Comfort and Privacy

How could something as simple as a stand-up be a potential invasion of privacy?

What if someone feels a bit unwell on the day and standing up in the same place for 15 minutes or more is very hard for them to do? What are their options?

They could stay silent – after all, we want to be seen as part of the team and not a ‘party pooper’ by asking to sit down.

They could make an excuse – ‘apologies – I need to dash to another meeting’ – or something like that.

They could tell people what is wrong (which could range from a mild illness to something more severe).

We need to consider this when we lead teams. We should not expect people to share private information – there is no need for us to know some of these things, and in a normal workplace, it’s not a problem.

Many Agile ways of working and workshop facilitation methods, fail to fully consider  diversity and inclusion. When we do consider diversity, we will offer ways for people to opt out of activities in ways that allow everyone to ‘save face’ and maintain their private information.

My ask of the Lean and Agile communities is to take a moment, pause and consider the above – let’s ensure that our ways of working are fully inclusive and not causing discomfort to anyone.


In the modern world, with its sense of image, popularity polls and populous mantra; a more primitive relative may observe this behaviour and trend as wishy-washy and indecisive.

Think about the general trend that has become common place, talent shows like Idol, X factor, Voice; shows like Big Brother where people are voted out. Can you say Bah! We follow like sheep, chasing the populous’s approval, hoping it will lead to our goals of increased sales, profit, reduction of wasteful spending.

These shows are a sign of the times, we want to know our profitability before we even start building. Even when built we do trials to tweak or discard prototypes. Feedback has become the double edged sword that can destroy an otherwise perfectly good idea or “hone it to perfection”. All heavily skewed by general knowledge, biases and experiences of the sampled group, dangerous territory for a cutting edge, revolutionary concept or product. The old axiom “the customer doesn’t know what they want, until they see it”, springs to mind.

For the known domain, where the type of product is well established and only slight variation, in either packaging or product is the goal then feedback is definitely the path forward. All the variables are well known or they follow well defined parameters. In this environment feedback enhances, tweaks and maximises but what about more unknown or unexplored environments? What about original thought?

In these more abstract, uncertain, unknown and unexplored conditions experimentation not feedback is the only true viable option.

Let me clarify. Feedback in this context does not include the information gathered by the investigative experimentation from analysis; even though technically results are a type of feedback.

Feedback is considered here as the third party opinions often collected and given even when not asked for. The designed by committee, too many cooks and option paralysis scenarios, most of us have felt it; when the process becomes too process heavy, that forward movement is but an illusion. The end result is often frustration, depression and often listlessness, we are emotionally like sharks and require forward movement to maintain our happiness.

This double edged sword, feedback is seen, even in our everyday lives, in the auto correct functions of word processors, the GPS navigational aids, calculators and even in programming tools to aid the programer. They all have their place and offer improvements in efficiency, yet they also take and undermine.

How many of us have checked to see that auto correct has “corrected” our spelling in an inappropriate manner, hopefully we catch it before we hit the send button.

Calculators are a useful tool, yet we have reduced or lost the ability to do mental arithmetic, in the pursuit for a rapid answer. People now days find it difficult to mentally estimate the total of their shopping, to see if they have enough money to cover it. Without a calculator the modern world stops.

Programming tools are a valuable tool and offer feedback upon our coding options and are often relied upon, for increased speed and guidance. The problem is that it can become a crutch, undermining and slowing the development of coding proficiency. The easy answer given by tools such as this, tempt us into a false sense of ability and takes from us the opportunities of discovering our own techniques and understanding of the code.

My personal favourite would have to be GPS navigation, I hate this one and therefore don’t have it. The course is plotted and locked into your Nav computer and you prefer to do something different, maybe you don’t like U-turns, it’s a very busy intersection, whatever the case, the GPS get almost annoyed offering recalculations again and again, demanding you comply. Then the pinnacle of folly, drivers that drive off cliffs etc by blindly following their GPS tools.

The reliance upon the feedback, given by an ever increasing number of auto correctional tools has resulted in a stifling of human ability for self analysis. The fundamental flaw with feedback mechanisms is that they often suffer from a static and fixed reference point. The coding tools can only give you the options its developers knew. The GPS navigation is only as accurate as its data and does not know your emotional state or wether you hate U turns, you the driver should be in positive control of your vehicle at all times and not defer part of the responsibility to a disembodied voice.

Feedback should never be the sword used to control or influence our direction or outcome, it’s a guide a sounding board. It should be part of the equation but never the solution.

Designed by committee, how many times have we all suffered through this and option paralysis. It all starts as a good idea if we can get a sense of what is required or in what direction we should head, then things will become clear and we will have a greater chance of success. The irony is that when we defer control to external influences we often lose our way. The reason for this is basic, we’re all different so what others may suggest usually doesn’t gel for us.

Feedback should be a guide, a navigational aid for our endeavours.

Unintended or invisible consequences

Have you ever tried to do a nice thing that went completely pear shaped ? 

Have you ever said something that was taken out of context ?

These are the unforeseen consequences, that surround us every day of our lives. The basic fact is that every interaction is open to misinterpretation. Sounds absurd but I propose it’s painfully true. The fact no one can read your mind or understand precisely what you mean is founded in the variety of life experiences we all have. We all have a “mental rule book” that we inherit/adapt/devise as we live our lives, moulded by our experiences and more importantly, our interpretation and responses to them.

Management and the unintended and invisible consequences

We are a modern culture of goal driven and result focused beings, rushing towards completion. The result is that there is entry level and management and the erosion of the middle.

The loss of the middle
The rush to completion culture, that is modern life, results in an erosion of the middle. Think about it, there is a devaluing and almost loss reflected by the middle layers of our work place and lives. This doesn’t mean that the middle layers don’t exist anymore because they do and if anything there are more of them. What has happened is the middle has expanded all while an erosion of its substance/quality has occurred. The middle has become a waiting room with no intrinsic value, just a place on the way to somewhere else. We are all trying to be/get somewhere else and therefore are focused forward and not in the present. It’s like people who are so busy, thinking of the next thing say, that they actually aren’t listening. They are actually, just frantically scanning /searching for the next sound bite to hang their comments upon. This type of hollowness is symptomatic of the erosion of the middle. This layer has become what I call “fluff” taking up a lot of room but with no real substance. The term busy work, tends to be made for this middle layer. So why has this happened?

Apprentice easy to learn hard to master

I remember buying a backgammon set when I was very young which had an instruction booklet with it. The instructions/rules were rather simple but it ended with this statement “easy to learn but hard to master” this line always resonated with me because I was a moratore’s son and knew that most things are easy to learn but really hard to master. The mastery of a skilled task takes time, time to encounter all possibilities and time to develop responses and reactions to them.

How many of us have learnt things, passed the exams and only years later, does the penny, actualy drop? Only then do we see for the first time what the concepts heart or the true nature of the knowledge was. Maths is littered with these sort of realisations, trigonometry is one.

Trig Wiki
I remember being told by a professor at university, when I was demonstrating and discussing with him how we learn and teach. He replied you only really learn something when you have to teach it, when you first learn anything, it is really just a getting to know you exercise, like a first date. This introduction allows you to pass an examine but really only superficially introduces you to the concepts involved. This initial exposure familiarises you with specific terms and basic concepts, so when you actually need to know and teach that lesson you can find the solution more easily and make it part of you.

The act of learning is greatly enhanced by teaching, why? The answer is simplicity itself. Everyone sees and exists in the world differently, these differences mean that when you learn something and try to understand it, you frame it in familiar and logical steps, for you anyway. When others try to learn and understand the same lesson they will also try to make sense of it according to their life view and understandings. So it’s obvious that when teaching you will find a continuum of how others perceive and try to understand the lesson. Some will think very much like yourself, others slightly differently and still others will need vastly different points of reference to come to terms with and understand the lesson. Good teachers must and can rephrase and explain things in a variety of ways, this necessity is what makes teaching the best way to learn because it stretches us to examine what we “know” from other perspectives and points of view.

The unforeseen consequence of teaching is you learn much more completely. This takes time and understanding.

So why do we rush to “completion” ?
Our modern culture is densely populated with 5 year plans, strategies, expectations, milestones and the list goes on and on. Every minute of every day in our lives is under constant scrutiny both internally and externally. We must develop and attain certain milestones within culturally expected time frames or we seem to be ineffectual or below the curve.

There is no room or time for mastery, we learn and we move on. The modern view is that “the now” is only a stepping stone to a future goal. The worth of the journey seems lost to us and only the allure of promotion and success is our goal. We have become tradesmen, with no patience or will to develop into master craftsmen. Society accepts the passable, to feed instant gratification and speed. The respect and value of craftsmanship and quality has become subservient to efficiency and greed. The attention span of the modern world is framed by sound bites and popularity poles.

Bread and Circus rule the day, with distractions and being seen as cutting edge, objectives in themselves.

Think about your workplace, how many times do we heard “they’ve been in that dead end job for years”, “they have no ambition” these statements maybe true but only partially so. The fact maybe that the worker derives get pleasure and satisfaction in developing their skills beyond acceptable and into the realm of mastery. Yet we don’t acknowledge this, we only see the same person in the same role, and evaluate this as “what is wrong with them?”

The absolute irony I noted while I was working IT, no matter how expert and skilled the programers were they were never “appreciated” as much as management. In fact it was sad to watch true masters of coding, having to become management so they could earn more money and get some appreciation. The actual engine which kept the company in business was devalued because they were content applying their craft. The ironic topper to this observation, was that graduates who had studied coding, just used coding to get a foot into a company, so they could quickly move into the management streams. Does the saying “too many Chiefs and not enough Indians”, spring to mind.

Words of wisdom from my father an old muratore “It takes hardly any extra effort to do a good job than a bad one.” This is very true, when you actually think about it, how much time, effort and money has been flushed down the toilet by bad projects with little or nothing to show for it?

The unforeseen consequence of our modern society is we rush to our goals and loose sight of the reasons and real benefits why we started in the first place.

There seems to be a disconnect between the limbs and the governing body, the brain. The “new talent” needs mentors to help and aid learning of best practises, while the “wiser” and older ones need the vitality of youth to physically accomplish the task and encourage new exploration into possibilities.

Companies are run like the military, chain of command, need to know and follow orders. They should be run as a biological system or organism, where there are feedback systems with more than one way to elicit change, the nervous system for rapid responses (management) and the endocrine system for slower invasive moderation (cultural).

Management techniques from the great beyond……..some useful and some not.

Cookie cutters and crazy quilts.

Well most of us know or can guess what a cookie cutter is, they are those shaped pieces of plastic or metal used to stamp out shapes from a sheet of rolled dough.

The process allows for a rapid and consistent, production of visually identical outcomes and minimises the variables, to only the thickness of dough being used.

Of course the cutter shape can be almost anything but once decided upon, can not be changed. This gives us what we want or think we want, with little to no variation; rapidly and consistently. Cookie cutters are great management tools as well, especially for simple repetitive tasks and also for highly complex tasks involving many precise sub tasks. Cookie cutter management fails to give us options, once we decide what we need, we stamp out said desire from the dough at hand. This simplistic and “efficient” management style often fools us into a false sense of certainty and control.

Strangely enough if we focus upon ever reducing fragments of a chaotic system, we increasingly begin to see commonalities which we often read as order. This is one philosophical perspective of chaos based upon chaos is only based upon our lack of understanding of the complex. That’s another topic for another day.


Crazy quilt or a Muratore’s view.

Crazy quilting is often used to refer to the textile art of crazy patchwork and is sometimes used interchangeably with that term. Crazy quilting is not technically quilting per say but a specific kind of patchwork, lacking repeating motifs and with the seams and patches heavily embellished. A crazy quilt rarely has the internal layer of batting that is part of what defines quilting as a textile technique.

Crazy quilts also differ from “regular” quilts in other ways. In a crazy quilt, the careful geometric design of a quilt block is much less important, this frees the quilters to employ much smaller and more irregularly shaped pieces of fabric. This found freedom empowers crazy quilters to use far more exotic pieces of fabric, such as velvet, satin, tulle, or silk, and embellishments such as buttons, lace, ribbons, beads, or embroidery, when compared to regular quilting. Crazy quilting is extremely creative and free-flowing by nature, and crazy quilters will often learn as much about specific embellishments as they will about crazy quilting itself.


English: Tamar Horton Harris North. “Quilt (or decorative throw), Crazy pattern”.
15th July 1877. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

So what’s the problem, why don’t more of us do quilting this way ?
Crazy quilts are extremely labor intensive. A Harper’s Bazaar article from 1884 estimated that a full-size crazy quilt could take 1,500 hours to complete. This means that with the increased freedom and creativity allowed there is a bottle neck for many, unless you have a Muratore mindset.
Muratore is an Italian term for a mason/bricklayer, it actually means someone who makes walls, which traditionally were of stone and later bricks. So why didn’t I just say bricklayer or mason. A bricklayer is a bit like a mason using a cookie cutter for speed and efficiency and the term mason can bring other distracting extraneous baggage. So I used the term Muratore because it caries little to no baggage to the english speaking readers and my father was one of the best Muratore.
So what makes a master Muratore, the ability to mentally visualise and order the materials at hand, on the fly and find a place for every piece; all while attaining your goal of a plumb, straight and solid wall, it’s like being good at playing Tetras with irregular shapes instead of blocks.

It is this type of organic and fluid management that, I believe we should all strive towards. It is this Muratore mindset that has given us the master piece sculpture by Michelangelo called David.

All the other sculptors rejected the piece of marble, that became the statue of David. In fact it was twice rejected. Agostino di Duccio gave up on a project using the flawed marble block, after which it sat untouched for 10 years. At that point, Antonio Rossellino took a crack at the block but decided it was too difficult to work with. The most famous statue ever carved was carved from a marble of poor quality filled with microscopic holes. So since Michelangelo could see what others could not we have this masterpiece. Michelangelo looked inside the marble and saw David. Michelangelo said that all that he had to do was chip away all of the parts that weren’t David to reveal him.

The interesting thing to take away from Michelangelo and the statue of David, is that he didn’t fight against the nature of the flawed block of marble or the fact a previous artist had already begun to block out the lower half of the block in 1464. In fact, he worked with what had come before and incorporated the flaws into the final design. It’s documented that on Sept 9, 1501, he apparently knocked off a “certain knot” that had been on the David’s chest. We believe this “knot” to be the flaw.


Sometimes people ask me “How did you come up with that ?” I have often responded “Step back, look, listen and it will tell you how it should be done.”

So which management style do you fall into most often ?

When in Rome…

romeThere was an article about the ‘Tube Chat’ badges that caused controversy in London recently. The article explained that the cultural ‘norm’ on the London Tube is to not speak with strangers. In fact, that speaking with strangers on any train until well outside London is not normal.

So I probably should not have started that long conversation with an American until we had left London and were well on our way to Edinburgh last month – oh well, lesson learned.

How do we discover the cultural ‘norms’ when we join a new group? These ‘norms’ are not something that can easily be explained – except for the extreme ones like dress codes. So we need to observe and deduce what the ‘norms’ might be. Do people have lunch at their desk? Do they go out of the office for coffee? …and so on.

Some are better at observation than others. Is there a way we can compensate for this diversity in observational skills? And why is this topic important?

It is important because the cultural ‘norms’ are what makes relationships easier – they remove friction and provide a level of certainty about how people will behave in various circumstances. If we want to shift behaviour to support improved ways of working, then we need to understand the current cultural ‘norms’. Then we need to work through how these cultural ‘norms’ are enabling or restricting good outcomes.

When we find a ‘norm’ that is restricting, it is tempting to call it out and just tell everyone to do something different.

I tried this a couple of weeks ago on my morning commute. There was a person sitting opposite me watching a soccer game on his phone without headphones. The sound was turned down, but I could clearly hear the ‘….and he scores blah blah blah…..the crowd goes wild….’ whistles blowing etc. It was really annoying. I assumed that he had blue-tooth earphones under his hood and that they might be faulty – he wouldn’t know – so I had better let him know. Because the cultural ‘norm’ on our trains is to keep your sound to yourself. I got his attention and said that I thought his earphones might be faulty because I could hear the sound. He barely looked at me and shook his head and then went on watching the game – he did turn the sound down a little.

I was a bit upset because he ignored me and did not seem to understand that others think it’s impolite not to use earphones.

A young lady then got on the train and sat in the seat next to him – doing her make-up in the selfie camera of her phone.

Years ago, etiquette guides were published to let people know what was socially acceptable. It was also common for people to let others know when they ‘crossed the line’ outside of the cultural ‘norm’ – but recently that is not acceptable. So the cultural ‘norm’ is to not say anything which means that we no longer have a consistent cultural ‘norm’ in society.

If this is true, then shifting behaviours in the workplace by direct methods is going to be almost impossible. Perhaps it is better to focus on more concrete things like processes and policies. These things are acceptable to make explicit and the cultural ‘norms’ will adapt around them. We should still monitor the cultural ‘norms’ in case they are leading to bad outcomes in our processes – but we should not try to change them directly.

Management – Insulation and Shade

It’s interesting that on a hot day we can go and stand under a shady tree and feel cooler. But on a cold day, there is no equivalent in nature.

Sketch7013522Perhaps it is because heat is an addition of energy and cold is the absence of energy. When we stand in the shade, the light/heat from the sun is reduced – but without a heat source – out in the cold – we need to find one (often it is our own bodies and some thermal insulation to keep the heat trapped).

We can use this as an analogy about management in the workplace.

When we are trying out new ideas, we often refer to our managers and senior stakeholders as ‘providing cover’ for us. Meaning that they will deflect disruptive questions or even take the ‘heat’ if someone gets upset about what we are doing.

It’s easy to see the managers in this example as similar to trees providing shade – but what might the source of heat be? Perhaps it is the amount of attention we are drawing from others – or the amount of interactions we need to have in order to take our ideas forward.

So where a lot of collaboration is needed, it is like a hot environment and we are likely to need a source of cover (shade) to help us do a good job.

What might be the equivalent of a cold environment? Sometimes we can tinker away at an idea pretty much alone. The problem with this is that not many people will see us doing it – and we risk being overlooked for our good efforts. In this case, we can provide our own ‘warmth’ – ‘blow our own trumpet’ about our work. Perhaps our managers and senior stakeholders can act like insulation – amplifying the warmth that we generate – and telling the good news about our work to others. If we don’t generate enough warmth ourselves, then one risk with insulation is that it could also prevent any news about our work being shared.

So what type of managers/stakeholders do you need? And what type do you have?

  • Flying cover – or not?
  • Amplifying your good work – or acting as a barrier to communications about our work?

It would be easy for a manager to start out by providing cover – which is great if there is a lot of ‘heat’ and collaboration needed. But if our work focus suddenly changes to individual achievements, this mode of management could easily become suffocating.

In summary – make deliberate choices about management providing cover and check the situation regularly to determine if a change of mode is needed.

Management, thermodynamics and the weather.

So what has management got to do with thermodynamics and the weather, well the different styles of management can be grouped into two very broad categories and three styles : Radiant management and Ambient and/or Convection management.

Thermodynamics is a stream of science concerned with heat and temperature and their relation to energy and work.

Radiant management; follows a similar definition as radiant heating and has similar benefits and disadvantages. Radiant heating is characterised by the use of radiant energy to heat, like the warmth of sunshine. Radiant heating is the method of collection and directing radiant heat to transfer radiant energy, from a source to an object. The advantage of radiant heating is that only the objects in the direct path of the radiant energy are warmed up. This means there is no waste of energy, warming up the ambient environment. This form of heating and management is highly efficient but also highly directional and dependant upon a clear line of sight.

Convection management; follows a similar definition as convection heating and has similar benefits and disadvantages. Convection heating is characterised by the use of convection currents which circulate through a body coming in contact with a heating element. The air coming in contact with the heat source becomes energised and expands, increasing in volume and becoming more buoyant and rising. The heat source, heats the ambient air directly, convection heaters often include a heat exchange mechanism, to increase efficiency. Convection heating is typically a passive and slow process, where heat gradually moves from the hottest object to the coolest. An oil column heater is an example of this slow convection heating.

The common fan heater has more in common with a convection heater than a radiant heater.

Ambient management; shares a lot of components with convection management, the result is that the whole increases in effectiveness. The convection currents and stratification that results from convection heating gradually increase the whole. To use heating as an example the heater in the room will eventually warm the entire space but gives rise to a temperature gradient and zones in the process. This heating process if left unaided will be both slow and gradual. The heating effect is dependant upon proximity to the source resulting in stratification and gradients. The only way to reduce the stratification and proximity effects is to actively “stir” the environment. This effort is required to reach a stable and constant state.

The ambient warm air, tends to accumulate at the ceiling unless mixed with ceiling fans.

Just like the heating examples above there is overlap between each method, radiant, convection and ambient. Convection heaters often utilise radiant heating methods to improve efficiency and no radiant heater is 100% solely radiant. Even an infra red lamp, one of the purest forms of radiant heaters we have, affects the ambient environment and causes convection currents unless in a vacuum.

I propose that we often are not aware of which style of management or blend of management styles is appropriate for any given situation.

In an environment where there is a disconnect, or disjointed structure then a form of radiant management would make the most sense. Radiant management is also the best method where there is high staff churn and highly fluid and dynamic structure. This is often what occurs even if we are not consciously aware of it. The charismatic leader will often evolve in a fluid and dynamic environment and others will often gladly align with them. In chaos stability is sought either in the structure or leadership.

Convection management is what occurs naturally, lead by example. When there is a radiant management style there is a proximity effect where those who interact with this type of management gradually by “osmosis” begin to modify their behaviours. This is where we should be aware of what we as managers are broadcasting. Hopefully our better traits are being broadcast but there is also a possibility, bad habits or negativity maybe passively transmitted. These convection currents must be taken into consideration and acknowledged if we are to reduce and prevent negative management.

Ambient management is what we end up with if left to our own devices. It is the “cultural” methodology which surrounds the work place when the boss is not active and/or around. This is the realm of very slow and gradual change but can be aided with the correct tools and processes. The idea is that just like in our heating example if a gradual “mixing” of the environment is allowed then the result is a comfortable rise in temperature with no stratification or proximity effects.

Positive ambient or convection management is often the result of a well structured and defined environment. Established processes and confidence in predictable outcomes are all the result of positive ambient or convection management. This leads a sense of freedom, security and safety, to allow flexibility and exploration.

Rediscovery Reiterations and Frequency

How often do we revisit ideas and decisions? It is a strange fact that once we decide on a course of action or a solution we seem to think that there is nothing left to do but implement that which we have decided. The very act of deciding some how defies the law of space and time, a temporal bubble is formed around that very point in time and nothing will ever change. Ludicrous but this is how we behave, we rarely if ever, revisit the decision making process and if we do it is often a revalidation process rather than an actual open and frank analysis. We are now heavily invested in our previous decision and heavily biased by it. A dangerous starting point for any discovery.

This ludicrous temporal bubble which we create around our decisions highlights the linear causality we use as our default mental model.

So how often should we revisit a previously decided process or decision ? Well that’s the golden question. I can only offer a philosophical view and that is the process or decision should be revisited depending upon its complexity, its interdependence upon other projects and the number of people involved in its implementation. Basically complexity requires vigilance, the more intricate and interconnected a project is the more often we should take a step back and revise our situation and the decision making process and decisions based upon the previous state of knowledge.

As Tobbe said :

“What’s required to deal with complexity might not be vigilance but explicit anticipation and rough boundaries validity.

While mining complexity we should always bring our canary with us down into the mine.”

Efficiency can be bad for your health

In a world of “Bean counters”, the bottom line and increased production, we seem to have missed the human side of the equation and it is having a detrimental effect upon all of us personally.

Terms like work-life balance, transparency and a hundred other touchy feely buzz words seem to only appease the many; with a sense that “something is being done or there is a process to follow”. The problem lies in the truth that as a business the chosen target of focus is the wrong one. We focus to attain and maintain 10% growth, we focus upon man hours wasted, increasing production and reducing staff, all valid strategies yet only one side of the complex equation that is work and business. The other side of the coin is far more complex and counter intuitive.

The ancient Romans were presented with a steam engine by Heron, a Greek mathematician and engineer in the 1st century, yes a basic, rudimentary steam engine (the aeolipile ) it could have been used to do work and may have eventually lead to the industrial revolution occurring back in ancient Rome. The surprising thing is, when this device was shown to the Romans they basically replied “What would we do with all the slaves?” How many among us would have thought to say that, does this mean they were smarter than us or is it that they had a different focus and vision of what work was actually about. Yes they had slaves but they also were aware that if a machine could do all the work then the social impact would be far greater than they were prepared to suffer.

steam engineMechanisation and the industrial revolution did occur and its social impact has been felt ever since but does that mean in a modern work place the workers are machines, cogs in the greater mechanism? Is production the means and the end of the modern global workforce? Strangely enough I have never heard anyone say they work solely to produce; reproduce maybe, family, friends or the next holiday, but never just to produce product or perform a service as the ultimate goal of their labours. The goal for most people is not what they actually produce but what they think it will give them, a means to an end. So to most of us work is not the destination but the method or journey to achieve something greater.

With that in mind, think about the way we examine a business and work-flow. The focus is on efficiency, increased profit and reduced cost, all easily measured metrics and relatively easy to modify, especially in a negative way. Now look at the goal of the “workers” the human side of the equation (yes, this includes Management), a much harder metric to examine let alone measure. This is a can of worms! And far to complex to broach here. Yet we can determine some threads to be taken home from this:

Obviously the goal of the “workers” is not actually tightly related to the method or journey taken.

The way we measure success is narrow by nature, focusing upon components not the whole.

So what am I getting at ? The question we often ask is wrong, not because we don’t know it’s wrong but because that’s how we’ve always worked. More is better but more of the wrong thing is worse.

Focus and goals are highly relevant and to lose sight of them is a dangerous and unhealthy way to go. Consider a holiday, a trip across Europe say, most of us plan this sort of thing, where to go, what to see, what to do, and so on. Now what is the goal of a holiday, this varies but for most of us it’s to relax and take a break from work etc. So if your goal is to relax and take it easy then would you plan every moment of the trip; bus and train timetables optimised, condense the trip to its minimum? No, of course not, but if your goal was to see as much of Europe in the time you had, the answer would be Yes. That’s a sight-seeing trip not a holiday, yes they can blend together to some degree but the goals are different.

So how would we measure this, number of sites seen, number of photos taken, time taken, cost effectiveness, distance travelled, personal interactions engaged in or do you need a holiday when you return? It would depend on your attitude to travel and your actual goal.

Efficiency may be bad for your health if you focus on the wrong things or ignore your goals. Like a laser, a highly focused beam of light, efficiency can cause damage if poorly applied.

So how do we deal with this idea and try to make sense of it. Personally I see work, business and global markets no differently than ecosystems, highly varied and complex but with many smaller “components” which effect the overall health of the system.

Biology is a complex and varied system far more so than business, despite what some economist types would have you believe. Think about it biology has evolved over millions of years, has had dead ends, set backs and eventually become what we see today. Business and economics has had at best several thousands of years and if we remove bartering far less.

So if the more evolved and complex system has particular traits then we should at least examine the more simplistic system to see if it truly requires the same traits. Yes we should pare it back to its simplest form, and see the basic blue print of an advanced system. Wow! heavy stuff and far more complicated a discussion than for this document but basics can be gleaned.

Any biological system has some basic truths our comparisons will depend upon how we see a company or business. If we see a company or business as an individual entity then we would focus on the biological requirements for a single individual of a species. If we see the company or business as a group dynamic then we could focus upon cells in individuals or social behaviour, animal dynamics in a group of individuals or maybe even social insects such as bees, ants etc.

An Ecological Example: Trophic cascade.

When a top predator is removed from an ecosystem, a series of knock-on effects are felt throughout all the levels in a food web, as each level is regulated by the one above it. This is known as a trophic cascade. The results of these trophic cascades can lead to an ecosystem being completely transformed, and some surprising results. The impacts trickle down through each level, upsetting the ecological balance by altering numbers of different animal species, until the effects are finally felt by the vegetation.

Removal of apex predators, such as sharks, from food chains can have a devastating effect on the ecosystem. Many sharks reproduce slowly, attaining sexual maturity at a later age, this means their removal has a long term effect to their ecosystem. The next level of carnivorous fish are now not preyed upon and can increase in numbers. This increase can lead to the removal of herbivorous fish which graze upon the algae. If the numbers of these grazing fish is reduced drastically the algae can grow unhindered. This type of trophic cascade can destroy coral reefs by choking out corals that can’t compete with the fast growing vegetation. Not really an obvious outcome, is it?

So when we optimise or increase the efficiency of any part the trophic cascade effects can result into surprising outcomes some of them detrimental.

Aquariums a simplified system as an example.

Most of the technology used to keep a modern aquarium healthy has directly or indirectly evolved from the sewage treatment industry. Many aquarists find this surprising but the legacy of waste treatment is undeniable especially when we look at marine aquaria. The marine aquarium is the pinnacle of aquaculture for the home hobbyist, loaded with advanced equipment such as, biological filter media, Protein skimmer (foam fractionation), denitrifying beds, probes for pH, ORP (oxygen redox potential) etc., ozone generators the list is extensive and goes through even to the low tech box filters and under-gravel filters used in a basic bowl or tank for goldfish and other freshwater fish etc.

Why are we talking about fish? Well the point is that all this technology originated from sewage treatment and is now used to keep your fish alive yet it was developed with a different goal. The best example of this is the protein skimmer or foam fractionator, this device forces a stream of small air bubbles into a water column and if the pH (is say that of seawater ) is sufficiently high a foam begins to form, floating up and then collected and removed, extracting proteins (organics) from the water column. This basic tool is invaluable to the marine aquarist wishing to keep corals alive and healthy in their marine aquarium. Marine invertebrates, especially tropical and reef invertebrates are highly sensitive to pollution and increased organics because they have evolved in nutrient poor waters.

The removal of organics before they can pollute the water column is highly beneficial as you would imagine. The first protein skimmers were an air driven affair using special wooden air-stones, that would slowly degrade and become less efficient overtime. The advances in protein skimmer design meant that air driven skimmers were replaced by highly efficient venturi and/or “turbo” skimmers. Now herein lies the problem, as skimmers became increasingly efficient at removing dissolved organics from the water column, there was a growing need to add supplements to your aquaria to maintain healthy growth. Corals and some other invertebrates require dissolved nutrients, organics and minerals to maintain a healthy metabolism. Highly efficient protein skimmers were in fact being run continually by most aquarists and ironically they were also adding expensive supplements while the skimmers were on and therefore extracting them at the same time. My advice was, since the ridiculously efficient skimmer was being used, they should only run them intermittently either on during the day and off during the night or 2 days on, 3 days off or variations of these depending upon feeding schedules, stocking levels and inhabitants.

The fact that was lost, was that the goal of sewage treatment is ultimately pure water; the goal of an aquarium on the other hand is an aquatic ecosystem which is anything but pure. Actually pure water or distilled water will kill your fish very quickly indeed. When transplanting technology from sewage treatment to aquaria, the goals of the two disciplines were similar but not identical.

Be careful and aware of your intent or goal and the intent or goals of the “tools” and methods you utilise.

Wikipedia, History of the steam engine

The cascade effect


Imagine a discussion between managers.

Manager A – ‘How do think person X is performing?’

Manager B – ‘Doing a great job – understands what the need is and then delivers the outcome every time.’

Manager A – ‘Thanks – sounds good, I’ll count that as a ‘meets expectations’ in the review.’

Manager B – ‘Well, actually, I think that X exceeded my expectations – did you know that they have 5 years of delivery experience under their belt? I think that we are under-utilising X.’

Manager A – ‘Yeah – but they’re not really leadership material – I don’t think they will ever get above their current level in the company.’

Manager B – ‘That’s not their expectation – X has high potential, depth of experience and took this role to learn more about our part of the company. Have you had a discussion with X about their career goals and experience?’

Manager A – ‘Umm, Yes – but they don’t seem to be leadership material, I guess they will be disappointed…’

A and BThis imaginary conversation contains many examples of expectations – One manager has high and the other low expectations of person X and person X has high expectations of themselves. I believe that people are capable of living up to our high expectations and also of living down to our low expectations and whatever our expectations are, they will sense and comply.

This is an important insight – our expectations are similar to assumptions and can be very tricky to surface. This means that they will become part of our subconscious and we are likely to transmit our expectations in ways that we cannot easily control such as body language, tone and our sentence construction.

So what can we do about it?

Any time we think that someone is doing an average or poor job, take a moment to reflect if it could be a bit of confirmation bias (that we always thought they were only capable of average or low quality and we have been selective in our observations to support this view). If this is the case, then imagine the best performer you have met and that this person has the potential to be just as great. Of course this applies in our non-workplace relationships as well – so we can get plenty of opportunities to reflect and practice in safe environments.

If we are not certain that a major factor is our own expectations, then find a couple of other people and sound them out about the person in question. Be very careful with this approach, because it is very easy for other people to pick up your expectations of others and answer in ways that will add to the confirmation bias.

In summary, expectations could be a major factor in productivity in the workplace – I wonder what would happen if everyone believed that their staff and colleagues were capable of achieving awesome instead of mediocre?