The “I am Great (and You are Not)” Trap

business_race__PA_150_wht_3222When we start the process of learning to apply the Science of Improvement in practice we need to start within our circle of influence.

It is just easier, quicker and safer to begin there – and to build our capability, experience and confidence in steps.

And when we get the inevitable ‘amazing’ result it is natural and reasonable for us to want to share the good news with others.  We crossed the finish line first and we want to celebrate.   And that is exactly what we need to do.

We just need to be careful how we do it.

We need to be careful not to unintentionally broadcast an “I am Great (and You are Not)” message – because if we do that we will make further change even more difficult.

Competition can be healthy or unhealthy  … just as scepticism can be.

We want to foster healthy competition … and to do that we have to do something that can feel counter-intuitive … we have to listen to our competitors; and we have to learn from them; and we have to share our discoveries with them.


Just picture these two scenarios in your mind’s eye:

Scenario One: The competition is a war. There can only be one winner … the strongest, most daring, most cunning, most ruthless, most feared competitor. So secrecy and ingenuity are needed. Information must be hoarded. Untruths and confusion must be spread.

Scenario Two: The competition is a race. There can only be one winner … the strongest, most resilient, hardest working, fastest learning, most innovative, most admired competitor.  So openness and humility are needed. Information must be shared. Truths and clarity must be spread.

Compare the likely outcomes of the two scenarios.

Which one sounds the more productive, more rewarding and more enjoyable?

So the challenge for the champions of improvement is to appreciate and to practice a different version of the “I’m Great … ” mantra …

I’m Great (And So Are You).

Righteous Indignation

NHS_Legal_CostsThis heading in the the newspaper today caught my eye.

Reading the rest of the story triggered a strong emotional response: anger.

My inner chimp was not happy. Not happy at all.

So I took my chimp for a walk and we had a long chat and this is the story that emerged.

The first trigger was the eye-watering fact that the NHS is facing something like a £26 billion litigation cost.  That is about a quarter of the total NHS annual budget!

The second was the fact that the litigation bill has increased by over £3 billion in the last year alone.

The third was that the extra money will just fall into a bottomless pit – the pockets of legal experts – not to where it is intended, to support overworked and demoralised front-line NHS staff. GPs, nurses, AHPs, consultants … the ones that deliver care.

That is why my chimp was so upset.  And it sounded like righteous indignation rather than irrational fear.

So what is the root cause of this massive bill? A more litigious society? Ambulance chasing lawyers trying to make a living? Dishonest people trying to make a quick buck out of a tax-funded system that cannot defend itself?

And what is the plan to reduce this cost?

Well in the article there are three parts to this:
“apologise and learn when you’re wrong,  explain and vigorously defend when we’re right, view court as a last resort.”

This sounds very plausible but to achieve it requires knowing when we are wrong or right.

How do we know?

Generally we all think we are right until we are proved wrong.

It is the way our brains are wired. We are more sure about our ‘rightness’ than the evidence suggests is justified. We are naturally optimistic about our view of ourselves.

So to be proved wrong is emotionally painful and to do it we need:
1) To make a mistake.
2) For that mistake to lead to psychological or physical harm.
3) For the harm to be identified.
4) For the cause of the harm to be traced back to the mistake we made.
5) For the evidence to be used to hold us to account, (to apologise and learn).

And that is all hunky-dory when we are individually inept and we make avoidable mistakes.

But what happens when the harm is the outcome of a combination of actions that individually are harmless but which together are not?  What if the contributory actions are sensible and are enforced as policies that we dutifully follow to the letter?

Who is held to account?  Who needs to apologise? Who needs to learn?  Someone? Anyone? Everyone? No one?

The person who wrote the policy?  The person who commissioned the policy to be written? The person who administers the policy? The person who follows the policy?

How can that happen if the policies are individually harmless but collectively lethal?

The error here is one of a different sort.

It is called an ‘error of omission’.  The harm is caused by what we did not do.  And notice the ‘we’.

What we did not do is to check the impact on others of the policies that we write for ourselves.


The governance department of a large hospital designs safety policies that if not followed lead to disciplinary action and possible dismissal.  That sounds like a reasonable way to weed out the ‘bad apples’ and the policies are adhered to.

At the same time the operations department designs flow policies (such as maximum waiting time targets and minimum resource utilisation) that if not followed lead to disciplinary action and possible dismissal.  That also sounds like a reasonable way to weed out the layabouts whose idleness cause queues and delays and the policies are adhered to.

And at the same time the finance department designs fiscal policies (such as fixed budgets and cost improvement targets) that if not followed lead to disciplinary action and possible dismissal. Again, that sounds like a reasonable way to weed out money wasters and the policies are adhered to.

What is the combined effect? The multiple safety checks take more time to complete, which puts extra workload on resources and forces up utilisation. As the budget ceiling is lowered the financial and operational pressures build, the system heats up, stress increases, corners are cut, errors slip through the safety checks. More safety checks are added and the already over-worked staff are forced into an impossible position.  Chaos ensues … more mistakes are made … patients are harmed and justifiably seek compensation by litigation.  Everyone loses (except perhaps the lawyers).

So why was my inner chimp really so unhappy?

Because none of this is necessary. This scenario is avoidable.

Reducing the pain of complaints and the cost of litigation requires setting realistic expectations to avoid disappointment and it requires not creating harm in the first place.

That implies creating healthcare systems that are inherently safe, not made not-unsafe by inspection-and-correction.

And it implies measuring and sharing intended and actual outcomes not  just compliance with policies and rates of failure to meet arbitrary and conflicting targets.

So if that is all possible and all that is required then why are we not doing it?

Simple. We never learned how. We never knew it is possible.

Our Iceberg Is Melting

hold_your_ground_rope_300_wht_6223[Dring Dring] The telephone soundbite announced the start of the coaching session.

<Bob> Good morning Leslie. How are you today?

<Leslie> I have been better.

<Bob> You seem upset. Do you want to talk about it?

<Leslie> Yes, please. The trigger for my unhappiness is that last week I received an email demanding that I justify the time I spend doing improvement work and  a summons to a meeting to ‘discuss some issues that have been raised‘.

<Bob> OK. I take it that you do not know what or who has triggered this inquiry.

<Leslie> You are correct. My working hypothesis is that it is the end of the financial year and budget holders are looking for opportunities to do some pruning – to meet their cost improvement program targets!

<Bob> So what is the problem? You have shared the output of your work. You have demonstrated significant improvements in safety, flow, quality and productivity and you have described both them and the methodology clearly.

<Leslie> I know. That us why I was so upset to get this email. It is as if everything that we have achieved has been ignored. It is almost as if it is resented.

<Bob> Ah! You may well be correct.  This is the nature of paradigm shifts. Those who have the greatest vested interest in the current paradigm get spooked when they feel it start to wobble. Each time you share the outcome of your improvement work you create emotional shock-waves. The effects are cumulative and eventually there will be is a ‘crisis of confidence’ in those who feel most challenged by the changes that you are demonstrating are possible.  The whole process is well described in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. That is not a book for an impatient reader though – for those who prefer something lighter I recommend “Our Iceberg is Melting” by John Kotter.

<Leslie> Thanks Bob. I will get a copy of Kotter’s book – that sounds more my cup of tea. Will that tell me what to do?

<Bob> It is a parable – a fictional story of a colony of penguins who discover that their iceberg is melting and are suddenly faced with a new and urgent potential risk of not surviving the storms of the approaching winter. It is not a factual account of a real crisis or a step-by-step recipe book for solving all problems  – it describes some effective engagement strategies in general terms.

<Leslie> I will still read it. What I need is something more specific to my actual context.

<Bob> This is an improvement-by-design challenge. The only difference from the challenges you have done already is that this time the outcome you are looking for is a smooth transition from the ‘old’ paradigm to the ‘new’ one.  Kuhn showed that this transition will not start to happen until there is a new paradigm because individuals choose to take the step from the old to the new and they do not all do that at the same time.  Your work is demonstrating that there is a new paradigm. Some will love that message, some will hate it. Rather like Marmite.

<Leslie> Yes, that make sense.  But how do I deal with an unseen enemy who is stirring up trouble behind my back?

<Bob> Are you are referring to those who have ‘raised some issues‘?

<Leslie> Yes.

<Bob> They will be the ones who have most invested in the current status quo and they will not be in senior enough positions to challenge you directly so they are going around spooking the inner Chimps of those who can. This is expected behaviour when the relentlessly changing reality starts to wobble the concrete current paradigm.

<Leslie> Yes! That is  exactly how it feels.

<Bob> The danger lurking here is that your inner Chimp is getting spooked too and is conjuring up Gremlins and Goblins from the Computer! Left to itself your inner Chimp will steer you straight into the Victim Vortex.  So you need to take it for a long walk, let it scream and wave its hairy arms about, listen to it, and give it lots of bananas to calm it down. Then put your put your calmed-down Chimp into its cage and your ‘paradigm transition design’ into the Computer. Only then will you be ready for the ‘so-justify-yourself’ meeting.  At the meeting your Chimp will be out of its cage like a shot and interpreting everything as a threat. It will disable you and go straight to the Computer for what to do – and it will read your design and follow the ‘wise’ instructions that you have put in there.

<Leslie> Wow! I see how you are using the Chimp Paradox metaphor to describe an incredibly complex emotional process in really simple language. My inner Chimp is feeling happier already!

<Bob> And remember that you are in all in the same race. Your collective goal is to cross the finish line as quickly as possible with the least chaos, pain and cost.  You are not in a battle – that is lose-lose inner Chimp thinking.  The only message that your interrogators must get from you is ‘Win-win is possible and here is how we can do it‘. That will be the best way to soothe their inner Chimps – the ones who fear that you are going to sink their boat by rocking it.

<Leslie> That is really helpful. Thank you again Bob. My inner Chimp is now snoring gently in its cage and while it is asleep I have some Improvement-by-Design work to do and then some Computer programming.

The Battle of the Chimps

Chimp_BattleImprovement implies change.
Change implies action.
Action implies decision.

So how is the decision made?
With Urgency?
With Understanding?

Bitter experience teaches us that often there is an argument about what to do and when to do it.  An argument between two factions. Both are motivated by a combination of anger and fear. One side is motivated more by anger than fear. They vote for action because of the urgency of the present problem. The other side is motivated more by fear than anger. They vote for inaction because of their fear of future failure.

The outcome is unhappiness for everyone.

If the ‘action’ party wins the vote and a failure results then there is blame and recrimination. If the ‘inaction’ party wins the vote and a failure results then there is blame and recrimination. If either party achieves a success then there is both gloating and resentment. Lose Lose.

The issue is not the decision and how it is achieved.The problem is the battle.

Dr Steve Peters is a psychiatrist with 30 years of clinical experience.  He knows how to help people succeed in life through understanding how the caveman wetware between their ears actually works.

In the run up to the 2012 Olympic games he was the sports psychologist for the multiple-gold-medal winning UK Cycling Team.  The World Champions. And what he taught them is described in his book – “The Chimp Paradox“.

Chimp_Paradox_SmallSteve brilliantly boils the current scientific understanding of the complexity of the human mind down into a simple metaphor.

One that is accessible to everyone.

The metaphor goes like this:

There are actually two ‘beings’ inside our heads. The Chimp and the Human. The Chimp is the older, stronger, more emotional and more irrational part of our psyche. The Human is the newer, weaker, logical and rational part.  Also inside there is the Computer. It is just a memory where both the Chimp and the Human store information for reference later. Beliefs, values, experience. Stuff like that. Stuff they use to help them make decisions.

And when some new information arrives through our senses – sight and sound for example – the Chimp gets first dibs and uses the Computer to look up what to do.  Long before the Human has had time to analyse the new information logically and rationally. By the time the Human has even started on solving the problem the Chimp has come to a decision and signaled it to the Human and associated it with a strong emotion. Anger, Fear, Excitement and so on. The Chimp operates on basic drives like survival-of-the-self and survival-of-the-species. So if the Chimp gets spooked or seduced then it takes control – and it is the stronger so it always wins the internal argument.

But the human is responsible for the actions of the Chimp. As Steve Peters says ‘If your dog bites someone you cannot blame the dog – you are responsible for the dog‘.  So it is with our inner Chimps. Very often we end up apologising for the bad behaviour of our inner Chimp.

Because our inner Chimp is the stronger we cannot ‘control’ it by force. We have to learn how to manage the animal. We need to learn how to soothe it and to nurture it. And we need to learn how to remove the Gremlins that it has programmed into the Computer. Our inner Chimp is not ‘bad’ or ‘mad’ it is just a Chimp and it is an essential part of us.

Real chimpanzees are social, tribal and territorial.  They live in family groups and the strongest male is the boss. And it is now well known that a troop of chimpanzees in the wild can plan and wage battles to acquire territory from neighbouring troops. With casualties on both sides.  And so it is with people when their inner Chimps are in control.

Which is most of the time.

A hospital is failing one of its performance targets – the 18 week referral-to-treatment one – and is being threatened with fines and potential loss of its autonomy. The fear at the top drives the threat downwards. Operational managers are forced into action and do so using strategies that have not worked in the past. But they do not have time to learn how to design and test new ones. They are bullied into Plan-Do mode. The hospital is also required to provide safe care and the Plan-Do knee-jerk triggers fear-of-failure in the minds of the clinicians who then angrily oppose the diktat or quietly sabotage it.

This lose-lose scenario is being played out  in  100’s if not 1000’s of hospitals across the globe as we speak.  The evidence is there for everyone to see.

The inner Chimps are in charge and the outcome is a turf war with casualties on all sides.

So how does The Chimp Paradox help dissolve this seemingly impossible challenge?

First it is necessary to appreciate that both sides are being controlled by their inner Chimps who are reacting from a position of irrational fear and anger. This means that everyone’s behaviour is irrational and their actions likely to be counter-productive.

What is needed is for everyone to be managing their inner Chimps so that the Humans are back in control of the decision making. That way we get wise decisions that lead to effective actions and win-win outcomes. Without chaos and casualties.

To do this we all need to learn how to manage our own inner Chimps … and that is what “The Chimp Paradox” is all about. That is what helped the UK cyclists to become gold medalists.

In the scenario painted above we might observe that the managers are more comfortable in the Pragmatist-Activist (PA) half of the learning cycle. The Plan-Do part of PDSA  – to translate into the language of improvement. The clinicians appear more comfortable in the Reflector-Theorist (RT) half. The Study-Act part of PDSA.  And that difference of preference is fueling the firestorm.

Improvement Science tells us that to achieve and sustain improvement we need all four parts of the learning cycle working  smoothly and in sequence.

So what at first sight looks like it must be pitched battle which will result in two losers; in reality is could be a three-legged race that will result in everyone winning. But only if synergy between the PA and the RT halves can be achieved.

And that synergy is achieved by learning to respect, understand and manage our inner Chimps.

The Mirror

mirror_mirror[Dring Dring]

The phone announced the arrival of Leslie for the weekly ISP mentoring conversation with Bob.

<Leslie> Hi Bob.

<Bob> Hi Leslie. What would you like to talk about today?

<Leslie> A new challenge – one that I have not encountered before.

<Bob>Excellent. As ever you have pricked my curiosity. Tell me more.

<Leslie> OK. Up until very recently whenever I have demonstrated the results of our improvement work to individuals or groups the usual response has been “Yes, but“. The habitual discount as you call it. “Yes, but your service is simpler; Yes, but your budget is bigger; Yes, but your staff are less militant.” I have learned to expect it so I do not get angry any more.

<Bob> OK. The mantra of the skeptics is to be expected and you have learned to stay calm and maintain respect. So what is the new challenge?

<Leslie>There are two parts to it.  Firstly, because the habitual discounting is such an effective barrier to diffusion of learning;  our system has not changed; the performance is steadily deteriorating; the chaos is worsening and everything that is ‘obvious’ has been tried and has not worked. More red lights are flashing on the patient-harm dashboard and the Inspectors are on their way. There is an increasing  turnover of staff at all levels – including Executive.  There is an anguished call for “A return to compassion first” and “A search for new leaders” and “A cultural transformation“.

<Bob> OK. It sounds like the tipping point of awareness has been reached, enough people now appreciate that their platform is burning and radical change of strategy is required to avoid the ship sinking and them all drowning. What is the second part?

<Leslie> I am getting more emails along the line of “What would you do?

<Bob> And your reply?

<Leslie> I say that I do not know because I do not have a diagnosis of the cause of the problem. I do know a lot of possible causes but I do not know which plausible ones are the actual ones.

<Bob> That is a good answer.  What was the response?

<Leslie>The commonest one is “Yes, but you have shown us that Plan-Do-Study-Act is the way to improve – and we have tried that and it does not work for us. So we think that improvement science is just more snake oil!”

<Bob>Ah ha. And how do you feel about that?

<Leslie>I have learned the hard way to respect the opinion of skeptics. PDSA does work for me but not for them. And I do not understand why that is. I would like to conclude that they are not doing it right but that is just discounting them and I am wary of doing that.

<Bob>OK. You are wise to be wary. We have reached what I call the Mirror-on-the-Wall moment.  Let me ask what your understanding of the history of PDSA is?

<Leslie>It was called Plan-Do-Check-Act by Walter Shewhart in the 1930’s and was presented as a form of the scientific method that could be applied on the factory floor to improving the quality of manufactured products.  W Edwards Deming modified it to PDSA where the “Check” was changed to “Study”.  Since then it has been the key tool in the improvement toolbox.

<Bob>Good. That is an excellent summary.  What the Zealots do not talk about are the limitations of their wonder-tool.  Perhaps that is because they believe it has no limitations.  Your experience would seem to suggest otherwise though.

<Leslie>Spot on Bob. I have a nagging doubt that I am missing something here. And not just me.

<Bob>The reason PDSA works for you is because you are using it for the purpose it was designed for: incremental improvement of small bits of the big system; the steps; the points where the streams cross the stages.  You are using your FISH training to come up with change plans that will work because you understand the Physics of Flow better. You make wise improvement decisions.  In fact you are using PDSA in two separate modes: discovery mode and delivery mode.  In discovery mode we use the Study phase to build your competence – and we learn most when what happens is not what we expected.  In delivery mode we use the Study phase to build our confidence – and that grows most when what happens is what we predicted.

<Leslie>Yes, that makes sense. I see the two modes clearly now you have framed it that way – and I see that I am doing both at the same time, almost by second nature.

<Bob>Yes – so when you demonstrate it you describe PDSA generically – not as two complimentary but contrasting modes. And by demonstrating success you omit to show that there are some design challenges that cannot be solved with either mode.  That hidden gap attracts some of the “Yes, but” reactions.

<Leslie>Do you mean the challenges that others are trying to solve and failing?

<Bob>Yes. The commonest error is to discount the value of improvement science in general; so nothing is done and the inevitable crisis happens because the system design is increasingly unfit for the evolving needs.  The toast is not just burned it is on fire and is now too late to  use the discovery mode of PDSA because prompt and effective action is needed.  So the delivery mode of PDSA is applied to a emergent, ill-understood crisis. The Plan is created using invalid assumptions and guesswork so it is fundamentally flawed and the Do then just makes the chaos worse.  In the ensuing panic the Study and Act steps are skipped so all hope of learning is lost and and a vicious and damaging spiral of knee-jerk Plan-Do-Plan-Do follows. The chaos worsens, quality falls, safety falls, confidence falls, trust falls, expectation falls and depression and despair increase.

<Leslie>That is exactly what is happening and why I feel powerless to help. What do I do?

<Bob>The toughest bit is past. You have looked squarely in the mirror and can now see harsh reality rather than hasty rhetoric. Now you can look out of the window with different eyes.  And you are now looking for a real-world example of where complex problems are solved effectively and efficiently. Can you think of one?

<Leslie>Well medicine is one that jumps to mind.  Solving a complex, emergent clinical problems requires a clear diagnosis and prompt and effective action to stabilise the patient and then to cure the underlying cause: the disease.

<Bob>An excellent example. Can you describe what happens as a PDSA sequence?

<Leslie>That is a really interesting question.  I can say for starters that it does not start with P – we have learned are not to have a preconceived idea of what to do at the start because it badly distorts our clinical judgement.  The first thing we do is assess the patient to see how sick and unstable they are – we use the Vital Signs. So that means that we decide to Act first and our first action is to Study the patient.

<Bob>OK – what happens next?

<Leslie>Then we will do whatever is needed to stabilise the patient based on what we have observed – it is called resuscitation – and only then we can plan how we will establish the diagnosis; the root cause of the crisis.

<Bob> So what does that spell?

<Leslie> A-S-D-P.  It is the exact opposite of P-D-S-A … the mirror image!

<Bob>Yes. Now consider the treatment that addresses the root cause and that cures the patient. What happens then?

<Leslie>We use the diagnosis is used to create a treatment Plan for the specific patient; we then Do that, and we Study the effect of the treatment in that specific patient, using our various charts to compare what actually happens with what we predicted would happen. Then we decide what to do next: the final action.  We may stop because we have achieved our goal, or repeat the whole cycle to achieve further improvement. So that is our old friend P-D-S-A.

<Bob>Yes. And what links the two bits together … what is the bit in the middle?

<Leslie>Once we have a diagnosis we look up the appropriate treatment options that have been proven to work through research trials and experience; and we tailor the treatment to the specific patient. Oh I see! The missing link is design. We design a specific treatment plan using generic principles.

<Bob>Yup.  The design step is the jam in the improvement sandwich and it acts like a mirror: A-S-D-P is reflected back as P-D-S-A

<Leslie>So I need to teach this backwards: P-D-S-A and then Design and then A-S-P-D!

<Bob>Yup – and you know that by another name.

<Leslie> 6M Design®! That is what my Improvement Science Practitioner course is all about.

<Bob> Yup.

<Leslie> If you had told me that at the start it would not have made much sense – it would just have confused me.

<Bob>I know. That is the reason I did not. The Mirror needs to be discovered in order for the true value to appreciated. At the start we look in the mirror and perceive what we want to see. We have to learn to see what is actually there. Us. Now you can see clearly where P-D-S-A and Design fit together and the missing A-S-D-P component that is needed to assemble a 6M Design® engine. That is Improvement-by-Design in a nine-letter nutshell.

<Leslie> Wow! I can’t wait to share this.

<Bob> And what do you expect the response to be?

<Leslie>”Yes, but”?

<Bob> From the die hard skeptics – yes. It is the ones who do not say “Yes, but” that you want to engage with. The ones who are quiet. It is always the quiet ones that hold the key.

The Victim Vortex

[Beep Beep] Bob tapped the “Answer” button on his smartphone – it was Lesley calling in for their regular ISP coaching session.

<Bob>Hi Lesley. How are you today? And which tunnel in the ISP Learning Labyrinth shall we explore today?

<Lesley>Hi Bob. I am OK thank you. Can we invest some time in the Engagement Maze?

<Bob>OK. Do you have a specific example?

<Lesley>Sort of. This week I had a conversation with our Chief Executive about the potential of Improvement Science and the reply I got was “I am convinced by what you say but it is your colleagues who need to engage. If you have not succeeded in convincing them then how can I?” I was surprised by that response and slightly niggled because it had an uncomfortable nugget of truth in it.

<Bob>That sounds like the wisdom of a leader who understands that the “power” to make things happen does not sit wholly in the lap of those charged with accountability.

<Lesley> I agree.  And at the same time everything that the “Top Team” suggest gets shot down in flames by a small and very vocal group of my more skeptical colleagues.

<Bob>Ah ha!  It sounds like the Victim Vortex is causing trouble here.

<Lesley>The Victim Vortex?

<Bob>Yes.  Let me give you an example.  One of the common initiators of the Victim Vortex is the data flow part of a complex system design.  The Sixth Flow.  So can I ask you: “How are new information systems developed in your organization?

<Lesley>Wow!  You hit the nail on the head first time!  Just this week there has been another firestorm of angry emails triggered by yet another silver-bullet IT system being foisted on us!

<Bob>Interesting use of language Lesley.  You sound quite “niggled”.

<Lesley>I am.  Not by the constant “drizzle of IT magic” – that is irritating enough – but more by the vehemently cynical reaction of my peers.

<Bob>OK.  This sounds like good enough example of the Victim Vortex.  What do you expect the outcome will be?

<Lesley>Well, if past experience is a predictor for future performance – an expensive failure, more frustration and a deeper well of cynicism.

<Bob>Frustrating for whom?

<Lesley>Everyone.  The IT department as well.  It feels like we are all being sucked into a lose-lose-lose black hole of depression and despair!

<Bob>A very good description of the Victim Vortex.

<Lesley>So the Victim Vortex is an example of the Drama Triangle acting on an organizational level?

tornada_150_wht_10155<Bob>Yes. Visualize a cultural tornado.  The energy that drives it is the emotional  currency spent in playing the OK – Not OK Games.  It is a self-fueling system, a stable design, very destructive and very resistant to change.

<Lesley>That metaphor works really well for me!

<Bob>A similar one is a whirlpool – a water vortex.  If you were out swimming and were caught up in a whirlpool what are your exit strategy options?

<Lesley>An interesting question.  I have never had that experience and would not want it – it sounds rather hazardous.  Let me think.  If I do nothing I will just get swept around in the chaos and I am at risk of  getting bashed, bruised and then sucked under.

<Bob>Yes – you would probably spend all your time and energy just treading water and dodging the flotsam and jetsam that has been sucked into the Vortex.  That is what most people do.  It is called the Hamster Wheel effect.

<Lesley>So another option is to actively swim towards the middle of the Vortex – the end would at least be quick! But that is giving up and adopting the Hopelessness attitude of burned out Victim.  That would be the equivalent of taking voluntary redundancy or early retirement.  It is not my style!

<Bob>Yes.  It does not solve the problem either.  The Vortex is always hoovering up new Victims.  It is insatiable.

<Lesley> And another option would be to swim with the flow to avoid being “got” from behind.  That would be seem sensible and is possible; and at least I would feel better for doing something. I might even escape if I swim fast enough!

<Bob>That is indeed what some try.  The movers and shakers.  The pace setters.  The optimists.  The extrovert leaders.  The problem is that it makes the Vortex spin even faster.  It actually makes the Vortex bigger,  more chaotic and more dangerous than before.

<Lesley>Yes – I can see that.  So my other option is to swim against the flow in an attempt to slow the Vortex down.  Would that work?

<Bob>If everyone did that at the same time it might but that is unlikely to happen spontaneously.  If you could achieve that degree of action alignment you would not have a Victim Vortex in the first place.  Trying to do it alone is ineffective, you tire very quickly, the other Victims bash into you, you slow them down, and then you all get sucked down the Plughole of Despair.

<Lesley>And I suppose a small group of like-minded champions who try to swim-against the flow might last longer if they stick together but even then eventually they would get bashed up and broken up too.  I have seen that happen.  And that is probably where our team are heading at the moment.  I am out of options.  Is it impossible to escape the Victim Vortex?

<Bob>There is one more direction you can swim.

<Lesley>Um?  You mean across the flow heading directly away from the center?

<Bob>Exactly.  Consider that option.

<Lesley>Well, it would still be hard work and I would still be going around with the Vortex and I would still need to watch out for flotsam but every stroke I make would take me further from the center.  The chaos would get gradually less and eventually I would be in clear water and out of danger.  I could escape the Victim Vortex!

<Bob>Yes. And what would happen if others saw you do that and did the same?

<Lesley>The Victim Vortex would dissipate!

<Bob>Yes.  So that is your best strategy.  It is a win-win-win strategy too. You can lead others out of the Victim Vortex.

<Lesley>Wow!  That is so cool!  So how would I apply that metaphor to the Information System niggle?

<Bob>I will leave you to ponder on that.  Think about it as a design assignment.  The design of the system that generates IT solutions that are fit-for-purpose.

<Lesley> Somehow I knew you were going to say that!  I have my squared-paper and sharpened pencil at the ready.  Yes – an improvement-by-design assignment.  Thank you once again Bob.  This ISP course is the business!


telephone_ringing_300_wht_14975[Ring Ring]

<Bob> Hi Leslie how are you to today?

<Leslie> I am good thanks Bob and looking forward to today’s session. What is the topic?

<Bob> We will use your Niggle-o-Gram® to choose something. What is top of the list?

<Leslie> Let me see.  We have done “Engagement” and “Productivity” so it looks like “Near-Misses” is next.

<Bob> OK. That is an excellent topic. What is the specific Niggle?

<Leslie> “We feel scared when we have a safety near-miss because we know that there is a catastrophe waiting to happen.”

<Bob> OK so the Purpose is to have a system that we can trust not to generate avoidable harm. Is that OK?

<Leslie> Yes – well put. When I ask myself the purpose question I got a “do” answer rather than a “have” one. The word trust is key too.

<Bob> OK – what is the current safety design used in your organisation?

<Leslie> We have a computer system for reporting near misses – but it does not deliver the purpose above. If the issue is ranked as low harm it is just counted, if medium harm then it may be mentioned in a report, and if serious harm then all hell breaks loose and there is a root cause investigation conducted by a committee that usually results in a new “you must do this extra check” policy.

<Bob> Ah! The Burn-and-Scrape model.

<Leslie>Pardon? What was that? Our Governance Department call it the Swiss Cheese model.

<Bob> Burn-and-Scrape is where we wait for something to go wrong – we burn the toast – and then we attempt to fix it – we scrape the burnt toast to make it look better. It still tastes burnt though and badly burnt toast is not salvageable.

<Leslie>Yes! That is exactly what happens all the time – most issues never get reported – we just “scrape the burnt toast” at all levels.

fire_blaze_s_150_clr_618 fire_blaze_h_150_clr_671 fire_blaze_n_150_clr_674<Bob> One flaw with the Burn-and-Scrape design is that harm has to happen for the design to work.

It is all reactive.

Another design flaw is that it focuses attention on the serious harm first – avoidable mortality for example.  Counting the extra body bags completely misses the purpose.  Avoidable death means avoidably shortened lifetime.  Avoidable non-fatal will also shorten lifetime – and it is even harder to measure.  Just consider the cumulative effect of all that non-fatal life-shortening avoidable-but-ignored harm?

Most of the reasons that we live longer today is because we have removed a lot of lifetime shortening hazards – like infectious disease and severe malnutrition.

Take health care as an example – accurately measuring avoidable mortality in an inherently high-risk system is rather difficult.  And to conclude “no action needed” from “no statistically significant difference in mortality between us and the global average” is invalid and it leads to a complacent delusion that what we have is good enough.  When it comes to harm it is never “good enough”.

<Leslie> But we do not have the resources to investigate the thousands of cases of minor harm – we have to concentrate on the biggies.

<Bob> And do the near misses keep happening?

<Leslie> Yes – that is why they are top rank  on the Niggle-o-Gram®.

<Bob> So the Burn-and-Scrape design is not fit-for-purpose.

<Leslie> So it seems. But what is the alternative? If there was one we would be using it – surely?

<Bob> Look back Leslie. How many of the Improvement Science methods that you have already learned are business-as-usual?

<Leslie> Good point. Almost none.

<Bob> And do they work?

<Leslie> You betcha!

<Bob> This is another example.  It is possible to design systems to be safe – so the frequent near misses become rare events.

<Leslie> Is it?  Wow! That know-how would be really useful to have. Can you teach me?

<Bob> Yes. First we need to explore what the benefits would be.

<Leslie> OK – well first there would be no avoidable serious harm and we could trust in the safety of our system – which is the purpose.

<Bob> Yes …. and?

<Leslie> And … all the effort, time and cost spent “scraping the burnt toast” would be released.

<Bob> Yes …. and?

<Leslie> The safer-by-design processes would be quicker and smoother, a more enjoyable experience for both customers and suppliers, and probably less expensive as well!

<Bob> Yes. So what does that all add up to?

<Leslie> A win-win-win-win outcome!

<Bob> Indeed. So a one-off investment of effort, time and money in learning Safety-by-Design methods would appear to be a wise business decision.

<Leslie> Yes indeed!  When do we start?

<Bob> We have already started.

For a real-world example of this approach delivering a significant and sustained improvement in safety click here.

The Management of Victimosis

erasable_sad_face_150_wht_6089One of the commonest psycho-socio-economic diseases is Victimosis.

This disease has a characteristic set of symptoms and signs. The symptoms are easy to detect – and the easiest way is to close your eyes and listen to the language being used. There is a characteristic vocabulary.  ‘Yes but’ is common as is ‘If only’ and ‘They should’ and ‘Not my’ and ‘Too busy’.  Hearing these phrases used frequently is good evidence that the subject is suffering from Victimosis.

Everyone suffers from Acute Victimosis occasionally, especially if they are tired and suffer a series of emotional set backs.  With the support of relatives and friends our psychoimmune system is able to combat the cause and return us to healthy normality. We are normally able to heal our emotional wounds.

Unfortunately Victimosis is an infectious and highly contagious condition and with a large enough innoculum it can spread until almost everyone in the organisation is affected to some degree.  When this happens the Victimosis behaviour can become the norm and awareness of the symptoms slips from consciousness. Victimosis then becomes the unspoken dominant culture and the transition to the Chronic Victimosis phase is complete.

dna_magnifying_glass_150_wht_8959Research has shown that Victimosis is an acquired disease linked to a transmissable meme that is picked up early in life. The meme can be transmitted person-to-person and also through mass communication systems which then leads to rapid dissemination. Typical channels are newspapers, television, the internet and now social media.  Just sample the daily news and observe how much Victimosis language is in circulation.

Those more susceptible to infection can develop into chronic carriers who constantly infect and reinfect others.  The outward mainfestations of the chronic form are incessant complaining, criticising, irrational decisions, ineffective actions, blaming and eventually depression, hopelessness and terminal despair.  The chronically infected may aggregate into like-minded groups as a safety-in-numbers reflex response.  These groups are characterised  by having a high proportion of people with the same temperament; particularly the Guardian preference (the Supervisors, Inspectors, Providers and Protectors who make up two thirds of the population).

Those able to resist infection find the context and culture toxic and they take action. They leave.

The outward manifestations of Chronic Victimosis are GroupThink and Silosis.  GroupThink is where collectives start to behave as one and their group-rhetoric becomes progressively less varied and more dogmatic. Silosis is a form of organisational tribalism where Departments become separated from each other, conceptually, emotionally, physically and financially. Both natural reactions only aggravate the condition and accelerate the decline.

patient_stumbling_with_bandages_150_wht_6861One of the effects of the Victimosis-meme is Agnostic Hyper-Reactivity. This is where both the Individuals and their Silos develop a thick emotional protective membrane that distorts their perception.  It is not that they do not sense what is happening – it is that they do not perceive it or that they perceive it in a distorted way.  This is the Agnosia part – literally ‘not knowing’.

Unfortunately being ignorant of Reality does not help and eventually the pressure of Reality builds up and punches a hole through the emotional barrier.  Something exceptionally bad happens that cannot be discounted or ignored. This is the ‘crisis‘ stage and it elicits a characteristic reflex reaction. An emotional knee-jerk. Unfortunately the reflex is an over-reaction and is poorly focussed and badly coordinated – so it does more harm than good.

This is the hyper-reactivity part.

The blind reflex reaction further destabilises an already unstable situation and accelerates the decline.  It creates a positive feedback loop that can quickly escalate to verbal, written and then psychological and physical conflict. The Lose-Lose-Lose of Self-Destructive behaviour that is characteristic of the late phase.  And that is not all.  Over time the reflex reaction gets less effective as the Victimosis Membrane thickens. The reflex fades out.  This is a dangerous development because on the surface it looks like things are improving, there is less conflict, but in reality the patient is slipping into pre-terminal Victimosis.

Fortunately there is a treatment for Victimosis.

It is called Positivicillin.

herbal_supplement_400_wht_8492This is not a new wonder drug, it is a natural product. We all produce Positivicillin and some of us produce more than others: they are called Optimists.  Positivicillin works by channelling the flow of emotional energy into the reflection-and-action pathways. Naturally occurring Positivicillin has a long-half life: the warm glow of success lasts a long time.  Unfortunately Positivicillin is irreversibly deactivated by the emotional toxin generated by the Victimosis meme: a toxin called Discountin. So in the presence of Discountin the affected person needs to generate more Positivicillin and to do so continuously and this leads to emotional exhaustion. The diffusion of Positivicillin is impeded by the Victimosis Membrane so if subject has a severe case of Chronic Victimosis then they may need extrinsic Positivicillin treatment at high dose and for a long time to prevent terminal decline. The primary goal of emergency treatment is to neutralise the excess Discountin for long enough that the natural production of Positivicillin can start to work.

So where can we get supplies of extrinsic Positivicillin from?

In its pure form Positivicillin is rare and expensive.  The number of naturally occurring Eternal Optimist Exporters is small and their collective Positivicillin production capability is limited. Healthy organisations value and attract them; unhealthy ones discount and reject them.

wine_toast_pc_400_wht_4449no_smoking_400_wht_6805So we are forced to resort to using more abundant, cheaper but inferior drugs.  One is called Alcoholimycin and another is Tobaccomycin.  They are both widely available and affordable but they have long term irreversible toxic side effects.

Chronic Victimosis is endemic so chronic abuse of Tobaccomycin and Alcoholimycin is common and, in an attempt to restrict their negative long term effects, both drugs are heavily taxed by the Authorities.

Unfortunately this only aggravates the spread of Chronic Victimosis which some report is a sign of the same condition affecting the Authorties! These radicals are calling for de-regulation of the more potent variants such a Cannabisimycin but the Authorities have opted for a tightly regulated supply of symptom-suppressants such as Anxiolytin and Antidepressin. These are now freely available and do help those who want to learn to cure themselves.

The long term goal of the Victimosis Research Council is to develop ways to produce pure Positivicillin and to treat the most severe cases of Chronic Victimosis; and to find ways to boost the natural production of Positivicillin within less seriously affected individuals and organisations.

Chronic Victimosis is not a new disease – it has been described in various forms throughout recorded history – so the search for a cure starts with the historical treatments – one of which is Confessmycin. This has been used for centuries and appears to work well for some but not others and this idiosyncratic response is believed to be due to the presence (or not) of the Rel-1-Gion meme. Active dissemination of a range of Rel-1-Gion meme variants (and the closely linked Pol-1-Tic meme variants) has been tried with considerable success but does not appear to be a viable long term option.

A recent high-tech approach is called a Twimplant.  This is an example of the Social-Media class of biopsychosocial feedback loops that uses the now ubiquitous mobiphonic symbiont to connect the individual to a regular supply of positive support, ideas and evidence called P-Tweets.  It is important to tune the Twimplant correctly because the same device can also pick up distress signals broadcast by sufferers of Chronic Victimosis who are attempting to dilute their Discountin by digitising it and exporting it to everyone else. These are called N-Tweets and are easily identifiable by their Victimosis vocabulary. N-tweets can be avoided by adopting an Unfollow policy.

heart_puzzle_piece_missing_pa_150_wht_4829One promising line of new research is called R2LM probe therapy.  This is an unconventional and innovative way of curing Chronic Victimosis. The R2LM probe is designed to identify the gaps in the organisational memetic code and to guide delivery of specific meme transplants that fill the gaps it reveals. One common gap is called the OM-meme deletion and one effective treatment for this is called FISH. Taking a course of FISH injections or using a FISH immersion technique leads to a rapid and sustained improvement in emotional balance.  That in-turn leads to an increase in the natural production of Positivicillin. From that point on the individual and can dissolve the Victimosis Membrance and correct their perceptual distortion. The treatment is sometimes uncomfortable but those who completed the course will vouch for its effectiveness.

For the milder forms of Victimosis it is possible to self-diagnose and to self-treat.

The strategy here is to actively reduce the production of Discountin and to boost the natural production of Positivicillin. These have a synergistic effect. The first step is to practice listening for the Victimosis vocabulary using a list of common phrases.  The patient is taught to listen for these in spoken communication and to look for them in written communication. Spoken communication includes their Internal Voice. The commonest phrases are:

1. “Yes but …”
2. “If only  …”
3. “I/You/We/They should …”
4. “I/We can’t …”
5. “I/We hope …”
6. “Not My/Our fault …”
7. “Constant struggle …”
8. “I/We do not know …”
9. “I am too busy to …”

The negative emotional impact of these phrases is caused by the presence of the Discountin toxin.

The second step is to substitute the contaminated phrase with an equivalent one where the Discountin is deactivated using Positivicillin. This deliberate and conscious substitution is easiest in written communication, then externally spoken and finally the Internal Voice. The replacements for the above are …

1. “Yes, and …”
2. “Next time …”
3. “I/We could …”
4. “I/We can …”
5. “I/We know …”
6. “My/Our responsibility …”
7. “Endless opportunity …”
8. “I/We will learn …”
9. “It is too important not to …”

figure_check_mark_celebrate_anim_150_wht_3617The system-wide benefits of the prompt and effective management of Chronic Victimosis are enormous. There is more reflective consideration and more effective action. There is success and celebration where before there was failure and frustration. The success stimulates natural release of more Positivicillin which builds a positive reinforcement feedback loop.  In addition the other GA-memes become progressively switched off and the signs of Passive Persecutitis and Reactive Rescuopathy resolve.

The combined effect leads to the release of Curiositonin, the natural inquisitiveness hormone, and Excitaline – the hormone that causes the addictive feeling of eager anticipation. The racing heart and the dry mouth.

From then on the ex-patient is able to maintain their emotional balance, to further develop their emotional resilience, and to assist other sufferers.  And that is a win for everyone.

The Skeptics, The Cynics and The Sphere of Influence

All intentional improvement implies change. Change requires deliberate action – thinking about change is not enough. Action implies control of physical objects and, despite what we might like to believe, the only things that are under our personal control are our beliefs, our attitudes, our behaviours and our actions. Everything else can only be changed through some form of indirect influence.

Our Circle of Control appears to extends only to our skin – beyond that is our Sphere of Influence – and beyond that is our Region of Concern.

Very few of us live a solitary existence as a hermit. The usual context for improvement is social and therefore to achieve improvement outside ourselves we need to influence the beliefs, attitudes, behaviours and actions of others. And we can only do that through our own behaviour and actions. We cannot do telepathy or mind-control.  And remember, we are being influenced by others – it is a two-way street.

So when we receive a push-back to our attempted change-for-the-better action, we have failed to influence in a positive sense and the intended improvement cannot happen.  Those who oppose our innovation usually belong to one of two tribes – the Skeptics and the Cynics – and they have much in common.  They both operate from a position of doubt and a belief that they are being deliberately deceived. They distrust, discount, question, analyse, critique and they challenge. They do not blindly believe our rhetoric.

This is not new. These two tribes are thousands of years old – the Ancient Greeks knew them well and gave them the names Skeptics and Cynics. They were the Lords of the Dark Ages but they survived the Renaissance and the first skeptical hypothesis in modern Western philosophy is attributed to Rene Descartes who wrote “I will suppose … that some evil demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies to deceive me.”

The two tribes present the Innovator and Improvement Scientist with a dilemma. Before action there is only rhetoric, only an idea, only a belief that better is possible. There is no evidence of improvement yet – so no reality to support the rhetoric. And if the action requires the engagement or permission of either of the two tribes then the change will not happen because it is impossible to influence their belief and behaviour without evidence. We have crashed into the wall of resistance – and the harder we push the harder they push back.  So let us conserve our energy, step back from the wall, reflect for a moment and ask “Does the wall surround us completely – or are there gaps?”

Could we find a region of the Sphere of Influence that has few or no Skeptics and Cynics? Is there a place where they do not like to live because the cultural climate is not to their taste? We have an option – we can explore the Sphere of Influence.

At one pole we discover a land called Apathy. It is a barren place where nothing changes; it is devoid of ideas and innovation; it is passionless, monotonous, stable, predictable, safe and boring.  The Skeptics and Cynics do not like it there because there is none of their favourite food – Innovator Passion – which is where they derive their energy and their sport.

At the other pole we discover a land called Assertion – and we discover that the Skeptics and Cynics do not like it there either but for a different reason. In Assertion there is abundant passion and innovation, but also experimentation and reflection and the ideas are fewer but come packaged with a tough shell of hard evidence. This makes them much less palatable to the Skeptics because  they have to chew hard for little gain. The Cynics shun the place.

At the end of our journey we have learned that the two tribes prefer to live in the temperate zone between Apathy and Assertion where there is an abundant supply of innocent, passionate, innovators with new ideas and no evidence. The Skeptics and Cynics frustrate the inexperienced Innovators who become inflamed with passion which is what the two tribes feed on, and when finally exhausted the Innovators fall easy prey to the Cynics – who convert and enslave them. It is a veritable feeding frenzy – and the ultimate casuality is improvement.

So what is the difference between the Skeptics and the Cynics?

Despite their behaviour the Skeptics do care – they are careful. They are the guardians of stability and their opinion is respected because they help to keep the Sphere safe. They are willing to be convinced – but they want explanation and evidence. Rhetoric is not enough.

The Cynics follow a different creed. Their name derives from the Greek for dog and it is not a term of endearment. They have lost their dreams. They blame others for it and their goal is vengeance. They are remorseless, and shameless. They shun social norms and reasonable behaviour and they are not respected by others. They do not care. They are indifferent.

So the wise Improvement Scientist needs to be able to distinguish the Skeptics from the Cynics – and to learn to value the strengths of the Skeptics and to avoid the Cynics. The deal they negotiate with the Skeptics is: “In return for a steady supply of ideas and enthusiasm we ask only for an explanation of the rejections”. It is a fair trade. The careful and considered feedback of the Skeptics is valuable to the Improvement Scientist because it helps to sharpen the idea and harden the shell of evidence. Once the Innovator, Improvement Scientist and the Skeptic have finished their work any ideas that have survived the digestive process are worthy of investment.  It is a a win-win-win arrangement – everyone gets what they want.

The Cynics scavenge the scraps. And that is OK – it is their choice.


The Nerve Curve

The Nerve Curve is the emotional roller-coaster ride that everyone who engages in Improvement needs to become confident to step onto.

Just like a theme park ride it has ups and downs, twists and turns, surprises and challenges, an element of danger and a splash of excitement.  If it did not have all of those components then it would not be fun and there would not be queues of people wanting to ride, again and again.  And the reason that theme parks are so successful is because their rides have been very carefully designed – to be challenging, exciting, fun and safe – all at the same time.

So, when we challenge others to step aboard our Improvement Nerve Curve then we need to ensure that our ride is safe – and to do that we need to understand where the emotional dangers lurk, to actively point them out and then avoid them.

A big danger hides right at the start.  To get aboard the Nerve Curve we have to ask questions that expose the Elephant-in-the-Room issues.  Everyone knows they are there – but no one wants to talk about them.   The biggest one is called Distrust – which is wrapped up in all sorts of different ways and inside the nut is the  Kernel of Cynicism.  The inexperienced improvement facilitator may blunder straight into this trap just by using one small word … the word “Why”?  Arrrrrgh!  Kaboom!  Splat!  Game Over.

The “Why” question is like throwing a match into a barrel of emotional gunpowder – because it is interpreted as “What is your purpose?” and in a low-trust climate no one will want to reveal what their real purpose or intention is.  They have learned from experience to keep their cards close to their chest – it is safer to keep agendas hidden.

A much safer question is “What?”  What are the facts?  What are the effects? What are the causes? What works well? What does not? What do we want? What don’t we want? What are the constraints? What are our change options? What would each deliver? What are everyone’s views?  What is our decision?  What is our first action? What is the deadline?

Sticking to the “What” question helps to avoid everyone diving for the Political Panic Button and pulling the Emotional Emergency Brake before we have even got started.

The first part of the ride is the “Awful Reality Slope” that swoops us down into “Painful Awareness Canyon” which is the emotional low-point of the ride.  This is where the elephants-in-the-room roam for all to see and where passengers realise that, once the issues are in plain view, there is no way back.

The next danger is at the far end of the Canyon and is called the Black Chasm of Ignorance and the roller-coaster track goes right to the edge of it.  Arrrgh – we are going over the edge of the cliff – quick grab the Wilful Blindness Goggles and Denial Bag from under the seat, apply the Blunder Onwards Blind Fold and the Hope-for-the-Best Smoke Hood.

So, before our carriage reaches the Black Chasm we need to switch on the headlights to reveal the Bridge of How:  The structure and sequence that spans the chasm and that is copiously illuminated with stories from those who have gone before.  The first part is steep though and the climb is hard work.  Our carriage clanks and groans and it seems to take forever but at the top we are rewarded by a New Perspective and the exhilarating ride down into the Plateau of Understanding where we stop to reflect and to celebrate our success.

Here we disembark and discover the Forest of Opportunity which conceals many more Nerve Curves going off in all directions – rides that we can board when we feel ready for a new challenge.  There is danger lurking here too though – hidden in the Forest is Complacency Swamp – which looks innocent except that the Bridge of How is hidden from view.   Here we can get lured by the pungent perfume of Power and the addictive aroma of Arrogance and we can become too comfortable in the Zone.   As we snooze in the Hammock of Calm from we do not notice that the world around us is changing.  In reality we are slipping backwards into Blissful Ignorance and we do not notice – until we suddenly find ourselves in an unfamiliar Canyon of Painful Awareness.  Ouch!

Being forewarned is our best defense.  So, while we are encouraged to explore the Forest of Opportunity,  we learn that we must also return regularly to the Plateau of Understanding to don the Habit of Humility.  We must  regularly refresh ourselves from the Fountain of New Knowledge by showing others what we have learned and learning from them in return.  And when we start to crave more excitement we can board another Nerve Curve to a new Plateau of Understanding.

The Safety Harness of our Improvement journey is called See-Do-Teach and the most important part is Teach.  Our educators need to have more than just a knowledge of how-to-do, they also need to have enough understanding to be able to explore the why-to -do. The Quest for Purpose.

To convince others to get onboard the Nerve Curve we must be able to explain why the Issues still exist and why the current methods are not sufficient.  Those who have been on the ride are the only ones who are credible because they understand.  They have learned by doing.

And that understanding grows with practice and it grows more quickly when we take on the challenge of learning how to explore purpose and explain why.  This is Nerve Curve II.

All aboard for the greatest ride of all.

Resistance to Change

Many people who are passionate about improvement become frustrated when they encounter resistance-to-change.

It does not matter what sort of improvement is desired – safety, delivery, quality, costs, revenue, productivity or all of them.

The natural and intuitive reaction to meeting resistance is to push harder – and our experience of the physical world has taught us that if we apply enough pressure at the right place then resistance will be overcome and we will move forward.

Unfortunately we sometimes discover that we are pushing against an immovable object and even our maximum effort is futile – so we give up and label it as “impossible”.

Much of Improvement Science appears counter-intuitive at first sight and the challenge of resistance is no different.  The counter-intuitive response to feeling resistance is to pull back, and that is exactly what works better. But why does it work better? Isn’t that just giving up and giving in? How can that be better?

To explain the rationale it is necessary to examine the nature of resistance more closely.

Resistance to change is an emotional reaction to an unconsciously perceived threat that is translated into a conscious decision, action and justification: the response. The range of verbal responses is large, as illustrated in the caption, and the range of non-verbal responses is just as large.  Attempting to deflect or defuse all of them is impractical, ineffective and leads to a feeling of frustration and futility.

This negative emotional reaction we call resistance is non-specific because that is how our emotions work – and it is triggered as much by the way the change is presented as by what the change is.

Many change “experts” recommend  the better method of “driving” change is selling-versus-telling and recommend learning psycho-manipulation techniques to achieve it – close-the-deal sales training for example. Unfortunately this strategy can create a psychological “arms race” which can escalate just as quickly and lead to the same outcome: an  emotional battle and psychological casualties. This outcome is often given the generic label of “stress”.

An alternative approach is to regard resistance behaviour as multi-factorial and one model separates the non-specific resistance response into separate categories: Why DoDon’t Do – Can’t Do – Won’t Do.

The Why Do response is valuable feedback because is says “we do not understand the purpose of the proposed change” and it is not unusual for proposals to be purposeless. This is sometimes called “meddling”.  This is fear of the unknown.

The Don’t Do  is valuable feedback that is saying “there is a risk with this proposed change – an unintended negative consequence that may be greater than the intended positive outcome“.  Often it is very hard to explain this NoNo reaction because it is the output of an unconscious thought process that operates out of awareness. It just doesn’t feel good. And some people are better at spotting the risks – they prefer to wear the Black Hat – they are called skeptics.  This is fear of failure.

The Can’t Do is also valuable feedback that is saying “we get the purpose and we can see the problem and the benefit of a change – we just cannot see the path that links the two because it is blocked by something.” This reaction is often triggered by an unconscious recognition that some form of collaborative working will be required but the cultural context is low on respect and trust. It can also just be a manifestation of a knowledge, skill or experience gap – the “I don’t know how to do” gap. Some people habitually adopt the Victim role – most are genuine and do not know how.

The Won’t Do response is also valuable feedback that is saying “we can see the purpose, the problem, the benefit, and the path but we won’t do it because we don’t trust you“. This reaction is common in a low-trust culture where manipulation, bullying and game playing is the observed and expected behaviour. The role being adopted here is the Persecutor role – and the psychological discount is caring for others. Persecutors lack empathy.

The common theme here is that all resistance-to-change responses represent valuable feedback and explains why the better reaction to resistance is to stop talking and start listening because to make progress will require using the feedback to diagnose what components or resistance are present. This is necessary because each category requires a different approach.

For example Why Do requires making the both problem and the purpose explicit; Don’t Do requires exploring the fear and bringing to awareness what is fuelling it; Can’t Do requires searching for the skill gaps and filling them; and Won’t Do requires identifying the trust-eroding beliefs, attitudes and behaviours and making it safe to talk about them.

Resistance-to-change is generalised as a threat when in reality it represents an opportunity to learn and to improve – which is what Improvement Science is all about.

Steps, Streams, Silos and Swamps.

The late Steve Jobs created a world class company called Apple – which is now the largest and most successful technology company – eclipsing Microsoft.  The secret of the success of Apple is laid out in Steve Jobs biography – and can be stated in one word. Design.

Apple designs, develops and delivers great products and services  – ones that people want to own and to use.  That makes them cool. What is even more impressive is that Steve Jobs has done this in more than once and has reinvented more than one market: Apple Computers and the graphical personal computer;  Pixar and animated films; and Apple again with digital music, electronic publishing; and mobile phones.

The common themes are digital technology and end-to-end seamless integrated design of chips, devices, software, services and shops. Full vertical integration rather like Henry Ford’s verically integrated iron-ore to finished cars production line.  The Steve Jobs design paradigm is simplicity. It is much more difficult to design simplicity than to evolve complexity and his reputation was formidable. He was a uncompromising perfectionist who sacrificed feelings on the alter of design perfection. His view of the world was binary – it was either great or crap – meaning it was either moving towards perfection or away from it.

What Steve Jobs created was a design stream out of which must-have products and services flowed – and he did it by seeing all the steps as part of one system and aligned with one purpose.  He did not allow physical or psychological silos to form and he did this by challenging anything and everything.  Many could not work in this environment and left, many others thrived and delivered far beyond what they believed they could do.

Other companies were swamps. Toxic emotional waste swamps of silos, politics and turf wars.  Apple computers itself when through a phase when Steve Jobs was “ejected” and without its spiritual leader the company slipped downhill. He was enticed back and Apple was reborn and went on to create the iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad and now iCloud. Revolutioning the world of digital commnication.

The image above is a satellite view of a delta – a complex network of interconnected streams created by a river making its way to the sea through a swamp.  The structure of the delta is constantly changing and evolving so it is easy to get lost it in, to get caught in a dead-end, or stuck in the mud. Only travel by small boat is possible and that is often both ineffective and inefficient.

Many organistions are improvement science swamps. The stream of innovative ideas gets fragmented by the myriad of everchanging channels; caught in political dead-ends; and stuck in the mud of bureaucracy.  Only small, skillfully steered ideas will trickle  through – but this trickle is not enough to keep the swamp from silting up. Eventually the resistance to change reaches a critical level and the improvement stream is forced to change course – diverting the flow of change away from the swamp – and marooning the stick-in-the-muds to slowly sink and expire in the bureaucratic gloop that they spawned.

Steve Jobs’ legacy to us is a lesson. To create a system that continues to deliver and delight we need to start by learning how to design the steps, then to design the streams of steps to link seamlessly, and finally to design the system of streams to synergise as sophisticated simplicity.

Improvement cannot be left to chance in the blind hope that excellence will evolve spontaneously. Evolution is both ineffective and inefficient and is more likely to lead to dissipated and extravagant complexity than aligned and elegant simplicity.

Improvement is a science that sits at the cross-roads of humanity and technology.


This is the image of an infamous headline printed on May 4th 1982 in a well known UK newspaper.  It refers to the sinking of the General Belgrano in the Falklands war.

It is the clarion call of revenge – the payback for past grievances.

The full title is NIGYYSOB which stands for Now I Gotcha You Son Ofa B**** and is the name of one of Eric Berne’s Games that People Play.  In this case it is a Level 4 Game – played out on the global stage by the armed forces of the protagonists and resulting in both destruction and death.

The NIGYYSOB game is played out much more frequently at Level 1 – in the everyday interactions between people – people who believe that revenge has a sweet taste.

The reason this is important to the world of Improvement Science is because sometimes a well-intentioned improvement can get unintentionally entangled in a game of NIGYYSOB.

Here is how the drama unfolds.

Someone complains frequently about something that is not working, a Niggle, that they believe that they are powerless to solve. Their complaints are either ignored, discounted or not acted upon because the person with the assumed authority to resolve it cannot do so because they do not know how and will not admit that.  This stalemate can fester for a long time and can build up a Reservoir of Resentment. The Niggle persists and keeps irritating the emotional wound which remains an open cultural sore.  It is not unusual for a well-intentioned third party to intervene to resolve the standoff but as they too are unable to resolve the underlying problem – and all that results is either meddling or diktat which can actually make the problem worse.

The outcome is a festering three-way stalemate with a history of failed expectations and a deepening Well of Cynicism.

Then someone with an understanding of Improvement Science appears on the scene – and the stage is set for a new chapter of the drama because they risk of being “hooked” into The Game.  The newcomer knows how to resolve the problem and, with the grudging consent of the three protagonists, as if by magic, the Niggle is dissolved.  Wow!   The walls of the Well of Cynicism are breached by the new reality and the three protagonists suddenly realise that they may need to radically re-evaluate their worldviews.  That was not expected!

What can happen next is an emotional backlash – rather like a tight elastic band being released at one end. Twang! Snap! Ouch!

We all have a the same psychological reaction to a sudden and surprising change in our reality – be it for the better or for the worse. It takes time to adjust to a new worldview and that transition phase is both fragile and unstable; so there is a risk of going off course.

Experience teaches us that it does not take much to knock the tentative improvement over.

The application of Improvement Science will generate transitions that need to be anticipated and proactively managed because if this is not done then there is a risk that the emotional backlash will upset the whole improvement apple-cart.

What appears to occur is: after reality shows that the improvement has worked then the realisation dawns that the festering problem was always solvable, and the chronic emotional pain was avoidable. This comes as a psychological shock that can trigger a reflex emotional response called anger: the emotion that signals the unconscious perception of sudden loss of the old, familiar, worldview. The anger is often directed externally and at the perceived obstruction that blocked the improvement; the person who “should” have known what to do; often the “boss”.  This backlash, the emotional payoff, carries the implied message of “You are not OK because you hold the power, and you could not solve this, and you were too arrogant to ask for help and now I have proved you wrong and that I was right all the time!”  Sweet-tasting revenge?

Unfortunately not. The problem is that this emotional backlash damages the fragile, emerging, respectful relationship and can effectively scupper any future tentative inclinations to improve. The chronic emotional pain returns even worse than before; the Well of Cynicism deepens; and the walls are strengthened and become less porous.

The improvement is not maintained and it dies of neglect.

The reality of the situation was that none of the three protagonists actually knew what to do – hence the stalemate – and the only way out of that situation is for them all to recognise and accept the reality of their collective ignorance – and then to learn together.

Managing the improvement transition is something that an experienced facilitator needs to understand. If there is a them-and-us cultural context; a frustrated standoff; a high pressure store of accumulated bad feeling; and a deep well of cynicism then that emotional abscess needs to diagnosed, incised and drained before any attempt at sustained improvement can be made.

If we apply direct pressure on an emotional abscess then it is likely to rupture and squirt you with cynicide; or worse still force the emotional toxin back into the organisation and poison the whole system. (Email is a common path-of-low-resistance for emotional toxic waste!).

One solution is to appreciate that the toxic emotional pressure needs to be released in a safe and controlled way before the healing process can start.  Most of the pain goes away as soon as the abscess is lanced – the rest dissipates as the healing process engages.

One model that is helpful in proactively managing this dynamic is the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross model of grief which describes the five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Grief is the normal emotional reaction to a sudden change in reality – such as the loss of a loved one – and the same psychological process operates for all emotionally significant changes.  The facilitator just needs to provide a game-free and constructive way to manage the anger by reinvesting the passion into the next cycle of improvement.  A more recent framework for this is the Lewis-Parker model which has seven stages:

  1. Immobilisation – Shock. Overwhelmed mismatch: expectations vs reality.
  2. Denial of Change – Temporary retreat. False competence.
  3. Incompetence – Awareness and frustration.
  4. Acceptance of Reality – ‘Letting go’.
  5. Testing – New ways to deal with new reality.
  6. Search for Meaning – Internalisation and seeking to understand.
  7. Integration – Incorporation of meanings within behaviours.

An effective tool for getting the emotional rollercoaster moving is The 4N Chart® – it allows the emotional pressure and pain to be released in a safe way. The complementary tool for diagnosing and treating the cultural abscess is called AFPS (Argument Free Problem Solving) which is a version of Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats®.

The two are part of the improvement-by-design framework called 6M Design® which in turn is a rational, learnable, applicable and teachable manifestation of Improvement Science.


Harried to the Rescue!

We are social animals and we need social interaction with others of our kind – it is the way our caveman wetware works.

And we need it as much as we need air, water, food and sleep. Solitary confinement is an effective punishment – you don’t need to physically beat someone to psychologically hurt them – just actively excluding them or omitting to notice them is effective and has the advantage that it leaves no visible marks – and no trail of incriminating evidence.

This is the Dark Art of the Game Player and the act of social omission is called discounting – so once we know what to look for the signature of the Game Player is obvious – and we can choose to play along or not.

Some people have learned how to protect themselves from gamey behaviour – they have learned to maintain a healthy balance of confidence and humility. They ask for feedback, they know their strengths and their weaknesses, and they and strive to maintain and develop their capability through teaching and learning. Sticks and stones may break their bones but names can never hurt them.

Other people have not learned how to spot the signs and to avoid being sucked into games – they react to the discounting by trying harder, working harder, taking on more and more – all to gain morsels of recognition. Their strategy works but it has an unfortunate consequence – it becomes an unconscious habit and they become players of the game called “Harried”.  The start is signalled by a big sigh as they are hooked into their preferred Rescuer role – always there to pick up the pieces – always offering to talke on extra work – always on the look out for an opportunity to take on more burden. “Good Ol’ Harried” they hear “S/he works every hour God sends like a Trojan”. The unspoken ulterior motive of the instigator of the game is less admirable “Delegate the job to Harried – or better still – just mess it up a bit do nothing – just wait – Harried will parachute in and save the day – and save me having to do it myself.” The conspirators in the game are adopting different roles – Victim and Persecutor – and it is in their interest to have Rescuers around who will willingly join the game. The Persecutors are not easy to see because their behaviour is passive – discounting is passive aggressive behaviour – they discount others need for a work-life balance. The Victims are easier to spot – they claim not be able to solve their own problems by acting helpless and letting Harried take over. And the whole social construct is designed with one purpose – to create a rich opportunity for social interaction – because even though they are painful, games are better than solitary anonymity.

According to Eric Berne, founder of the school of Transactional Analysis, games are learned behaviour – and they spring from an injunction that we are all taught as children: that each of us is reliant on others for recognition – and those others are our parents. Sure, recognition from influential others is important BUT it is not our only source. We can give ourselves recognition. Each of us can learn to celebrate a job well done; a lesson learned; a challenge overcome – and through that route we can learn to recognise others genuinely, openly and without expectation of a return compliment. But to learn this we have to grasp the nettle and to unlearn our habit of playing the Persecutor-Rescuer-Victim games; and to do that we must first shine a light onto our blindspots.

Gamey behaviour is a potent yet invisible barrier to improvement. So if it is endemic in an organisation that wants to improve then it needs to be diagnosed and managed as an integral part of the improvement process. It is a critical human factor and in Improvement Science the human factors and the  process factors progress hand in hand.

Here is an paragraph from Games Nurses Play by Pamela Levin:

“Harried” is a game played when situations are complicated. The aim is to make the situation even more complicated so that a person feels justified in giving up. “Harried Midwife” is so named because I (P.L.) first observed the game on an obstetric floor, but it has its counterpart in other clinical settings. The game is aided by institutional needs, since it is a rare hospital unit that has the staff adequate in numbers these days. In the situation I observed, the harried nurse sent her only nurse’s aide to lunch when three deliveries were pending. Instead of using a methodical approach, she went running about checking a pulse here, a chart there, a dilatation here, and an I.V. there, so she never was caught up with the work. She lost her pen and couldn’t “chart” until she found it. She answered the telephone and lost the message. She was so busy setting up the delivery room, she forgot to notify the doctor of the impending delivery. The baby, which arrived in the labor room, was considered contaminated, and could not be discharged to the newborn nursery. After the chaos had died down, the nurse felt justified in doing almost no work for the rest of the day.

Click for the complete Games Nurses Play article here

Where is the Rotten Egg?

Have you ever had the experience of arriving home from a holiday – opening the front door and being hit with the rancid smell of something that has gone rotten while you were away.


When that happens we open the windows to let the fresh-air blow the smelly pong out and we go in search of the offending source of the horrible whiff. Somewhere we know we will find the “rotten egg” and we know we need to remove it because it is now beyond repair.

What happened here is that our usual, regular habit of keeping our house clean was interrupted and that allowed time for something to go rotten and to create a nasty stink. It may also have caused other things to go rotten too – decay  spreads. Usually we maintain an olfactory vigilance to pick up the first whiff of a problem and we act before the rot sets in – but this only works if we know what fresh air smells like, if we remove the peg from our nose, and if we have the courage to remove all of the rot. Permfuing the pig is not an effective long term strategy.

The rotten egg metaphor applies to organisations. The smell we are on the alert for is the rancid odour of a sour relationship, the signal we sense is the dissonance of misery, and the behaviours we look for are those that erode trust. These behaviours have a name – they are called discounts – and they come in two types.

Type 1 discounts are our deliberate actions that lead to erosion of trust – actions like interrupting, gossiping, blaming, manipulation, disrespect, intimidation, and bullying.

Type 2 discounts are the actions that we deliberately omit to do that also cause erosion of trust – like not asking for and not offering feedback, like not sharing data, information and knowledge, like not asking for help, like not saying thank you, like not challenging assumptions, like not speaking out when we feel things are not right, like not getting the elephant out in the room. These two types of discounts are endemic in all organisations and the Type 2 discounts are the more difficult to see because it was what we didn’t do that led to the rot. We must all maintain constant vigilance to sniff out the first whiff of misery and to act immediately and effectively to sustain a pong-free organisational atmosphere.

Anyone for more Boiled Frog?

There is a famous metaphor for the dangers of denial and complacency called the boiled frog syndrome.

Apparently if you drop a frog into hot water it will notice and jump out  but if you put a frog in water at a comfortable temperature and then slowly heat it up it will not jump out – it does not notice the slowly rising temperature until it is too late – and it boils.

The metaphor is used to highlight the dangers of not being aware enough of our surroundings to notice when things are getting “hot” – which means we do not act in time to prevent a catastrophe.

There is another side to the boiled frog syndrome – and this when improvements are made incrementally by someone else and we do not notice those either. This is the same error of complacency and there is no positive feedback so the improvement investment fizzles out – without us noticing that either.  This is a disadvantage of incremental improvement – we only notice the effect if we deliberately measure at intervals and compare present with past. Not many of us appear to have the foresight or fortitude to do that. We are the engineers of our own mediocrity.

There is an alternative though – it is called improvement-by-design. The difference from improvement-by-increments is that with design you deliberately plan to make a big beneficial change happen quickly – and you can do this by testing the design before implementing it so that you know it is feasible.  When the change is made the big beneficial difference is noticed – WOW! – and everyone notices: supporters and cynics alike.  Their responses are different though – the advocates are jubilant and the cynics are shocked. The cynics worldview is suddenly challenged – and the feeling is one of positive confusion. They say “Wow! That’s a miracle – how did you do that?”.

So when we understand enough to design a change then we should use improvement-by-design; and when we don’t understand enough we have no choice but to do use improvement-by-discovery.

Systemic Sickness

Sickness, illness, ill health, unhealthy, disease, disorder, distress are all words that we use when how we feel falls short of how we expect to feel. The words impliy an illness continuum and each of us appeara to use different thresholds as action alerts.

 The first is crossed when we become aware that all is not right and our response and to enter a self-diagnosis and self-treatment mindset. This threshold is context-dependent; we use external references to detect when we have strayed too far from the norm – we compare ourselves with others. This early warning system works most of the time – after all chemists make their main business from over the counter (OTC) remedies!

If the first stage does not work we cross the second threshold when we accept that we need expert assistance and we switch into a different mode of thinking – the “sick role”.  Crossing the second threshold is a big psychological step that implies a perceived loss of control and power – and explains why many people put off seeking help. They enter a phase of denial, self-deception and self-justification which can be very resistant to change.

The same is true of organisations – when they become aware that they are performing below expectation then a “self-diagnosis” and “self-treatment” is instigated, except that it is called something different such as an “investigation” or “root cause analysis” and is followed by a “recommendations” and an “action plan”.  The requirements for this to happen are an ability to become aware of a problem and a capability to understand and address the root cause both effectively and efficiently.  This is called dynamic stability or “homeostasis” and is a feature of many systems.  The image of a centrifugal governor is a good example – it was one of the critical innovations that allowed the power of steam to be harnessed safely a was a foundation stone of the industrial revolution. The design is called a negative feedback stabiliser and it has a drawback – there may be little or no external sign of the effort required to maintain the stability.

Problems arise when parts of this expectation-awareness-feedback-adjustment process are missing, do not work, or become disconnected. If there is an unclear expectation then it is impossible to know when and how to react. Not being clear what “healthy” means leads to confusion. It is too easy to create a distorted sense of normality by choosing a context where everyone is the same as you – “birds of a feather flock together”.

Another danger is to over-simplify the measure of health and to focus on one objective dimension – money – with the assumption that if the money is OK then the system must be OK.  This is an error of logic because although a healthy system implies healthy finances, the reverse is not the case – a business can be both making money and heading for disaster.

Failure can also happen if the most useful health metrics are not measured, are measured badly, or are not communicated in a meaningful way.  Very often metrics are not interpreted in context, not tracked over time, and not compared with the agreed expectation of health.  These multiple errors of omission lead to conterproductive behaviour such as the use of delusional ratios and arbitrary targets (DRATs), short-termism and “chasing the numbers” – all of which can further erode the underlying health of the system – like termites silently eating the foundations of your house. By the time you notice it is too late – the foundations have crumbled into dust!

To achieve and maintain systemic health it is necessary to include the homeostatic mechanisms at the design stage. Trying to add or impose the feedback functions afterwards is less effective and less efficient.  A healthy system is desoigned with sensitive feedback loops that indicate the effort required to maintain dynamic stablity – and if that effort is increasing then that alone is cause for further investigation – often long before the output goes out of specification.  Healthy systems are economic and are designed to require a minimum of effort to maintain stability and sustain performance – good design feels effortless compared with poor design. A system that only detects and reacts to deviations in outputs is an inferior design – it is like driving by looking in the rear-view mirror!

Healthy systems were designed to be healthy from the start or have evolved from unhealthy ones – the books by Jim Collins describes this: “Built to Last” describes organisations that have endured because they were destined to be great from the start. “Good to Great”  describes organisations that have evolved from unremarkable performers into great performers. There is a common theme to great companies irrespective of their genesis – data, information, knowledge, understanding and most important of all a wise leader.

Do You Have A Miserable Job?

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.


There is a common, and often fatal, organisational disease called “egomatosis”.

It starts as a swelling of the Egocentre in the Executive Organ that is triggered by a deficiency in the Humility Feedback Loop (HFL), which in turn is linked to underdevelopment or dysfunction of the phonic sensory input system – selective deafness.

Unfortunately, the Egocentre is located next to other perception centres – specifically insight – so as the egoma develops the visual perception also becomes progressively distorted until a secondary cultural blind-spot develops.

In effect, the Executive organ becomes progressively cut off from objective reality – and this lack of accurate information impairs the Humility Feedback Loop further – accelerating the further enlargement of the egoma.

A dangerous positive feedback loop is now created that leads to a self-amplifying spiral of distorted perception and a progressive decline of judgement and effective decision making.

The external manifestation of this state is a characteristic behaviour called “dystrustosis” – or difficulty in extending trust to others combined with a progressive loss of self-trust.

The unwitting sufferer becomes progressively deaf, blind, fearful, delusional, paranoid and insecure – often distancing themselves emotionally and physically and communicating only via intermediaries using One-Way-Directives.

Those who attempt to communicate with the sufferer of this insidious condition often resort to SHOUTING and using BIG LETTERS which, unfortunately, only mirrors the same behaviour.  As the sufferer’s perception of reality becomes more distorted their lack of insight and humility blocks them from considering themselves as a contributor to the problem.

The ensuing conflict only serves to accelerate their decline and the sufferer progresses to the stage of “fulminant egomatosis”.

“Fulminant egomatosis” is a condition that is easy to identify and to diagnose.  Just listen for the shouting, observe the dystrustosis and feel the fear.

Unfortunately, it is a difficult condition to manage because of the lack of awareness and insight that are the cardinal signs.

Many affected leaders and their organisations now enter a state of Denial – unconsciously hoping that the problem will resolve itself – which is indeed what happens eventually – though not in the way they desperately hope for.

In the interim, the health of the organisation deteriorates and many executives succumb, unaware of, or unwilling to acknowledge the illness that claimed them; meekly accepting the “inevitable fate” and submitting to the terminal option – usually delivered by the Chair of the Board – Retire or Resign!

The circling corporate vultures squabble over the fiscal remains – leaving no tangible sign to mark the passing of the sufferer and their hapless organisation.  There are no graveyards for the victims of fulminant egomatosis and the memory of their passing soon fades from the collective memory.  Failure is a taboo subject – an undiscussable.

Some organisations become aware of their affliction while they are still alive, but only after they have reached the terminal stage and are too sick to save.  The death throes are destructive and unpleasant to watch – and unfortunately fuel the self-justifying delusion of other infected organisations who erroneously conclude that “it could never happen to them” and then unwittingly follow the same path.

Unfortunately, egomatosis is an infectious cultural disease.  The spores, or “memes” as they are called, can spread to other organisations.  Just as Dr Ignaz Semmelweis discovered in 1847, the agents-of-destruction are often carried on the hands of those who perform organisational postmortems.  These meme vectors are often the very people brought into assist the ailing organisation, and so become chronically infected themselves and gravitate to others who share their delusions.  They are excluded by healthy organisations, but their siren-calls sound plausible and they gain entry to weaker organisations who are unaware that they carry the dangerous memes!  Actively employing the services of management consultants in preference to encouraging organisational innovation incurs a high risk of silent infection!  Appearance of the symptoms and signs is often delayed and by then it may be too late. 

The organisations that are naturally immune to egomatosis were “built to last” because they were born with a well-developed sense of purpose, vision, humility, confidence and humour.  They habitually and unconsciously look for, detect, and defuse the early signs of egomatosis.  They do not fear failure, and they have learned to leverage the gap between intent and impact.  These organisations have a strong cultural immune system and are able to both prevent infection and disarm the toxic-memes they inevitably encounter.  They are safe,  fun, challenging, exciting, innovative and motivating, places to work – characteristics that serve to strengthen their immunity, boost their resilience, and secure their future.

Some infected organisations are fortunate enough to become aware of their infection before it is too late, and they are able to escape the vicious cycle of decline.  These “good to great” organisations have enough natural humility to learn by observing the fate of others and are able to detect the early symptoms and to seek help from someone who understands their illness and can guide their diagnosis and treatment.  Such healers facilitate and demonstrate rather than direct and delegate.

All organisations are susceptible to egomatosis, so prevention is preferable to cure.

To prevent the disease, organisations must consciously and actively develop their internal and external feedback loops – using all their senses – including their olfactory organ.  Cultural and political bull**** has a characteristic odour!

They also regularly exercise their Humility Feedback Loop to keep it healthy – and they have discovered that the easiest way to do that is to challenge themselves – to actively look for their own gaps and gaffes – to look for their own positive deviants – to search out opportunities to improve – and to practice the very things that they know they are not good at.

They are prepared to be proved lacking and have learned to stop, look, laugh at themselves – then listen, learn, act, improve and share.

There is no known cure for egomatosis – it is a consequence of the 1.3 kg of ChimpWare between our ears that we have inherited from our ancestors – so vigilance must be maintained throughout the life of the organisation. 

It’s Not the People it’s the Process!

Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a better result might be called practice, perseverance, persistence, even patience; it might also be called futility or even madness.

We know that sometimes persistence pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t, so how do we know which is which?

Very often this problem is disguised – for example when we want a better outcome of a process.  It is easy to assign blame for poor outcomes to people because of the cause-and-effect chain that you can trace back from an obvious mistake – but it is always valid to do this?

Suppose I repeat the same actions and occasionally get a poor outcome – checking for the mistake and when it happens tracing the audit trail back to the action of a specific person is of little value in this case because it doesn’t expose the true root cause.

Outcomes are usually the result of cumulative actions and it is difficult or impossible to separate out the contributions.

So, the only rational way to improve outcome is to improve every part of the process proactively.  And if there is a bad apple in the barrel it is much easier to spot when the rest of the apples are good than when all the apples are a bit bruised.

Are we Stuck in a Toxic Emotional Waste Swamp?

Have you ever had the uncomfortable experience of joining a new group of people and discovering that your usual modus operandi does not seem to fit?  Have you ever experienced the pain of a behavioural expectation mismatch – a clash of culture? What do we do when that happens? Do we keep quiet, listen and try to work out the expected behaviours by observing others and then mimic their behaviour to fit in? Do we hold our ground, stay true to our norms and habits and challenge the group? Do we just shrug, leave and not return?

The other side of this common experience is the effect on the group of a person who does not match the behavioural norms of the group.  Are they regarded as a threat or an opportunity? Usually a threat. But a threat to whom? It depends. And it primarily depends on the emotional state of the chief, chair or boss of the group – the person who holds the social power. We are social animals and we have evolved over millions of years to be hard-wired to tune in to the emotional state of the pack leader – because it is a proven survival strategy!

If the chief is in a negative emotional state then the group will be too and a newcomer expressing a positive emotional outlook will create an emotional tension. People prefer leaders who broadcast a positive emotional state because it makes them feel happier; and leaders are attracted by power – so in this situation the chief will perceive a challenge to the balance of power and will react by putting the happy newcomer firmly in their place in the pecking order. The group observe the mauling and learn that a positive emotional attitude is an unsuccessful strategy to gain favour with the chief – and so the status quo is maintained. The toxic emotional waste swamp gets a bit deeper, the sides get a bit more slippery, and the emotional crocodiles who lurk in the murk get a tasty snack. Yum yum – that’ll teach you to be happy around here!

If the chief has a uniformly positive emotional approach then the group will echo that and a newcomer expressing a negative emotional state creates a different tension. The whole group makes it clear that this negative behaviour is unwelcome – they don’t want someone spoiling their cosy emotional oasis! And the status quo is maintained again. Unfortunately, the only difference between this and the previous example is that this only-happy-people-allowed-here group is drowning in emotional treacle rather than emotional turds. It is still an emotional swamp and the outcome is the same – you get stuck in it.

This either-or model is not a successful long-term strategy because it does not foster learning – it maintains the status quo – tough-minded or touch-feely – pessimistic or optimistic – but not realistic.

Effective learning only happens when the status quo is challenged in a way that respects both the power and authority of the chief and of the group – and the safest way to do that is to turn to reality for feedback and to provide the challenge to the group.  To do this in practice requires a combination of confidence and humility by both the chief and the group: the confidence to reject complacency and to face up to reality and the humility to employ what is discovered to keep moving on, to keep learning, to keep improving.

Reality will provide both positive and negative feedback (“Nuggets” and “Niggles”) and the future will hold both positive and negative challenges (“Nice-Ifs” and “Noo-Noos”).  Effective leaders know this and are able to maintain the creative tension. For those of us who are learning to be more effective leaders perhaps the routes out of our Toxic Emotional Waste Swamps are drawn on our 4N charts?

But Why?

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?

What is the Dis-Ease?

Dis-EaseDo you ever go into places where there is a feeling of uneasiness?

You can feel it almost immediately – there is something in the room that no one is talking about.

An invisible elephant in the room, a rotting something under the table.

This week I have been pondering the cause of this dis-ease and my eureka moment happened while re-reading a book called “The Speed of Trust” by Stephen R. Covey.

A common elephant-in-the-room appears to be distrust and this got me thinking about both the causes of distrust and the effects of distrust.  My doodle captures the output of my musing.  For me, a potent cause of distrust is to be discounted; and discounting comes from disrespect.  This can happen both within yourself and between yourself and others. If you feel un-trust-worthy then you tend to disengage; and by disengaging the system functions less well – it becomes dysfunctional.  Dysfunction erodes respect and so on around the vicious circle.

This then led me to the question: Why haven’t we all drowned in our own distrust by now?  I believe what happens is that we reach an equilibrium where our level of trust is stable; so there must be a counteracting trust-building force that balances the trust-eroding force. That trust-building force seem to comes from our day-to-day social interactions with others.

The Achilles Heel of negative-cause-effect circles is that you can break into them at many points to sap their power and reduce their influence.  So, one strategy might be to identify the Errors of Commission that create the Disease of Distrust.

Consider the question: “If I have developed a high level of trust then what could I do to erode it as quickly as possible?”.

Disrespectful attitude and discounting behaviour would be all that is needed to start the vicious downward spiral of distrust disease.

Who of us never disrespects or discounts others?

Are we all infected with the same disease?

Is there a cure or can we only expect to hold it in remission?

How can we strengthen our emotional immune systems and neutralise the infective agents of the Disease of Distrust?

Do we just need to identify and stop our trust eroding behaviour?

That would be a start.