Discipline makes Daring possible.

Bleak House – a never-ending story

Bleak House – a never-ending story

The young engineer was sitting, legs dangling into the inspection chamber, looking disgruntled.

“What are you up to?”  I asked him.

“Installing fibre-optic cabling.”

“Ooooh!  Does that mean we’ll be able to get fibre to the home?”

“Yes, eventually.   But I don’t know how long that will be.   There are just so many blockages.”

“Well, it’s old wiring round here isn’t it.” I was thinking metaphorical blockages.

“It’s not that, it’s literally soil, blocking up the conduits.   A pressure washer would clear it, or maybe they’ll have to dig.   I just want to install it, and I can’t.”

Half an hour later, he and his mate have gone, leaving nothing changed apart from a few more spray marks on the ground.

This is at least the second time the installation engineers have been in our street this month.   Each time they’ve been unable to achieve anything, because the process of upgrading the network has been divided up like Adam Smith’s pin factory.   Only where the pin factory contained the whole process, each step involved in this one has been outsourced to a different specialist company, so nobody sees, let alone owns the whole process.

In the old days, you used to see a gang of workmen round a single hole, some of them idle.    Now I know why.   Some of them were there to deal with the unforseen complications that might turn up once the surface was broken.   If a conduit needed clearing, they were there to do it.   And because they all worked for the same company they knew they could do take that responsibility.   That’s called slack, leeway, resilience.    It’s how you keep a complex process on track.

But what we’ve replaced that with is far more wasteful.   At least all the workmen got paid, even if they didn’t get the satisfaction of doing their job.    I wouldn’t be surprised to find those two young men have earned nothing from their work this morning.   They’ll be on piece-work, paid on completion.

Add to that the fact that each specialist company has to make a profit, and allocates its resources to maximise that, who knows when the next favourable conjunction of BT, Openreach and Instalcom will come around?    Our street is still waiting for the gas upgrade that we were told to expect 2 years ago.

Divvying up a coherent process into independent chunks may be profitable for some, but its not efficient.

Why am I reminded of Jarndyce v Jarndyce?

DIY, with help.

DIY, with help.

People like to do things for themselves.

They also like to have a go at working things out together.

When they can’t, they want someone to be on hand to help.

It seems to me that this is a productive way to think about how to empower people, whether they are clients, users or colleagues:

  1. Aim to enable them to do everything themselves.
  2. Create an environment that allows them to support each other easily.
  3. Appoint people to be on hand to help for both the above.

If you do the first two well, the third will be relatively easy.  In fact, you can probably recruit from the people you’re empowering.   That’s how the Akimbo Workshops work, and I think it’s at least partly why they work so well.

It’s also how you learn to do the first two better, so don’t be tempted to leave it out.

Process: complicated or complex?

Process: complicated or complex?

When we think of ‘process’ we tend to think of production lines.   Marvellous arrangements of machines, belts and equipment, where activities like baking a biscuit, or assembling a car, are broken down into the simplest possible steps, so that each step can be reliably repeated with the minimum of variation.   At speed, and at volume.

Production lines are fascinating to watch on ‘Inside the Factory’, but are probably less rewarding to work at.  Each step is in itself, meaningless, constant repetition makes it tedious.

A production line, whether it’s built in hardware or software, mechanises a complicated process.   And once you’ve applied that technology spectacularly well to biscuits, or cars, or mobile phones, it’s tempting to try and apply it everywhere.

But most processes are not complicated, but complex.   They involve multiple systems, which interact with each other in unpredictable ways to produce unforeseeable outcomes.

This happens even inside an automated factory.  Often the few people you see are not there to perform any of the steps in the process.   Their role is to respond to the emergent consequences of several interacting systems, which if left to the mechanicals, would bring the factory grinding to a halt.

All living things are complex systems.   Which means that any process involving them is necessarily complex.

It is possible to de-complexify, of course, but only at the expense of de-animating the living.   This is why we find factory farming, factory warehousing, factory customer support or even factory schooling disturbing.   The only way to incorporate a living system into a production line is to remove its potential for emergent properties – in other words, to kill it.

No wonder people in service industries are wary of ‘process’.  They are right to be.

There is a solution though.  Which is to recognise the difference between the processes in your business that are complicated and those that are complex and treat them accordingly.

The complicated is amenable to mechanisation and automation.   That means it makes sense to automate the complicated wherever you can.   Free up your human capacity to deal with the complex, such as interaction with other humans.

The complex can’t and shouldn’t be mechanised or automated.    But it is possible to inject some consistency, repeatability and therefore scalability into it, by adopting the analogy of a creative collaboration rather than a production line.

Music, construction, drama, dance, film-making are just some of the complex collaborative, creative endeavours that use a framework, expressed in a shared language, to be more productive, while still allowing scope for the emergent.

The shared language of this kind of process can be idiosyncratic, prompts and reminders rather than instruction, the score more or less sketchy, the film improvised around a premise rather than a script.   It can leave room not just for interpretation, but for exploration and experimentation.

That’s the kind of ‘process’ I’m interested in generating.  Process that helps us be more human, not less.






Beyond interpretation

Beyond interpretation

I often talk or write about making sure people are given the opportunity to interpret a process, in the same way that a musician interprets the score they are playing.

This weekend I’ve been reading a lot of Margaret Heffernan, and thinking, and I’m not sure interpretation goes far enough.

Interpretation allows a player to take the score and add their own spin to it, to inflect it with their own style.

Exploration allows a player to go beyond the score, to see what might be on the other side.

Experimentation allows a player to take the score and bend it, push it, deform it, and see what happens to it as a result.

Interpretation or exploration rarely breaks the thing you’re playing with, whereas experimentation very well might.    You wouldn’t necessarily want to be doing that in front of a paying audience.

Hmm.    So I think my conclusion is that all three are needed to maintain a coherent set of processes.

Interpretation is the norm, it’s how a person makes the score or the process their own, without damaging the underlying promise.

Exploration might be something a person or a group of people does, on a regular basis, to hypothesise potential improvements to the process.  Perhaps in response to signals such as exceptions that are becoming more frequent, less exceptional,

And experimentation is something the same people do, on an equally regular basis, to test those hypotheses before the score gets changed, to make sure the promise is safely preserved.

If everyone knows how to interpret, explore and experiment well, you’ve got a powerful system for continuous improvement.

The best way to learn

The best way to learn

It’s said that the best way to learn is to teach.

I’ve had a couple of conversations recently that have got me thinking about this.  The first was around training people remotely, the other was about franchising.

I think it’s true.

The thing about teaching is that your students don’t know what you know.

They aren’t in your head, and they haven’t been working next to you for the last umpteen years.   In terms of your business, your unique system for making and keeping promises, they know nothing.

That means they ask stupid questions: “What’s one of those?” Why do we use that?” “Why do we do it that way?” “What if we did that instead”.

Good students point out contradictions, anomalies, blind spots.  Things you should have seen, but have never had time to look at.  things you never imagined could be done, that come naturally to them.    This can feel threatening, but really what’s happening is that the value is passing both ways.   They learn from you, you learn from them.   A better business results.

Having to explain something forces us to think about it.   Teaching forces us to make habits explicit, to surface reasoning that we just take for granted, to make our assumptions visible.  It forces us to write down our score, so someone else can learn to play it.   Writing it down allows it to be questioned, validated, improved, until suddenly we are no longer the only people who know how it goes.   Even better, new people take our score and riff on it in new and exciting ways.

You don’t need new students to do this.   You already have them working with you in your business.

Teach them, then let them teach you back.

Working hours

Working hours

My husband has just forwarded me an article about short-time working.   It suggests that having too much work is as bad as having no work for mental health and wellbeing, and that therefore, short-time working may be part of the solution to both unemployment and employee stress.

That reminded me of a conversation I had a year or so ago, with my German client, about how he dealt with seasonal demand for the products of his factory.

His solution was simple, and it appears, quite common in that part of the world.

Each year, he worked out how much work he expected there to be going through the factory, and when the peaks and troughs were likely to occur.   Some months would be very quiet, other months would be extremely busy.

Rather than lay people off in quiet times, or pay overtime or hire casual workers in busy times, the business owner agreed with each and every employee how many hours they would work over the year.   That figure was then divided by 12 to arrive at their monthly salary.

Then, during average months, they would work average days in the factory.   During the very busy months, they would be expected to work longer days in the factory.   And in quiet months, they were expected to stay at home.   Each individual’s plan took into account school holidays and other demands as far as possible, as long as the work got done when it was needed.

It worked well for both sides.   The MD got people on call when he needed them most and a predictable monthly outlay.  The employees got a predictable income, and the opportunity to have more time for other things over the year.   Customer got what they wanted when they wanted reliably and consistently.

Planning, consultation, negotiation.

Who’d have thought it?   Treating everyone like grown-ups, citizens even, works better for everyone.



We’ve got used to thinking of investment as a purely financial thing, undertaken by shareholders in a company.   A risk taken in the hope that the return will be worth it.

We’ve also got used to the idea that capital investors are the most important investors, and that returns to them should be kept high and constant, because otherwise they’ll take their capital elsewhere.

‘Investment’ carries another meaning though – to put on clothes, especially the ceremonial clothes of office.   In other words to publicly adopt the roles and responsibilities associated with that office.

Looked at this way, there are certainly other investors in a business.  The founders, workers, suppliers, and customers who take a risk with their time, energy and belief, in the hope that the return will be worth it.   These (along with some personal capital investors to be sure), are the people who adopt the roles and responsibilities associated with it.   Who clothe themselves in its values, purpose and ways of doing things.   Who may even wear its uniform, badge, or logo publicly and with pride.

Money isn’t the only thing necessary for the long-term success of a venture.   It certainly isn’t sufficient.

What if we focused our dividends accordingly?

If you read one book during lockdown

If you read one book during lockdown

Another read-in-one-go-over-the-weekend book, I recommend.  “Lost Connections”, by Johann Hari.

Appropriate for Mental Health Awareness Week and beyond.

This is a book about what happens to human animals when they don’t get what they need from life:

  • Agency – to make my own unique dent in the universe
  • Mastery – to be continually learning and developing my talents
  • Autonomy – to choose how I make my dent
  • Purpose – to do all the above for something larger than myself
  • Community – in the company of like-minded people
  • Status – and to find my place in that community

It’s also about ways to put it right.

Luckily, for small business owners, putting it right is not that hard.

We can simply make sure everything we do in our businesses contributes at least something towards these things for the people we work with, the people we work for, and ultimately for ourselves.

It starts by reading this book.

And then maybe this one.

Subject, Consumer or Citizen?

Subject, Consumer or Citizen?

Subjects are defined by their relationship with the people who are ‘over’ them.  The word ‘subject’ literally means ‘thrown under’.

Much of what we call history is about groups of ‘superiors’ fighting for control of subjects.   For the subjects, it didn’t matter who you were ‘thrown under’, your life was much the same – nasty, brutish and short.

Consumers, on the other hand, are defined by a repetitive act that embodies their relationship with producers.   Producers make, consumers ‘use up’.   Consumers can come into being once subjects are able to get beyond the basics of subsistence and think about choice.  Consumers make mass production possible.

Citizens are defined by the fact that they share their space with many other people, and by the fact that doing so requires shared values, constant negotiation and active participation to be effective.   Even more so now, when we’re no longer tied to a specific location, but are like Diogenes, ‘a citizen of the world’, whether we like it or not.

It seems to me that being a subject or consumer is perhaps an easier role to play, but rather passive and ulitmately unsatisfying, when you consider that we only have one life.

Citizenship on the other hand, is hard work, but work that is fulfilling both in the short run (because through it we can grow), and in the long run (because done well we make it easier for people in the future to grow).

I know which I’d rather be, and I’m clearly not alone.   It seems we are all heading that way, if we’re allowed to.

This model works at many levels, from a single family to the entire world.

We could make a start with all the companies we’re in.


Many thanks to Anwen Cooper for pointing this out to me: