993) was the American engineer, mathematician, mathematical physicist, statistician and student of Walter A. Shewhart who learned the importance of quality in design. After WWII he was part of the team who helped to rebuild the Japanese economy and he taught the Japanese what he had learned and practiced during WWII – which was how to create a high-quality, high-speed, high-efficiency process which, ironically, was building ships for the war effort. Later Deming attempted, and failed, to influence the post-war generation of managers that were being churned out by the new business schools to serve the growing global demand for American mass produced consumer goods. Deming returned to relative obscurity in the USA until 1980 when his teachings were rediscovered when Japan started to challenge the USA economically by producing higher-quality-and-lower-cost consumer products such as cars and electronics ( Before he died in 1993 Deming wrote two books – Out of The Crisis and The New Economics in which he outlines his learning and his philosophy and in which he unreservedly and passionately blames the managers and the business schools that trained them for their arrogant attitude and disrespectful behaviour. Like Semmelweis, the fact that his books contain a deep well of wisdom does not justify the means by which he disseminated his criticism of poeple – in particular of senior management. By doing so he probably created resistance and delayed the spread of knowledge.  

History is repeating itself: the same story is being played out in the global healthcare system. Neither senior doctors nor senior managers are aware of the opportunity that the learning of Semmelweis and Deming represent – the opportunity of Improvement Science and of the theory, techniques and tools of Operations Management. The global healthcare system is in a state of collective blissful ignorance.  Our descendents be the recipients of of decisions and the judges of our behaviour – and time is running out – we do not have the luxury of learning by making the same mistake.

Fortunately, there is an growing group of people who are painfully aware of the problem and are voicing their concerns – such as the Institute of Healthcare Improvement  in America. There is a smaller and less well organised network of people who have acquired and applied some of the knowledge and are able to demonstrate how it works – the Know Hows. There appears to be an even smaller group who understand and use the principles but do it intuitively and unconsciously – they dem0nstrate what is possible but find it difficult to teach others how to do what they do. It is the Know How group that is the key to dissolving the problem.

The first collective challenge is to sign-post some safe paths from Collective Blissful Ignorance to Individual Know How. The second collective challenge is to learn an effective and respectful way to raise awareness of the problem – a way to outline the current reality and the future opportunity – and a way that illuminates the paths that link the two.

In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is the person who discovers that everyone is wearing a head-torch by accidentally finding his own and switching it on!


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.

If you feel miserable at work and do not know what to do then then take heart because you could be suffering from a treatable organisational disease called CRAP (cynically resistant arrogant pessimism).

To achieve a healthier work-life then it is useful to understand the root cause of CRAP and the rationale of how to diagnose and treat it.

Organisations have three interdependent dimensions of performance: value, time and money.  All organisations require both the people and the processes to be working in synergy to reliably deliver value-for-money over time.  To create a productive system it is necessary to understand the relationships between  value, money and time. Money is easier because it is tangible and durable; value is harder because it is intangible and transient. This means that the focus of attention is usually on the money – and it is often assumed that if the money is OK then the value must be OK too.  This assumption is incorrect.

Value and money are interdependent but have different “rates of change”  and can operate in different “directions”.  A common example is when a dip in financial performance triggers an urgent “drive” to improve the “bottom line”.  Reactive revenue generation and cost cutting results in a small, quick, and tangible improvement on the money dimension but at the same time sets off a large, slow, and intangible deterioration on the value dimension.  Money, time and  value are interdependent and the inevitable outcome is a later and larger deterioration in the money – as illustrated in the doodle. If only money is measured the deteriorating value is not detected, and by the time the money starts to falter the momentum of the falling value is so great that even heroic efforts to recover are futile. As the money starts to fall the value falls even further and even faster – the lose-lose-lose spiral of organisational failure is now underway.

People who demonstrate in their attitude and behaviour that they are miserable at work provide the cardinal sign of falling system value. A miserable, sceptical and cynical employee poisons the emotional atmosphere for everyone around them. Misery is both defective and infective.  The primary cause of a miserable job is the behaviour exhibited by people in positions of authority – and the more the focus is only on money the more misery their behaviour generates.

Fortunately there is an antidote; a way to break out of the vicious tail spin – measure both value and money, focus on improving value and observe the positive effect on the money.  The critical behaviour is to actively test the emotional temperature and to take action to keep it moving in a positive direction.  “The Three Signs of a Miserable Job” by Patrick Lencioni tells a story of how an experienced executive learns that the three things a successful managerial leader must do to achieve system health are:
1) ensure employees know their unique place, role and value in the whole system;
2) ensure employees can consciously connect their work with a worthwhile system goal; and
3) ensure employees can objectively measure how they are doing.

Miserable jobs are those where the people feel anonymous, where people feel their work is valueless, and where people feel that they get no feedback from their seniors, peers or juniors. And it does not matter if it is the cleaner or the chief executive – everyone needs a role, a goal and to know all their interdependencies.

We do not have to endure a Miserable Job – we all have the power to transform it into Worthwhile Work.

Do you ever feel a sense of dread when you are summoned to an urgent meeting; or when you get the minutes and agenda the day before your monthly team meeting; or when you see your diary full of meetings for weeks in advance – like a slow and painful punishment?

If so then you may have unwittingly sentenced yourself to Death by Meeting.  What?  We do it to ourselves? No way! That would be madness!

But think about it. We consciously and deliberately ingest all sorts of other toxins: chemicals like caffeine, alcohol and cigarette smoke – so what is so different about immersing ourselves in the emotional toxic waste that many meetings seem to generate?

Perhaps we have learned to believe that there is no other way and because we have never experienced focussed, fun, and effective meetings where problems are surfaced, shared and solved quickly – problems that thwart us as individuals. Meetings where the problem-solving sum is greater than the problem-accumulating parts.

A meeting is a system that is designed to solve  problems.  We can improve our system incrementally but it is a slow process; to achieve a breakthrough we need to radically redesign the system.  There are three steps to doing this:

1. First decide what sort of problems the meeting is required to solve: strategic, operational or tactical;
2. Second design, test and practice a problem solving process for each category of problem; and
3. Third, select the appropriate tool for the task.

In his illuminating book Death by Meeting, Patrick Lencioni describes three meeting designs and illustrates with a story why meetings don’t work if the wrong tool is used for the wrong task. It is a sobering story.

There is another dimension to the design of meetings; that is how we solve problems as groups – and how, as a group, we seem to waste a lot of effort and time in unproductive discussion.  In his book Six Thinking Hats Edward De Bono provides an explanation for our habitual behaviour and a design for a radically different group problem solving process – one that a group would not arrive at by evolution – but one that has been proven to work.

If  we feel sentenced to death-by-meetings then we could buy and read these two small books – a zero-risk, one-off investment of effort, time and money for a guaranteed regular reward of fun, free time and success!

So if I complain to myself and others about pointless meetings and I have not bothered to do something about it myself then I now know that it is I who sentenced myself to Death-by-Meeting. Unintentionally and unconsciously perhaps – but me nevertheless.

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 and with that knowledge you can learn what your psychological type implies.  Mine is INFJ …

Some fabulous new SPC software, called BaseLine© is now available – it’s designed for organizations and individuals who see the advantages in having people use a standard performance charting tool that’s statistically robust yet straight forward to use even for the uninitiated. As well as being highly accessible, at under £50 it is easily the most inexpensive option now available.

There is even a time-unlimited FREE version.

BaseLine© is obtainable via

How might some people be offended by performance charting?

The idea behind BaseLine© is that most every organisation is these days awash with time-series data, usually held in spreadsheet form, yet very little of it is used to diagnose systemic change. Even people who are held accountable for performance are often unaware of the gold that lies beneath their feet – or if they are aware, are for some reason reluctant to make use of it. Because BaseLine© is so accessible – there really is no longer any reason to avoid using SPC, but wait ..

.. observing those who are taking the plunge it’s becoming clearer to me where this reluctance might be coming from. Whilst some of it is due undoubtedly to low organisational expectation, I’m detecting that some of it is also due to low self-perception of capability, and some might even be because BaseLine© somehow confronts the personal value-set of particular managers. Let me refer to these value sets and capabilities as “memes”(1) and allow myself the luxury of speculatively labelling each one – so that I can treat each as a hypothesis that might later be tested – to see if the accumulating evidence either supports or refutes it. So here goes ..

1. The “Accountability-avoidance” meme – Those comfortable and skilled enough to hold a senior position may still however be inhabited by this meme, which can actually apply at any level in an organisational hierarchy. To most people it is an essential underpinning of their self-esteem to be able to feel that they’ve personally made a contribution whilst at work. It’s safer therefore (at least unconsciously) to be able to avoid roles for which any direct or personal performance measurement is attached – and there are plenty of such roles.
2. The “anti-Management” meme – According to this meme there’s something dehumanising about asking anyone to manage a process that delivers an outcome to someone who might appreciate it. Those who embody this value-set may also think that Management sounds altogether too boring when compared to Leadership since not much good happens unless people can feel good about it, and people have to be led to achieve anything meaningful and lasting. If there’s any management to be done it should be done by the followers.
3. The “anti-Control freak” meme – People holding this meme tend to dislike the whole idea of control, unless it’s the empowering of others to be in control – and even this may be considered too dangerous since the power to control anything can so easily be abused.
4. The “anti-Determinism” meme – Inside this meme Albert Einstein is considered as having completely supplanted the Newtonian “predict and control paradigm” as opposed to having merely built upon it. Life is viewed as inherently uncertain, and there’s a preference for believing that little can be reliably predicted, so it’s best to adopt an “act first/ ask questions later” approach. Deepak Chopra fans for example will know that “the past is history, and the future a mystery” and that therefore almost any form of planning is repellent – instead, emergence is the thing most highly valued.
5. The “Numerophobia” meme – so widespread is the tendency to avoid numbers, it may be easier to think of this as a syndrome rather than a meme – indeed, in the extreme it is a medical condition called “dyscalculia.” Whilst few people readily admit to being illiterate, there are many who are relatively happy to announce that they “don’t do numbers” – and some have even learned that it pays to be proud of it. In one recent UK study 11% were designated illiterate, but 40% innumerate.
6. The “iNtuitives rule” meme – People who are inhabited by this meme are those who may well feel comfortable weaving (even spinning) their story without the benefit of data that’s been fully “sensed”. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator – scores around 25% of people as N (iNtuitive), the remaining 75% being Sensors – who prefer to look for and absorb data via their 5 senses, data that to them feels tangibly “real.” On average around 12% people score as having N/T (intuitive thinking) preferences – yet exec teams & boards often score at more than 50%. Is this because they have had to become comfortable feeling disconnected from the customer interface, or because they were always that way inclined and therefore gravitated towards the apex of the hierarchy?
7. The “anti-Science” meme – According to this meme even the fact that I’m labelling these value-sets/ memes at all, will be seen as being antithetical – regardless of whether it might in some way prove to be a useful scientific device for advancing knowledge. People in organisations may behave in a way that’s anti-science in that tasks and projects are typically carried out in a Plan-Do-Review sequence – unaware that Plan-Do-Study-Act represents the scientific method in action, and is an entirely different paradigm.
8. the “protect my group or profession” meme – According to this meme, people are confident that they know what they know – and have spent several years of their life being trained to acquire that knowledge. They less aware of the extent to which this has formed their mental maps and how these in turn direct their opinions. When in doubt, reference is made to the writings and utterances of their personal or professional gurus – and quoted verbatim, frequently out of context. When a new tool arrives, the default position is: if I don’t recognise it, it should be rejected – until one of the gurus authenticates it.

Wow, when I started the list I didn’t think there would be as many as eight.

Individuals and organizations that are already, or can become, comfortable with applying the scientific method in their organisations – and personally – as a system, will see the profundity in a tool like BaseLine©. Others will miss it altogether, and one or more of the memes listed above could be preventing them seeing it. I’ll continue to collect more data, both sensed and intuited, and report on my findings in a future blog.

One source of test data will of course be the comments I solicit from readers of this blog, so having read these labels and descriptions, do you notice any reactive feelings? If so, can you accurately describe what you feel most confronted by? I’d be delighted to hear from you.

(1) Richard Dawkins coined (or adapted) the word “meme” in The Selfish Gene (1976) as a value set, or a postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices – which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. It’s sometimes used synonymously with the phrase “world view.” Clare Graves then made the Value meme (vMeme) a core concept in his Spiral Dynamics model – see Beck D.E & Cowan C.C. : “Spiral Dynamics – Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change” – 1996