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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


Structuring Co-Production

8 Jun

In a previous article, I wrote about the value of focusing on barriers and negative opinions when co-producing a service. In this article, I add to this by suggesting a structure of questioning which can be used to improve the chances of effective co-production.

To re-cap, co-production is a method of designing services which involves all stakeholder parties at all stages of service development. For example, this means involving leaders who are proposing the service, frontline workers who will be delivering the service, and in the case of the public sector, citizens who will be receiving\accessing the service. All these stakeholders would be involved in the design, delivery and evaluation of the service.

A focus group format is a popular mechanism for capturing a variety of different stakeholder views in one place. A focus group provides a chance for stakeholders to hear from a wider perspective of people and examine ways in which opposing views could be synthesised, making this method popular for co-production. If a focus group format is going to be used, what structure should the questions take to be most effective?

A potential structure is to ask the focus group respondents to write down some of their key views before sharing with the group. This disaggregates errors, a condition where participants are commenting mostly on each other’s opinions rather than expressing their own (see Kahneman, 2011 for examples). To support this, the focus group participants should be asked to reflect on three levels when writing down their views. The three levels are summarized below-

  • How do stakeholders think the proposed service will affect them personally?

For example, a frontline worker might reflect on how the service would affect their personal routine and how it might enhance or dissolve their success.

  • How do stakeholders think the proposed service would affect other members of their team or other members of their community?

This level is asking the respondent to reflect beyond their personal experience and compare this to people they work with or live among. This answer could contrast with the earlier level. For example, if the proposed new service is built around technology a frontline worker might be concerned about how they would personally be able to apply the technology, whilst reflecting that other members of their team would thrive.

  • What do stakeholders believe are the leadership intentions behind the proposed changes?

At this level, participants are invited to reflect what they think the leadership’s intentions are behind introducing the new service. For example, some members of the public might see it as purely a cost saving exercise which ultimately diminishes quality. This question provides an opportunity for everyone to understand the mind set which generates opinions and intentions. Without clear knowledge of the intent behind the varied stakeholder views, the potential for misunderstanding and conflict is high.

The third level provides a space for different stakeholders to understand how each other are approaching the new service, and once this is shared, the awareness makes it easier to understand the source of different stakeholder views and work towards shared understanding, and ultimately effective co-production.


Kahneman, D (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin

Developing A Challenge Mindset

19 May

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting at the Elevate conference held at the Excel Arena, London, along with my colleague Professor Marc Jones and Dr Hannah Macleod, a Gold Medal winner from the Rio Olympics with GB women’s hockey. The subject of our talk was based on developing a challenge mindset, and I’ll summarize some of the key points below from my perspective.

Success is an interaction of skills and the environment (with some luck thrown in). Success can make us overly focus on our skills whilst paying little attention to the environment. This results in a belief that skills are operating independently of the environment, and\or have control over the environment.

Accepting that success is an interaction of skills with environment, then changes to the environment, no matter how small, can begin to affect the outcome of skills. If the effects are not initially significant, then they can be explained away, reinforcing the over focus on skills and continuing the lack of attention to the environment. This can take group culture from a positive place to a closed and defensive place, resisting change and alternative perspectives.

To avoid this situation, befriend negativity. This means that even when performance is going well and the environment is stable, imagine what could go wrong, no matter how big or small, and practice how to deal with these situations. In other words, befriend your worse fears. Doing so reduces aversion when faced with unexpected events, maintains an open mind, and places a mindful focus on the relationship between skills and the environment.

Hannah provided excellent examples of how GB women’s hockey were constantly generating “what if scenarios” to plan for unexpected and negative events. The results for Hannah and her team speak for themselves.




Surviving a Storm

12 Dec

“When there is a storm and you stand in front of a tree, if you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you see its stability.” (The Revenant, 2015, 20th Century Fox)

No one can accuse the protagonist of the film The Revenant, Hugh Glass, of lacking resilience. Glass keeps on going despite horrific injuries, hostile climate and unbelievable mental hardship. So, what allows Glass to survive in such harsh conditions and circumstances?

First, some context. In the film, Hugh Glass survives a vicious Grizzly attack, and is left for dead by his colleagues in freezing, arctic conditions after witnessing his son murdered. Torn to pieces, freezing, grieving and hungry, Glass makes his way across miles of snowy wasteland before carrying out an act of revenge on the man who killed his son and left him for dead.

Poetic license aside, it is obvious Glass has huge reserves of mental strength, fortified by a desire for revenge. Glass also has expertise in survival, and high tolerance for pain as he manages to not just endure his injuries but seal a wound in his neck with gun powder. But perhaps the most important factor in his survival is a chance encounter, when Glass is near death, with a Pawnee Native American who is travelling alone.

The Pawnee feeds Glass, carries him on his horse, and heals his wounds. This chance encounter, cemented with shared grief, provides Glass with a huge slice of luck necessary to survive. And this is the crux of Glass’s story- he got lucky. However, as the opening quote illustrates, without a certain degree of stability, Glass would never have been able to place himself in a position to get lucky.

Much is written about resilience, and it goes an incredibly long way. But luck plays a role too, especially in the form of help at just the right time, which carries you through the storm. Resilience keeps you in the game, it increases the chances of encountering luck, but rarely is anything achieved alone. The longer you foster the qualities to stay afloat, the greater the chances of being fed, carried and healed when you least expect it.


Harvard On Forecasting

1 Dec

There is an outstanding, and extensive, resource available on the Harvard University website dedicated to one of my favourite research subjects, Affective Forecasting, by Wilson and Gilbert (the link appears below). I’ve covered Affective Forecasting multiple times on this blog, across various contexts. So, in order to provide a primer for anyone interested in exploring this topic further and clicking the link, I’ll attempt to briefly revisit Affective Forecasting from an organisational perspective.

One of the downsides of having large amounts of experience in a specific domain is that sense making can become fixed (Klein, 2007 for examples). If an experienced decision maker has a run of success, their critical insight is put at risk. This means success can diminish the capacity to draw a conclusion, and then critically analyse that conclusion with questions such as “how could I be wrong? What else could be at play which I might have overlooked?”. The result is that the past and present is projected into the future, uncritically, and used to forecast an outcome or future condition. And this is affective forecasting crudely expressed, a current emotional state is used to predict a future emotional state.

If time pressure and competing demands are added to the mix, then the past is more likely to become a proxy indicator of what will happen in the future (see Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007, Kahneman, 2011, Taleb, 2013 for examples). This has all sorts of consequences for decision making.

Experienced organisational decision makers, should work hard to maintain critical insight despite current demands and pressures. For example, If a leader affectively forecasts and is operating with a non-critical team, then decision traps such as group think can easily take hold.

As the source material will reveal, methods such as encouraging critical reflection on organisational decisions before execution, and consulting someone or a team who has lived your intended future to broaden the frame of reference can prove effective. I’ll leave Wilson and Gilbert to explain the rest.

Link to Wilson and Greening on Affective Forecasting


Kahneman, D (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin

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

Expanding Horizons and Cognitive Computing

21 Nov

The cognitive computing software we are currently working with is methodologically based on systems thinking. A key influence was the work of ecologist and cybernetics expert, Frederick Vester. Vester argued (2007) that the failure of organisational systems occurs because only a single aspect of a problem is ever explored, a concept he referred to as “symptom bashing”.

An organisation, like any aspect of life, is a network of interlocking relationships, interdependencies and features, which can be referred to as nodes. The relationship which exists between the various nodes of a network is crucial to an improved understanding of a wider system. Vester observed that what seems to happen in organisational planning is an over emphasis on nodes, with very little attention paid to the relationships and arising interdependencies.

For example, in organisational change, a CEO needs to make the organisation more streamlined by reducing the number of management positions. Each management position is a node in a network, and can be identified clearly on a spread sheet.

From this spread sheet, the CEO can select which positions they wish to retain, restructure or remove. What is not fully known to the CEO is the relationship each of these nodes have with the organisation. The formal rationale for restructuring, presented as the symptoms of too many managers, too long decision making, and too much cost, makes sense, but the cost of change, which will only become apparent through time, is unknown.

In other words, the nodal management positions are known in theory (job descriptions, formal responsibilities etc.), but how this theory has been adapted to practice, and what relationships have been formed to the delivery of key business areas, could be fuzzy at best. What occurs is an initial saving followed only by the appearance of “unexpected events”, the latent effect of system neglect. Not all risk can be known by taking a systems approach, far from it, but the risks that change can bring can be better prepared for, creating a more resilient restructure.

A lot of system neglect is human nature. We, as human beings, have a natural bias to jump to conclusions, and then stick to these conclusions, explaining away any evidence or data which might contradict our initial assumptions (Kahneman, 2011 for excellent examples). High level expertise presents frequently as the ability to let go of conclusions and adapt quickly to new information (Klein, 2007). However, the conditions need to be supportive for “letting go” to occur (Klein, 2014).

A practical method of providing this support to improve strategic decision making, forecasts and analysis is to think about the system as opposed to the nodes, or put more simply, get a broader perspective. For example, affective forecasting (Wilson et al, 2003, Greening, 2014) discusses how forecasting about the outcome of an event or future state improves when the forecaster speaks to someone who has lived their future.

Forecasting and decision making in small groups can become overly focused on the perceived resources, abilities and knowledge of the team to achieve a goal, the inside perspective (Kahneman, 2011). However, this type of planning leads to over optimism and no consideration of what time and uncertainty will throw in their direction.

However, if the team speak to someone who has made and lived through a similar decision and faced the unexpected events, then the team is being exposed to the outside view. This takes their focus away from the nodes (the closed attributes) and broadens the perspective to the potential relationship of the nodes to the system, the outside perspective, through a period of time.

This is one of the aspects the cognitive computing software we are working with aims to achieve. It aims to collect a wide range of experiences, forecasts and anticipations from variety of decision makers and make these available to a user so they (the user) are able to view their environment more as a system and less as a series of nodes. The software is able to present information to a user in a time critical format, so the user is able to see the latent effect of decisions and the emergence of potential unintended consequences.

Viewing a decision as being part of an interconnected and changing system broadens the perspective. A broadening of perspective allows a decision maker to let go of initial assumptions and adapt to changes in a system. This can be achieved by accessing the knowledge and experience of people who have experienced the topic system through a period of time. For the CEO in the earlier example, this means a sharp analysis of the key relationships the managers have built up in their role. The result is discreet knowledge of what the CEO will be actually restructuring beyond spread sheet nodes, and the risks which that brings. For a user of cognitive computing software, this can mean exploring a topical system through the eyes of potentially thousands of people who have already lived a similar future.


Wilson, Timothy D.; Daniel T. Gilbert (2003). “Affective Forecasting”. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 35: 345–411

Kahneman, D (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin

Gilbert, D (2013) (p.45) AFFECTIVE FORECASTING…OR…THE BIG WOMBASSA: WHAT YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING TO GET, AND WHAT YOU DON’T GET, WHEN YOU GET WHAT YOU WANT in John Brockman (Editor) (2013) Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction. Harper Collins

Klein, G. (2014) Seeing What Others Don’t: the remarkable ways we gain insight. Public Affairs.

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

Vester, F. (2007) The Art of Interconnected Thinking: Tools and concepts for a new approach to tackling complexity. Malik Management (English language edition)

How Polls May Have Missed President Trump

10 Nov

The SC\LA Times Daybreak tracking poll was one of the few polls which predicted the outcome of the USA Presidential election correctly. The article available at the link below (by David Lauter) outlines the detail behind why this poll may have succeeded as opposed to just got lucky. The most intriguing aspect from my perspective was that the poll weighted for “undercover voters”.

Undercover voters are a variable not explored by the majority of polls, but where explored by the SC\LA Times Daybreak tracking poll. This group is a segment of the population who did not vote in 2012, but if they did vote in 2016, the question was asked- who would they vote for?

Undercover voters are also people who are not comfortable revealing their voting intentions to various groups of other people. For example, Trump voters were reported as being uncomfortable revealing their voting intentions during telephone surveys. If a poll weights for these and similar interrelations between variables- who didn’t vote in 2012 but could vote in 2016 and for who and, degree of discomfort in discussing voting intentions with a stranger, then the polling result starts to look different.

If we examine this relationship between Trump voting intentions and preparedness to admit voting intentions to a stranger, then it becomes easier to see how polls could be missing out on crucial data in the analysis.

The results illustrate the value of a broad perspective when analyzing data and drawing conclusions. Examining not just voter intention, but the relationship of the voter with their chosen candidate (is it a candidate they are comfortable discussing with strangers?) can potentially reveal more accurate polling results. This principle underpins so much of systems thinking in decision making. Knowledge of relationships and interactions can frequently beat sheer number of variables.


Link to Article by David Lauter

The Price Tag of Change

24 Oct

I was reading one of Gary Klein’s recent blogs on Psychology Today, where he discussed the characteristics of leaders who were able to make a difference to the organisations which they led. Klein, whilst acknowledging the limits of his observations, saw the “difference makers” as behavioral engineers.

As I see it, these difference-makers (a) were aware that the status quo wasn’t acceptable; (b) diagnosed how the culture needed to change; and (c) designed a minimal intervention, a leverage point, that would not only interfere with the status quo but would make it difficult to later return to the dysfunctional status quo. The difference-makers were all behavioral engineers” ( Link to full article)

What I would add is that good behavioral engineers also have a superior knowledge of risks associated with change in their organisations. In other words, when behavioral engineers make changes, they have a good understanding of the consequences the change will bring. This means knowing what skills and expertise the changes will retain and support, and what skills and behaviors the changes will wash away.

Without this knowledge change is merely an abstract exercise in moving around structures and shapes with little attention to consequences and human cost. Certainly, this change can look sensible and logical, but will come with a price tag which is both financial and behavioral. Without a good idea of the price tag associated with change, then a leader has no idea what they are retaining or losing in terms of skills and expertise. This makes medium to long term success very difficult.


Why Focusing On Catastrophe Is So Effective

3 Oct

Gary Klein’s pre-mortem technique has a long and effective history in improving forecasting, plans and decisions (Kahneman, 2011, Klein, 2007). The technique is incredibly simple, as the below example illustrates-

You and your team are about to agree a decision. Before you do so, imagine the decision has turned out to be a complete catastrophe. Everyone, working on their own, takes 5 minutes to write down the history of this catastrophe. Each individual history is then shared with the team.

I recently wrote about an interview featured on McKinsey Classic with Gary Klein and Nobel Laurette, Daniel Kahneman. The two psychologists discussed the role of intuition in executive decision making. Naturally, the pre-mortem technique came up as a highly effective method of improving decisions.

The logic behind why the technique works so well has been covered several times in articles on this blog, and covered extensively across research and corporate literature. However, Klein’s simple explanation of what lies behind the technique’s success in the McKinsey interview is incredibly insightful, and worth sharing

“The logic is that instead of showing people that you are smart because you can come up with a good plan, you show you’re smart by thinking of insightful reasons why this project might go south. If you make it part of your corporate culture, then you create an interesting competition: “I want to come up with some possible problem that other people haven’t even thought of.” The whole dynamic changes from trying to avoid anything that might disrupt harmony to trying to surface potential problems”


Kahneman, D (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin

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



Motivating Teams with Focus

26 Sep

Below is an article published by the company In The Moment (link to their website). In The Moment specialize in coaching, team dynamics and organizational behaviour, and in the excellent article below discuss how project focus plays such a positive influence on performance. This might seem obvious, but it is certainly taken for granted in organisations. We have seen in our research that clearly communicated, and understood, objectives are too often assumed. The article drew me to make comparisons between two areas of communication we have researched- 1) sharing objectives and focus, and 2) the cost of not having clear objectives and focus.

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