#Applied-Stuff #Communication

Collaborative Tech Problem Solving

This blog post is about collaboration and ‘Wardley Mapping for Good’. How we can understand and improve collaboration with mapping.

I analyse an instance of collaboration to solve a tricky IT problem that occurred a few years ago at a previous employer. The approach explicitly uses some systems and complexity theories that I was learning about, including Clean Language and OODA.

This is what I did, not theory about what could or should have been done. This is not a recipe, more like a fragment of a map.

While what was done in this situation can’t be taken and simply applied to another problem the approach contains elements that have worked, so can be considered as parts of future solutions.

Part Cynefin® Complex, Part Complicated

Like most problems, there were elements of this problem that were ‘Complicated’ in Cynefin® language. Complicated problems can be solved by experts. The main issues here was with the available data (there was very little) , and the random nature of the problem (we couldn’t recreate it). But we knew that there was a solution to the problem to be found that would make it go away.

The Complex part of the problem was the bit involving people. The understanding and skills were distributed amongst 6 experts all having incomplete data and who were naturally making inferences and assumptions about what was going on.

The inferences and assumptions were based on previous problems, and an understandable desire for the problem to be not attributable to them. The experts had different managers, different pressures from their normal workload, different collaboration and work styles. If they were blamed unfairly they could have walked away from the problem solving, and would likely have had their managers backing.

So, what’s the problem?

The evidence we have is that

  1. In a large University, running computer based exams
  2. In room with 60 computers, 50+ in use
  3. Between 0(zero) and 8 students have an issue during an exam where their PC loses connection to the exam software and they have to change machine, be given extra time, and usually put in a ‘Extenuating Circumstances’ form…..
  4. We have exams 9-5, most days for three weeks
  5. There is no alternative to online exams, every computer room that can run them is fully booked.
  6. The problem appears to fix itself in a couple of minutes

The problem appears entirely random. We can observe the room for hours, and nothing happens. Then 3 problems happen in a minute where computers lose connectivity. And the connectivity comes back quickly without intervention. Seemingly no pattern, although people think they see them. Days go by without any issues, and we think we’ve fixed it. Then the problem comes back. We can’t recreate the problem ourselves, we’re waiting for the few minutes each day it shows up before it fixes itself.

The frustration is everywhere. No one is happy. Waking up in the morning knowing that the problem is job #1 is stressful. I just want to stay in bed.

Finding the solution takes 3 weeks, and lots of observation and changes to hardware and software.

What I did

This is a Miro of the User Needs that I recognised as needing to be met.

Understanding User Needs and what you do to meet them is the first part of creating a Wardley Map.

User Needs

We had a shared goal: Solve the IT problem affecting exams. Ideally without being the person who had to fix it.

USER NEED: Engage Colleagues in solving the problem

There was a real bind for colleagues working to fix this. Everyone wanted the problem to be fixed, but no-one really wanted the problem to be in their area. Any inference that the problem might be in someones area that wasn’t backed up 100% with evidence would likely put someone in a fight, flight or freeze response. The organisation wasn’t ‘safe to be wrong’, and there was nothing I could do to change this.

Knowing this I knew our approach had to be evidence based, and that inferences needed to be stated as such and owned by the person making them. This is a facilitation skill, and crucially needs to be done without making anyone wrong.

USER NEED: Experts need to have a shared understanding of the problem

We had documentation and diagrams of the systems we ran, but none showed the ‘end to end’ technology required for a user to run this software in a linear way. Unless you make these diagrams explicitly they may not exist. The diagram below shows the end to end tech. We could design experiments that ruled out half of the tech at a time in a way that is easy to communicate. This also provided reassurance that we were in control.

To make this diagram, I spoke to all of the people involved about the parts of the systems using Clean Language Interviewing. Clean Language questions don’t contain the questioners ideas, assumptions or prior understanding. The questions are also good at getting details that may be overlooked. This was vital in collecting 6 peoples separate understanding of the situation and putting together a shared understanding that everyone could agree with. Of course this is in the Cynefin Complicated domain, so there is a truth to find.

This diagram also contained the places where we could collect evidence for the Observe part of OODA.

Having a visual linear understanding of what needs to happen for a user to take an exam, allows us to look for tests/experiments that split the problem in two – and rule out half of the technology stack.

A key here was getting agreement with everyone involved exactly what the results would mean before we carried out the test. Some tests where the results would be inconclusive were dismissed. This approach removed the feeling that people were being blamed without evidence. As part of the team responsible, I knew that if anyone was going to suggest the problem was mine to solve, they would be doing it with the proper evidence.

This approach – getting agreement on the scope, agreeing on the evidence (and separating it from inference), and agreeing on the outcome of the tests we carried out before we did them was sufficient to make sure colleagues stayed involved and engaged.

It still wasn’t going to be a blame free environment, but it was scientific and agreed in advance. There was no space for anyones inference or favourite scapegoat. This involved considerable facilitation skills in discussions to keep to evidence and not make people wrong when they were making inferences or spotting potential patterns.

I was able to explain the approach using OODA to show how we approached the problem, and to show when we would have information that we could communicate to people. I ended up putting this in a RACI flowchart to show managers we knew what we were doing and had a plan.

This is very context specific. I knew the managers involved would like this sort of diagram. It’s not for everyone.

From this example it’s possible to understand the user needs in a particular collaboration context and look at what was done to meet those needs. There may be better and worse alternatives, and these may require more or less skill, facilitation. There may be some strategies for improvement, and things that may make things worse.

Many more real life examples would be required to get enough data to be sure how to map collaboration, but I think each example in context can be of use.

So what was the IT problem?

It turned out that the network switch for the room was deciding to put ports into ‘eco sleep’ mode, entirely at random, independent of the traffic on the port, and without any communication. 300 seconds later the port was back to normal. Some days it didn’t appear to do this at all. Sometimes it would break 8 times in a morning.

This was fixed in a firmware patch, but the problem was not acknowledged as part of the patch changelog by the vendor.

We could not recreate the issue, and there was no logging of the event anywhere. We just saw network traffic, then nothing, then traffic.

It turns out there were other switches with the same firmware in the organisation. There was lots for grumbling about IT, the network, Microsoft etc, but IT support never saw the problem enough to start to diagnose it.

#Learning-In-Public #Organisation

Wardley Mapping for Good*

*for some definition of good.

Drawing of people and map

This post is about working towards an end goal of creating strategies for doing good, rather than for competition. It uses Cynefin®, and looks towards building Wardley Maps . It’s both learning in public, and a work in progress.

Strategy not just for competition

Wardley Mapping is a great approach to strategy – it’s especially useful for Tech companies in a fast moving environments of competition and innovation. There is a solid application of strategy and there are lots of great examples to learn from. This article from Eric Schon is a great place to find examples.

I’d like to suggest that mapping for competition and innovation is context specific. Competition is great, but sometimes collaboration, communication, and finding a way that we can get on is appropriate.

Wardley mapping for competition may be a context specific. We could also collaborate. Or do something else.

In any situataion there may be groups of stakeholders, with spoken or unspoken doctrine, group values and principles. For each group there may be different ways they are willing to act. Collaboration is a choice, before deciding how to collaborate.

Making actual Wardley Maps of collaboration to meet a user need is a long way off. There is a lot to understand, including what x-axis values to use, and recognising and naming strategic options. Collaboration can get better and worse, so there isn’t a simple ‘everything moves to the right’ pattern that you have with the ‘capitalism’ frame the Wardley Mapping traditionally sits.

Who is this collaboration for?

Everyone can potentially benefit from better collaboration, communications and co-ordination, not just people who agree with me.

This opens up a whole set of questions – not least “Doing good according to who?”, that eventually may end up in discussing what we value, and the types of things we’d like to see more or less of in the world.

Doing good according to who? We have different ideas – depending on our values.

Types of doing good for may be;

  • Types of doing good:
    • Collaborating for a better community
    • Managing and Avoiding unnecessary conflict
    • Maximising things other than cost
    • Minimising things other than cost
    • Debugging issues in Organisations
    • Pitching ideas for improvements
    • Collaborating on a response to a natural disaster

I’m not alone in thinking what needs to happen for good to happen. Visa, @visakanv on twitter is looking at creating communities, and what he calls the asshole problem. Specifically how we co-ordinate to stop assholes ruining communities.

Sketch of @visakanv’s asshole problem thread.

It’s possible that a lot of problems have been solved – we just need to put all the knowledge together,.

Starting to think about Mapping.

Creating Wardley maps is a long way off in this project. Not least because I’ve no idea what the evolution (x) axis would look like in a lot of the contexts, or what movements there would be.

I can think of User Needs and look at things that have worked in the past to inform what might work in similar contexts in the future. In complex contexts, like those involving other people, we can’t know what will work, but we can try to understand the ways that things are disposed to behave. It may be possible to produce plausible, coherent options for actions based on things we know, or can learn, how to do.

Making sense of collaboration

I’m going to start with thinking about collaboration and communication. Collaboration isn’t necessarily always for good – you can collaborate for all sorts of reasons, but poor collaboration is often a barrier to getting stuff done.

Cartoon of Collaboration to help someone escaping from a police van.
You can collaborate for all sorts of reasons that not everyone will agree with…

Starting to look at collaboration

I’ve starting with a list of times that I can think of where collaboration may be required.

  1. Collaborate with neighbours to park cars
  2. Collaborate with other students to create coursework
  3. Collaborate with team members to make IT changes
  4. Collaborate with Russia to win second world war
  5. Collaborate with others to run community space
  6. Collaborate with other presenters to share time at conference
  7. Collaborate with house-share members to keep house clean
  8. Collaborate with Tradesman to get cash in hand work
  9. Collaborate with other teams hooligans in Europe
  10. Collaborate with police to get sentence reduced
  11. Collaborate (bribe)officials to get go ahead for something
  12. Collaborate with band members on setlist
  13. Collaborate with others politically
  14. Collaborate with others to pool Money and buy something
  15. Collaborate with others to get a discount with a group booking
  16. Collaborate with other protest groups to get bigger protests
  17. Collaborate with other consumers to change companies behaviour
  18. Collaborate with other voters to vote tactically
  19. Collaborate with other inmates to break out of jail
  20. Collaborate with newspaper to break a story
  21. Collaborate with new business partners to make money
  22. Collaborate with others to share knowledge
  23. Collaborate with others to share experience
  24. Collaborate with X to Stop Y
  25. Collaborate with X to Protect Y
  26. Collaborate with service providers to provide service to person
  27. Collaborate on an academic paper
  28. Collaborate on presentation for a conference
  29. Collaborate on Ideas
  30. Collaborate on Blog Post 
  31. Collaborate on Podcast
  32. Collaborate with a community interest group

We can place these types of collaboration on a board, and position them according to some ‘exemplars’ of collaboration type, following the sensemaking guidelines from Cynefin®.

This should give us an understanding of the sort of collaboration problem we have.

Exemplars of Collaboration could be

Clear collaboration is obvious to everyone what to do.
It’s sometime clear and obvious how you ought to collaborate
Complicated collaboration can be designed by experts
Complicated collaboration can be designed by experts
Complex collaboration is not knowable in advance
Cartoon of a choice of mystery burgers.
Complex collaboration can’t be know in advance. But if we get one of each type of burger there is a good chance everyone can swap and will get something they like.
Chaotic is where we just have to act
Cartoon of space invaders invading the earth.
If you need to act before thinking how best to collaborate, it’s chaotic.

We can place these on a Miro board and move the collaboration post it’s where we think they belong.

The next step (I think) is to think of stuff that works, might work, has worked in the past for each of the domains – and see if we can put together a toolkit of approaches that are coherent.

#Applied-Stuff #Know Yourself

Observing OODA Loops in the Wild

OODA is a theory of action that that originates in modern warfare. It describes a thinking / action loop that helps us to act in complex situations. It stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.

John Boyd described OODA loops while in the US Air Force to explain how to win Jet Fighter dog fights. I’m suggesting OODA is a generalisable way to understand and learn out how to act in complex situations.

This is a post where I look at theory showing up in practice. I’m also looking at OODA outside of military or competitive strategy, into personal interactions and learning.

I think OODA has applicable outside of combat and the military, into many situations where what you need to do next depends on what’s happening now.

I’m writing this to fill a gap that I see, by showing the elements of an OODA loop in practice. Other ideas naturally fit in such a decision framework.

What is OODA?

The initial O of OODA is observe. It’s what you’re looking for. People have various biases when looking for things, we tend to see what we’re looking for, and ignore what we’re not looking for. See this BasketBall Video Experiment. You need to know what you’re looking for.

Orient is understanding what you’ve seen, with regard to the context you are in. A participant in a MMA fight may orient differently from a partner in a business relationship with a written contract Observing the actions of a client.

Decide is a weighing up of what you’ve seen. This includes what you are constantly observing. You may get stuck here and never get to Act. You’re deciding which of your actions you’re going to do. Your variety of Actions needs to be sufficient for what you’re going to Observe. Requisite Variety and Adjacent Possibles are here.

Act is doing something. Actions are likely to get responses you can Observe, if you’re looking for them. You’ll often practice your actions, although maybe in isolation to an action you observe.

A Contextual Application of OODA

OODA is extraordinarily popular as a theory, but I’m not sure if I’ve read about many contextual application of OODA.

A contextual application would be

  • Here are the things you are looking to Observe
    • It’s hard to see things you don’t have a name for
    • Intentional Blindness happens
  • What are you Orienting your observations around. This is obviously contextual to the observations. You may orients around expectations, a contract, safe to fail options etc.
  • What are my options to act that I need to Decide from? Doing nothing may be an option. What experience or theory do you use to decide from a list of possible options?
  • Act is doing. You can only do the things you know how to do.

From observations you may find that things that were previously not possible have become possible.

You may find you can’t make sense of what you Observe. You may find that a course of action needs to be taken that you have not got the skills to do. In other words you need Requisite Variety on the things you may need to observe, and the potential Actions you need to take.

Observing OODA in Facilitation

I’m going to give a non-military and non-competitive worked example of a OODA loop ‘in the wild’.

I’m learning group facilitation technique called Systemic Modelling. Systemic Modelling is a way of improving the way a group works together, and can work with teams that are having difficulties.

There are parts of Systemic Modelling that happen before you get into a room with people where this OODA example happens, and there are things that happen afterwards too.

To show OODA in practice, I’ll look at what we do as Systemic Modellers in a live group. The scoping and contracting work, planning a group session and debriefing are not included here.

It’s worth noting there are contexts where Systemic Modelling is not appropriate, so this OODA loop is in an appropriate, contracted context.


I have a list of what I’m Observing. It’s unlikely my list will ever be complete, but I add things to it when I realise I need to be aware of the. The most important thing to observe is my own state, how I’m feeling, and any internal reactions I have to things that happen in the room.

Things in the room I notice include what I understand to be:

People who talk about Evidence, Inference and Impact

People who are in binds

People who may be talking position of drama (from Karpman)

People who may be using metaphors

People who may be discussing their values

People who may be displaying a behaviour that may be a pattern if repeated.

Systemic Modelling relies heavily on Evidence – in this context ‘what we’ve seen or heard’, and we practice remembering the evidence of the whole group – remembering what we Observe.

We also need to aware of biases that may affect what we’re noticing.


The most important thing to orient observations around is the contracted outcome of the group. This is more important than the outcomes for the facilitator (for example as a facilitator I want to be liked and to be correct is not important).

There are also Principles and Guidelines to Systemic Modelling which we can use to understand and orient the things that are observed happening.


We need to decide to so something from the number of potential actions we have. Doing nothing, and letting whatever is happening continue happens most often. If we didn’t choose to do nothing, the facilitator would be reacting to everything that they saw or heard.

An example from combat would be knowing when someone is feinting an attack, and hoping to get a reaction they can exploit, and when they are committing to an attack. We may do nothing with a feint, but we’d need to defend a committed attack.

Deciding in Systemic Modelling is knowing what can be said, what direction to take the group in based on what is ‘adjacent possible‘, and desirable right now.

Adjacent possibles may only be possible for a short amount of time. If you choose to do nothing the chance to act may be gone.

In Systemic Modelling, how we act is influenced by the application of David Groves clean questions to the group in a contextually clean way. So we have an array of phrases we can make our own. Saying things is Act in a OODA loop.

It’s worth saying that the way we act is connected to what we’d like to Observe happen next.

So we Act and go back around the loop, starting with observing our own internal stuff, and what we observe in the group.

This blog has shown how OODA occurs outside of military and business strategy, and also connected to Adjacent Possibles and Requisite Variety.

#Applied-Stuff #Learning-In-Public

Wikipedia as a Complex System

This blog is inspired by Dave Snowden’s talk with Scott Sievwright about “Convivial Debate” for Agile 2020 Reflect. Being able to talk and debate with people you don’t agree with is a skill. When talking about things with contexts and perspectives, including the upcoming Agile 2020 Reflect conference, ‘disagreeing skills’ are vital.

This is the drawing I did of Dave and Scotts YouTube talk linked above.

In this interview Dave mentions Wikipedia as an example of a complex system where constraints on behaviour enable the production of a mainstream encyclopaedia. With perspectives and contexts from around the world, Wikipedia is one of the collaborative successes of the internet – with no shortage of disagreement.

Wikipedia is governed by enabling constraints of behaviour.

I started looking at the Wikipedia guidance on Civility as an example of enabling constraints in a Complex Adaptive System.

I was interested to understand more here about how these constraints works in practice. I started by reading what I could find, I then tried to work out the patterns in what I was reading.

As an aside, when reading the articles on Wikipedia I didn’t find any advice that was ‘according to theory X’ or any references to articles that are in Wikipedia.

This could be due to one of the ‘enabling constraints’ of Wikipedia – There is a consensus on the standard of evidence on wikipedia. That standard is greater than the evidence we have that any of the articles on civility are the ones that work in this particular complex system.

It could also be that there is a consensus that a narrative works better when it doesn’t have links to theory.

Finding Enabling Constraints

I categorised the Enabling Constraints I found in the following areas. (Unsurprisingly these align to the kind of things I’m looking out for. I’d be interested other perspectives to add to this one using other areas.)

  1. Framing – A constraint on what wikipedia is, and what it is for.
    1. Enables buy in, and focus on outcomes.
  2. Evidence – A constraint on what is counted as evidence.
    1. Enables easy ‘This isn’t evidence’ conversations – focus on what is supported by evidence.
  3. Notability – A constraint on what is notable enough for inclusion.
    1. Basically, my 6th form band needs to reform and write some hits to get a page.
    2. Enables Wikipedia to focus on being a Mainstream Encyclopaedia.
  4. A good ‘state’ for editing – Don’t edit if you’re angry, hungry, tired etc.
    1. Edit in a good brain state
    2. Assuming good faith in others can be hard even when you’ re feeling fine.
  5. Behaviour towards others in the community
    1. The way we treat each other.
    2. Behaviours are spelled out – the way we do things around here

1. Framing

  1. Wikipedia frames what it is for, namly
    1. Mainstream encyclopaedia
    2. A community

“Remember what we are doing here. We are building a free encyclopedia for every single person on the planet. We are trying to do it in an atmosphere of fun, love, and respect for others. We try to be kind to others, thoughtful in our actions, and professional in our approach to our responsibilities.”

Jimbo Wales

Wikipedia also is explicit about the rules and guidelines. The directive ‘Ignore all Rules’ frames the relationship with rules governance and the purpose of Wikipedia. It reads:

“If a rule prevents you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore it.”

This statement created a heirarchial relationship between people working on Wikipedia and the rules, and it enables quick resolution of discussions interpreting the rules. Some people love rules. Wikipedia make creating an encyclopaedia a more important goal than developing the rules to create an encyclopaedia. There is probably something about avoiding becoming a bureaucracy too.


3. Notability

What I’m calling the Framing to what content is appropriate for Wikipedia, including what makes content noteworthy enough for an entry.

It’s worth pointing out that defining noteworthiness isn’t done by claiming wikipedia content is better than other content, it’s just not for Wikipedia. Not making people wrong helps them stay in a good brain state, and helps keep new contributors.

4. A good State for editing

There are some posts that suggest if you’re tired, angry or hungry then maybe editing Wikipedia is not the best thing to be doing.

Enjoy Yourself, Have a nice cup of tea, it’s not the end of the world, move on, say nice things are all pieces of advice for suitable behaviour.

Wikipedia is a community alongside an encyclopaedia and behavioural constraints are needed in communities.

5. Behaviour towards others

The largest number of documents I found are related to an outcome based discussion of how editors ought to treat each other.

These behaviours contribute to the behaviour of an ‘Ideal Wikipedian’. I have no idea if the number of Ideal Wikipedians is greater than zero.

The main advice appears to be ‘Assume Good Faith‘ and the reciprical ‘Assume the Assumption of Good Faith‘. There are discussions about the pitfalls of claiming someone is not acting in good faith. Without evidence it may be seen as bad faith…

#Applied-Stuff #Communication #Organisation

Laugh? I could have died or maybe another reaction.

Earnest Scribbler writing a joke so funny, no one can hear it and live to tell the tale.

In 1943 Earnest Scribber wrote a joke so funny that no-one can hear it and live.

It’s the middle of the Second World War, and the Allied forces are looking for a military advantage to end the war. Traditional weapons are part of a literal arms race, with more powerful weapons and bigger defences.

A weapon that your enemy can’t defend against could make a huge difference.

In this post I’m looking at Ashbys Law of Requisite Variety as it shows up in Monty Pythons funniest joke in the world. Seeing how a theory looks outside of teachings is a step towards everyday application. Click the link above to watch the sketch.

The British Army realises that Earnest Scribbler has created a weapon that there is not yet a defence for. Instead of physical defence against bombs and a bullets you’d need ear plugs.

The absurdity of having translators work “in joke proof conditions” translating on one word at a time is one of the many things that makes this sketch funny.

There is no defence for this word based attack. It’s an assault that the enemy is not expecting.

The Germans don’t have Requisite Variety to defend against the joke, being set up for more traditional attacks.

To have Requisite Variety to defend against attacks you’d need appropriate defence against the weapons you’re facing.

The image of soldiers walking through a battlefield shouting a deadly joke in a foreign language rather than firing weapons is ridiculous. Of course sound, microwave and laser weapons now exist, and it may be memes and misinformation we don’t have the tools to defend against. Like the Funniest Joke, a destructive meme is no laughing matter.

In reality at the time of World War Two Norbert Weiner was using cybernetics to develop anti aircraft guns. Requisite Variety, related to cybernetics, is the idea that to be able to respond to an input you need to have at least as many responses as there are potential inputs.

In a conflict you need to be able to defend against all of the attacks your enemy may make.

Fighting smarter (or meme-ier) instead of harder can be done by finding a Variety Imbalance that you can use to your advantage – especially while there is confusion about what is happening.

Examples of Requisite Variety

So there is a simple equation (that we’re not likely to put actual numerical values in) – do we have enough variety to absorb the variety the comes our way?

This works in all sorts of non comedy situations.

A shoe shop only selling shoe sizes 3 & 4 doesn’t have requisite variety for every customer likely to walk past.

The shoe shop can increase their variety by increasing their stock, or sell online, drop shipping direct from the distributor. This increases the variety they can sell without increasing stock.

Or a shop with limited stock could specialise – decreasing the amount of variety that comes their way. “Tiny Shoes” could be a viable specialist business that doesn’t require as much stock.

There are at least two ways we can deal with Variety. Either increase the number of responses you have to meet the demand or decrease the Variety the you need to respond to.

Making “Any colour you like as long as it’s black” a feature of your product decrease the variety you need.

A Mixed Martial Artist looks at looks to have more Variety of attacks than their opponent can defend, while having a variety of defences greater than their opponents attack.

So there are crazy strikers inventing moves that are unconventional and where standard defences don’t work. They’re not looking to make standard strikes harder.

Recognise when a Variety Imbalance is occurring can be used to your advantage.

The Observe, Orient, Decide, Act strategy cycle should be looking to observe and recognise variety imbalances.

This post looked at how Requisite Variety shows up in Monty Python and Shoe Shops. It shows up everywhere if you look.

#Applied-Stuff #Communication #Know Yourself

Starting a War with Evil Facilitation™

Chris Morris gives us a masterclass of manipulation and Evil Facilitation™ by starting war between Hong Kong and Australia.

Chris Morris.

In this post I’m examining a conversation going wrong in the ‘War!’ sketch from The Day Today. I’m using theory from Systemic Modelling to name the things Chris does. Click the link above to watch the sketch then read on.

I’ll pull out quotes, but I won’t go through the whole thing line by line.

You can only observe things that you are looking for and it helps to have a name.

The things I’m looking to Observe (from OODA) include:

  • Are we talking about a problem, the remedy to a problem, or an outcome. This is the PRO model.
  • Are we using metaphors in a positive or negative way?
  • Are we curious about each other, or is there contempt?
  • Are using evidence that everyone agrees with, or are we talking about the inferences we’re making?
  • How are we framing the conversation? Is everyone in agreement about what the conversation is about, and what the outcome is?
  • Are we aware of our own and others brain state, mainly are we aware of Fight, Flight or Freeze reactions?

If we watch the clip, and are actively Observing for the above we’re exercising our muscles for when we need to do the rest of OODA in real time, Orienting what is meant, Deciding what we like to do, and then stringing the right words together in Act.

The discussion starts with an upbeat and contemptuous framing of the situation. Chris as the interviewer focuses on past Problems as much as the Outcomes and introduces his own negative metaphors that neither of the participants used.

…the two countries have been at each other’s throats for years but now the hatchets been buried…

Framing the situation sets up the discussion

Often when looking at a conversation that didn’t go well the initial frame, where we set the topic and tone of the conversation, is the place where the problems started. Framing the discussion sets the overall tone, and Chris wants conflict.

I’m inferring the person in charge of the captions timing is also in contempt….

The first question puts Martin Craste on the spot with a hypothetical problem situation. Chris is a persecutor framing Martin a ‘not OK’ so he can start the conversation on shaky ground.

And if, as in the past, Australia exceed their trade agreement, what will you do about it?

The interviewees are not expecting this line of questioning, and are likely be put in an unhelpful brain state of fight flight or freeze, while Chris asks “What are you going to do about it?”

I’m inferring that Chris is ready to frame any conciliatory answers as weak.

Naturally if the limits were exceeded this will be met with a firm line.

We don’t know what a ‘Firm Line’ is, we could find out, or we could go with everyone’s inference, and go towards questioning what the impact of the inference may be. Chris continues with Evil Facilitation,

“He’s knocking a firm line in your direction, what are you going to do about that?”

Chris Morris, while pointing…

We’d just reimpose sanctions…

Hang on a sec, they’ve only just swallowed their sanctions and now they are burping them back in your face.

Chris is bringing in more metaphors here, “knocking in your direction” and “burping in your face” are metaphors that don’t suggest harmony. These metaphors are Chris’s words and he’s picked these for the impact they’ll have.

If sanctions were imposed we’d have to retaliate with appropriate measures.

Appropriate Measures is a euphemism Mr Hawtry, you know what it means, what are you going to do about that?

Another inference that Chris uses is”you know what it means”. We have no idea what that means, but Chris is ratcheting up the conflict. Not wanting to look weak, the conflict is escalated:

Maybe it’s a matter for the military….

I think military action is totally inappropriate and way over the top…

It sounds like (he’s saying) you’re being inappropriate? Are you?

Gentlemen I’ll put you on hold

Chris’s work here is done…

Gentlemen, I’ll put you on hold’ is a bit of good facilitation from Systemic Modelling, often used when inferences are investigated. It’s one of the highlights in this sketch for me, and has Chris in full contempt.

Mr. Patton what do you think of the idea of a war now? ….I’ll take that as a Yes!

Think I can stop pointing out inferences now…

That’s it, this is a War!

Chris get’s his way by starting a war with Framing, Brain State Inference, introducing negative metaphors and Framing Problems. He bosses the room to get his way and contempetiously wheels the guests wheeled out of the studio when he’s go what he wants.

Chris and the News Studio get the war they want.

There is a lot we can learn from Evil Facilitation™, especially if you’re happy learning what not to do from other people.

Ideas from Caitlin Walker’s Systemic Modelling, used in this post include:

Hey Mike, what would you do differently? If I wanted to start a war, then this is an ideal approach. If I wanted to improve communication then Systemic Modelling would suggest

  • Framing using Outcomes
  • Using Evidence and owning and clarifying Inference
  • Understanding everyone’s potential brain state
  • Fostering curiosity rather than contempt
  • Using others metaphors respectfully, and not introducing negative metaphors.
  • Keeping ‘your stuff’ out of it

Systemic Modelling is of course the opposite of Evil Facilitation™.

#Applied-Stuff #Know Yourself #Learning-In-Public #Organisation

Complexity, Hard Hats and BMX.

Governing to Enabling Constraint is a continuum. Keiran sends it.

This post makes a link between the theory and practice of Cynefin® and complexity science. I’m using video examples from BMX so it’s a fun stretch of the OODA ‘Observe’ muscles, that may not immediately be applicable to work, politics or ‘real life’ decision making.

If you can’t observe the theory in practice, you’re not going to get to act, unless as a response to other peoples actions. So this post may be useful to people who are looking to apply concepts to the real world. If you know the concepts I’ll present some examples of where they appear to me.

I’ll be spotting enabling and governing constraints, repurposing of everyday stuff, changing identities and how most situations are a mix of the clear, complicated and complex domains.

I realised at a Cynefin® Basecamp course that large parts of one of my previous lives I’d been actively looking at my environment in a way described through the Complexity Science ideas of Governing and Enabling constraints, adjacent possibles, safe-to-fail and not-so-safe-to-fail experiments. I said I’d write about it…

I’d used links to videos that show where I think these ideas show up. Click the videos to start at the relevant bits. I hope this gives the examples I show evidence in context. I’ve tagged this post as #Learning-In-Public as I may have got some of this wrong. Let me know if that’s the case.

Before I begin…

I’m going to add a content warning here. Alongside some wholesome enterprise there is lawbreaking, disrespect and belligerence for authority figures and subjectively pointless risk taking on display . Many riders are not wearing crash helmets and are trespassing. The police and security are called. I’m presenting this as it is. I’m not offering a judgement. Just an analysis.

From the Department for Content Warnings, 2020.

Firstly, A bit about riding bikes

Riding BMX bikes can help you see and act in your environment in creative ways. Riders are always looking to progress and push their skills and boundaries. Skateboarders will know this feeling too. You never see a city the same again, and the 6th sense you get when is a riding spot nearby never goes away.

Progressing and novelty is (or at least was) the most important part of BMX, the things described here need to be understood as happening in an environment that rewards progression above all. Personal progression, doing things you couldn’t do yesterday, doing things that you’ve not done at this place, and more global progression, doing things no one else had done, and doing things no one else had even thought of doing. The last example in this post involving Bas Keep jumping off the Croyden Flyover is an example here.

Bikes and Physics as Constraints

We ride bikes with some non-negotiable Governing Constraints. Gravity and physics are not negotiable, and provide rules that everyone needs to obey. Concrete is hard, bones break.

Low quality bikes that bent and broke were a constraint in the mid 90’s, a decade after BMX’s 80’s boom. This was a showstopper for progression since riders needed to trust their bikes to be able to commit to tricks, and there was no money to be made in the tiny 1990’s bmx scene by big companies. Bikes that broke stopped progression.

Riders themselves moved this constraint by creating their own manufacturing companies building high quality bikes in the USA, many raising funding selling t-shirts and stickers and using it to start metal fabrication businesses. The bikes might still break, but at much higher stress levels. S&M Bikes, Hoffman Bikes, FBM, T1 were all rider owned companies who pushed the boundaries of manufacturing.

Riders learned to work in and manage machine shops, knowing and care how things were sourced and made. When you trust your bike, you remove a constraint to progress.

The last comment on this video, Josh Corts is fabricating frames for FBM (Fat Bald Men) Bikes, and he rides an FBM after work. “And you ride?” “Yeah, we’re getting ready to go down to Bingham to ride some street today.” Skin in the Game. Click the video to jump to the right part.

”And you Ride?” “Yeah…”

The obsession with strong bikes, often weighing 35lbs then constrained riders who needed lighter bikes for more complex tricks. Newer bikes (I’m told) are much lighter and stronger. Manufacturing in the Far East has improved although FBM bikes continues making bike in New York State. Riders surfed constraints and ratcheting up what’s possible with their available equipment and money, and ending up creating a whole scene.

Constraints that help

Unlike gravity and Physics, many obstacles are enabling, and finding out how they go from stopping you to being a necessary part of the trick is all part of the fun.

Do you think that’s going to constrain me?

A fence around a children’s park is designed to keep kids in. Fences and barriers are put around skateparks to keep bikes and skateparks in, and other things out. A fence or barrier around a skatepark is also going to get ridden on, jumped over, and integrated into riding.

In the video above at 4:50 Keiran jumps the fence out of the skatepark. I’m fairly certain that the fence wasn’t designed as part of the park, but without it this trick doesn’t exist.

The video below features skater Andrew Anderson, using the fence around the skatepark as part of the park itself. The video itself has lots of examples of fences and rails – Things designed and made as boundaries and constraints enable skating. They don’t necessarily make it easy, these things are non obvious. Things that are not supposed to be ridded can be awkward to ride. Click the picture for the part of the video showing the fence as part of the park.

The fence keeps cars and motorbikes out…. Click for the part of the video where it enables stuff…

Knowing what has just been done, changes what’s possible

In BMX there is a ever moving boundary of things that have been done. Not only by you, but by anyone. Once you know something has been done it opens possibilities. What’s possible from here, in complexity is called adjacent possible. Just knowing someone has done something similar changes what you think can be done.

Justin Gautreau, looking at jumping his bike down the 20 step monster at El Toro

The first few seconds of the video below, Justin Gautreau is talking about adjacent possible. (Content warning – the full video contains ‘belligerence’ and disrespect of authority, no helmets and balls of steel etc).

Click to see the first few seconds of this show Justin discussing adjacent possibles.

In normal language Justins words mean “if someone can 360 the bike, while letting go of the handlebars and spinning them 360, while jumping down 20 concrete steps, then I can keep hold of the bars, and kick the rest of the bike under me 360 and catch the pedals before I land.” What’s adjacent and possible changes when new things are done.

A security guard and a golf cart. Not cool circumstances, but enabling constraints in action.

Rodney Mullen says

In the TED talk, on getting up again:

There are a few ways we see it. As you can see we film and send it around the world. Then in a few months, maybe weeks so called friends show a video of some rotten kid in Madagascar, doing it better than you do.

Rodney Mullen

Knowing what has been done, and so what can be done, changes what we can do here and now. Even if we’ve only seen what’s been done on video from the other side of the world.

What was needed to get this done was an enabling constraint. BMX rider George Marshall, now a photographer for Rapha, Vans & Red Bull says

it‘s amazing how much stuff gets done when security turn up.

George Marshall, Photographer.

You can be riding at a spot for hours, but when you’re about to get kicked out of a riding spot, the thing you’re trying gets done. Knowing there is one last go enables crazy focus. From the evidence, Security showing up is an enabling constraint of one last go.

The 20 stairs at El Toro have now been removed and replaced with something that’s not rideable or skate-able, possibly because of the behaviour of Justin and the video team and their treatment of security.

Of course this is the challenge – riding things that are not supposed to be ridden is part of the fun, so don’t hold your breath that someone won’t be back.

One last go

Another examples of Security showings up and ‘One Last Go’ as an enabling constraint happened in Japan at a condemned skatepark called ‘Death Bowl’. When the security guard shows up for work at 8.30am precisely, Greg Illingworth knows he has one last chance to get the trick that he travelled for days halfway around the world to get. He’s unlikely to get back to Death Bowl, ever.

With 7 days to find the skatepark and get this shot, it happened at the last moment before they got kicked out. The enabling constraint of getting kicked out…

People who employ the security guards to do their job are thinking they are setting up governing constraints. But often these become enabling constraints, creating the pressure to get things done.

I’m imagining that those creating laws think the same. Lawyers see laws as enabling constraints, not governing constraints….

Introducing the Croyden Flyover

Seeing novel new uses for things in the world is a skill, and is something that enables new ideas and ways of doing things.

Sebastian Keep’s ”Project walls” was an idea to put his bikes wheels as high up unlikely walls as he could find.

We set out to put tyre prints where no one would dream of riding a bike.

Sebastian Keep

Bas used google earth to find suitable spots, and built mockups of the spots out of wood in a warehouse to practice. He then constructed wooden ramps, and got his friends in Hi Vis Vests to stop traffic while jumping off motorway flyovers and out of multi-storey car parks.

Hard hats and High Viz. Change of Identity through change of clothing photo

To solve problem of how to jump off the Croyden Flyover, Cynefin would tell us to use appropriate methods, and work out what type of problem we have. Sebastian does this, mainly taking an incremental scientific approach, by practicing on a mock up. This is “Complicated” in Cynefin domains.

Sebastian build mock ups of the riding spots in a warehouse, and moved them further apart at foot at a time to simulate the real spot. This in in the complicated domain – measuring distances and speed and using science. There isn’t much crash footage from this project. That’s to do with the scientific approach and Bas’s skills knowing what he’s capable of.

The video below shows this in action.

A mock up of the real riding spot, with the gap to the wall extended from 8ft to 17ft.
Click for video of systematically practising the jump in a warehouse

The project could have ended when at 7am on a Sunday Morning the Police drove by and slowed down to see what was going on.

Blokes in High Viz Jackets with hard hats and traffic cone at 7am on a Sunday” helped. Hi Viz and and unnecessary hard hats are sucessfully worn at many of the spots Bas rides at to deflect and avoid suspicion.

Hi Viz changes their identity

Cynefin says we take on different identities based on what we wear in both our, and other people eyes. It can’t be know for sure that the High Viz and hard hats was why the police decide not to stop and investigate. The same people on a Friday night dressed in hoodies and baseball caps it may have been investigated and moved on.

Jumping off the Croydon Flyover.

Jumping off the bridge was made possible by using a mix of complex, complicated and simple approaches were required, and crucially using the right approach in the right place.

Getting the skills and practice to attempt this used planning and science, as did building the ramps and making sure everyone knew what to do and when.

Getting to the spot, setting up and jumping off the bridge required coning off part of the road, taking down a sign and building a ramp in plain sigh may have been helped by apparent identity of those doing the work.

In this post I’ve tried to show where complexity science shows up in real life, and how we can deliberately and intuitively approach problems with different methods to get the outcome we want.

Some of the other approaches I use can be seen here.

#Know Yourself #Organisation

Lumberjacks, Bars and Shopping, an introduction to the Viable Systems Model.

A friend who is interested in People and Organsiations asked for a description of the Viable Systems Model that wasn’t Too-Long/Didn’t-Read. I’ve applied the Viable Systems Model (VSM) to Michael Palin’s Lumberjack Sketch in Monty Python. Applying the VSM to Monty Pythons Cheese Shop sketch is left to the reader.

I like looking at things through different perspectives. What one perspective may miss another may make obvious, and I like interesting ideas as much as ‘correct’ ones. While it’s important to make sure you know which context your theory works in, I find checking out things with a few models can be illuminating.

If you’re interested in how what some does fits in with how they organise themselves, manage their time and what it says about who they are this article will be of interest. The approach was designed for understanding big organisations, this into is simplified and a bit silly.

What is the Viable Systems Model?

The VSM describes how organisations work and fit together. I know a little about the VSM, so I’ll be looking at the way Monty Pythons lumberjack fits the VSM.

Through a VSM lens, organisations are like Russian dolls with Viable Organisations within Viable Organisations. I don’t include the company the lumberjack will work for, or the organisations that need to exist to supply lumberjacking tools. We can infer that our lumberjack needs to be within a larger organisation that needs wood, and there will be other Viable Organisations to provide lavatories and buttered scones.

The Viable Systems Model is a lens to look at a situation. I like to look at things through more than one lens. I find the VSM has a perspective other lenses don’t.

I’m applying the VSM to lumberjacks in a simple introductory way that is hopefully not Too Long; Didn’t Read, or Too Wrong; Didn’t Read.

He’s a Lumberjack and he’s OK

You can watch and sing along with the Monty Python sketch on the link below.

The Viable Systems Model is often applied to organisations and their financially viability in their environment. This is the case for our lumberjack too, but I’ll be focusing on him having his life together, being congruent in what he does, who he wants to be and what his values and aspirations are.

Aspiring to be a Lumberjack.

VSM can be used to see if you have your life together for your own needs, and in the opinion of others you care about.

How I’ll apply the VSM to Lumberjacks

Rather than try to show the model up front, I’m going to describe the Lumberjack, and point out the bits where the model can be seen.

The VSM model has 5 parts, numbered 1 to 5. It uses numbers as the names can change when applying to different sorts of organisations or businesses. I’ll refer to how these show up for our Lumberjack and use VSM1, VSM2 in brackets. If you have the parts of the model to hand you can quickly apply to new situation.

I’m a Viable Lumberjack: Applying the VSM.

Cutting down tree = Lumberjack

Our Lumberjack has an identity, a lifestyle. ’I cut Down Trees’ is enough to be a Lumberjack. And we can see that the Canadian Mounties agree.

Sleeping all night and Working all day is also an appropriate allocation of time the Mounties agree with.

We’ve just covered three parts of a VSM model. Firstly there is the stuff you do, and the identity you have.
The Identity of a Lumberjack (VSM 5) means Cut Down Trees (VSM1). You need to manage the allocation of your Resources (VMS3) and you do all this in an environment of Canadian Mounties. Our Mounties seem to approve of this allocation of time to activities.

What you do (& what is done by an organisation) is VSM System1

It’s also worth pointing out that being a Lumberjack requires Lumberjacking

There are other things that are done by our Lumberjack. Eating lunch and going to the Lavatory need to be done to stay alive.

Eating your lunch and going to lavatory is a resourcing (S3) issue. Anyone spending too long on a lunch break or at the loo in a factory job will be well aware of this.

VSM System 3 allocates resources
VSM System 5 is concerned with Identity

To recap, 2 verses in and we have

  • What you do (S1). Cut Down Trees
  • Allocation of Resources (S3) – between Sleep and Work
  • An Identity (S5) – Lumberjack
  • An Environment, Mounties, and his Girlfriend.

Your identity isn’t entirely yours.

We can see the approval of our mounties as they sing along.

The Mounties are not sure…

Our Mounties are not too happy with ‘buttered scones for tea’ especially as we already have ’eat my lunch’, and they start to question our lumberjacks Identity (S5).

If the opinion of Mounties is important to lumberjacks it’s possible that them saying “Hey, you’re no lumberjack” could be fairly devastating. And maybe there is another environment where there are different ideas of what a lumberjack can do.

In the next verse, putting on women’s clothing to hang around in bars. Mounties pull faces here, and nearly give up singing, but cutting down trees, sleeping all night and working all day is a strong enough signal that everything is OK again.

The things you do (S1) contribute to your identity (S5). Being seen to do things that appear to others to be incongruent with your identity can be a problem. Like a cheese shop that doesn’t sell cheese.

We allocate resources (S3) on what we do (S1) affecting our Identity(S5).

The rest of the model

There are other bits of a viable system we can infer need to exist. If they don’t exist we can infer there may be trouble. In a nutshell, that’s how the VSM diagnoses issues.

All our lumberjacking activities requires planning and co-ordination:

  • Cutting down Trees
  • Eating Lunch
  • Going to the Lavatory
  • Going Shopping on Wednesdays
  • Having buttered scones for tea
  • Putting on women’s clothing
  • Hanging around in bars

All need co-ordinating (S2).

Many of my Lumberjack friends organise what they do on a whiteboard. They have “Go shopping” filled in on Wednesdays, ‘Cut down trees’ on the other days apart from Wednesdays, and often contain a reminder to change clothes between Lumberjacking and hanging around in bars.

Depending if there are toilets on site, going to the lavatory may also need to be co-ordinated to when a lavatory is nearby.

A lumberjacks whiteboard

When can we start pressing flowers?

Allocating time & resources (S3) for ‘buttered scones’ and ‘pressing wild flowers’ implies less time for cutting down trees (S1)

Getting our resourcing wrong can also affect our identity (S5) and our ability to function. Too little time spent cutting down trees will mean the lumberjack identity (S5) is hard to keep.

We also need to look to the future (in fact, the entire sketch is looking to the future, I’ll come back to that at the end). We need to look at the future environment for changes that we need to make like learning a new kind of way to cut down trees, to keep the lumberjack identity.

We can also change our environment. If this environment does not support us, we can find or create another.

Looking for changes required in the future is VSM System4

So when our lumberjack looks to the future (Future-S4) to spend time (Resourcing- S3) to put on women’s clothing and hang around in bars (S1 activities), it will be co-ordinated by the same mechanism (co-ordination S2) that has shopping on Wednesdays, and ideally keeps shopping and bars separate, ideally not arriving at the bar with shopping bags as the other people (environment) may look at you a bit funny.

I only WANT to be a Lumberjack…

The start of the Monty Python shows our lumberjack as a barber who is looking to the future to see if being a lumberjack is a viable fulfilling job that fits in with what he want outside of lumberjacking.

He gets some useful feedback from the Mounties and his girlfriend that maybe it isn’t. He doesn’t seem bothered. He hasn’t had to move and retrain to find this out. Maybe he’s going to try out imagining a few other jobs to see if they work out better?

Overview of the VSM

Your identity emerges from what you do. If you put on women’s clothing, hang around in bars your environment may decide that you no longer have the identity of a lumberjack. Like the Lumberjacks girlfriend.

To be viable you need to find an environment to be viable in, and you need to do things that get you what you need.

In use the VSM is a bit like a Business Model Canvas – you need to make sure all the boxes are filled in correctly and all work together, and connections between the boxes and the environment are all working as expected.

The full VSM has a few more parts, but they are not required to have a ‘wrong but useful’ model.

I’ve took some liberties with the VSM here to keep this short, there are a lot of connections between the systems I’ve not covered.

To apply the VSM to a current situation look at which bits are missing, and if they are working together OK.

#Communication #Know Yourself

Experimental Perspectives

  • We can all agree that generating new ideas can sometimes be hard. New perspectives and ways of thinking about stuff, new ways to describe ideas to an audience – all require you to find to find a place with a new angle to view an idea.
Childs drawing of a snail shell to illustrate a metaphor explanation from Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons from Physics
Carlo Rovelli uses multiple metaphors to describe ideas in physics, including giant Snail Shells and marbles in a funnel.
  • To help get new perspectives, I’d like to experiment joining together a technique of coaching that has curiosity at it’s core and apply it generating perspectives, ideas and metaphors.
  • New ideas can often be described really well with Metaphors. In the case of Theory Constructive Metaphors the metaphor is the theory. (I’ve seen this idea used in complexity science by Alicia Jurrareo)
  • In the book “7 brief lessons from Physics” Carlo Rovelli describes various theories with metaphors in just the first few pages of the book.
Carlo Rovelli uses multiple metaphors to describe ideas in physics, including electrons jumping between energy levels.
  • We often face problems making sense of complicated phenomenon, describing theories to colleagues, or maybe updating current description that is no longer working.
  • It’s really hard to escape from metaphors, they’re useful for explaining ideas.
Carlo Rovelli uses multiple metaphors to describe ideas in physics, including packets of energy.
  • I’d like to run an experiment using Clean Language coaching (described below) to help with problems of working through ideas or generating insights and new perspectives.
  • If you’re interested have a read of the image below and let’s see what cool things we can come up with.
Sketchnote of Ideas and Perspective process.

Or just get in touch, via twitter @michaelthaber, email [email protected] or book a chat at

What is Clean Language Coaching?

A clean question is one that has a contains the least amount of the questioners assumptions, words and judgements.

So it’s really about curiosity.

It’s not for me to understand your problem or to agree or even understand your solution. I’m not here to help in that way. 

The purpose in Clean Coaching is for me to help you understand what you need to do, or how to see something differently, or connect some ideas somehow.

I’m not listening so I can give you advice. I’m listening so I can help you get a model of the situation that is complete (regarding the thing you have), and you’ve been asked questions about how it all fits together.

As someone who solves their own problems Clean Language is the only coaching I’d be able to tolerate. It really stays out of the way of solutions in a way that’s really refreshing.

#Know Yourself

Sleep Problems

Advice from productivity ninjas is to limit what you work on. Have a Work In Progress limit. Focus. Do one thing well. Doesn’t work for me though. I get blockers to progress that get solved with sleep. I can’t necessarily choose which problem gets unblocked, but some days I wake up knowing I can make progress on something that wasn’t moving. So I have load of books on the go. Lots of conversations, ideas, stuff to learn, half finished sentences. It’s probably frustrating to watch. It might be frustrating to be, if I had any spare bandwidth to care.