Leadership and maintaining discipline

I’ve covered before the fact that a title of “Leader” doesn’t actually make you a leader. Simply being in charge doesn’t bestow leadership, which is active, example setting, and interactive. There’s a reason the phrase “lead by example” exists, and countless tales of commanders leading men into battle having more respect than faceless commanders elsewhere.

Yet still one of the most pervasive ideals of management roles is “maintaining discipline”. That sounds reasonable at a glance, right?

 Well, let’s look at what it really means:

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So, realistically we’re talking about conditioning, control, enforcement, self-control, or punishment. Only one of these things speaks me me about a skilled worker effectively getting their job done; see if you can spot it. The rest all speak only of a sense of power.

This might make sense in a military setting, but in business, in a socially complex and multiple-industry environment relying on innovation and progress, it makes a lot less.

What I find interesting is that when you look back, the idea of maintaining discipline is a holdover from the earlier days of Taylorism where it meant ensuring people in a factory production setting essentially acted like components in a machine, and “discipline” meant removing as much humanity as possible to enforce efficiency.

With the changes of the modern world and market, as well as the advanced complexity and role requirements, this is distinctly anachronistic; if we’d had the capabilities then we do now, we’d have automated all that from the get go, and I think modern worklife would look very different.

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You can’t break down something complex into smaller pieces, only something simple or complicated. Most business is complex.

But how do I maintain control of a workforce?

The idea of requiring discipline, as if a company is an army, makes a mockery of the mutually beneficial contract between company and skilled workforce, who are supposed to fit together to produce something of worth. Workers are adults; if you don’t trust them to do their job, work from home, be sensible – whatever it is – and have to micromanage them or police them to ensure they are not falling out of line, why have you even hired them? What culture does this suggest you have? How do you get things done efficiently? And what management style have you been conditioned to?

This is an issue I’ve seen with a lot of MBAs in the past, and I’ve had people who teach them at prestigious business schools (such as the London School of Business) agree on this point: the core, traditional business concepts are still taught, despite having never been truly fit for purpose, and because it’s a qualification, it’s taken as the be all and end all of management science, despite having hardly changed since Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor created the core concepts! An MBA is a definite achievement, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not simply an argument-ending mic-drop. There are huge benefits to studying for one, because you’re not only taught traditional management, but we need to also treat things with insight and curiosity to move forward and find better ways to do them.

A qualification is the start of true learning, not the end of it.

Just because something has always been done that way… it doesn’t automatically follow that it’s the best way to do it.

But some people need discipline!

If you impose strict restrictions and policies on a workforce that is not invested in the system, you invite gaming behaviour, cynicism, sycophantism, and lack of engagement. At this point, yes, people are perhaps acting in a less adult fashion and require discipline to realign them with the company’s expectations – but that’s the whole point. This is not a healthy expectation in the first place.

The same ideal of “discipline” also sees the repression of the innovators in a company – the heretics, mavericks, outliers. Discipline becomes about fitting in, meeting metrics that are more important than the outcomes they purportedly measure, and – essentially – supporting a rigid hierarchy.

The very fact you have created an environment like this as a role-titled leader has two effects:

Firstly, you have now invited the very behaviour you tried to avoid, allowing those who game and manipulate politics, rules and policies to hide behind and actually be disruptive to work for personal gain; in other words, you have encouraged a toxic culture and atmosphere. These people – who aren’t invested, don’t care about the company or their coworkers, and will do anything for themselves to get ahead – do need discipline, but they are rarely the ones that get it.

If you worked on a basis of investment and mutual trust in the first place inside a healthy culture, they’d have far fewer places to hide and could be mitigated or removed much more quickly and cleanly – or not invited in in the first place!


Culture is defined by the actions and inactions of leadership. If discipline is required company-wide, accountability for this is held only in one place.

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Secondly, you’ve set up fertile soil for the Cycle of Woe:

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When the hierarchy in a company matters more than anything else, the system isn’t working. If you truly lead – without relying on your training of the bureaucracy being the structure to maintain – people will invest in you and the company, and you won’t need to “maintain discipline” outside the very few actual troublemakers, and each of those needs to be dealt with in context. Not all troublemakers are troublemakers; sometimes they just need to do things differently, but can then deliver outstanding benefits.

And this attitude of hierarchy being all is instilled from the very first interview, with many companies ghosting prospects, demanding what they will offer whilst wielding contracts stating more hours than contracted are expected to be worked, and treating the process as if prospects are vying for a great honour – rather than looking at fit and human skills to move forward to mutual benefit.

Leadership relying on enforcing discipline simply isn’t Leading.

This is why I find the entire concept a barrier to business, to trust, and to human interaction. When a manager says “I need to see what you do with every minute of your day” even though you deliver consistent, excellent results and outcomes, what they’re really saying is “I feel the need to exert power over you”, and I can virtually guarantee they are bad at their own job and not thinking about benefiting the company if they’re spending their time micromanaging yours. When they say “I need to maintain discipline”, it’s worth asking why. Is this one problem person? Is it everyone? Is it really a problem, or just something requiring a paradigm or interaction shift?

If the answer is simply “because I’m in charge”, there is a major problem.

I once had a boss tell me I wasn’t allowed to do something I needed to do for my job, and effectively block my career for his own purposes (along with constant micromanagement, isolation, and offline talks to other management, as well as directly breaking my professional trust). When I inevitably had to do what he’d told me not to to actually do my job, and I then raised this issue to his boss, he used this as a demonstration of how uncontrollable and untrustworthy I was. HR’s response – even though they found on my side! – was “but you disobeyed a direct order”(!). To which my response was roughly:

“What is this, the army? Am I doing the job better than anyone else?”


“Do you want this to continue?”


“Then please stop ‘disciplining’ me and let me get on with doing that.”

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Being a “boss” or “in charge” doesn’t make you a leader or give automatic respect. It’s also worth noting you can be a leader without it being in your role description; anyone who influences people positively within the company is a leader, whatever their actual job. Look at how they enable, invest, and encourage – without the power inherent in a title, or from the bureaucracy – and you can see how leadership works, and discipline is reduced to the only beneficial form: self-control. 

Don’t just take my word for it – there is a wealth of decades of evidence, studies, and frameworks designed around this very real problem. People are complex, and not perfect; companies need to truly understand how to manage them. Realistic expectations must be set either side.

There’s a lot more to this, and it integrates into a lot of areas, but for now:

I’d suggest it’s time we rethink our conditioned ideas of command and control, and maintaining discipline. 

How to be Positive 2: Positively Negative

In Part 1 I spoke about Positivity, what it is, and where it’s been going wrong. Now I want to explore more deeply to further identify what is Toxic vs what is Genuine and where we often lose the sight of constructive positivity or negativity.

But before that, I want to clarify that there are two types of “negative” I refer to in this article (which should be obvious in context!):

  • The concept of negative as “not being positive”
  • Something that is actually damaging to us

Firstly, I want to look at why people might be negative – and to point out that it is almost impossible to be 100% positive or negative all the time, so we should probably stop blanket-accusing people of this. It’s a very inaccurate and unhelpful habit which can reinforce problems.

Negativity sucks

There is no denying that toxic negativity is vampiric. No wonder we try to avoid it! Sometimes people are negative to harass, to bully, to compete, to divert, to assert power or control; people can be negative through personality trait or experience. Some people are cynical to a degree where they impact getting things done. Sometimes people are negative as a result of being a jobsworth, or from a limited, rigid mindset that sees little growth. Negativity is also habit forming, and there is a perverse pleasure to always picking the negative path – at least you won’t be disappointed, right? It’s very hard to be motivated when you think like this exclusively.

All of this is negative negatives, and we all know how draining it can be. But I want to expand on negatives that can actually be positives, ignored to our detriment and damage, and also highlight how disturbing and damaging it is to invalidate valid negativity.

Some “negativity” is actually simple constructive criticism. So how much of what’s being labelled negative is toxic? Perhaps not as much as we think. When beneficial information to resolve genuine issues is automatically ignored because it isn’t positive, problems increase. An attitude of relentless “only provide solutions, not problems, be positive” no matter what is not always realistic or pragmatic.

Something else to also bear in mind is that all of this can depend on whether people are also trying to sell stuff. Negativity cuts through falsely positive bullshit and is often straight-speaking. Sales pitches, manipulations, and cons are almost universally positioned as positive. People say they value straight-shooters, but most of us don’t like anything invalidating a positive message. This becomes a rabbit hole of whether positives are really negatives and vice versa, so ask yourself when using or confronted with either:

Are they genuine, constructive, meaningful and appropriate? If so, chances are they could be valid, and you should pay attention and not just dismiss them.

So now we’ve had a think about that, let’s look at several ways positives can actually be negative when out of context or balance.

Belief in yourself

It is an amazing realisation to believe in ourselves – to realise that we are capable of so much more than we limit ourselves to. Self-limiting beliefs are responsible for much of the dissatisfaction we may feel, or our apparent inability to achieve things.

But we also have to acknowledge true limitations, and the fact we do not control every single aspect of our lives.

It is as much of a lie to tell ourselves we are totally limit-free as it is to tell ourselves we are too limited.

The tendency of humans to not find balance and veer between the two means we form very destructive patterns and imbalances (more on how we form mental patterns and make decisions here in The Decisive Patterns of Business).

So how can unlimited self-belief be harmful?

Let me ask you a question: If you are told you can never fail if you believe hard enough in yourself – that you can do anything – and you believe that truly; strive, and do everything you can to achieve it; and for whatever reason (life decisions, chance events outside your control), you just don’t achieve what you have set yourself, no matter how hard you try…

Who will you blame?

Being sold this personal maxim constantly means that if we fail, we are likely to believe we are at fault, that we just didn’t believe hard enough. And although I say there is no failure, only feedback, and indeed speak about failure being necessary for learning, growth, and success, here it is often taken as abject failure; not a lesson, but a lessening.

And that’s fundamentally not right. Let me explain.

Self-belief cannot be rigidly applied to everything in life. For every incredible story, every driven hero of mine who has achieved incredible things against the odds – Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example – there are hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands that had the same drive and determination, but didn’t get quite the same opportunities at the same time, whose contexts were just different.

For instance, by telling schoolchildren they literally cannot fail and removing fails from exams, we set unrealistic self-belief and expectations for the real world, where failure is an inevitable lesson.

Your personal drive and belief are incredibly powerful; never believe I am not supporting that. Have that goal; use that drive. Be inspired! Removing limiting self-beliefs allows you to achieve your full potential, but that is not the same as being able to literally do anything, and I think this is an important distinction.

For example – you only have to look at the diminishing returns of the fastest sprinters in the world, Usain Bolt and his ilk, to know that there is a literal human limit to what can be achieved. He ran 100m in 9.58 seconds, achieving a peak speed of almost 28mph, after years of incredibly intensive training. Men who are likewise ludicrously fast (many of whom have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, so are in a way superhuman) have come close to this, although this record stands out from even these scores, but most of them are mere milliseconds apart. So to remove self-limits and say you will train and one day compete, equal, or even beat Usain’s record may be vanishingly small, but it’s something you can still possibly achieve if you start from the right context.

But you also have to be realistic. If you say you will, as a baseline human, beat an 8 second 100m world record, it is inhumanly unlikely. Add to that the fact that the people who get to this level have decades of training, manage to avoid career-ending injury, have superior genetics for this event, and all have different context in life for many of us – they were the best of the best, naturally in most cases, to even begin training – and you can see how it’s just not possible for nearly anyone to say only self-belief stands between them and Usain’s record. A whole range of factors, including serendipity, are involved.

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We must all acknowledge that sometimes, we simply can’t close that gap between dream and reality. Life is not a level playing field, and treating it as if it is is wrong. Perhaps chance, or genetics, or a situation stops you doing what you want to the degree you wish to. Not everyone is equally unconstrained by choices. The people who achieve their perfect dream may be driven, excellent at seeing opportunity, or have the means to make a good start, but that doesn’t mean they would still achieve it in another context.

This is where serendipity and complexity align; opportunities and context may exist for one driven, talented person that simply don’t for another who is equally so. In Cynefin, you realise that finding new emergent paths to success can deliver even better, more achievable goals than the original perhaps unattainable one. I feel very uncomfortable when I see the focus on the people who have achieved something amazing portrayed as “this would be you if you only believed in yourself enough”. Very often, their story is incredible, inspiring, against all odds, and they are amazing people – but there is more to it than just human spirit. It is wrong to simply say that someone in a different context who doesn’t achieve it is always less driven, discerning, or capable. They are not automatically a failure.

Yet that is exactly what we tell people when all they hear is “believe enough, and you can do anything“. It may incorrectly suggest that those who didn’t achieve simply didn’t want it as much.

We need to be super careful of language here. These are true:

Believe in yourself enough, and you can reach your full potential.

We can achieve much more than we believe. We have not failed if we don’t achieve something perfectly.

But this is not:

Believe in yourself enough, and you can do anything.

How are we measuring success? Who do we punish when we can’t achieve it? Who controls this? Dreams and reality must match up at least a little to be achievable.

Speaking of what’s within our control:

Positivity and Control

I constantly say humans polarise very easily. I often here there’s no point trying to do things as we have no control, or conversely we have complete control over our destinies. We also often create false causal links – for example, that anything not intensively positive must be negative. The truth, as usual, lies in a fluctuating balance somewhere between the two.

 I think we need to accept two things:

  •  We can positively control much more than we often realise (Believe in yourself!)
  • Some things we simply can’t control, and that’s not necessarily negative (Don’t believe in yourself exclusively and unrealistically!)

Bruce Lee said that we have a choice; that being constructively positive is how we begin to make changes, and he is absolutely right. I do this in my own life, and it’s incredibly powerful. But we also can’t control everything in our lives, and the myth we can prevents us from growing and learning properly at best, and damages our mental health at worst. As he says, it’s how we begin.

In this video, Derren Brown makes some great points (highly recommended watch):

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It reinforces my points below on happiness, positivity, and optimism not being conflated.

I particularly like his thoughts on why so many of us get it wrong. How much of what we acquire to be happy is actually only to impress other people and project positivity for their benefit? What is our aim, and personal measure, of what happiness means?

You could also define positivity more as:

Instead of wanting what we don’t have, shifting our desires so we want what we already have is truly positive.

He also references the Stoics, and the idea that:

…there are things in your life that you are in control of, and there are things in your life you aren’t in control of; and the only things you are really in control of are your thoughts and your actions.

Everything else is subject to outside influence. What other people do, think, how they act, what happens to them, what the world does to all of you, is outside your sphere of control. You may or may not influence it; but influence is not control, and in an age of “influencers” it’s important to remember this.

So in this context, positivity can simply mean a pragmatic decision that everything you cannot control is ok – not good, not bad, but just there – because you simply can’t control it. And you have to let that sense sink in; mere words are not enough for comprehension. Constructively change yourself positively, but don’t lose sight of reality.

Positivity, Optimism, Happiness, Fulfillment

It is extremely important to differentiate between these, more than ever now we’re bombarded with a conflation of them constantly through social media and work.

We’ve looked at what Positivity is; Optimism, on the other hand, is more concerned with not being worried about the negatives in a situation, a mental attitude reflecting a belief or hope that the outcome of some specific endeavor, or outcomes in general, will be positive, favorable, and desirable, regardless of evidence. Optimism is usually a trait where you hope things will always work out well, where positivity is a choice. Optimism may then be responsible for blindness to realities or problems, because it’s often a refusal to accept they matter – or even exist.

Happiness, on the other hand, can come from enjoying short-term experience, or long-term fulfillment/satisfaction (I’m defining happiness fairly simply here). In Derren’s video he mentions Daniel Kahneman speaking of the experiencing self and the remembering self: if you are given a choice between doing something really fun or doing something meaningful, which one would you say would make you happier?

Many people will often pick the fun activity because the experiencer will be catered to at the time. But the rememberer will look back at the meaningful activity instead, and the chances are you will keep more of a profound, deep sense of happiness from that; in other words, you are more likely to find real fulfillment.

Another way to consider it is short-term gain requires a constant re-buzz, whereas long-term satisfaction sustains you.

Ask yourself; are you being optimistic, genuinely positive, or toxically positive to achieve happiness – and which of these really fulfills you?

The conflation of these terms and our lack of awareness of these two selves shows most of us have a very poor understanding of what really fulfills us a lot of the time; and until we experience something traumatic enough to force a reframe outside our set mental patterns, we probably won’t gain a new perspective.

Trying to fulfill ourselves by “patching” or “hacking” with quick quotes and memes is anywhere near as useful as a genuine depth-of-character change. That short dose of inspiration doesn’t last, but a profound memory does.

But what about expectations around being positive?

Societal and business demands for Yes! Can-Do! and other immediate “positives”

This is something we do a lot. Removing significance from everything non-positive as simply “negative” is profoundly damaging, and these demands from establishments or other people can become quickly ingrained. They ignore reality, and tie straight into the short-term fulfillment and experiencing self mentioned above. They invalidate any concerns or emotions, and demand intrinsic optimism regardless of consequent cost. Once you set this as a pattern, like any other habit humans create, it’s hard to break.

I made a video on the “can-do” attitude a few months ago:

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And again, in context, the concept of can-do and not being immediately negative is great – it gives clients confidence, it sets initial goals, and much more. But too often we see can-do as a substitute for able-to-do. It’s not enough to just say yes if you can’t achieve things. That’s not positive; it’s disingenuous (and from 22 years in DevOps, it’s something I have seen an awful lot in tech!).

A short story: I was once asked to write a technical presales proposal for a current customer; my first draft was very technical and not dressed up. I was told it was too negative, and they wouldn’t buy it – which is fine, you have to highlight benefits. So I rewrote it. It was returned again. I was to remove anything even remotely negative, meaning that any realistic cautions would be ignored. I reluctantly complied, objecting on the grounds that proposing this just to get a sale would mean an implementation standing an unacceptably high risk of falling over within 3 months. I was told we’d worry about it then and to just fulfill it now, and also to rewrite again and remove anything even neutral.

At this point, it seemed ridiculous – to sound positive enough to get a quick sale, a technical consultant was being asked to essentially write a marketing document which was false and high-risk to the solution and the long-term reputation of the company (also, since I would implement it as well, I stood a high chance of being blamed when it almost inevitably fell over). This is a great example of toxic business positivity. There was no balance, realism, or care; it was false-positive to achieve a short-term, selfish singular goal.

There is no point in saying yes to everything you’re asked in life, because you simply can’t deliver it all.

Yes-ing is also a problem internally for leadership because it leads to sycophancy and a ungrounding from reality for leaders making decisions; this isn’t positive. It’s harmful. Having auto-validation is an extremely bad thing – in business, in friendship, in life in general.

Before you automatically condemn something as “negative”, take a reality check and look to see if it it, in fact, constructive and realistic – and if it IS, you stand a good chance of being immersed in a toxically positive atmosphere that is detrimentally skewing decision-making.

Remember: you can approach a realistically negative situation in a positive manner!

It isn’t just actions and situations that positivity is demanded in, however: emotions are perhaps a far more important area where we make unrealistic demands. I’ll go deeper into the harmful side of memes when they suppress valid emotional negativity with examples in Part 3, but first I want to go deeper into why suppressing negative emotion is terrible for our mental health.

The denial of non-positive emotion

This is one of the most harmful possible outcomes of toxic positivity. When someone is fake-happy, positive-toxic, it’s actually invalidating themselves and others. The demands of toxic positivity can lead us to do four terribly harmful things:

  1. Minimalise valid concerns and feelings, leading to saying our big problems “aren’t big at all” because all we have to do is “stop being negative”
  2. Comparing and contrasting issues, fostering a belief that all our emotions and circumstances can be ranked on a shared scale – that we all experience our troubles and feelings in exactly the same way regardless of context
  3. Negativity shaming, which denigrates and excludes people socially because they aren’t bubbly, happy and at ease all the time. This dismisses natural, valid emotions and forces faking positive vibes to the point you refuse to acknowledge anything less than excessive happiness, and also marginalises personalities, cultures, neurologies, and more
  4. Repressive behaviour control, where we deny our own feelings to fit in and not be outcast – important enough that we would rather risk our own mental health than be perceived as being negative. By using 2) to say “we don’t have it that bad”, we try to hide our emotions when we think the cause is too small

Of course, some issues are genuinely more minor than others, but when you look at them from a point of view of trauma rather than just negativity, it changes perspective somewhat. We all experience trauma differently.

Toxic positivity tells us it’s not okay to feel down, especially if the rest of your life is going great. This isn’t right. No one should feel like they have to hide their true emotions because society plagues us with this artificial idea of a happy, positive life, especially online.

This is especially hard-hitting when you consider how many people suffer from real depression, bi-polar and other personality disorders, autistic spectrum disorders, or traumatic events. Invalidating neurology, chemical imbalance, or personal trauma is hugely damaging, and we do it to ourselves as much as others with this constant air of “just be happy!”. This is terribly insidious – tendrils of it touch male mental health, suicide, female mental health, dismorphia, dissatisfaction, burnout, and so much more.

In addition to that, we’re not even addressing the source of this negativity in a realistic fashion, but marginalising it in favour of just somehow becoming positive.

Genuine positivity is finding constructive ways to get the best out of a situation.

Work is a prominent example. Many of us know how damaging is it to us to feel trapped in a career we may not like (up to 85%). Simply demanding you feel happy or make a change doesn’t fix it – some people have no other job to go to for supporting their family, or may be too anxiousor stressed for a host of reasons. So the answer may well be to change job – and for some an inspirational sudden change may well work, but not for everyone.

We then also look at corporate culture issues like praise addiction where we demand positive praise to the point where it doesn’t matter if we have earned it or not as long as we feel good and get a bonus, or we look at the demands in companies to accolade others to the point of it being almost policy, and the web becomes ever more entangled. Toxic positivity is everywhere.

Again, this isn’t defending toxic negativity – far from it. But rather than getting advice on mental health from the average life coach, it’s worth talking to psychologists and psychiatrists who have to deal with the mental health fallout and who actually know about this.

So should we be negative?

Everything needs context. We should be negative where appropriate in its many meanings, because we’re human. Sometimes that means being realistic. Sometimes it means being sad. Sometimes it means not invalidating the experiences or situations of others. Being human is about balancing and fluctuating between many states, including positivity and negativity.

If we didn’t have the negatives to deal with, we wouldn’t have a basis for comparison for being positive. Demanding we simply remove it all wholesale from our lives is therefore ridiculous.

 “Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.”

Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

All this means accepting that the negative is also part of us, that it can ground us, balance us, and that it can be constructive and appropriate – and thus actually positive in context!

In part 3, How to be Positive 3, we will summarise and take a look at examples, things we can do, and ways forward.

How to be Positive 1: Positivity

I’ve been meaning to post on this subject for some time, as I think it is extremely important to have a conversation about, both personally and professionally.

Now, before I start, I’ll be very clear – positive mental attitudes and mindsets are invaluable. Finding the positive outcomes and lessons in any possible situation is also invaluable. These enable us to move forward, be productive, and enable growth.

But as with everything I speak about, there must be both context and balance, and both are now often lacking in our daily drive to be positive.

Let’s explore what positivity is, how it can be both beneficial and surprisingly damaging, and what we can do to maintain that context and balance, and use it to help instead of harm.

As this is extremely important to understand, it’s in-depth over 3 parts – and a little contentious in places.

Positivity is Positive!

It is critical to clarify what these articles deal with. Positivity is not only one thing, although it’s often referred to as such, and here I look at the current societal focus on positivity as a set of concepts and a choice.

Just say yes! Don’t be negative. Can-do! Always focus on the good. Don’t let the negatives drag you down! Life throws things at you, you have to laugh and move on! Laugh, and the world laughs with you; cry, and you cry alone. Surround yourself with positive people! If you stay positive, good things and good people will be drawn to you. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade! Could be worse. Always someone worse off than you. Don’t limit yourself!

“If you are positive, you’ll see opportunities instead of obstacles.” – Confucius

There are a thousand things said in every culture about being positive, especially during times of hardship. We revere and tell inspirational stories about people who achieve this state, often quite rightly. Humans are curious in that when suffering problems we often don’t just get on with surviving, as many animals do, but actively look for ways to still fulfill ourselves where possible; to consciously push through hardship with a smile and find some joy.

Anyone who knows me personally or professionally will tell you I’m a positive person, but I strive to be genuinely positive.

Genuine Positivity is based in empathy and connection, in acceptance and opportunity. Finding ways forward whether the situation is good or bad, and being thankful for what you have; this is positive. Learning from hardship, sharing and laughing with others whatever is happening, accepting yourself mind and body; these are positive. Positivity helps us Dream Big even when we feel we exist small. It helps us find some peace and contentment whatever our situation. And it helps us achieve things we would otherwise consider impossible from self-limitation.

Positivity requires meaning.

True positivity is supportive, sharing, constructive, and beneficial to ourselves and others. It is deliberately applied in context to the person and situation, which helps align you with the universe at large.

Modern positivity is often considered to have derived in part from Stoicism; that is, seeing situations in the most positive light possible and looking for the good in them for the best ways forward. But positivity is also widely being mistaken for something a lot less beneficial, and I see it not just used and said across LinkedIn and other social media, but also demanded within companies and lives as if it’s a hidden policy (this is actually often a Dark Constraint as defined in Cynefin by Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge – positivity is actually a very complex, dispositional area).

In fact, that’s one reason I think positivity as a concept is so popular; in Cynefin terms, positivity is a form of certainty, and it helps avoid the panic-inducing negativity of not knowing what to do, alongside potential physiological responses (feelgood hormones et al). In that respect, positivity provides direction and stimulus, which is good.

Unfortunately, I believe we are actually experiencing a subtle “perfect happiness” pandemic, much of it derived from the relatively new awareness of mental health and social media’s strong and constant influence, and our inability to balance their affects in our lives.

That sounds a little extreme – so let’s explore the idea.

Where can Positivity go wrong?

Positivity can become highly toxic in several ways, especially when generalised, and this can be very easy to mistake for genuine, beneficial positivity – especially online where context is naturally diminished through snippets of narratives. It can be spread anywhere people post words or images without applying them to someone or something through empathy, but instead for attention, for likes, to be heard instead of to listen. It can be spread anywhere people demand happiness through association, via attitude, to aid “hustle”, fulfilling requirements, or in just in general. It is a grey area – but it exists.

I can’t stress this strongly enough: I know people whose refusal to acknowledge negative emotions, or whose insistence on self-belief above pragmatism, has destroyed their lives and relationships, badly damaged their mental health, even led them to suicide. Toxic positivity is not an overreaction, nor is it a joke. It is dangerous and antithetical to society, individuals, and business.

I want to break down something we conflate all too often, here:

POSITIVITY does not automatically equal HAPPINESS, but we are often sold this concept. 

We have this subversive belief that we can force happiness through positivity; that we can use optimism to coast through any barrier; that simply by presenting the face of happiness, we can be fulfilled, or that the universe will align with us.

I said above that Genuine Positivity is based in empathy and connection, in acceptance and opportunity; Toxic Positivity is based in demand, selfishness, and lack of empathy or context. It isn’t supportive. It’s dismissive. It demands to be heard instead of listening and understanding. It says you must be happy, or at least appear happy, no matter what, especially for other people. It is invalidating. It is undermining. It is repressive. And it is incredibly damaging, especially because it’s become ingrained in society, business, and interactions.

It’s led to companies demanding that people and processes not be negative in any way. It’s led to people portraying perfect lives on social media, even as they suffer from mental health problems behind the influencing. It’s led to men “putting a brave face on things” to be unemotional and strong, to entertainers trying to cope with pressure using drugs to because the show must go on. It’s led to quotes and memes being applied to everything, with only a brief dopamine release from gathering “likes”. It’s led to people feeling that they can’t find support from others so as to not commit the social faux-pas of “bringing them down”. It’s led to people focusing so much on finding the good that they don’t deal with or even sometimes acknowledge the bad at critical moments.

There are a number of things that define Toxic Positivity, which inhibits success as much as extreme negativity, and I want to look at these in more detail.

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Identifying Toxic Positivity

There are a number of ways to identify whether something is genuinely or toxically positive.

“Toxic positivity is ‘pushing down’, denying, or minimizing negative or uncomfortable emotions (and actually, a person’s experience or reality)”

Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, CGP licensed professional counselor

Toxic positivity is a genuine, widespread psychological issue, and it operates at a societal level. More than ever, people are seeking happiness, but you can’t gain that by repressing or ignoring the other parts of your life.

This dark side to positivity comes in many forms:

  • The promotion of belief in oneself being the sole factor to achieving a perfect goal
  • Conflating optimism (a trait), positivity (a choice), and happiness (a feeling of enjoyment/satisfaction/fulfillment)
  • Deliberate ignorance of long-term consequences in favour of short-term gain
  • Demands for Can-Do attitudes, hustle, “just say YES and fulfill later” in business
  • The removal of all emotive response that isn’t totally positive from yourself and others
  • The pursuit of perfection
  • A refusal to acknowledge reality (denialism)
  • An insistence on labelling all “non-positives” as “negative” (a form of emotional self-gaslighting)

I’m sure you can think of others. In context, any or all of these could be detrimental or beneficial. All too often, they are blanket applied.

But surely, I hear you cry, belief in yourself, setting a goal that is a dream, and working towards that is what we should do?

Yes – absolutely. Direction, removing limiting self-beliefs, and achieving our full potential are what we should strive for.

The power of self-belief and following your dreams is immense.

But you also have to be constantly mindful of reality and context; for every person who achieves their dream, someone equally hard working and focused doesn’t, because not everyone starts from the same line at the same time. Life can – and does – get in the way. Some people’s dreams are simply unattainable, and you can actually harm yourself by ignoring opportunities that are better and more attainable in pursuit of perfection. This is inattentional blindness to the nth degree; the treating of life – a complex, unordered situation – as ordered.

Achieving your full potential doesn’t automatically equal being able to do anything at all no matter how unrealistic!

The other danger is that these goals may be achievable, but at what cost? Burning out is not a cost worth paying – I should know, it’s happened to me twice. Achieving something positive even if it breaks you is still a negative. I’ve written about burnout elsewhere, but it’s linked to this, too.

Spreading and connecting Positivity

I’ve mentioned memes and quotes, so I also want to break down in more detail how these can be positive – and not so positive. Bear in mind, I’m not talking about humour; I’m talking about something specifically designed to promote “positivity”.

Many of us struggle for meaning, or have experienced hardship. We want to find or share comfort and support. And that is great. I have no problem with feelgood stuff; I love it. It makes me, well… feel good! Watching someone rescue an animal, watching a little girl dance with her disabled brother, reading a quote or personal story that touches my core and reminds me of the good or profound, that we can move forward and find our way; all of these and many more are good things that can bring some light to our day.

What is less beneficial is the casual posting of positive memes and quotes, especially ones that are essentially meaningless and vague. Many of these are really well-meaning, and designed to tap into the general idea of being positive, but a generic post can be at best an attempt to salve a deeper sense of anguish, and at worst a replacement for actually constructively dealing with problems. I’d rather have genuine support from a connection or friend in context than a generic, borderline toxic “you got this” or “it will get better”. I don’t like hearing “trust the process” unless it’s very specifically applied, either, because not everyone who trusts the process ends up achieving – this links to the unwavering self-belief I mention in part 2. Because of human nature and the dopamine hit they provide us, these posts often end up getting higher engagement than genuine, applicable and beneficial content, which isn’t always a good thing, either for us long-term or the algorithms within the social media platforms. It can end up saturating our attention.

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I genuinely get why we all love these, myself included, and I certainly think they have a place on, say, LinkedIn. It’s so easy to post a quick quote that has some meaning, maybe pop up a decent picture, and especially on LinkedIn people want motivation. But whilst it’s encouraging, it can also be habit-formingly lazy, and lead to carelessness as long as we post and get engagement.

The number of us who genuinely know what we’re doing is probably nonexistent, especially in business, because life is complex and we’re all feeling our way. And although these casual posts can be part of the problem, these still aren’t nearly the worst part. The problem creeps further when people use a feelgood or inspirational meme or quote that has zero relevance to what they’re posting, just to gather likes, or spew buzzwords to sound positively profound when they are talking nonsense (and I have seen a number of people do this and get worshipped for it daily!). Posts designed as positive purely for the manipulation of algorithms, likes, or literal rubbish posts for the sake of it are much more problematic; they use this deep need for positivity to disingenuously gain influence, engagement, and visibility.

I see so much quality original content on social media, so many genuine stories and meaningful posts, and I find it frustrating when much higher engagement results just from posting an empty, random quote that isn’t even verified. It happens when people are pushing the “influencer” idea rather than actually being a genuine thought leader, and it makes me uncomfortable because it strengthens this falsity that people, desperate to find more meaning, buy into wholesale.

If the only goal is to “influence” and be seen to do so rather than genuinely be positive and enhance people’s lives, that is toxic behaviour. Dave Snowden estimates that within ~9 months any system becomes subject to gaming behaviour; add dopamine hits and self importance to that, and then drop in some narcissism or attention seeking, and it’s far worse. By far the most alarming is the advice from some major influencers, which can be very damaging and dangerous, being spread as positive just because they have influence and it has the right buzzwords or delivery to sound inspiring, not from any substance or evidence.

This is a subjectively grey area because people often post with the very best intentions – but if you take a step back and really look around, it’s easy to see that this has become a movement that doesn’t always have substance behind it. People almost automatically applaud and spread anything that even sounds vaguely profound because we all seek profundity, certainty and meaning.

Next time you see or consider posting something like this, I’m not saying don’t – I love this stuff as much as the rest of us! But I’m suggesting that we perhaps consider the context, meaning, and whether it’s genuine or not. Is there thought and constructive positivity there? If in doubt, you can always check in with any number of excellent psychologists on here – they can tell you what is positive, or not! I mention a couple in the next parts.

Summing up the Positives

So, we need self belief, a positive mental attitude, and to find the best ways forward in any given situation; but we also need a pragmatic view, and to accept that even achievable goals can change (or become even better), that we can’t control everything in life, and that – moment to moment – we have a choice. We can be supportive, use profound meaning to inspire and give hope, and encourage others on their own paths. There are many things we can and should do to find fulfillment, but we must do them with meaning, empathy and support, in context to the situation. This is where I think positivity truly lies.

What we mustn’t do is apply an empty, inappropriate and meaningless veneer to situations and people, and repress anything that even hints of “being negative”, especially when it might be beneficial to be mindful of evidence in reality. Not only does this not achieve what we hope for, but it causes serious problems. In a time when we are more aware than ever of our mental health, it’s worth considering this:

As you can’t cure all physical problems just by exercising, you can’t cure all mental health problems by trying to force happiness.

In part 2, How to be Positive 2: The Negative, I’ll delve deeper into some of the dark side points above, and explore the two meanings of “negative” a little more.

Be positive – but make it genuine!

Comfort Zones, and where to find them

The chances are you’ve heard, read or used the expression “Comfort Zones” even if it isn’t part of your day-to-day work.

I find however that a lot of people often talk about them as yet another buzzword, a platitude to trot out, even up to and to the point of telling people to dive into crippling fear, but they don’t often think about how they can best be used. Like anything else, they require context and nuance!

This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with my work, but… much of this is all about balance.

So, let’s explore some models showing what we think they are, how they might apply, and why you might not be using your understanding of them to your best advantage for yourself… or others.

(My model below is a work-in-progress, and is subject to future change!)

What is a Comfort Zone?

The typical definition of a Comfort Zone is a behavioural state, within which an individual operates in an anxiety-neutral condition.

When we are comfortable and experiencing no anxiety or challenging stimulus, humans tend to become extremely sedentary, both physically and mentally. Although we excel at change, if we see no reason to do so, we won’t. We value comfort and convenience above almost all else, in fact, and we are very good at lateral thinking and finding shortcuts to simplify and ease processes, which means we are reluctant to make changes to these systems once in place.

Routine, Pattern, Familiarity, Relaxation, static Repetition are all hallmarks of a Comfort Zone.

That said, and taking into account the rest of the article is dealing with representations of movement out of this Zone, Comfort Zones are absolutely a good thing. They provide safety, recovery, mental surety, and balance, and are much needed and natural parts of us. We should be balancing our time between comfort and growth; comfort is a physical and mental resting place.

It is not at all true that we must always be moving outside our comfort zones. We like comfort for a very good reason!

The misinterpretation of “Comfort Zones”

There is an oft-repeated school of thought that implies that this is a Comfort Zone, and one I see represented a lot on LinkedIn and other social media:

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This is not really accurate, nor is the assumption that you will automatically grow and learn simply by moving outside the comfort zone. All this does is open up the opportunity and the motivation do do so, but work and risk are still required, and there is nuance depending on context.

People tend to speak about “moving outside your Comfort Zone” as a binary action; it isn’t.

Most of the motivational posts I see work on this basis, and that’s fine; a first step is a first step. But you have to take more steps after the first one to continue a journey. It’s fantastic to be inspired to take that step for change, but how many people are then discouraged by taking a risk and not seeing themselves grow or learn quickly or obviously? Human nature then makes it less likely we will do this again in the future.

We also are conditioned to want quick results, but like getting fit, these things require time and consistency. In my role I constantly see people expecting quick results and change simply from doing something they normally wouldn’t, and being disappointed if their life doesn’t radically shift.

As with most things humans get involved with, we love to over-simplify a concept that requires a little thought. Comfort Zones are complex, because the humans that form them are complex, and they are dispositional – you can guess their boundaries and what might happen, but they can change depending on circumstance, and you can’t predict what will happen.

Other interpretations

Comfort Zones are subjective in nature; they are intensely personal to us all. What is comfort for one is discomfort for another – outside a basic defining scope, of course (sofa vs torture rack tends to be a no-brainer!). Many of us have our own mental image of our own Comfort Zones.

Whilst there is hypothetically no “wrong” way to represent them, it is important that the way they are represented is clear and in line with scientific, psychological, and sociological understanding, so that people can more accurately map it to their own context.

For example, I occasionally see models like this:

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It’s a great motivator and outline for a number of steps, but in terms of how we work under normal circumstances, or in the normal order of things, it isn’t really accurate, which can lead to some confusion or differing expectations.

For example, I wouldn’t call the Fear Zone here Fear, but Demotivation, or perhaps Reluctance. Fear – true fear – is almost always greatly inhibitive to learning and growth. If you are panicking or in a heightened state of anxiety, you can’t learn, because your body has essentially shut everything down but fight-or-flight. Those are things you can’t really push “deeper” through; you have to control them, because the deeper you get the less control or higher thought processes you can maintain. Anxiety and panic typically get worse the more you push, not better!

There is always an element of pushing through initial risk, fear, uncertainty, complacency, and anxiety to catalyse change, but I see this as less a zone and more a border between zones. They are the gatekeepers we must overcome to move into a zone where we can change and optimally perform, be challenged.

Many of these models also give an apparently clear progression, direction, and almost waterfall-style expectation of how you can progress, and that isn’t how we work, especially when you realise these Zones are tied into emotion as well as cognition. If you look at basic psychology you will get an idea of how we work – we’ve known for centuries and more that thrusting someone untempered into a danger zone has a much higher attrition rate than safely teaching them over time. It’s make or break – and that may be beneficial in extreme circumstances, but it isn’t the best way for us all to learn and progress!

In terms of motivation and pushing these models are fine, but I prefer a more realistic model that reflects how humans actually make decisions and work based on our current knowledge.

So what’s a more accurate representation?

A typical modern model of a comfort zone will usually look something like this:

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This is very basic, of course, but I find it’s accurate for most situations. There is no specific direction or set of things that may happen; it shows the progression that typically happens when you make changes to learn and grow, expanding outwards. For me here, learning and growth are so intertwined as to be synonymous.

The middle zone is labelled optimal performance instead of growth or learning, because it doesn’t only apply to those concepts. It suggests that a relatively small amount of stress motivates or catalyses us to do something with greater focus, which gives the opportunity to optimally grow and learn, but it’s not such a great leap that it shuts us down in utter panic.

As an example, you don’t learn and grow in swimming terms by throwing yourself alone into the deep end of a pool when you learn to swim; this typically only delivers terminal feedback where you drown, and if not you haven’t really learned much of use. Instead, you learn to swim in increments in shallower areas or with swimming aids, and preferably with an instructor, creating stress and risk but also psychological safety, and as you get better you push your boundaries. It’s important to clarify what constitutes “pushing” and “fear” here!

Of all things, humans fear uncertainty the most. It’s the most consistently stressful state for us to be in. But there’s a modicum of stress and uncertainty that gives us adrenaline and heightened perception, makes us ready and breaks complacency. It allows us to perform tasks we know, or learn tasks we don’t, at an optimum level of focus and control.

That’s quite different to such high stress and anxiety levels that our brains shut down and we’re operating purely on adrenaline and cortisol.

I’ve spent some time looking at how learners operate and learn over the years, as well as doing so myself continually, and I’ve also spent a lot of time looking at how humans make decisions and how our minds work and form patterns; it’s integral to a lot of what I do with agility, culture, learning, leadership training and more. These toes in science, psychology, and sociology have helped me develop a more detailed model that integrates with what we know, not just how we learn.

With that in mind, there are three major things to bear in mind when you consider Comfort Zones:


Something we don’t think about much because it’s intrinsic to our ability to do many things is Identity.

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All of us have multiple different identities, to which we link different modes of thinking and understanding. These are in turn linked to mental patterns and how and why we form them, as well as tribes we form – or are formed around us from meta-complex tribes (you can think of these as tribes-within-tribes at differing levels of complex systems, like a 3D Venn Diagram. Don’t think about it too hard for now!).

All of this makes identities quite a variable and often conflicting arena for us to navigate.

We switch between these identities, which are unique in combination to each person, quite seamlessly and without thinking about it; it’s almost as if our brains rewire on the fly to operate differently depending on circumstance. I’ve always been fascinated by how some of the greatest thinkers I know, who are methodical and quiet, can do another activity (watch a game of rugby, for example) and become intensely loud, tribal, and involved, as if they are a different person, and think nothing of the process. I love watching someone termed excitable and with attention deficits find their favourite hobby (such as painting!) and spending hours quietly working on it.

None of us are two dimensional in aspect; we have myriad faces, and this is important to remember when we consider Comfort Zones and how we deal with them.

Systems of Support

The most widespread, automatic support structures we have are tribal. Humans create tribes without thinking, both in the real world (families, communities, countries, et al) and in the abstract (music, hobbies, philosophies and more). I’ll go into tribes and their negatives more another time, but here they serve multiple positive purposes, including humanising, binding and helping people invest and be collaborative to mutual benefit, even if that’s just moral or psychological support rather than physical survival. When you integrate into a tribe, you assume an identity for that tribe.

Not all identities are tribal. We may not share them with others – they may be intensely personal and thus segregated. But many identities are tribal, because we are social creatures who share knowledge and are comfortable with a sense of belonging.

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How many different tribes and identities can you link to this? Where might they apply, and which ones do you belong to? Are any of them oppositional?

The Zone is not Alone

Given that we have multiple identities – and the tribes they may link to – it then makes sense to look at models which acknowledge that we have multiple Comfort Zones, and each has different boundaries and limits.

Think about it for a moment: do you know anyone who is quiet, shy, retiring, who is not shy and retiring at something quite specific? Or perhaps you go to do something you are very comfortable with, but the situation and environment makes it suddenly uncomfortable?

A wonderful thing about identities and tribes is that they buffer us against uncertainty, because you have a degree of support and understanding. When many people come together doing this, it means you all support and buffer each other as well. You might take a risk on a night out with friends you never would if you were alone; the same goes if you are at work, making a decision that affects a company result where you are protected to an extent by the bureaucratic structure and policies, as well as colleagues, in a way you aren’t in your personal life – in which we are far more reluctant to chance lasting consequences.

All of these tribes and identities link into – but exist outside of – your Personal Comfort Zone, which is really your inner sanctum.

This is the one you can least afford to breach, and your willingness to risk and expose yourself here will by nature be far less. It’s your last defence before the naked you, as it were, and we usually find the idea of changing who we are at our core anathema, because then we would potentially not be who we are any more. So we take less risks, change more reluctantly, and our Danger Zone is much larger, with the Optimal Growth Zone smaller than perhaps some others; it’s much easier to overstep into panic or anxiety and uncertainty.

Conversely, strong tribes that we identify with have different Comfort Zones. One more thing to consider is how we tend to collate smaller identities under larger ones – and how they sometimes affiliate to more than one tribe.

So, to expand upon the above example of Personal vs Work with a general example:

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Notice that there is a definite line of danger between your personal and professional comfort zones – although skills and actions may pass across, there are things we will do in one we absolutely wouldn’t do in the other!

Our professional Zones may have a larger Comfort Zone because we do a lot of mundane, safe things day in day out, and the optimal Performance Zone may likewise be larger because giving it a go isn’t often as risky as in our personal lives (for example, whilst not desirable, losing a job is generally less long-term destructive than losing a personal Zone – consider what happens when someone’s confidence is destroyed, and the knock on effects it has personally, professionally and more).

The Danger Zone for our personal Zone is therefore likely to be proportionately larger than our professional one, because at work (depending on role and company!) we generally accept or hide that we make the odd mistake; the impact of a mistake in our personal lives can be much more shameful or impactful to us.

To dive into Cynefinthink for a moment – consider the boundaries between the Zones in a model as constraints, and consider how they may be more rigid, elastic or permeable etc depending on which model you’re in; where there might be catastrophic failure; and how you can equate “psychological safety” to “Safe-to-Fail Probes” in Complexity and shallow Chaos.

The interesting thing here is that the different identity-linked models also feed into each other; you may take small amounts of confidence or lack of confidence from one to the other, depending on your mental framing and state, so for example proficiency over time at work or a sport can feed easily into personal life, and vice versa.

Finding New Comfort

I’m still thinking about the correct visual representation of a basic model, but imagine the Personal Comfort Zone in the centre, and other identity(/tribally)-linked Comfort Zones all around it, each Zone connecting to every other model’s Zone, and every Zone a different relative size, as if they were neurons in a network, and you start to realise how many – and how interconnected! – they can be.

Hopefully this exploration into how much (and many!) more Comfort Zones are than our usual daily perception is useful, and has given some food for thought. Far from being a simple concept, Comfort Zones have many levels and contexts, and are actually very fluid and ever-changing – and at times, we all need to return to our Comfort Zones.

Consider how it might all apply to yourself. The next time you think about “moving outside your Comfort Zone”, remember not to assume growth is automatic – we have to work at it! Think about which Comfort Zone model it might be, how far is too far, how to maintain the psychological safety for optimum learning or operation, and how, if it isn’t your personal model, it might be used to grow that, too.

You might be surprised how many you find you have.

Rise of the Machines Part I: Mind Machinery

Here’s a field that heavily integrates into a number of the areas I talk about, and I think it’s a good time to explore a few areas. Internet of Things, Internet of Us, Automation, AI: simultaneously incredibly exciting prospects with amazing potential, yet new tiresome buzzwords used to jump on the bandwagon (about 40% of European “AI Companies” don’t use AI at all).

I think it’s best to split out the fields of AI and Automation here, as, although they are linked in some cases, they affect us in different ways, so first, let’s look at the rise of the Machine Intelligence; watch out for Rise of the Machines Part II for discussions on Automation. I’ll also abbreviate a lot of the terms as per headings below.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Cognitive Computing (CC)

I heard about true AI in business nearly 15 years ago as the next big thing, and I think we erroneously believed it was immediately poised to drastically change the market. It then apparently went quiet. AI has yet to burst into our consciousness as we gleefully describe it. Certainly in its nascent state, I don’t think it had the support and understanding required.

Fast forward to the now, and most people know it’s been used for some time algorithmically for social media, or that a computer beat Gary Kasparov at chess – but it now goes far deeper than that. AI can be used to find new viewpoints, crunch huge amounts of data, position things to hack into group human behaviour, even manipulate our decisions.

In fact this is a huge field, and one I am learning more about all the time. You can probably split it initially into two main fields:

  • ArtificiaI Intelligence, which looks to solve complex problems to produce a result
  • Cognitive Computing, which looks to emulate solving complex problems as a human would to produce a process

So, going back to Gary Kasparov, Deep Blue was definitely AI because it performed what was essentially a brute-force computation to solve a complex task better than a human can, but it isn’t Cognitive Computing, because it wasn’t mimicking how a human would play chess at all (and it seems there are multiple different types of “mimicking”).

Which of these you want will be contextual. Do we want a self-driving car emulating human decisions? Or do we want it to give the best possible result as quickly as possible? Food for thought; the answer may be “both”.

To further confuse things, some AI can also be CC – but both of these are already also becoming a buzzword, a cargo-cult (“do you do AI?”), so it’s also going to be defined by industry marketing in some cases.

The influence of AI on business structure, not just process

Back to an old favourite, the Knowledge management matrix!

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Now, we know about Taylorism, Process Engineering, and Systems Thinking (at least, if you read any of my articles you do!) – explanation here.

But when we look at how humans ACTUALLY work, and thus most companies, we see much of it lies firmly in Social Complexity.

AI/Machine Learning(ML) is currently fairly solidly in the Mathematical Complexity quadrant, with a touch on Systems Thinking; essentially, the use of mathematical models and algorithms to find optimal output. Where we go wrong again here is that we often use this to predict, where it can only really simulate.

What true Artificial Neural Network Intelligence (ANNI) may eventually offer is an interesting cross-over potential of mathematical complexity and systems thinking – and with cognitive computing leveraging these, the possibility of a non-human processing unit that at least partially understands human social complexity. We’re already looking at branches of AI for decision-making.

This could be very interesting – and potentially harmful, as humans are (demonstrably!) easily socially manipulated; but also because as a nonhuman, an AI capable of doing this would be out of context and therefore not bound by any human constraints. Even a CC-AI would be emulating a human, not being one, and I think it’s going to be some time before that becomes fairly accurate. It’s a very dispositional field. 

To extend the future exploration, it’s hard to tell if a resulting endpoint intelligence would be alien – or because of our insistence on modelling human minds, produce an intelligence that has a sociopathy or psychopathy. If there is this much understanding of humanity, the NN might need more to try to give a feeling of empathy, and it’s hard to say how that would interact for a nonhuman intelligence.

Speaking of Neural Networks…

Artificial Neural Network Intelligence (ANNI/ANN/NN)

This is much closer to the human brain in structure, and is a subset of AI. Neural Networks have been around since the 40’s, as scientists have long been fascinated with human brains.

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We have an approximate storage of 2-3gb in our heads, which is pretty poor. It’s not even a decent single layer DVD! But because we store and recall data not just by creating neural connections between neurons, but firing them in sequence, our actual storage is estimated at about 2 PB. That’s enormous – although it’s not immediately accessible (we just don’t work like that). It’s also something we use in myriad, intuitive, individual ways to arrive at decisions.

We knew computers worked totally differently, logically, via calculation, and the race has (until recently, with CC and Qubits) been about how quickly we can sequentially do it. Even with CC, we just can’t emulate the human intuitive leaps and individual distributed cognitive functions that arise from social complexity – yet, if ever.

But now we’re edging into the fringes of these areas, and ANNI are being combined with incredible hardware, software, and new understanding to incrementally produce something much closer to sentient intelligence.

Machine Learning (ML)

Although my specialty is Human Learning, when you start talking about Machine Learning and AI there are some interesting similarities, as well as some drastic differences.

Machine Learning and AI aren’t quite the same. AI pertains to the field of artificial intelligence as a whole, and machine learning and Deep Learning are subsets of this. They rely on the use of algorithms for pattern-hunting and inference – although I need to spend more time understanding if the latter is sometimes more imputation (reasonable substitution) than actually inferring in many cases.

Machine learning can also be considered a specific, logical process which doesn’t carry the human intuition aspect that AI and neural networks are seen as able to edge into with Cognitive Computing. In this arena, an amusing example of Machine learning could be:

 Me: I’ll test this smart AI with some basic maths! What’s 2+2?

 Machine: Zero.

 Me: No, it’s 4.

 Machine: Yes, It’s 5.

 Me: No, it’s 4!

 Machine: It’s 4.

 Me: Great! What’s 2+3?

 Machine: 4.

Machine Learning tends to ask what everyone else is doing – but some AI may be able to decide what to do for itself on extrapolation. There is a clearly a nuance.

Deep Learning (DL)

This is an expansion of basic machine learning. Input is everything, and where traditional processing cannot utilise everything, methods like deep learning can, because it progressively uses multiple layers to extract more and more information. Human-based systems are easily saturated, distracted, and fallible, and traditional IT is really still an offshoot of this methodology, using automation and tools to make this task easier; augmenting human effort.

Deep learning needs as much data as it can get however – which is how Big Data and algorithms that can take billions of user’s data can change how we work.

I remember many years ago working a data protection deal with the largest radio telescope in the world at the time (I believe now a precursor to SKA SA) in South Africa. They needed to back up the data they pulled in, but I believe (and these figures are approximate, from memory) that they could only process 1% of the data that the array pulled in, and that’s what we were looking to protect and offsite.

This was around 2008. Imagine that sheer quantity of data with today’s storage and ANN/DL capabilities. Given the right patterns to look for, you don’t NEED human intervention any more. I strongly suspect that when SKA SA comes online around 2027, it will be using Deep Learning and AI, if not ANN, to parse, categorise, and archive the bulk of that data for searching.

Deep learning and AI has the capability to be a game-changer for how we analyse the world and advance; if we combine that with quantum computing capabilities, we’re starting to work out where the genesis of the godlike Minds of Iain M. Bank’s novels could come from, if we’re lucky.

 Or Skynet’s People Processing Services if we’re not. Personally, I would prefer the former!

Big Data

You can’t talk about AI without the latest buzzword/required input for AI. The term “big data” refers to data that is so large, fast or complex that it’s difficult or impossible to process using traditional methods. The act of accessing and storing large amounts of information for analytics has been around a long time, but when a certain level of complexity and data saturation is reached, false positives become an issue. (another danger here is Big Biased Data, so having as much as possible may help reduce this).

Where AI variants shine is that they need this data to make decisions or produce better results, so now this is on many lips too.

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The supporting structures

AI requires connectivity, integration, a variety of data required; the ability to comprehend rather than merely operate on statistics, failure incidences and calculation; automation, IoT, and potentially IoU.

These are much more prevalent today, and more importantly the human supporting structure is there; AI/CC is already now proven for certain deliverables.

Without these, AI alone isn’t able to affect much. It requires input, constraints to act against; indeed I believe this is why the initial fanfare around AI was premature some years ago. It wasn’t in any way ready (AI has only just beaten professional human players at StarCraft II, which is totally different to calculating chess moves in advance and requires nuance), and more importantly the surrounding structures weren’t ready either – which I have long considered integral to its success.

Internet of Things (IoT)

One of the things any organism – artificial or otherwise – requires to learn and grow is feedback to stimulus; information. And in terms of AI, this is likely to amount to as much connectivity and data as possible to carry out its tasks.

IoT is therefore interesting because it offers the opportunity to both optimise our lives, and learn frightening amounts of data about us. This is already being massively misused by humans – an example being Facebook, or Amazon, using AI and algorithms. Could this be worse with a full AI entity? That depends on what its purpose is, and whether humans have access to all the results (initially at least the answer is probably “yes”).

What I find fascinating is that there is the potential here to have IoT act somewhat analogous to a Peripheral Nervous System to an ANN’s CNS (Neural network and immediate supporting structures). Facebook does this in a rudimentary way with mobile devices; Siri, Cortana, and Google AI exist; Amazon also uses Alexa and analogues.

Special mention: Internet of Us (IoU)

And now we come to something really interesting. What happens when humans integrate into this? And I mean really integrate?

Jowan Osterlund has done some fascinating, groundbreaking work which I’ve referred to a number of times regarding the conscious biochipping of humans with full control over the composition, sharing, and functionality of the data involved.

This has amazing potential, including ID and medical emergency information, and giving full control to the owner means it can be highly personalised. And therein may lie a weakness for us as well as a strength, as far as AI is concerned.

There’s currently no way to track an inert chip like that via GPS or our contemporary navigation systems; however, AI integration could potentially chart the almost real-time progress of someone through payment systems, IoT integration for building security, even medical checkups where human agencies couldn’t and wouldn’t.

On the other hand, the potential for human and AI collaboration here is immense. Imagine going into Tesla for an afternoon with one of Jowan’s chips implanted in your hand, and coming out with it programmed to respond to the car as you approached (assuming no power source was required for the fob, which I believe it currently is). Your car would unlock because it’s you.

That’s fantastic, but also open to vast potential and dangerous misuse by humans, let alone AI. Cyborgs already exist, but they just aren’t quite at the Neuromancer stage yet, and neither are the AI’s (or “Black Ice Firewalls” – Gibson is recommended reading!).

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Stories Vs Reality

I think there is definite value in reading Sci-Fi and looking at how people imagine AI, because we’ve already seen life imitating art as well as art imitating life – and there are so many narratives of AI, from the highly beneficial to the apocalyptic, that there is something of warning or hope across the board. This can help us take a balanced approach, perhaps – but it needs to be tempered by reality.

Our ability to craft stories of AI gone awry as a deep-rooted fear of the usurpation of humanity, its subsequent destruction at our hands in a pretty violent way, and the other myths we surround ourselves with might not reflect well upon us should a learning ANNI come across it unprepared. We simply don’t know how, or even if, any of this data would be taken in.

The Dangers of AI

AI as a tool has a number of worrying possibilities. It is developing so fast that the danger we will ourselves not adapt in time is real; additionally, we need to balance job losses with new roles around the new tech, which is exponentially faster and more disruptive than the physical and hybrid processes that came before. If we have massive numbers of people losing jobs and don’t find a solution, this is a cause for real concern.

Of course a tool can be used for good as well; but AI is a dynamic tool that can potentially learn to think and change. Some very smart people, including the late Professor Stephen Hawking, have been concerned about the dangers. There are some great examples here (https://futurism.com/artificial-intelligence-experts-fear), as well as a few worrying instances recently:

Tay was a bot designed to be targeted towards people of ages 15-24 to better understand their methods of communication and learn to respond. It initially held language patterns of an age 19 US girl. Tay was deliberately subverted; it lasted only 16 hours before removal.

Some users on Twitter began tweeting politically incorrect phrases, teaching it inflammatory messages revolving around common themes on the internet… as a result, [Tay] began releasing racist and sexually-charged messages in response to other Twitter users. Artificial intelligence researcher Roman Yampolskiy commented that Tay’s misbehavior was understandable because it was mimicking the deliberately offensive behavior of other Twitter users, and Microsoft had not given the bot an understanding of inappropriate behavior.

Within 16 hours of its release, and after Tay had tweeted more than 96,000 times, Microsoft suspended the Twitter account for adjustments, saying that it suffered from a “coordinated attack by a subset of people” that “exploited a vulnerability in Tay.”

(Source: Wikipedia)

Another AI has been designed to be deliberately psychopathic. Norman – MIT’s psychopathic AI– has been designed to highlight that it isn’t necessarily algorithms at fault, but the bias of data fed to them.

The same method can see very different things in an image, even sick things, if trained on [a negatively biased] data set. Norman suffered from extended exposure to the darkest corners of Reddit, and represents a case study on the dangers of Artificial Intelligence gone wrong when biased data is used in machine learning algorithms.

Norman is a controlled study to highlight these dangers, and in fact there is a survey available to help Norman “learn” to fix itself – but imagine if code was leaked, or elements of Norman somehow were used by other AI to learn. This is similar to a cerebral virus – once it escapes a lab, it’s very hard to contain, so let’s hope it doesn’t (I’m not going to speculate on the results of any MIT robots being subject to this!).

A third – and the most damaging IMO – example is Facebook’s algorithms twinned with their data harvesting and manipulation practices. Fed by the deeply troubling human-led Cambridge Analytica data, for example, it not only expands on the above issues but adds in the wholesale manipulation and misinformation of large portions of populations around the globe. The intent may be to make money for Facebook (and they still show little mores where this is concerned, especially politically and with a bent towards specific leanings, which continues to alarm many), but the reality is these algorithms display a great understanding of making humans do something en masse. This is now changing politics. Humans are wired to tap into fragmented narratives because of our evolution of mental patterns; we should have checks in place on social media before implementing these measures. We don’t, and that’s likely deliberate where corporate profit is concerned. It’s alarming enough when humans direct this – what if AI manages to change to the point it’s now taking this decision?

AI also ties directly into digital warfare and the removal of the human condition from life decisions – terrorism, drones, vital infrastructure disruptions, and more, all directed by humans, and the errors could be as damaging as the aims. If we enable this, and AI decides to include more than our directives, this becomes doubly problematic.

Bear in mind – in many instances of machines not working as expected, especially in computers, the root cause is almost always human error, through mistake, misunderstanding, or lack of foresight. We are and will be further complicit in mistakes made by and of AI as we move forward, so we must take care how we step ourselves. We can’t actually predict all this, only simulate, because an AI in the wild would be totally alien to us. It would not have any recognisable humanity. And therein lies a danger, or not. It could potentially see us as a threat, or be utterly indifferent to us; it might not understand us at all. Add into this that many people find it amusing to deliberately warp the process without care or thought for consequences, and there is genuine cause for concern and will skew things further.

However, even with all of this, these have still been directed or influenced directly by humans. Extrapolating further, it’s hard to project what AI-derived AI would be like. A lot of this depends on how it’s approached by us. It’s possible that sentient AI could be, in human terms, schizophrenic, isolated, sociopathic, psychotic, or any combination of these. It’s equally possible that these terms simply don’t apply to what stories love to describe as “cold, machine intelligence”. Or perhaps we’ll go full Futurama or Star Trek and install “emotion chips” to emulate full empathy. It’s hard to say, but I think it goes without saying that we need to step sensibly and cautiously, and not simply focus on profit and convenience.

My own concern isn’t so much what an innately innocent self-determining AI would do; it’s what an AI would do at the behest of the creatures that created it – and who often crave power without caring about others of their species. Instill those attributes into an AI, and we have some of the worst elements of humanity, along with an alien lack of compassion.

It’s a fascinating field of study and projection with a deep level of complexity, and we know only one thing for sure; whatever we do now will have unforeseen and unintended consequences. This is where Cynefin is really important; we need to make our AI development safe-to-fail, and not attempt “failsafes”.

(I’ll be writing an article on safe-to-fail vs failsafes another time).

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Looking ahead…

Much of this is in the future; in terms of human replacement, AI is currently behind automation, which has a good head start. AI is currently either set to augment human thinking, or analyse it – not completely replace it.

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Even in some of the better future stories I’ve read, such as Tad Williams’s Otherland series, the AI capability still requires gifted human integration to be truly potent, and we’re probably going to be at that level for some time (albeit in a less spectacular fashion).

So there is some interesting exploration of AI and linked fields. Some of this no doubt sounds far-fetched, and I have obviously read my fair share of hard and soft sci fi as well as real-life research and study – but the truth is we simply don’t know where we will end up; only simulate at best. We must tread emergent pathways cautiously.

“The real worry isn’t an AI that passes the Turing Test – it’s an AI that self-decides to deliberately fail it!”

I hope this has been a useful exploration of the disruption of AI and its impact on the market – keep your eyes out for Rise of the Machines Part II, where we also delve into Automation.

The Rise and Fall of the Bureaucratic Empire – Part II

In Part I of The Rise and Fall of the Bureaucratic Empire I explored where Bureaucracy came from, how it’s been applied to corporations, and why it’s having issues – if you haven’t read it yet, it’s a good idea to look through it first!

Now in Part II, I want to explore some examples of why moving away from Bureaucracy can work, alternatives such as Entrepreneurship, and how we can begin moving over and scaling.

Remember, as ever – this is exploratory, but it is being done by consultants and self-awakening organisations, and it’s being done successfully.

The hinderance of Bureaucracy – and an answer

A great example of how bureaucracy can be problematic has been shown time and again with road rules; certainly in the UK we have very rigid, strictly set road laws for driving and parking, and adults driving 1.5+-ton death-machines break them regularly despite in most cases knowing better.

Research has shown that road laws and regulations make roads safer and more efficient – up to a point.

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Research has also shown that too many of them make roads less safe and efficient. If you overconstrain, people will fall back on reliance and operating in a less accountable fashion. I see far more dangerous speeding and aggressive, entitled driving in the strictly regulated UK than I do in, say, the Philippines (which can also be dangerous, don’t get me wrong!).

Greater car safety and performance than ever lulls us into driving closer to our limits, negating those advances (we drive closer, faster, with less attention); road rules for everything remove accountability, allowing us to simply follow them without consideration (and at the same time, game the system); and expectation, convenience, and a combination of luxury and status induce entitlement and an attitude where we only care about ourselves (where we deserve more than other road users).

It doesn’t help that warning signs or markings in the UK require a KSI (Killed/Serious Injury) before they are put up, rather than common sense; if there are warning signs outside a school, it means a child has likely been harmed by traffic there. My local council saw evidence that cars regularly sped down my old road at up to 50mph through houses with children as a shortcut, but could not put up preventative measures unless someone was badly hurt first.

This is the insanity of heavy bureaucracy – requiring real justification rather than pre-empting issues in a human fashion. But it gets worse – in some areas, speed cameras are quite openly not being used for accident prevention, but revenue generation, meaning people game the system instead of focusing on safety of others. A cyclist in the UK who wears a helmet is less likely to suffer head trauma in an accident – but more likely to be in a bad accident because cars assume they are safer and pass much closer and more dangerously compared to a cyclist not wearing a helmet. Mental patterns and accountability, again.

So how did we become over-constrained? Well, bureaucracy creeps. Perhaps one person crashed somewhere, so a rule was introduced to account for preventing this again. This rule then spreads, often from other harm; and you reach the point where the existence of the rule perhaps causes more problems than the lack of any, but by this point the rules are an institution rather than applied within context and reason.

What’s really interesting is when you remove most road laws and introduce uncertainty, forcing accountability again. Cameras used for costly fines don’t reduce speed overall; but removing road markings cuts speed by an average of 13%, because drivers are less certain and more careful:

Behind this demarking lies the concept of “shared space” and “naked streets”, developed in the 1990s by the late Dutch engineer, Hans Monderman. He held that traffic was safest when road users were “self-policing” and streets were cleared of controlling clutter. His innovations, now adopted in some 400 towns across Europe, have led to dramatic falls in accidents. Yet for some reason Monderman’s ideas remain starkly uninfluential in the world of “big” health and safety, especially in Britain.

Monderman’s principle is that freedom to assess risk for ourselves is what makes us safer. Rules, controls, signs, traffic lights all reduce our awareness of our surroundings and thus our sense of danger. On roads, he said: “When you don’t exactly know who has right of way, you tend to seek eye contact with other road users. You automatically reduce your speed … and take greater care.”

This has also been seen in towns where all road markings and rules were removed. Traffic self regulated to drive safely and efficiently because suddenly blame and certainty of risk were fuzzier. This isn’t conjecture; it’s been tested.

By lessening the bureaucracy and making all drivers invested in safety and driving accountability, in other words making the roads more of an ecosystem, the efficiency and safety rises – exactly what bureaucracy wanted to achieve, and worsened. You’ll still get the occasional accident, but it’s not everyone gaming the system (note: this may not apply for people parking discourteously, but then correct punitive action and processes help here).

These are clear but consistent examples of how bureaucracy inhibits humanity in just one area. A certain amount of hierarchy may be important; but too much, and the system is exploited or ignored, and ends up acting against itself, and we remove accountability and form reliance. When we treat adults wholesale like children, they will act as such. Invest them and treat them as adults… and they will act as such.

Against all we’ve been taught, less bureaucracy doesn’t automatically equal anarchy, and that’s an important thing to understand. We automatically create systems and order our worlds; that’s what humans do.


Ecosystems are constantly adaptive, learning, and reactive, so why do humans form bureaucracies? Well, I think part of the answer is the comfort zone, and laziness. Once we set up a structure to do things for us, it’s comfortable and we can focus on other things, or don’t have to expend so much energy. But as discussed before, this often ends up problematic when the structure itself begins to take precedence.

Ecosystems require a little more effort, or rather investment, because everything within an ecosystem affects everything else; but the overall effort is less because all agents quickly align to deliver value, so there’s much less friction, whereas bureaucracy is… well. It becomes a grind, and we often forget the majority of us are the grain. And I believe we are individuals gain far more personal achievement, worth and value of our own from working within an ecosystem.

If Bureaucracy is focused on power, authority, and control, an Ecosystem approach is focused more on delivery of the value within the system. That value is the product, but also the people that make the company, the ecosystem itself. I refer back to my friend and colleague Liz Keogh, a talented consultant who does a great talk on how Value Streams are made of People.

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In Cynefin terms an Ecosystem is complex and doesn’t try to order complexity. The structure is emergent, what works, not categorised, what is forced;an ecosystem develops according to feedback, not initial dictation.

In Part I, we saw this:

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So, if we moved to an Ecosystem, how would this work?

We don’t NEED to be sets of fish in different tiers of down-linked aquariums, where a single fouled pipe can cause problems down the line, and as we’ve seen, this actually creates more inefficiencies.

But put us all in a lake, and we develop a functioning ecosystem; the big fish still take up more space and dictate the culture and balance, because ecosystems conform to apex predators within the system.

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If all fish are invested in the operation of the fishbowl, the success of all fish benefits all fish… and the whale!

This is a critical concept to understand – you can move out of a structure which focuses on power, authority and control so much that ego, policy, power struggles, and dehumanisation (amongst a horde of other issues) actually make business incredibly less efficient… and still retain decision-making ability, structure, and gravitas.

An ecosystem isn’t chaos. There’s still hierarchy, but it is reactive, fluid, contextual, invested, and now it has enabling constraints, not rigid constraints. Ecosystems also self-regulate to some degree, and that’s something that (hypothetically at least) adult humans working together can do. For an example, I refer you back to the “towns with road rules removed” above.

Entrepreneurship – the reactive structure

When we speak of Entrepreneurship in business, we are usually speaking of two types: Institutional, and now Millennial (there are also many other sub-cultural and social types). Both of them have a number of perceived qualities; innovation of new ideas and business processes, strong leadership, people management skills and team building abilities are considered essential. These are obviously not limited to startups and small companies – but are perhaps more common there.

Institutional Entrepreneurs are defined as collective and collaborative. Edith Penrose says that “in modern organizations, human resources need to be combined to better capture and create business opportunities.” Paul DiMaggio furthered this view, saying “new institutions arise when organized actors with sufficient resources see in them an opportunity to realize interests that they value highly”.

An entrepreneur is willing to take risks in the name of an idea, even putting financial aspects on the line and spending time as well as capital on what may seem uncertain ventures – but often they will judge the risk to be less than other people might because they have vision and drive, and often operate outside the Comfort Zone in the Optimal Performance Zone. They are adaptive and reactive enough to often mitigate a lot of the risks should they arise.

Millennial Entrepreneurs further change this by adding more qualities; far greater acceptance and knowledge of new technology, new business models, and a strong grasp of the business applications of digital media. They have less work/life identity split. They also face greater challenges – less of their generation are self-employed, but with higher expectations from employers, and the current economy, higher education debt and several other factors means that those who choose to be entrepreneurs are focused, driven and very aware of the new marketplace.

I usually find more initial accessibility to coaching and mentoring an Entrepreneurial mindset, because it tends to want to learn and grow and achieve a vision, not stay comfortable. There’s also a greater ability to take risks, more flexibility to change what doesn’t work, and less ego if something isn’t known or is required.

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To be a successful entrepreneur requires creativity, accurate decision-making, and conceptualisation. Innovation is easier and quicker; adaptation and exaptation are easily committed to. Reaction times are quicker. Networking and system building is a true skill. The company has fast, direct and clear communication lines. Information is accurate. People are often quite invested, and there’s little or no gaming, sycophantism or cynicism because these can’t be hidden easily when everyone is involved.

It’s very difficult to simply switch from a massively ingrained, traditional approach like Bureaucracy straight into an Ecosystem, but Entrepreneurship has elements of both that could be considered as interim (or indeed endpoint). It requires a different skillset to Bureacracy, which is often satirised by boring, methodical, rubber-stamp obsessed faceless automatons. In contrast, an Entrepreneur is often seen a energetic, dynamic, interesting, world-changing, and eager.

There’s a reason personal, likeable people often build companies and remain entrepreneurs, even if they take this into corporate sized companies; you get the odd sour apple who still thinks like a bureaucrat (usually through ego and a false equivalence of years=better entrepreneur), but by and large these are people people, and they have a vision they need to enact.

That is traditionally seen as a problem as a company grows and “matures”; people automatically believe that the company must then transition to become more “serious”, gain “corporate culture” as if it’s a requirement to be taken seriously. I’ve seen it happen over and over, and often think… why did you lose what you had!? But it is possible to still retain the culture of entrepreneurship. I’ve seen entrepreneur-style leaders take over SMB/SME or even large parts of large corporations and still have this culture, and be very effective.

So is an entrepreneurial mindset the best balance between pure ecosystem and bureaucracy, with just enough of the latter to appeal to everyone? It’s got some hierarchy, but a lot of the benefits of an ecosystem, and it’s very focused on human culture and delivery of value.

It’s certainly worth considering, and far easier to transition into from rigid structures.

Transitioning and Scaling Entrepreneurialism and Ecosystems

This also means from Shareholder to Stakeholder, because rigid hierarchy typically prevents and even discourages internal stakeholdership, and marginalises valuable outlier stakeholders. As mentioned by the Roundtable referred to in Part I… for a long time, the only matter of consequence has been shareholder profit at the expense of all else.

That has now changed, but flipping from corporate culture in one go is just not possible in a large company. Instead, you have (at least) two important things that need changing to begin with:

  • Culture – how things are perceived. This is set partially by interactions between people, but primarily by the actions and inactions of leadership. Some of these are informal, “unwritten rules”, or as Dave Snowden calls them, Dark Constraints. If you want to change Culture, this needs to be from the TOP DOWN, and is holistic. You change it all for everyone, or none of it.
  • Processes – how things are done. You can change units or departments at a time, because they essentially are small ecosystems of their own – they have their own intra-company culture, methodologies, and requirements. Much of this starts with the people and the mindset, and using enough policy for direction but not enough to stifle innovation, delivery, and investment. The focus should always remain the results not the methods (within reasonable bounds).
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So it is possible to scale a change through even a large company, but it requires a very interesting motion where you change from the top and the bottom simultaneously – two waves that cross through each other, if you like!


Obviously scaling an ecosystemic, entrepreneurial approach is possible – at least in part. Google is, again, a classic example. A huge company that has hierarchies, it nevertheless ensures that its employees are invested where possible, given their own time, judged on outcome vs output (for example, results vs hours), and as far as I know still holds regular meetings for employees to highlight where it is becoming too bureaucratic so the issues can be resolved.

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Part of this successful structure is the fact the founder was never indoctrinated into believing bureaucracy was required, or the only way. Larry Page’s life has apparently been hugely influenced by four factors, according to interviews; his grandfather’s history struggling in the early labour movement, his education, his admiration for Nikola Tesla who was a hero (and is one of my most-admired as well, as it goes), and his own participation in the leadership institute at the Engineering School of the University of Michigan.

He has further said that the hardships of his grandfather’s story encouraged him to make Google a totally different kind of workplace – “one that, instead of crushing the dreams of workers, encouraged their pursuit”.

If you look at the Big 4(/5) in tech at the moment (Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon, and somewhat Microsoft), as well as past giants like IBM, or even smaller multinationals like Computacenter (who are still big!), you will mostly see huge trappings of Bureaucracy. This is interesting in Microsoft given the founding of some lean/agile principles there, but remember hierarchy usually wins over time! Apple still retains some of its entrepreneurship in some ways but it’s lost reactivity and innovation; Google is the most entrepreneurial of them all.

So it IS possible to do, to a point! I think as size increases it is inevitable you will need some strong hierarchical structures to support the facilitation, delivery and decision-making, but at the same time, if you can view units as are ecosystems in themselves, and the company as an ecosphere – an organism, perhaps – made of systems composed of invested people, you gain a better understanding of how it can work together. All areas of the company affect all others; traditional company management tends to view company structure as more modular, and is definitely not always as grounded in reality.

And that’s another key – decision-makers need to ensure they have time enough to decide well, using disintermediation for accuracy and grounding themselves by listening to everyone within and without, outliers included. There is a balance point between leadership needing to focus on decisions and not having time for irrelevance, and considering your time too important to spend long on it. Much of this comes down to trust, accuracy, and grounding in reality – something entrepreneurs are far, far better at than bureaucrats in my experience.

As I always, always say: there isn’t a templated, simple answer. It’s going to be highly complex and contextual. Each company, bluntly, will have to find its own way if it’s going to work. But that doesn’t mean people can’t advise and help guide that understanding and discovery. Again, that’s what I’m there for – to help a company sustainably understand this for themselves.

In fact, this is why I work holistically using multiple, contextual frameworks; this is like trying to untangle a huge knot, and pulling one part invariably affects another.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of what could lie beyond bureaucracy. If you need to talk more, or discuss engagements, DM or call – that’s what I’m there for.

But one thing is evident: like it or not, in the current market, with the current workforce and consumer set made from a new generation, and with 4IR so prominent in the next leap forward… Bureaucracy as we know it isn’t just struggling, it’s a dead-end beginning to grind to a slow halt under its own friction in many industries. It’s time to explore new emergent avenues of better business.

Let’s get Involved.

The Rise and Fall of the Bureaucratic Empire – Part I

What is the bottom line for your organisation? The main objectives as a CEO, Director, or other Executive?

Profit? Short term results? Growth? Long term survivability? Shareholder value?

Or is it no longer only one or many of these – as reported recently from the Business Roundtable, a group of ~200 CEOs from US firms – but now a move towards a more holistic, human and value-delivery approach? I’ve seen a number of posts on this recently, and I’ll delve into it more in future, but I wanted to look at this in terms of the transition from a longstanding tradition – and one I’ve worked to facilitate for a while.

The Harvard Business Review writes that this report “explicitly counters the view held for decades that the sole focus of a corporation and its CEO is to maximize profits. Corporations are, according to the new statement, accountable to five constituencies, of which shareholders are only one. Customers, employees, suppliers, and communities are the others.”

That is an incredible statement – and one which is both very welcome and inline with today’s growing expectations. No longer is one group profiting at the expense of the other four; now they are all stakeholders, and that’s an important perspective. But this is directly opposed to the original ideals of bureaucracy, which focuses on efficiency and benefit in only one area – and it still needs some work.

In this article I will explore business bureaucracy’s rise, its challenges, and how it’s failing; in a second article, I’ll look at what lies beyond and how we can not only move forward, but benefit hugely doing so.

As ever – this has a lot to it, but is by no means completely comprehensive. It’s an ancient and complex subject centuries in the construction.

The Challenges Bureaucracy Faces

There is an onus on leadership more than ever before – the market change has accelerated to the point most companies can’t keep up, a new generation is becoming the majority of both workforce and customer, markets are super-saturated with companies clamouring for differentiation; sustainable innovation and disruption have taken a notable dive in recent years, people are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with being a component and taken advantage of. Traditional management models are failing both companies and employees. Individualism is being re-realised. People are demanding change and making their demands known across social media and business. A large number of organisations are stuck in the Cycle of Woe, some refusing to even admit there is a problem, and many entire industries are struggling (areas of tech, retail, banking and many more).

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In The Decisive Patterns of Business I explore some reasons Leadership is facing so many challenges and what they can do to be mindful of mitigating them – so there are all the mental patterns, time limitations, and increases in complexity in business to factor in as well. I also suggest 3 ways you can immediately enhance leadership and a way you can make more accurate leadership decisions. All of these things (and much more) are intricately interlinked; this isn’t an easy puzzle to solve for business, nor is it one you can do from within the frame of reference.

All this is just the start, and I’m sure any Executives/Directors reading this can agree and/or add to many of these issues.

So – how do we fix it?

Many of my articles speak about the 4th Industrial Revolution (and we could be in the 6th depending on your definitions), the challenges faced, the implementation of fads, the adherence to older and ineffective models of management (process engineering, systems thinking) past where they are suitable, finding coherency in complex situations, and much more.

You can, for the purposes of this article, boil things down to this: we need to find ways to make organisations deliver better value, get better return and be leaner, act in a more (contextually) Agile fashion where appropriate, divine where they really are as a system in each situation and react appropriately; not just demand or rely on one buzzword framework but use multiple frameworks in context; and rediscover the humanity of the people who are our value and assets both. We need to move to being inspirational leaders, not instructional bosses, because the acceptance and effectiveof the latter is fading. We need to realise the power of making everyone a stakeholder for the business to achieve its full success potential naturally – to reinvest in culture and success being mutually beneficial.

Traditionally, bureaucracy requires a rigid hierarchy adhered to as below, in descending order of size (or perceived importance) and a downward flow of strategic information/instruction. If a pipe is fouled or blocked, problems occur (and they block easily!).

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(Note the outlier/maverick/heretic on the bottom right!)

Ok, give me one easy step that can enable all the above!

Those familiar with my work will know by now there is no “easy recipe” for success – it’s ALWAYS contextual. But that said, there is one thing we can do to begin exploring the facilitation of the above:

We can re-evaluate the bureaucratic approach and the strict hierarchies within it, and begin the move to a more entrepreneurial approach via ecology.

I’ve been told before that this is quite radical, and I guess it is, but that doesn’t make it less advantageous. The fear of change, and the focus on “doing things this way because they always have been” are both powerful suppressants to changing for the better.

This is meta-innovation, if you like – the ability to innovate abstract structures, not just to conceive a new product – and this type of innovation is arguably more critical to long-term survivability for a company.

Why does this solution make some C-suite executives uncomfortable?

The ecosystem approach is often perceived as a lessening of power, of decision-making, but of course that isn’t the case. Look at a company such as Google, which aims to reduce bureaucracy where it can and invests in investment; Google is considered powerful and fairly effective in terms of business.

I recently had a professional tell me that bureaucracy must exist because that’s the only way you access leadership as a consultant – but to me, that bespeaks an avoidance of a necessary paradigm shift, instead working within a closed loop that will continue to shrink. Hierarchies don’t need to be a totally rigid structure for people to function – in fact, the opposite has been proven true, and long-term, rigidity is problematic for stakeholders.

It’s also worth noting that hierarchy doesn’t require bureaucracy. Hierarchies can also self-regulate or define their own structures based on composition. For example, a professional team of people know their places, have individual investment, and deliver as optimally as possible; this doesn’t have to be directed to the nth degree. Ecosystems take this further, and automatically regulate themselves around the decision makers – or apex predators – within them. In both these examples, over-constraint affects the whole system negatively.

In Part II, I’ll give a great daily, ingrained example of how ecosystem is more effective than bureaucracy, and I’ll expand on the aquarium analogy, but for now let’s focus on what a bureaucracy really is.

Defining Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy as a concept is ancient, because at its core it is rigidly hierarchical. Wherever humans wished to control other humans via systems, it existed; religiously, politically, profitably, sometimes all three at once. Via policy and tradition, it was (and still is) established.

It isn’t just hierarchy; hierarchy is a complex and fluid structure within a system dependent on any number of contextual ideas. Bureaucracy is a further constraint via human management; “any system of administration conducted by trained professionals according to fixed rules” is more or less the current definition.

The German sociologist Max Weber argued that “bureaucracy constitutes the most efficient and rational way in which human activity can be organized and that systematic processes and organized hierarchies are necessary to maintain order, maximize efficiency, and eliminate favoritism.”

This was seen as a logical end result of administering a hierarchy, but it leaves out the question of what, or whom, the hierarchy is benefiting.

However, Weber apparently also rightly saw unfettered bureaucracy as “a threat to individual freedom, with the potential of trapping individuals in an impersonal “iron cage” of rule-based, rational control.”, something we’re now seeing as a widespread mindset of decades.

Humans naturally polarise and go to extremes, especially if comfort can be attained doing so. We form mental patterns and follow traditions once established because it’s simply always worked like that. Changing those traditions requires usually then requires either chance, or a vast upheaval.

The Rise of Bureaucracy in Business

What we now usually mean by the word Bureaucracy is Corporate Culture, in business at least (and in modern times, politics and religion have both taken on many of the trappings of business, especially in a world driven by neoliberal ideals of profit), and it goes back a couple of hundred years to the foundations of Taylorism, which has had enormous impact on modern business mindset. I talk about Taylorism a lot in my work, so this matrix should be familiar:

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Knowledge Management Matrix

Frederick Taylor is often called “The Father Of Management Science”. He was a mechanical engineer who essentially created the idea of Process Engineering – the reduction of workers to a dehumanised component level. The idea was that by removing the unreliable and perceived lazy human aspect, you made a process more efficient – something we can also achieve today with automation, but which was not available then.

Somi Arianwrote a great article on this recently here, so I don’t want to rehash it – go and check it out, it’s got great information (and she does some amazing work on AI and Millennial Culture so check that out too).

Process Engineering still requires human skill and judgement, so it wasn’t totallydehumanised. What is interesting is what happened when Systems Thinking was created in 1956 by MIT Professor Jay Forrester. It was originally designed as a way to improve the understanding of more complex systems by looking at how the agents within interacted as a whole, and was a largely social construct at first, but it quickly became an effective way to explain the aspects of business Process Engineering couldn’t define and broaden management science in general. However, Systems Thinking removes all human judgement, and it operates on prediction and outcome based measures, very often (in business at least) heavily relying on a perfect goal and forecasting – neither of which necessarily reflect reality.

The other problem with predicting humans in business structures is that companies invariably then require those humans to follow these predictions. This, as you may be aware, is neither how predictions nor humans actually work!

A Delicate Balance

So now we have what makes up the majority of the Modern Management approach in the corporate culture of bureaucracy – a sliding scale between these two systems. One is rule-based, one is heuristic-based; one removes human variance and demands constant full output, one removes human judgement and metricises for prediction. Henry Mintzberg’s 10 schools of Strategy lie between these, 3 in the former and 7 in the latter (read The Red Pill of Management Science for more information on this!).

A problem here is that bureaucracy has mostly slipped into the worst parts of each over time. The dehumanisation, the over-constraint, the metricisation, the pure focus on outcome-based measures, all whilst preserving strict hierarchy and trying to also marry up a somewhat schizophrenic wish to care for employees and give them a voice – it’s akin to mixing water and oil when you then add real people, who operate on systemic, social, and individual complexity.

Something has to give somewhere, and the hierarchy inevitably wins. When you add into that the perceived threat of automation, and the conditioning over 200 years of people to believe they should be paid for hours, should take pride in their skills and focus only on those, and should give their all to the company, then combine it with the drastic shift in recent years of generational mindset, market orthodoxy trophic cascades, the downward dive of innovation across industries and the awakening of individuality, we find that the system isn’t fit for purpose any more – and it never really was, it just worked well enough at the time.

The world has moved on. The multiply-complex new age of business doesn’t work like a steel mill 200 years ago. It’s time we acknowledged this, and considered alternatives.

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The Problems We’ve Been Ignoring

So many companies are struggling and mired in red tape and politics it’s obvious the system has become more important than the result, despite the desired outcome being profit. Even the Business Roundtable report, encouraging though it is, is going to have to also address the fact that business has been set for decades to work on short-term profit mindset for C-suite to fulfill, and that’s been the aim of bureaucratic corporate culture for so long now it’s “tradition”.

Bureaucracy can have its place, just as ideals born from hierarchy and strict process such as Waterfall are still applicable in certain instances. But it’s been globally applied out of context and in general for decades. In the vastly more complex landscape today, it’s failing us all, both individually and organisationally.

Think of the recessions, the rise in suicides reported in the last 100 years from work pressure globally; the gaming behaviour, sycophantism, cynicism that we now take for granted; the exponential increase of burnout, the sheer inefficiencies where we expect not to get results because of the hierarchyEven those thriving off bureaucracy use the word as an epithet for not getting anything done! How many startups fail to cross the chasm or grow past an initial point of entrepreneurship? How many companies emulate a phoenix, growing, purging, growing, purging? How many both feel trapped by and acceptance of forever living in the Cycle of Woe?

No wonder the next natural steps are political maneuvering, empire building, selfish personal ambition, gaming the structure for personal gain, cynicism, sycophantism, and a type of Cobra Effect – where the new language and the appearance of following a certain message are used, but it’s only a veneer allowing both continued operation of individual ambition, and micromanagement where a boss spends so much time insuring their authority is maintained very often they are not adequately doing their own role. These go hand-in-hand with harassment, isolation, divide-and- conquer island-creation, all to maintain often tenuous control for just long enough to deliver short-term profit at the expense of long-term reputation and survivability.

The extreme ends up being a company that is locked rigid in over-constraint, zero humanity, checkboxing, and demotivation in an excessively toxic culture. Nothing gets done properly, but at least it doesn’t get done properly in triplicate and everyone’s arse is covered. I’ve both worked with and worked for companies like this; they exist.

This is not delivering the maximum value that a company can deliver. It is not efficient, or healthy for individuals. This is what I work to change.

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Bureaucracy across Business is a Dead End

Or to be more blunt, it’s dying as a fix-all concept, and taking a lot of profit, individuals, and organisations with it in its death throes.

But it doesn’t have to. We’ve known for decades that strict adherence to hierarchies is damaging to people as well as inefficient. And what’s interesting to me now is that emerging powerhouses like India and other areas of Asia are transitioning far more rapidly from a very heavily Process Engineering outlook to being extremely aware of this new methodology than the West, where bureaucratic corporate culture largely originated. I’m seeing more interest in my skillset from executives there than I am in the West at the moment, and when it changes, it’s going to be a huge and sudden ripple effect, I think. The hidebound West stands a good chance of being left behind in efficiency, ethics, and value delivery overall.

The emphasis is on delivering value, and it always has been; only the meaning has changed here. “Value” for decades meant shareholder profit. Now “value” means stakeholder satisfaction, not just in terms of profit, but also ethics, sustainability, work/life balance, end product quality, as well as other contextual elements.

Bureaucracy falls readily into the trap of general application, and is very hard to balance effectively. This is why it has finally begun to be phased out in many areas of business, to allow more reactive, delivery-focused, long-term, human and sustainable structures to grow and drive business and return to true innovation. Agile, entrepreneurship, ecosystems, human individuality – all have their place in this transition.

The market no longer supports a sprawling bureaucracy. The trouble is, bureaucracies and their keepers are so slow to react they don’t yet realise this, if indeed they even recognise the signs of trouble at all. That in itself is reason enough to explore different avenues of management and business, and when you add the desperate need of humans to again be human, and indeed to be able to work at environmental, ethical, social, and other concerns traditionally exploited by corporate culture, the need of change is desperate.

We’re past weak signal detection by this point; we’ve reached change-or-die territory for many bureaucratically-structured companies, and most of them can’t even see it because they’re in it.

That’s why you hire people like me!

What is to come

So this article explored Bureaucracies a little. In the second part, we’ll look at why ecosystems are better, some examples and other structures, and how we can begin moving over.

If you’re a C-level or director looking to facilitate this change – DM me! We’re at a point where we need to have conversations around this.

What are your thoughts on bureaucracy? What have you seen or experienced? Where do you think we need to go?

The Trouble With Coaching In Wonderland

We’ve all been Alice – especially if you are, like me, a coach, advisor, or mentor.

We work very hard striving to develop methods, platforms, frameworks, theories, and practices that provably enhance the lives of businesses and individuals. Many of us live in and amongst them – but like any area of expertise, this can actually make us prone to mental patterns and inattentional blindness.

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We give others very good advice, but we don’t always follow it… even when we know better! Sometimes, we work so hard we forget to apply it to ourselves. This can be because we’ve run out of processing space, are too focused, or just plain forget.

Analogue beings in a Digital Age

However much we love the idea of everything digital, the simple fact is that humans themselves are analogue. We aren’t on or off. We’re a sine wave of efficacy, and move through it day to day. The way we operate requires constant refinement. The way we learn is analogue, too (there are some articles forthcoming on elements of this).

Part of being human is the fact we are human, and not perfect. It’s what can spark such innovation and repurposing. I am trained in working out as well, but will find that sometimes I don’t keep strict form, or I don’t focus where I should where I pick up on it quickly in people I’m training. I eat bad food, or I fail where I should know better. I don’t always warm up my voice for events, despite being a singer and knowing better. I don’t always find mindfulness before events, even though I know better! I don’t always apply frameworks to what I’m doing where I should. I talk about looking for new opportunities and serendipty for learning every day, and I follow it… most of the time. Sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I don’t. I try to more often than not.

Inner focus is always much harder than focusing on others! Because we’re always looking outwards from the inside. The difference is, experience can mitigate this quickly.

As a coach, an advisor, a mentor, it’s critical to practice what you preach. But it’s just as important to remember we don’t do everything perfectly. No one operates at 100%, 100% of the time. No one is a machine that downloads something and then does it perfectly ever after.

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Tempting though this is, it means we focus on the end point, not the journey.

It’s really about incorporating knowledge and refining and using it more consistently over time. True progress is measured in evolution, not plateaus of static achievement.

Learning to apply it when it matters is more important than being perfect and applying it 100% of the time, because the second is not realistic. Don’t focus on unrealistic goals.

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Be Kind

Be as kind to yourself as you are to others, especially if you are a coach, because you’re prone to overworking – voice, mind, body. This is part of self-care, and of acceptance. Of exposing vulnerabilities. Of using mistakes to become even better at what you offer others.

There is a huge shift now in businesses and people preferring to see us as human, too, because when that happens, when they see these vulnerabilities, it makes us more likeable, approachable, and gives better interpersonal connections. We are our brand now, in this modern, fast shifting, latter-millennial generational market; we’re more than a service, we’re a package. That includes the imperfections which make us human, help us learn, and make us approachable.

Part of re-realising humanity in business, bringing the human back into HR, is not only celebrating and benefiting from individual strengths in a collaborative ecosystem, but recognising that we are, well… only human.

When that happens… don’t be Alice. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

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Do you want to make more accurate Leadership decisions?

It’s surprisingly quick and easy:

Don’t just make a decision based on someone else’s summary.

This seems obvious, but in fact it’s what a large number of leaders and upper managers do – with less time to make more decisions, it is very common to require management underneath you to summarise meetings, events, or data so that you can make a quick decision without spending time you don’t have reviewing the minutiae. Everything from major company direction to internal cultural decisions is usually decided in this way.

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Why is this a problem?

Because when somebody else summarises for you they do two things:

  •  They remove data they don’t consider valuable but that may well be needed. This is reductionism
  •  They interpret data for you, which can change its context from true

Both of these can be a big problem. To put it in more perspective, Management can also be called Intermediation, and it’s easy to forget management has a chain effect. You might trust the manager who reports to you; but do you know and trust them all the way to the data?

This is something I call Decision Resolution.


Not all intermediation is bad. Managers are there precisely because they need to manage aspects of the business or people on behalf of leadership, and interface with leadership on behalf of those aspects or people – the second part being something I have seen a number of managers unfortunately pay less attention to.

It’s also possible for management to accurately aid decision making, if they particularly know their leadership or work very closely with them in specific instances, but I would say this is an exception rather than a rule, especially in larger companies – and the larger the company, the more this is all a problem, especially because summaries are very easy to quickly and lazily dash off – for example, in bullet points. Also if senior managers are very close to leadership, there is a chance they will be affected by the same inattentional blindness I mentioned in The Decisive Patterns of Business.

(Quick aside – how many times have you noted a summary in bullet points and later gone back to find you don’t remember all the context around each one? Don’t worry. We’ve all done it.)

The more managers you have between you and the raw data for a decision, the more likely intermediation will summarise, reduce, and interpret data that usually is presented with little context.

If – especially as a leader or senior manager – you want to make an accurate decision with long-term reliability, you need to do it based on slightly different data than the traditionally-presented set, with better decision resolution.


Instead, try making a decision based on a small chunk of RAW data. What does that mean? Well, here’s an example in visual form (it could be any actual decision):

Let’s say you are a leader, and you have to make a major decision based on the wheels in this picture:

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It could be size, shape, colour, composition, how they should complement the car, perform, whatever. This is the big picture. You feel you don’t have time to inspect the whole car, because you have a mountain of other decisions for other areas, and all you care about are the wheels.

So you trust intermediaries to prepare the data for you to make an informed decision. This is where problems arise, because complex issues are involved that include things such as politics, competency, how many levels of management, and so on.

This unfortunately includes agendas, where summarised data is manipulated to encourage a decision beneficial to the summariser. An example? I’ve seen senior sales management swearing blind they need a feature for a deal, and doing everything they can to summarise positives and position deals to persuade leadership it must be developed… for it to then resolve that the company has embarked on an urgent $750k R&D project for a couple of potential $50k deals. I don’t have to point out how that’s not really helpful for a leader.

So with our car visualisation, several layers of management deciding what is important and passing the information on up to increasingly busy seniors then might well be affected by the car colour isn’t important, the wheels are all this size so we can worry about other aspects, or even if we make it generic enough they might pick wheels that will work better on another car we prefer… and so forth. Eventually, the picture may emerge to leadership a little more like this:

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Right… so, the general shape is there. The wheels are in the right place. Nothing seems out of order, per se. But there’s no context. No colour. The decision resolution is so low at this point a manager can’t really tell, but since they have no basis for comparison and they’re given a basic set of data, they make what seems to be an informed decision.

If you were to make a potentially critical decision, which picture would you rather make it on?

Right, but we don’t feel we have time to scrutinise the first. So instead, what’s better than reducing and interpreting the data is this:

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Ok, here’s the wheel. Original data. We can see it very clearly. It still lacks some context, but we can be more confident that a decision will be more accurate.

This is granularisation instead of reduction. All the data is there, but you’ve chopped it into small chunks.

Now this might not be enough for you to make a decision, but you can add more chunks until you have enough to make a decision:

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The more data there is here the better your decision will be. The critical point here is that the data has not been changed – it’s just a smaller portion than the whole. This means that when you make a decision it will be accurately based on real data, with real context – not what somebody else decides is the correct data.

If you don’t feel you have enough raw data for the decision, add more until you do.

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Instead of expecting a chain of managers to summarise the points in a meeting for an overall decision, perhaps pick one person and ask them to specify only one point, in detail, with the rest ready if needed (and I speak elsewhere about the value of using narrative and example for this, not just parroting bullet points). For a decision, don’t invite too many chefs; ask one specific person to ready the data in a granular fashion. It’s a little more work than summarisation, but for the purpose of an accurate critical decision… shouldn’t it be?

Less intermediation mean more accuracy. It’s long been known that too much middle management also can interfere with company running and value delivery – there is a point of diminishing returns with delegation of authority within a hierarchy, and that is an important modifier. Gaming behaviour, politics, jobsworthmanship, red tape, and many other symptoms of bureaucracy can result (I speak about these a lot as well!).

This also means leaders not falling into the understandable trap of saying there is “not enough time”. You still need to have some understanding and oversight of what you are making a decision about, of course, which means making appropriate time. If you don’t have that understanding, and are simply relying on whatever people are telling you (outside a completely trusted relationship) to make decisions quickly… Perhaps you shouldn’t be making that decision.

Obviously, there is a balance between accuracy and time spent on the decision, so this is about learning how to refine the decision-making process, not reducing it.

And a final consideration – listen to the subject matter as well, not only your own authority. The data is telling you what possibilities there ARE, instead of you – or someone below you – trying to force possibilities into the data.

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Why is accuracy important?

I keep talking about the acceleration of business today. And it’s true – it’s faster than ever. Half the problems companies are facing is because their old management structures, hierarchies and engagement practices simply can’t keep up.

So speed matters! But what matters as much is accuracy. Take too long to make the right decision and the opportunities pass by. Make decisions so quickly so they aren’t accurate to the situation, and they will still pass you by, or worse, damage you.

Measure twice, cut once – speed of decisions is not the only deciding factor in business! Accuracy and ability to change those decisions based on constant feedback must also exist.

Balancing this will help you choose wisely in the appropriate time.

The Professionals Part I: Defining Professionalism

I have been considering professionalism a lot recently. This can be a grey area that is both individual and role-based, and one that is supported or suppressed by culture, company culture, and industry. The definition has been relaxing and changing in recent years (which I think is for the better), but it still retains defining principles and individual requirements.

We don’t often think about what professionalism is, even though we use the word constantly, so I wanted to explore some thoughts on what it’s defined as being, how it’s seen, and how it’s changed. I’m also largely focusing on professionalism as a generic business term, though I’ll touch on other aspects.

(For the purposes of this article, I’m not going to quantify what amateur means, as that can be wildly variable!)

Defining a Professional

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Loosely, this is the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterise or mark a profession or a professional person that are usually pursued for gain (as a career path or for personal profit).

Expanding on this in application, a professional is someone with both skillset and mindset, with knowledge, ability, and also attitude, which can be represented by different things to different people in different industries, some minor and some major. Which is which may depend on all three of the above, but I think there are some fundamental truths to professionalism.

That being said, this is logically going to be highly subjective based on context. However, we’ve become widely used to a certain stereotype for professional in business. When you hear that word, what do you think of?

Who do you picture?

I’ll wager many of you think of this:

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But really, the general concept of professionalism has been business-codified. Based on the definition, professional really looks like this:

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And much more besides.

There is no difference for me in role or industry – if you have the requisite minimum knowledge, skill, and attitude to perform the gainful task at hand, you are a professional in your field.

So is a “Professional” the same as “Professionalism”?

I think of it like this:

  • Being a professional is a vocation
  • Professionalism is based upon ongoing use and display of appropriate attitude, core competency, and knowledge

A professional may be unprofessional in certain circumstances, because we’re human. An actor may lose their temper faced with paparazzi; a doctor may act inappropriately with a patient; a newscaster may be overcome with laughter on air. I’m sure you can think of many other examples. That doesn’t mean they aren’t also professionals in their field.

This may be why we refer to people who are both professional and never fail to act professionally as consummate professionals; we’re acknowledging an ongoing dedication, not just a situational application, which other professionals may not achieve. Interestingly, we may also tend to view them as less human in certain ways, because some of their personality appears perhaps supplanted or augmented by always doing the professional thing – and we make a far bigger deal out of it if they react outside our expectations.

It’s also well worth noting that professionalism and unprofessionalism happen at all levels of business. I think this is a very important conversation, and one that historically has been assumed to be a given. Role doesn’t equal professionalism. It can equal apparent professionalism through associationwhich isn’t the same thing.

For example: Leadership isn’t an automatic qualification of professionalism any more than “unskilled” work is an automatic disqualification of professionalism. It’s all about the context (like everything else I speak of, context is everything!): are you appropriately professional to your role, base culture, and company?

There is a quote I use time and again by the late, esteemed Gerry Weinberg:

The name of the Thing is not the Thing. People often buy labels, not Products.

So I think we have two mainstream and overlapping viewpoints for defining a Professional:

  • Do they perform a role with all due skill, knowledge, and attention?
  • Do they look like they should be doing the job?

Out of the two, I categorically care about the first, and care very little about the second past a basic minimum! But it’s still very prevalent in some business that the second is at least as important, if not more so.

Thankfully, this latter part is changing. Offices are becoming more casual and acknowledging the presence and performance of individuals; culture is becoming less rigidly toxic. I don’t think anyone could accuse Gary Vaynerchuk of being unprofessional, for all he is often wearing jeans and t-shirt; likewise with many of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs – Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, et al.

But why does it persist elsewhere, especially in City and Finance? This goes back deeper into not changing structures because “that’s how it’s always been done” – traditional bureaucratic structures and hierarchical roles, where you look like power to associate with (and share) power. I’m not an advocate for “dressing for the job I want” to get it – I’d rather demonstrate I excel at it however I’m dressed. (If I dressed for the job I wanted, I’d probably be wearing a Batsuit).

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What do you mean, “not meeting appropriate”?

Professionalism is, then, as tribal as everything else, and as prone to hollowing to become the Label not the Product. So let’s talk about the REAL defining traits, not the superficial ones. 

What did Professionalism once mean?

Some vocations have always rightly been seen as professional – doctors or soldiers, for example. But in the public eye and popular media, certain professions have become more “professional” than others.

Think back to the mid 20th Century through to the late 70s, where professionalism as a term was very specifically used for sport, curiosities, or specific types of business. Professionalism was considered a rare thing, and men were very much at the fore of this; business was highly rigid and bureaucratic, polite, formal, requiring looking the part – although the strict starching and more formal attire descended from Victorian wedding dress has slowly faded, it leaves descendants in the forms of polished shoes, ties, three piece suits, and “casual” variations thereof.

This morphed from the 80s to the early 00s, where it became a little more generalised, and the number of people acknowledged as having professionalism exploded. The term became increasingly synonymous with sharp businessmen, often including being emotionless, utterly driven, super competitive in work, even inhuman if required; being utterly focused, machine-like, on the goal (this is the association I have with “hustle” which is why I don’t use the word!). A serious businessman was sharply dressed. A serious businesswoman was often seen as a ballbreaker. Dominance, aggression, doing the job at any cost. It often meant living to work (not working to live), giving extra free to the company, never stepping outside bounds, “the deal” being a driving factor. This wasn’t true everywhere, but enough to become parodied.

A lot of presentation became male-oriented and seen as “masculine-competitive” – cellphones, fast cars, sharp suits. Think of the scenes from Glengarry Glen Ross, American Psycho, Wolf of Wall Street:

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Yes, they’re extremes – but for a good reason. For a time, this was what certainly Hollywood saw professionalism as (as well as assassins, like Léon, above). But this era also began to acknowledge – depending on industry, leadership, and decade – that anyone very good at what they did might be considered a bona fide professional, and this attitude grew until the mid-00s. With the advent of Silicon Valley giants run by younger generations and the huge number of Millennials redefining business, a lot of these standards have relaxed or changed even in “City”, especially in tech – and leading industries do affect others, so the changes have spread.

So, looking at the slightly tongue-in-cheek examples above, we can see a vast change of values defining professionalism, from an almost formal politician-polite carrying out of corporate policy, through to profit at any cost, through to dynamic, young, new attitudes… through to today.

What are core professional traits to be mindful of?

Professionalism isn’t just about capability for me – it’s about mutual relationships. If you haven’t read my article on Chris’s Four Foundation of Sustainable Relationships (really need to think of a snappy name), have a look.

So with those four foundations in mind, let’s look at some conduct, aims, and qualities I think are fundamental to today’s professionalism:

Respect. Focus. Ethics. Due process. Proper conduct. Empathy. Collaboration. Understanding. Flexibility. Compromise. Acknowledging of reality. Demonstration of skill and knowledge relevant to the task. An ability to discuss and listen, and make considered decisions. A dedication to the best possible outcome, and completion of the job at hand. Reasonable punctuality. Investment in the project.

I’m sure you can think of more in the comments below. But what does all this really mean?

To me, it’s using tangible ability and knowledge to deliver VALUE in a culturally- and industry-appropriate fashion. That’s what the attitude is there to support, and I think it’s still very easy to fall into demanding a hollow construct of professionalism that looks good but doesn’t deliver; walk and talk are useless in lieu of results, and I know which I prefer. This is a well-known hallmark of more traditional management techniques in bureaucracies, and one reason that after extensive study of them I now work to change the fundamental belief system in business to a more human model, with a focus on value delivery and stakeholder investment.

Where we need to be careful is to STAY mindful of the core aspects, and not just assume them (Cobra Effect). Attitude can become like a mantra; a construct to emulate something demanded by business, not a quality to possess beneficially and mutually. We’ve all seen how a veneer of professionalism can supplant the actuality of it.

Professionalism needs to remain substance over style to retain meaning as we move forward.

Today’s professionalism

With the advent of places such as LinkedIn and instant communication, the attitude of the new younger generation – which is becoming the primary force in consumerism and workforce- and the bringing of human aspects back to business, spreading in part from the tech giants, some of the stiff formality in communication and appearance is melting. It’s possible to have friendly, relaxed conversation and work relationships which retain professionalism – and although I think in some ways the potential for miscommunication is higher, with it being perhaps a little easier to accidentally offend or misunderstand due to more relaxed boundaries, I believe it is also more forgiving and easier to re-communicate, and engage. The way we text, email, write, speak, meet has all drastically changed – but is no less professional. In fact, companies are beginning to realise they need to understand new professionalism, because they need to engage with totally different people now.

Given that we also now carry a personal identity and brand across interactions both business and otherwise, which is a hallmark of the Millennial generation, I think we have the possibility of forging better relationships and bonds than before with beneficial blurring of delineation between personal and business – keeping a professional distance, but utilising individual strengths to bolster this.

We have also acknowledged professional areas across wider swathes of industry than ever before; professional gamers, coaches, sportspeople, actors, salespeople, developers, musicians, executives, workers, photographers, even in incredibly specific areas such as art, curiosity, entertainment, YouTube, and countless more areas of Influence.

But still the definition applies: the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterise or mark a profession or a professional person that are usually pursued for gain (as a career path or for personal profit).

We are now in an era of more relaxed communication and presentation, of valuing the individual, and human sides of professional conduct – no longer strict machine-like interaction – but I believe the core aspects remain the same: ethics, working towards value delivery and using knowledge and ability to do this effectively.

Professionalism is now beginning to include equality, mindfulness, self-development, kindness, EQ and the affective side (not just the cognitive side), and a greater focus on compassion, collaboration, and fulfillment – an investment in what we do. This can only be a good thing, and we have the work of many, many great consultants and coaches I have connections to here, and thought leaders such as Brigette Hyacinth, Gary Vaynerchuk, Dave Snowden, and many others to thank for this. We’re ALL changing what professionalism means, and it’s become much more social, in line with growing realisation that business has always needed to be seen in terms of social complexity.

Individual hyper-competitiveness is now more seen as potentially destructive and less professional than collaboration. Working purely for profit and ignoring human problems and suffering – the “it’s just business” attitude – is fading out, to be replaced by care and empathy. “I’m the boss” and boss-mentality as a whole is being replaced by humble leadership, people who invest workers as stakeholders. The focus of professionalism is moving towards the value delivered, not the unthinking support of hierarchies, profit, and perception. That, to me, is welcome – and consummately professional.

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So what’s next?

I hope this has been an interesting exploration so far, with some food for thought.

As usual, this is designed to get us all questioning traditional patterns and consider how they fit into the rapidly-accelerating changing face of business, especially with the growing focus on people and individualism; thinking from another perspective. I’m sure there will be many different viewpoints depending on industry, age, experience, culture and more – please comment below, I’d love to hear your take on a subject that is both objective and subjective!

I think it’s good to be mindful of how changes are happening – look out for Part II, where I discuss what defines UNprofessionalism.

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