Archive for March, 2011

Last week I experienced my first “Anecdote Circles” (see here for a white paper). Thank you, Ron, it was an enjoyable and fascinating experience. I see this as a form of brainstorming, but there are some interesting differences between anecdote circles and the brainstorming approaches and techniques we use from Creative Problem Solving and Synectics. Here are some first thoughts:

  • When done properly, all brainstorming should be fun. But I found this process particularly fun, energising and engaging. Why? Is it because there is sharing and/or learning taking place? Does the exercise have a particularly high “ah-ha!” factor? Is it an emotional outlet, an opportunity for commiseration, for getting things off your chest, for telling the truth? Is it an opportunity for recognition, for self-actualisation? Is it the camaraderie it generates, the feeling of all being in the same boat together? Was it just me?
  • Participants get to speak and listen to each other a lot. There is a high ratio of speaking to post-its compared to other post-it based brainstorming. Participants are only required to generate one or two post-its per anecdote.
  • You would use anecdote circles for generating lessons learned and sharing experiences rather than for generating ideas, although ideas could be a final output of a workshop using anecdote circles. Possible outputs from anecdote circles:
    • “War stories” about service delivery
    • Tips, tricks, how tos, do’s and don’ts, recommendations, ideas: knowledge shared
    • Material to start designing signifiers
    • Information about complex spaces, such as trends, weak signals, etc.
    • The themes can be used as headings for a presentation or summary or for chapters for a book on the topic under discussion
    • The themes can be used  for a gap-analysis (where we are now as opposed to where we want to be)
    • It can provide material to define archetypes for exploring culture, values, profiles, etc.
    • The high points and low points in people’s stories can provide material for inspiring speeches/stories/presentations  using the technique of contrasting worst with best, current with potential, problems and solutions, etc.
  • The best thing about SenseMaker (a suite of software applications developed by Cognitive Edge to extract patterns from the types of output you can get from anecdote circles) is that it removes the need to converge after divergence. It provides a promise of outputs, results, data, so that you can treat the anecdote circle as an end in itself, without the need to engage in horrid, mood-dampening convergent techniques.
  • In our first anecdote circle, where the objective was to generate material to identify signifiers (about which more next post), I was happy to stop after the clustering, whereas after the second anecdote circle, where the objective was to explore marketing issues, I felt the need to “do some convergence”, to arrive at a point where I had something I could “take away.” I did not want to do an action plan. I did not want to do a gap analysis. In the end, Julia suggested we quickly go around the themes and generate one or two post-its about “what we got” from each cluster. This was better than nothing, but Julia had also suggested that this would have been a good time to do a Synectics-type idea development exercise, i.e. to choose some “appealing and intriguing” post-its (of which there were plenty) and explore them as ideas, which may or may not lead to some actions. I think this would have worked well.
  • The question “what did you get from this?” helps you to actively listen and can produce a variety of types of response. (NB: it is difficult to translate this question into French and Italian.) Prompts such as “What’s the moral/significance of the story?” (the output will be moral lessons, lessons learned) “What did you hear?” and ”What’s the story about?” (people re-tell the story) give outputs that are too specific.
  • You are only supposed to generate 1 or 2 post-its per story, and use 5-6 words to express what you got out of the anecdote. I rarely respected this word limit. Sometimes I was quoting what people said. What would be the ideal output for this exercise? Why 5-6 words? You’re already constrained by the size of the post it. Synectics provides detailed instructions for generating output during a brainstorming: it should read like a “headline”, it should be expressed in positive language (whether you are expressing an idea, a concern, a reflection, etc.) and it should be expressed as a “How to…/I wish…” question/statement. This kind of output provokes further ideas, questions, reflections, etc., until you get to a point where you can start saying “what you do”, i.e. describing actions. What if you asked people to write “what they got from the story” as a Synectics-type output? Why not?

Your thoughts, responses, answers are very welcome.


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Jurgen Appelo recently blogged a list of top 15 systems thinking books, and spurred me into finishing this post on systems thinking resources, with an emphasis on Socio-Technical Systems. It is not really a return booklist, which may come later.  Of his books, I would advocate Gerry Weinberg (very strongly), Checkland, Gall, and Ackoff. Some of the books on his list were purchasing mistakes by me, and others I have not read.

The real reason for the post is that we have had about sixty years of Socio-Technical Systems and systems thinking.  Anniversaries are sometimes hard to pin to specific events, and wikipedia says that Socio-Technical Systems (STS) is a phrase that was coined in the 1960s.  I won’t argue but it is 60 years since the key investigation by Trist and Bamforth into coal mining.

The classic paper by Trist on the first 30 years of STS is available on-line.  It is interesting to note how well the principles of work design and how to analyse a system have stood the test of time:

  1. An initial scanning is made of all the main aspects – technical and social- of the selected target system – that is, department or plant to be studied.
  2. The unit operations – that is, the transformations (changes of state) of the material or product that take place in the target system – are then identified, whether carried out by men or machines.
  3. An attempt is made to discover the key variances and their interrelations. A variance is key if it significantly affects (1) either the quantity or quality of production, and (2) either the operating or social costs of production.
  4. A table of variance control is then drawn up to ascertain how far the key variances are controlled by the social system – the workers, supervisors, and managers concerned. Investigation is made of what variances are imported or exported across the social-system boundary.
  5. A separate inquiry is made into social-system members’ perception of their roles and of role possibilities as well as constraining factors.
  6. Attention then shifts to neighboring systems, beginning with the support or maintenance system.
  7. Attention continues to the boundary-crossing systems on the input and output side – that is, supplier and user systems.
  8. The target system and its immediate neighbors are then considered in the context of the general management system of the organization as regards the effects of policies or development plans of either a technical or social nature.
  9. Recycling occurs at any stage, eventually culminating in design proposals for the target and/or neighboring systems.

The STS approach used in the Volvo plants at Kalmar and Uddevalla has been compared to the Toyota Production System, say at NUMMI e.g. here and here (pdf) . A difference between the two is the emphasis on learning at a group level vs. at an organizational level. For most people, however, the similarities are more important than the differences.
The STS story continues:

The Tavistock Institute is alive and well.
The A.K. Rice Institute celebrated 40 years last year and has some useful resources.
Ken Eason and Lisl Klein at the Bayswater institute have  papers and books that continue the STS approach, including this review (.pdf).

To summarize; STS and related systems thinking works, has much to offer our current working and technical environment, and is supported by a solid body of open source resources.I

Useful links (in no particular order)  include:
A presentation on Smart Work, Making it Happen.
A paper (.pdf) on fifty years of systems thinking for management
A learning Society in Scotland
Strategos material on STS
Paul Pangaro
John Hunter’s Curious Cat resources
A paper by William Hunter on doing more with less in the public sector
Complexity Digest
International Society for the Systems Sciences
UK Systems Society
Derek Hitchins
Open University Systems Thinking  resources and courses such as T214
Institute for the Study of Complex Systems
Complex Systems Roadmaps
and of course our friends at Cognitive Edge

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Yesterday, I went to the NESTA event ‘Engaging Communities in Public Service Innovation in Scotland‘.
After good food and discussion, the afternoon was opened by Campbell Christie of the Christie Commission (Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services) telling us about the work of the Commission to date.
There is still a time for submissions, and he was seeking evidence on the following:

  • The effectivenesss of multi-function outcome-focused teams;
  • Co-production, working together (cf.  NESTA report);
  • More general use of outcomes e.g. for governance, budgets, professional standards, performance.

There was then a panel session chaired by Stian Westlake – Executive Director for Policy & Research, NESTA.
On the panel were:
Karyn McCluskey – Violence Reduction Unit, Strathclyde Police
Jim McCormick – Scotland Adviser, Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Alex Massie – The Spectator
Lorraine McMillan – Chief Executive, East Renfrewshire Council

The questions were many and varied, and the panel offered wide-ranging insights and experience without rants or rambles. In my experience, panel sessions often fail and NESTA deserves credit for this one’s success.

Karyn McCluskey told of the power of re-perception, thinking about violence as a disease.

Gordon Hall of the Deming Learning Network asked a ‘systems thinking’ question about the need to move from top-down command and control, based on its submissions to the Commission. This got nods of agreement from the panel but not the discussion the topic warranted. Some of the experiences quoted during the afternoon sounded  like co-production and personalization were being grafted onto the existing silos, and not part of a move to an outside-in organization, with  its attendant simplification.

From an Argenta point of view,

  • Our approach to developing ‘creative intrapreneurs’ found resonance in discussion.  For us, an intrapreneur is an employee of a large organisation who has many of the characteristics of the start-up entrepreneur in that he/she has the desire and the skills to turn invention into innovation using the resources and capabilities of the organisation, despite the rigidities of behaviour and process that are commonly found in large enterprises.
  • The need to ‘build capacity in a short time’ is certainly  a familiar challenge.
  • Alan Drummond was delighted to hear that Lorraine McMillan had been a physicist concerned with technical innovation in a previous life!

    For me, the highlight was the question from Jim in the audience about changing from care to empowerment, based on a partnership of equals, and the honesty of Karyn McCluskey’s reply. The concern was the lack of urgency throughout the afternoon. The sign that we are making progress will be when people stop talking about ‘service delivery’, the killer indicator of pre-defined ‘push’ rather than user-centred ‘pull’.

    ‘The ambulance down in the valley’  was relevant to more than the discussion on early years investment.

    A Fence or an Ambulance
    by Joseph Malins (1895)
    -a poem about prevention –

    ‘Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,
    though to walk near its crest was so pleasant;
    but over its terrible edge there had slipped
    a duke and full many a peasant.

    So the people said something would have to be done,
    but their projects did not at all tally;
    some said, ‘Put a fence ’round the edge of the cliff, ‘
    some, ‘An ambulance down in the valley.’

    But the cry for the ambulance carried the day,
    for it spread through the neighbouring city;
    a fence may be useful or not, it is true,
    but each heart became full of pity
    for those who slipped over the dangerous cliff;

    And the dwellers in highway and alley
    gave pounds and gave pence, not to put up a fence,
    but an ambulance down in the valley.

    ‘For the cliff is all right, if your careful, ‘ they said,
    ‘and if folks even slip and are dropping,
    it isn’t the slipping that hurts them so much
    as the shock down below when they’re stopping.’

    So day after day, as these mishaps occurred,
    quick forth would those rescuers sally
    to pick up the victims who fell off the cliff,
    with their ambulance down in the valley.

    Then an old sage remarked: ‘It’s a marvel to me
    that people give far more attention
    to repairing results than to stopping the cause,
    when they’d much better aim at prevention.

    Let us stop at its source all this mischief, ‘ cried he,
    ‘come, neighbours and friends, let us rally;
    if the cliff we will fence, we might almost dispense
    with the ambulance down in the valley.’

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Off to Dumfries yesterday in the Toyota. Lovely run. Please don’t tell people how beautiful Nithsdale is, I don’t want it full of tourists (not true). My object was a workshop on Business Storytelling given by  Bill Gemmell and Alison Smith.  It was a  useful session; practical information, thought-provoking exercises and a range of  fascinating folk there.

We talked about triggers in business stories. Bill had diagnosed that my own website uses an ‘Alarm’ trigger. Correct diagnosis, but perhaps not the right trigger for most people starting out on major projects. ‘Lust’ was an obvious one for Cream O’ Galloway ice cream but there were much more unexpected stories about the people involved, their approach to farming, and Made Fair ice cream.

This got me wondering about engineering and Lust.  There is a popular romantic appeal to engineering in Britain, but it is generally seen as conflicting with business success. “The only thing Brunel did that made money was the Great Eastern”, and the popular perception of Concorde as a technical success but a financial disaster. Where does Innovation stand in relation to romance and lust? My own experience of heroic struggles in engineering, getting people to change their ways and e.g. use modular design and build, is that it is not good for the bottom line (or the blood pressure). Working in organizations with a high level of process capability doesn’t have heroism, just extreme focus and professionalism at a terrifying speed.

So is innovation “Naughty but Nice” to re-use a phrase? Should engineering kill the romance (and lose good people coming into the profession)?

This, on the day that Bristol Cars went into receivership. Try to de-construct  your own attitudes to the brand, the company and the cars. Me, I thought about George. He used to drive Bristols for the works racing team, and I haven’t seen him in a while.

The New York Times had a good article on the death of “the wizard of Sony” Nobutoshi Kihara  with a lovely quote about teaching people to build exceptional products “Anyone can find out the common sense things, and my role is not to teach common sense.”

Links from that article took me to the IEEE Oral Histories Collection. Plenty of romance there.

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