Speaking Truth to Power Pt2. Messengers: Sycophants, Axe Grinders and The Brave

Cassandra. Knew the truth but never listened to.

Cassandra. Knew the truth but never listened to.

Stop for a moment and think about this question. “What happens to the people who give bad news, or tell an unwelcome truth to the people in charge?” [PAUSE]

Now think about the question in relation to all of the books you’ve read, all of the films or television shows you’ve seen and all of the stories you’ve ever heard. [PAUSE]

My guess is that for much of what you have read, seen or listened to; these people will have experienced something unpleasant. The previous post about 2500 Years of Shooting the Messenger didn’t end on a high note. In fact, I suggested that ‘shooting the messenger’ was a deeply engrained human activity that has been practiced for 1000’s of years.

In the corporate world, projects that fail due to a ‘failure to speak truth to power’ are just helping to keep an ancient tradition alive. Not my most helpful post. Sorry. I will try to be more helpful here.

The Responsibility of Messengers, Avoid Sycophants and Axe Grinders: If you superficially consider the role of the messenger in speaking truth to power, it is easy to think of the person as completely impartial and an innocent party in the process. This might be the case sometimes, but in reality most situations are much more complicated.

People often have a relationship with the people they need to ‘speak the truth to’. Within organisations the messengers are frequently subordinates in the hierarchy and the ‘version of the truth’ they choose to tell (and how they do it) can have consequences. The consequences can be negative or positive for the messenger, but they will also have an effect on the surrounding culture.

Classic Sycophants and a Cheeky Child  The Emperors New Clothes

Classic Sycophants and a Cheeky Child
The Emperors New Clothes

Sycophants. If messengers are sycophants, this can lead to situations where those in power become conditioned to hearing nothing but good news (and they love it!). You know the type, “I don’t want to hear about problems, just bring me solutions…..” leading to… “only bring me good news…. on a silver platter, with a ribbon”. This might be good for the sycophants, but a bit of a disaster for everyone else.

Imagine the challenge for the person bursting the ‘good news’ bubble. The tale of the Emperors New Clothes and the ‘cheeky child’ who speaks truth to power is well-known. The ‘Cheeky Child’ isn’t however common in lots of organisations, in fact many new starters are advised to; “keep quiet until you learn how things work around here”.


Hades from Disney's Hercules  A serious Axe to Grind with the Olympus bosses

Hades from Disney’s Hercules
A serious Axe to Grind with the Olympus bosses

Axe Grinders. This is tricky. There is a blurry ‘speaking truth to power’ spectrum that covers: pointing out things that have gone wrong, raising serious concerns, being a whistleblower and having and axe to grind.  Although the cause may be totally justifiable, it can end up being seen as deeply personal issue. Something which is linked to settling a score, seeking justice or just ‘getting even’.

Lots of people seem to find something a bit uncomfortable about people with ‘an axe to grind’. The unfortunate consequence can be marginalization by your peers as well as those in charge. If you are trying to speak truth to power, the label of ‘Axe Grinder’ can be a serious disadvantage. It makes it easier for the people in power to dismiss you as a bit of an ‘unhinged complainer’. You may have observed this.

The white paper by James O’Toole from Santa Clara University I mentioned in the last post talks in-depth about the problems of being a Whistleblower, it is well worth reading.

The Brave Messenger. Going back to the James O’Toole paper, ‘Old Tales and New of Leadership, Organizational Culture, and Ethics’, he also offers some very helpful advice on how to be an effective and in my view a Brave Messenger. Before speaking truth to power (and being virtuous) you need to meet the following criteria:

  1. It has to be truthful.
  2. It must do no harm to innocents.
  3. It must not be self-interested (the benefits must go to others, or to the organisation).
  4. It must be the product of moral reflection.
  5. The messenger must be willing to pay the price.
  6. It must not be done out of spite or anger.

There’s not much more to say here, this is very clear advice.

Being an effective messenger that speaks truth to power, and avoids getting shot, is a hard thing to do. You might need to cope with a culture of ‘good news’ created by sycophants and avoid being labeled as an Axe Grinder. Having a checklist (like the one from James O’Toole) to make sure you are doing things for the right reasons, is a good place to start.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Messengers have an important role in ‘speaking truth to power’. It is not a passive process without consequences.
  2. Sycophants and a culture of ‘good news only’ ruins it for everyone, and beware of being labeled an Axe Grinder – it makes it easier to be ignored.
  3. Use the James O’Toole checklist for being an effective (and brave) messenger that speaks truth to power.

Finally: I did promise to be more helpful in this post so here is the Top Six in my “Popular Culture, Spot the Sycophant, Axe Grinder or Brave Messenger Checklist” 

Please feel free to suggest others I can add. Just think: are these people speaking truth to power as sycophants, axe grinders or brave messengers?

IMG_2487Cassandra. Not Cassandra Trotter in the picture. Cassandra the Prophet  from Greek Mythology who was blessed with knowing the truth about the future but cursed with never being believed by those in power. Daniel Madge reliably informs me that Cassandra Trotter has similar traits to the Ancient Greek Cassandra. The name isn’t a coincidence.

IMG_2483Uriah Heep. From the Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield. A Yes Man.  Heep is known for his ‘cloying humility’, insincerity and obsequiousness. A sycophant in other words.  I’ve heard people being referred to as a ‘bit of a Uriah Heep’. Very unpleasant comparison. Please note: Not to be confused with the 1970s British Heavy Metal band.


IMG_2484Edmund Blackadder.  The Blackadder series of programmes has the lot when it comes to sycophants, shooting the messenger and all sorts of other terrible behaviour. If you want a study in ‘speaking truth to power’ have a look at the Elizabethan episodes where Blackadder is trying to speak the truth to Queen Bess.  The impact of a ‘good news only’ culture created by the sycophants like Lord Melchett makes it a struggle.

IMG_2486Salacious B. Crumb. I’m testing your knowledge of Star Wars minor characters here. Salacious B. Crumb is a Monkey Lizard from the planet of Kowakian, who is employed by Jabba the Hut to make him laugh once a day. Failure to do this will end up with Salacious being eaten by Jabba. A peculiar relationship between a subordinate and the boss.

Hercules, Pain and Panic. Hades from Disney’s Hercules has popped up already. Not a pleasant chap. Pain and Panic are Hades’ sidekicks/employees and perform dastardly deeds at his bidding. Bringing bad news to the boss frequently results in things much worse than just ‘shooting the messenger’. This video sums things up nicely, look out for the line from Hades when he is displeased at the news Pain and Panic give him, “Memo to Me. Remember to maim you after my meeting”.

Private Joker, Full Metal Jacket.  Private Joker is a US Marine Corps ‘Combat correspondent’ for Stars and Stripes during the Vietnam War, featured in the film Full Metal Jacket. The Peace Button scene where Private Joker tries to explain his philosophical concerns about war and the ‘onion thing’ to a Colonel. It is an interesting example of ‘speaking truth to power’. Private Joker is ‘rewarded’ for his message to the Colonel by being sent into the front line, where he might literally get shot.  This clip is well worth watching.

Here are a few additions to the list that have been suggested:

IMG_2491Qu Yuan and Sima Qian. Thanks to Jules Yim for these. Qu Yuan 343 -278 BC was a Chinese Statesman and poet who ended up drowning himself after being exiled by the people in power. Dragon Boat Racing is said to have originated from local people responding to his suicide. Sima Qian (pictured) was a Chinese Historian 145 – 86 BC. His reward for speaking the truth to power was, castration, imprisonment and a life of servitude.


Speaking Truth to Power Part1. 2500 years of Shooting the Messenger

Dilbert by Scott Adams Feb 1990.

Dilbert by Scott Adams Feb 1990.

I was going to start this post with a link to the opening scene from the film Gladiator. You know, the bit where Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) is waiting pensively for a messenger to return from telling the German Barbarians to surrender. All around his Roman Legions prepare for battle (very dramatic). The messenger does return (but not in good shape) and Maximus commands, in a slightly Aussie accent, “at my signal, unleash hell”.

It’s all very gruesome, so I thought I’d share a less frightening Dilbert Cartoon, even if it does involve Tar and Feathers. I’m sure you get the point though, shooting the messenger or doing other unpleasant things to people who bring bad news or speak truth to power, is a commonly understood concept. This is something that’s still quite widely practiced, even if its done metaphorically nowadays.

The best project management cartoon ever.

The best project management failure cartoon ever, I had to include this.

The Modern World of Project Management. I’ve recently been listening to people, who know a lot about project management, explain some of the reasons why projects fail. These weren’t casual observers, they knew their stuff: Tony Whitehead from UK Cabinet Office Major Projects Authority; Steve Edwards from the Project Management Institute; James Scrimshire from Adaptagility, Ray MacNeil from the Government of Nova Scotia, Kath McGrath from Cwm Taff Health Board, Louise Payne from Wrexham Council and Richard Wilson from Welsh Government.

The big thing I took from their combined wisdom was, not telling the truth to power contributes to very many project failures.

Paraphrasing some of the discussions, the problem starts with people not being prepared to tell those in power that things aren’t quite going to plan / something isn’t working / it’s all gone horribly wrong!

This ‘over optimistic reporting’ (aka Green Shifting) can have dire consequences. In extreme cases this can be when the person in charge delightedly receives the news that everything is ‘a green light’, and pushes for more progress. The result is driving something that is already a problem over the cliff and into disaster. There are plenty of high-profile examples you can read about on 101 Common Reasons Why Projects Fail, and also learn about interesting terms like ‘Green Shifting’ from a major BBC project failure.

Failure to Speak the Truth to Power. Its been interesting to talk about this phenomenon. Almost everyone recognises it. It’s not just about projects, it happens everywhere (think Mid Staffs Hospital), and it’s not just about large-scale activities.

The Darth Choke…"you failed to allocate me an executive parking space"….

The Vader Choke…”you failed to allocate me an executive parking space”….

It is tempting at this point to think that this is just a problem with the bosses. You know the type, the Darth Vader wannabe.

The image of the ‘Vader Choke’, being applied to a hapless Death Star Employee after some failure is a Star Wars classic. Most people will have encountered, or heard of, their very own organisational Darth Vader (and it’s not restricted to males).

But it’s not  just the fault of the bosses. I’m grateful to Ray MacNeil for pointing out that this is a complex problem that involves more than just the boss. Organisation systems and culture often prevent people speaking truth to power, even if the ultimate boss is willing to listen. This recent example of a whistleblower from the UK Treasury illustrates the point.

Newport Chartist Riots 1839, 22 shootings. Details below.

Newport Chartist Riots 1839, 22 shootings. Details below.

Just how long has this been going on? Well, at least 2500 years. Old Tales of New Leadership, Organisational Culture and Ethics, by James O’Toole from the University of Santa Clara is well worth reading. The article starts with description of the 4th century BC Greek play, Antigone. I won’t spoil it (have a read for yourself), but the challenges of speaking truth to power from 2500 years ago seem very fresh and relevant today. Change the names of the actors, and any of the people I spoke to about project management failures last week would recognise the situation.

So what can you do? The honest  answer? If its been going on 2500 years, I’m probably  not going to give you the solution in this blog…… well not in this post. The article by James O’Toole does contain some very useful material which I will expand on in some future posts. Like: Speaking the Truth to Power Pt2. Messengers; Sycophants, Axe Grinders and The Brave.

In the meantime, if it is any comfort, your project failures that are a result of not speaking the truth to power have a very strong heritage, over 2500 years of it. You are helping to keep ancient traditions alive.

So What’s the PONT?

  1. The failure to speak truth to power, or shooting the messenger, is an age-old problem at least 2500 years old.
  2. The consequences of failing to speak truth to power can be catastrophic.
  3. It’s a complex problem; Leaders, Messengers and the Organisation all contribute, although bosses do have a big part to play in fixing it.

Linked Posts: Agile Project Management. http://whatsthepont.com/2012/12/02/agile-project-management-and-a-naval-bombardment-in-newport-south-wales/

Picture Sources:

Newport Chartists: My pictures, murals on display at Newport Civic Centre. Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newport_Rising  More pictures below

Dilbert Cartoon: http://search.dilbert.com/search?w=shoot+the+messenger&x=-736&y=-184 

Project Management Failure:  impossible to find a source – its everywhere

Vader Choke: Try Wookiepedia – Star Wars wiki http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Telekinesis


Newport Chartist Riots 1839, 22 shootings. Details below.

Newport Chartist Riots 1839, 22 shootings.


Corporate Reporting – What can we learn from Fast Food Vendors?

Fried Egg and Chives. Scroll down for more.

Fried Egg and Chives.
Scroll down for more deliciousness

“A picture is worth a thousand words…, “ an idea that is universally recognised, frequently used in business, but not often seen where it might have most impact – Senior Executive/Board meetings.

Descriptive text still dominates most senior level reports, often using ‘corpspeak’; a peculiar form of jargon developed by people like *The Head of Corporate Performance Management Policy Impact Reporting (*I made up the job title, but you know the sort I mean).

If you look at the explanation of, “a picture paints a thousand words” it is difficult to argue against the case for using more pictures. It describes the idea that “a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single still image…..making it possible to absorb large amounts of data quickly….. ” What’s not to like? Imagine a ‘Report to Board’ that contained just pictures of the impact of a decision they had taken. Imagine this happening all the time.

So why the fried egg? You might now be wondering about the fried egg picture? It’s actually a model of a fried egg, right down to the false chopped chives. I took the photograph outside a restaurant in Vancouver where the menu was full scale plastic models of the food they offered. You might have mixed views about the models (and some of the food, scroll down to see the full picture collage), but one thing isn’t in doubt, you know exactly what you are going to get….. fried egg with chives!

High Tech meets Traditional Fish and Chips at BIG SAMS

High Tech meets Traditional Fish and Chips at BIG SAMS

BIG SAMS, Pontyclun. This kind of clear and precise communication isn’t limited to cool and cosmopolitan Vancouver. In South Wales we have a few fast food outlets that make the most of pictures to show you exactly what you’ll be getting.

I expect you’ve seen picture menus, but what about 36″ colour TV monitors enticing you with what’s available?

Perfect if you are heading home from the Rugby Club, slightly ‘over refreshed’, and struggling to vocalise your urgent need for Chips, Curry Sauce and Cheese (a Welsh version of Poutine for Canadian readers). Just point at the picture on the screen and problem solved.

But it’s not all good news. This week I encountered one of those ‘posh’ restaurant menus that didn’t make a lot of sense. ‘Burger and chips’ was translated into ‘Burger Normandie’, with a very exotic explanation of the meal.

An parody of a menu - but its not that far off the mark

An parody of a menu – but its not that far off the mark. Link below to the source, worth a look!

The consequence was my kids freaking out over what was served,…. I mean who puts Brie on a burger!

I won’t go on about it, the point I’m trying to get to is that a combination of a text only menu, using unusual words caused quite a lot of confusion.

Is this all deliberate? The fast food picture menu experience compared to the ‘high end’ restaurant text only menu does make me wonder. If your objective is to clearly communicate to your customers, leaving them in no doubt about what they are getting for their money, the pictures win every time. If that’s the case, why don’t you get pictures used higher up the food chain in posh restaurants?

I suspect this might ruffle a few feathers but is this a case of, ‘that’s the way we like it’! Vendors use extravagant words as a disguise to make things sound better than they really are. Also, there are no pictures because, ‘that’s what they do in fast food joints’. All a form of ‘food snobbery’, deliberately used to confuse and exclude the masses?

Just a quick observation here, with so many people nowadays photographing their food, and sharing the pictures on social media, are the days of the text only menu numbered anyway? If you think about it, it’s the foodies who do a lot of this….. it must be a nightmare running a posh restaurant with wi-fi.

So what has this got to do with corporate reporting? I think there are some interesting links here with the world of corporate reporting. At the front line it’s a bit like the fast food vendor; keep it simple so that everyone understands. The higher up the organisation, the more ‘refined’ the reporting.

This week I was lucky enough to see some visual management techniques in action at an aircraft engine maintenance company. Pictures of how things work were everywhere. Ones that really impressed me were collections of continuous improvement actions. Basically a single page with a ‘before and after’ picture and a few text bullet points explaining why the action was taken and the benefits.

In my experience, this type of reporting rarely finds it’s way into reports for senior people. You might get a few graphs or tables, but rarely pictures. I do wonder why? It’s not like the technology is any sort of barrier.

Is there something else going on… a bit like posh restaurant food snobbery towards the pictures used by fast food vendors? Do we have the corporate reporting equivalent of picture snobbery?   ….. “those pictures are fine for the front line workers to manage their performance, but what we need is carefully crafted text….. prepared by an expert skilled in drafting corpspeak”. Ultimately not something that helps with communication and widespread understanding.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Pictures are effective at helping people understand complicated ideas and take in a large amount of information.
  2. With modern technology it is possible to make much wider use of pictures in business reporting.
  3. Before this approach becomes more widespread, we might have to overcome the corporate reporting equivalent of ‘posh restaurant snobbery’ towards the fast food vendor picture menus.

Picture Source: http://www.guysamericankitchenandbar.com via http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/20/guy-fieri-parody-site_n_2724234.html

Note 1. I have posted about the use of graphic recording and minutes previously. These are a great way of capturing complicated ideas and presenting them clearly. More on that and the continuous improvement visual management sheets to follow. Link here: http://whatsthepont.com/2012/08/10/graphic-facilitation-so-much-better-than-my-notes/

Note 2. I should also point out, in a previous life, I used to prepare Corporate Performance Monitoring Reports for senior management meetings, written in corpepeak …. Yes I am ashamed of myself.

Full size models of the food thats on offer

Full size models of the food on offer in a Vancouver restaurant

Is annoying your service users a good way to build community action?

Closing a library can upset a lot of people

Closing a library can upset a lot of people

Deliberately setting out to upset and annoy people isn’t an approach I’d routinely recommend, but please stick with me.

Here are three things to think about, and how they might be combined to help to build better communities that can deliver the services they require:

  1. Doing something wrong, and then putting it right, builds stronger brand loyalty.
  2. Closing the local library/hospital/school/park really gets local people annoyed and quite often results in a strong community response (a protest group).
  3. Every community has assets that can be used to help that community.

1. Putting something right to build brand loyalty. This seems to be a well accepted approach in the world of customer services and retail. The basic idea is that if you do something wrong, and then put it right, your customers will be really pleased with you. So pleased with you that they will become much more loyal customers, or ‘raving fans’ as the marketing types like to say. The people who complain are the passionate ones, the ones that care about your product, and the ones you can work with.

There is a fair bit written about this idea in books like ‘A Complaint is a Gift’ and online sources like ‘UP! Your Service’ where Ron Kaufman talks about ‘When Service Goes Wrong, Bounce Back to Improve Customer Loyalty’.

I have heard about this in connection with Dell Computers who apparently resolve 97% of complaints and 40% of those who complained are turned into ‘raving fans’. What sparked my interest in this approach was an anecdote about how British Airways handled customer complaints, unfortunately I cannot find a link to it. If anyone has more detail about it (or it’s just an urban myth rolled out on training courses) I would be very grateful.

Based on what I’ve experienced I don’t think the concept is widely understood or applied in many public services.

2. Closing local public services gets local people annoyed (and upset). I don’t  think I need to expand upon this point very much.


Here is a picture of Margaret Willoughby who chained herself to a bookcase in the protest to save Rhydyfelin Library from closure.

There will be many examples of local groups who have done the similar things to save their, park / hospital / school / day-care centre or any other public service that is facing the axe.

The Rhydyfelin Library Support Group site is with looking at as an example of a highly motivated community getting organised and achieving what it set out to do. Powerful community groups often develop in these situations.

3. Every community has assets. Have a look at this video of Cormac Russell explaining how communities can do incredible things, and why governments need to allow them to do  this. Cormac talks about every community having assets and the importance of working with what a community ‘has’ and can contribute, rather than what it doesn’t have or what public services can provide. The is a lot of helpful information about Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) on the Nurture Development site.

How do these things join up?  Have I made any sense so far? I did ask for you to please stick with me, here is my logic:

  1. Public services are going to be doing things that will annoy service users over the next few years.
  2. Closing some facilities looks inevitable.
  3. Local people will get very annoyed and upset.
  4. Many will organise themselves to fight against the closure.
  5. These are passionate people, people who care – the ones the customer services experts from retail say that you could turn into ‘raving fans’.
  6. Stick with me here – this is the scary bit.
  7. Work with these people to come up with a better solution, they aren’t the enemy.
  8. Have a look at the video from Cormac Russell for ideas how this might work.
  9. At the end you might have a vibrant, engaged community delivering services for itself.

Obviously, setting out to annoy and upset your service users isn’t what most public services would do deliberately. However, if you are going to do unpopular things, you could use the ‘annoyance’ for a positive purpose. Look out for who gets most annoyed. These might just be the people who could help you make things better and the ones you need to work with the most.

Finally, the community group that forms to protest about a closure could have far greater benefit to the community for years to come. They might not end up as ‘raving fans’ of the council / health board, but they will be doing good for the community.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. People who complain about products or services are worth listening to, carefully, they care.
  2. The ‘complainers’ may have the answers to the problems, or may even help you solve them.
  3. Think about using potentially difficult decisions to identify the ‘complainers’ so that you can work with them, and help develop something that has a long-term benefit.

One last thing, there is a very relevant quote from Margaret J Wheatley, “All change, even large and very powerful change, begins when a few people start talking with one another about something they care about”. I suspect this might have happened at Rhydyfelin Library.


http://www.upyourservice.com/learning-library/customer-service-guarantees/when-service-goes-wrong-bounce-back  Copyright, Ron Kaufman. Used with permission.Ron Kaufman is the world’s leading educator and motivator for upgrading customer service and uplifting service culture. He is author of the bestselling “UP! Your Service” books and founder of UP! Your Service. To enjoy more customer service training and service culture articles, visit UpYourService.com.


Nurture Development  http://www.nurturedevelopment.org

The Listening Service. Busting Jargon, Including People and Improving the Tweets

The Party Blower An effective Jargon Buster As used by Barod CIC

The Party Blower
An effective Jargon Buster
As used by Barod CIC

I go to lots of conferences and seminars. The result of this, (apart from the addiction to buffet food) is that I now speak a different language – ‘Jargy Jargy’ or Jargon, “the specialist language for a specific activity or group of people” (I’ve gone on about this before).

If you stop and think about it for a moment, I’m sure lots of people will recognise the affliction, if you aren’t suffering yourself (you are probably fibbing), you will know someone who is.

My Jargy Jargy affliction has been troubling me a lot lately. I’ve been particularly concerned because I’ve been speaking at co-productuion meetings with Working With No To (a network of people doing co-production in Wales). Co-production is all about working together, no barriers, everyone included, no speaking down to people. Real people come to these events! How on earth are they going to understand the nonsense I garble at 300 words a minute, let alone the jargon I use?

Well the good news is that I’m working on my fast talking and trying to eliminate the jargon. But the really good news, I’ve experienced the Listening Service from Barod CIC, a community interest company which specialised in clear communication and making services accessible to everyone.

The Barod Listening Service. The easiest way to understand the Listening Service is to read the Barod Blog and look at this video:

The main things you need to know:

  • What speakers say is translated into clear language as they speak,
  • You can use headsets to listen to the translation, and
  • Speakers (some, not all) will change what they say, and how they say it.

What is the impact of the Listening Service? Having been in the room when the Listening Service is being provided I’ve seen interesting things happen. Some speakers have completely changed their presentations. It’s funny how the realisation that you are going to be ‘translated’ helps people do what they should have been doing in the first place. I know it had a big impact on me.

The best way to show some of the impact of the Listening Service are three tweets about the Re-shaping services with the Public event I was at last week (have a look at the summary of the #reshapeservices storify of the tweets here). This was the first time the Listening Service has been used fully, and the feedback is impressive (and interesting).

20140720-132209-48129211.jpgThis pretty much says it all about inclusion and allowing everyone to access what was going on in the event……“today is the 1st time we’ve been a real part”. Imaging if we could reach that level of involvement in all conferences, particularly if they are talking about ‘service user needs’ and co-production.


This is an interesting one I never expected, but now I think about it, it makes perfect sense. Whilst I was sitting there trying to translate what was being said, and share it with the outside world via Twitter, I must admit, I did struggle on times. It would have been far easier to pick out the ‘Tweetable’ gems of information from the Listening Service and share them, rather than try to do two jobs at once.


This is a bit of a sobering thought. I did some of the speaking on the day. Was this my slot where “nothing had really been said”? It might have been, I was mostly doing the housekeeping notices and continuity, so I can cope with that…. but it’s a huge lesson. If the Listening Service is silent whist you are speaking, that’s because you aren’t saying anything very useful…. have a think about that,… the ultimate test of conference presentation usefulness!

One final thing. You might have spotted the party blower picture at the top and were wondering what it is all about?  Barod also ran a workshop which involved people blowing the party blowers when they heard jargon in a passage of typical public service communication that was being read out. I was in the room next door, it was a riot of noise.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Specialist groups or topics do develop a language of jargon that is often helpful in how they communicate with each other, within the group or about the topic.
  2. People from outside the group can be excluded if they don’t understand the jargon, or it isn’t translated for them.
  3. The Listening Service is a useful way of breaking through jargon (Jargy Jargy) used at conferences and seminars, and also provides other benefits of; including people, providing Tweetable messages, and it is the ultimate test of… how useful is your presentation.

 Linked Posts:

Jargon, a tool of exclusion? https://whatsthepont.com/2013/04/28/jargon-a-tool-of-exclusion-efficient-technical-language-or-just-the-cheeping-of-birds/



No such thing as a dysfunctional organisation, and you get the politicians you deserve

20140715-073326-27206310.jpgA while ago I was in the kitchen, making tea for my late Father In-Law, and having a good old moan about some local politicians. You know the sort of thing…. “I cannot believe that Councillor X has failed to do Y…..”, spoken with passion and righteous indignation.

My Father in-Law, who had an uncanny habit of teaching me huge lessons when I was least expecting, quietly commented…. “yes, we get the politicians we deserve”. I didn’t actually drop the tea-pot, but it did stop me in my tracks. He was absolutely right.

We get the politicians we deserve. Those words from my Father In-Law were very logical and completely correct. I live in a democracy, every 4 years I have the chance to put myself forward to stand for local political office. If I don’t like what the current politicians are doing (or think I can do a better job), all I have to do is get elected and prove it, or help someone else who I think will to a better job. It’s as straightforward as that.

By not being prepared to stand myself, not voting in the election or not expressing a view and taking an interest; I really do get what I deserve. The democratic process, no matter how imperfect, does give you the opportunity to get better politicians, the ones you truly deserve. That moment of enlightenment sticks with me, my Father In-Law very politely telling me to, put up or shut up”; thank you Tony.

An experiment in industrial democracy

An experiment in industrial democracy

Do we get the organisations we deserve? If all organisations and companies were run along democratic lines I would be tempted to say yes.

Most aren’t, but here is an interesting example, The John Lewis Partnership. In the words of its founder John Spedan Lewis, an ‘experiment in industrial democracy’.

It is worth looking at the John Lewis Partnership constitution and the various democratic bodies they’ve created to ensure that an individual partner (staff) can feed their opinions back into the main decision making bodies. Every employee is a partner and, ‘the happiness of its members’ is the ultimate purpose of the Partnership. Imagine that in your place of work………… while you are doing that, here are a  few questions to ponder:

By most measures John Lewis is a very successful example of an industrial democracy. The way it operates allows its staff to create exactly the organisation they want and deserve.

No such thing as a dysfunctional organisation

No such thing as a dysfunctional organisation

It will never happen here. Thats enough fantasy for one day, let’s get back to the real world.

Recently I heard a clever Professor at a conference using the phrase “you get the organisation you deserve”. I must admit I was quite excited, could this be an example of industrial democracy and employee voice having a positive impact?

Unfortunately not, I’d mis-heard what was being said. What he was going on about was a quote from a book, ‘The Practice of Adaptive Leadership’ by Heifetz, Grashow and Linksy. “There is a myth that drives many change initiatives into the ground: that the organization needs to change because it is broken. The reality is that any social system (including an organization or a country or a family) is the way it is because the people in that system (at least those individuals and factions with the most leverage) want it that way…As our colleague Jeff Lawrence poignantly says, There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organisation, because every organisation is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it gets.” 

Pause and have a think about this for a moment, there is no such thing as a dysfunctional organisation, because every organisation is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it gets. Quite sobering isn’t it.

What do you do if you find yourself in a dysfunctional organisation? I suppose this boils down to a few choices:

  • If you are an individual or part of a group with most leverage in your organisation you could change things …. if you really want to.
  • If you are a lowly worker with no leverage you can ‘put up or shut up’. If you ‘shut up’, just be aware of the consequences; ‘if you sup with the devil use a long spoon’.
  • You could ‘put up’, make a stand and try to change the organisation. This is a very laudable thing to do, but is likely to come with consequences. Standing up for the right thing is tough in a democracy, but within a ‘closed’ organisation, it could be errr … ‘career limiting’.

No easy answers here I’m afraid. Ultimately I suppose we do get the politicians and organisations we deserve. If the political is bad or the organisation dysfunctional, we have all had our part in making it happen.

So, whats the PONT?

  1. In the democratic process it is relatively straightforward to see the link between your own involvement and getting the politicians you deserve. In organisations things are less clear.
  2. ‘Put up or Shut up’ is sound advice, if you aren’t prepared to take action, stop complaining.
  3. If your organisation is dysfunctional, what part did you play in making it that way?

Picture Sources:

John Lewis Constitution http://www.johnlewispartnership.co.uk/about/our-constitution.html

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership http://www.amazon.com/The-Practice-Adaptive-Leadership-Organization/dp/1422105768

Related Posts: If you sup with the devil, make sure you use a long spoon. https://whatsthepont.com/2012/09/23/dysfunctional-organisations-can-turn-a-good-person-bad/





Be. More. Human. The Killer App v Designing Out The Idiot


Mark Schaefer being completely Human at Summer School Wales

Mark Schaefer being completely Human at Academi Wales Summer School

Huge thanks to Mark Schaefer for the midweek boost at Academi Wales Summer School. It was a fantastic gallop through ‘everything you need to know about social media marketing’, there’s a great graphic of the presentation at the end of the post. Its the third time I’ve seen Mark speak and as previously; he was very entertaining, highly thought provoking and completely human; which was his key takeaway: in the digital world, Be. More. Human, the Killer App.

You can read more of what Mark has to say about Be More Human on his blog. This all made perfect sense to me, and I ended up in a (late night) conversation proposing that organisations should be more human.

It went along the lines of …..If people are encouraged to be a bit more human, the organisation will be more human, and this will lead to good things like more trust and greater compassion. It was late at night, and I have been thinking about ‘can you teach compassion and kindness’ quite a lot recently.

It seemed to me that by embracing social media, there was opportunity for Be More Human, which has so many benefits. Just to confirm the thinking is right, this morning I read, ‘how leaders can get more from social media’  where Helen Reynolds encourages CEOs to embrace social media and become more human.

So, diving headfirst into social media is the right thing to do….. or is it?

Designing out the Idiot. Many years ago I was involved in a project where one of the key success criteria was, ‘design out the idiot’. Our thinking had gone along the lines of; this process needs to work perfectly, the way people behave is the biggest problem we face, lets design it so that they cannot get it wrong.

Nothing much wrong with that logic, other than:

  • we ended up thinking of everyone as idiots,
  • the process was designed to meet the lowest common denominator,
  • it was highly controlled, prescriptive and complicated,
  • nobody liked it, and
  • in the end most people ignored the process and found a better way to do the job.

It was a massive failure. There is an interesting link here to how lots of organisations have behaved in relation to social media. When I think about a number of ‘design out the idiot’ social media policies I’ve seen over the years (and other HR policies for that matter), there is still a long distance to travel.

Being Human is really messy.  Back to the point I’m trying make, to Be More Human, you need to accept that people are really messy. As well as the desk covered in papers and clothes all over the floor type of of messy this also means:

  • Lack of Uniformity – no two people are alike, what is acceptable and reasonable for one person, may outrage the next person.
  • Unpredictability – different groups of people respond differently to the same situation, and the same group may respond differently on different days, you just cannot accurately predict.
  • Failure – people get things wrong, lots of the time. This can vary from completely accidental mistakes through to deliberate acts of sabotage and malicious compliance.

So what can you do? If we want to Be More Human, we need to accept the human messiness that comes along with it; lack of uniformity, unpredictability and a fair bit of failure.

This means a move away from the ‘design out the idiot’ approach and look for opportunities in what is going to happen anyway. Work with the grain of what is happening rather than try to constrain and prohibit.

From my own experiences I think that it is price worth paying for the benefits you get. Let people have a go, let them fail, let them Be More Human.

Perhaps social media is the best testing ground for people and organisations to try out if they are capable of becoming more human?

If as public services we are mostly in the ‘people business’, maybe this should the the territory where we test ourselves – starting with the HR Professionals (well, they do write most of the policies).

Thanks to Mark for being human and giving us the opportunity to think about how we Be. More. Human.

So, What’s the PONT? 

  1. Anything involving people is a messy old business.
  2. Trying to dehumanise processes and policies (design out the idiot) is pointless – we always find a way around.
  3. Social media might just offer the opportunity to test ourselves and ‘Be More Human’ – then apply that learning to everything else.

Finally, remember; Be. More. Human. isn’t just for social media…. its for life.

Everything you need to know about social media marketing, graphic of Mark’s talk by Rachel Walsh, who works with Fran O’Hara, they did all of the graphic notes during the whole week of Summer School. https://twitter.com/RachelWalsh/status/481872544887484416/photo/1

Graphic of Mark Schaefr's talk via Fran O' Hara http://www.franohara.com

Graphic of Mark Schaefr’s talk via Fran O’ Hara http://www.franohara.com


Here's Mark, The Graphic from Rachel and Me I should have taken the hat off - who wears a hat indoors, really what was I thinking…..

Here’s Mark, The Graphic from Rachel and Me
I should have taken the hat off – who wears a hat indoors, really what was I thinking…..