Shooting the Sacred Cows of OD

July 2, 2016

Yesterday I referenced a tweet from the Welsh Academy session at which I was a keynote Thursday. A frantic couple of days really. After delivering the speech I had a long wending drive from Lampeter to Bethesda to record a promotion for a Buddhist Retreat Centre I have used for events and at which I stay whenever they have rooms. Then a morning session at the University before a dash to Heathrow for the flight to South Africa where I arrived earlier today.

A well received keynote is a wonderful tonic and it carried me through the travel. Speaking to your own people is so much easier than other audiences as you can be more nuanced in your humour and the metaphors and illustrations flow more easily. It was also one of the best recent performances of the Children’s Party Story with the new addition: Disney cards with the Party Values printed on the back. I have a mindfulness addition coming soon ……

To get to the point; the tweet was correct I was there to kill some sacred cows. I started the keynote with some of the core scientific material that I wanted to rely on: inattentional blindness, expatiation, complexity and theory based practice. In respect of the last of these I was contrasting this approach with the correlation/causation confusion of many a case based approach.

That set the scene and I then moved onto the attack with a transitionary slide which says Every Corpse on Everest was once an Extremely motivated person. Not mine I picked it up on Facebook but it is a good one. I then moved on to attack the following:

  1. The assumption that if you sort out the individuals the system will look after itself (the motivated corpses directly refers).  Motivation and personal change is only a small part of creating a sustainable solution.  Changing the interactions between people is both more effective in achieving change and more ethical; telling people what sort of people you think they should be is a paternalistic form of neo-colonialism.  Without system changes, and continuous feedback loops nowt will change.  No amount of personal change programmes or admonitions to be an X type of organisation will do more than initiate minor changes, downstream cynicism and calculating linguistic conformance by the game players.
  2. To quote a New Scientist Article (9th April 2011 pp 40-43) The is no question that in virtually all circumstances in which people are doing things in order to gain rewards, extrinsic tangible rewards undermine intrinsic motivation.  So put away the carrots and sticks and start thinking about what small changes, what social practices and engagement will enable intrinsic motivation.  Actions need to be consistent with words, and virtuous action (reference to Aristotle there) will act as an exemplar that will need no admonishes, change initiatives and the like.
  3. Under no circumstances announce a chance initiative with clear objectives.  Firstly it means the political guys will know how to appear to conform while in reality carrying on as before.  Secondly everyone will filter around 5% of what you say through their partial memories of previous initiatives.  Given that most of those failed or petered out, you are, to quote Corporal Fraser doomed.  Instead map culture and start to nudge things through small actions in roughly the right direction correcting as you go.
  4. Don’t believe any academic or consultant who offers you a questionnaire based assessment tool based on their personal observations of a limited number of cases.  They only see what they expect to see, suffer massive confirmation bias and naively believe that subjects (in both senses of the word) will answer direct questions honestly.  Snake Oil masquerading as objective fact made palatable by collections of platitudes.
  5. Don’t copy from one context without knowing (i) you have a similar context and (ii) understanding why it worked in the first place.  Not much survives this test and you would be more successful blending together examples from different pasts, theory based methods and plain common sense in a series of small changes that you can correct.  Vectors not outcome.


The overall principle of change is pretty clear for me these days and it comprises the following questions:

  1. What is the currently state of play? The landscape of culture and attitude within the current organisation?
  2. What are the natural constraints (they may be natural science based on past entrained practice) in play?
  3. Within those constraints what currently has the lowest energy cost of replication? That will happen naturally.
  4. Can you change the disposition state to make good directions of travel/evolution more likely? Is so test them out, nudge the system.
  5. If you can’t how can I disrupt the current system, or remove change a constraint so new possible patterns become available?
  6. Within all of that what can I change? Out of the things I can change where can I monitor the impact? Out of that set, where can I early amplify success or dampen failure?
  7. Establish real time monitoring in parallel with the small changes to allow dynamic reallocation of resources.

So stimulate the evolution of a sustainable system, do not engineer a final solution. Remember that in a complex system every intervention produces unintended consequences for which you are responsible (even though you could not predict them, only that they would occur). That means the bigger the intervention the bigger the unintended consequence and Murphy’s Law basically says that will in the main be bad news. So smaller interventions, lots of small unintended consequences which can be handled, or used for innovative change.

So sacred cows need to be killed, OD practitioners need to stop an inherent tendency to schizophrenia alternating between trying to create the decanting bottles of Brave New World and the arcane practices of New Age Fluffy Bunnydom. Embrace change? Physicians heal thyselves …..

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