Thor describes my purpose


I sit next to the photocopier at work.

About 3 times a day somebody printing some papers off will ask me if I have a stapler they can borrow, to staple their papers together.

This is a question I am asked predictably. It is my single most common type of demand. Is this a value demand though? Well, it is caused by a failure to do something, the failure of the photocopier to staple things automatically as people want, so it is probably a failure demand. But at least it is a predictable demand.

However I do not own a stapler.
So my capability at meeting demand, whether it is value or failure, is zero.

Regardless, I think that my purpose, if derived from my surroundings, would be to offer paper stapling services. I could do this! This isn’t beyond my ability to change and move with the times.

However what is beyond my ability is to change work and make it go all systemsy.  Which is entirely fine, cos the people who are in charge of the design and management of work are actually the managers here, that’s their job, and if everybody else was also changing the design and management of the work then it would be total chaos.

So I just stick to carrying out my duties in as avuncular and self deprecating manner as seems fit. I describe myself as a copy-and-paster, and enjoy acting out my role of “corporate harlot“, not being bothered about the authenticity or actual worth of the work as long as blocks of text or tables of numbers are passed to me by some arbitrary deadline for me to spiff up and make it look nice and apply a spell check, if this happens, then all is good.

The metaphor I use is pipes and plumbing.


Imagine a sequence of pipes connecting people. People all over the council send me things, it is my job to ensure that there are pipes there connecting me and them so this stuff can flow between me and them.

It ISN’T my job to be concerned about the stuff that flows through the pipes. If it is sewage or clean fresh water is immaterial, what matters is that it flows. So I’m a plumber, which is a fine and noble profession.

Talk like this tends to alarm people. I’ve noticed they act like I’ve just started talking about my hemorrhoids or something, lean back in their seat and try and pretend I’m not saying these awful words. Like it is dangerous talk. Now I’m being polite really, cos I think the same about most corporate work, in a normal ordinary command and control organisation this type of work is mainly waste with little chance of being good for the end client/customer/resident. But strutting around pointing out the pointlessness of others work isn’t polite, so I stick to my own.


NOT cool. Possibly incorrect too.

This is not the ideal way to pass the time, but time is going to pass anyway. I boldly claimed at the top of this post that in some way “My Purpose” is to be revealed by Thor within the post, and all I’ve talked about is staple providing services and a metaphor about plumbing. Locating and articulating purpose in an entertaining or educational way, why you might expect something, especially given the name of this blog but it might not be possible at an individual level, especially when I don’t have a self-defined purpose. All systems have a purpose, but not necessarily a node within it.

Handily I found a thing about a phrase or word that the man who invented Lean the Toyota Production System used to describe anything that wasn’t work….moving around. Here it is…

He taught people to call all motion that adds value to products “truly working.” Motion that is not adding value is simply called “moving around.”

By clearly separating the use of these symbols, he taught trainees how to tell the difference between non-value-added work and value-added work by creating awareness of that difference with his creative use of spelling.

In this way, he shows us that the most effective approach is to eliminate unnecessary “moving around () ” and create “true work ()” with the full participation of the shop floor as the first step.

I love this. Moving around, if you’re not doing value work than may as well be flapping your arms about a bit. Now if you’re a typist like me, value work and waste work isn’t moving around, it’s typing.

Or as Thor describes it here “Hitting the machine with the words that come out of it“. See, I got to the point in the end. My purpose is to hit the machine with the words that come out of it. Like I’m doing right now.

 So if I hit the machine in the right way, then the words that come out of it please people, and it contributes to the gaiety of the organisation in some way. I’m under no illusion that this can possibly change or improve because the thinking of top management cannot change. Well it could, obviously, but it won’t.

Performance management/reporting/ analysis/whatever is a system condition, a symptom of management thinking, so we’re lumped with it. Whilst decision making is separate from the work, then the decision makers will need reports to make these decisions, and I’ll continue to hit the machine to make the words come out.

Posted in command and control, public sector, purpose, systems thinking | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

I openly mock Myers Briggs, but an INTP would do

Remember the ThinkPurpose team role quiz?

Well, turns out I was a racoon.

Sadly not a COOL RACOON. Just a racoon.

But ignoring all the distastefulness of categorising people into 16 types in a Buzzfeed style quiz based on bleeding JUNGIAN ARCHETYPES, let’s… Oh, hang on…I CAN’T ignore this idiocy.
If you’ve worked in a large organisation for several years you’ll have done either one or both of Belbin or Myers Briggs “what type of corporate drone are YOU?” quizzes.

They both ask you to rate yourself on questions like…

Do you prefer quietly reading book OR GOING TO A LOUD PARTY WITH LOADS OF PEOPLE YOU DON’T KNOW?

(Can you guess what bit of your personality this is attempting to decide?). Then based on such answers, you’re allotted some type of personality/stereotype that purports to tell you what you’re like at work, and what your strengths and weaknesses are.

My weakness is for crappy personality quizzes like this, so I love them. Or rather, love to hate them, cos Myers Briggs says I’m an INTP which means in all into theoretical cohesion, so if it turns out that it’s GOT NO ACTUAL SCIENTIFIC THEORY BEHIND IT AT ALL, then I’m right up in its face, snarling and that.

Luckily Myers Briggs comes from a rigourous peer reviewed approach to psychology, tested thoroughly in double blind experiments, leading to a robust methodology for analysing and predicting people’s behaviours….No, no, course I’m lying.

It was actually invented by a woman who… read a load of biographies of famous people and divided them into types. Yup. She READ ABOUT PEOPLE, and came up with four different “temperaments”, these form the basis of Myers Briggs. Some woman’s musings on the autobiographical musings of the 1917 version of Kim Kardashion now result in office drones like yourself being categorised a whole century later. During that century the field of psychology has undergone numerous revolutions, all of which had been totally ignored by the Myers Briggs lot.

They found their theory, and they’re sticking with it. This theory of personality types has two main weaknesses, it doesn’t measure what it purports to measure (validity), and it gives different results for the same person on different occasions (reliability). These are pretty much killers for any theory of measurement

There’s lots of references to studies ripping into Myers Briggs, I don’t just stick to Wikipedia, you can have a nice browse in this article on the Smithsonian website which had loads of interesting links.

Ultimately though I dislike it because it’s stupid. It’s stupid, because it’s easy and it fits, despite being wrong. And easy and fitting ALWAYS trump rightness and usefulness in a normal ordinary command and control organisation. It’s a diverting Buzzfeed style “What Hogwarts house are you?” quiz that annoyingly takes in millions from gullible organisations because it diverts attention from the system back yet again onto the people working in it.

One annoying thing with quizzes of this type though is the lingering Barnum effect .

This is the cognitive bias where general or vague descriptions that are seemingly tailored to you are perceived as stunningly accurate. As a fellow human being I too suck at avoiding this, especially when I read this thing that describes what Hell would be like for an INTP like myself. From what you have gleaned of me and my job, Dear Reader, I let you be the judge…

INTP – You are eternally condemned to researching an extremely vapid topic using wildly inaccurate methods, mostly involving interviewing people who have no idea what they’re talking about. [Link]

Posted in all wrong, command and control, human brains are weird, psychology, systems thinking, thinking | Tagged , , | 30 Comments

The Law Of The Instrument

I can’t stand digital by default.

-How about analogue by default instead?

I can’t stand digital evangelists.

-How about analogue evangelists instead?

I can’t stand Head of Digital.

-How about Head of Analogue instead?

I can’t stand digital offering.

-How about analogue offering instead?

I can’t stand going digital.

-How about going analogue instead?

If any of the above analogue variations sound stupid to you, the original digital version sounds equally stupid to me.

Theres a concept called The Law Of The Instrument summed up best in the phrase…

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”

In the public sector I’m seeing exactly this in the Digital By Default Disaster.

The thinking seems to be…


Which ultimately is operationalised as…


This is why I think digital evangelists are dangerous and wrong. They skip the part where having investigated the problem situation, got data, understood what’s happening and why, and redesigned the system using experimenting to find what works, AT THAT POINT  then pulling in technology when needed.

I’m being overly kind here. They don’t do the bit before the capital letters much either.

I’m 100% sure that any digital evangelists reading my blog will consider this a gross caricature and entirely unlike anything they’ve been involved in. 

I’m 100% sure they’re wrong. I see it around me all the time, people with magic goggles on, convinced that IT is the answer to cheaper and better services, and it’s just a matter of changing the question so that it IS the answer.

A way to spot them is they tend to be called “business analysts”, a name I had to Google and it’s got its own Wikipedia entry, helpfully. Teams of business analysts now occupy the public sector under the guise of improvement, whilst actually doing digitising instead.

I remain cruelly aloof to their charms. Often they’re lean-alikes, waving AS-IS and TO-BE process maps in their wake as they dash busily from workshop to workshop. I’ve noticed that when these jobs are  advertised as vacancies, skills listed in the desirable column are often a bundle of LEAN (always capitalised), Agile and systems thinking, sometimes only seperated by a forward slash eg LEAN/Agile/Systems Thinking, as if “hey, you know it’d be cool if you had one or more of these, cos these sound just swell.” Like these are in any way similar or even just NOT CONTRADICTORY!

This is fact a helpful signal to the prospective job seeker that the employer doesn’t really know what they want. But more importantly whatever special magic used to improve things, it’s mainly just a ruse to cover up the shabby old cheap trick of shoving IT in front of people and expecting magic. Ta-bleeding-Daaa.

I started this post with a cheap trick of swapping the word digital for analogue. It’s not a trick though. It’s a point. Thehe point being if there are people wandering around your organisation with default thinking, whether it’s digital by default or anything-at-all by default, you’ve got quite stupid people wandering around your organisation.

Default thinking is actually about circumventing thinking, which is why I say these are stupid people. They might be intelligent in other areas of their life, but default anything is dangerous and stupid.

I’m immune to your charms, Digitalistas. I think you’re wrong and dangerous, and quite bizarrely old fashioned and quaint in your shiny -eyed belief in technology “solving things“. Sadly you’re quite fashionable at the moment so we’ll all be stuck with you for a long while yet. Till then I’ll just quietly resent you and seethe at the dreadful things being done in the public sector, wasting millions on technology whilst social workers and the like are losing their jobs to pay for it and you. 

Posted in all wrong, command and control, public sector, systems thinking, tools | Tagged , , , | 20 Comments

Reality has a liberal bias


This is a  quote from an American comedian, taking the mickey out of imaginary Republicans complaining that reality itself is as biased as the liberal-elite media against Republican beliefs and actions. It is a joke about how people convinced they are right will react when presented with evidence that they are (literally) in fact wrong.

Both liberals, Republicans and every shade in between and beyond exhibit strong tribal loyalty to beliefs, rejecting evidence if it shows they are wrong, and seeking out evidence that they are (literally) in fact right. This is not just political trait but a human one called the Confirmation Bias. But like Paul Krugman says here, it is more apparent in Republicans than liberals.

“liberals don’t engage in the kind of mass rejections of evidence that conservatives do.

Yes, you can find examples where *some* liberals got off on a hobbyhorse of one kind or another, or where the liberal conventional wisdom turned out wrong. But you don’t see the kind of lockstep rejection of evidence that we see over and over again on the right.

Where is the liberal equivalent of the near-uniform conservative rejection of climate science, or the refusal to admit that Obamacare is in fact reaching a lot of previously uninsured Americans?” [Link]

Now I’m no expert on American politics, no really I’m not, and this blog isn’t about any of that, but I’ve noticed the same sort of thing in managing in the public sector, a lock-step rejection of evidence cos it doesn’t agree with what they think.

Reality is biased against normal ordinary command and control management. 

This diagram above shows pretty much how people think. All people, even me and you. Course we’re not perfectly accurate in our thinking and mental models of the world. 

The problem arises when we’re confronted with this. There’s Confirmation Bias that biases people towards looking for evidence that confirms their beliefs and rejects evidence that shows it ain’t necessarily so. 

Now this is fine and usual and normal until this evolutionary quirk of the human brain meets modern management thinking…

The thing that gets a leader noticed is THEIR IMPORTANT THING. Could be anything. A new model the business should follow, a big expensive new IT system, a whole new reorganisation of everything. Doesn’t matter if it’s at the national level, like the Troubled Families initiative or locally, in your very own office reorganisation. The thing that matters is the actual thing being proposed. Not the effect that the thing itself is supposed to bring about. No, not that. Nobody can see that yet, not whilst it’s being done.

The IMPORTANT THING inevitably appears with a bang or a whimper and had some kind of an effect. A terrible effect or a brilliant effect, a tiny effect, or a big effect. Either way, out it goes.

Once it’s out there, if it’s some kind of national initiative, there’ll no doubt be performancey measurey people crawling all over it, monitoring it getting numbers from it to look at the effect it is creating. 

Thing is, this isn’t REALLY what decision makers care about. Managers, leaders etc are recruited to do a thing, and they choose their IMPORTANT THING and do it. The important thing is the thing itself, it’s an article of faith. 

The language shows this, in Big Speeches they often use the phrase “I am clear that…” or “let me be clear” which uses a rhetorical sleight of hand to suggest that anybody not agreeing with their IMPORTANT THING can’t see the clarity of it and therefore the problem is with them, not it.

For example in the speech that David Cameron used in announcing his Troubled Families programme, he used the phrase repeatedly, being extra clear for us Muggles.

Sadly, reality is biased. It is biased against things that aren’t reality. Heavily biased. No matter how clear things are to people, it doesn’t give a flying one.

So poor Dave and his Troubled Families, he spent £400m of everybody’s money on a payment by results Local Government ran scheme, that had “no significant impact” according to a big review of it. For half a billion pounds! 

The report, which was published last night, found that families who were on the programme were no more likely to find jobs, stop claiming benefits or improve the school attendance of their children.

Reality really doesn’t give a stuff does it?

And the annoying thing is this will go on and on, because decision making in normal ordinary command and control environments is all about managers and leaders coming up with THE IMPORTANT THING, and poor old reality trailing along in its wake. No wonder reality is biased against managers and leaders, it feels neglected. It should be wined and dined, treated right.

How could you treat reality like it should?

Well I reckon this would be a start

Don’t split up mental models of decision makers, their brave Nobel schemes split from the nerdy monitoring of reality. That Troubled Families programme, it relies on payment by results. If a Local Authority does”turnaround” a family, from being “troubled” to presumably “not-troubled” then they get money. Payment by results ALWAYS screws motives and methods.

Local Authorities were told the estimated number of troubled families within their area, according to some formula, and that they’d receive £4,000 per family turned around.

Not one local authority has needed to work with more than their indicative number in order to ‘turn around’ all of their families. In fact, many local authorities can demonstrate a 100% success rate not just in identifying and working with ‘troubled families’ but in turning them around. Manchester, for example have identified, worked with and turned around a staggering 2385 ‘troubled families’. Not one has ‘slipped through the net’ or refused to engage with the programme. Leeds and Liverpool have a perfect success rate in each ‘turning around’ over 2000 ‘troubled families. By my reckoning, over 50 other local authorities across the country have been similarly ‘perfect’ in their TF work. Not one single case amongst those 50 odd councils where more ‘troubled families’ were identified or where a ‘troubled family’ has failed to have been turned around. [Link]

This isn’t a surprise if you know what happens if you give someone a financial incentive to meet a target. They will meet that target, regardless of how silly. This is reality being biased against targets and misapplied financial incentives. 

Strange behaviour by individuals as a result of system rules is common, but cos reality is biased against decision makers, it isn’t the rules themselves that are to blame. The cause lies with faulty individuals.

Take Chuck Finley. Chuck is a VORACIOUS reader. He read 2,361 books in a 9 month period. 

Sadly he doesn’t exist. He was invented by East Lake County library to take books out of the library that hadn’t been checked out in a while, to stop them being removed from the shelves and destroyed according to the rules of the system. This destruction of books meant that if someone, a real reader, wanted a book that had sadly been removed and destroyed, the library would have to repurchase a copy. Again.

So some enterprising librarians decided to save money by keeping unpopular books on a rotation through the imaginary Chuck Finley’s bookshelves. When this came to light, what happened? Were the rules of the system that created this odd behaviour changed, to avoid the wasteful creation of pretend readers and the hard work of keeping track of unpopular books and checking them out and back in again? 

No, the librarians were sacked.

It appears that not only is reality biased against decision makers, but also decision makers are biased against reality.

Posted in command and control, public sector, statistics, systems thinking, targets | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments

Why killing Sweat Angels is the most valuable work I do all day

Most readers of this blog probably sit behind a desk all day, like me. Sipping tea in nice surroundings with nice people. They don’t have to push a mop around the floor cleaning up after others.

Dreaming about the dignity of labour and the simple honest toil of the working class is patronising rubbish, and you’ll look a bit of a dick to someone who already does this work for half your salary.

But I’m going do this cos I’ll do anything for the right metaphor.

At 7:30am this morning I was mopping up a stranger’s sweat off the floor.
It was the most fulfilling work I’d do all day.

I go to a gym that has black rubber flooring.

This is cushioning for barbells that are dropped from shoulder height, and cos it’s quite tiring, when you’re finished you yourself drop to the floor as well, covered in sweat.

So after a gym class there’s lots of “sweat angels” left on the rubber floor, black human silhouettes left in sweat.

Part of the tidy up routine is everybody helps put away everybody else’s equipment, doesn’t matter who’s, and some people go around the room spraying the sweat angels with floor spray and mopping it all up again.

It’s just what you do, tidying up so it’s good for the next lot of people. This isn’t what you’d do in a “normal gym” but it’s part of the social contract in this type of gym. You don’t just put YOUR stuff away, it’s not about your own obligation, it’s about restoring the gym for the next set of people to come in. It’s a communal obligation that you fulfill as a group for another set of people.

Cleaning up is a part of the whole session. It is expected and as fundamental as attending and listening to the coach.

So why is this task not onerous, but actually satisfying to me?

When I am working with others, mopping up a stranger’s sweat I am solving a problem (manky floor) and helping people (a clean floor for people in the next class to flop on themselves when they’re all tired and sweaty). This makes me “happy” for want of a better word.

When I am making a scorecard of measures with targets and up and down arrows I am not solving problems or helping people. This makes me “sad”, for want of another more useful word.

What I get from mopping a floor is what I want from a job. I want to work with others to solve problems and help people.

There is a large and flourishing literature on “what makes a good job”. I’m not thorough enough to do any of it justice, but the thing that best explains the difference in satisfaction caused by mopping the floor and creating scorecards is this fellow here…


Herzberg is famous for this very systemsy quote. He established the factors in work that predictably make a BAD job.

Things like:

  • work conditions
  • supervision
  • salary
  • relationship with peers and management

But if these are the causes of dissatisfaction, and make a BAD job, it is not enough to take away from a job theses things that make it annoying, miserable and hard to do.

The opposite of dissatisfaction is not satisfaction.
The opposite of dissatisfaction is NO dissatisfaction

These are so called “hygiene factors“. They’ve got to be right, fixing them removes things that make a job bad, but they don’t make a job good. They are necessary but not sufficient.

To make a good job you’ve got to put into it things that are not currently there. These are called “motivators
Things like:

  • challenging work
  • responsibility
  • opportunity to do something meaningful

These are factors intrinsic to the work itself. Not factors applied to the person doing the work, like salary or praise.  They provide internal motivation, as Dan Pink’s Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose video neatly shows….


So when I’m solving problems and helping people, I’m doing work that provides me with internal motivation. Note that I didn’t say what I wanted to earn, or what the job title would be. These are factors of external motivation that just get you through the front door of the office every morning, they don’t help you do a good job when you get there.

I have found that the most fun work, the work that provides the most satisfaction, you might not even recognise as work. A few months ago I was on Reddit and saw a post where someone was asking plaintively…

“I have to predict how many customer calls we are likely to get next year over the holiday period. I’ve got 3 years of data, but no idea how to do this properly. Could somebody help?”

So I did. He put the data on a shared spreadsheet on Google Sheets, I did some rudimentary stuff with a chart, explained what it meant and how confident you could and couldn’t be with the analysis. I solved a problem and helped someone. I did work for free and didn’t even notice that it was work at all.

Ironically the thing I did for free and was fun is the very actual thing that a performance person should do but rarely if ever does when at work.
This is one of the main reasons why I’m fan of systems thinking/ deming/ Sneddon/ Whatever you want to call it. These approaches to changing work make work work. Not just in a process improvement type of way, not just a clever clogs striding around with post-it notes composing a “to-be” map, but in a real fundamental way. Snit gets real. Finally you get to solve the right problems and help people.

Most jobs in normal ordinary command and control organisations are not like this though.

This is why mopping up a stranger’s sweat is the most valuable work I do all day.

Posted in clarity of purpose, command and control, purpose, systems thinking, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Cloud cuckoo-land

“What matters to me as a customer is getting everything for free. I’d appreciate it if all organisations could just go ahead and arrange that please. No, I didn’t think so.”

This comment left on a recent post shows the typical command and control response to the idea that organisations should find out what matters to customers.
There’s a fear that the customer will turn out to be a unreasonable diva demanding the moon on a stick.

What the customer doesn’t want

This is total balls.

It is a fear caused by ignorance, ignorance of what actually matters to customers and a knee jerk response to a loss of control, that customers should get what they’re given.

Instead of giving in to this fear, find out what matters to customers by studying them. Get data. Don’t just ASSUME what they like and need.

Find out by observing what matters to them. Ask them even. It’ll not be unsurprising if they say in large enough numbers that price matters to them. They might not though, I’m guessing that a patient in the NHS wouldn’t even imagine that price would be a factor. Just as much as a customer in the market for a burger and fries to eat quickly on the go, that they wouldn’t expect Macdonald’s to give’em away for free.

I’m guessing this, YOU however should go study, get data, find out empirically.

But what you don’t do is guess. Like this character leaving the comment above guessing that of course everybody wants stuff for free. I do! I’d LOVE stuff for free! But it’s not what matters to me. What matters depends. I want free air,I don’t want pay for it. But I’m fine with paying a reasonable amount for a burger.

But if I’m looking for a burger what matters is different from what matters when I’m booking a holiday, or buying a car. Cost, price, free things, all depend on the context.

If you find that customers predictably do want everything for free, then you are in a tough business. Perhaps you’re selling sand to Arabs or snow to Eskimo? There’s plenty other customers out there, perhaps try selling sand to Eskimo and snow to Arabs instead?

I once had a manager who had the same attitude as the commenter, that asking customers what they wanted is silly. He worked in Local Government and said if we asked residents what they wanted, actual words, “they’d all want swimming pools“.

Now I’m guessing this not the case. But don’t guess, go study. Find out. That old manager never did, they thought just as the commenter did, that customers are free-loaders who will take you for a mug if you let them.

Now I think THAT is living in cloud Cuckoo land.

Posted in clarity of purpose, command and control, customer, Demand, systems thinking, vanguard method | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is a pony

You’ll not like this, but you’re not getting a pony for Christmas.
You’re also not going to persuade your organisation to go systemsy. 

You’re not going to get managers to ditch targets.

You’ll not be introducing control charts throughout the organisation, there’ll not be a mass burning of dashboards. 

Just not going to happen. 

Doubt me? Well did it happen last year? 

The thing with going systemsy is it seems so obvious, that SURELY EVERYBODY will join in when they hear about it? 

This is an example of the Focussing Illusion. When something appears REALLY IMPORTANT because you’re thinking about it.

Thing is, nobody else is thinking about it.

“The Focus Illusion can be summed up in a single sentence: Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.” —Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman

In systemsy thinking, there’s loads of stuff on how to get people curious, on intervention theory, on how people learn and change etc. 

What there isn’t, is anything about how to drum your fingers, bite your lip and bide your time whilst nothing changes. 

You could say that’s not really within the remit of systemsy thinking, which is about change. It’s more within the remit of psychology or philosophy. How to put up with stuff is the foundation of Buddhism, Stoicism etc and I reckon any introduction to systems thinking should touch on it to some degree, cos whilst you’re all excited about getting a pony, Santa ain’t getting you a pony. 

So on that characteristically bleak but truthful point, have a Merry Christmas and a pony-free New Year from us all at ThinkPurpose!

Posted in change, systems thinking | Tagged | 4 Comments