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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


Co-Production Begins with The Barriers

9 May

Effective co-production begins with a focus on the barriers, on what could go wrong, from all stakeholder perspectives. I explain why in this article, and suggest a simple, easy to use technique which allows us to strategically befriend barriers.

Co-production makes perfect sense. In the public sector, involving citizens and communities who have lived experience of the conditions leaders are attempting to positively change, and frontline workers who interact between leaders and citizens on a constant basis, is an effective way to better, more adaptable and more resilient strategies. However, it can be a difficult process if not approached with true openness.

Essential to effective co-production is a commitment to sharing power and understanding the mind sets and experience of other stakeholders. When designing a new service, each stakeholder group has a view of what the service could look like and the barriers which might prevent the services success. The argument here is that paying attention to what each stakeholder group feels could go wrong, the barriers, provides the sharpest insight into their world view and improves the chances of effective co-production.

There can be frustrations over the barriers each group of stakeholders perceive, and frustrations over how easy to remove and how important those barriers are to different groups and individuals. Barriers are built on past experiences, unique histories and the anticipated reactions of others. This is what makes them so important and sometimes so hard to integrate, they illustrate what a person notices, ignores, fears and how they make sense of their environment. Barriers represent what keeps integration apart, and careful examination of them allows us to examine ways of removing or reducing them.

Barriers highlight what stakeholders consider risky, their appetite for innovation, technology and how much trust they have and support they feel they need. It is important to fully understand and embrace each of these view points from each stakeholder perspective as they help to construct positive approaches to change.

Data on stakeholder barriers allow strategies to be constructed on models which ENABLE people. A good strategy should aim to deliver by removing and reducing barriers, and then allowing stakeholders to adapt what they already do well to the new service. This only happens when strategies enhance people and their experiences, not put a new process first.

The above are reasons why collecting quality data on barriers requires careful thought in effective co-production. Simply asking a mixed group of stakeholders to highlight their own barriers can be illustrative, but quite often groups react to each other’s answers as opposed to providing their own unique perspective. A method of effectively collecting barriers is through the de-correlation of errors.

De-correlation of errors is very simple in this context. It removes the potential problem of everyone basing their views on the first idea which was voiced in the room as opposed to their own unique perspective. The method achieves this by asking every stakeholder to prepare their answers to a short series of questions BEFORE consultation. When the consultation begins, every stakeholder is asked to read their own unique response, whilst other stakeholders listen.

This introduces the stakeholders to each other through their own perception of the situation, facilitating richer data and greater understanding of individual and group positions. In a future article, I’ll introduce how a technique like de-correlation of errors can be used within a broader co-production frame work focused on removing and reducing barriers.


Very good 1 page co-production model from NHS England


The value of de-correlating errors appears in this excellent interview below with Danny Kahneman and Gary Klein

McKinsey Classic Interview

Some related reading from this blog

General reading on the methodology behind error de-correlation

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

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

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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Human Judgement and Cognitive Computing

13 Sep

McKinsey have published an outstanding interview with Gary Klein and Danial Kahneman. The interview is a reflection on Klein and Kahneman’s classic paper- Conditions for intuitive expertise: A failure to disagree (2009). Whilst the interview reflects on the two authors positions when it comes to intuitive decision making, the prime focus is on executive judgement- is intuition a good basis for top level business decision making? In this article I’ll briefly reflect on some of the key points raised by Kahneman and Klein, and how aspects of cognitive computing could potentially support some of the author’s suggestions.

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When Expertise Works And When It Doesn’t

25 Jul

At this link is a Google talk delivered by psychologist and Nobel Laurette, Daniel Kahneman. The topic of the talk is expert judgement in decision making, and Kahneman discusses the collaborative work he carried out with Gary Klein.

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5 Golden Rules for Flexible Project Management

13 Jun

I previously wrote about methods to improve two aspects of project management

  1. Knowledge capture, and
  2. Communication

A focus on the importance of capturing knowledge and improved communication was inspired by a recent publication by Raconteur (Project Management,, #0376, 22\05\2016). Within this Raconteur publication was a piece entitled “The Five Golden Rules of Project Flexibility” (p.4), and provides the inspiration for this article.

Flexibility is essential for sustainable success, but for human beings, it can be very difficult to think and behave with flexibility. Below, I’ll outline some reasons behind this difficulty, before revealing Raconteur’s 5 Golden Rules.

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Improving Project Management

6 Jun

The special interest publisher, Raconteur, recently produced a paper on Project Management (, #0376, 22\05\2016). Two reoccurring themes ran through the collection of articles

  1. The importance of knowledge capture in project management
  2. Effective communication when managing complex projects

As both of these themes frequently appear throughout the articles and research featured on this blog, it’s a good opportunity to share methods we’ve applied to improve knowledge capture and communication across projects, and with teams and organisations. So firstly, knowledge capture.

In their Raconteur contribution, Jim McClelland, addressed the importance of knowledge capture in his article entitled “Mindset and not toolset-it’s all about people…” If a project is complex (multiple partners, sites, boarders, regular surprises, changing environment etc.) then the degree of learning is potentially high. Managing a complex project involves multiple frontline adaptions as initial plans and strategies run into the “friction” of everyday life (Freedman, 2013).

The problem identified in the McClelland article is that the knowledge gained from managing project friction, remains the tacit property of frontline workers, and\or project managers. This problem is aggravated when project managers and key staff are transient, they move from project to project, company to company, taking their knowledge with them.

A potential solution is the implementation of methods which capture knowledge. This means frequently capturing and evaluating what project managers and frontline workers notice and prioritise in a work situation, how they notice contradictions to initial plans (when something starts to go wrong) how the contradictions are made sense of, and what adaptions take place to course correct or innovate around problems (see Starbuck, 2001, Klein, 2007, Rankin et al, 2014 for examples of this in various project environments).

Below is quick example of a method, a debriefing questionnaire, focused on capturing knowledge in a fast paced project environment. The questionnaire is designed to capture problem solving, with an emphasis on changing expectations, situation recovery and risk analysis-

What did you notice?

What surprised you?

What did you do?

How would you advise someone else to tackle a similar situation?

What should they avoid doing?

The second theme is communication. I would argue that a key component of effective communication is shared sense making, being able to shadow the thinking of someone else (see Klein et al, 2013 for examples).

Communication between different partners, professions, organisations, sites etc. is inherently problematic. The instruction of “fast” for example, has a lot of potential responses, all dependent on individual sense making. Unless organisations, teams and individuals develop methods which allow the intention behind plans to be fully understood, then regular problems can occur.

Communication problems are particularly acute when teams are distributed across organisations, geography, professions etc. As discussed earlier, plans encounter friction and need to be adapted. Projects run more efficiently when these adaptions are carried out by frontline workers with intimate knowledge of a current situation, and a real time view of what’s going on in the environment. Without clear intentions, adaptions can either be completely out of kilter with a plan, or frontline workers lack the clarity to deal with a problem, and keep referring to management for further instructions.

Both of these intention problems have significant consequences for the success and safety of a project. For example, adaptions in the wrong direction can correct a local deviation but weaken the broader project. A project may be running over budget and a team leader is told to cut costs. During this period an engineer gets a new job and leaves the project. To save money the leader of the engineer’s team decides not to re-recruit. The team leader adapts by carefully reorganising the remaining team member’s roles. Short term it’s a success. Then an unexpected event occurs and the team lack the flexibility to absorb and correct the shock.

The other side of the problem occurs when no adaptions take place. This occurs when frontline workers lack the clarity to adapt to changes in local circumstances. As a result, when an unexpected event or obstacle occurs on a project, instead of applying initiative, the frontline instead seeks instructions from further up the hierarchy. This situation eats into time, reduces the amount of available options to tackle a problem, places responsibility in the hands of someone who is nowhere near the situation and who only has a limited understanding. All these issues create extra demands and increase management pressure, destabilising the project further.

Communication problems can be avoided by applying methods which calibrate sense making. A useful method of communicating intent is a script developed by Karl Weick (see Weick et al, 2007 for examples). Below is a version of Weick’s intent script, and similar to versions we’ve used in our work with clinical decision making and organisational change-

This what I think we face

This is what I think we should do

These are the reasons why

This is what we need to look out for

Now talk to me

This article has featured quick examples of how to improve knowledge capture and communication. I would strongly agree with McClelland that successful project management is a mindset. I would also add that applying simple methods designed to collect knowledge and improve communication, develop and support the best conditions for project management success.


Starbuck, W.H. Hedberg, B. (2001) Handbook of Organizational Learning and Knowledge; M. Dierkes, A. Berthoin Antal, J. Child, and I. Nonaka (eds.); Oxford University Press, 2001

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

Rankin, A. Woltjer, R. Rollemhagen, C. Hollnagel, E. (2014) Resilience in Everyday Operations: A Framework for Analyzing Adaptations in High-Risk Work. Journal of Cognitive Engineering and Decision Making March 2014 vol. 8 no. 1 78-97

Freedman, L. (2013) Strategy: A History. OUP USA

Klein, G. Hintze, N. Saab, D. (2013) Thinking Inside the Box: The ShadowBox Method for Cognitive Skill Development. International Conference on Naturalistic Decision Making 2013, Marseille, France.




The Effect of Culture on Decision Making

16 May

In my early days researching organisations, culture was never high on my list of priorities. I was mostly focused on behaviour, cognition and decision making. This meant I was investigating how people make sense of their environment, use their environment as a resource, make choices and update choices (or not) based on environmental feedback. As much as this research tells you, it plays out on a stage which influences both behaviour and cognition. And this stage could be described as culture. In other words, culture, as part of an environment, enables, influences and loads both behaviour and reasoning within an organisation.

I consider culture a vital part of the environment people interact with, use and are influenced by in their decision making in organisational settings.

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Mining the Tacit Database

12 May

If an organisation is trying to use experience as a resource to learn and develop, what’s an effective approach? Every organisation has a “tacit database”, the experience based skills and reasoning people use every day to effectively complete tasks, solve problems, and innovate. The tacit database, however, is combined of taken for granted rules of thumb (heuristics), meaning that people do impressive things, but struggle to explain how they did it.  This leaves an organisation knowing far more than it can say– the tacit database is frequently a hidden asset.

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