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thinking allowed



A recent RSA publication featured an interview with Theodore Zeldin, exploring the future of work. It is a short conversation covering a range of interesting topics and Zeldin’s gift, as always, is finding simple illustrations and examples to help us see things differently.

For example, on the question of working alone or in groups, he comments: We have so far believed there are only two choices: collective action or individual initiative. I have been exploring the role of the couple … couples of the mind who develop the skill of drawing inspiration from one another, in conversation or from reading, including from people with whom they disagree. Dividing people into supporters and opponents is not the only way to get nearer to the truth.

Most striking for me is his final comment, responding to Matthew Taylor’s rather left-field question: If you had to choose one idea of yours to put up in lights in Piccadilly Circus forever, which idea would it be?

Zeldin’s equally unexpected answer: I would put one word in Piccadilly Circus, and it would be ‘think’.

Just seeing the word on the page felt refreshing, and somewhat radical given the prevalent  discourse in workplace consulting where ‘emotional intelligence’, ‘personal resilience’, and the unstoppable giant that is ‘mindfulness’ are currently holding centre stage.

Zeldin briefly explains his choice: ‘Reason’, the word that I would have put up in the 18th century, has discredited itself by making so many mistakes, and so we have replaced it with ‘feeling’; we aim to ‘feel good’ no matter what we think. We have developed a great resistance to thinking. Thinking is a social activity; it is allowing other people’s ideas to come into your head, mashing them up with your own and therefore becoming a more sociable person.

I find myself quite delighted by this rare enthusiasm for thinking at work, and for Zeldin’s particular social twist on it — it feels unusual, and important. His final comment: We have brains…and we are capable of doing amazing things with them, so I would like to restore thinking to its place of honour.

read the full interview here

12 December 2014


alex swarbrick: Thanks for the post….and for the excuse to divert myself from work for a minute!  I too felt refreshed seeing the word ‘think’, and then felt (yes ‘felt’) a jab about ‘emotional intelligence’, ‘resilience’ and ‘mindfulness’.  Interestingly, mentioning ‘mindfulness’ to a colleague recently, his challenge was ‘but that’s a misnomer; it’s really all about mindlessness’. That shocked me, and I disagree. To me, the invitation in mindfulness is actually to be awake, to do whatever we’re doing with our full attention, in other words, with thought, in contrast to doing it ‘absent mindedly’, on autopilot. Understood in those terms, mindfulness and thinking are back together. From a PCP perspective, perhaps it could be understood as bringing our construing more into our awareness. As for emotional intelligence, I tend to think of that as a ‘thinking’ activity too; at least that’s how I introduce it to groups. It’s not about being ‘touchy feely’ so much as paying attention to how I understand myself, and make choices from that understanding; how I understand an ‘other’ and what I then combine from those understandings in pursuit of something constructive in our relationship. Again, in PCP terms, maybe there’s a hint of Sociality there, combined with a higher level of awareness of my own meaning making.

mary: Great to hear from you – and very good points well made. Zeldin’s simple suggestion that we think together did strike me as very different from the emphasis on interiority and personal deliberation that I have experienced in the emotional resilience and mindfulness approaches where working with self, with ‘felt’ material, and attending without critique have been at the heart of it. Thinking about your comments, I guess the thing I miss most in our current consulting discourse is a lack of attention to critical thinking as a constructive activity. I have worked recently with facilitators who tended to reject  ‘I think’ comments asking instead for feelings. It’s really troubled me, both personally, and as a Kellyan given that we would not tend to split construing that way. A really good provocative response thank very much – and helpful for me to recognise that it’s critical thinking I’m missing. Not to the exclusion of those other approaches, but to bring our full resources back into play.

roger pierce: I agree with Alex Swarbrick that you are being too hard on EI & mindfulness by casting them in opposition to thinking. But are you querying their dominance rather than their value? In that sense I agree there is something important missing and therefore I too find Zeldin’s injunction refreshing. Our organisational structures and political systems are failing in many ways and we should indeed “put our heads together” to turn critique into action. Some hard thinking is needed. But I had you down as a fan of mindfulness: you have just told us to look at our fish!

armando magnino: I don’t know how mindfulness is used in the current fashionable work environment. I come to it from my interest (not very disciplined) in Buddhism and in particular zen meditation (zazen). I see it as the attempt to move our perception and understanding (feeling and thinking) to a meta-position. One that transcends dualism for an acknowledgement of experience: it is what it is. As Shakespeare put it “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking make it so’ … but you might as well say “…but feeling make it so”. We need feelings and thinking to function. Mindfulness just reminds us that we need to act with what Castaneda called “controlled folly”: act AS IF these decisions are important, AS IF we are conscious active agents in our lives, AS IF our ability to think and feel is critical to our functioning, while at the same times holding the awareness that we surrounded by (and part of) an unfathomable mystery. A metaphor I read in Joseph Campbell recently: two people playing a game of tennis ‘have’ to take it seriously, they have to compete to their best, act as it it really matters whether the ball hit the line or not etc. otherwise there would be no game. Mindfulness for me it’s the part that even in the midst of the most determined charged action knows that it’s just a game. Looking at the diagram of your “preference axis”, mindfulness is the point where the axis meet – the zero. No action is possible from there: to have a game you have to choose a side, you need to decide which end of the court you’re going to serve from. And the other player needs to agree to play on the other side of the net. But neither side is intrinsically better – they’re just constructs, tools to make it possible for us to live, to engage with others



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look at your fish

curious_ian_leslie_-_Google_SearchAs the holiday season ends and familiar routines are restored, several people have talked of feeling low at the return to ‘same old same old’. So it might be a good time to recommend Ian Leslie’s latest book Curious. It’s full of fascinating stories and nuggets of information designed to encourage curiosity and questioning, with an eye on the potential wonder to be found in what might at first glance seem unpromising and dull.

Every question is a little bet. From a very young age children sense that any information they gather, even if it doesn’t have immediate application, may come in useful in the future. Children are scientists, experimenting on their physical environments, but they are also investigative reporters pumping their sources for secrets. By the time we are adults we have fewer questions and more default settings.

In a section on how to stay curious, he mentions ‘the transformative power of attention’ – the potential reward to be gained from sticking with things that we initially dismiss as boring. To support his argument he attends James Ward’s ‘Boring Conference’ where people go to enthuse about a range of highly unpromising topics such as IBM Cash Registers and Double Yellow Lines, including a keynote presentation: Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area. Ian is a very engaging writer – seriously, I find myself wanting to go to the next one…

Rediscovering the inherent fascination in what has become commonplace, he cites Georges Perec’s essay An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. In this project, Perec went to the same Paris square every day focusing on ‘the infraordinary’ to find out ‘what happens when nothing happens’. He wandered about and sat for hours in and outside cafes recording what he noticed. His brilliant advice to us all:  ‘question your teaspoons’.

image courtesy of andrew ormston

image courtesy of andrew ormston

This emphasis on paying curious attention to the over-familiar or unappealing reminded me of a lovely story told by Samuel H. Scudder, an American entomologist who studied at Harvard with the zoologist Agassiz who trained his research students in rigorous close observation and analysis.

He asked me …whether I wished to study any special branch. I replied that while I wished to be well grounded in all departments of zoology, I purposed to devote myself specially to insects.

He reached from a shelf a huge jar of specimens in yellow alcohol.

‘Take this fish,’ said he, ‘and look at it; by and by I will ask what you have seen.’

In ten minutes Scudder had seen all he could see in the fish, replaced it in the jar, and taken a lunch break.

On my return, I learned that Professor Agassiz would not return for several hours. My fellow-students were too busy to be disturbed by continued conversation. Slowly I drew forth that hideous fish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it. I might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish: it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me – I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the professor returned.

He listened attentively to my brief rehearsal of the structure of parts whose names were still unknown to me … When I had finished, he waited as if expecting more, and then, with an air of disappointment: ‘You have not looked very carefully…you haven’t even see one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which is as plainly before your eyes as the fish itself; look again, look again!’ and he left me to my misery. Still more of that wretched fish!”

As the day wore on Scudder’s interest grew and he began to see how much he had previously missed. When the professor asked again, Scudder admitted that although he hadn’t found a clear answer he was realising how little he saw before. The professor suggested that he might be ready with an answer in the morning.

“This was disconcerting; not only must I think of my fish all night, studying without the object before me, what this unknown but most visible feature might be; but also, without reviewing my new discoveries, I must give an exact account of them the next day. I had a bad memory; so I walked home by the Charles River in a distracted state, with my two perplexities.

The cordial greeting from the professor the next morning was reassuring; here was a man who seemed to be quite as anxious as I that I should see for myself what he saw.

‘Do you perhaps mean,’ I asked, ‘that the fish has symmetrical sides with paired organs?’

His thoroughly pleased ‘Of course! of course!’ repaid the wakeful hours of the previous night. ”

Delighted and relieved to have arrived at the answer, Scudder asks the professor what he should do now. And the reply?

“Oh, look at your fish!” “

read Scudder’s essay on about.com

read a review of ‘Curious’ here

13 September 2014


liz burn: ah yes, in praise of curiosity: the antidote to frustration!    29 September

fiona duggan: what a lovely way to be gently turned around from looking wistfully at the summer fading to looking with curiosity at the months ahead….
I’ve got a suggestion for the ‘boring conference’ – I recently sat through a presentation on traffic management options as part of a university masterplan project and. much to my surprise, found it absolutely riveting!    30 September

armando magnino:  In July in London I was visiting New Designers, basically a big “end of year exhibition” for design degrees from all over the country. I went to see the furniture mostly (some of the exhibitors were students of mine). But as I was going around I was struck by the creativity, energy and passion that I was seeing on all sorts of products. Ok, I am not particularly interested in IT-connected home appliances, or bee hives or bicycle design or even car design… but the people that designed those products were! They put as much effort and interest and research in their gadgets (that I hastily dismissed as “not furniture”) as I put in my work. And it struck me that probably if I put as much energy in developing an interest in other areas I could get as passionate. Ok, I like wood and working with wood and that suits me but at the same time if I made the effort to go past my initial disinterest I would find other areas and materials as interesting… Education needs to be teacher led to an extent because you can only find the passion once you really get inside a topic or a subject. As Don Sestero, my maths teacher used to say “bisogna assimilare” – it’s not about learning maths, you need to assimilate it, it needs to become part of you. And that requires time, practice and repetition. You need to build a solid base of knowledge to support your creative critical thinking. Without it all you have are ‘gut reactions’ and ‘intuitions’ – and those are only the starting points of an argument or a development process, not the result.



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reframing mistakes

©  mary frances art

© mary frances art

The long summer days are here, and so I’m signposting a longer-than-usual read.

This essay by Ian Leslie in the New Statesman tells the story of an airline pilot who is using his knowledge and understanding of accident analysis in the aviation industry to help the NHS learn from errors and mistakes in health services.

Ian’s essay usefully challenges our belief in perfect practice outcomes, highlights specific features of hierarchical communication which compound human error, and points towards constructive shifts in organisational culture.

An engaging and inspiring read for anyone with an interest in systemic learning and change – highly recommended.

‘how mistakes can change lives

29 June 2012


fiona duggan:  I read the article yesterday evening and woke up this morning still thinking about it. I regularly see the same situation in building projects, though, thankfully, lives are generally not at stake. When projects don’t progress as expected, it’s usually a whole raft of miscommunications, mostly minor oversights and, occasionally, priorities that have been lost sight of while conversations and effort are concentrated on a particular detail. So much of what the article raises resonates – mistakes arise out of coincidence (the coming together of several things in a particularly unfortunate way), it’s almost never one person’s fault and at least one person in the situation has flagged the problem. The article so clearly articulates the complexity of situations as they emerge.   And I very much like the ‘leadership’ style of this quiet revolution towards greater understanding and fewer tragic mistakes. An inspiring story about an inspiring person, and those who had the courage to join him in dialogue. What an achievement – to have created a situation where all concerned felt safe enough to  ask what’s going on when things go wrong, and then look at what can be done to make things safer for everyone in future situations. Martin Bromiley is an extraordinary role-model for our times.  30 June

john randall:  Many thanks indeed, this was absolutely fascinating. The inability to speak out to senior staff in hierarchical systems is a curse and is brilliantly exposed here, showing how those embedded modes of communication (and non communication) disable us and we cannot pull ourselves out of a nose-dive even, or especially, in the most desperate circumstances. Martin Bromiley’s work is to be applauded for helping make the patterns so clear, and for showing the way to gradually transform the culture of huge and complex organisations while avoiding blame entirely. A great read.   30 June

liz thomson:  I had also read this article and thought that it said some very important things about the way that we construe ourselves as learners and in particular the need to be able to not only give ourselves permission to make mistakes but to recognise the deep learning that occurs when we do.         I was reminded of a discussion I had many years ago now with some doctors at a conference when they were quite insistent that they could not make mistakes!  Two things struck me at the time, i) they were clearly presenting their public persona and were concerned not to be seen making mistakes as that would affect their construction of themselves as professionals, and ii) the fact that they were pathologists was interesting insofar as they didn’t get patient feedback and the likelihood of litigation was minimal!      2 July

armando magnino: Thank you, that was a very interesting article. I look at it from a “design” perspective and what I see from that point of view is that the solution is one of designing  better systems (reviewing the role of the hierarchy to improve communication, introducing check lists) rather than focusing on individual competence and expertise: the crews had all the information needed but the system didn’t allow the information to flow. It reminds of when I was involved in groupwork and the importance we placed in making sure that all the voices were heard.
One of the bits that caught my attention was the brief section about the two levers confusing the pilots… Donald Norman in his book “The Design of Everyday Things” (originally published as “The Psychology of Everyday Things”) talks at length of how we tend to blame ourselves for what are in reality failures of design. You approach a door and try to pull it instead of pushing it… and you think “I’m such a klutz!” and take it as a personal failure, when in fact a well designed handle should give you the information you need. One of the requirements that Steve Jobs set for the first iPods was that whatever you were trying to do, whichever sub-menu you were trying to reach, it shouldn’t take more than 3 clicks: how many people trying to navigate a complex set of sub-menus give up saying “I’m hopeless at technology”?
However, there is a school of thought that says that there is such a thing as risk homeostasis (I came across it in Malcom Gladwell’s “What the dog saw”): if you make the system safer, people will take more risks. I guess, as in the article, what’s needed is a two-pronged approach of improving systems and changing cultures.   9 July

mary:  Closely related to this item, there is another article in NS today regarding the announcement of a plan to ‘name & shame’ doctors who miss cancer symptoms. An extract:

Fear is a grave risk to patient safety. Shame as a policy satisfies our desire for a simple explanation, a bad doctor for example. This is an ancient myth we tell our children and ourselves; if we can identify the bogeymen, in this case the bad doctors, then we’ll be safe. Shame is also the product of a desire for retribution. Behind policies designed to shame people are not simply newspaper editors looking for headlines, or politicians looking for simple answers to complex problems, but aggrieved relatives, policy-makers or journalists trying to cope with a delayed diagnosis or a medical error. Their concerns deserve to be taken seriously, very seriously indeed. But if shame continues to shape policy, it will be a disaster for patient safety.”

The link is: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/07/diagnosing-cancer-why-shaming-and-blaming-gps-isn-t-about-improving-patient-safety






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speed ninjas v turtle walkers



An interesting item appeared on the LSE impact blog from Filip Vostal titled ‘In Search of Scholarly Time’. He argues for an alternative to both speed-driven time-management on the one hand and the “regressive ethic of slow scholarship” on the other.

He is critical of what he experiences as the prevailing culture of haste “accompanied by the rise of bite-size science, academic speed-dating and ‘business accelerators'”, and he questions the popularity of Productivity Ninja training which emphasises skill and ruthlessness in “dealing with the enemy that is information overload”. His argument concerns the potential of these approaches to render increasing workloads, time-shortages, alienation, and burnout as personal and individual issues, rather than stressing their origins in the changing structural features of organisations.

On the other hand, Vostal is also wary of calls for slowness which he sees as “a deeply problematic rival” to the culture of speed. Speed, he proposes, is “chosen, desired, appreciated – either as an instrument or as goal in its own right implicit in the idea of progress and the realization of a better future … a force profoundly entrenched in the modern individual’s mind-set.” By contrast he suggests that slowness is traditionally understood as regressive, idle and reactionary, exemplified by Walter Benjamin’s description of C19 flâneurs protesting against increasing industriousness by taking turtles for a walk.

He highlights the potential lack of quality and short shelf-life of hasty scholarship, and I wonder whether this from Jerome Bruner might also be relevant (coming from the the side of the turtles): “Having read a good many journals and diaries by writers I have come to the tentative conclusion that the principal guard against precocious completion, in writing at least, is boredom.

So what, Vostal asks, is scholarly time? He suggests that while it is unhasty in principle, “it is not slow by default as it needs to accommodate accelerative moments of inspiration and intuition (eureka and aha moments) and attend to practical features such as digital search engines and databases.”  He sees scholarly time as a counter-strategy to speed culture, based primarily in conscious autonomy over our use of time, which he proposes as an essential critical resource. “Democratic decision-making, deliberation, will-formation, and policy implementation need to be underpinned, as Robert Hassan says, by natural unforced rhythms (which do not have to be slow). This principle seems entirely salutary – if not straightforwardly necessary – in the academic environment….and perhaps as an ethical principle integral to education and science governance.

His column called to mind an interview with photographer Rachel Sussman who commented on the way things reveal themselves by paying continued attention, a process she describes partly as perseverance, and partly “something that I think is so vital to the creative process, something that Steven Johnson writes about in Where Good Ideas Come From, this idea of the “the slow churn” … just following these different paths, the things that intrigue you, and allowing them to simmer in there until something fires in your brain and all of a sudden these connections happen. I did have the a-ha! moment — but it probably was a year and a half in the making.

read the blog here

26 May 2014




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hitting the live rail

electricity_warning_signs_-_Google_SearchOne of the most interesting and challenging organisational case studies we are living through today must surely be the BBC, exposed as it is in this post-Savile, mid-Clarkson moment.

Clarkson, the star of a comedy programme about fast cars with a relentless irreverence for anything that could be referred to as political correctness, has, in the words of Musa Okwonga “finally urinated on the live rail of racism, the “N-Word””. The response has been horror and outrage, much of which has been rejected and ridiculed as disproportionate; support and defence, on the grounds that it was part of a well-known children’s rhyme and not actually broadcast on air; and a brief managerial statement from the BBC as follows:

We’ve received complaints regarding Jeremy Clarkson allegedly using a racist term during the filming of an episode of Top Gear. Jeremy Clarkson has set out the background to this regrettable episode. We have made it absolutely clear to him, the standards the BBC expects on air and off. We have left him in no doubt about how seriously we view this.

The term ‘institutionalised racism’ was introduced to the British public by the Macpherson report following the Stephen Lawrence inquiry in 1999. Resisted and argued with at the time, our institutions are still having the greatest trouble understanding what it means, or how it works. A good example might be a response to a serious complaint of racism which is limited to the statement that it is taken seriously and that formal standards have been reiterated.

Musa Okwonga’s passionate and crystal clear piece in the New Statesman was reluctantly posted since he is, quite understandably “fed up with being expected to serve up elegant, dignified and dispassionate responses” to every “finely-calibrated jibe”, but ‘like a sleepy bear who has had its belly prodded once too many times with a spitefully sharp stick, here I am.” He makes very clear the ripple effect of such casual racism. It “is the kind of thing that landlords think when they are deciding not to let properties to black people. It is the kind of thing that led to the racist van campaign. The kind of thing that brings your kids home from school in floods of tears, that makes employers think twice before calling you to interview. It is insidious and it is widespread.

A strong culture-setting response from the BBC would require that Clarkson be moved or sacked, but removing him from the show would seriously damage their number one best-selling product worldwide, so the consequences of either choice become problematic for them. Clarkson’s jokey-blokey style of bantering offensiveness has been indulged and promoted for a very long time. As Laurie Penny wrote recently about UKIP, the “language of popular television comedies, complete with awkward racist blunders” is widely accepted, and outright prejudice is increasingly acceptable “so long as it’s dressed up in silliness and accompanied by a farting trombone”.  Organisations can easily find that they have painted themselves into tight corners from which a graceful exit seems impossible. A lack of sensitivity over time leaves little flexibility for action when incidents like this arise – having supported and excused such behaviour for so long there will be no particular logic in calling time on it now.

It is easy enough to lose sight of the inevitable gap between the framed statements on the Board Room wall and the everyday talk and behaviour of people at work. An organisation which tries to understand disadvantage and prejudice will work hard to keep an eye on what is happening and will continually strive to minimise the gap. Organisations with less awareness are uncomfortably surprised when they hit a live rail and the gap is exposed, and they may seek to hide it where possible or justify it where necessary.  A brief statement telling us that the issue is taken seriously – especially when it still refers to the video-recorded comment as ‘alleged’ – is not what is needed. But neither are guilt and blame necessary, if that’s the fear which is holding back progress. We have more choices than that.

Alternative responses are likely to be based in determination and genuine curiosity about how to work better with these disturbing incidents; in opening conversations with an interest in learning from experience; in an honest facing-up to the problematic reality of espousing corporate values while behaving otherwise; in an exploration of what the organisation represents, what it stands for, what is incompatible with that, and what to do about it; and in living without any instant solutions as we stumble towards a way forward through trial and error and a sustained paying of attention.

The aftermath of racist incidents presents a critical moment. Nothing will be easy, but the response could be forward-looking, creative, even inspiring. It could open issues up instead of closing them down. The current political climate is unhelpful, but the challenge will not go away – if anything, the argument is getting louder. There is so very much to learn, and there are many alternative ways to start.

Musa’s column is here: http://www.newstatesman.com/media/2014/05/n-word-jeremy-clarkson-has-finally-urinated-live-rail-racism

5 May 2014





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