Creating the space for other people to do something useful

One of my favourite party pieces (keynote presentations) is to poke fun at the way organisations typically go about trying to change something. I usually ask permission from my audience first, so that formerly the more delicate little dispositions don’t get in a lather; and latterly, so that I get to peddle out the world’s wisest old tool, namely humour.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been invited in, to compensate for various people who take themselves way too seriously. You’ve undoubtedly met one or two, who believe they have somehow transcended work and set about draining the fulfilment and the joy, out of everyone else. To begin my tirade, I usually have to give a court bow to the most precious of ideas, typically clasped to the delicate bosom of people who take themselves too seriously: Evidence. Yes, sometimes, for highly specified actions in a suitably controlled environment and where all extraneous conditions can be compensated for: it is possible to design a single perfect technique, based on evidence of efficacy. You can feel the power gradient, as the Bosom-claspers declare a state of Best Practice.

In itself, it’s not a bad thing but there is a side effect. Organisations try to scale the notion of best practice beyond its limitations of specificity and control. This normally manifests as a recipe, a linear sequence of steps, often reduced to a diagram, corroborated by a splattering of loosely correlated case studies (often from car factories).

The problem is that the recipe salesman, never actually intended to create a recipe in the first place. The origins of the various diagrams often converge on the post-success musings of someone in the project team who suddenly perceives a faint whiff of intellectual property. As a result the design technique is one of hindsight, looking back at what they did and logically articulating a simplified pattern of activity. This is not usually a deliberate con. The proselyte is not deliberately trying to convince people of something that didn’t really exist, they simply don’t understand the cognitive science.

Creeping Determinism

Whereas in hindsight, the steps they took appear to be rational and logical and (most dangerous of all) plausible; that wasn’t what influenced action when they were doing it. Memory and logic describe a different experience than that lived at the time.

Your brain will subconsciously tidy things up, to match your enduring schemas.


You’ll have to trust me, that’s a 12 month learning programme in a 12 word sentence. Anyway, as a consequence the Bosom-claspers, clasp to their bosom, a recipe for where the recipe salesman ended up, not where he started. In other words, they set about replicating the specificity and conditions surmised at the end of the successful change, not at the beginning. For all those, indoctrinated into the world of management by objectives, the idea of not being goal oriented makes the chip in their neck fizzle.

For a very specific individual action you can design a best way, but it does not scale. Where the starting conditions include relationships, histories, heritage, diversity, committed people and great intentions or deep frustrations, you need a chef not a recipe. Recipes are fine, when you’ve all the ingredients, in a fully functioning kitchen, filled with the right kit and in plenty of time for tea. A chef on the other hand can show up late and make something lush, out of whatever you got to start with.

The first job in any change, is to understand and deal with what you already got, your own starting conditions, whatever they are. By all means learn from other people where there is some congruence, BUT, and that’s a big but, human or complex systems are by definition sensitive to initial conditions. In other words a tiny difference at the start can result in a huge difference at the end … for better and for worse! I’ve also lost count of the times I’ve been invited in, to help clear up the dead horses.

There are undoubtedly occasions when people used the recipe successfully, but what you most often find is that the recipe was nothing more than a placebo. Any recipe would have been equally useful! Despite the industry, you don’t need an all singing and all dancing improvement movement with visions and values and missions and campaigns and diagrams that naively oversimplify everything. The most common starting condition that I can find in 20 years of interfering, is a group of people who actually do the work, getting together and agreeing to change something that they actually do.

Prior to coming to work in a dedicated Improvement Department, I never ever used, needed or even heard of the vast majority of the tools, techniques and recipes that they clasp to their bosom. I used Management: growing a bloody good collection of allied teams in departments responsible for their own Governance; personal and organisational development; majoring on wellbeing; planning and performance and information that works for, not against; and most importantly a seriously meaningful and ethical standard of Practice. And that’s just a small part of being an organisational Chef. I have to say it, what on earth has happened to management to need specialist improvement departments, filled with people who’ve never managed anything beyond the odd recipe?

So now working as an Improvement Advisor, that’s probably me out of a job. Hopefully, one day I won’t be needed, but in the meantime I’ll try to influence organisations to start things in the right way. People sometimes need a little help to understand their own unique starting conditions and make the most of the assets they’ve already got. I call it:

Creating the space for other people to do something useful.


One thought on “Creating the space for other people to do something useful

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: