Learning mind – Rivers of Tea and Psychic Denial

A Zen master was sitting down to tea and quiet reflection as the sun started its decent over the horizon, when a stranger arrived.
“Excuse me” the stranger asked with polite urgency, “I have been told that a Zen master of the highest order lives on this slope”. The master looked at the stranger with kind eyes which the stranger took as a cue to continue; “I am from the new philosophy department at the university”, he stood a little straighter, catching his breath, “and I am here to see what you can teach me”.
The master unfurled aged fingers to indicate a place on the other side of the small, low table “Would you like some tea?”cupsmall
The stranger nodded and continued “I have studied with masters of more than a dozen philosophical and religious disciplines and have written many books on Buddhism”. The master, having poured his own tea, turned his attention to the stranger’s cup whilst continuing to give audience. “And I have heard that you are one of the wisest men in these parts and so have come to hear what you have to …” the stranger leapt up narrowly avoiding a small river of boiling liquid cascading over his already full cup, the master kept pouring with a slight sigh. “My cup is already full!” the stranger spat his words as though they still contained his unfinished sentence.
The master stopped pouring and spoke with the gentle smile he had never lost; “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Whilst this story has many versions, one of which was a Brice Lee favourite (no doubt he encountered many of his own cup-full students) it exemplifies something that I am coming across more and more in the modern age.

I have, for most of my professional life, been a trainer. Sometimes management training, sometimes personal effectiveness, sometimes team and culture change programmes, and whether explicitly or implicitly the only thing I have ever asked for, and required to be successful, is empty cups. Or at least half-empty. Don’t get me wrong this isn’t about not being able to convince, I have also made successes of sessions where people have turned up arms folded with a firm belief that they have more knowledge than anyone in the room. But in an ideal world you don’t want a battle of knowledge and will and it is the capacity to accept incoming information without a significant ‘filter’ (so less gets through) that I value the most. Once you have ‘received’ the information you can do what you like with it.

So a subtler, and perhaps more pervasive version of ‘full cups’ is ‘Already always listening’ (AAL) derived from the ideas of Werner Erhard and the EST programme. AAL is the sum total of all of your experiences and the things you ‘know’ to be ‘true’ – which my experience are a heuristics your brain uses for things you ‘think’ are ‘likely’ as they may rarely stand up to even self-originated scrutiny.

Whilst your particular filter is unique to you it is sometimes selective in its application for example:
“What can someone younger than me teach me”
“This person always talks non-sense”
“Urgh its one of those feminists/macho men”
“I’m too busy and this isn’t worthy of my time”

As judgemental as the above might sound they may well be running all the time. That’s why I call them subtle. They may well be things you don’t wish to admit to, but they may well kick in before you have time to really observe them. Another argument for mindful listening, which goes far beyond the ‘active listening’ training that featured heavily in my early training career.

We shouldn’t be too tough on our AALs though. They protect us from ‘wasted’ time, ‘toxic’ experiences and situations that could deplete our daily decision making capacity. However, like all habits they need reviewing on a regular basis to determine their usefulness. This is easier said than done since they may not always be entirely compatible with our self-image.

One of my least palatable AALs, as someone who prides themselves on being an ‘open-minded critic’, relates to my mum. She is an advocate of spiritual healing and all things psychic, concepts which I am open to. But on the basis of current scientific enquiry I have formed the belief that there is a lot more opportunity for exploitation than there is for life enhancing experiences (for which there are plenty of non-psychic interventions). The initial feeling is laudable – I want to protect my family. Out outcome is less so – a sort of internal call screening which says ‘Press 1 for psychic evangelism’ and promptly cuts the caller off. I’m winning the war against this defence mechanism, but not all the battles …

What are your AALs? When do they serve you and when do they remove an opportunity to be pleasantly surprised?


Are we good ancestors? – The Clock of The Long Now

In Texas under the Sierra Diablo mountain range their lives one of the most audacious
engineering achievements ever conceived – the Clock of the Long Now. Designed by
Danny Hillis it will run for 10000 years with little or no maintenance and is hoped to
symbolise long-term thinking on a scale that no one can deny.

Clock of the Long Now Prototype – Currently located at the Science Museum in London

A few things that, due to its ambition, make it extraordinary:
  1. Unable to rely on any power source on earth for that long, the clock harvest energy from the sun.
  2. Despite being made from the highest feasible grade of Titanium they have to factor in wear and tear into the mechanisms and therefore its time keeping.
  3. In order to symbolise progression rather than just repetition, the clocks chime will be different every day for 10000 years (and have been designed by Brain Eno)
  4. They are creating mechanical interfaces into the rooms which will activate at the 1, 100, 1000 and 10,000 year anniversaries.
  5. Contact within the clock is minimised by running as much as possible on ceramic bearings.
 The questions that the makers of the clock hope you will ask are:
  • If we can make a clock that will last for 10 millennia what else can we achieve?
  • Are we being good ancestors what are we bequeathing to any further generations (we
  • can’t claim the pyramids as our own by the way)
  • What is our role in the long goal?
  • These questions are plenty to ponder I think as well as just respecting the marvel that is the clock of the long now.

It has certainly got me thinking: As ancestors – how can we be more?

Don’t Take Advice From Successful People

“You get praised for being rare as a successful woman…but I bet you know a lot of other women with the potential for success” Jessica Wiliams 

Take virtually any of the ‘big’ self-help or leadership books and they are based on studying top companies or leaders. Here I will outline the healthy scepticism we should treat them with. 


When Tom Peters profiled successful companies in the 80’s he was at pains to make the point that 1950’s management had made a grave mistake. They had mistaken the post war boom, when many companies experienced astounding success, to be down to how they did it. In other words it was a bubble, which for many, didn’t burst for decades. The accepted wisdom of of the time as to how to run a company and treat people  (much of which we now know to be false) was seen as being a successful strategy because the companies were successful. 

In a similar vein we have the ‘finding a nieche’ brand of success. This could be as a person or as an organisation. Don’t get me wrong finding that nieche is admirable in itself but there are two main fallacies associated with this. 

Firstly, similar to the above point, that because the nieche was found the way in which it was exploited is the way to do things. When eBay first hit the market it was the only reliable auction site out there and when it started to experience success other sites struggled to catch up for exposure and market saturation. But it didn’t exploit that nieche by design, it started for collectors of Pez dispensers, it just moved into a vacancy in the market. The simple question to ask before you follow the way in which breakthroughs operate is to ask ‘would that have been successful almost irrespective of how it had been excecuted’? 

Secondly, and this one is a bit more subtle, how do we know that anything was done to find that nieche? In the eBay example above you could just about argue that their ability to move quickly into a multi-product platform was smart. If we zoom out for a moment and remember that at any given time there are thousands of people cultivating new ideas. If a nieche is found is it because someone has cleverly done so, or is it because it was inevitable? Inevitable not that a specific individual finds the gap in the market but that someone would find a gap, it just happened to be that person.


How much of anything is luck? I have taught in leadership training how some combination of locus of control and Seligman optimism is desirable. Why? Because it serves you to assume that you have the ability to influence all outcomes at least a little bit (I.e. you have an internal locus of control) but that the bad stuff that happens probably won’t last and probably wasn’t mainly your fault (yes I know that sounds a bit delusional I’ll perhaps write about it another time). 

But the truth is that luck plays a big part. Perhaps you were the lucky one that found the nieche described above. Or it was due to a chance meeting with the person who had an opportunity. Jessica Williams (who I quoted above) is undoubtedly a very talented person but retains the humility that fuels her efforts to help others be ‘queens’. Her first proper job out of college was as a correspondent on the Daily Show: A very big gig. But this was also due to chance meetings and lucky timing. She couldn’t have taken advantage of this if it wasn’t for her immense talent but her talent alone wouldn’t have got her there. 

The topic of success is dealt with fairly comprehensively in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, and again ‘right place right time’ comes up. Examples such as statistically significant birth dates/times of the year: successful hockey players being far more likely to be born in winter months is one example. 


In Marshall Goldsmith’s book ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There’ he follows the format of ‘interview successful people’ but makes a very good point. They lie. For the same reason that we soak up books that profess to give us the secret of success: We are more comfortable believing it is something we have done/can do than just luck and timing. So if you ask a CEO how, he (because it is probably a ‘he’) is unlikely to say ‘right place, right time’. How precarious does that success look then? How often do you hear “I wanted it more/badly/passionately”? What a smack in the face for all the other schmucks working their proverbials off just to scrape a living.  So Goldsmith takes a different tack. He asks them what behaviour that they see in others, sabotages their chances. Now it isn’t about them, it is about some ‘other’ so out comes the honesty ‘they talk about themselves too much’ for example. OK so they still aren’t likey to say ‘they don’t suck up to me enough’ but I think there are some real gems there. Perhaps for another blog. 

The Ugly Truth

There are a few uncomfortable truths about successful people that we might struggle to reconcile with our preferred view of the world:

These effects are small but as we have already said there are potentially lots of people vying for success and the difference between two equally qualified candidates for a job or a salecould easily come down to one of the above.  

So what does drive success?

I remember attending a weekend of training in the Silva Method. Success and its realisation was highly prominent. At one point a man in the front row seemed to have ‘had enough’. He almost yelled ‘All this talk about ‘success’ … I’m just not interested’ and the trainer responded ‘Then you aren’t defining it right’. It stuck with me because success is often linked with money, or if not money some aspirational pre-requisite to happiness. ‘If only I had more time I’d be happy’. I would suggest that rather than studying successful people it may be a better investment of time to look at what you are hoping success will give you. More freedom? More time with your family? A better retirement? There may be ways in which you can get that now that don’t require ‘success’. And of course that ultimate aim is very individual so you can’t learn that from Bill Gates. More importantly if you pursue what you are most interested in you mind find you are already more successful than you thought. 

Further reading:

“A Passion for Excellence: The Leadership Difference” Peters, Tom and Austin, Nancy (1985)

“Outliers” Gladwell, Malcolm (2008)

2 Dope Queens” Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson (podcast) 

“Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful.” Hamermesh, Daniel (2011)

Images from Slate Magazine and https://flic.kr/p/9BdSwr

8 things that the modern world does that are absurd

‘Real historical understanding is not achieved by the subordination of the past to the present, but rather by our making the past our present and attempting to see life with the eyes of another century than our own.’ Herbert Butterfield, 1931

So perhaps I should qualify. These are things things we do today that will seem absurd or even barbaric, to future generations. 

1. Dentistry. 

Whilst this might feel like an easy target I’m not talking about the whole profession. You just need to take a step back and look at what is involved. There is a lot of drilling, cutting and pulling. The dental tools of old are still recognisable today. 

Advancements in dentistry that can be seen already are more likely to take the form of tooth regeneration and better treatments to harden and restore damaged teeth. With the processes getting so good that teeth and gums will be brought back from the brink of total destruction with chemicals, lasers and cell therapy. Good news for those with a fear of the dentist. As long as they still make sure they go regularly. 

2. Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy. 

Yes I know this is a lifesaver. And I’m not jumping on the bandwagon of those who shun the best cancer treatments on the market to rely on ‘alternatives’. Chemotherapy basically takes you to the brink of death, destroying your immune system to try and kill the cancer at the same time. In many instances is the best we have. But future generations will ponder how long it took us (because hindsight is a wonderful thing) to cure cancer using the already very successful treatment out there: our own immune system. In many senses we are already riddled with cancer. But cancer cells are destroyed by own own immune system. We are ‘diagnosed with cancer’ because this system fails. Future generations are likely to have treatments that enhance our existing arsenal rather than destroy it and to do so in the warped lens of our history will appear misguided and cruel. 

The slight variation on the above is a kind of ‘vaccine’ but instead of injecting a (typically ‘dead’) version of the pathogen in order to prevent cancer it will be cancer fighting viruses that get injected. Cancer isn’t really just one disease which is why we are close to claiming that some cancers are ‘curable’ whilst others are many, many years of research away. 

3. Imprisonment

So let’s just take a moment to consider the entire basis of our justice system. You do something wrong, in the eyes of the establishment, and that same establishment takes away your freedom: A basic human right. When you look at the demographics of those who are imprisoned it is disproportionately ethnic minorities and this is very pronounced in the US. Is this because these people are fundamentally ‘wrong’ themselves. I can’t believe that. Instead I prefer to think that no system is perfect and that our system fails some people with more frequency than it fails others. When someone has failed to uphold the agreed upon values of common decency they are ‘punished’. Whilst not always the reality the punishment is intended to be consensus ate with the crime. ‘An eye for an eye’ is a Babylonian/Old Testament belief that ‘justice’ is about hurting someone as much as they have hurt you. Rehabilitation rates in the UK and the US are poor. This means that once you have transgressed societies norms, we are very poor at teaching you the error of your way, perhaps not surprising if the bulk of the lesson is ‘eye for an eye’. It is my belief that future generations will see the error of their ways and invest heavily in those groups (abused children, marginalised sectors of society, the rich) times ensue that they are far less likely to commit crimes. Assuming this must fail occasionally, take collective responsibility for rehabilitating them to be productive members of society. With imprisonment seen as a distasteful last resort of ‘enforced therapy’ for the good of society which may or may not have an end and would perhaps look more like the Scandinavian model and maybe even appear ‘cushy‘.

The science is there but not all societies are ready to let go of institutionalised revenge. 

4. The death penalty

Requiring special mention but probably not special explanation, this is eye for an eye justice taken to the extreme. We have to look to the US as the only example of a developed democracy that still executes people. I say ‘people’ but I may as well say ‘black men’ as it is practically a statistical truth. Why a special mention, because over and above inprisonment it signals loud and clear ‘we have failed’. 

5. Boxing 

So here is the first contact sport. Don’t get me wrong I actually enjoy watching boxing. But I see it as a guilty pleasure. I realise that there is something innate in my that appreciates the physical one-on-one contest. I have always dabbled in martial arts so this may seem hypocritical but I have always shied away from full on contact sport (not full on contact) partly because I know I wouldn’t be very good, but also because it doesn’t seem like a very enjoyable way to spend my time, where as sparring to score points and occasionally get smacked by mistake is quite fun. 

There are always those calling for boxing to be banned. And I tentatively distance myself from them. I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that it will evolve or we will slowly move away from it as a society. Firstly because it carries risks, albeit not as many as other sports, but the risks are innate because the intention is to hurt, and I think this will be less palatable in the future. Also because it is still form of violence and that is not something we will want to condone in future. I think we will accept that some violence is occasionally a symptom of a healthy in-repressed society, but that doesn’t mean it should be in sport. 

People say that the sport is designed to be as safe as possible and has no no moral dissonance. Exibit A: Back in the day people fought bare-knuckle and there is a suggestion that the legitimising and professionalising of the sport has made it simultaneously safer and more dangerous. Rules around lengths and suspension after KO are making things safer but massively padded hands stop the hands from breaking (which could end careers quickly) but allow boxers to punch with full force. So it is currently a sport, that whilst doing things to reduce some risks has, to extend careers and dare unsay it increase purses, promotion money and sponsorship, made it easier to damage the brains of participants. 

The advocates will probably point to disadvantaged people saved by the sport. But why this sport? Persuit of risks? Yes. Familiarity with fighting? Possibly. Accessibility? Definitely. So surely, since almost all sports have a sense of risk it is about making them more accessible, and generally strengthening society, not pinning all our hopes on the boxing ring to save people from crime and poverty. Besides in my utopian postpostpostmodern future there is no crime and poverty. 🙂 

6. American rules football

Talking of damaging brains due to increased padding. Far less concussion in rugby. 

7. Shaving

I’m mainly talking from a male face-shaving perspective. There are all sorts of skin problems associated with shaving. Alright so perhaps barbaric is a little far but let’s just test a conversation with an alien on the subject:

Alien: What are you doing?

You: Shaving.

Alien: Huh?

You: hmmm. We scrape blades across our face to take the hairs off.

Alien: Why?

You: To feel clean, I guess. We think it looks better, maybe.

Alien: But it clearly hurts….You just cut yourself….Not everyone shaves….Surely just washing will make you clean….

You: Can’t you just invade or something? 

So we await a pain free, cut free and preferably less than daily way of removing hair for men. There are creams, lasers etc. but somehow they haven’t quite made it into the male regimen. Either because of convenience, cost or ease. Perhaps the solution is a combination of the machine and the chemical. I for one await the day that I have a viable alternative to the methods depicted in cave painting without risking looking like  Ken doll (without the six-pack).

8. Drive

More specifically use internal combustion engines and human effort to get from A to B. This will be an indulgent antiquated activity like riding a steam train. 

I already have to face the fact that my children (who admittedly are quite young) might only have a theory test to get an ‘autonomous car’ licence: Know what do do in case of a breakdown, basics of charging a car etc. It would be a restricted license (like ‘automatics only) but a lot cheaper to learn and insure. My kids become driving age in 2028-ish and these commercial vehicles will likely beat that by a long way.

Electric cars are getting more affordable by the minute (almost literally it seems) with battery innovation and charging technology as well as the car efficiency itself improving it can’t be long before it is viable, and desirable alternative for all but the remotest locations in Northern Europe and US. Besides the more countries ban new petrol cars the faster the change will happen. 

“Hey grandpa tell us about when you used to drive your car and all this grey smoke would come out the back.” *sniggers* “Yeah, tell us about the time it rolled down hill because you forgot the finger break”. 

I hate my grandkids already. 

What didn’t make this list and should have? I’m sure I’ve missed something. 

If all of the above is seen be future generations as ridiculous or cruel. Doesn’t that question how we judge times gone by? 

Decluttering – Evil and Pickles

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” – William Morris, The Beauty of Life, 1880

Decluttering is a genuinely terrific process. Getting rid of what is needed and ordering what’s left, clears space and frees the mind. 

But for me decluttering has both physical and mental aspects. Physically it is about ensuring that what you use frequently is most accessible and nothing is truly ‘hidden’. We don’t work well with ‘hidden’ even if we think of it and ‘stored away safely’. That’s why there is a pasta maker in your kitchen cupboard you’ve never used. An object can be ‘buried’ or ‘filed’ and the difference is a system. The former is just about finding a place for something, the latter is about creating a connection; perhaps logical, perhaps utilitarian, to day-to-day existence. This is true in any aspect of your life. 

Mentally, many people think of meditation as the primary way of decluttering. Clearing the mind of thoughts, albeit for a short time, is for many people an essential part of their mental housekeeping. This is something I can admire greatly and adhere to infrequently. I only notice the deterioration in my mental state after weeks of neglect. But I certainly appreciate the value and science backs this up in a big way. 

I want to briefly talk about a sort of decluttering that fits in the middle of ‘stuff’ and ‘mind’.  This is a decluttering of how you interact with the world. This is something that must be carefully balanced. To over-simplify the world, in the belief that is how it really is, will result in disappointment and confusion. This is racism, pointless (rose-tinted) nostalgia, this is inability to change or learn. Instead my brand of simplification doesn’t deny the complexity of the world. It just doesn’t try to deal with it. John Kegan in his seminal work ‘In Over Our Heads‘ confirms what we all feel, but often fail to acknowledge: it’s all a bit much. It is my view that we are all in a modern technology-driven, human ego- originated, emperor’s news clothes phase. Everyone is trying very hard to appear confident and competent and believes, even though they often don’t feel it, everyone else is doing just a bit better than they are. If we all acknowledged that it isn’t the case, and that we need to deal with a simpler version of reality, I think we’d be a lot happier. 

If we look to the world of business, many of the successful organisations are great at creating simple rules. They define how customers and in many cases employees can interact with them as an entity and the culture they are trying to create. Whether it is Google’s ‘Don’t be Evil’ or Bob Ferrel’s ‘Give ’em the Pickle’ it is about taking a large portion of the reality, which is impossible to hold in your head all the time, and creat a rule. The truth is that both of the above examples are open to interpretation. They have to be. We know the world isn’t that simple. But by creating the right rule, we can reduce trillions of choices down to millions. 

Now think about life. Its chaotic complexity. Relationships, career, house, car, everything really. Religion gave us rules. But most of them haven’t moved with the times and too many religious leaders are hung up on the dogma not the message. So here is the challenge. What happens if you sit, meditate for a while, and ask yourself/universe/divity for a few simple rules. What are they?

I guarantee you might just see ‘decluttering’ as more like ‘reinvention’. And if you are leader, you may have just found a way to start a revolution.

The Dark Side of Leadership

“With great power comes great responsibility” – Uncle Ben, Spider-Man (and maybe Voltaire at some point)

There is a lot of crap said about leadership. Don’t get me wrong organisations need leaders. But they also need a lot of other competencies as much if not more, after all how many leaders do we need? But very few ‘roles’ encourage as much unending boring self-aggranylsis that the concept of leadership.  So in an attempt to return some balance to a subject I love. Here are a list of the things that even good leaders will do at some point.

You will use your power over others to suppress them

Yep. You are Darth Vader. OK perhaps that is an exaggeration. But at some point someone will be too enthusiastic, too traditional, too innovative, too structured or too ‘something’, to get the job done. And the chances are you won’t leave it up to them to decide when and how they should use this potentially useful and positive attribute. You will tell them to stop. And if you didn’t have the power of your status, relative to theirs, you probably wouldn’t dare. Congratulations, for all, the right reasons you chose power over logic.  

You will impose your values on others 

It gets worse. If you have a vision, it is yours. You can share it, you can engage others but it is yours. Even if you have listened to your team/business you will have done so selectively. Why? Because you can’t please all the people all of the time.  

This means that the things that you hold dear will be in your strategy and approach. You are ‘customer centric’ really why? Do you personally believe that the customer is the life-blood of your business and get riled at poor service wherever you see it? Thought so. You believe in running a lean and mean business? I bet you aren’t a total spend-monkey at home. In other words your approach will be coloured by your values and they can never be entirely representative of those who have to execute your approach. And here’s the kicker, no matter what they believe (‘they’ being the ones you lead) you will get them to follow your values. 

They might be devoted, but how many would continue your crusade if they weren’t being paid? So actually you haven’t just imposed your values, you might be bribing your followers too.

You will measure dedication by hours

Good work means hard work! This isn’t true in every circumstances and it isn’t a guarantee. But you know that dedication is hard to measure. Hours in the office much less so, and a worker who isn’t dedicated probably won’t put the hours in therefore the ones needing to wave their hand about to keep the motion sensor lights on must be the most dedicated right? Work life balance and equal opportunities be damned!

You will be wrong with no one to blame 

Less of a bad thing to do and just the shit end of the stick. If you are in a leadership position sooner or later you will get it very wrong and have no one to blame. It’s lonely at the top.

You will blame someone unfairly

On the flip side if there is an ‘escape goat’ (sic – for fans of Community there) you will use it. Either you are frustrated at something not going right and shaking your fists at the heavens isn’t enough or the finger is slightly unfairly pointed straight at you and you need to shift it. The truth is you may not always know 100% whose fault it is. You will also have a sense that you can’t really pin it on someone. But in a moment of weakness you will give it your best go. Instant gratification. Probably lingering guilt.

You will feel like a fake

Here’s the thing: Everyone is faking. That’s right everyone. We all keep thoughts to ourselves (even that person who seems to have no filter between brain and mouth). Some of the things we don’t say are our real thoughts. So that means everyone is faking. I don’t always believe that people get ‘promoted to their level of incompetence’, but I do think that people typically get promoted beyond their comfort zone. At that point your brain will be shouting ‘we can’t do this’ and if you are also shouting it out loud you won’t last very long! If you’re not, you are faking it, and that’s probably OK.

The dark side of leadership is the things you do that are regrettable and the things you have to suffer because you are a leader. The former isn’t solved by pursuit of an ever-unrealistic goal of ‘super leader’ but instead by a simple and sincere apology to those you have hurt or affected. The latter is probably just a case of ‘suck it up’ but don’t beat yourself up because you aren’t ‘strong enough’ not o feel the pain.  

Have I missed any? Come on ‘fess up.

The Holon – a different way to think about organisational measurement

“The definition of the individual was: a multitude of one million divided by one million.” –

Fractal Created by cowicide

Fractal Created by cowicide

Arther Koestler

Is your organisation lost in its measurements – flitting between very granular to very grey or nothing. I think most organisations suffer from this. Ever since businesses moved away from being family owned, to corporations, measurement has (quite rightly) taken a front seat. And if you aren’t sure what you should be measuring and you have shareholders breathing down your neck you start with the money. Unfortunately most organisations start and stop there. So here is some questions that might be difficult to answer:

How do you make more money?

How do you know that you are making all the money you can?

How do you know the money wont suddenly stop (or at least have a big dent in it)?

This is just a sample of questions that can’t be answered just by having good financial management and basic strategy. This is where you have to think about properly measuring your organisation and why not? I was pondering how you know what to measure (and how much) when I thought of a Holon. A Holon (originally coined by Koestler) is something that is a ‘complete part’, a ‘partial whole’ it is both a constituent and (representative) of the entirety. Don’t mistake this for homogeneity, this is more like the big Russian doll filled will lots of little Russian dolls. Anyway, I thought that if business is really about people (which I believe, in the most, it is) then can we find all we need to know about measuring the health of an organisation by looking at how we measure the health of its constituent parts – people.

Don’t get me wrong, this is hardly a 100% true interpretation of Koestlers ideas or of the genius that inspired him – Herbert A. Simon. However, it did throw up some interesting options, it gave me a list of measures that I might not have come up with otherwise and by adding a ‘non-invasive’ condition it also created a standard of both efficiency and granularity, both of which are often misjudged (or perceived poorly) in organisational strategies.

So below is my slightly fun descriptions of what you can measure to predict the health of a human and the organisational equivalent.

Health Measurement

Organisational Measurement


Education Organisational Knowledge Knowledge  possessed to overcome challenges
Intelligence Talent Core ability
Positivity Quality of the Strategy Resilience to overcome obstacles and keep forward focussed
Nutrition Investment Strategy Are the ‘inputs’ to build the organisation stronger going in the right places
Clothes Fit Business Model Fit Monitoring the shape of the organisation to see if it has outgrown the market or its customers
Activity Production Is enough of the right stuff being done
Metabolism Efficiency Are the investments being used wisely
Rest Heart Rate Engagement How well is the ‘lifeblood’ ticking over so that it can also achieve peak performance.
Digestion Financial Planning Is the method of distributing finance, and identifying where it needs to go, effective.
Waist/Height Ratio Demographics Do you have enough of what you need and, in particular, are you top-heavy.
Exercise Talent Pipeline Are you preparing now for future exertions?
Symmetry Culture Does the culture match the business model OR is what you have inherited good enough.
Disease Dis-ease The absence or presence of isolated, damaging entities
Blood Pressure Wellness Are you under too much pressure?
Stool Attrition What is the quality of what passes through

OK so some of those are a little tongue in cheek and the ‘stool’ one a little on the nose (how many more body metaphors can I get in?). But what is interesting here is that try as much as I like I can’t think of anything else that is worth measuring, whilst we stay at the 50,000 feet level. Clearly once you dip in you can see lots of options. For instance, when you look at attrition you can look at rate, but you can also look at quality, experience (exit interviews) and probably many more aspects. Also, in the same way, if you were going for a full physical you still might not have all of the above measured, you might decide that as an organisation you don’t need that either.

So, all of these measures are ‘non-intrusive’ (read: fairly low cost and low effort), they take a holistic view of health (read: they don’t just stop at the money) and they are all definitive in their meaning (read: there is broadly a consensus as to what is good and what is bad). These remain the features you should be looking for when you add more measures i.e. it might be ‘interesting’ to look at the Senior Managers MBTI preferences but if you a) aren’t already collecting it and b) can’t get consensus as to what ‘good’ is (symmetry?) – don’t bother.

Can you think of anything I have missed?


Training and Teaching with the Brain in Mind

Don’t be the training equivalent of the boring man with interesting socks

Many myths perpetuate in the field of learning and education and in many ways this isn’t surprising. Firstly consider that not only is pop psychology an incredibly powerful force but nowadays so is pop neuroscience. You know the sort of thing: ‘they have found a part of the brain that likes blondes’ or something. This is compounded by the fact that not only does the science move extremely quickly, theories being proven or disproven seemingly on a weekly basis (yay for the human race) but very few people involved in training and education a have actually undertaken serious study of the brain and how it works and so rely on the self-perpetuating trickle of Chinese-whisper-like facts that reach the frontline of the profession. For me this came to a head with the following post Engage the brain in the way you train on a site called TrainingZone. This site has numerous guest bloggers and contributors often with a lot to say, much of it thought-provoking and occasionally evidence based. This isn’t meant to be derogatory as it doesn’t set out to be anything else. Anyway, occasionally some of these myths get through but this post struck me as an attempt at a summary of ‘brain friendly’ approaches and in this I feel it failed.

Overall I think that these ‘brain friendly’ approaches are completely right in their intent. When investing sometimes substantial amounts in learning we should definitely look at the most cost-effective way of doing so and, look to build our investment with, for example and extra 5% cost for extra 10% retention. We can and should be continually trying news ways to maximise costs and prove the value of any training function. However I believe (and have found) that we are often talking small percentage points, for this reason it is extremely important that we only invest extra effort in those areas that are proven to enhance learning, or where we are making a conscious effort to experiment ourselves. Therefore below are soem misconceptions I would like to clarify:

Hydrating the Brain

The body is made up of 70% water (in fact probably higher and depends on age). But this fact in itself tell us nothing except we need water to survive. The truth is that people are unlikely to get dehydrated enough within a training session to actually affect brain performance. And so this easily addressed with adequate breaks – see below. Anyone without a medical condition will feel thirsty long before they become significantly dehydrated.

Fuelling the Brain

Food is needed but exactly what food is far from conclusive. It certainly seems that increased amounts of blood glucose have a positive effect on brain performance especially when combined with caffeine. However high GI food such as grains, even whole grains will get a disproportionate response from the endocrine system and insulin will cause blood sugar levels to drop later on. The other foods mentioned in the original post such as proteins and vegetables are a far better bet. It should probably not include fruit if stable blood sugar is your aim and certainly not fruit juice.

Stimulating the Brain

Sensory stimulation must, since this is how we take in information, be important. But let’s move beyond the obvious very cautiously; we need to be careful what conclusions we draw. This article states ‘most people’ are sight, hearing or feeling dominant I would say that barring impairment of all three that covers everyone. This probably originates from the idea of Learning Styles, which might say something about people’s preferences (or the preferences they believe they have) it doesn’t have basis in fact. Scott Lillienfeld did a good job of debunking this (summary here).  These two facts combined mean that investment in scented pens or similar is not money well spent, the concept of a ‘olfactory learner’ is only correct in that smell seems to be particularly useful for the emotions associated with memory which is rarely the aim of training. Indeed having stimulating pictures on the wall, other than to give the learners confidence in the investment or quality of the training is equally pointless. If you truly have learners at the centre of what you do the all of the stimulation can, and must, be in the training itself!! With the exception of those with a visual impairment everyone learns visually and (in the case of a skill) by doing it or seeing it demonstrated.

Splitting the Brain

A final myth that should probably be addressed although it isn’t mentioned in this post is the idea of split brain. Whilst technically we do have two halves to our brains the idea that they function very differently is a myth. The significant difference seems to be in the use of language and even then I find it hard to believe that a so-called right or left brainer with therefore want to use language or abstract concepts respectively (neatly summarised here). There is far more similarity between the two hemispheres than difference and even the differences we do know are notoriously difficult to isolate (even then assuming that fMRI is measuring what we think) suggesting that it would be very difficult to target or understand learners through these differences. Moreover anything complex (including creativity) is process by both hemisphere using multiple structures simultaneously.

So what does work? Before I answer that let me just say that just because something is boring doesn’t make it wrong. The idea of brain friendly environment being filled with colours and toys is an exciting one but that doesn’t make it true. Some universal truths are straightforward we often don’t see them or we try to change them for the sake of it.


I haven’t found a study, but one thing we do know that the brain is sensitive to is blood oxygen levels (hence yawning) so training with good ventilation does seem to be important. Outside? Well maybe but you don’t want to be competing too much for the  focus of the learner. It is nice to think that a natural environment is more, well, natural. But don’t forget, cramming everything someone needs to know about PowerPoint, or feedback into a one day course is by its nature a fairly unnatural way of learning so we need to manage the conditions a little. By the way fresh flowers might be nice, or plants in the room, but just bear in mind that plants respire as well as photosynthesise. This mean that if the light is less than great you may not get much of an oxygen benefit and first thing in the morning, after the lights have been off all night and the plant has taken some of the oxygen out of the room you might be inhibiting the waking up you were hoping for!! One more comment on this (it also links with the pictures), walking or even seeing nature scenes seems to aid cognitive performance. This effect hasn’t been studied extensively but as well showing nature scenes on the wall you might consider nature slides in the break (almost zero cost) as the effect lasts for some time after the image has been seen.


We have already covered the type of food and for those of you that were paying attention the implications of my commentary above does mean that the obligatory bowl of sweets we get at many management conferences is counterproductive. However, particularly if you are trying to sell an idea (not a great start in training but that is another post) it may well be important that food is present. This generally makes people feel comfortable and receptive (perhaps because no hunting or gathering is required?) so may well be a worthy investment. I will re-edit this post when I find the study that measured this. Also, here’s one that will have facilities managers losing sleep: chewing gum. Now the views on this are mixed, particularly the bad press that sweeteners have been getting of late, a couple of studies have shown that chewing gum aids concentration. I won’t attempt to come up with an evolutionary explanation for this one but it does seem to make a difference.

Taking Breaks

I believe this works for a number of reasons. Firstly, it replicates a natural learning process where we switch our attention and then return back to what motivates us. Secondly because of something known as the Zeigarnik Effect, our learning consolidates when we are doing something unrelated (try reading here, and here). Finally I feel it works because the level of concentration required by modern life can only be maintained with breaks (probably relates to my first point – read more here and here).

Learning with the Body

So the other part of the post I agree with is that the most engaging exercises use the whole body. Why? Well because activity of this kind signals to the body that it is doing something and exercise is a fantastic way of getting the blood moving and therefore that all important brain oxygen level up (video with Dr. James Levine here).

Engaging with What We are Doing

This is possibly the most obvious point of all and is undersold in favour of cheap tricks. If you are really struggling to maintain focus in a given session, it’s not a very good session. I am a great proponent of the ‘there’s no such thing as a bad student only a bad teacher’ which is sometimes tough to admit, particularly after you have just run a session that has been completely derailed. This subject is huge but I’ll give a very quick rundown:

  1. Do whatever you can to get your learners to pay attention to the learning process. Making it personal is often the best way people are also naturally curious so think about starting with some kind of contradiction or problem to solve.
  2. Do not use icebreakers and energisers. Yes, I just said that. If you feel that more activity is needed in the training then put it in the training! Why are we shoehorning these things in around otherwise boring training and then claiming we are working with the brain and motivation levels.
  3. Encourage exploration. This can be in  the form of challenging the instructor or each other, identifying which areas require more or less focus (have a flexible plan in place).
  4. Keep it visual and discussion based. Pictures and people are far more interesting than chunks of text. There may be no way around the text based learning at some point but not in the classroom/training room.

I have tried to keep the examples above fairly generic. For instance you could argue that repetition and self testing are big, scientifically proven ways of increasing learning but not only is less about being brain friendly and more about tricking the brain into learning something (nothing wrong with that) but also assumes that learning is fact based. Whilst, at least in principle if not the direct target of some of the studies, what I have presented here should also work for behavioural and leadership type training.

Let me finish with a quote from the post that inspired me to write this:

“Scientific studies demonstrate that effective linking of the different systems of the brain during the learning process improves the transfer of knowledge into long-term memory.”

I think that these studies that are referred to should be quoted in anything that is seeking to present knowledge and guidelines for people to follow. I also think that if nothing in the post that follows specifically addresses this or describes any of these studies then I have to ask why this statement is there. Sadly it seems like a cover-all statement to prove that what follows is scientific. Whilst it is hugely unfair to pick on this post it is also an example of why the pop-psych movement exists. We must be asking questions and challenging these kinds of assertions especially if we are going to write posts for the internet:

Disclaimer: I will inevitably make a similar mistake at some point. And whoever spots it has every right to throw it in my face. It’s all learning, right? But please know that wherever possible I do due diligence and try to get hold of the original study if I can, but my statistical knowledge sometimes lets me down.

Some further reading:

Implications of Brain Research for Distance Education by Katrina A. Meyer

50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology by Scott O. Lilienfeld

Power of Mindful Learning by Ellen J. Langer

The Fine Art of Delegation

Delegation? Empowerment? Have look at the definitions of these in any book or online and it seems so straightforward. Delegation appears to be  just a formula to follow. I have a different take, and maybe we can work out why you are getting it wrong…

Delegation and empowerment are different. The way I define the difference is this:

Delegation is the act of passing a task/activity on to someone else whilst retaining the overall accountability for the task. The last bit is extremely important in any hierarchical organisation, without it the person you delegate to (the delegate) is exposed and, as I will go into below, you will not get many of the benefits of delegating.

Empowerment is the overall team or (leader-follower) dynamic that allows the autonomous activity. In order for delegation to be effective and efficient the team need to have an overall level of empowerment that is conducive to the types of tasks delegated. There is no point delegating an entire strategic project to someone with no delegated authority and who needs to check every decision with you. Indeed, even if you were to specify that this task is different (i.e. more empowered) the leap from lapdog to project manager would most probably be too much and greatly increase the chances of failure.

This distinction is important – it reminds us that there is ‘background’ work to be done on delegation and firmly places the bulk of responsibility for the success or failure of the delegation (i.e. not the task itself) with the delegator. Note: this is not the same as responsibility for the task – failure/mistakes are a natural part of doing something new.

OK. So that’s what delegation is – why an art? Because delegation definitely isn’t a science i.e. A+B = C (reliably) and I think that delegation is elusive for a number of reasons:

  • It can only really be learnt by doing
  • It has stigma prejudices attached to it
  • It potentially needs to be done differently for every person and every type of task

There are a huge number of reasons why delegating in the right way is beneficial desirable:

  • Builds relationships with your team
  • It can add to an overall feeling of empowerment
  • They may add ideas or create new ways of doing things
  • It is an opportunity for others to learn
  • Changes pace/approach/dynamics
  • Frees your time in the long-run
  • You can offload the tasks you are least effective at carrying out and don’t need to learn

Now the good news is that for most people in management/leadership position those benefits aren’t a surprise. That gives a very interesting questions to ask: why don’t we do it. Well for me this is where it gets interesting. Having asked this of hundreds of managers of varying levels of self-awareness I have come up with the following list:

  • It takes a little longer at first
  • It can make you feel out of control
  • You might feel threatened and your position encroached upon
  • They may not do it your way or as good as you as first (and you have unrealistic standards).
  • You blame the ‘culture’
  • You are scared that you might be seen as ‘not doing anything’
  • You might have to let go of the tasks you ‘like’
  • You are concerned that people will view you as passing on jobs you dislike
  • You are worried that they will fail and be de-motivated.
  • You afraid of stopping what you know you are good at to go into realms of the unknown

OK. So the control one is probably pretty obvious but the rest are quite subtle. What huge chunks of your role could you ditch but you like (for instance)? I have known this not only get in the way of delegating but even weaken the argument for increased resources because the manager isn’t willing to include the stuff they like in the business case (although they didn’t realise they were doing that).

The key to getting better at delegating now is:

1) Increase the level of empowerment (and responsibility) to the maximum tolerable level
2) Identify which of the above obstacles are your biggest challenge
3) Take actions designed to prove your preconceptions (in 2) wrong.

One Trait to Rule Them All

Can it be true that it the whirling vortex that is ‘leadership traits’ and ‘managerial competencies’ that there exists one trait to rule them all? Below is a basic introduction to adult developmental theory (also known as ego development) that might just claim such power.

Leadership is seen by most in the field of ‘Leadership’ as doing things different/right/clever etc. The focus is on action and behaviour. This in itself has been a significant move (that is yet to complete) from the idea that Leadership is ‘knowing things’. A traditional MBA would have hinged on knowing how a business worked. The reason was likely that not only have people overemphasised knowledge but the mechanisms for teaching anything other than knowledge didn’t exist. 

Besides, across enough business leaders of various skill levels, knowing more about the business and how it works would generally equate to some success in that environment. However, look a little closer and we can see that a number of people were not made more successful by knowing more and additionally a handful of people were already successful despite their lack of knowledge.
This was the contradiction from which sprang the new ‘science’ of behavioural leadership. The idea that leadership is about the right traits. But where training is still about knowledge then we still have the issue that staff (including managers) despite knowing the behaviour required still don’t demonstrate it.

The reason for all this discrepancy logically lies with the ability of the person, their ability to express and understand these new behaviours and their cognitive ability to succeed without them. These factors that contribute to personal success are lost in many organisations, where people in leadership positions may be there through processes outdated both in their approach and measurement. 

Otto Laske (2006) describes leadership as “the natural process of adult development over the lifespan, rather than monumentalizing, and thereby marginalizing, it as a privilege and as special” and as “the natural expression of what adults are rather than have, such as special traits, dispositions, or competences”. Interestingly, considering this definition, Laske also believes that leadership can be developed.

This approach draws on the work of Brian Leclerc (2006) who’s adapted diagram is shown below.  According to this, Laske’s approach is that Leadership originates on the left-hand side of this diagram, to be expressed on the right-hand side. In other words, being a leader is the only reliable way to ensure that leadership is expressed i.e. that the individual behaves like a leader. The Leclerc diagram draws on the ‘integral’ work of Ken Wilber (2000, 2005) and builds on his assertions that the most effective leader is an integral one, who can effectively manage themselves via all four quadrants.

“As can be seen, the leader’s [self] straddles left and right quadrants, and functions under the influence of both social-emotional and cognitive self (Cognitive Development + Emotional Development = UL (Upper Left quadrant)). On the behavioural side, the [self] manages … its “shoulds” and values – imposed on itself (UR/LL), and the … social environment which it constructs and in which it finds itself (UR/LR)” (Laske, 2006).

According to its supporters, of which there are many, this diagram remains true for everyone. How then does it give us access to Leadership? Laske, Wilbur and others argue that being able to integrate (and therefore be an ‘integral leader’) hinges on the developmental levels of the individual and their ability to ‘make sense’ and ‘make meaning’ (UL) of the environment, their values, their role as leader and the social context they find themselves in.

The work of Clare Graves, Rob Kegan, and others has already given us the means to understand this in more detail. They have created models for development that lead to the ability to integrate the needs, wants, aims and internal/external pressure into what they do by virtue of what they are (mirroring the language of Laske). These levels, also called Adult Developmental Levels,  follow an individual reaching the ‘formal reasoning stage’ (Piaget, 1952), typically in their teenage years. For this reason Kegan’s nomenclature for these levels begins with ‘Stage Two’.

Stage Two – The Individualist

  • Separate from others
  • Ultimate concern is that they will lose the help and support of other people
  • Guided by their own self-interest.
  • Know people in terms of how helpful they are
  • Have their own perspective
  • Play a win-lose game
  • Cannot empathise with other’s feelings about them
  • Subject to their own small ego

Stage Three – Community Member

  • Other peoples viewpoints are internalised
  • Defined by social expectations
  • Holds to community values
  • Feel obligations and have possible guilt feelings for not following them
  • Ultimate concern is that they will lose other people’s regard
  • Guided by self group interests
  • Their perspective is composed of internalised perspectives
  • Play a win-win game
  • Can easily imagine other people’s perspective and walk in other peoples shoes
  • Can take many different perspectives
  • Rely on best practice

Stage Four – Self Authoring

  • Defined by own values
  • Strive for integrity
  • Define their own path separate from other people
  • Ultimate concern is that they will lose their integrity
  • Guided by their values
  • They have their own perspective and take other people’s perspective into account
  • They make rigorous distinction between their own and others experience
  • Can be professional
  • Respect others and are reluctant to advise or interfere with them
  • Define the rules of the game for a win-win or no deal
  • Can easily imagine other peoples experience
  • Create best practice but may not follow it.

Stage Five – Self Aware

  • Aware of their own personal history and values its effect
  • Defined by relationships with others and with self
  • Values in flow
  • Risk themselves by opening themselves to relationships
  • No need for control
  • Not attached to any particular aspect of themselves
  • Take multiple perspectives on multiple perspectives
  • Play an infinite game the purpose of which it to continue to play.

No stage is wrong or inferior version of another and each can ‘work’ and seems to be a perfect fit for that person, in that situation, to that person. However the world does become a richer and more varied place with progressive developmental stages and creates more opportunities and decisions can be made with more ‘information’ (from more perspectives) to draw on. The below table summarises these levels.


Stage 2

Stage 3

Stage 4

Stage 5

View of Others Instruments of own need gratification Needed to contribute to own self image Collaborator, delegate, peer Contributors to own integrity and balance
Level of Self Insight Low Moderate High Very High
Values Law of Jungle Community Self-determined Humanity
Needs Overriding all others’ needs Subordinate to community, work group Flowing from striving for integrity Viewed in connection with own obligations and limitations
Need to Control Very High Moderate Low Very low
Communication Unilateral Exchange 1:1 Dialogue True Communication
Organisational Orientation Careerist Good Citizen Manager System’s Leader

The below study results are a simplification of results gathered by Susan Cook-Greuter with regard to the general population (US) and a management population (UK). The sample sizes were approximately 4000 and 500 respectively. For the purposes of this article, all of Loevinger’s ‘Post-Developmental’ stages have been combined to ‘Stage 5’.


UK Managers (%)

US Gen. Population (%)













It would be hard to find a ‘leadership trait’ that has a similar level of correlation with being in a position of responsibility (although general intelligence comes close). Two other important correlations have been identified. Firstly, as the stage of development increases the level within organisations tend to increase. Secondly, as age increases developmental level tends to increase. Neither of these are strong enough to be useful for predictive purposes but work is ongoing to predict leadership success using Loevinger’s sentence completion test, or similar, that measure developmental levels.

Increasing your developmental level is no doubt challenging, society is geared to get people from Stage Two to Stage Three (O’Connor & Lages, 2007) but there exists no societal or organisation system to move people further. Kegan offers us this insight: “People grow best when they continuously experience an ingenious blend of support and challenge; the rest is commentary” (Kegan, 1994).

References and Recommended further reading:

Kegan, R (1982) The Evolving Self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Kegan, R (1994). In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Laske, O (2006) On Leadership as Something We Are Rather than Something We Have: Introducing Instrumentation to Strengthen the Integral Approach for Use in Organizations. Interdevelopmental Institute Centre for Executive and Organisational Growth

Loevinger, J. (1976) Ego Development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Loevinger, J. & Knoll, E. (1983) Personality: Stages, Traits and the Self. Annual Review of Psychology 1983, 34, 196-222

O’Connor, J. & Lages, A. (2007) How Coaching Works. A C & Black: London.

Wilber, K. (2000) A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality. Boston and London: Shambhala