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Apprenticeships and Zen

14 Jun

I recently watched a program on Japanese culture which touched on the subject of Zen. A Buddhist priest explained that meditation is a vital form of practice, it develops knowledge through self awareness, and then applying this knowledge to mindful activities such as cooking and gardening produces insight, and ultimately, wisdom.

The combination of knowledge and application to develop insight and wisdom is integral to the ancient system of thought, Zen. So, it is no surprise that there are strong similarities between how wisdom is acquired in Zen and how it is developed through an ancient, and highly successful, form of education, apprenticeships. I would argue that what makes apprenticeships so successful, is the same foundations of Zen, the combining of formal knowledge with practice on a daily basis.

The apprenticeship method, like Zen, trains the mind to interact with its environment, assuming less, noticing more and adapting accordingly. Both Zen and apprenticeships aim to harmonise the mind with the environment.

Relying solely on knowledge can have the opposite effect, resulting in the mind attempting to control the environment through the application of abstract theories and procedures. This reduces attention to environmental changes, and over emphasizes perceived control.

Taking the mind off the environment and relying on pure knowledge is a major source of organisational errors (see Taleb, 2012, for good examples). Developing methods where there is frequent feedback between the effect of knowledge on the environment ala Zen and apprenticeship models, is an effective way of avoiding these errors, acquiring wisdom and increasing creativity.


Taleb, N. N. (2012) Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House


Labels and Accidents

7 Mar

Organisations, projects and people who operate in dynamic, high risk environments constantly need to update their understanding of a situation. The reason is that dynamic, high risk environments constantly change and they continually surprise.

Fighting a fire, building a hospital or managing diverse projects are all environments where plans and expectations become derailed by reality. Scanning an environment for even the smallest deviation in plans and expectations can ensure that small incidents do not explode into catastrophes. However, one of the biggest barriers to scanning and updating a dynamic, high risk environment are the techniques we turn to simplify our world and make it more manageable- plans and labels. This article discusses how plans and labels can turn a dynamic situation into a potentially dangerous situation.

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Chaos, Construction sites, and Bayes

21 Jan

The last article was a case study about construction site decision making. To summarise briefly, a project manager was in charge of six construction sites, each ran by a site manager. Three of the site managers were “trusted” by the project manager and had excellent performance records. The other three site managers were “not trusted”, took up large amounts of senior management time and required significant performance improvement. We conducted research to uncover the difference between “trusted” and “untrusted”, and then turn this information into a resource which could be used to improve performance.

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Connecting Phenomenology to Decision Making

6 Oct

The last article used the Sartre protagonist, Roquentin, as a means to illustrate how important an appreciation of phenomenology can be when designing and evaluating a strategy. Roquentin, a character in the Sartre play Nausea, sees the world around him as being composed of only objects. The world, to Roquentin, contains only things and no meaning. As the play progresses, Roquintin has a realisation that unless he gives objects meaning he will remain outside of life, alienated. So, that’s what happens when you don’t define objects as good\bad, exciting, dangerous, risky or beautiful; you end up alienated. And it would be incredibly difficult to make decisions and sift through options; a lack of meaning would prevent someone from making trade offs, prioritizing tasks, and deploying resources. In other words, to move forward, you have to give objects meaning.

I used the above to make the point that because the vast majority of unique human beings place meaning on objects there is potentially many different meanings for single objects. These meanings can be very personal, cultural, pathological, and experiential or a combination of many things, but this is the fascination of phenomenology. There is a potential array of meanings, and this diversity in how people make sense of things helps to explain how seemingly simple strategic directions take on multiple interpretations and give rise to multiple unintended consequences.

The everyday process of generating and creating meaning happens without us knowing it. It is a subconscious process most of the time. But our phenomenological interpretations are what frequently defines outcomes; and because they define outcomes, these interpretations are worth knowing. This is one of the reasons I place so much emphasis on decision making in my research and evaluation work. Examining and discussing a decision, is an examination and discussion of how someone phenomenologically experienced something (a strategic task) and the choices this led to. It’s an archaeology of choices. Start with the decision and backtrack the phenomenology, what sense was made of objectives, specific words, why was X considered so important, and why was Z considered almost irrelevant? Sartre acknowledges something similar in Nausea. Roquentin realized he was free to create meaning. The moment Roquentin took responsibility and created meaning he would be making a choice, a decision. It’s the decision which can help us explore the phenomenology, it allows us to understand how people construct meaning.


Sartre, J.P. Nausea (1949) Penguin

Phenomenology and Strategy Evaluation

1 Oct

In the play Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre, the protagonist, Roquentin, experiences the world around him phenomenologically. Objects in the life of Roquentin do not have any innate meaning. Objects exist independently, regardless of what meaning people give to them, they are simply things. People attach meaning to the world around them but Roquentin experiences only things. The objects in the world won’t supply any form of meaning to us and so it is up to us to create meaning. Roquentin has a realisation, staring at a chestnut tree, that unless he creates meaning in his life, he will remain alienated from the world around him.

Sartre leaves Roquentin realising that he must become responsible for himself and so is free to define himself. This freedom is both the basis for individual thinking and creativity, and also the basis for problems in creating shared meaning. If we, providing you accept at least some of Sartre’s argument, supply the world with meaning, and we all have a capacity to define meaning individually, then “getting on some page”, despite using the same phrases, words and subjects is potentially a problem. These type of meaning problems can be fatal when it comes to strategy implementation, and so, need to be evaluated with a degree of phenomenological understanding.

Any form of enquiry which involves investigating an existing problem, method, strategy has some degree of a phenomenological basis. So does an investigation which involves any new discovery. The reason for this is language. When something is named, the name it is given immediately attaches some form of meaning. A single name can have many forms of meaning to many different people. For example, the name cat could invoke multiple images with numerous meanings attached. It could invoke “my cat, who I love very much” or “next door neighbour’s cat, who I can’t stand”. The names “Corbyn” and “Trump” currently invoke very strong feelings around the world. And these feelings are attached to the way an individual makes sense of the world; they are phenomenological experiences. When you are asked to evaluate how something (let’s say a strategy) has worked, you are being asked to evaluate phenomenologically. You are being asked to test the assumptions and theories which produced a strategy against the assumptions and theories of the people who delivered, managed and experienced this strategy. In other words, when one group of people agree a meaning for the word “cat”, how well and for long does this meaning endure when the word “cat” is shared outside of this group? How often does the meaning divide?

The above argument brings us to one of the key phenomenological limitations in executing a strategy effectively- Intent (see Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007 and Klein, 2007). Person A provides person B with a task. Naturally, the communication of this task involves language. Many words in this communication had a cache of potential meanings (see Croft et al, 2004). Person A and person B may have left the room assuming they had understood each other perfectly, only to find out later, when the task has gone wrong, they had attached very different meanings to key words. In one interpretation “person A had failed to communicate their intent to person B” and in another “person B had failed to deliver the task adequately”. If you are investigating the effectiveness and performance of a strategy then you need to understand it, at least to some degree, phenomenologically. To say it another way, you need to understand the limits and varied interpretations of language, objectives, procedures and processes in relation to outcomes.


Klein, G. (2007) The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work. Currency

Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in and Age of Uncertainty, Second Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Croft, W. Cruse, A. (2004) Cognitive Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Sartre, J.P. Nausea (1949) Penguin

Evaluation, Time, Money and Methods

16 Sep

Whenever you are tasked or contracted to carry out an evaluation of a project, particularly in health, there are nearly always 2 immediate challenges

  • Investment- the amount of money and time available to carry the evaluation out
  • Access- the availability of relevant people and populations to provide data

These issues immediately restrict the capacity of a researcher to conduct fieldwork. Time spent out of the office interviewing respondents is time consuming. Factor in the time taken to organise interviews and other data collection points, and very quickly you have either burned through the budget or are left with an inadequate amount of data as time runs out. Designing and conducting research methods to scale is always a problem, the gap between the “theoretically desirable and the practically possible”. But funders pay for results so it’s a problem that requires solving.

A method of scaling projects is to train non-researchers from within target populations, or people who have easy access to the target populations, to collect the data. This works best with larger scale projects, so you avoid skews with small numbers (for example, only 10 total respondents all interviewed together in the same room). And for similar reasons the approach works best across multiple independent sites, because multiple sites (contexts) stand a better chance of locating genuine reoccurring themes and also insight specific to local context. Below is a recent example from the method angle.

I’ve recently completed a project where I was part of a team where we collected qualitative data from over 250 respondents. The data was collected by non-researchers from across multiple sites and the project was focused on assessing priority areas for strategic decision making. The design of the data collection helped us deliver to budget and on time, and importantly, produce analysis the funder was happy with.

When designing the methods for use by the non-researchers, we looked at other domains where good quality data had to be collected rapidly, and, was not collected by research professionals. The domain which we used was wild firefighting, which I examined through the work of Weick and Sutcliffe (2007). The chaotic nature of a wild fire means firefighters have to debrief rapidly, pass on learning, identify vital cues and focus attention on what is most important. These outcomes were exactly what we were looking to achieve through our data collection. To ensure these conditions are met there exist interview schedules which are designed to collect data from firefighters as they leave the field.

I adapted one of the fire fighter interview schedules (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007) for the non-researchers in our project to use in both interviews and focus groups. The questions were structured to collect anticipation-what people think could and should happen next, and also reflection-what has gone wrong specifically in the past. These type of questions are useful for separating out needs from wants and setting priorities. Most of all, these type of questions enable strategic decision making to be improved via insight.

For our team and project, the adapted interview schedule worked very well, better than we could have hoped. We had piloted it and stress tested it before it went “live”, and this allowed us to make further adjustments. But most significantly, it was very easy for non-researchers to understand the underlying logic of the schedule and so make adjustments independently, depending on the context and flow, and for them to use practically in the field. This should have been no surprise, the interview schedule which we adapted was designed specifically to achieve these outcomes.


Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in and Age of Uncertainty, Second Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

From the Trading Floor to Service Improvement

13 Aug

I’ve recently being reading the excellent, What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars. The story is about trader, Jim Paul, who enjoyed huge success on the markets only to lose it all in a matter of months. In the aftermath of Paul’s financial defeat, the authors, Paul and Brendan Moynihan, take a look at the philosophies and methods of the world’s most successful traders to extract some common lessons. The problem is, these philosophies and methods differ so widely, they contradict. The blueprints for success are so individual and numerous, it is impossible to generalize “what works”. However, the authors do discover one common theme running through all the successful trader strategies. They all agree on how not to lose.

Making sure you’re protected against losses, having a plan to minimize loss and an exit strategy, is a methodology all the successful traders apply. Moving straight into another area, Weick and Sutcliffe (2007) argue that the most resilient organisations have an obsession with “what could go wrong?” In other words, they too, know how not to lose. Crandall et al (2006) identify that expert\novice differences are sharply pronounced when the question “what could go wrong?” is asked. The expert can answer fluently with detail, the novice struggles. Implicitly, these three examples make an interesting point about research methodology, especially when conducting research with a focus on improvement. I’ll outline what I mean below.

Asking respondents, service users, team members “what could we do to improve?” can produce some interesting and usable data. However, this “positive” data becomes validated when the questions “what should we avoid doing?” and “what has gone wrong in the past?” are asked. It is possible to not only use the “negative” data as a means of analysing and validating the positive “data” but it can also produce greater levels of insight and independent agreement, similar to Paul and Moynihan. My theory why this occurs is simple-asking people what “should be” naturally visualizes the future, the bumps can get smoothed out as context becomes replaced with expectation. Asking what should be avoided and what has gone wrong, results in the respondent reflecting on experiences, examples where strategies have had an outcome.

I’ve recently analysed a large amount of health related data. The difference between the “positive” and “negative” questions is pronounced. Not only is there additional insight but greater levels of independent agreement. This is a lesson which can be applied from the trading floor to service improvement. Sometimes when designing strategies, improving services or exploring solutions, the best place to start is avoiding loss. It’s a point on which most people agree, but a point most likely to remain hidden.


Paul, J. Moynihan, B. (1994) What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars. Columbia Business School Publishing

Crandall, B. Klein, G. Hoffman, R. (2006) Working Minds: A Practitioners Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis. The MIT Press

Weick, K. Sutcliffe, K. (2007) Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty. Jossey-Bass.

Stories, Feedback and Adapting to Change

3 Jul

This article has a simple aim- it attempts to demonstrate the link between the stories we tell ourselves, the role of feedback when we use these stories to make sense of situations, and how it’s not so much the initial story which counts, it’s more about how adaptable that story is.

When your mind is closed or fixed it becomes incredibly difficult to generate alternative stories about what could happen next, or in some extreme cases, any story at all, which manifests itself in stress, panic, anxiety and in some cases depression. When you are faced with a situation which means something to you, is challenging, new, novel or beyond anything encountered before, generating a plausible story creates action. How adaptive that story is, often separates success from failure, expert from novice.

The ability to adapt a story, to absorb new information, is crucial to creating an adaptive mind set. When Klein et al (1989) researched firefighter decision making they discovered that when facing a blaze, firefighters, instead of comparing a couple of viable options immediately generated a plausible story of how to tackle the fire. This story was generated from the firefighter’s extensive reservoir of experiences, allowing them to pattern a previous story to the current situation. The firefighters experienced this as intuition “knowing just what to do”, and found it difficult to articulate. Once the plausible story had been generated they would simulate the actions in their mind, looking for barriers and solutions, subtle cues and patterns which may turn out to present big risks. After the mental simulation they would have an adapted story, customised for the situation right now. As the firefighters tackled the blaze the process would be constantly repeated, the story was tacitly organic; they were prepared to let go of initial assumptions.

Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe (see 2007) found similar results when they studied smoke jumpers* during their work on sense making. The vast amounts of experience firefighters and smoke jumpers have, allow them to generate plausible stories which in turn generate the necessary fast actions, but do so in a way which is adaptable. I and colleagues discovered similar during a study of dementia specialists and how they meet patient and family needs-excellent patient care was frequently intuitive as opposed to just the following of procedures. In other words, the frame of mind is not fixed, it adapts to the environment.

Let’s contrast the above with the CEO I talked with from a previous article. To recap, this was the CEO of large UK organisation (total anonymity was agreed, so no more information than that) who had been forced into making sudden and drastic changes due to the restructuring of government funding. The CEO didn’t have the experience of managing rapid change, and by their own admission was not doing a good job. However, what was really causing this executive to reflect was the fact that the funding changes had been sign posted long ago. Instead of being proactive, and taking the opportunity to make some more subtle tweaks, they had simply explained it all away, imagining that it would soon blow over and the always lethal “things would soon get back to normal”. The CEO had been hoisted by their sense of stability; years of seemingly stable operating had left both the mind-set, and the business model, completely unprepared for changes in the environment.

There are many obvious differences between CEOs, smoke jumpers, firefighters, and dementia specialists. However, I’d like to focus on one difference in particular- to be successful in firefighting for example, you HAVE to adapt to the environment, and you have to adapt quickly. Each story which is generated is done so with an adaptive frame of mind, each action provides feedback and this feedback adapts the story further. The stakes are high in firefighting, cues and patterns are regular, and actions can be traced to outcomes; you get to know the environment. The quality of experience, and speed of feedback, produces intuitive decision makers in environments similar to firefighting who can quickly generate plausible stories and then keep on adapting these stories.

Contrast the above with our CEO, where cues and patterns did not HAVE to be acted on immediately, and there was plenty of time to explain changes away. Due to the distance between actions and feedback in our CEO example, it is easy to mistake cause and effect and let false assumptions take hold, such as “nothing has happened yet, so things will probably get back to normal soon”. However, the stakes are still high for a CEO; people can lose their jobs and economies can potentially collapse when an entire network turns toxic. The key difference between the firefighter and our CEO is the distance between action and feedback. Without such a loop in place, it’s far more difficult to extract lessons about the relationship between decisions and there effect on the environment.

Without the benefit of immediate feedback, which increases the quality, experience and relevance of what works and what doesn’t, life can become a bit of a guessing game. A period of success and stability can be taken as a signal that things are going in the right direction, there is no urgency, unlike firefighting, to focus on any subtle cues or patterns which may signal potential risks; adaption is not high on the agenda. As an alternative we could turn again to the Rudolph study (2009) and examine what her adaptive decision makers did.

An adaptive decision maker generates a plausible story which makes sense of the current situation, an expectation of how that situation could unfold and an action script of what to do next (Klein, 2009). Our adaptive decision maker then tests this plausible story, examining rigorously how they could be wrong, and searching for weak signals which may have large consequences. If an element of the initial story is contradicted in this search, then it gets adapted, not explained away; they create feedback loops.

In the conversation with our CEO I suggested there was nothing inherently wrong with their story “things will get back to normal”, it was a worldview which had been justified for the past 20 years they had been in post, and it was plausible. The problem was it was a story which no longer fitted the environment; it’s time had passed. The challenge was to assess the reasons why that story no longer fitted. In that gap between the story and the environment would be the feedback which could be used to adapt.

Experiment and tinker with stories, don’t simply dig in and defend them.

The articles below the cover the subject of the adaptive mind-set

What beliefs are generating your plausible story? This article takes a look at some of the basic psychology we use to justify actions, and argues that even though technology has developed beyond comprehension over the past few hundred years, perhaps our methods of making sense of information haven’t.

A look at how people and organisations make sense of, and respond to, risks

High Reliability Organisations (HROs) are organisations which are incredibly adaptive when it comes to recovering from shocks, surprises and unexpected events. I take a brief look at the work of Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe through the lens of the TV show, Prison Break.

There are few minds more adaptive than Breaking Bad’s Walter White. In this article I take a look at how the writers of the show created the mind of Walter and how you could apply similar methods to improve your own adaptive frame of mind.

A look at the 2015 UK election and another look at the outstanding work of Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe

There are strong links between the breaking of stability and the increase of innovation, but it goes against our nature. Innovation requires disruption, yet we like, and strive for, stability.

The role of trust in decision making and how it affects adaption. This is a summary of the field work I carried out in two very different environments- a clinical setting and a construction site.

Another article on trust-what does it mean in a work context when we say we trust somebody to get things done? In this article I take a look at some of my field work and draw a link between trusting someone and their ability to adapt and improvise independently.


Rudolph, J. (2003) Into the Big Muddy and Out Again. Error Persistence and Crisis Management in the Operating Room. Dissertation, Boston College

Summary of the above can be found in

Klein, G (2009) Streetlights and Shadows. Bradford Books (see Klein also for plausible stories)

Weick, K. Sutcliffe, K. (2007) Managing the Unexpected. Jossey-Bass (also for plausible stories)

*If you are wondering what a smoker jumper is, click below







Going into and Coming out of a Closed Mind

23 Jun

In the previous article I discussed two panels from the graphic novel, Watchmen. In one of these panels we see two lovers, happy, carefree, potentially at the peak of their attraction, and in the second panel we see the outcome, a painful break up. The first panel sets the expectation, the second panel violates that expectation. The more naïve the initial forecast, the greater the damage when that forecast fails to manifest. In 1922, John Dewey wrote that life is interruptions and recoveries. It follows that if our forecasts and hopes for the future will, inevitably, be interrupted, then we can improve our recovery from these interruptions if we improve our ability to forecast. In the language of the last article this means avoiding and recovering from a fixed frame of mind.

The two panels from Watchmen provide a clue how to improve forecasting, how to temper our expectations of the future. When we achieve this, it improves not only “recovery from interruptions”, but our ability to improvise, adapt, innovate and develop tacit skills. Within the first panel (the two optimistic lovers) we have emotionally charged expectations and hopes for the future. Similar emotions appear at the start of a new project, company, strategy; the outlook is positive and anything which might challenge this brightly lit horizon is quickly explained away. Unless of course we had access to the second panel, the tragic end, a million miles and more from the expectations of the first panel, and we could see the outcome. This would present us with two bookends, one which anticipated an outcome we desired and the real outcome, a catastrophe. With these two bookends in place we would then need to use our imagination to fill in the history-what events could have brought such high hopes crashing down?

Challenges of all types we had not previously considered might appear as we are forced to look for items, potential events, flaws we had not considered during our anticipation stages. What is happening is we are being forced to look for what we haven’t seen; and what we haven’t seen or anticipated is what hurts us and our plans the most. When we are forced to imagine what led to a potential catastrophe, we are then being forced to plan for resilience, prepare for recovery and begin improvisation and innovation as a means of managing the unexpected.

What I have described above is prospective hindsight, or the pre-mortem exercise (Klein, 2004). Without the ability to see the actual future, we can instead draw ourselves that second panel from the Watchmen. We can create a scenario where the strategy we invested so much in, and feel so positive about, has been a catastrophe. This provides us our two bookends, one is our forecast, and the other is our forecast lying in ruins. All we need to do is fill in the history, focus on what we are not seeing. This exercise draws us out of potentially fixed frames of mind, makes us consider what we are prepared for and what we are not, opportunities to innovate, and what we need to let go of.

The following articles discuss how we get caught up in fixed frames of mind by being positive; this is very counter intuitive, asking someone to tone down enthusiasm and think about what could go wrong isn’t always well received in some group and organisational cultures. However, the articles also cover the other way too; people who believe they won’t be able to cope, when persuaded to think about how they might survive if the worst case scenario came true, are generally surprised by the resources available to them, both physical and mental. This never creases to amaze me when I do the pre-mortem or similar exercises with organisational groups- a general feeling of helplessness and gloom is quickly replaced by the location of exciting opportunities and tactics which had not been previously considered. This is the topic for a future collection, why movement, attempting something new, is so essential to personal and organisational success, but this is what you’ll find at the links below


This first article discusses Wilson and Gilbert’s (2003) work on affective forecasting. It explains how current emotional states influence our expectations of the future. Wilson et al also provide mechanisms for improving forecasting, which we might now say fit under the “second panel” genre.

A slant on the Scottish referendum, and the use of worst case scenarios

The relationship between insight and innovation when events don’t go according to plan

Linking emotion to uncertainty and then to recovery. This was a collaboration with my friend and colleague, Professor Marc Jones, where we used lab results carried out by Marc and his team to look at wider points regarding the management of uncertainty.

An organisational response to unexpected events can lead to a closed frame of mind in decision makers which produces- greater procedures and processes. In other words, all effort is focused on avoiding future mistakes. Avoiding mistakes is no bad thing, but placing procedures and processes at the front of priorities means the frame of reference is doomed to eventually be too narrow. When a non-routine event is encountered, in a culture which has a fixed frame of mind, the default setting is “follow procedures and processes”. This might avoid blame now, but be hiding a bigger problem for later (see the earlier article where Rudolph, 2003, studied clinical decision making). In other words, if an event doesn’t make sense there are two broad options. Firstly, investigate the limits of the procedures and processes in dealing with this non routine occurrence and then update the procedures and processes; in other words, treat the event as different. Or secondly, because the occurrence is “new” either consider the event as unimportant, a fluke, and then apply the procedures and processes. This second approach basically absorbs the novelty and explains it away, not advised, but sometimes a variety of pressures make it inevitable.

Letting go of a belief we are invested in can be incredibly difficult. This article discusses the benefits of going through that difficulty of letting go


Klein (2003) The Power of Intuition. Currency books.

Dewey, J. (1922\2002). Human Nature and Conduct. Mineola, NY: Dover

Moore, A. (1986) Watchmen. DC Comics. Titan.

Rudolph, J. (2003) Into the Big Muddy and Out Again. Error Persistence and Crisis Management in the Operating Room. Dissertation, Boston College

Summary of the above can be found in

Klein, G (2009) Streetlights and Shadows. Bradford Books.

Watchmen and Fixed Frames of Mind

22 Jun

The Graphic Novel, Watchmen, written by Allan Moore, placed in Time’s list of the 100 best novels published since 1923. There are two panels within the Watchmen which, and only in my opinion, exemplify why it is such outstanding piece of literature but also illustrates perfectly the pleasures and pain of a fixed frame of mind; the optimism of prediction and the tragedy of those anticipations falling short.

Within Watchmen is a character called Doctor Manhattan. Previously a scientist called Jon Osterman. True to genre form, an accident transformed a perfectly normal human being, Osterman, into something with god-like powers, Doctor Manhattan. During the course of the book we learn that Doctor Manhatten exists and perceives outside of time, simultaneously experiencing the past, present and future; we also learn that this is far from a gift. After an emotional incident (I think it was a visit to Ikea on a Saturday), Doctor Manhattan decides to leave the human race and their tangled, complicated lives behind, choosing instead to live in solitude on Mars. During his time alone Manhattan reflects on his life, as both human and god, and his reflections are portrayed to the reader in a way which reflects his perception “outside of time”.

There are several panels of illustration (drawn by Dave Gibbons) where Manhattan recalls meeting, while he was still human, his future girlfriend. They are in a bar, happy and enraptured with each other’s company. It is clear they are very much in love. Another cuts immediately to his girlfriend packing her bags in tears, their relationship over. The stark contrast to being so happy and carefree in one panel, and the pain of a bag packing break up in another panel, with nothing in between, is brutal. If it were possible to ask that couple, or a similar couple which actually exists, a couple who encapsulate the panel of happiness, what their predictions and hopes were for the future, I’m guessing we would encounter a fixed frame of mind.

I would gamble this couple would be focused, fixated on the positives, explaining away easily any potential threats to their happiness. And yet, they could easily find their way to the second panel, a painful break up. To see these two points only, together one minute, apart the next, with no events or transitions in between, leaves us nothing but our imagination to fill in the gaps. For things we are emotionally invested in, things in which performance counts and means something to us, we frequently fixed in our frame of mind. Unfortunately there is nobody to show us the outcome panel, we can only anticipate and hope, and so our imagination, our approach to uncertainty will contain a version of the future biased toward how easily we will fulfill our goals; overestimating something’s, underestimating others.

If we look at the outcome panel where the coupe break up, then what lessons would be drawn from that situation, the failure of high expectation, and the gathering of resources to move on? Would the frame of mind become fixed in another direction, seeing only risk and catastrophe in the future? Someone who ends up in this frame of mine could expand, beyond what is productive, the degree and severity of perceived risks appearing in the future and so they become risk averse and defensive. Alternatively, this failed relationship could result in hard but useful lessons, improving a person’s ability to adapt. If the failure of plans and anticipations is not used constructively, as a resource, then a rigid negativity can take hold. This the other side of fixation, holding onto risk aversion, digging in and defending, until the position is overrun by events which cannot be avoided.

And so a fixed frame of mind is like a coin, on either side of this coin we encounter two extremes in sense making- blind faith in the positive on one side and perceived certainty of catastrophe on the other side. Ideally, we don’t want to be on either side of the coin but frequently it’s inevitable, and sometimes it happens without us knowing, as the following comments from a senior technical expert within a company I worked with illustrate

“Eventually you have to re-invent yourself. Sooner or later your approach stops working but before that you think everyone else is being naive, jumping on the latest trend and not paying attention to what really counts. Then one day you realise you’ve become the problem, all that stuff that used to work, if I’m being honest about me, stopped working a while ago. I spent too long defending it, trying to force into the new order, but it wasn’t happening, and I’d become a problem. You might not think it now, but it’ll happen to you too one day, you’ll get stuck in your ways and think everyone else has got it wrong….just don’t make it a habit”.

The problem is, it’s a balancing act. The website, keeps track of start-up failures. One of the website founders, Niral Patel, told Business Insider “There are just so many people building things they don’t have a market for”. A start-up has elements of the panel from the Watchmen which represented the young lovers; enclosed in a happy, but fixated bubble, certain of their success and a happy ending. You have to have faith, conviction and take risks to launch a company and also advance an economy, but you should avoid being fixated. If failure does occur, the opportunity to learn is significantly diminished if the early frame of mind is fixed; progress resembles win\lose situations, which can result in further fixation, as opposed to frequent adaption.

So, there is the knife edge: – faith, conviction, confidence, risk are all essential for progress at all levels; personal, economic, and cultural. People, society and organisations would be stagnant without them. However, when these emotions and beliefs become rigid and defensive they become rigid and brittle, vulnerable to breaking any minute.

The following articles cover a fixed frame of mind. They are mostly based on the Spiral methodology, a process where thinking becomes so fixed and rigid, risks start appearing everywhere and uncertainty is intolerable. The Spiral began during an investigation into mental health and was adapted for use in organisations. Also is a return to another model I designed, The Beliefs, Barriers and Control (BBaC) model, a method for exploring how people make sense of change and new events.

Hopefully, the articles should highlight that no matter how good an organisational structure, strategy or plan is, they are still dependent on people to make them work. If a person, team, or organisation becomes fixed in their frame of mind then they become rigid and brittle. This rigid and brittle situation is ready to break and eventually an event will take a place, or the accumulation of events, and the break occurs, shattering into pieces. The articles demonstrate what can potentially happen when we are fixed-they focus on the break up panel in an attempt to help the reader imagine what could go wrong, no matter how good things seem today.

Overview of the Spiral Methodology

Moving the Spiral to more organisational applications

How we make sense of risk and the role of fixation

Applying the Spiral to strategy design

Organisational change as a fixation on….change!

Applying another model to change, the BBaC model, use it in assessing how fixed your world view could be

How people and organisations become fixed in their frame of mind

The role of imagination in avoiding that unthinkable second frame


Watchmen (1986) Moore, A. Gibbons, D. DC Comics. Titan