That Which Does Not Kill Us Makes Us Stronger. Beneficial Accidents and Survivable Failure

Del Boy Trotter, Risk Management Advisor, "Who Dares Wins"

Del Boy Trotter, Risk Management Advisor, “Who Dares Wins”

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger” A terrible confession to start….. I thought it was Del Boy Trotter; Risk Management Advisor (“who dares wins”) and famous Peckham Philosopher who said this. Actually it was Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous German Philosopher (1844-1900), but you all knew that. It’s a very well-known phrase and has been popularised by songs like ‘Stronger’ by singer Kelly Clarkson.

We all know it makes sense….. some minor trauma, a failure or a setback (provided you learn some lessons from it) will improve things for the future; making us stronger, cleverer, more skilful, more resilient. Nietzsche coined the phrase in the late 1800’s and we’ve been quoting it ever since. However, there didn’t seem to be much empirical research to prove this was the case, until recently….

Buffalo University USA, Mark D. Seery. The 2010 research by Seery, Holman and Silver, ‘Whatever Does Not Kill Us: Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability and Resilience’ looked at the impact of negative events on the lives of almost 2400 people.

My interpretation of the conclusions they came up with are:

  1. If you have no trauma or difficulties in your life then you aren’t very well equipped to deal with something bad when it happens.
  2. If you have lots of difficulties (chronic exposure) you are in a pretty bad place full stop. More trauma or difficulty just adds to the misery.
  3. The right amount of bad stuff means you develop resilience that allows you to cope much better with any future difficulties. A sort of ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of bad stuff – not too much, not too little…..’just right’.

All a bit like taking well-managed risks, learning from failure, beneficial accidents and Trojan Mice….

Trojan Mice 'Safe to Fail' Pilots Run in Parallel.  Full graphic at end of post

Trojan Mice ‘Safe to Fail’ Pilots Run in Parallel.
Full graphic at end of post (*no actual mice were harmed in the process)

























What are Beneficial Accidents and Trojan Mice?  Trojan Mice mice is a metaphor for an approach you can use when testing ideas in a complex situation. Explained as ‘safe to fail pilots’ by Dave Snowden; multiple test pilots that are run in parallel. ‘Safe to Fail’ means that any failure is fully ‘survivable’ and some pilots might actually be designed to fail. The whole point is that you test the situation and learn incredibly valuable things from the pilots and any failures. By conducting this process with multiple tests in parallel you are able to scale up what works and ‘kill off’ (I prefer the word ‘dampen’) what doesn’t. I have talked about this before in: 5 Differences Between Trojan Horses and Trojan Mice and What’s Eating the Trojan Mice.

Trojan Mice this week were part of a workshop I was running on ‘Well Managed Risks’ at the Welsh Public Services Summer School (#SSWales on Twitter) which, by the way was inspiring and an incredible opportunity to learn and share ideas.  Whilst I was explaining the benefits of ‘safe to fail’ Trojan Mice and ‘survivable failure’ one of the delegates shared the concept of ‘Beneficial Accidents’……. the same sort of thing, accidents where you learn a huge amount, but it doesn’t actually do you any significant harm.

The area she worked in was Children’s Play, and we all quickly started sharing stories of falling out to trees and other escapades that taught us so much as children. It’s obvious really, but why isn’t the approach widespread in the world of work?

The lady who shared the idea of Beneficial Accidents said it was a phrase that had been used by people from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), and also shared a document from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) with me (thank you Cathryn).

Children’s Play and Leisure – Promoting a Balanced Approach from the HSE is well worth reading in you are at interested in how to approach learning from failure and  well-managed risk taking. Just have a look at this section on ‘striking the right balance’ from the document – if you replaced the ‘play’ references with ‘corporate’ I think it would work quite nicely as a guide to what ‘well managed risks’ look like.

HSE Play and Leisure Guidance  Mistakes and Accidents WILL Happen!

HSE Play and Leisure Guidance
Mistakes and Accidents WILL Happen!

Well Managed Risks and Failure. Getting back to where this all started:

  • Doing things differently involves some sort of risk (“who dares wins” – Del Boy Trotter)
  • Risk Management is not about eliminating risk
  • In a complex environment, multiple ‘safe to fail pilots’ (Trojan Mice) are a good idea
  • Failures is great for learning, but needs to be survivable (Beneficial Accidents)
  • If it hasn’t killed you, it will probably make you stronger (Nietzsche & the HSE?)

In August I’m taking part in a session in Cardiff which is looking at Practical Strategies for Learning from Failure with Shirley Ayres, Roxanne Persaud and Paul Taylor. It’s a pilot for something we plan to do Leeds in the Autumn. If this sort of thing interests you – tickets are available here: Practical Strategies for Learning from Failure #LFFdigital

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. No risk = do nothing = extinction
  2. Learning from failure / averse incidents helps you in the long-term, and helps build resilience
  3. The ‘Beneficial Accidents’ approach and HSE guidance on children’s play could be used for approaching ‘Well Managed Risks’ is the corporate world.

Here is the full graphic of Trojan Horse v Trojan Mice from Summer School. Thanks to Paul  Richardson of for this.


Corporate Reporting. Doing a Jigsaw Puzzle Without the Box Lid?

Me as a 3D Jigsaw Puzzle of a Corporate Planning and Reporting Minion

Me as a 3D Jigsaw Puzzle of a Corporate Planning and Reporting Minion

This week I’ve been reminiscing about my time spent as a Corporate Planning and Performance Reporting Minion.

They were happy days (I think?).  Thankfully I’ve been ‘clean’ for 10 years, 5 months and 12 days,

I’m not dropping my guard though. I know that all it takes is one email (cc’d to your boss) and I’ll be ‘off the wagon’. Before you can say ‘Three Year Plan’ I’ll be demanding quarterly KPI returns, updates for the Leadership Team Dashboard (cc’d to your bosses boss) and ‘cascading linked spreadsheets’ of ‘mandatory’ information. It’s like a disease and I was part of the problem.

What prompted the nostalgia was a conversation where someone very wise explained what it was like to produce the Annual Report in their world….

“the corporate reporting job is a bit like putting together the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, relatively straightforward…..” (lovely, I get this….)

“however, we don’t have the picture from the lid of the box the jigsaw puzzle came in”….  (oh dear, that sounds familar….)

“in fact, I’m not even sure there is a box lid, and if there was, the picture probably wouldn’t make any sense…..” (sigh…..) 

Well this got me thinking, is this the ‘missing jigsaw box lid’ approach to corporate reporting?

Even more interesting, is it a situation where different people imagine a different picture on the jigsaw box lid? For some it’s a highly complicated picture of Picasso’s Three Musicians. (An example of Synthetic Cubism, quite close to the reality of some corporate planning systems I’ve experienced). For others the corporate report ‘picture’ is very simple, a 10 piece Children’s Wooden Elephant Jigsaw (Early Learning Centre). I think we used to call these ‘Balanced Scorecards’ back in the day…… Have a look at this picture and please tell me you get what I’m blathering on about.

Synthetic Cubism verus ELC  Wooden Elephant. Reality versus expectations?

Synthetic Cubism verus ELC Wooden Elephant. Reality versus expectations?

Synthetic Cubism = Corporate Reporting. You might now be wondering, what on earth Cubism has to do with corporate reporting? Well have a ponder on this definition; ‘In Cubist artwork, objects are analysed, broken up and reassembled in an abstract form – instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in greater context’

Many years after my experiences in that world this explanation has come as a bit of a revelation. I now understand, I wasn’t just a Corporate Planning Minion, I was an Artist – a Cubism Artist!

Just have a look at the definition of cubism through the lens of corporate reporting ….

  • ‘objects are analysed, broken up and reassembled’…… data and information is collected, analysed, collated and reported.
  • ‘the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints’…. information is presented in a variety of ways.
  • ‘to represent the subject in greater context’….. to meet the requirements of the audience.

That makes me feel so much better, now I know why I felt so uncomfortable, I was an artist in a world of scientists. Retrospective coherence (making sense of things with the benefit of hindsight) is a great thing!

There is a serious point to all this. The conversations I’ve been having 10 years after my experiences in the corporate reporting ‘engine room’, suggested that things hadn’t changed very much. As far as I could see there are two big issues, which are to a degree in conflict with each other.

  • People have very different expectations. The ‘bosses’ quite often think of corporate reporting as a 10 piece wooden jigsaw, while the Minions know it’s a bit more like Picasso’s Three Musicians. The drive towards the 10 piece elephant jigsaw can result in the large-scale aggregation of information and the risk that things become ‘averaged out’, over simplified and too abstract. Sometimes you need to see the detail of what is happening at the ‘coal face’, even at Board level.
  • Almost everyone wants to keep adding things into the system – just to provide that bit more assurance. This ends up making the picture even more complicated and the jigsaw ever more difficult to complete.

The Integrated Reporting Movement…..this might just help. If you haven’t switched off yet…. this is worth a look. The Integrated Reporting ‘Movement’ is all about improving how organisations “communicate a clear, concise integrated story that explains how ALL of their resources create value”. It’s all explained in-depth on the Integrated Reporting website. There are some important messages here about sustainability, not just the ‘green stuff’, but a focus on how areas like the impact upon society and the viability of the organisation in the long-term (20 – 30 years) are being considered. When you add-on the emphasis on clear and concise reporting there’s quite a lot to get excited about here.

If you prefer your information on Integrated Reporting via video, here’s link to Professor Mervyn King (the South African one, not the Bank of England) taking about Integrated Reporting. Thanks to Mike Palmer for pointing me in the direction of this.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Corporate reporting can feel like more of an art than a science – perhaps it’s a bit of both?
  2. Seeing the ‘big picture’ / ‘jigsaw box lid’ is important, as is understanding that simplification to a 10 Piece Wooden Elephant can have risks.
  3. The Integrated Reporting ‘Movement’ is gathering pace. It’s already happening in the private sector and may be appearing in public sector bodies sometime soon.
Integrated Reporting - the new 'Jigsaw Box Lid' for everyone?

Integrated Reporting – the new ‘Jigsaw Box Lid’ for everyone?

Homologation, Rule Changes and Forcing Innovation


A quick multiple choice test; What is Homologation?

  1. The process for making fruit smoothies,
  2. A delicious new yoghurt using Greek Honey and Goats Milk, or
  3. Approval being granted by an official body.


Congratulations if you chose Number 3. Homologation is indeed the process of an official body (Government, Court of Law, Academic Body, Professional Institution, Industry Body etc) granting approval for something, a bit similar to accreditation. Not a word I knew of, and something I’ve only learnt about for 2 reasons:

  • An explanation from some mechanical engineers of how innovation is ‘forced’ into F1 Motorsport, and
  • A short conversation with Sheldon Steed at People Driven Digital (#pdDigital15) about how big institutions get to recognise and accept novel products, ideas and innovation from small organisations.

F1 Racing and Homologation.  If you want to get a feel for the technical regulation of Formula 1 Motorsport have a read of this article ‘Arms Race? Game Changer? What do the Latest Changes to F1 Engine Rules Mean?’ by F1 broadcaster James Allen. Homologation gets mentioned a lot.

Back to where this started for me, I was listening to a group of very experienced Mechanical and Electrical Engineers talk about innovation in F1. The gist of the discussion was as follows:

  • The razzmatazz of a Grand Prix Race, Television exposure, Superstar Drivers and massive sponsorship deals are just a side-show (in their view),
  • But a side-show with a purpose – it funds the really interesting engineering innovation behind F1 that makes the cars achieve incredible things,
  • It’s the engineering innovation that stops F1 getting boring (really?) and in particular the frequent rule changes that the governing body introduces – this is where homologation fits it.
  • Basically the governing body changes the rules – for example on how energy is recovered from the brakes to feed into electric motors on the car.
  • The engineers come up with their solution and before the car can be raced, the solution has to be homologated (approved).
  • That all sounded very clever and sensible to me. A good example of where a governing body, the Federation International de l’ Automobile (FIA), is forcing innovation by changing the rules – and example of disruptive innovation (something that gets talked about so much at the moment).

Red Bull Soap Box races - not sure if this reaches F1

Red Bull Soap Box Races – not sure if this technology ever reaches F1 cars

Upsetting the Hierarchy. The Engineers I listened to were an interesting bunch and they didn’t stop there. The other important part of the world of F1 rule changes they spoke about was “upsetting the hierarchy”. They explained it as follows;

  • The ‘big’ companies in the motor-sport world are brilliant at all sorts of things like maximising the efficiency and effectiveness of existing systems and products. They have enough money and resources to ‘squeeze’ the existing design/product/system to get that last few percent out of it.
  • This ‘last few’ percent will get them to first past the chequered flag in a stable system.
  • What they are not so go at is; agile, creative, innovative solutions when the rules of the game change. This is where the smaller organisations seem to have the advantage.
  • When the rules change, the smaller organisations come in with the radical new solutions, and have them tested in a rigorous/brutal environment (the homologation process and the F1 races).
  • Where things work the small organisations have a competitive advantage and are able to upset the hierarchy – for a short time.
  • Quickly the big organisations are able to identify what the others have done, standardise and improve it to ‘squeeze the extra few percent’.

This all sounded very convincing and very effective to my ears; change the rules, force innovation, upset the existing hierarchy. A really interesting approach from the Governing Body (FIA) who change the rules and impose homologation to; keep F1 Motor-sport interesting, feed innovation into domestic car production, and maintain a bunch of very happy engineers.

IMG_3500The link with People Driven Digital. At the People Driven Digital I heard about how people who are developing new/innovative solutions are finding it a challenge to engage with big organisations like the NHS or Pharmaceutical Companies. The sense I got was that some big organisations tend to only want to talk to other big organisations.

In the conversation with  Sheldon Steed, we talked about the challenges he faced with the digital phone app he had developed to manage diabetes for his sons. It is worth looking at the video he has posted on his blog about the app mumoACTIVE.

The point I’m getting at here is, can we learn something from rule changes, homologation and the disruption of hierarchies in F1 motor-sport? Is there an opportunity for the big organisations in health to find a different way to talk to the smaller (possibly more agile and innovative) organisations? Can things like People Driven Digital in Leeds and the NHS Hackdays in Cardiff (which I was fortunate to attend) provide the ‘safe’ space for it to happen? I hope so.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Changing the “rules” can force people to think differently and develop innovative solutions (disruptive innovation).
  2. The approach can disrupt hierarchies, where existing ‘big players’ get overtaken by ‘small fry’ with better solutions (this can have consequences for ‘small fry’).
  3. Can things like People Driven Digital in Leeds and NHS Hackday in Cardiff provide the space for ‘big organisations’ to engage with ‘small organisations’

Friends Don’t Let Friends Have Rubbish Meetings. Peer Pressure to ‘Do The Right Thing’

A greeting card you can send to fellow knitters

A real greeting card you can send to fellow knitters*

Friends don’t let Friends …. Knit Drunk. Sorry to start a post with such a disturbing image.

It all started with a schooner of sweet sherry, now just look at those loose stitches, and the wool colours. All so preventable and very wrong.

Sometimes it is necessary to share startling graphic images to highlight the consequences of doing the wrong thing. Only then your friends might step in and ‘nudge’ you in the right direction.

After dabbling with Behaviour Change Science in the last post, ‘Meeting Lemmings and Choice Architecture’, I’m sticking with the topic. This time it’s about using peer pressure to ‘nudge’ people towards having better meetings….

Friends Don’t Let Friends…. Do Lots of Things. There’s a lot of material on the internet about Peer Pressure and the ‘Friends don’t let Friends…’ campaigns. Alongside the dozens spin-off T-shirts, posters and other paraphernalia there are plenty of papers and articles describing the effectiveness of the approach. A great deal of it is linked to the world of social marketing campaigns in Public Health, aimed at areas like; preventing drink driving, anti smoking, anti drugs and general ‘improve your lifestyle’ messages.

Possibly the most well-known campaign and character is Smokey Bear, who started life back in 1944 as part of an initiative to reduce the number of forest fires in the USA. By 1983 Smokey Bear had expanded beyond Forestry, into the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to head up the anti drink driving campaign. During the period 1983-1999 alcohol related road fatalities in the USA dropped from 21,000 a year to 12,500. The success of the Smokey Bear, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” campaign led to Smokey being inducted into the Advertising Week Walk of Fame in 2014 (have a read of the article, it is interesting).  There are plenty of videos of Smokey Bear online if you fancy.

So what else can Peer Pressure do? Getting back to where I started, could peer pressure be used to help nudge people into having better meetings? Is there room in the corporate world for a ‘Friends Don’t Let Friends Have Rubbish Meetings’ campaign? Could we have T-shirts, posters and lapel badges to support the campaign?

Obviously the office isn’t the forest, and we don’t have bears we could enlist in the campaign. However, I have been reading some serious research (from the Journal Nature you know) which talks about examples of how peer pressure has had the desired effect of changing behaviour. Inducing Peer Pressure to Promote Cooperation, describes how social mechanisms (mostly peer pressure) are able to encourage cooperation between people and promote different behaviours.

There are some interesting examples in the paper like:

  • Micro-lending – where there are higher rates of repaying loans because people know each other and feel peer pressure to pay back what they have borrowed.
  • Water Use – people putting pressure on neighbours not to water their lawns when there is a water shortage.
  • Lobster Fishing – the Maine Lobster Fishery as an example of a successful sustainable fishery operated through the involvement of the fishermen in regulating the fishery and each other (peer pressure).

Lobster on Nova Scotia

Lobster in Halifax Airport, Nova Scotia

I’m particularly interested in the Maine Lobster Fishery as an example of successful ‘co-management’ between the Government and the Lobster Fishing Businesses. This may be an example of ‘co-production’ which is talked about widely in Wales at the moment.

This article by Monique Coombs in Grassroots Economic Organising  explains the organisation and the self-regulation of the Maine Lobster Fishery

Whilst I was in Nova Scotia last year some people I spoke to said that elements of the Maine peer regulation model had been adopted there. I apologise for the half tartan lobster picture. It’s from Halifax Airport and I’ve been desperate for a chance to use it….they do love their lobsters in Nova Scotia.

Will ‘Friends Don’t Let Friends Hold Rubbish Meetings’ work?  I think there is a good chance. There is sound historical evidence that the approach works (Smokey Bear), academic research into the theory, and practice from the extremely difficult world of catching lobsters.

Dealing with a few office workers cannot be that difficult in comparison? Most people want to have better meetings, they just need some help from their friends. All we need are some lapel badges, posters and T-shirts, and we should start the better meetings revolution.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Peer Pressure has a powerful effect on changing people’s behaviour.
  2. Campaigns like the Smokey Bear “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” are recognised as being highly successful.
  3. Everyone wants to have better meetings, we just need some help from our friends, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Hold Rubbish Meetings”.

Linked Post: A while back I wrote about social marketing being used to prevent deliberate grass fires in Wales – ironically we’ve just had the worst period of deliberate grass fires for years.

Picture Link: *Drunk Knitting  I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but I’ve just found a community for Drunk Knitters on Facebook.

Choice Architecture; how to avoid being a ‘Meeting Lemming’

Beware Weasels! Obviously not a Lemming, but I saw this while cycling in Austria and had to use it.

Beware Weasels! Obviously not a Lemming, but I saw this while cycling in Austria and had to use it.

This post follows the one I wrote about meetings being a virus that use human hosts to reproduce.

Paul Taylor rightly questioned; ‘we know meetings are a problem, but why are we unable to do anything about them?’. Ultimately there’s something strange going on with meeting attendance; people cannot, or do not want to, change their behaviour. No matter how bad the meeting promises to be, no matter how much we recognise this; most of us still turn up to suffer.

The sort of behaviour you might expect from Meeting Lemmings*.

Why?…. Is it just too easy to make the wrong decisions and ‘jump’ with the rest of the Meeting Lemmings? Well this might help…. Choice Architecture. I’ve recently been learning about Behaviour Change Science (and Choice Architecture), with people from the Wales Centre for Behaviour Change at Bangor University, North Wales.

Old Wine in New Skins? Behaviour Change Science (sometimes called Nudge Theory) has probably been around for ages, just called other things. Anything that involves trying to get people to behave in a certain way, or do different things would probably count as ‘behaviour change’. If you think about why many people participate in certain religious practices (roots in ancient history), or how marketing and advertising influence the products we buy (also quite historic), there’s lots of ‘behaviour change science’ going on out there.

At the moment in the world of public services, there is a huge desire to try to move people away from dependency upon services, and towards greater self-reliance. With this objective in mind you can see the attractiveness of ‘behaviour change science’. You may also have spotted ‘nudge’ and ‘behaviour change’ popping up on your ‘Buzzword Bingo’ cards at meetings?

IMG_3406The idea has been popularised in books like ‘Nudge’ (Thaler & Sunstein) where the idea is that you ‘nudge’ people in the direction of making the ‘right’ choices – you definitely don’t force people (that would be bad, the sort of thing Dictators do).

This is all part of an idea called ‘liberal paternalism’ which you can read about in this helpful paper; Choice Architecture by Thaler, Sunstein and Balz.

Choice Architecture and Meeting Lemmings? In the spirit of sharing, here is some of what I learnt about behaviour change science in Bangor, and how I think some of it could be applied to meetings. In particular I’m thinking about Choice Architecture.

The basic idea is:

  • We have a number of choices we could make around meetings.
  • How these choices are presented is called the Choice Architecture.
  • The choices we make are influenced by the Choice Architecture we face.
  • By presenting ‘choices’ in a certain way, people will be ‘nudged’ to make better decisions.
  • Better decisions will lead to better outcomes (hurrah!).

For meetings, I’m assuming that better outcomes would be: no meetings in the first place, much shorted meetings or alternative (better) ways of holding a meeting. This isn’t perfect logic, but please bear with me.

Boiling the meeting choice architecture down into its essential components, I reckon you have 4 key areas where you can influence choice, the core of most meetings:

  1. Attractiveness – what attracts people to your meeting?
  2. Timing – finding the time for people to meet
  3. Venue – the physical space where they meet
  4. The Paper Trail – proving your meeting achieved something useful.

Making better Meeting Choices: Here are my suggestions for improving meeting choices architecture. If you want a more detailed explanation of why I think these would work, the attached mind map hopefully explains it.

#1 Attractiveness – meeting attendance is always optional – people are free to choose if they attend. They will need to be convinced, ‘will it be useful to do so?’.

#2 Timing – prohibit the use of meeting planners and other ‘productivity tools’. It is a physical and mental hassle to plan a meeting. It’s a choice, do you really want that meeting? Have a look at Matt Ballantiine on Efficient Unproductivity which nicely describes the problem.

#3 Venue – keep it basic. Meetings shouldn’t be about the luxurious surroundings, the focus should be in getting business sorted. Also, spaces can only be booked in multiples of 15mins, with a limit of x8 units (120 mins/2 hours). Your choice of how long to stay in the meeting space is decided by business need, not comfy surroundings.

#4 Paper Trail – you are required to provide ‘written evidence’ that your meeting served a useful purpose – but there is no administrative support for this. Again, a choice with consequences.

My Mind Map - trying to explain the logic behind my thinking, good luck!

My Mind Map – trying to explain the logic behind my thinking, good luck!

That’s not going to upset anyone….. I appreciate that these might look like extreme options and difficult choices. I would however argue that we already know ‘the right thing to do’.

Articles like the Harvard Business Review, ‘All the Charts, Tables and Checklists you need to conduct better meetings’ summarise exactly how you should approach meetings. What all this good practice and advice hasn’t done is affect our behaviour, many people still behave like Meeting Lemmings. Maybe what we need is a different (and possibly difficult) Choice Architecture to ‘nudge’ us in the right direction?

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Meetings are considered a waste of time by many people. But despite ‘knowing better’ they still attend, a case of Meeting Lemming behaviour.
  2. Behaviour Change Science and the use Choice Architecture can be used to influence the choices people make.
  3. The Choice Architecture around meetings could be changed to ‘nudge’ people towards making better decisions about avoiding/improving meetings.

*Meeting Lemmings. Lemmings are a rodent like mammal which is popularly (and falsely) known for a suicidal tendency to rush off the edge of cliffs and end up dead. They really should make better choices, it doesn’t make sense. The ‘Meeting Lemming’, should also make better choices:.. “this meeting will be a complete waste of time”…. but they turn up anyway, or worse, they organise it.

An actual Lemming - not as impressive as a Weasel.

An actual Lemming – not as impressive as a Weasel.

Meetings are a Viral Lifeform. How to Avoid Infection and Practice Sabotage

Dilbert by Scott Adams 15th December 2001

Dilbert by Scott Adams 15th December 2001

Meetings are a type of Virus that use humans as hosts to replicate…..

That might strike you as an odd statement; but have a look at the Dilbert cartoon and think about how you would answer these questions:

  1. Have you ever gone to a meeting where you have no idea why you are there?
  2. At the meeting people speak your language, but use words and expressions you don’t recognise?
  3. Throughout the meeting some people speak, just for the ‘joy of hearing their own voices’?
  4. At the end of the meeting you feel a deep relief it has ended and wonder, ‘what on earth just happened and what did it achieve?’

If you have answered yes to all of those questions, the only logical conclusion must be that there are factors beyond rational human control that have caused the meeting to happen. Something we cannot quite control through the power of efficient business processes and synchronised Outlook calendars. The Dilbert suggestion that meetings are a viral life-form doesn’t seem so strange now……. does it?

It’s Open Season on Meetings. Just to get serious, everyone seems to have turned their sights on meetings at the moment.  I’m just as guilty and I’ve written a few posts about meetings (available here) where I’ve put the point across that, despite the problems, meetings are very valuable part of doing business. Face to face contact is invaluable in helping to develop relationships and build trust, and sometimes meeting face to face is the only way to get agreement over difficult issues. But that doesn’t count for every meeting.

Just to prove it’s a serious ‘grown up’ issue, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) have produced ‘All the Charts, Tables and Checklists You Need to Conduct Better Meetings’. Despite the 1st April publication date, this is a good summary of the things you need to consider, it is worth looking at. You might have seen this ‘Should I Hold A Meeting’ decision tree from the HBR Article which circulated widely on Twitter (thanks to Paul Taylor where I first saw it).

Harvard Business Review Graphic - Meetings go grown up  and serious

Harvard Business Review Graphic – Meetings go grown up and serious

Virus Control in Meetings. In the spirit of meetings being viral life-form, I thought it would useful to apply some anti-viral techniques for keeping them under control. So here goes with; avoiding infection; escaping the Infection zone and slowing down virus replication.

  • Avoiding Infection – this is easy, just don’t go to any meeting that doesn’t look useful. Obviously this is easier said than done, especially where some organisations enforce ‘mandatory’ meetings. However it is worth persevering, the HBR checklist is useful, particularly when you have the power to call the meeting. Just think of taking the decision to not call the meeting as the metaphorical equivalent of a good dose of extra strength hand sanitizer. A bit tingly, but worth the effort.
  • Escaping the Infection Zone – this particularly applies to the meetings where you are at the mercy of someone else. The longer you stay in the ‘zone’, the more likely you are to become infected with the ‘meeting virus contagion’. You can use multiple excuses to escape and ‘slip away’ for a while. Urgent telephone calls are a favourite, so are lavatory breaks. People will generally be too polite to ask why you’ve been away for ages, and its also a chance to use the hand sanitizer.
  • Slowing down replication – only one thing to say here, SABOTAGE. If you become a complete meeting nuisance, in a non-specific sort of way, there’s a good chance you won’t be asked back. There are a few approaches you can take, asking awkward questions is always good, but can be counter-productive. You don’t want to be routinely brought in as the ‘critical friend’ or ‘voice of reason’.
  • Be boring – It’s a definite ‘anti-viral’ meeting killer and might get you permanently excluded. If you want some more detail have a read of ‘A Guide to Boring’ from Helen Reynolds.
  • The Field Sabotage Guide. The Simple Sabotage Field Manual is a practical guide to basic, but effective meeting sabotage. Produced in 1944 by a predecessor organisation to the CIA it was declassified recently and is applicable 70 years on as it was on the day it was written. You might recognise some of the behaviours from meetings you’ve attended. I have written about it previously (Spotting Field Sabotage), and the picture below clearly explains what you need to do.
Simple Sabotage Field Manual. Section 11, Page 28. Declassified

Simple Sabotage Field Manual. Section 11, Page 28. Declassified

 So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Meetings can be a highly effective way of building relationships, developing trust and getting things done.
  2. Not all meetings are organised to make the most of the valuable resources they attract. Sometimes you can wonder ‘why are we here?’
  3. Always ask why do you need this meeting? Use things like the HBR ‘charts and checklist’, but if all else fails you could use sabotage to slow down the replication of the meetings viral life-form.

Picture sources:

Dilbert Cartoon: 15 December 2001.

Simple Sabotage Field Manual

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5 Monkeys, Bananas, Ladder, Water. Why do we comply with daft rules in organisations?

IMG_3141A Question: Can you think of an organisation you have been part of, one where there is an unwritten rule that almost everyone complies with, and nobody really knows why?

This rule dictates how people behave and is often about stopping people doing something. The reasons why the ‘rule’ exist are unclear, and nobody can adequately explain the behaviour.

It is part of “the way things are done around here”. 

Information Governance, Data Sharing, IT Security.  Just to help you, here is a situation you might have experienced. You know the sort of thing “you are not allowed to read that very valuable information because it is on a WordPress Blog. There are ‘security issues’ with WordPress. The IT department will cut and paste the text into a word document and will email it to you …… it will be available in 10 working days”.

I’m not making this up, I have seen this happen in recent history. The justification is always some hazy requirement to comply with ‘IT security’ and is justified by referring to some terrible incident (usually not explained) that happened in the past.

Too many episodes of The IT Crowd

Too many episodes of The IT Crowd

I had occasionally (very unfairly, in dark moments of frustration) thought this sort of thing was down to some IT people, in some organisations, being more interested in job protection, the joy of sheer awkwardness and making everyone play by their rules; rather than treating the users as customers.

This was probably as a result of me watching too many episodes of The IT Crowd. I realise now I was very wrong, sorry.

 5 Monkeys and the Path to Enlightenment. I’m grateful to my friend Geof who helped me with my unjustified prejudice and pointed me at the 5 Monkey Experiments. This gives an explanation of why groups of people might do things (comply with rules) for reasons they don’t fully understand. There might be a good logical explanation for the behaviour, but it is buried in the mists of time. Way back in the ‘corporate memory’ if you like.

A quick way of explaining the 5 Monkeys Experiment is this graphic.

The text is also at the bottom of the post. If anyone has the original source for this I'd be grateful

The text is also at the bottom of the post.
If anyone has the original source for this I’d be grateful


If you prefer here is a 90 second video of the 5 Monkeys experiment. However if you want an even better explanation, get Matt from Complex Care Wales to describe it – with full Kung Fu movements!

Detecting  5 Monkeys Behaviour? Does any behaviour that might fit the 5 Monkeys theory come to mind after those explanations? I’ve heard of a few over the years, and would be happy to add to this list:

  1. IT Security – the one above, WordPress poses a dangerous risk to security so we cannot let you read blogs….
  2. More IT Security – Skype is really dangerous. There are ‘security risks’ so you are not allowed to have a business meeting using Skype.
  3. Staff Surveys – “it’s all about 5 Monkeys Behaviour…..the reason why everyone is unhappy here is because of some terrible thing in the past. It’s nothing to do with the current regime.”
  4. ‘Signing The Book’ – my favourite example of this is an establishment (in Cardiff) where people who cycled or walked to work dutifully signed a special book. This practice (which only stopped in the 2000’s) dated back to the Second World War and was linked to an entitlement for extra canteen rations as part of the war effort. 50 plus years of compliance and signatures for absolutely no purpose.

Is this all too good to be true?  The 5 Monkeys Experiment does provide a very helpful to explain away some features of organisational life. There are plenty of examples of compliance with rules you cannot explain and behaviours that fit the 5 Monkeys model.

I am however just a bit sceptical.

Firstly because I’m not a monkey, and I don’t really like getting compared to what happened in a monkey experiment. Secondly, there is a bit of doubt about the experiment taking place as described. Have a read of this thread on the Skeptics Website which questions the source of the information. I’m hoping Matt from Complex Care Wales will zoom in at this point and fill in the gaps in my knowledge.

Finally, despite my scepticism, I do like the metaphor it provides….if you spot a new colleague (new monkey) having their new ideas crushed by existing staff (being beaten up by the old monkeys), step in and tell them the 5 Monkeys Experiment story.

So, whats the PONT?

  1. People in organisations do comply with rules and behave in certain ways, without fully understanding the reasons why they are doing it.
  2. This can be for good useful reasons, or others that are not so useful. The key thing is to ask questions like, ‘why are we doing this?’
  3. The justification of ‘it’s the way we do things around here’ might just be because you are acting like a 5 Monkeys and ignoring the bananas for reasons that are no longer relevant.

Thanks again to Geof and Matt for prompting this post.

Sources: Skeptics Website 

Here is the full test from the graphic - via the Skeptics Website

Here is the full test from the graphic – via the Skeptics Website