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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.




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

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 Psychology of Organizational Change

23 Aug

Interesting article on Psychology Today addressing the topic of organisational change, and entitled The Psychology of Organizational Change. I’ve quoted the conclusion from this article below in full

Traditional change in management tactics in organizations are based more on animal training than on human psychology and neuroscience. Leaders promise bonuses and promotions (the carrot) for those who go along with the changes, and punish those (the stick) who don’t with less important jobs or even job loss. This kind of managerial behavior flies in the face of evidence that shows that people’s primary motivation in the workplace is neither money or advancement but rather a personal interest in their jobs, a good environment to work in and fulfilling relationships with their boss and colleagues” Article available here

It’s difficult to argue with the logic of the conclusions. Evidence does clearly suggest that meaning, social interaction and a good environment are the most important workplace considerations for staff. However, the job of change is never done. The external environment changes jobs which had so much meaning, people who mean so much move on, and revenue can impact on offices which everyone enjoyed working in. So even successful organisational change, is simply a point on a continuum, and never done.

The above point highlights the importance of leaders and planners staying in frequent touch with frontline workers. This is important because not only is change an ongoing process, a way of life which can be too often left to chance in organisations, but human beings are notoriously poor at anticipating how much positive and negative change will impact upon their lives in the medium to long run (Kahneman, 2011, Wilson et al, 2003).

The consequence is that short term data on success can show very positive attitudes towards change, and then once adaption kicks in, the data can look like a decline in satisfaction. The two key points are 1) try and avoid declaring change as complete or a success too soon, and 2) leaders should stay in frequent touch with frontline workers to monitor adaptions. Otherwise the gap between implementation and feedback can cause inaccurate responses, for example

This data shows a sharp fall in satisfaction, we need to review the effect of our change strategy

Everyone has just adapted to change, it’s only natural that it’s no longer seen as something significant

Both these points require accurate feedback data to back them up, otherwise what’s really going on is lost.

We’ve written about the above points here and here in more detail


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

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.

Continue reading

Our Future Selves and Decision Making

7 Jul

Below is a link to a TED Talk by the Harvard psychologist, Dan Gilbert. The talk is entitled, The Psychology of your Future Self, and illustrates how we, as human beings, have the capacity to get our expectations of the future so badly wrong. Gilbert addresses some key reasons why anticipations of future states can be so adrift, and within this article I’m going to reference these reasons to highlight how experience and imagination can significantly improve our ability to forecast, acquire expertise and make better decisions. But first, a small detour to ancient Greece.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.