2 months, 9 days ago

Management, Simple and Wrong – Semantics, Systems, and Self-Correction

Simple responses to complex situations are both seductive and dangerous. The difficulty in juggling lots of variables tempts us to employ abstraction so as to avoid being overwhelmed. Abraham Maslow’s observation, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail”, applies. […]

4 months, 22 days ago

Innovation in Inner Space

  Long-time readers know that I have a rather varied set of interests and that I’ve got a “thing” for history, particularly military history. Knowing that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I was recently reading an article titled “Cyber is the fourth dimension of war” (ground, sea and air being the first three […]

6 months, 22 days ago

Fear of Failure, Fear and Failure

Some things seem so logically inconsistent that you just have to check them out. Such was the title of a post on LinkedIn that I saw the other day: “Innovation In Fear-Based Cultures? Or, why hire lions to be dogs?”. In it, Michael Graber noted that “…top-down organizations have the most trouble innovating.”: In particular, […]

9 months, 9 days ago

Situational Awareness – Where does it begin? Where does it end?

Situational awareness, according to Wikipedia, is defined as “…the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status after some variable has changed, such as time, or some other variable, such as a predetermined event”. In other words, it’s having a […]

9 months, 14 days ago

Learning Organizations: When Wrens Take Down Wolfpacks

What does the World War II naval campaign known as the Battle of the Atlantic have to do with learning and innovation? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Early in the war, Britain found itself in a precarious position. While being an island nation provided defensive advantages, it also came with logistical challenges. Food, […]

10 months, 30 days ago

Learning at the Speed of Learning

According to a recent survey by McKinsey,  “the great majority of our respondents expect corporate learning to change significantly within the next three years”.

It seems that whatever the topic of the survey, middle managers and management consultants always expect significant change within the next three years, because this is what justifies their existence.

In this case, the topic is corporate learning, which McKinsey recommends should be done “at the speed of business”, whatever that means. (I am not a fan of the “at the speed of” cliche.)

But what kind of change is McKinsey talking about here? The article concentrates on digital delivery of learning material – disseminating existing “best practice” knowledge to a broader base. It doesn’t really say anything about organizational learning, let alone a more radical transformation of the nature of learning in organizations. I have long argued that the real disruption is not in replacing classrooms with cheaper and faster equivalents, useful though that might be, but in digital organizational intelligence — using increasing quantities of data to develop and test new hypotheses about customer behaviour, market opportunities, environmental constraints, and so on — developing not “best practice” but “next practice”.

Richard Benson-Armer, Arne Gast, and Nick van Dam, Learning at the speed of business (McKinsey Quarterly, May 2016). HT @annherrmann

Chris Argyris and Donald Schön, Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective. Reading, MA, Addison-Wesley, 1978.

1 year, 20 days ago

Leadership Patterns and Anti-Patterns – The Growler

Prior to starting my career in IT (twenty years ago this month…seems like yesterday), I spent a little over eleven years in law enforcement as a Deputy Sheriff. Over those eleven years my assignments ranged from working a shift in the jail (interesting stories), to Assistant Director of the Training Academy, then Personnel Officer (even […]

1 year, 25 days ago

The Judgment of whole Kingdoms and Nations

@Cybersal @kirstymhall @UKParliament #Brexit #VoxPopuli


A radical Whig tract was published in 1709 under the title Vox Populi, Vox Dei. The following year, an extended version was published under the title The Judgment of whole Kingdoms and Nations. I want to use these two phrases as the starting point for my submission to the UK Parliament Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which has launched an inquiry into the lessons that can be learned for future referendums.

The first thing I want to mention is the rushed timescale. The inquiry was announced on July 14th, with a deadline for submissions of September 5th. I shall argue that this rushed timescale is symptomatic of the referendum itself, in which people were asked to make a complex decision with inadequate information and analysis.

(For the sake of comparison, an inquiry on the future of public parks was announced on July 11th, with a deadline of September 30th. So we are given more time to analyse the physical swings and roundabouts of council-run playgrounds than the metaphorical swings and roundabouts of parliamentary sovereignty and media oversight.)

To be fair, most parliamentary inquiries only give you weeks rather than months to compose a submission. This effectively limits submissions to people who have already formed an opinion, and already have the evidence to support this opinion. In other words, experts.

But then most parliamentary inquiries are about issues that people have been concerned about for a much longer time: Bus Services, Employment Opportunities for Young People, Food Waste. There is an existing body of knowledge relating to each of these topics, and it is not unreasonable to ask people to base a submission on their existing knowledge.

In contrast, nobody knew precisely how this referendum was going to be mismanaged until it actually happened. Although many people (including some Brexiteers as well as many Remainiacs) predicted that it would end in tears, and can now say “we told you so”.

I can read you like a magazine … Don’t say I didn’t say I didn’t warn you (Taylor Swift)

No doubt the Select Committee can expect to receive a number of submissions that fall under the heading of what the Dictionary of Business Bullshit calls “Pathologist’s Interest”.

But told-you-so is not a good starting point for a proper analysis, because it concentrates on confirming one’s previous expectations, rather than discovering new patterns. So the Select Committee might not get much well-grounded analysis. Partly because there isn’t time to do it properly, and partly because many of the potential “experts” are affiliated to UK universities, which are currently on summer vacation. Looks like the Select Committee is falling in line with Michael Gove’s idea that “the people in this country have had enough of experts”.

(“The Voice of Gove is the Voice of Government”. I wonder what that would look like in Latin?)

The official announcement sidesteps from “the lessons that can be learned” to “lessons learned”, which is not the same thing at all. The former suggests an open exploration, while the latter suggests merely rattling through a project postmortem for form’s sake. The timescale does not seem particularly conducive to the former. So is this apparent haste triggered by thoughts of a second referendum, or it is just intended to curtail criticism of Parliament for its earlier folly?

As I have argued elsewhere (including my book on Organizational Intelligence) complex sense-making and decision-making cannot go straight from the Instant of Seeing to the Moment of Concluding, but require what Lacan calls Time for Understanding. In this respect, the inquiry repeats one of the errors of the referendum itself.

The timescale and debating rules for the Brexit referendum were modelled on a General Election campaign. But a General Election has three important characteristics that were absent from Brexit. Firstly the electorate is generally familiar with the main parties: Labour and Conservative were around before any of us were born, and the Lib Dems also have long-established roots. Secondly, there is some rough notion of symmetry between the two main parties. Thirdly the parties make promises to which they will be held accountable in the event of victory. In other words, the General Election campaign can be compressed into a matter of weeks precisely because the rules of engagement are broadly understood, and there is very little new material for the electorate to process.

In comparison, as Kirsty Hall argues, the referendum for Scottish Independence was given a lengthy period of debate and analysis, because of the perceived complexity of the issues that needed to be considered. This would have been a much better model for the Brexit referendum.

Finally, let me return to the phrase “the judgement of whole kingdoms and nations”, which of course raises the prickly subject of sovereignty. Although we supposedly have a system of parliamentary sovereignty in this country, parliament occasionally permits the voice of the people to be heard. As the Latin phrase has it, The Voice of the People is the Voice of God; and as the Establishment has discovered, the People can be a vengeful God. Parliament is still learning to listen to this vengeful voice. But who will teach what these lessons mean, and in what timescale? Or will the Establishment just adopt a Brechtian solution?

Would it not be simpler,
If the government simply dissolved the people
And elected another?#Brechtsit

— Richard Veryard (@richardveryard) June 30, 2016


Update: Since I wrote this post, the Electoral Reform Society has published a critical report on the Brexit referendum, which makes the same unfavourable comparison with the Scottish Independence referendum that Kirsty made back in June. The Society has confirmed that it will be making a submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry.

Will Brett, Doing Referendums Differently (Electoral Reform Society, 1 September 2016)

Kirsty Hall, Brexit was a Con (28 June 2016) HT @cybersal @MerrickBadger @Koann

UK Parliament: Future of Public Parks, Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum

Wikipedia: Vox Populi, Vox Dei 

1 year, 1 month ago

Learning Organizations – Shooting the Messenger All the Way to the Fuhrerbunker

Unless you’re living under a rock, it’s a near certainty that you’ve seen at least one Downfall parody video (although I hadn’t realized just how long these had been around until I started working on this post…time flies!). There’s a reason why they’ve managed to hang on as a meme as long as they have. […]

1 year, 1 month ago

Organizations as Systems – “Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown”

  One of the benefits of having a (very) wide range of interests is that every so often a flash of insight gets dropped into my lap. In this case, it was a matter of “We must recognise that single events have multiple causes” showing up as a suggested read from Aeon on the same […]

1 year, 2 months ago

“Distance…is the one true enemy…”

Gregory Brown tweeted a great series on the problem of distance last week: It’s amazing how much information can be conveyed in nine tweets. It’s amazing how many aspects of a very complex socio-technical undertaking, software development, are affected by this concept of distance. I would argue that this concept of distance applies likewise to […]