The four essential preconditions for system transformation

Front foot, Improvement, Noble Purpose No Comments

Around this time last year I was reflecting in a concert. I discovered FRE. Focus. Responsibility. Example. Three attributes for organisation success. That framework has guided my work this year. And carries on into 2017. I have had much positive feedback about it.

Last month, away from home, on a morning run along the Thames, I was thinking…

I work helping systems improve. This support can be in my main sectors, be it fashion or conservation; education or health. Or it might be in the events I run, from team time outs to larger conferences; individual coaching to speaking. I am concerned with helping the smaller temporary systems, such as in a workshop. I am also focused on improving the larger, well-funded and enduring systems, such as a fashion supply chain or a programme on bio-diversity.

After over 30 years helping in complex environments I have identified four pre-requisites for system success. You might even imagine these as four bases to get a ‘home’ run. Four capabilities that are needed to be widespread in a system for progress. Or you can consider them as a personal manifesto – highlighting the four personal disciplines leaders in all roles need for achievement. They are shared here to help us all make different and better choices.

I summarise them as CHHH. That is curiosity, holistic (whole-sighted) attention, honesty and hope.

Let’s unpack these four themes a little. Each helps progress. I have had positive comments on this from some of the many people I know who are working hard for improvement from deep within the systems they are committed to.


Deepening curiosity helps us get beyond certainty and avoid hubris. There can be a pretence of motivation. There may be an interest in innovation in one’s own work, that is undermined by the failure to search out and copy what others are doing. In my decades of practice, I think low curiosity is the most striking and common observation – it limits progress, it leads to ‘reinvention of the wheel’ and the consequent waste.

Addressing a low ‘pull’, where colleagues are not bothered and not interested in what others are doing is hard. Ways to fan the flames of interest maybe through protected study time and positive reinforcement, including awards for copying! Crucially, leaders need to model curiosity themselves – asking questions, showing they prize imitation as much as invention, avoiding routine pet answers, working in a spirit of humility and avoiding arrogance.

Curiosity gets us on the journey. But it is only the first base.


Once there is some curiosity, then finding ways to see the whole is important. However, looking beyond one’s own tribal allegiances can be a challenge. Building empathy with ‘the other’ is difficult. However, this is critical if the system is to operate for the end user or end purpose, and not the ‘core group’ who have much to benefit from things as they are. Connection is personal, and takes time to develop and deepen. Spending time exploring WITOS (what is the other side) is key.


The ‘third base’ is concerned with enabling important discussions beyond positioning and spin – having critical conversations

This is important for authentic attempts to make things better rather than cosy speaking in the groove, repeating nice sounding platitudes. This might involve a risk – especially when systems have a habit of spewing out whistle-blowers as ‘troublemakers’. Prophets and Radicals (tempered or otherwise) need to be sought and valued. Curiosity and Holism helps to nurture the empathy necessary for honesty.


Finally, and maybe paradoxically given the tone of this piece so far, being positive is important. Burnout is a risk in system work. It is easy to end up with no hope for the system or even for oneself. Accepting critique, but looking beyond criticism and cynicism is the better route. Being personally buoyant in the face of all that needs to be done. Looking to encourage each other.

I increasingly use these ideas (CHHH) as a frame and even as ‘ground rules’ in my workshops.

I find them a useful diagnostic tool too.

If systems are perfectly designed to deliver what they achieve, then the basic design rules need to be shifted. Might CHHH help?

Inertia and entropy are design flaws to be addressed. If something seems impossible, start small. Where does CHHH point you?

So, I offer CHHH a way to start or sustain the journey of improvement.

Travel well.

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Making the hard stuff easy?

Improvement, Personal productivity, Teams No Comments

You have probably come across the business adage, “the soft stuff is the hard stuff”. Like a number of famous quotes, is not quite clear to me who first coined the term – there is quite a lot on it online. But was it Covery? Enrico? Anyhow…

When thinking about organisations I like the distinction between structure, process and behaviour.

In one meeting last week I was challenged: “so, are you an organisational behaviourist?” Normally, I prefer to use Edgar Schein’s language and see myself as a ‘helper’ – and not even an OD specialist or Change Manager, which LinkedIn endorsements tend to say I am. So, I wasn’t sure I wanted the Organisation Behaviourist tag. But I guess I am the OB title. I see behaviour as key for it provides the physiology of organisational life – ways of working that can make any ‘anatomy’ work, or not. If I ask people to think of a leader they admire or a team that is performing well, and then write what it is about them down that impresses them, it is clear that the vast majority of the positive attributes are attitudes not technical skills, behaviour not knowledge.

There are some notable approaches to orchestrating behaviour shifts through ‘nudges’. Also, there is lots of training offered to change behaviour – from ‘difficult conversations’ to ‘line management’ to ‘team working’.

For me, the most significant improvements in organisation come from a disciplined focus on behavioural improvements around R and E in FRE – that is ‘responsibility’ and ‘example’. But I know from my work that the ongoing curiosity and empathy that is needed for this sort of sustained shift isn’t easy to generate and maintain.

A recent HBR study shows that even the most thoughtful training approaches bring about minimum behavioural changes long term, in the absence of a shift in the example of senior leaders. This makes sense – at least it confirms the finding from my decade-old research about getting values into practice, see this.

So these ‘soft’ shifts are hard. That is clear.

On a recent trip to Australia I saw a new way of promoting a long lasting shift in the culture of organisations in action. I saw it at work in settings as diverse as a bank, a commonwealth department and in a food manufacturing plant. The ‘Blue Bus’ approach started out in steel manufacturing and mining. It is spreading. It is a sticky idea. There is a pull. It seems to be passing the Chili Test. It makes the distinction between ‘hardware’ and ‘software. Between the ‘spaces’ leaders regularly ‘play’ like strategy, tools and systems and the area that is really needed for individual, team and organisational performance: mind-set, values and behaviour.

If you are in Asia or the Pacific (or even Australia!) and want to find out more, do let me know – I can make an e-intro. As there is deliberately almost nothing about it online. And, looking ahead, the guys (in a gender neutral sense) will be over in Europe in 2017.

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Does your idea pass The Chilli Test

Front foot, Improvement No Comments

At the end of the Fifteenth Century the America’s were accidentally (re)discovered as a world of tremendous resource, including maize, potatoes and tobacco – products that have altered lives around the world. However, part of the story is of a two–way exchange between the old and new worlds with chickens, bananas and coffee going the other way too, for example.

And all this was in addition to the older trading routes into Asia and Africa. At the time Columbus was trying to find the western route to the orient, the price of black pepper from Asia was at an all-time high and the Ming vase trade was starting to inspire the wealthy and their local potters in Europe.

We think that we live in a connected, global world. I was in rural Malawi recently I was struck how many people who in many ways live life ‘off the grid’ have smart phones and how 3G is pretty ubiquitous – with WhatsApp replacing SMS. A recent National Geographic piece outlined how a little up the Rift Valley the Maasai are using this technology to enrich their lives, to meet a need.

Whilst the speed and scale of these changes is breathtaking, I think we have to go back 500 hundred years for the most remarkable story of ‘spread’ (not the sort you have on toast – but of knowledge).

One of the discoveries in central America was the humble chilli. These days we see spicy chilli’s everywhere: in European, African and Asian cooking – as well as in dishes from its home continent. I think it is probably the most ubiquitous of ingredients. It literally connects the world, cuisines and diets.

What is maybe surprising is it took only a few decades from discovery to global domination. At the time it was discovered many could not afford black pepper to liven up their dreary meals. Spicy hotness was a luxury. All of a sudden there was a new, cheap form of heat and flavour. This product spread the world. And it wasn’t just a spicy idea, but a ‘sticky’ one too – the product is still totally ingrained globally.

At the airport shop in Blantyre, Malawi there were only a few products for departing visitors to spend their remaining Kwacha on – from nuts to ‘Puffs’. One of the goods was Nali Chili Sauce: made from birds-eye chilli’s it is dubbed “Africa’s hottest sauce”.

So the chilli travelled the world. It dominates. It is possibly the most global product . Why?

It met a need. It offers the spice of life – cheaply.

So, does your big idea meet a need? Is your ‘change programme’ (or political view or belief system or business offer – or blog!) going to help others live and improve their lives? Is it affordable or does it have a burdensome cost? Will people want to ‘steal with pride’? Is there are a pull?

Or are you just pushing like mad?


Being Human in The Age of Extremes: Pausing to see the other side

Front foot, Improvement, Reflect No Comments

What makes us human?

  1. The ability to tell stories that make sense of our lives?
  2. The (potential to have a) conscience?
  3. The way we organise to do ‘projects’ from farming to hobbies to start-ups?
  4. But also ‘othering’ – that is the way we pretty naturally like to put all we see and meet into groups and make those good or bad, helpful or harmful, right or wrong, hero or villain. ‘The other’ is frequently given less positive characteristics, though sometimes (for example in the case of celebrities, especially national treasures), they have a sort of saintly halo.


This final characteristic or seeing putting something in a neat box and labelling it positive or negative extends to the black and white thinking we see in the anxious debates of our age, including:
• Refugees and migration
• Junior doctors strikes
• Nationalism in Europe and the US
• Trident
• The Union
• The various issues and groups who Donald Trump targets
• Trophy hunting
• Sugar tax
In all of these a circle tends to be put around those with a different view and then there is a judgement that makes them and their ideas wrong.  We see it from our Facebook pages to Front pages.

The news media and social media coverage of all these stories polarises views. Advocates of a particular viewpoint tend to sound as if the argument is very clearcut; they know the answer – and it is in their direction.

So if being human means we have a tendency to seek tribal certainties, what makes us civil is, I believe, stepping back from quick scapegoating…seeing the other side, disagreeing well, looking at what is fact from the story and considering the alternative stories.

However, I agree that in a way I risk ‘circling’ those who are certain and making them wrong! Yet, this desire to see the other side is more of a habit I practice than a belief; a discipline more than a personal value. I find it as easy to label and judge as anyone else, but reckon that learning to challenge those tendencies (as I look for information to challenge my assumptions and confirmation bias) is pretty important in my life and work.

And the more I think about the stuff that occupies the pages, screens and chat in my life the more nuanced the ideas seem. I realise ‘IDK’: I don’t know.

As I explore the gospel of doubt in the age of anxiety I discover I need to continually practice ‘holding my beliefs lightly’. Yet, I regularly need to form a view and make a judgement. I need to vote. I need to advise a client; to call time in a meeting. I need to act.

So what makes us human? Pausing. The potential of a momentary pause to consider; what else might be.


Further reading:
Meaning of Life is a project
National treasures
• Projection, scapegoating, splitting
WITOS and perspective managment assessment
• From other peoples skin (shoes, eyes)
Holding our beliefs lightly
• The Gospel of Doubt and questioning the ‘bricks’ on which our beliefs are based
The Age of Anxiety


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