Thursday, October 29, 2009


Tonight I watched Derren Brown's Trick or Treat 2 (episode 2) again. It shows young children opening a box they've been asked not to. It also features a young woman who is asked not to press a button that would electrocute a kitten. Guess what? She presses the button. Just like you clicked on the link to get here, even though you were asked not to.

Is it possible that when 'those that know' implore us not to do the very thing that we know is wrong, we do it anyway?

Could that explain why John and Edward get votes for their toe-curling performances...

and why the BNP get votes for their toe-curling policies?

And why some organisations have great difficulty controlling staff behaviour?

Sunday, October 11, 2009


President Obama hosted a 'Star Party' on October 9. This is where lots of amateur astronomers get together with their telescopes and look at stars and planets. These events go on all the time - but not on the White House Lawn. What I really liked was Obama's challenge:
"Galileo changed the world when he pointed his telescope to the sky, and now it's your turn. We need you to study, do well in school, explore everything from the infinite reaches of space to the microscopic smallness of the atom. We need you to think bigger and to dig deeper and to reach higher. And we need your restless curiosity and your boundless hope and imagination. Our future depends on it.
So, don't let anybody tell you that there isn't more to discover. Don't let anybody tell you that there's knowledge that's beyond your reach. There's something out there for each and every one of you to discover. And seeing how it's a beautiful night, and we've got a bunch of telescopes out on the lawn, let's get started together."
So the president of the USA looks beyond our own tiny world and encourages us to do the same. And not just with telescopes, but with our minds too.
See more here

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


If you've been unlucky enough to visit your doctor recently, you may have seen a sign reporting how many appointments were missed last month - and possibly how much this was costing. The idea being to shame you, as a potential no-show, into not doing it again. The bigger the figure, the deeper the shame and the stronger the resolve to mend your ways.

But according to Danny Finkelstein's Radio 4 offering, Persuading us to be good, this is precisely the wrong approach. The logic goes that we want to feel part of a group, not isolated. Now being part of the group of patients that don't show is still being part of a group. And the bigger that group, the better it is to be part of. The stigma of having missed your appointment and wasted NHS time, money and resources isn't the main behavioural driver, association with others is. In fact one surgery reported a huge increase in no-shows as soon as they started to make this figure public.

The answer: tell people how many showed up for their appointment, implying that the no-shows are a minority of social outcasts and losers, not even worth a statistic.

I'm not sure just how watertight this approach is, but I do like the realisation that the instinctive, knee-jerk reaction can exacerbate exactly the problem it's meant to solve. And that being in a bad group is better than not being in a group at all.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


Warren Buffet cites 3 qualities to look out for when recruiting: Integrity, Intelligence and Energy. Now tell me, how do you assess these using a cv? Answer: you can't. A cv will give you a measure of experience, but little else - and that's assuming the candidate has integrity.
Whenever I've recruited, I've really only been interested in these 3 qualities, with experience coming in fourth. You can train skills - you can't train attitude.
So why on earth does the recruitment industry, aided and abetted by HR departments, persist in judging candidates by their cvs alone? And why do they shortlist only those that match the job spec as closely as possible when the result is to maintain the status quo, promote stagnation and inhibit change and evolution?
My hunch is that this behaviour is driven by fear - fear that a decision based on intangibles cannot be supported by evidence. Evidence provides a firewall against criticism, it defends judgement and protects the hapless decision-maker.
The crying shame is that each time a recruiter opts for safety, another chance for the organisation to evolve goes out of the window.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


This is the slightly tautological title of a short paper that I've just written. I found writing it both cathartic and illuminating. I had to quickly let go of the idea that it could cover the whole subject - not just because there would be a lot to say, but also because the boundaries of facilitation as a concept or discipline are fuzzy to say the least.

I also had to dispense with the idea that I could define it in any rigorous fashion. The engineer in me protested: how can you write about something that you can't define? Well I can define it, but how does that help if someone else's definition is different - and maybe just as valid?

In the end, I've just written a series of observations and conclusions on some of the aspects of facilitation that interest me. It is non-linear, it is not intellectually disciplined - in fact in some ways it bears resemblance to some of the conversations that I've facilitated. It is certainly open to rebuttal and I'm sure that you may disagree with some of my points.

I'm happy with that as questions and uncertainty are often more powerful than answers.

If you want a copy, just go to and fill in the form.

If you have a copy, post your comments on this blog!

Monday, May 18, 2009


I was reminded by The Times how deferred gratification applies to facilitation:

Walter Mischel, a professor of psychology, tested whether children could resist eating a marshmallow for 15 minutes if they were promised two after that time. After being left alone, a third of the children ate the marshmallow straight away, a third cracked during the 15 minutes and a third successfully resisted temptation. Those who refrained did better academically on the whole.
I think I see something akin to this when working with groups on strategy. Many individuals and groups are understandably keen to solve the problems that meetings inevitably identify. After all, if you've found an issue that needs dealing with, why waste time, why not get on and devise a solution? Metaphorically, if you have a marshmallow in front of you and you're hungry, why not eat it?

Strategically, a period of reflection interposed between identifying an issue and agreeing a resolution, is critical. Firstly, it allows the problem to be explored by the whole team, making it a shared issue. Secondly, it allows the team's thinking to develop, moving from symptoms to causes; intervention at a causal level is more likely to succeed whereas intervention at the level of effects can be counter-productive. Thirdly, it helps restore the balance between process and outcome - see previous blog entry.

As I write, I'm aware that the marshmallow metaphor is far from perfect and can't support much further comparison with facilitation - but I will take some marshmallows to my next strategy session anyway.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Great article by Matthew Syed in the Times last month on Victoria Pendleton's olympic win:

Steve Peters, the cycling team’s psychiatrist, has said that many other Olympic champions — as well as some among the support teams — have also struggled with depression since Beijing. “This is true not just in cycling but across the sports I’ve worked with,” he said. “A number of people I’ve been in touch with following the Olympics, people who’d succeeded, said the same. They felt quite depressed, almost like a sense of loss"
Matthew then goes on to suggest that this crippling anticlimax is an evolutionary mechanism to ensure that the struggle to be best is not abandoned to feelings of satisfaction.

Here I struggle too. I suspect this is more about over-investing in the outcome rather than the journey. I think there's a cultural fixation with outcomes which undervalues the process of attainment - the journey. And that depression is an evolutionary mechanism telling us that something's out of kilter.

Sunday, March 08, 2009


Arthur Battram's excellent Navigating Complexity has this little gem from Sheila Harri-Augustin:
Learning operates on the edge of chaos, somewhere between a stable system of order and an unstable system of disorder!It is here that personal meaning...gets constructed. At the two extremes of behaviour of all systems, order and chaos pervades. Between these two extremes, at the edge of chaos, one finds complexity!
So the edge of chaos is where the action is - take the original sense of chaos as chasm and we get a sense of standing on the edge of an abyss - comfort zone, perhaps, in the vernacular.

I can relate to this aspect of learning - a far cry from the received wisdom of learning as a process of filling memory with data and algorithms.


I thought it did until I looked up chaos in an etymological dictionary. It derives from the greek for empty space, abyss and links to chasm. So it's about a lack of organisation or structure. But is it confused? Or are we so conditioned by our love of structure and certainty that we project confusion onto what is perhaps better termed a possibility space?

Saturday, March 07, 2009


I came across this notice on Thursday, up in Scotland. Is it me, or this one step on the Health and Safety ladder too far?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


Yesterday's facilitation of a local government management team reminded me of polarised management approaches: "Don't bring me problems - bring me solutions" is at one end of the scale and provides a sink-or-swim development opportunity. At the other end, the directive approach, where the manager tells their report what to do and how to do it, short circuits the development opportunity but gets the job done.

Somewhere between these two extremes lies what you might call the coaching approach: the manager supports the employee to find a way forward. This reduces the risk of error and failure, provides development for the employee and the manager, and fosters delegation, independance and, paradoxically, collaboration.

Clearly this won't work for all occasions, but perhaps it'll offer long-term growth possibilities for the whole organisation that the others can't?