Backs Against The Wall

It is surprising how often we do nothing until we have run out of options to prevaricate and only when our backs are against the wall do we act positively, decisively and effectively.  What is the reason we did not act earlier? Did we not see the way forward? Were there to many options to choose from? Or was the most effective option the least comfortable?  We have a bad habit of putting off decisions and actions until the last minute of the eleventh hour. Perhaps we just hope that the problem will go away without us having to get out of our comfort zones.

In reality few escape the back-to-the-wall scenario: most are caught, killed and eaten.  Turkeys unwittingly voting for Christmas by doing nothing.

 It is a better survival strategy to avoid the backs-to-the-wall scenario. 

So, what are the symptoms of the earlier prevarication stage? What behaviours do we exhibit? And what can we do? 

One is blindness/deafness – otherwise known as denial. We see the message but we do not acknowledge it because to do so means we have signalled that we are aware of it. Painfully aware perhaps.

One is bending/dodging – otherwise known as distortion. We see the problem and we are forced to acknowledge it because someone up the tree makes it our problem and monitors our performance. They set a target and attach some form of motivator to it – either a carrot or a stick – it matters not.  It is surprising how creative people can be when caught between a rock and a hard place!

One is burying/deceiving – otherwise known as deletion.  We delete the bad news completely so the performance looks better than it really is and thereby try to evade the persecutor by not attracting attention.  This is our last option because we know if we are found out then we will be for the chop.

Our final option, when our backs are against the wall and the spot light is on us – is to face the problem and solve it – and surprise ourselves that we can, and in fact always could have done.

So to avoid the back-to-the-wall experience it is necessary to be alert to the early symptoms. The deafening silence that follows someone prepared to talk about the problem; the frantic activity required to bend the rules and distort the system; and the furtive looks of those who are deliberately hiding the awful reality.  If any of these symptoms are detected we need to add the magic ingredients – confidence and competence. The confidence to raise the issues and the competence to dissolve their root causes.

Confidence follows from competence; and competence follows from practice; and practice follows from know how; and know how follows from learning; and learning follows from asking.

Ask to See One – Do Some – Teach Many.

Leading from the Middle

Cuthbert Simpson is reputed to be the first person to be “stretched” during the reign of Mary I – pulled in more than one direction at the same time while trying, in vain, to satisfy the simultaneous demands of his three interrogators.

Being a middle manager in a large organisation feels rather like this – pulled in many directions trying to satisfy the insatiable appetites for improvement of Governance (quality), Operations (delivery) and Finance (productivity).

The critical-to-survival skill for the over-stretched middle manager is the ability to influence others – or rather three complementary influencing styles.

One dimension is vertical and strategic-tactical and requires using the organisational strategy to influence operational tactics; and to use front line feedback to influence future strategic decisions. This influencing dimension requires two complementary styles of behaviour: followership and leadership.  

One dimension is horizontal and operational and requires influencing peer-middle-managers in other departpments. This requires yet a different style of leadership: collaboration.

The successful middle manager is able to switch influencing style as effortlessly as changing gear when driving. Select the wrong style at the wrong time and there is an unpleasant grating of teeth and possibly a painful career-grinding-to-a-halt experience.

So what do these three styles have to do with Improvement Science?

Taking the last point first.  Middle managers are the lynch-pin on which whole system improvement depends.  Whole system improvement is impossible without their commitment – just as a car without a working gearbox is just a heap of near useless junk.  Whole system improvement needs middle managers who are skilled in the three styles of behaviour.

The most important style is collaboration – the ability to influence peers – because that is the key to the other two.  Let us consider a small socioeconomic system that we all have experience of – the family. How difficult is it to manage children when the parent-figures do not get on with each other and who broadcast confusingly mixed messages? Almost impossible. The children learn quickly to play one off against the other and sit back and enjoy the spectacle.  And as a child how difficult it is to manage the parent-figures when you are always fighting and arguing with your siblings and peers and competing with each other for attention? Almost impossible again. Children are much more effective in getting what they want when they learn how to work together.

The same is true in organisations. When influencing from-middle-to-strategic it is more effective to influence your peers and then work together to make the collective case; and when influencing from-middle-to-tactical it is more effective to influence your peers and then work together to set a clear and unambiguous expectations.

The key survival skill is the ability to influence your peers effectively and that means respect for their opinion, their knowledge, their skill and their time – and setting the same expectation of them. Collaboration requires trust; and trust requires respect; and respect is earned by example.

PS. It also helps a lot to be able to answer the question “Can you show us how?”

The Frozen Planet

This is a picture of one of the vast Antarctic ice shelves breaking up and fracturing into huge icebergs that then float northwards and melt. This happens every Antarctic summer as the frozen surface of the sea thaws. It refreezes in the winter and completes a natural cycle that is driven by the rotation of the Earth around the Sun.  Clever as we see ourselves we have no influence at the solar scale. The Earth has been circling the Sun for 4.5 billion years so what is the issue?

The issue is that the ice shelves are getting smaller each year.

When they refreeze in winter they do not freeze as far; and when they thaw in the summer the melting edge creeps ever closer to the dry and barren land. This has immediate, direct and dire implications for the life that finds its food in the well-stocked acquatic larder under the ice.  It has delayed, indirect, yet equally dire implications for life that does not live there – and that includes us. 

As each iceberg melts the liberated water has to go somewhere – into the sea – so the average sea level rises a fraction. If enough volume of polar ice melts then the sea level may rise enough to flood low-lying land and displace the people who make their living there. Is there enough ice in the melting shelf to do this? No. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that the ice shelf does something else – it acts as a “plug” that holds back the vast ice sheet that covers the Antarctic continent. And there is a lot of it – about 5 million square miles with an average depth of 1 mile; that is about 5 million cubic miles of  water-in-progress (WIP). The surface area of our oceans is around 140 million square miles – so if  all the Antarctic ice slid down the hill into the sea, broke off as icebergs, floated north and melted then the sea level would rise by 5/140 ths of a mile which is 63 yards or 188 feet.  Oh dear! A large proportion of our most densely populated areas lie below that new sea level.

But let us not not worry about that too much – it won’t happen in the next ten or twenty years. The idealistic-optimist-academics can always hope that Science will come to the rescue and provide innovative solutions that will avert the disaster. That is what we pay our scientists to do after all. The realistic-pessimist-pragmatists have a Plan B: we will just up sticks and move as the waters rise slowly higher. We could do with some new beach side real estate opportunities anyway!  We just need to plot the 60 yard contour line and stake our claim on it early! What is all the fuss about?

It is not only the rising level of water that we need to worry about – it is something else – something that is much less tangible. We need to worry about the rising level of expectation.  And we need to worry because it happens over a much short time scale and by a much greater degree.

On the global scale we have short lives and even shorter memories.  We see what others have and we want the same: we want e-quality and we want it now. In the affluent countries we expect universal health, education and welfare almost as a right – in the less afflunet these are all luxuries. Those we assign the power to make it happen, our elected politicians, have the same expectations – so they get what they want. As we race to grow our economies, anyone who cannot keep up is labelled as a loser.  Flat economic growth is perceived as a warning sign; and a shrinking economy is treated as a failure. The growth-at-any-cost merchants fuel the national fear with emotionally charged words such as “recession”, “depression” and “disaster”.  We are brainwashed to believe that the only way to meet rising expectation is to grow bigger BUT we are doing it by squandering our future needs to satisfy our immediate wants. We are borrowing our future wealth and spending it now – with no coherent plan for settling the loan.  We are living in hope and in denial. Greece, Italy and Ireland are tangible examples. 

This is not sustainable: there is economic chaos that threatens to drown Europe in a rising tide of national structural debt, doubt, confusion and legally enforced austerity measures. It takes a brave person to stand up and say – this is not sustainable.

If feels as though we are at a crossroads and we appear to  have only three choices:

1. Discount the issue; huddle to gether for security on our melting iceberg and hope that someone or something comes to our rescue;

2. Panic and adopt the every-man-for-himself approach, leap into the sea and swim off in all directions in the hope that some of use find unknown dry land before we drown;

3. Learn to preserve what we have and to search for new paradigms that are sustainable into the future. Learn to grow better rather than bigger and learn to meet rising expectation within the limits of the finite global resources. Learn how to improve.

Option 3 gets my vote!


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.