Systems Science and Decision-making

The Descartes school of getting your board to painlessly make decisions

Clients sometimes say things to me like:

“We’ve been around and around on this issue and still haven’t made a decision that everybody is happy with”;    Or

“Even though I thought we’d decided this months ago, the same issue keeps coming up again and again”.

What is happening that smart, experienced people can get stuck in this cycle? Why do key decisions seem to take forever or get revisited again and again without making progress?

The answer (or a part of it, anyway) is that a top-team or a board of directors is a kind of system – by which we mean:

A set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole.

The 17th century French philosopher, mathematician and scientist René Descartes had some interesting things to say about systems and how to work with them. He used the example of a clock, saying that you can’t take one piece out of a complex system like a clock and expect to easily identify the role of either that individual piece or (most importantly) the functioning of the whole clock.

Similarly, if you are one of the pieces in a system, it’s extremely difficult to either:

  • identify where and why that system may not be working so well; or
  • influence the wider system to change.

If you’re a member of the top-team or board, or an employee of it, you’re already plugged-into that system. This is why an external change agent often seems to have a much easier time influencing the board to make changes.


Here are some of my tips, from a systems point of view, for getting a board or a top-team to address an issue or make a decision that has previously been postponed or keeps being revisited. Whilst they’re not directly attributable to Descartes, I’m sure he’d have approved – especially if Post-Its had been around when he was doing his Cogito ergo sum stuff!

1 Don’t do any work on it at all, until all the stakeholders can be present – otherwise you’re not addressing the whole system

2 Recognise that, by and large, most systems are in a state of “homeostasis” – they will work to maintain a balanced and relatively stable equilibrium amongst their component elements (you can see this most easily in biological systems). Changes of any kind, and the decisions to initiate change, are almost an anathema to a functioning system

3Use the power of the system to introduce desire for the decision – most simply, I often just ask the group to list why they would and wouldn’t actually want to make the decision (as opposed to asking what decision they want to make)

4Design some kind of decision-making process that has people up on their feet and moving around. As this is likely to be the opposite of how they usually do things it will (a) counter some of that homeostasis; (b) make it harder to be passively resistant and (c) introduce some dynamism

5Use plenty of Post-its and other tricks to help make people’s thoughts visible and shared with others. Nothing keeps a decision coming back again and again more than somebody feeling that they haven’t aired their view or had it heard

6Discuss the decision-making process upfront, especially around not making a decision or having to revisit it – What do we do if we don’t arrive at a decision? How we will respond if we’re still addressing this in three month’s time? How will we include dissent if it only arises later on? I don’t think the answers to these questions get any easier by asking them upfront, but experience suggests that these issues are then less likely to be a problem

7Talk to an experienced facilitator about your processes. If you want them to actually help at your meetings, then you’ll need somebody who is able to build a good working relationship with your board as a whole and with the individuals, and who is also able to keep their independence and not become too much of a part of your system.


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Team Alignment

Six surprisingly simple things to check if your team isn’t all pulling together


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Teams vs Groups

What’s the difference between a Team and a Group – when do you need them and what makes them work?

People don’t always realise that there’s a difference between a Group and a Team and that not every group should be or even needs to be a team.

(In contrast, and technically speaking, every team is a kind of group)

Knowing which is which and giving some thought to what the functions and groupings in your organisation require can be really helpful, especially when it comes to improving performance, designing workflow and diagnosing the causes of dissatisfaction.

When you need a team

You’ll probably need a Team if you need synergy – if you need the sum of the parts to be greater than the whole.

If the efforts of individual people, working well in a Group give you all that you need, then don’t try to make them behave like a team. People working in a process, where they pass a task along to be progressed by somebody with different skills are also a Group.

If the outcomes you’re after are complex, challenging and beyond the scope of individuals, even working well as part of a process, then you need a Team.

I don’t know if the academics would agree with me, but I understand it in terms of my experiences:

  • relay runners racing in the 4 x 100m are a Group
  • rugby players, even with specialised skills and tasks, need to be a Team.

If you’re a member of the most senior group of people who run your organisation, you and your colleagues probably should be a Team – unless your business is a highly-specialised, one-off, short-term, project-based activity like making a movie. And even then I’d argue you’d add something by aiming to be a team.

You can use the table below to see the other key differences between Groups and Teams and some of the important implications for helping people to be productive and fulfilled. Alt-click the table and select “Save image as…” to download a copy:TeamsvsGroups


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How to do Inspiring Visions

JFK’s “We Choose to go to the Moon…” Speech

Lots of stuff on tv at the moment about early space exploration, reminded me of this video – one of the most inspiring ‘big vision’ speeches ever. President John F Kennedy speaking at Rice University in September 1962.

Scroll down and play the video to see for yourself.

After the video I’ve put some tips of my own about the kind of things that this sort of ‘vision’ speech needs to include.

Some brief thoughts about the key elements to include in making your own inspiring vision speech:

  • Re-calibrate – not all of us are planning on moon landings, but don’t let that make your vision any less important than this
  • Challenge – notice how President Kennedy makes it clear that there are big obstacles to be overcome. The right amount of challenge is what makes life worth living and work worth doing
  • Sensory Details – you can almost feel what it’d be like to be on that mission, the heat, being cramped in the capsule; really brings it to life
  • Tangible Measures – there’s lots of facts and figures in this vision “240,00 miles away”; “a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall”; I can see and imagine those much more readily because of those numbers
  • Metaphor –  “…fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch”; do you go away knowing exactly how precise he wants you to be and how to explain that to somebody else?
  • “We”“Because that challenge is one we intend to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win”; I’m rolling my shirt-sleeves up to get stuck-in right away
  • Present tense – he really switches into the present tense towards the end “Re-entering the atmosphere…”; again this just helps to feel like you’re already there. I can believe this vision because I’ve practically lived it even before he’s finished speaking
  • Upturns Convention“Not because it is easy, but because it is hard”

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Learning Styles and Business

How your learning style reveals the best way to approach your work and career

The pace of competition and innovation in business around the world shows no sign of letting-up. And it’s often a stretch to keep-up with new ideas, find space to adapt to changing markets or even just to make sure we’re up with current best practice! With all that happening, our choices about how much time and money to invest in learning get both more and more important and harder to balance.

It’s also potentially difficult to know what’s going to suit our learning styles and our type of business, so this article is a quick summary that might help.

The way that different people are stimulated to learn and their preferences for applying that learning can have a big impact in business and on the best way that you can approach your work and career. I’ve also put these in the learning styles and business matrix shown above.

People tend to be stimulated to learn by either:

  • a ‘real-world’ Experience; or
  • by having or finding an interesting Idea.

We then respond to that stimulus, to try and make sense of it or take on-board what we’re learning by either:

  • testing it out in some practical way; or
  • reflecting on it (which is a kind of internal ‘testing-out’).

So, for example, the typical hands-on leader of a business is probably someone who prefers to learn from experience and then go and try out what they’ve learnt in some practical way, often by starting and building a business. In contrast, someone whose learning is stimulated by an idea (either their own or someone else’s) and who then wants to test out that idea in a practical way, is likely to be an innovator, coming-up with new solutions to real-life problems (clockwork radio, bag-less vacuum-cleaner…).

It’s also my experience that everybody can use most of these learning styles. Business people do learn from the theory – they just might prefer it to be (a) bite-sized and (b) based on other people’s real-world experience.


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Is Your Business Competing?

Where to Start if Your Business is Not Competing Well

Sometimes, the hard truth is that your business might not be competing as well as you want it to and it’s tough to (a) know why that might be and (b) to overcome the emotional barriers to actually do something about that.

Think about a successful small or medium-sized business that you know personally in some way.
I bet you that they’ve got one or other of these approaches to business:

  1. They’re focused, in a way that makes them different. Almost always in one of these ways:
    • they usually only service a fairly specific group of customers or clients (a place, a population segment or a business segment); or
    • they do something pretty unique and which is valued; or
    • they have built an amazingly credible and powerful brand; or
  2. They are the Ryanair of their world. Determinedly no-frills and budget-pricing; or
  3. The costs of running their business are much lower than other people’s in the same industry. They’re probably big enough to have developed economies of scale. They take those reduced costs and they either:
    • re-invest those costs in more advertising; or
    • re-invest those costs in making the product/service more valuable, probably through design or innovation.

If your business isn’t competing as well as you want, does it have one of these approaches? Be honest. The emotional price of dealing with an uncompetitive approach is high, but the cost of dealing with a failing business is higher.


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Decision Making Hacks Part 2:

How to let fate lend a hand in decision-making to reveal which options are really important

Building on Part 1, this decision-making hack is good for those situations when:

  • intuitive people are struggling find a ‘logical’ justification for what their gut is telling them; and or
  • the options are fairly well-balanced with no outstandingly obvious choice.

I carry around the quirky metal die shown in the picture (which is from a battle-game). The process is really simple:

  1. Number your options
  2. If you have 6 or fewer options = one roll
  3. More than 6 options, number them 2-12 and roll twice
  4. Roll the die
  5. Watch people’s reactions as the number comes up.

Usually what happens is that people are then able to say stuff like: “Oh, I didn’t really want option 2“, so you can at least rule that out. Often they’ll reveal (or you can ask) which number they were hoping for. You’ll also find people asking to do “best of three rolls” etc, which is also revealing about which options are important to them.

Another thing I like about this hack is that even people who are  unaware consciously of what they want or who find it difficult to express it, can be very reluctant to let fate decide for them and are likely to over-rule what the die chooses in favour of the ‘right’ option.

I suspect there’s a cultural bias here, so if you’re working with multi-national teams or in countries where the culture is less deterministic, some people may actually be more happy to let fate decide, so watch out for that.


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Decision Making Hacks for Teams: Part 1

How groups of people can get to properly informed, timely and committed decision-making without too much struggle

Four problems tend to get in the way when teams and groups come together for decision-making:

  • individuals are sometimes reluctant to say what they think, if that might conflict with other people’s views;
  • intuitive people struggle find a ‘logical’ justification for what their gut is telling them, and have no way to feed that information into the decision-making process;
  • the options can be fairly well-balanced with no outstandingly obvious choice;
  • when there are more than three or four factors that might influence the decision it’s tough to keep them all in mind and weigh them up at the same time.

I’ve spent over 20 years helping teams and groups make good, timely decisions and have a small kit-bag of tricks to help the decision-making process along.

Here’s my first hack, which is really good for letting people express a preference without too much risk of exposure and in a way that helps the process be a little more fun:

If you and your team have a decision to make, list out all your options and get people to vote for them. Give people a number of points that they can spread amongst the options as they see fit. So, for example, if you’ve got five options, give them something like 4 points that they can apply as they want.

You can see from the photo that, in this example, Options 2 and 3 are tied for first place, with 4 points each. Now, here’s the fun part – give everybody a Joker card and allow them to double their original vote for one of the options.

Playing their Joker gives people to the chance to show which option they are really committed to and makes it enough of a game to get over their reluctance to conflict with other people. This hack has got me through several difficult boardroom decision-making struggles, especially when there are power-plays and alliances operating behind the scenes.


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Men and Organisational Politics

The three kinds of men who fall foul of organisational politics and why

I’m sometimes asked to work with a man who has got on the wrong end of the small-p politics in an organisation. These men are often one of three types:

1. A direct, action-oriented type
This kind of man often has a great straight-forwardness about him and a high-level of intuitive, natural leadership. Sometimes these strengths make him frustrated and ineffective in dealing with what he sees as the cowardly caution and game-playing of people with different styles of behaviour;

2. A highly-principled, morally-astute type
This kind of man has a strong sense of right, wrong and justice; often combined with an ability to ‘see’ the outcome of complex decisions and chains of events. Organisations often seem to him to have ambiguous values – to say one thing and then do another, or to take the easiest, most expedient route, rather than the ‘right’ one;

3. A focused, do-the-job-right type
This kind of man has a gift for making things work well, for knowing how to tinker and fix his specific part of the organisation until it is running like a well-oiled machine. He might feel particularly lost when the bigger-picture objectives of the organisation are inefficient, or at cross-purposes or put the smooth-running of his territory at a lower-priority than something else – as they often do!

In these situations, I’ve found it crucial to remember that these are strengths that have got things to this point, not weaknesses. It’s just that they may not be the most appropriate strengths for him to apply right now. We need to step away from: “You’re doing something wrong”, which is what the organisation or the system seems to be telling him – just when he is trying very hard to apply what he knows. Then we can head towards new ways of looking at how other people behave and how to relate to that, or to new capabilities that broaden the range of strengths he can apply.


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Motivation: Towards Pleasure and Away From Pain

Keep an eye out over the next few days to observe and discover something new about your own motivations and those of the people around you. Here’s how.

Did you know that people tend to operate either a Towards or an Away-From motivation pattern? And that this can change from one context to another?

Motivation Towards tends to show up as positive, goal-seeking reward-based behaviour; focusing on what could go right.
Motivation Away-From tends to focus on avoiding problems and pain; on what might go wrong.

Both are useful in different contexts. When I’m chairing the audit committee in a hospital, it really helps to have people around who can focus on what can go wrong, or on what’s not working. When I’m looking to win a new contract, it really helps that my associates are positive, can-do people.

It used to be thought that these “Meta-programmes” (thought processes that guide and direct the sorting of our perceptions) were fixed and unchangeable. We now know that this isn’t true and that it is possible to choose.

As with almost everything, being aware is what counts. Being aware of what habits we are operating ourselves and of whether other people are in Towards or Away-From mode. Only then can we choose which is actually most helpful for ourselves and for our influence with others.


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