Natural Flow

I’m a morning person – I like to get my chores out of the way first so that I have more options later in the day. There are others who are night owls, their flow is to stay up later and get things done and then sleep in a little later the next day. These patterns are an example of our natural flow.

Natural Flow SketchFor example, I am writing this post on a Sunday morning because it is the first time this week that I have had the energy and time to do it (after work during the week is harder for me).

How does this impact us at work? When working with other people, how often do we stop to ask them about their preferred ways of working. It might be terrible of me to schedule a 7:30am meeting with someone who was a night-owl – but highly effective if that other person was like me and was able to start early. On the other side, how often would we speak up and say that we don’t do our best focused work after 5pm?

We have natural flows and rhythms of working in many other ways

  • Our conversation habits – the gaps we leave between when we start speaking and others have finished (these are also influenced by our geographic culture)

  • The ways that we perform repeatable tasks (such as filling in time sheets, drafting emails, transport between and to/from offices)

  • Ceremonies such as how we start meetings, where we sit/stand how we make tea or coffee

  • Engagement flows – how we greet people and get started with conversations and work items

We are subconsciously observing a lot of these flows whenever we interact with others, but there is a risk that we are misinterpreting our observations. I have also not given my own natural flows much thought aside from the morning person observation already mentioned. I am about to start working on a few small projects with some colleagues and will try having a conversation about preferred working styles in the next month – a good future topic for this blog.


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?

Planning and Focus

Plans are great!

  • They help us focus and align to a goal
  • They demonstrate that we know what we are doing
  • They help us to break up work into manageable chunks so that we can deliver in stages or divide the work up between teams


What if the goal is to achieve innovation or find new ideas?

Let’s take the 3 points above and see how they might be detrimental when we are dealing with complexity as defined in the Cynefin Framework.

Focus and alignment

When we focus we can miss things. Try staring at something nearby now – focus on its attributes and why it is there. Notice that while you are focussed, other things become less noticeable in our peripheral vision, hearing and other senses.

In an ordered environment, where things are knowable and there is a high amount of certainty, focus is a wonderful thing.

In an unordered environment of complexity or chaos it can destroy us in the worst case – and in the best case it will limit our ability to find new ideas and interesting things. We still need to have an idea of what we are looking for, setting some constraints or boundaries – but it is not a laser-like focus.

We know what we are doing

People who use traditional planning methods in complex environments do not know what they are doing. The planning needed in complexity is how to manage constraints, how to identify ‘good’ and ‘bad’ patterns and how to amplify or dampen them respectively. Risk and opportunity management methods are much more appropriate in complex environments and traditional planning is great in ordered domains.


A person who knows what they are doing will use both types of planning/management, mixing and matching as they go.

Unfortunately, people are traditionally rewarded for showing how they executed to a plan and achieved an outcome. In this light, the outcomes achieved in a complex environment can only be described after they have happened. So it can look like random luck and is not generally well rewarded unless the outcome was an astonishing breakthrough or innovation of some sort. In these cases we will backfill the story in a retrospectively coherent way so that it seems the achievement was planned that way all along.

Retrospective CoherenceRetrospective Coherence

Divide up the work

Absolutely the best way to do something in the ordered domains. Break it up, build each part and then assemble it at the end.

When we try to do this in a complex environment we spend a lot of effort trying to get certainty. We also highly constrain the outcome to only that which we imagine is possible at that point in time.

So not only do we spend too much, we also sub-optimise our opportunities.

The better option is to explore the needs using test and learn approaches. Techniques for exploring the ‘fuzzy front end’ from design thinking work well as does prototyping, experimentation, articulation of assumptions and then validation or invalidation of them.

This is where we say that failure is good – let me explain that because many people have issues with such a statement.

When we are in a complex environment we do not know and cannot predict what will happen when we do action ‘XYZ’ and there are many actions that we could do. In order to find out what works and where the boundaries might be, we conduct experiments to see if there are stable and repeatable patterns. The experiments that work are what we are seeking and the ones that fail are outside of what we are seeking. Only by conducting experiments that fail can we be confident that we have found the edges of the space that we are exploring. If we don’t get failures, then we have not gone far enough and have missed opportunities for new ideas that might work.

BoundariesSo safe-to-fail experiments are important and the above helps to explain why we should be designing experiments that we expect to succeed and ones that we expect to fail – when do this we are guessing where the boundaries exist and the experiments confirm those boundaries.


These 3 examples demonstrate that our traditional planning and focus methods are really only suited to the ordered domains in the Cynefin Framework and that seemingly ‘opposite’ approaches are more effective in the complex domain.

We need more innovation and new ideas – we will not get them using standard planning and focus methods.

Plans are great – when we have certainty and predictability (and not when we want new ideas).

The perils of Sound bites and the human mind.

The human ability to learn, take facts and abstract, invent and then innovate is very impressive. All these possibilities and then more so. We live in a world of information abundance, we google, we search and we condense, all with the goal to assimilate knowledge and be able to function.

The sheer amount of data, facts, ideas and interpretations of data, available to any of us, has had a profound impact upon the way we all function and behave in our day to day lives. The ‘data explosion’ impact ranges from work, socially, ‘family and friend’ and even our own development and the way we see ourselves.

Think about it, the amount of stuff we are exposed to is increasing every year, books added to the web, new research, new facts, new ideas, new concepts etc. etc… The human animal is a marvel but to cope with an inundation of information we fall back on the tried and true method of filtering the incoming data to make sense of it. We all do it and some better than others. The very process of filtering means we, collate, prioritise, group and rapidly make evaluations upon the various pieces of information bombarding our senses. The mind grasps at straws and we often jump to rapid conclusions and interpret the apparent facts according to our own experiences and world view. This is a very efficient way to process information and to be able to make informed decisions. So what’s the problem with this system of behaviour?
Now to answer this, allow me to briefly cover optical illusions.

The classic examples of the brain being fooled by optical illusion such as the rabbit/duck illusion,

are testimony that we all do it. In an effort to make sense we rapidly jump to conclusions, very handy when trying to pattern match. Evolutionarily speaking one of our greatest abilities.

Wikipedia defines an optical illusion (or visual illusion) as being characterised by visually perceived images that differ from objective reality. Information gathered by the eye is processed in the brain to give a perception that does not tally with a physical reality of the source.

There are three main types:

1) Literal optical illusions create images that are different from the objects that make them,

2) Physiological illusions that are the effects of excessive stimulation of a specific type (brightness, colour, size, position, tilt, movement), and

3) Cognitive illusions, the result of unconscious inferences. The brain trying to understand perceives the object based on prior knowledge or assumptions (‘fills in the gaps’).

Pathological visual illusions arise from a pathological exaggeration in physiological visual perception mechanisms causing the aforementioned types of illusions. A pathological visual illusion is a distortion of a real external stimulus and are often diffuse and persistent.

Physiological illusions, such as the afterimages following bright lights, or adapting stimuli of excessively longer alternating patterns (contingent perceptual aftereffect), are presumed to be the effects on the eyes or brain of excessive stimulation or interaction with contextual or competing stimuli of a specific type—brightness, colour, position, tilt, size, movement, etc.
Optical illusions are often classified into categories including the physical and the cognitive or perceptual, and contrasted with optical hallucinations.

Of all the optical illusions, the ones I wish to focus on here are the cognitive illusions.

Cognitive illusions are assumed to arise by interaction with assumptions about the world, leading to “unconscious inferences”, an idea first suggested in the 19th century by the German physicist and physician Hermann Helmholtz. Cognitive illusions are commonly divided into ambiguous illusions, distorting illusions, paradox illusions, or fiction illusions.

1. Ambiguous illusions are pictures or objects that elicit a perceptual “switch” between the alternative interpretations. The Necker cube is a well-known example; another instance is the Rubin vase.

2. Distorting or geometrical optical illusions are characterised by distortions of size, length, position or curvature. A striking example is the Café Wall illusion. Other examples are the famous Muller-Lyer illusion and Ponzo illusion.

3. Paradox illusions are generated by objects that are paradoxical or impossible, such as the Penrose triangle or impossible staircase seen, for example, in M.C Escher’s Ascending and Descending and Waterfall. The triangle is an illusion dependent on a cognitive misunderstanding that adjacent edges must join.

4. Fictions are when a figure is perceived even though it is not in the stimulus.

Now allow me to put forward the idea that as we become increasingly time poor and information burdened we increasingly begin to filter, even to the stage that we become unaware of it. This is where it can get dangerous.

I’m not talking about optical illusions jumping up at you in the workplace or in your day to day lives but I am talking about the way we all reduce information and events into “byte” sized pieces. Think about it, we dot point things, prioritise, we use jargon and, my pet hate, we make up acronyms. All in the name of efficiency and understanding. We have become a sound bite culture in an attempt to make sense and deal with all this stuff.

So what’s the problem? Well the reduction and filtering is. Think about it, reducing something means leaving something out or changing the original to a more compact form. Filtering means to sort something and then to determine what’s most important and then effectively ignoring other things to varying degrees.

When I was working in a laboratory I was told the story of a technique which was written up in a scientific journal. The Professor in our lab was trying to repeat the described technique and tried repeatedly, only resulting in failure. He followed the outlined procedure to the letter but to no avail. He ended up deciding to ring the parties concerned and found out that they had actually written in their original paper, that after a certain step in the process, they had gone to lunch for 2 hours. The scientific journal thought that this was not needed and removed this notation from the final publication. The irony was that without the 2 hour pause in the procedure the technique didn’t work at all.

Sound bites can be just as dangerous because often you don’t know what has been filtered out and things can be taken out of context.

To highlight just how misleading sound bites can be, consider an ecological study conducted by a friend of mine. He was collecting data on the kangaroo densities in a particular area and some of the variables which he looked at included vegetation type, terrain, lightning strikes etc. Now when he processed the data statistically there was a very strong positive correlation between the number of kangaroos and the number of lightning strikes. We joked that kangaroos obviously sprung up from lightning strikes; ridiculous but supported by the statistics. The real reason was that lightning strikes meant that a tree was burnt or a fire started. This meant that the native vegetation sprouted regrowth, which was tender and plentiful attracting the kangaroos into the area. So without the extra information about fire and Australian ecosystems the data could be misinterpreted.

I propose that in the course of dealing with an influx of information by reducing it to dot points, catch phrases and sound bites, we can filter things to the extent that their true nature can be lost.

I also think that this culture of sound bites can lead to ambiguity, distortion, paradox and even fiction, like cognitive optical illusions.

So next time, you’re making sense of information or trying to convey and teach, remember to check if any of these are possible :

1. Ambiguity – Can your abridged version have alternative interpretations or be perceived in more than one way?

2. Distortion – Are any parameters you’re touching upon, affected by how you choose to focus on them?

3. Paradox – Can your abridged version lead to a cognitive misunderstanding resulting in a paradoxical or impossible conclusion?

4. Fiction – Can your abridged version be perceived incorrectly?

So when you’re tempted to sound bite a concept or idea just remember Benny Hill “Never Assume because you make an Ass out of U and Me”.

Often clarity is aided by multiple perspectives (yes my sound bite).

Sound bites work because the brain is driven to define reality based on simple, familiar objects, it creates a ‘whole’ image from individual elements but this is also a potential problem. This is the reason taking them out of context can be very dangerous and some people do it on purpose to discredit valid concepts or people… a slippery slope.



Three main types of optical illusions explained:

1) Literal optical illusions create images that are different from the objects that make them,

One of the most well-known literal illusions is the painting done by Charles Allan Gilbert titled All is Vanity. In this painting, a young girl sits in front of a mirror that appears to be a skull. There isn’t actually a skull there, however, the objects in the painting come together to create that effect.

2) Physiological illusions that are the effects of excessive stimulation of a specific type (brightness, colour, size, position, tilt, movement)

The checker shadow illusion. Although square A appears a darker shade of grey than square B, the two are exactly the same.
Drawing a connecting bar between the two squares breaks the illusion and shows that they are the same shade.

In this illusion we see square ‘A’ and ‘B’ as not the same colour, but when the image puts the two square next to each other; they do appear to be exactly the same colour.

3) Cognitive illusions, the result of unconscious inferences. The brain trying to understand perceives the object based on prior knowledge or assumptions (‘fills in the gaps’).

Cognitive Illusion Image – My Wife & My Mother-in-Law. Do you see a young woman or an old lady?

Wikipedia Optical_illusion Lesson What are optical illusions; definition; types
Wikipedia Sound_bite

Sound Bites

If you take only one thing away from reading this post – it is a caution to be very careful with taking only one thing away from any interaction.

We are evolved to filter information so that we only need to focus on things that are important to us – that’s why painters can put a few brush-strokes on a canvas and we can interpret it as a person walking on the beach in the distance.

Person on BeachWe filter without realising it – if we did not filter, we would be overloaded with information and find it very difficult to proceed.

When we have a conversation with someone, we imagine that they understand everything that we say in the way that we intended for it to be meant. The only thing that we can be certain of, in fact, is that the person will have interpreted what we said in the way that made sense to them. Of course what makes sense to the other person might or might not be aligned with what we actually intended.

One time, I came away from a conversation wondering why the person had started to debate the pros and cons of scrum when I had been meeting with them about something else. On reflection, I realised that my job title at the time contained the word ‘Agile’ so that person thought that I was only speaking about scrum teams and the delivery process. It was likely that the other person had a very different definition of agile – mine is a very broad one and includes Lean, Cynefin, Design Thinking and many other useful ideas and approaches. Others might define agile as ‘scrum’ and not much more for all sorts of reasons. This means that the other person was filtering my part of the conversation through a ‘Kim is here to talk about scrum’ lens which led to a complete misinterpretation of what I was asking about.

How does this relate to the title of the post ‘Sound Bites’?

We in the Lean and Agile communities have discussed and investigated many concepts and are in the habit of using short descriptions for very complex ideas. Within the community, I can say something like ‘I like to use the Cynefin Framework to help me determine which approaches are compatible with the system that I am working with’ and lots of people would understand what I meant to say. But I have spent a lot of time reading about these ideas, attending conferences, speaking with experts and trying them out so the following terms are loaded with deep meaning;

  • Cynefin Framework
  • Approaches
  • System

These terms are at risk of becoming ‘sound bites’ – the main thing that an audience hears and therefore believes is the main message. They could then try and apply one of the concepts, or an extrapolation of these ideas and end up with a completely unexpected result.

This is not the first time ‘sound bites’ have happened in our human history. For example, Bob Emeliani wrote a great post recently about Frederick Winslow Taylor and how people partially applied his Principles of Scientific Management and ended up with a sub-optimal result.

What can we do about the problem with ‘sound bites’?

We need tailor our conversations to our audience. In a group of deep experts, it is fine for us to use our shorthand terms and jargon – but in a mixed group or with non-experts, it is as if we are teachers providing all the answers to students and not teaching them how to learn – so our words are ripe for misinterpretation.

Now that you have read this post and therefore interpreted it in your own ways, I would be very interested to hear about your experiences with sound bites, or what the term ‘sound bites’ means to you.

Please leave a comment or find me on Twitter: @kb2bkb

Misconceptions and Insights about Collaboration

A Few Thoughts about Collaboration

The definition of collaboration in any given context is variable. It can be as simple as two people working on a task or as complicated as international diplomatic relations and anything in between.

Some people might think that collaboration means agreement, but some of the best outcomes have happened when people with very different views work together.

One of the problems with trying to solve problems is our inherent biases. We have only lived our own lives and therefore make decisions and contributions based on our experiences. It is easy to make assumptions without realising it, so when we are collaborating, it is important to check our assumptions with each other and make sure that what we are working on is an agreed view of the work.

Collaboration is not a static point but a dynamic interaction between the task at hand and the participants including their experiences and the interpretations they bring to the “table”.

A Couple of Misconceptions

1: Everyone is created equal

Almost everyone doesn’t like to hear this one but we are not created equally, if we were, it would be so boring, and we would all be the same carbon copies of each other, same job, same life and same house. Some of us find doing certain things easier than others, this does not mean they are better than someone else but have a predisposition towards that particular thing. This is actually the strength of any collaboration, we are not a monoculture or genetically engineered workers but individuals with different perspectives and abilities. This is the core of collaboration and teamwork.

2: Everyone must carry their own weight and do their share.

Collaboration/ Teamwork is rarely a balanced interaction (50/50 etc.) but most realistically an imbalanced one. The beginnings are like a “seed”, an idea of a purpose and/or direction, however the “seed” does not contain all the materials and experience to develop into the eventual “plant”. The contribution of the seed if measured by biological bulk is minute and of little significance; yet without the direction and/or purpose there is no “plant”.

Perhaps we should consider this when we think about the share of workload in teams and remember that a small effort that provides a large weight of outcome can be just as good as a large effort.

Sketch18219430When we discuss collaboration and teamwork we often begin to weigh the obvious, visible efforts that people are putting in and lose sight of the reality. Without the idea, thought and then the effort, the experience is a barren one. The ego and self often confuse and stifle the collaboration from becoming. We should check our Ego’s at the door and be open to ideas and possibilities regardless of where they may come from.

In summary – the differences in backgrounds, ideas and effort can undermine any team and result in very poor outcomes, however, it is these very same differences that can make any collaborative effort a great one and open opportunities for innovation, increased effectiveness and workplace enjoyment. How can we turn our thinking towards the positive outcomes from differences and ensure that we leverage these as much as possible?

  • Allow people to come up with their own contributions whenever possible and then share them – this will prevent premature convergence and make differing assumptions easier to detect.
  • When we feel that others are not pulling their weight, check that we are not just observing effort and instead look for contribution towards the outcome.
  • Recognise that different people are good or great at different things and try to avoid creating teams of very similar people or skillsets.
  • Use the different perspectives and backgrounds of other people to help us see things that we are overlooking – another good reason to have people with diverse experiences in teams.

Thank you to Torbjörn Gyllebring and Steve again for the discussions that inspired this post and Steve for contributing some paragraphs and editing. Any faults with this post, however, are my own.

Torbjörn Gyllebring’s post is about Estimates and Theory Building

Linear, Non-Linear, Predictable and Unpredictable

Firstly, a thank you to Torbjörn and Steve for the conversations and feedback leading to these thoughts. Torbjörn has also written a post on this theme for those who have not yet seen it.

We can have a tendency to use linear and predictable as synonyms, but there are non-linear concepts that are also predictable and one of them is called hysteresis.

The easiest example of hysteresis is a thermostat for a heater. If we use one temperature setting to turn it on and off, then it will click on and off endlessly. If we set the on temperature just a little under the desired one and the off temperature just a little over it, then it works much better. When we walk into the room and measure the temperature only, then we cannot know if the heater is currently on or not without knowing the historical temperature and thus whether the room is currently cooling down or heating up.

So this is an example of a predictable process that is non-linear – we can use mathematical modelling to generate that predictability. I wonder if there are other processes that are non-linear, but still have some predictability in our work places.

One example might be change initiatives. We start at one level of understanding, do some training, coaching, communications and other ways of influencing change. After a period of time we move up to a new level of understanding. Then as other things happen and new people join the group, we lose some of that understanding – but it is likely that we are still above the original level.

I’m still looking for other examples – but hypothetically, a whole bunch of non-linear processes over-lapping and intersecting with each other would likely look like a very complex system.

Of course, mathematically, we would then be able to demonstrate these parts of the system and their predictability – but that is not really the point. We are all observers of our world and how we experience it as individuals is different for each of us. Therefore, the natures of systems that we interact with will differ according to our experiences of them and what seems predictable to one person can appear quite random to another one.

Back to the title of this post – along the gradient of predictability, we move from linear with obvious cause and effect to non-linear, such as hysteresis with less obvious correlation, then towards a lot less certainty where the relationships are dispositional and then to randomness. Most of the time whatever we are observing is likely to have a mixture of these attributes both inherently and from the ways that we experience it. Taking the example of a thermostat, I wonder how many other things also appear quite simple and are really elegantly complicated and on the flip side, how many things appear complex and are likely non-linear, but still predictable?

Meetings and Assumptions

Have you ever been in a meeting that went a bit like this?

Workshop to MessSomehow the meeting went off-topic, or a conversation suddenly took over the entire session. What went wrong? Perhaps our conversations were assumption-based rather than fact-based.

Assumptions are very valuable things, they help us to move forward. An obvious example is the assumption that the footpath in front of us is solid, if we doubted this all the time, we would have a lot of trouble walking around, let alone running or jogging.

The less helpful types of assumptions are ones that we make about our own or others definitions of words or level of understanding about a topic. I can remember having 30 minutes of strong debate about an issue a long time ago, only to discover that we were actually arguing for the same thing – just using different terminology.

When planning meetings and workshops, list out the topics that might cause debate or miscommunication and then ask what assumptions we might be making about those topics. Whenever possible, spend some time validating or invalidating those assumptions before the meeting so that we turn those assumption-based conversations into fact-based ones and use our time more effectively.