Posts Tagged ‘Metaphor’

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.

There is a group of diseases called “inborn errors of metabolism” which are caused by a faulty or missing piece of DNA – the blueprint of life that we inherit from our parents. DNA is the chemical memory that stores the string of instructions for how to build every living organism – humans included. If just one DNA instruction becomes damaged or missing then we may lose the ability to make or to remove one specific chemical – and that can lead to a deficiency or an excess of other chemicals – which can then lead to dysfunction – which can then make us feel unwell – and can then limit both our quality and quantity of life.  We are a biological system of interdependent parts. If an inborn error of metabolism is lethal it will not be passed on to our offspring because we don’t live long enough – so the ones we see are the ones which and not lethal.  We treat the symptoms of an inborn error of metabolism by artificially replacing the missing chemical – but the way to treat the cause is to repair, replace or remove the faulty DNA.

The same metaphor can be applied to any social system. It too has a form of DNA which is called culture – the inherited set of knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that the organisation uses to conduct itself in its day-to-day business of survival. These patterns of behaviour are called memes – the social equivalent to genes – and are passed on from generation to generation through language – body language and symbolic language; spoken words – stories, legends, myths, songs, poems and books – the cultural collective memory of the human bio-psycho-social system. All human organisations share a large number of common memes – just as we share a large number of common genes with other animals and plants and even bacteria. Despite this much larger common cultural heritage – it is the differences rather than the similarities that we notice – and it is these differences that spawn the cultural conflict that we observe at all levels of society.

If, by chance alone, an organisation inherits a depleted set of memes it will appear different to all the others and it will tend to defend that difference rather than to change it. If an organisation has a meme defect, a cultural mutation that affects a management process, then we have the organisational condition called an Inborn Error of Management – and so long as the mutation is not lethal to the organisation it will tend to persist and be passed largely unnoticed from one generation of managers to the next!

The NHS was born in 1948 without a professional management arm, and while it survived and grew initally, it became gradually apparent that the omisson of the professional management limb was a problem; so in the 1980’s, following the Griffiths Report, a large dose professional management was grafted on and a dose of new management memes were injected. These included finance, legal and human resource management memes but one important meme was accidentally omitted – process engineering – the ability to design a process to meet a specific quality, time and cost specification.  This omission was not noticed initially because the rapid development of new medical technologies and new treatments was delivering improvements that obscured the inborn error of management. The NHS became the envy of many other countries – high quality healthcare available to all and free at the point of delivery.  Population longevity improved, public expectation increased, demand for healthcare increased and inevitably the costs increased.  In the 1990’s the growing pains of the burgeoning NHS led to a call for more funding, quoting other countries as evidence, and at the turn of the New Millenium a ten year plan to pump billions of pounds per year into the NHS was hatched.  Unfortunately, the other healthcare services had inherited the same meme defect – so the NHS grew 40% bigger but no better – and the evidence is now accumulatung that productivity (the ratio of output quality to input cost) has actally fallen by more than 10% – there are more people doing more work but less well.  The UK along with many other countries has hit an economic brick wall and the money being sucked into the NHS cannot increase any more – even though we have created a legacy of an increasing proportion of retired and elderly members of society to support. 

The meme defect that the NHS inherited in 1948 and that was not corrected in the transplant operation  1980’s is now exerting it’s influence – the NHS has no capability for process engineering – the theory, techniques, tools and training required to design processes are not on the curriculum of either the NHS managers or the clinicians. The effect of this defect is that we can only treat the symptoms rather than the cause – and we only have blunt and ineffective instruments such as a budget restriction – the management equivalent of a straight jacket – and budget cuts – the management equivalent of a jar of leeches. To illustrate the scale of the effect of this inborn error of management we only need to look at other organisations that do not appear to suffer from the same condition – for example the electronics manufacturing industry. The almost unbelieveable increase in the performance, quality and value for money of modern electronics over the last decade (mobile phones, digital cameras, portable music players, laptop computers, etc) is because these industries have invested in developing both their electrical and process engineering capabilities. The Law of the Jungle has weeded out the companies who did not – they have gone out of business or been absorbed – but publically funded service organisations like the NHS do not have this survival pressure – they are protected from it – and trying to simulate competition with an artificial internal market and applying stick-and-carrot top-down target-driven management is not a like-for-like replacement.    

The challenge for the NHS is clear – if we want to continue to enjoy high quality health care, free at the point of delivery, and that we can afford then we will need to recognise and correct our inborn error of management. If we ignore the symptoms, deny the diagnosis and refuse to take the medicine then we will suffer a painful and lingering decline – not lethal and not enjoyable – and it is has a name: purgatory.

The good news is that the treatment is neither expensive, nor unpleasant nor dangerous – process engineering is easy to learn, quick to apply, and delivers results almost immediately – and it can be incorporated into the organisational meme-pool quite quickly by using the see-do-teach vector. All we have to do is to own up to the symptoms, consider the evidence, accept the diagnosis, recognise the challenge and take our medicine. The sooner the better!


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!

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?