How soon is now?

Once upon a time I was interviewed for a job, and I had to give a presentation on what I would do to help managers improve their service.

I described a thing called “variation”, and how it is inherent in every thing. That when you measure ANY thing over time you’re also measuring how much variation is in it. And that if you don’t know about this thing called variation, you’ll not know it’s there and you’ll think that any change in the measurement is an actual change in real life.

I showed them some dead simple tools you could use to spot the variation, so you could then measure any REAL change.

Knowing when to act, and how to act was vital to any manager, I concluded, and this was an important part of that.

They seemed to like it, cos I got the job.

I spent the following years trying to do the thing that they employed me to do, but whenever I asked to it was never the right time. I suggested all sorts of things to kick it off, gimmicky fun things, boring official things, but every time I was told that it was never the right time. This went on for years.

There were many things that stopped now from being the right time, and these things came and went and other things took their place.

The only constant was that now wasn’t the right time.

What was odd was that now ALWAYS was the right time for all sorts of crap like new performance frameworks, audit commission value for money reviews, the sort of thing that makes things worse.

There’s always time to make things worse in any normal ordinary command and control organisation. That time is very much now.

Turns out this is entirely predictable, so I should have predicted it.

It is entirely predictable that there are buckets of time to continue to do things that you’ve always done, oodles of it, it never runs out.

I learnt that “nownever would be the answer if the criteria used to answer the question “when is it the right time?” are the usual criteria of “what is important to senior managers?“.

Variation, control charts, systemsy measures used in the work to link learning and data, these are currently unknown concepts in the mind of a normal ordinary command and control manager. So there can never be time for them, cos they aren’t important. They’re invisible. What is also invisible is that for decades, if managers have been making decisions based on measures, then they’ve probably been making the wrong decisions. If you don’t know variation is there, if youre comparing a slice of monthly action against an entirely arbitrary target/benchmark/last year’s performance, then yes, you’ve been making the wrong decisions.


Like the thing above says, “the timing isn’t right” is the all-purpose excuse for maintaining the status quo, it is used by people in organisations who style themselves as skilled bureaucrats who are practiced and privy to the ways of senior management.

The right time is the wrong answer cos it’s the wrong question. 
This is cos “time” is irrelevant. “Is it the right time?” is a command and control question, it comes from an assumption that change is driven by leaders making decisions, that it happens rationally, in a linear manner according to a plan. In this mental model time is a factor to be considered coolly along with other strategic considerations.

In systemsy thinking it’s not about time, it is about people and psychology. About the curiosity and dissatisfaction of individuals, specific people. Not anonymous bands of hierarchy. Named people. Because when change happens it happens in actual people’s heads. It can’t happen by decree.

  Like Deming said

The first step is transformation of the individual. This transformation is discontinuous. 

The individual, transformed, will perceive new meaning to his life, to events, to numbers, to interactions between people […]He will have a basis for judgment of his own decisions and for transformation of the organizations that he belongs to.

The level of change is the individual first, then the organisation. And people change in funny ways, often not at all, but if they do it’s discontinuous like Deming says. 

This is not a calendar driven change. It’s not driven by a free space on the agenda becoming available.  It’s dependant on the capricously unpredictable human psyche, on where somebody is at and what they’re thinking and feeling. My hopelessly tool-driven approach was looking for a 15min gap on the agenda that would never exist, because it’s not about time because the right time is never now, and it’s always now.

Which is way too Zen to end a post on, so here’s a picture of Bill Gates looking simply dreamy.



This entry was posted in change, command and control, measures, statistics, systems thinking, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to How soon is now?

  1. Thank you for a great post. You really nailed it. I am afraid you are right, that our best hope is a long and slow struggle of getting people curious. The good news, of course is that when people start “getting” systems thinking, they are hooked for life… Which – as you have been writing about brilliantly yourself – is not all great if you don’t have the power to take direct action on the system, but is a common bureucrat like you and me. Keep it up!


  2. Rob Garvey says:

    Isn’t it about time you stopped writing these thought-provoking posts and actually got on with some real work 😉 How many people are out there that are in similar position to you? Why do you/we NOT change?
    I’m in a job that can give me a great deal of satisfaction, but my frustrations lie with those in “senior” positions and who make the prospect of going into work so much less enjoyable! I’m in the education system and frankly, it scares me that people play a system that enables the acquisition pieces of paper that signify competence / capability … and yet UK plc is not producing the skills required for the future and far too many don’t have basic literary & numeric skills! I’d suggest there needs to be a fundamental review of the purpose of our education system because in my view it is failing too many individuals with an impact on the wider economy and society!
    Your insight into maintaining the status quo refers to the excuse of timing. I agree with this and would add the aspect of fear to change because “they don’t know what they are doing”! I’d also make a connection here with power and influence … alia the scandals now being talked about Harvey Weinstein and previously Jimmy Saville … a culture of complicity that deflects attention away from addressing the elephant in the room.
    It’s always a pleasure and frustration reading your blogs; a pleasure because your insightfulness resonates well with my own experiences, but frustration that my excitement will be doused with command & control responsibilities!
    Keep it up 🙂


  3. jaqueslecont says:

    It took me far too long to realise that you can’t have a rational discussion with people about this stuff. Seems like you have to convince them to see it themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ThinkPurpose says:

      I keep on re-learning this one. After every time I sit down and rationally explain something. Every bleeding time. I keep on doing it, I think it’s the hardest lesson I’ve yet to learn.


  4. Rob Garvey says:

    Just heard “Busy Doing Nothing” by Bing Crosby and this seems to be an appropriate theme tune for this issue!


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