Can you teach compassion and kindness? “The best £1.47 you’ll spend Son”


Can kindness in a Grizzly Bear be exploited?

I’ve seen a lot of dicussion about the idea of ‘teaching compassion’ recently. Lots of it is linked to improving standards in health and social care.

It’s left me wondering, does the need to teach compassion and kindness extend beyond the workplace? Is it something that starts in, and is best suited to home? If you have to ‘teach compassion’ in work, it is too late?

I’m not about to offer any solutions here, just share my own experience of what happened with one of my teenage sons. I wrote a post about it ages ago, hardly anybody read it back then so it’s worth looking at again.

The quandary I faced over two and half years ago remains the same. Does having a generous and accepting nature make you naive and more vulnerable to people exploiting you? Is it the right thing to do to teach children to be ‘tougher’, less trusting and more sceptical of people to avoid being exploited? Ultimately do we all need to learn by making our own mistakes, and then decide?

Blimey, that was a bit Dali Lama. Here’s the post I originally wrote in September 2011. It followed a trip to a University open day and an incident at Cardiff Railway Station. You can make your own mind up if I did the right thing.

The best £1.47 you’ll ever spend Son.

This week I was sat in a busy railway station with my 17-year-old son. While I was daydreaming he was approached by a stranger who engaged him in conversation.

Almost immediately my son had taken out his wallet and had handed over a pound coin. The stranger continued talking and my son then handed over the rest of the change in his pockets, all 47p of it. At this point I intervened and the stranger quickly left, counting the money.

There was nothing particularly threatening about the stranger, he was reasonably well dressed and spoke in a calm albeit slightly urgent tone. Although the exchange
happened very quickly, probably less than a minute, it seemed like slow motion
as I tried to make sense of the situation and work out how I was going to intervene.

My son and I pieced things together; we established that the stranger had said he needed money to catch a train home as he was about £2 short of the fare. There was a fairly embarrassed silence between us for a moment whilst we both though about what had happened.

For me there was a deep sense of worry about vulnerability. Had my son been the
victim of a rip off merchant? Had the stranger played a vulnerable individual with a well rehearsed script “I need £2 for the train home”. A scam that worked on dozens of people every day?

If it was this easy, how was my son going to cope with situations like this throughout the rest of life? On the other hand, was he doing the right thing, being the Good Samaritan, helping a fellow traveller in distress?

I’ve mentioned this incident to a few friends with teenage children and we end up pondering the same questions? How do kids learn to deal with these sorts of challenges? How do they strike the right balance between compassion and indifference? Is the best way to learn from failure? Can we actually teach them anything or do they need to work it out for themselves?

My sense of anxiety around this has been heightened by my wife’s response, “oh my god, he could be in university halls this time next year, what will happen to him……..?” Calm down, he’ll work it out has been my response (he has to………… that’s life).

As it turned out my son and I had a very sensible and measured conversation about the incident later on. Drawing on experiences of my own and the experience of others we started to piece together an approach / strategy /coping mechanism (call it what you like), for how he might deal with people trying to take advantage of him (in whatever circumstances).

Hopefully this gives him some protection and doesn’t smother the generous and giving side of his nature, which some might think is a bit naive, but I think is one of his more endearing features (by the way he’s 6 foot 3 and built like a Grizzly Bear).

So what’s the PONT?

  1. That could be the best £1.47 you’ll ever spend Son.
  2. Offer people practical help (food or buy the ticket) rather than hand over cash.
  3. Don’t ever become cynical and indifferent towards people who you could help.

“Poor Historian”? How the Geriatrics Profanisaurus exposes the dark side of Jargon.

Roger Mellie, "Man on the Telly".  Author of Roger's Profanisaurus

Roger Mellie, “Man on the Telly”.
Author of Roger’s Profanisaurus

What do you get when you combine; Geriatric Medicine, Profanity and a Thesaurus?

Obviously, it’s the bleedin excellent ‘Geriatrics Profanisaurus’, written by Professor David Oliver on the British Geriatrics Society blog. Well worth reading (including the comments).

David is also a Visiting Fellow at the Kings Fund and has written some impressive material for them about topics like making health and care services work better for an ageing population (also worth reading).

If you are wondering about the Roger Mellie picture, well, he’s the fictitious editor of ‘Rogers Profanisaurus’. To quote the fly sheet, “the definitive reference volume of English obscenities”. Not something you should be reading at work, so don’t open the link!

The point is that Roger’s Profanisaurus is a compendium of really bad words and phrases. Rude and offensive stuff that shouldn’t be used in the workplace (I hope you agree – I know you’ve had a quick look). The principle of Roger’s Profanisaurus, a collection of ‘words not suitable for work’, is the same as the Geriatrics Profanisaurus, but the content is rather different, which I will explain later (I told you not to look at Roger’s).

What has a Thesaurus/Profanisaurus got to do with Jargon? The purpose of a Thesaurus is to find the words which best allow you to describe a situation or idea. A typical Thesaurus will have words with similar meanings grouped together so that you can identify something that helps people understand more easily or has greater impact.

My School Thesaurus No connection with Roger's Profanisaurus

My School Thesaurus
No connection with Roger’s Profanisaurus

The most well known of the thesauri, is Roget’s Thesaurus, published by Dr Peter Mark Roget in 1852. Interestingly Roger’s Profanisaurus does not appear on the list of thesauri referenced in the wikipedia article, funny that.

The idea of being able to use words that have a different meaning did get me thinking about Jargon again.

A while back I wrote a number of posts about Jargon. The roots of the word come from the Old French ‘gargun’ to describe ‘the cheeping of birds’ and ‘confused and unintelligible speech’ in 14th Century English. The modern day definition of Jargon talks about ‘special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand’.

There are some very positive reasons for using jargon. Within a specific technical community it can help to communicate more clearly, efficiently and effectively. It can even help to build relationships within that community by creating a sense of being exclusive through having your own special language.

For me, the link between using Jargon and a Thesaurus sits here; using different words that have the same meaning.

However, using these different words is not always done for the purpose of improving understanding that Roget intended; Jargon isn’t always good. Likewise, I’d also suggest that reaching for the Thesaurus isn’t always good either. Sometimes people use ‘interesting’ and ‘alternative’ words to impress, rather than the plain and straightforward which would help with understanding. A surfeit of hyperbole for example (see what I did there). This is where I think David Oliver’s Geriatric Profanisaurus is inspired.


The Geriatric Profanisaurus and the dark side of Jargon. What the Geriatric Profanisaurus does is expose phrases that are more than just technical jargon. These are phrases that have an underlying meaning of disrespect for the people that are being referred to, or a lack care and effort. It is worth reading the post to get a sense of what this means, for example:

  • “Poor Historian….is shorthand for I couldn’t be bothered to find out anything about this delirious patient”
  • “The stroke in D4….this is a person…. someones mother, father or spouse….. someone with a life history…… reducing them to a number is profoundly disrespectful”
  • “The Elderly…..a word abhorrent to people who are older and the other side of 60… the use of language develops attitudes….. (and gives) the opportunity to discriminate and deny rights”

The title of the Geriatrics Profanisaurus post suggest that these are words and phrases that should be banned. I’m with David Oliver on this. Just like Roger’s Profanisaurus words and phrases that are NSFW, Not Suitable for Work.

These words and phrases aren’t just jargon. There is a darker more pernicious* element to them, that shouldn’t be accepted and should be challenged. The Geriatrics Profanisaurus is an effective way of getting them out in the open. I wonder if there should be a Profanisaurus for lots of other areas of activity, identifying these phrase and words for what they really are?

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Jargon is useful and can help with understanding and communication within specific technical communities.
  2. Choosing alternative words from a Thesaurus can help explain an idea or improve understanding.
  3. If either is used to exclude, confuse, cover up a lack or concern or show disrespect, they should be exposed in a Profanisaurus.

*pernicious – who spotted I’ve been using my Thesaurus?


Roger Mellie 

Jargon: via Google search


Google Flu, Big Data and The Woozle Effect

20140406-172656.jpgI’ve been worrying about Big Data recently. Worried mainly because I don’t really understand what it’s all about.

Worried, and fearful, that I’ve been left behind as one of the ignorant (and exploitable) herd, while the ‘Big Data Hipsters’ head off into the distance (on their fixed gear bicycles).

My anxiety started with Google Flu, something I could just about understand.

Google Flu and Big Data. This is the idea that by using the ‘Big Data’ from millions of internet searches, it is possible measure the health of a population and the outbreak of diseases. In essence, if lots of people from a specific area/community are searching the internet using phrases like; ‘flu symptoms’, ‘flu treatment’, ‘where to by flu medicines’; there is a fair chance that there is a flu outbreak in that area/community.

If you extend this logic further, by using the information that ‘Big Data’ provides, Health Agencies, Government Bodies and others, can do things to stop the spread of the disease and help those affected recover; a great idea that has very many benefits. Compared to waiting until people turn up at the doctors, have the symptoms confirmed and send the data to a central administrator, this is much quicker.  In almost real time, you can work out where there is an outbreak of flu happening. You might even be able to predict an outbreak based on people searching for early symptoms. The opportunities for improving public health and finding out interesting things about other issues that affect society are huge.

Quote - Dan Ariely

Quote – Dan Ariely

Big Data is like Teenage Sex. However, things weren’t quite as glorious as people predicted. This article by John Naughton in The Guardian, ‘Google and the flu: how Big Data will help us make massive mistakes’, explains how the Google flu predictions didn’t match the actual flu data collected.

The article talks about the approach being ‘cheap, accurate and theory free and…..‘it doesn’t know anything about the causes of flu. It just knows about the correlations between search terms and outbreaks’. It is worth a look at the comments on the article, not everyone agrees.

It does seem to me that there is still room for some deep subject knowledge and human wisdom in the world of Big Data. That is a relief. I wasn’t quite ready for all decision making to be  handed over to the Wizards of Big Data Analytics.

I’m not a Luddite here, I recognise that there are potentially huge benefits to be gained from Big Data. I’m just pleased that there seems to be a bit of recognition that there is a lot of hype around the subject. The quote from Dan Ariely comparing Big Data to teenage sex is reassuring.

Another thing from the Guardian article; it is also worth looking at the link to the Garther Hype Cycle. This neatly summarises over excitement, and unrealistic expectations (hype) that are often found with advances in technology, which brings me onto the Woozle Effect.

Woozle Hunting - from the Winnie the Pooh books by A.A.Milne

Woozle Hunting – from the Winnie the Pooh books by A.A.Milne

Following your own footsteps – Woozle Hunting. I’ve recently been introduced to this after reading posts by Mark Curnow and Mika Latokartano.

The original story comes from the Winnie the Pooh books by A.A.Milne.

Winnie the Pooh and Piglet are out in the snow hunting an imaginary beast, The Woozle. They pick up some tracks, decide they belong to the Woozle, and follow them around a bush. They keep going around the bush, finding more and more Woozle tracks, getting ever more agitated. Eventually Christopher Robin turns up to point out they have been following their own tracks, there is no Woozle, and everything is fine.

The Woozle Effect. In the world of scientific research the phrase Woozle Effect has been used to describe the situation where people reference research work that is unproven or dubious. By continued referencing and citations, the original research reaches the status of ‘the truth’. This is despite it being based upon an unproven theory or concept and the only evidence of it being correct are the ‘footprints’ of those who keep referring to it.

You may have experienced a Woozle Effect situation yourself?

When you think about The Gartner Hype Cycle and Big Data it feels like there is a bit of the Woozle Effect happening. Almost every week I get an invitation to an expensive conference where someone will ‘unlock the secrets of Big Data’ for me. There seems to be an assumption that Big Data is capable of understanding all of the problems in my world, and offering me the solutions. I don’t doubt that Big Data will probably help, but for the moment I’m treating it a bit like teenage sex, and thinking like Christopher Robin.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Big Data offers huge opportunities to better understand and solve problems.
  2. With new technology there is a risk of hype, inflated promises and unrealistic expecations.
  3. Make sure the Woozle you are following isn’t just your own footprints, or those of other entusiasts.


Google Flu: 

Big Data Quote: links to Dan Ariely

Mika Latokartano Blog: I found this through the Nosapience Blog:

Mark Curnow Blog: Also source for the Winnie the Pooh picture.

Hackdays and Co-Production. Should they involve more than ‘whoever turns up?’


“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them” Albert Einstein.  I know the picture is of Max Planck, there is a reason. You are probably fed up of seeing the Einstein quote, often stated as an instruction… ‘change the way you think!’. It may be just me, but sometimes it is hard to see evidence of different thinking. The language people use changes to fit in with the latest ‘paradigm’, but the thinking stays the same.

Max Plank did also say, “Science progresses funeral by funeral”.  A bit depressing but, rather than ‘waiting for funerals (or voluntary early severance)’ I think there is opportunity to change thinking by introducing new people. Activities like Hackdays and Co-production (a form of crowdsourcing) offer the perfect opportunity to introduce new people to different ways of thinking.

The Wisdom of Crowds. Before getting on to why diversity is important, it is worth reflecting on what makes crowds wise, and the fact that not all decisions made by crowds are good. If you want an illustration, take a look at the ‘online witch hunt’ that followed the Boston bombings in 2013.

There are 4 things that contribute to making a crowd wise rather than irrational:

  1. Expertise – they need to be reasonably smart and have some knowledge of the subject,
  2. Diversity – different perspectives will help the crowd come up with a better answer than a single genius or group of deep experts (I’ll cover this later),
  3. Independence – for real wisdom of crowds approaches to work, contributors must not know what others are contributing. If they do they will adjust their contribution in response, and
  4. Separate Decision Making – decisions are made by someone detached from the crowd, to avoid bias.

Scott E Page and Diversity. I’m grateful to Peter Miles (@complexitysol) who pointed me in the direction of Scott E Page and this 83 minute video of him giving a lecture about diversity in teams, crowds and other groups. Yes, I did watch the full 83 minutes and here are a few things I learnt:

  • Different ways of thinking are the key - the term ‘cognitive diversity’ was used to emphasise that this is about different ways of thinking, experience or how you see things (perspective).
  • Diverse teams out-performed mono-cultures – A diverse team with a few deep experts, tacking a tough problem, will outperform a group of single subject experts.
  • Some organisations get this – Scott mentioned that some companies were deliberately recruiting for diversity to get economic and performance benefits. Diversity wasn’t just driven by equalities and employment law. For these organisations there are tangible benefits that support better performance, ability to innovate and better products for service users.

20140330-195721.jpgThis got me thinking, diversity should be one of the main features of Hackdays and Co-production. You gather a group of strangers, get then to tackle a difficult problem, maximise the wisdom of crowds and bingo, you have a brilliant result! But does it always work like that? How do you guarantee diverse thinking? What if the people who turn up all think the same way?

Hackdays, Co-production and ‘whoever turns up’. Recently I attended the NHS Hackday in Cardiff. One of the questions asked on the fringes was, ‘beyond being physically present, how do people get involved?  A good question. How do you make sure there is wide diversity of thinking and different perspectives?

The good news on the Cardiff NHS Hackday was that the co-orgaiser, Ann Marie Cunningham (@amcunningham) worked hard to involve as many people as possible. More specifically she was active in trying to involve people with a different perspective – patients, carers, people with the ‘service user’ view of the NHS. This went as far as holding meetings the week before, which has got to be good for the cognitive diversity of the crowd that were involved.

From the co-production angle I’ve recently been involved with Working With Not To. They run events that have a very wide attendance, which seems to satisfy the requirements of creating a ‘wise crowd’. In addition to the ‘usual suspect service providers’; citizens and service users participate fully. 20 years of experience of using a service develops deep expertise and very clear perspective.  As with the NHS Hackday, bringing together a diverse group of people requires effort and determination.

Overcoming Social Privilege and ‘un-ME-conferences’. For another perspective on how to increase the cognitive diversity at an unconference (another variation on the crowdsourcing theme) have a look at what Alastair Somerville (@Acuitiy_Design) has been doing. This post ‘building tools for invisible people’, talks about the need to make sure that everyone who could contribute to a Hackday, Un-conference or Co-production event is able to do so. If you are about to organise an event it is well worth pausing to read it. Without people who could contribute, how do you know if you are getting the cognitive diversity you need to make the crowd ‘wise’? Can you afford to leave it to chance and ‘whoever turns up?’.

One final thing from Alastair, have a look at this link to un-ME-conferences. A clever idea that you swap your ‘me’ with someone else and become a different identity for the conference. A clever idea that could do a lot to introduce some cognitive diversity and help  people get around social privilege. I like it.


So, whats the PONT?

  1. Crowd activities (Hackdays, Unconferences & Co-production) can be wise as well as irrational.
  2. Diversity is one of the requirements that help a crowd out perform other ‘single focus’ groups.
  3. Getting around ‘whoever turns up’, and making sure you have diversity in your crowd is a conscious act, and takes some effort.

Picture sources: Max Planck quote:

How something appears is always a matter of perspective. 

The Wisdom of Crowds, Flappy Birds, Tulip Mania, and The Tyranny of Herds

Tulip Fields - popular with tourists

Tulip Fields – popular with tourists

“Decisions made by crowds aren’t uniformly good” a quote from Dave Snowden that doesn’t quite fit with some views of crowdsourcing.  The prevalent idea is that if you ask large crowds of people to solve a problem, provide a view or give an answer (usually via the internet), they will do a better job than any individual or small group of experts.

This however isn’t universally the case. This article by Dave, ‘bad titles and the need for theory to inform practice’ gives a helpful explanation of the theory behind the wisdom of crowds.  I’ll come back to the wisdom of crowds later, but first, who’s heard of Dutch Tulip Bulb Mania?

1637 Tulipmania Pamphlet

1637 Tulipmania Pamphlet

Tulip Bulb Mania and Flappy Birds.  Tulip Bulb Mania occurred in the 1630′s and has been cited as one of the first examples of an economic bubble. Tulips had been introduced to Europe years earlier and became so popular that people would trade the bulbs during the winter time. Speculation on the future price of tulips and bulbs became extreme, with many individuals became involved in the ‘mania’, planning to get rich quickly. It was reported that at one point the price of single bulb reached 10 times the annual earnings of a skilled worker (sounds familiar?).

The bursting of the Tulip Mania economic bubble was detailed by Charles Mackay in his 1841 book ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds’. The book explained a number of examples of the ‘delusions and madness of crowds’ which included: Witch Hunts, Alchemy, The Crusades and other economic bubbles like the 1840′s Railway Mania. The book remains in print and has been referenced in writing about the 2008 economic crisis. This BBC article about economist Hyman Minsky gives a good explanation of how financial institutions and investors continued to deal in sub-prime mortgages with the belief that property prices would continue to increase. An example of ‘popular delusion and the madness of crowds’?

It was just another Mario Brothers wannabe to me….

It was just another Mario Brothers wannabe to me….

Flappy Birds. Bringing things right up to date (and demonstrating that I am totally down with the kids), you could easily apply a bit of ‘madness of crowds’ behaviour to the recent Flappy Birds episode.

Flappy Birds (a game for your phone) became incredibly popular. You can make your own mind up on how good people’s judgement was in engaging with a highly addictive low tech  video game it in the first place…. but that’s not the story.

The game developer decides to withdraw the game due to pressures of the fame it brought him. The ‘crowd’ goes a bit manic at the the prospect of a Flappy Birds ‘scarcity’. Indivdual crowd members start doing almost anything to get a copy of Flappy Birds on their phone. The result is stories of second hand phones with Flappy Birds on them selling for over £2000…… in Swansea of all places!

Now then, who still believes that crowds are wise all of the time?

The ‘real’ Wisdom of Crowds. The 2005 book, The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki has several examples of where ‘crowdsourced’ solutions have provided a better result than what could be done by an individual. These include farmers estimating the weight of cattle at a county fair and guess the number Jelly Beans in the Jar exercises.

What seems to get quite often ignored when crowdsourcing is mentioned, is that Surowiecki clearly stated that specifc criteria are required to form a wise crowd (rather than an irrational one). Here are the (slightly modified) criteria:

  1. Expertise/Diversity - individuals are able to draw upon local knowledge or their personal expertise. People with diverse relevant views need to contribute as well as deep experts.
  2. Independence of others – the contribution of each person is made independently of others. If you have knowledge of what others have said or done; it will influence your contribution.
  3. Decentralised decision making -decisions are not made within the group of people contributing to the ‘crowd’. Someone else, looking at the ‘big picture’ makes the decisions.

These criteria are important if you want the crowd to be wise. If they aren’t in place, there is a risk of the crowd behaving irrationally and making bad decisions.

Crowdsourcing to Measure Services. An area where I think this is important relates to how crowd sourced opinions are used to decide how well a public service is performing. The ‘Trip Advisor’ for the Public Services approach is good at getting hold of the lived experience of public service users, no argument there. However, how do you make sense of what is uploaded? How do you make sure that vociferous individuals aren’t trying to shift opinion in one direction or the other? Also, who makes decisions as a result of gathering the evidence, the crowd or some carefully chosen individuals?

So what’s the PONT?

  1. Crowds can do wise things, they can also do irrational things.
  2. Understanding the nature of your crowd and what you want it to do is essential.
  3. Before you mobilise your crowd, make sure you have a few checks and balances in place to make sure you don’t end up with an irrational crowd, the tyranny of the herd or even worse an angry mob.

Finally a bit more research. An article from The Atlantic online, the stupidity of the crowd, which reports on Ant colonies, who apparently make worse decisions as a crowd than individually.

“Launching an Imperfect Service”. An unlikely conversation at the cashpoint (ATM)

Paul Taylor - favourite in Vulpine communities

Paul Taylor – favourite in Vulpine communities

Picture this. Friday night and I’m queuing at the village cashpoint (ATM). An unrecognised voice behind me pipes up with… “that bloke from Bromford was good last week, I liked what he said about launching an imperfect service” The ‘bloke’ in question was Paul Taylor.

It turns out that my fellow cashpoint user and I had both been at an event in Cardiff eight days previously. The purpose of the event was to share experiences of supporting users of public services to become more self sufficient, more capable and less dependent upon services delivered ‘to’ them. The broad theme was prevention. Rather than public services dealing with symptoms and consequences; focus efforts on helping people develop their own capability. A summary of the excellent presentation about the Bromford Deal, can be found on Paul’s blog Making a Deal: Unlocking Potential in Communities, and below:


Conversations at the cashpoint. The conversation at the cashpoint came around to three things that had left a big impression on both of us:

  1. Launching an imperfect service. Paul made the point that when Bromford launched the Deal it was imperfect. They acknowledged that things were not going to be perfect, some things might not work, but they got on and did it. This kind of openness and honesty isn’t something you see every day. Its quite different to lots of projects which ‘plan and plan’ for perfection, delay starting, and things still go wrong.
  2. Do small things, fail and learn fast. This is one of the ideas I really like and have written about before in posts like, ‘release trojan mice and win small’. Paul made the point that you need to try lots of small things, fail at some of them, but learn the lessons and move on quickly. One significant quote which summarises the approach relates to implementing IT solutions; “its bad loosing £20K on a pilot, but loosing £200K is awful”.  This links in very neatly with the idea of launching an imperfect service, learning and making things better.
  3. Communities and Individuals have abilities. For me this is the key to prevention. It is all about asking the question, “what can you do or offer?” rather than “what’s wrong with you?”. Every individual and community has assets, talents, skills and abilities. Better to focus on helping to developing and release these, rather than treating people as a series of ‘problems’ that need to be solved.

This was the ultimate ‘Person in the Pub’ Conversation. For ages I’ve been part of an environment where we have been trying to develop a style of communication that is summed up as ‘what would be the messages you would give the person in the pub?The idea is that you can develop a message that could be easily delivered to someone, in a pub, so that they understand the key point and could repeat them to someone else.

Well, I think Paul may have cracked that challenge. The conversation in the cashpoint queue wasn’t quite the pub (it was only 90 seconds away), but something similar was achieved. Two relative strangers had been at Paul’s presentation and managed, 8 days later, to hold a detailed conversation about what had impressed them.  At 6pm on a Friday night we could have talked about anything; the weather, beer, rugby, television, politics or beer; but we chose The Bromford Deal. Now that’s a pretty good example of getting your message across I think.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Check out Paul’s slides. They aren’t your average slide deck.
  2. An open and honest communication style, admitting to imperfections, goes a long way in connecting with your audience.
  3. Individuals and communities have abilities. Better to focus on what people can do, rather than their problems.

Picture source: The fox a the ATM/Cashpoint. I think the source is from 2012 It is a bit difficult to find the exact source as it was all over Twitter and Reddit.

We don’t get many foxes at the cashpoints in South Wales, it is more of a big city thing apparently. I have seen a horse the train though (then again it might have been a big dog).

150 Swedish Tax Inspectors, The Monkeysphere and Stable Work Groups.

A Facebook 'like' would be so much easier

A Facebook ‘like’ would be so much easier

Now here’s an idea.  Organise your Tax Inspectors along the lines of a 150 strong monkey colony. If they spend 42% of their time ‘social grooming’ don’t worry, that’s what’s needed to maintain community cohesion and a stable workforce.

This is not as strange as it seems. It’s all about the size of our brains, how many ‘faces’ we can remember, the number of people in your colony and Dunbar’s Number.

Dunbar’s Number of 150.  Dunbar’s Number is the idea that 150 individuals is the maximum number of people that can form a stable social group. Research by Professor Robin Dunbar looked at the size of primate brains and the size of the communities they lived in. In essence, the idea is that brain size influences the size of the social group. The bigger the brain the better the memory. This translated to bigger brain equals more ‘faces’  remembered, which leads a bigger group you can live in. When this theory was extended to humans, the figure of approximately 150 was proposed.

Further work by Dunbar looked at the size of at various human communities over the millenia. These included; hunter gather tribes, medieval villages, church congregations, military companies, Christmas card lists and Facebook friends. Guess what, the size of these communities was roughly 150.

The ideas around community stability are linked to the ability of our brains to recognise people and have meaningful relationships with them. With more than 150 ‘faces’, individuals become difficult to remember and relationships and trust are weakened. As a result the community becomes less stable. Maintaining the stability of the community takes an effort. In some primate communities up to 42% of time is spent on ‘social grooming’ (picking fleas out of each others fur). For human communities, things like language support community cohesion more efficiently than hours spent picking fleas. Nowadays you could think of Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter ‘favourites’ as the ‘social grooming’ equivalent of flea picking (there’s a lovely thought).

Where does the Monkeysphere fit in? The term ‘Monkeysphere’ was proposed by David Wong of to describe the idea that people outside of the 150 you have a meaningful relationship with, don’t feature as ‘real people’ and in some ways ‘don’t really matter’.

This has interesting implications. What if you apply the monkeysphere concept to the workplace.  What about those thousands of people who work in other massive departments. What if those people are going through a ‘downsizing programme’, how much do we really care?

How does that translate if those ‘outside my community of 150′ are people who are service users, citizens or customers? Is there a deeply seated bit of behaviour in us that means we only care for those in the community of 150 people we recognise and know? That could add up to a huge challenge for anyone involved in a customer facing roll. The Monkeysphere article is controversial, but worth a look.

Everyone loves a Tax Inspector - in Sweden

Everyone loves a Tax Inspector – in Sweden

Back to the Swedish Tax Inspectors.  A 2007 article from Sweden’s News in English reported that the tax offices were due be reorganised into units of 150 people, referencing Dunbar’s number, and apes. Unfortunately I can’t establish if it ever happened. But, what I do know is that the Swedish Tax Agency is the second most liked public institution in Sweden, next to the Consumer Protection Agency. Apparently 83% of Swedes have confidence in the Agency. If anyone knows if this has anything to do with how they are organised I would love to find out.

The Swedish Tax Inspectors aren’t alone in their enthusiasm for the magic number of 150. A while back I wrote about how GoreTex has 150 people as the maximum number for their work units. The 150 was arrived at through trial and error rather than a pre-meditated decision. In an interview, the late Bill Gore, founder of the company, talked about this and said, “We found again and again that things get clumsy at a hundred and fifty”. 

In each factory they limit the number of employees to 150 so that “everyone knows everyone”.  There is a sense of connection between people that reduces the need for a hierarchy and increases individual commitment to the group’s goals. The result is that GoreTex is a hugely successful global company and regularly features in the Fortune 100 Best Companies to work for.

Maybe there is something in having work groups of less than 150?  Being able to remember everyone’s face leads to greater trust throughout the group, greater stability and better outcomes?

So, what’s the PONT? 

  1. A stable social group is influenced by the relationships within it. The people you know, recognise and trust.
  2. Dunbar’s Number suggests that we are unlikely to be able to form meaningful relationships with more than 150 people.
  3. In the workplace, examples from organisations like GoreTex suggest that 150 is the upper limit for stable (and effective) groups of workers.

Picture Source:  An adult monkey, the Olive Baboon (Papio anubis), grooms a kid at the Ngorongoro conservation Area in Tanzania.

Please have a look at the comments on this post. There is is very helpful information from Matt at Complex Care Wales, @ComplexWales.

20140308-101401.jpgThis graphic from Matt sums up things very nicley.