Book Review-Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know

The man born as Samuel Clemens but better known as Mark Twain has a famous quote: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Our certainty that we know how things work and what the right answers are gets us into far more trouble than the things that we don’t believe we know. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know seeks to encourage us to remain curious about the things that we do know and to learn how to relearn when things change. We all know the rate of change is increasing, and the ability to reconsider our truths is critical to our continued ability to survive and thrive.

Surviving a Fire

It was 1949 when a lightning-ignited fire was spotted in a remote part of Montana known as Mann Gulch. It was the policy at the time to extinguish any fire no matter whether it was a threat to human life and commercial property or not. Fifteen smokejumpers loaded into a single plane and were delivered to the fire. Smokejumpers are an elite group of purportedly fearless individuals considered firefighters at their core.

When the fire blew up and began chasing the smokejumpers, it may have been their identification with their profession that got thirteen of them killed. They ran up the slope to escape the fire with their heavy packs of tools. They might have looked at their retreat from the fire as a temporary setback instead of as a loss. They had never lost to fire, and it seems unlikely that they were willing to let that day be the day. They clung onto their tools in the belief that once they got to the top of the ridge, they could again take the offensive against the fire.

The leader of this group, Wagner Dodge, couldn’t give up his identity either but was willing to look at the problem differently. He knew he was being pursued by a big, out-of-control fire that he couldn’t compete with. However, he reasoned that he could create a small fire, burn out the fuel the larger fire needed in an area, and then survive by staying in that area as the larger fire passed him. He was right – and he was lucky. All save two other fearless heroes lost their lives in the fire.

The Meaning of Heat

In the mid-eighteenth century, every scientist seemed to subscribe to a theory of heat called the caloric theory. It suggested that it was an invisible fluid called caloric that was present in all matter. The amount of heat in an object was the result of this caloric fluid. The problems of the theory were many, from a lack of mass change when an object heated or cooled and the inconsistent heating of different kinds of matter to the lack of explanation for the heat generated by friction.

By the mid-nineteenth century, James Joule was able to validate the kinetic theory of heat proposed by Benjamin Thompson in the late eighteenth century. We now believe that heat is the result of atomic vibration – kinetic energy. The idea that heat was an invisible substance would seem laughable.

Around the World

Understanding the objects of the night sky was a source of fascination for centuries. We found patterns in the arrangement of the stars that surround us. We created constellations and elaborate stories of how the formation of stars came to be. As we sought to understand the motion of the heavenly bodies, there were two competing views from about 300 BC. One was geocentrism – that the Earth was the center of everything. With much less recognition was the idea that the Earth – and all the planets – circled the Sun. In Europe, it was a fact that the Sun and planets orbited Earth.

That was until 1514 when Copernicus published mathematical formulas of the movement of the planets. Only then did people seriously consider that the Earth might revolve around the Sun. Most dismissed Copernicus as a self-promotor or a crackpot until, in 1610, Galileo Galilei discovered moons around Jupiter, and he realized that Copernicus was right.

By 1616, there was an inquisition, and the Pope banned all materials related to the heliocentric model. By 1633, Galileo would be sentenced to prison for his refusal to adhere to the papal decrees regarding heliocentrism. His sentence was commuted to house arrest where he spent the rest of his days. It wouldn’t be until 1758 that the papal decree would be lifted, and we could officially recognize the order of the solar system as we understand it today.


In the world of computer databases, the language is still that transactions are atomic. That means they’re either completed together or not. It’s an important aspect of how to keep data integrity, but it exposes another place where our thinking has changed. Atomic used to mean indivisible. It wasn’t possible to break the atom down. It was as small as we could go. We know now that this is not true, as we’ve learned about quarks and even smaller particles called bosons that make up the Higgs field. Haven’t heard of them? You’re not alone. Nerds have heard about these experimental edges of science where it’s believed all objects get their mass, and thus their attraction to other matter, from.

What we seem to find is that the world is much more complex than we’d like to believe. Every time we believe we’ve got something nailed, we learn about a whole new world that had not yet been uncovered. Every time we uncover something new, we have to reevaluate all we know – and that can be very scary.

Fundamental Shifts

These examples represent fundamental shifts in thinking – and may explain why they take so long to eventually become accepted. There are a variety of cognitive biases (see Thinking, Fast and Slow, Superforecasting, and Sources of Power) and ego defense mechanisms (see Change or Die) that attempt to keep our current perspectives intact even in the face of irrefutable evidence that they’re wrong. The slow, defensive posture for protecting what we’ve worked so hard to learn is a reasonable thing in a world that changes very little. However, our world is far from unchanging.

In 1950, it took about 50 years for knowledge in medicine to double. By 1980, medical knowledge was doubling every 7 years. By 2010, it was doubling in half that time. What 70 years ago would take 50 years to double takes less than 10% of that today. Consider that it was 68 years for aircraft to get to 50 million users. It took Pokémon Go 19 days. In other words, we’re living in a world of change that is unlike anything in history. (See Focused, Fast, and Flexible for more.)

Cognitive Flexibility

Superforecasting explains that if we want to be good at forecasting, we must be willing to consider multiple perspectives. When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied eminent scientists, he concluded that it was their cognitive flexibility that separated them from their peers. (Csikszentmihalyi is more well known for his work on Flow.) They had bucked the trend of becoming locked into a single perspective and instead embraced multiple views as the situation required. Walt Whitman, in “Song of Myself” section 51, explains, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” He, like the eminent scientists that Csikszentmihalyi studied, wasn’t afraid of contradicting himself.

This willingness to be cognitively flexible may combat one of the most challenging aspects of knowledge. The more we know, the more resolute we become about what we know. Instead of discovering what we don’t know, we turn inward to protect what we do know. In so doing, our convictions lock us in prisons of our own making.

Confidence and Humility

The Dunning-Kruger effect is the name given to why those that know the least about a topic are the most willing to believe in the importance of their knowledge and their command of the topic. Grant draws a graph with “Mount Stupid” – the place where we’re most likely to be subjected to the Dunning-Kruger effect and therefore comment upon our intelligence while exposing our ignorance. At some point, we discover we don’t know as much as we think we did on a topic, and we suddenly fall silent, aghast at what we don’t know.

What we’ve come to learn is that our confidence isn’t solely a measure of the validity of our words. While great leaders can be both humble and confident, it’s a difficult place to reach. It’s too easy to believe that humility is about thinking less of yourself, but my friend Ben says it’s not about thinking less of yourself but rather thinking about yourself less. Humilitas says that humility is “power held in service of others.” I like that, because it makes it difficult to believe that we could possibly confuse self-deprecation and humility. Jim Collins in Good to Great describes this as the Stockdale Paradox. It’s unwavering faith and relentless reexamination.

The Joy of Being Wrong

It’s always a tense moment. It’s the moment when, sitting in the audience, you know the presenter missed something. It can be that they missed something small or something important. It’s tense, because every fiber of your being is at war with itself. You wonder whether you should tell them – privately, quietly, respectfully – or whether you should ignore it. If you ignore it, you deprive them of the opportunity to learn and to be better. You also protect yourself from learning that perhaps you’re not right.

The problem is some people take great offense at even the slightest hint that they may have made an error, a mistake, or an omission. Their response can be direct and abrupt. At least this response allows you to learn what they really believe. Their response can be silent or sullen. It’s rare to encounter someone who says that they appreciate the feedback or that they need to further consider the point – and it’s a mark of excellence.

Grant shares a story about Daniel Kahneman being in the audience while he presented data that contradicted Kahneman’s beliefs and the resulting exchange afterwards. Danny was thrilled. He, wisely, recognized that being wrong is necessary, and it’s when people point out that he is wrong that he has the greatest opportunity to learn. Danny says, “My attachment to my ideas is provisional.” He embodies the perspective we all need to take to survive in our changing world to look for ways to change our opinion and work with the best and most recent facts we have.

The Need for Conflict

We want to believe that it’s possible to consistently get it right on the first attempt. We hear success stories where people seem to have stumbled across the right idea immediately. Brene Brown would say that we’ve gold-plated grit. (See Rising Strong.) We somehow missed the missteps, struggles, and challenges that made the path more winding, dangerous, and uncertain as the retrospective might seem to imply.

In our quest to remove the pain from others’ lives, we often forget that conflict and struggle are essential for everyone’s growth. Baby sea turtles must struggle to find their way to the ocean to calibrate their internal sense of direction. Chicks must break from their shell on their own to understand how to struggle and succeed. That’s why The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable is so tragic. While thinking they’re doing what is best for their children, parents are harming them.

An African proverb says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” (The Titleless Leader is the source of this reference.) When we’re working with others, there is bound to be conflict. They’ll see things differently or have different values. However, these differences in perspective allow us to become better – to rethink our perspectives – and to develop clarity.

The key challenge with conflict is not the conflict itself. It’s when the conflict is not managed well. Poorly managed conflict leads to hurt feelings and broken relationships. Having had these experiences, many of us fear the poor outcomes from conflict. When we learn to manage conflicts well – and we interact with others who manage conflict well – we can find conflict rewarding rather than debilitating.

A Weak Argument Dilutes a Strong One

When trying to win over another to a new way of thinking, we often load both barrels of our gun and give them everything. The problem with this approach is that it generates resistance. (See Motivational Interviewing for a better approach.) However, it also means that we’re loading up every argument regardless of its strength. The problem with this is that the overall strength of the argument is weakened by weaker points.

Instead of arguments adding to one another, they average each other. Because of this, focusing only on the strongest of the arguments for change gives you a better chance of success.

Persuading the Unpersuadable

Humans have a natural aversion to being persuaded. The moment I detect that you’re trying to persuade me, I’ll start the process of digging in my heals. That’s another reason why multiple arguments may be challenging. It triggers awareness of an attempt at persuasion and thus a reluctance to proceed.

Once this switch, has been tripped it may be that the person becomes unpersuadable. It can be that people are so firmly entrenched in their beliefs that they won’t change their mind no matter what evidence is provided. An important question to ask is “What evidence would change your mind?” If the answer to this is nothing, then there is no point in continuing.

The Greatest Hostility

One of the paradoxical things that happens in any sort of persuasion resistance is that we most violently defend those things which we know deep down aren’t true. We’ve got a natural tendency to defend our positions, but the ones that make us angry are those that we know are the most true. This creates a challenge.

Those people who are defending their beliefs the most vigorously are the same ones who deep-down know the truth. Somewhere along the line, they may have had someone try to convince them that they were wrong, but those people failed – and now the belief became stronger.

So, the internal conflict exists between a deep-seated knowledge that they are wrong and the need to protect themselves from further attempts at persuasion. This is one of the reasons why getting change initiative success is so hard once the organization has failed a few times.

Craving Certainty

As humans, we’re prediction machines, and we want certainty. We want to know that our predictions will come to pass. We don’t like the possibility of error or the chance of catastrophe. There’s always an internal pull that drags us from the understanding that the world is probabilistic rather than certain. (See The Halo Effect.) We know instinctively that nothing in life is certain – except “death and taxes,” as the saying goes. Despite this, we delude ourselves into believing that there are certainties. The certainties make us feel better about our world and reduce our fears. (See Change or Die for more on this phenomenon.)

It’s one of the reasons why when people appear to exude confidence, we’ll follow them more readily. We’d rather listen to “the sage on the stage” than someone who is aware of the limitations of their knowledge. We don’t often reward curiosity. We look at it as a reason to not be certain – and we don’t want that.

When to Commit and When to Think Again

The greatest challenges in life is the Stockdale Paradox. It’s learning when to commit to a course of action and learning when it’s time to Think Again.

Book Review-Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations

How do we get productive work out of a group of people? Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations seeks to answer this complex question. Instead of focusing on the big picture corporate strategy like Strategic Management, which seeks to organize the big picture of the organization, Team Genius seeks to focus on the level that work gets done. Like Richard Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence, the focus is on the way that small teams get work done. But unlike Hackman, Team Genius starts with having the right number of people.

Dunbar and the Numbers

The size of the team matters. Too small, and you can’t get enough done. While Range talks about the value of a generalist capable of doing many things and filling gaps, at some level, there are times when you just need sheer numbers of people. Conversely, when the “team” is too large, it descends into a lack of trust and bureaucracy that eats all the performance. That’s where the work of Robin Dunbar comes in. Dunbar is an anthropologist who studied the size of stable social relationships in primates and came up with the correlation between neocortex size and the number of relationships.

I first spoke of Dunbar’s work in my post High Orbit – Respecting Grieving. While often simplified to a single number, his work includes different rings of orbit around us, from our closest friends (3-5) and our friends and family (12-15) to our camping group (50) and the number of social relationships (150). Even these numbers are simplifications – but they’re good enough.

David Snowden, of Cynefin fame, is quoted as describing the latest number as “the number of identities that you can maintain in your head with some degree of acquaintances that an individual can maintain. It does not necessarily imply that you trust them, but it does mean that you can know something about them and their basic capabilities. In other words, you can manage your expectations of their performance and abilities in different contexts and environments.”


Because of Dunbar’s work, we can say that evolution is tied to our ability to manage social relationships. Whether it’s the need for social relationships that drove the size of the neocortex or vice-versa doesn’t matter. What we know is that there is a relationship. We also know some of what binds us together in groups.

Our rituals – and particularly our rhythmic movement, often to music – help us bind ourselves into like groups. We believe that we’re in the same group, because we’ve moved together in unison. This is one of the many points that Robert Cialdini makes in Pre-Suasion. While our evolutionary clocks are wired for connection and techniques to make those connections, our technology is busily spinning out of control.

Shery Turkle points out in Alone Together that we’re subjecting ourselves to new patterns of electronic interaction that we’ve never had and the rate at which it’s happening has never before been seen. Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone and Our Kids describes the kinds of shifts that we’re seeing as a society in part because of these technological changes. While these changes may disrupt our patterns, our thinking, and our evolution, they do give us new and better ways of collaborating if we can find them.


It’s an odd word designed to capture the struggle of the internal entrepreneur. Entrepreneur literally means “risk bearer.” (See Originals.) The risk to an internal employee isn’t necessarily financial ruin. It may, however, be loss of job, which may feel like the same thing.

Organizations must take care in their formation of teams to combat the natural resistance to risk taking and push every team to take appropriate risks. Chris Argyris in Organizational Traps speaks about the dangers of a lack of risk-taking including both the financial performance implications as well as the implications for team dynamics.

Tall Poppies

It’s an Australian reference. Tall poppies—those people who “get above themselves” – should be cut down to size. It’s also the idea that when people get outside the norm, when they distort or disrupt the whole, they should be cut down to protect the whole. Few organizations that I’ve ever been connected with have openly stated this as an operating philosophy while silently engaging in these behaviors.

Rebels at Work is open about the need to be a rebel. Radical Candor is similarly provocative inside its pages without using the word “rebel” (anywhere in its pages). However, Radical Candor does create clarity about how to be disruptive in your thinking, to step from the norm, while building healthy relationships.

My own experience is that there’s a tension created when someone offers a dissenting perspective. That tension can’t be too great, or the person will be cut down – eventually, if not in the moment. The degree to which someone can create and sustain this tension is based largely on the degree of trust they’ve developed with their team and in the organization.

Staying in the Shadows

Some of the teams that Team Genius speaks of aren’t what we think about when we think of a team. In many cases, the team is two people that work together to be productive, and some of those relationships are very asymmetric. Consider the leader and their executive assistant. The leader is the one who receives all the credit – financially and non-financially. The executive assistant may be just as critical as a pair of glasses, but dismissed almost as easily.

The truth is that, in these relationships, one person stays in the shadows – a place they may be perfectly content with. When you look carefully at great leaders, you often find that they have at least one if not more people behind them, supporting them and making them more successful than they could be on their own.

Smarter Together

Iron sharpens iron. Some teams are places where people can develop their own skills to contribute to the team or become better for what comes next for them. At their best, teams not only make people smarter while they’re in the team, but they leave the individuals with a residual positive outcome that stays with them.

Diversity Matters

When you speak with most folks about diversity, they see it as the first part in a diversity, equity, and inclusion department or program. However, when most biologists, sociologists, and psychologists speak of diversity, they’re not speaking about gender, race, or sexual orientation. They’re talking about who people react, respond, and process the world around them. The Difference makes the point that having a diverse group doesn’t mean representing various tangible groups based on protected classes. Instead, it’s about finding people that think different (à la Apple’s old advertising campaigns).

The truth is that the best collaborations – those that win Nobel prizes – are about interdisciplinary collaborations that bring together two or more different views of a problem and meshes them together into a finely tuned machine that explains the workings of the problem and creates opportunities for solutions. When we’re looking to form our team, the worst thing we can do is stock it with people who agree with each other on everything.

A Word on Conflict

Team Genius doesn’t dedicate any time to conflicts, but it’s such a critical aspect of team formation and operation that I felt the need to interject it into this review. First, it’s important to recognize that conflict is essential for team productivity. The problem is most people perceive conflict as a negative. The most poignant memories they have of conflicts are those that are handled poorly. However, there are plenty of examples in nature of how we need struggle (and thus conflict) to allow us to succeed. In adult learning, it’s called desirable difficulty. (See The Adult Learner and Efficiency in Learning.)

When you’re designing your team, I’d encourage you to design in a bit of appropriate conflict through differences in perspective and values.

The Need for Lead(ership)

A famous quote from Top Gun is, “I feel the need… the need for speed.” Teams need a sense of urgency – a need for speed. However, perhaps more importantly they have a need for leadership. They need to have the gentle guiding and that keeps them on track to the objective and ensures that the conflicts are appropriately managed.

Types of Tasks

Group productivity, according to Ivan Steiner, is the potential productivity minus the process losses. He believed that the process losses differed based on the type of task. He broke the types of tasks into three categories:

  • Component – The degree to which the broader goal can be broken into component parts.
  • Focus – The direction of the effort.
  • Interdependent – The degree to which individual contributions are interrelated.

The types of tasks are:

  • Additive – The output of every member is more or less directly added, as in tug-of-war.
  • Disjunctive – The entire team is solving a single problem that does not require the special skills of every member. As a result, the team performs at the level of the most competent member.
  • Conjunctive – All members are required to solve a single problem but where each member must contribute. As a result, the team performs at the level of the least competent member.
  • Compensatory – All members can help to compensate for one another. As a result, the team performs at the average performance of the members.
  • Discretionary – Tasks that individual members decide to integrate into the whole. Here the performance is based on the ability of the members to add their work to the whole.
  • Configural – A mixture of the preceding.

It’s important to note that Hackman substantially extended Ivan Steiner’s work including criteria for being a real team and lenses for measuring team efficacy. (See Collaborative Intelligence.)

Pairs and Their Types

Team Genius outlines several different kinds of teams:

  • Got Your Six – These short-lived teams protect one another.
  • The Magic Moment – These are teams formed by a magic moment where their talents are helpful to one another.
  • Chained Together by Success – These teams are successful together but unsuccessful apart, and though they may not like each other believe they need each other to succeed.
  • Here and There – Geographically distributed teams that work together to extend their collective reach geographically and intellectually.
  • Together, We’re More Than Two – Pairs created because both can be more successful together than apart.
  • Castor and Pollux – Perfect pairings where the two members can take on each other’s duties. Perhaps the rarest of pairings.
  • Lifeboats – Pairings where one or both are trying to rescue the other.
  • Yin and Yang – Two complementary skills coming together to form a competitive force.
  • The Artist and the Angel – Investment partnerships where one has resources and the other has the idea and drive.
  • Counterweights – Character and personality trait opposites that tend to provide counterweight to balance both out.
    • Inside/Outside – One member is focused outward and the other inward.
      • Finder and Grinder – One member finds new business and the other services that business.
      • Pitcher and Fielder – One member works on short term concerns and the other works on longer term opportunities.
      • Explorer and Navigator – One member driving towards a goal and the second one ensuring alignment.
  • Remember the Force – Unequal pairings of mentor and mentee.
  • The Distant Idol – An individual following another person who is inaccessible or even dead.
  • The Sword and the Shield – A protection pair (like Got Your Six) where one member is weaker.

Trios and their Types

There are also several forms of trios that are identified as well:

  • 2+1 – This is a pair with one additional member that is less essential.
  • Parallel – Two pairs sharing a common member.
  • Serial – Shared pairings that are separated in time.
  • Instrumental – Carefully designed roles working on a defined task.

Friendly But Not Friends

Perhaps the most telling statement from Team Genius is that many of the people who were involved in a team – even a wildly popular team – were friendly but not friends. Maybe the secret to creating high performance teams isn’t in getting everyone to be friends. Maybe being friendly but not friends is how you create Team Genius.

Book Review-Images of Organization

Subtly, under our conscious thought, we have models for organizations. The way that we see the organization colors how we interact with it and shapes our thinking. In Images of Organization, Gareth Morgan exposes the different kinds of models that people use for organization and their implications – both positive and negative.

All Models Are Wrong

George Box, a famous statistician, said, “All models are wrong. Some are useful.” Morgan clarifies that all models are useful in some ways and unhelpful in others. Metaphors allow us to process complex ideas and situations, but in doing so, they obscure and hide aspects that may be relevant. They can also distort our view of the organization in ways that can cause us to operate ineffectively with them.

It’s not that we should stop using models of organizations but rather we should understand the limits of the model and should be willing to change models when the distortions exceed the value generated by the model.

The Mechanical Model

Perhaps the oldest and most prevalent model of organizations is that of a machine. Fredrick Taylor and scientific management is the epitome of this model. People are but cogs in a giant machine. Even successful adaptations of this model, like the ones used in the Toyota Production System, treat humans as an extension of the great machine. (See Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management for more.) The tradition goes back to Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations. Specialization, compartmentalization, and deskilling are the name of the game.


Henry Ford may have revolutionized production with the assembly line, but his 380% annual turnover did nothing for the bottom line. It wasn’t until he offered his famous $5 a day wages that he was able to get his turnover under control. It was perhaps the first time that golden handcuffs became used. People stopped quitting, because though they didn’t enjoy the repetitive nature of the work, they were getting paid handsomely for doing it.

One of the persistent criticisms of the assembly line is the deskilling of the workforce. It was easy enough to train the “farm boys” to work the assembly line, because not much training was needed. By focusing on a single tiny role, the training was minimal. The result was that instead of craftsmen, the factory was filled with people who only knew their one small part of the broader picture.


Work in a machine model is also dehumanizing. People don’t get the chance to interact with others and build the kind of relationships that they used to form when they were working together in a small village as craftsmen and community members. The research at the Hawthorne Works was noticeably disturbed by the desire of the test subjects to have more control of their work and to talk amongst themselves as they worked. (See Management and the Worker for more.)


When you view the organization as a machine, you look for ways to optimize the machine. Instead of optimizing the individual pieces or departments, organizations shifted to a view of the processes. The flows that added value to the organization were optimized, thereby addressing gaps and challenges among the various pieces and departments of the organization.

Despite some successes and a lot of fanfare, reengineering often failed to produce the value that it promised. To be sure, there were efficiencies to be gained by addressing the handoffs and the overall experience, but they still paled in comparison to the promises. Often, this was because people didn’t want to work that way.

Underestimating People

Perhaps the greatest challenge with the mechanistic view of organizations is that they underestimate the richness of the human experience. Humans are not simple cogs in a big machine but are instead complicated by their values, emotions, and aspirations. Failing to account for this has often resulted in a failure of the organization.

Working to the rules should be a good thing. If the organization and the bureaucracy are set up correctly, then working to the rules should make everything more efficient. That is, unless you’re a British railway worker. When the union wants to apply pressure to the company, they don’t do so by creating a strike or a work stoppage. Instead, they apply a “work to rule” approach. The system grinds to a halt as the workers stop providing the workarounds that have kept things functioning.

Taiichi Ohno and his mentors had it right. Humans are naturally more adaptable and capable of solving problems than the machine metaphor gives them credit for. Organizations are substantially more complex than even some of our most complex machines. A failure to realize the complexity of an organization necessarily strains the model of a machine.

Good and Bad

The machine model is good in that it allows for standardization, à la Michael Gerber in The E-Myth Revisited and in the case of franchise systems. It’s bad in that it can lead people to accept the standard number of errors, levels of inefficiency, and general slack that they may not need. In the end, it’s the lack of human spirit that brought down communism that can be found in organizations that operate like machines.

Organizations as Organisms

If machines aren’t complex enough, then perhaps we can think of organizations with all of the complexity of an organism. Instead of the clean lines of a gear, perhaps organizations are more akin to the flowing lines of cells as they work together?

Systems Theory

Morgan’s perspective is that systems theory, which originated out of MIT, is really thinking about systems as organisms. While there are some similarities, Donella Meadows in Thinking in Systems: A Primer provides a different dimension to the perspective. As Kurt Lewin commented, it’s one thing to observe an organism or a system but it’s quite a different thing to change it. (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality and Principles of Topological Psychology for Lewin’s work.)


Organisms are boxes inside of boxes. You can think about an organism as one level – say systems of a body – which contains other components. Systems, for instance, contain organs. Organs contain cells. Cells contain proteins. The way that these components are broken into component parts is its own paradigm, and therefore the way that we deconstruct the organization as an organism influences the way that we think about it.

However, as Gary Klein explains in Sources of Power, our ability to make progressive levels of abstraction in our models gives us the power to simulate very complex things with our quite limited brainpower. It’s only when there are emergent properties that we don’t expect or when our model doesn’t include all the variables that we run into trouble.

There’s a whole discipline around optimal organization and breakdown of information that can inform the way that we navigate into deeper and deeper levels of understanding. (See Intertwingled and Pervasive Information Architecture for more on this.)


One of the other benefits of considering organizations as organisms is the opportunity to view some aspects of the organization as ad hoc and temporary. Adhocracy is the tendency for an organism to create temporary –ad hoc – structures that are often replaced with other, more permanent, structures. Consider baby teeth and permanent teeth. One gives way to the other.

It can also be said that one metaphor of an organization can give way to another, like moving from the idea of the organization as a whole organism to the organization being only the brain.

Organizations as Brains

The human brain is an amazing, if not well understood, thing. Its power to shift time, perceive others, and create is amazing. It’s no wonder that one metaphor for organizations is that they’re a powerful brain seeking to coordinate various parts of the world to their will and transform the environment into what they desire. Considering how little we actually know about brains, it’s a bit of a stretch to compare organizations to them, but compare we do.


One thing we do know about brains is that thoughts and functions aren’t completely isolated to one tiny area of the brain. While we know there are processing centers that typically process different kinds of signals, our research of those with brain defects has led us to the amazing ways that our brain can adapt. We also know that there’s no one area of the brain that encodes memories. Instead, memories seem to be the result of coordinated activity from multiple neurons. Studies of rats taught to run a maze are remarkably resilient to substantial quantities of brain tissue being removed.

It’s sort of like holography – or the creation of holograms. They’re created throughout the substance, not just in one small area. As a result, there’s no one place to remove a hologram. Instead, as more and more of the material is removed, the image retains less and less clarity.

Organizations often exhibit this extraordinary behavior as well, resisting changes even as more and more of the organization becomes changed.

Bounded Rationality

We’ve learned that humans aren’t rational creatures, they’re rationalizing creatures. Even when we’re rational, we’re only rational to a point. We’re rational with the information that we have; however, it can be that our decisions make no sense when viewed from a broader perspective. Herbert Simon was fascinated with the need for information to make decisions and the reality that, in most cases, the information acquisition wasn’t worth the improved decisions. He suggested that we mostly satisfice ourselves with good enough rather than objective completeness. (See The Paradox of Choice for more.)

By satisficing rather than maximizing, we make decisions based on the information we have and our considerations that we can’t or don’t want to accept the costs of acquiring more information.

Defensive Routines

In my review of Dialogue, I explained how we settle into routines. We mindlessly respond or respond in defensive ways that aren’t appropriate to the situation. One of the challenges of viewing an organization as a brain is that it should then follow the same unhelpful routines as well as those routines that are helpful, and that makes it subject to defensive routines.

We’ve all seen organizations recoil at the idea of change, ignoring it until it can no longer be ignored and then fighting back against it as if there’s an option to prevent it. Consider the case of Blockbuster: they were mired in the idea that they rented video cassettes and DVDs instead of thinking about how they could deliver the best entertainment experience to the customer. They were locked into the revenue source of late fees, and as a result they lost their core business to Netflix. As the market transitioned to internet based video streaming, they couldn’t recover.

Defensive routines may serve to protect us at times, but other times, they close us off from learning and growth.

Organizations as Cultures

There are organizational cultures – the way that the organization behaves – and there are the cultures that exist around the organization. For multinational organizations, they’ll necessarily confront multiple environmental cultures with organizations that have multiple locations experiencing the same phenomenon to a lesser degree. What’s more interesting is to understand how cultures behave, how those patterns of behavior interact and continue to create ever more intricate patterns.

Work and Service

Many rice farmers lived at a subsistence level. That is, they were barely surviving. Around this developed a culture of mutual support. It’s the same kind of community that you find in Amish cultures in the United States – everyone helps one another for the common good. Samurai were protectors, but also they were servants. They depended on those they protected to provide them with the essentials they needed like food to survive.

This describes a culture built on hard work, mutual cooperation, and service. This picture could equally apply to an organization focused on the same values and patterns of behavior.

Legends and Lore

One of the ways that cultures are formed is around legends and lore. Every large organization abounds with stories how the founders and leaders clearly communicated values. Whether it’s Bill Hewlett (of Hewlett-Packard) chopping a padlock off a supply closet and leaving a note or some of the antics of Steve Jobs or Steve Balmer, the message is a clear expression of the core values and therefore culture of the organization.

Viewing the organization as a culture allows you to focus on the big picture values that drive many downstream behaviors – behaviors that the book Change the Culture, Change the Game explains you can’t control anyway.

Resistance to Change

There will always be resistance to change. Resistance can be conflict and therefore a difference of perspective and values, or, more frequently, it’s simply a result of the grief that comes from the sense of loss associated with the change. However, resistance to change need not become dysfunctional. A degree of resistance – a struggle for healthy understanding and alignment – is appropriate. It’s only when the resistance becomes calcified and resistant to efforts to move forward that resistance becomes a problem in change.

Attempts to move past resistance and move forward without properly addressing the resistance itself can result in a variety of resistant behaviors that collectively look like sabotage. They may be as simple as an internal value that is in conflict with the requested change (see Immunity to Change), or there may be a legitimate sabotage as a result of a lack of respect or vengeance on the part of those being changed.

Organizations as Political Systems

Organizations can also be viewed as political systems filled with conflict and power struggles. Before delving into the specific aspects that viewing the organization as a political system brings to the surface, we must first strip political systems of their contemporary baggage.

Greek Politics

Going back to the way that the Greeks saw political systems helps us to strip the idea of a political system of the baggage that it’s developed as we see politicking at its worst. If we rewind the clock, we find that we have the option of a dictatorship or a democracy. As Winston Churchill put it, “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…” In short, democracy – and the required politicking – is bad, but it beats the alternative.

When we view organizations as political systems, we’re not accepting that they’re perfect but rather that they are the best way of organizing people towards a common objective. Without some sort of mechanism to coordinate people, there would be chaos. Politicking is the fuel that the democratic engine runs on.

Politics Are Not a Side Effect

Edward Deming said, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” When we look at organizations and the politics, it’s easy to discount them as some unintended side effect. However, as you look more deeply, you realize that it’s the system of politics that allows ideas to be evaluated by multiple people and in multiple lenses. It’s the system of politics that can inform better decisions at its best. At its worst, it devolves into a network of quid pro quo trades. (See Personality Types for more about good and bad in each approach.)

Politicking is therefore the fuel upon which democracy runs. It’s the way that ideas are evaluated and there by performs an essential function for democracy – or the variation of democracy that exists inside of an organization, which might be better described as an oligocracy. An oligocracy is rule by the few. Otherwise, democracies and oligocracies are similar – the only question is the scale of those involved in making the decisions.


It’s natural for there to be conflict inside of any organization of people. Viewing organizations as political systems elevates awareness of the function of conflict in organizations – in a positive way. I’ve studied conflict for a long time and landed on an awareness that all conflicts are caused by only two causes: a difference in perspectives or a difference in values.

Organizations as Psychic Prisons

The idea originated with Plato’s The Republic. We’re trapped in our cultures. The words and rituals of daily life structure the prison for us. We only see the reflections of what is around the corner. The self-insulating properties of the organization create the possibility that it may become the prison that contains us.

Fredrick Taylor’s work and the scientific management movement that he spawned was preoccupied with the idea of control. If you can control the workers, then you need not worry about how they may be seeking to sabotage or get back at you. Ironically, Taylor was reported to have suffered from fearful nightmares and insomnia. Perhaps his desire to control others was about his unsuccessful desire to control his own thoughts and fears.

Our fears, more than anything else, keep us prisoner. Nothing is more pervasive than the fear of death and the twin fear of irrelevance. (See The Worm at the Core for more.) However, humans are filled with other fears, so much so that we’ve developed a long list of psychic defenses. (See Change or Die for more.) These defenses are sometimes quite adaptive and functional but suffer from the real possibility to degenerating into maladaptive behaviors. These maladaptive behaviors keep us trapped into the very situation that initiated the cycle of maladaptation.

Organizations as Flux and Transformation

The stability of an organization is an illusion. People join. People leave. New policies are created. The environment changes around the organization. Organizations by their nature and by the nature of their environment are always changing. They’re always adapting to new internal and external realities. Instead of being poured in concrete, they bend with steel. David Bohm explained the transformation process by which an acorn becomes an oak tree as an aperture. (See On Dialogue.) No one would argue that the acorn is an oak tree nor an oak tree an acorn. However, no one could deny that the acorn can become a tree over time with the right environment and the passage of time.

From this view, organizations are just their current state, and they’re always in a state of flux and transition. They’re the lines surrounding Lorenz’s attractors as they simultaneously capture a particle and cause it to trace ever-varied patterns around the attractors. There is, at the same time, change, flux and transition, and a relative stability. From the outside, it looks like a stable pattern. It looks like it’s constant – but when you look more deeply, you see the variation and change. It’s like fractals where there are seemingly infinite variations on patterns as you look deeper and deeper. (See Fractal Along the Edges.)

Here, the view of systems iterating endlessly in their variations gives you the feeling that organizations are subject to predictable patterns of behavior when they encounter a force. (See Thinking in Systems for more on systems thinking.) When you take a gyroscope and apply a force to it, the resulting force comes out as a force translated 90 degrees in the direction of rotation. This is predictable, but it’s also the result of the rotational energy in the gyroscope. When the energy is gone, the translation no longer occurs.

The complex interactions between the systems in an organization are infinitely harder to predict in detail but in general they settle into patterns. The result is a way of seeing the organization that is both dynamic and stable at the same time.

Organizations as Instruments of Domination

It was Karl Marx that demonized capitalism and its army of organizations as being oppressive to the masses. Organizations were seen as the instruments that were being used to keep the masses down. We’ve seen the failure of communism in places like the USSR and recognize that Marx’s approach has its own limitations. We formed unions to protect the employee from the organization. We developed labor laws to prevent organizations from executing their dominion over workers. Still, maintaining the balance between the return on investment from the owners and the value of the labor is difficult. (See Human Capital.)

We need these safeguards, because it is possible for organizations to lose their respect for human life and the worker. The unethical decision to pay compensation for accidents instead of addressing the core problems, because addressing the core problems that cause the accidents are perceived to be more difficult or too costly, is a reality in some organizations. It was Paul O’Neill who transformed Alcoa to a safety culture, because it was the right thing to do – whether or not it was cost effective. (See The Power of Habit for more on this story.)

Capital in the Twenty-First Century speaks at length about income inequality and how to try to minimize it. We continue perceive income inequality as a serious social issue. There are reasons to believe that it’s poor organizations that keep the income inequality in place. As such, it makes sense to view them as instruments of domination.


Perhaps the greatest learning from Images of Organization wasn’t a specific view of the organization but instead was the idea that we need multiple views of the organization to support our understanding. I’d encourage you to take a look to see what are your Images of Organization.

Book Review-Quiet Leadership

There are a lot of noisy leaders in our world today. There are too few people who have the courage and desire to demonstrate Quiet Leadership. The book is interesting, because, ostensibly, it’s introducing you to a six-step process for transforming performance. However, I found that it was hard to hold a line through the book and follow a straightforward path. Each step was clearly marked, but the path to the step and why it’s important was at times difficult to discern.

Lofty Goal

To be clear the idea that you’d be able to have someone read a book and through the reading suddenly be transformed in their performance into a more powerful leader is a good one. It’s the basic framework for any leadership book. The author says, “Follow my path to success.” The problem with this is that the author rarely followed the path they lay out themselves, and even if they did, they don’t describe the individual steps with sufficient clarity that they can be followed.

David Rock makes solid points in Quiet Leadership, but in the end the points feel more disjointed than a straight line down a path. So, this book is less likely to be a map and is more useful as a tip guide that shows you a few interesting points without necessarily transporting you to the destination.

The Business of Change – 1970s Style

If you’re a manager of the 1970s era, you were taught that employees needed to be managed. They would take advantage of the organization in any way possible, and your job as a manager was to prevent this from happening. The basic tension had existed for almost as long as organizations. Management and the Worker explains how it impacted the Hawthorne Works in the 1920s and 1930s.

More recent thinking and writing about management, including the works of Robert Greenleaf in Servant Leadership and Fredrick LaLoux in Reinventing Organizations, suggests a different view, one that focuses on how to unleash the power of employees. That’s the opening quote by Richard Florida from The Rise of the Creative Class: “People don’t need to be managed, they need to be unleashed.”

This is just one of many changes that would have the 1970s manager feeling as if they were on a foreign planet if they were to try to manage an organization today. It’s like The Planet of the Apes. The place is the same, but the rules are different. More importantly, the rate of change is so high that the 1970s manager wouldn’t be able to cope.


“Prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the primary function of the neocortex, and the foundation of intelligence,” says Jeff Hawkins. Think about that for a moment. Of all the wonderful things that a brain can do, it’s prediction that’s at the core. Jonathan Haidt said something similar in The Righteous Mind. It was our ability to have a theory of mind – a prediction about what others were thinking – that allowed us to work together and to conquer the planet. Mindreading seems like a parlor trick until you realize that it’s a game of attempting to predict what others are thinking.

One of the key problems with our predictions is that they’re subject to numerous biases, as pointed out in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Simple things like the anchoring effect, described in Superforecasting and How to Measure Anything, cause us to fail to correct our predictions sufficiently in the face of new evidence – and this can be catastrophic. (See The Signal and the Noise for the statistical approach to revision in the form of Bayes Theorem – which is the basis of machine learning.)

Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Josh Waitzkin was a chess wiz and the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, and he’s also an accomplished martial artist. However, he believes that his greatest skill is in learning. In The Art of Learning, he explains how he does it. The answer in short is, “My instinct is not to avoid the discomfort but to become at peace with it.” What discomfort? All discomfort.

For my son, I used to play Pokémon. I lost a lot. The national competition was in town, and I’d lose over and over again in random matches because I didn’t really understand the game. It sucks to lose so frequently, but at the same time, I could do it, because the real goal wasn’t winning the game. The real goal was to find a way to connect with my son. Over time, we’d do local and regional tournaments, and I got better – but never competitive in either sense of the word.

I had to get comfortable losing every match. I had to accept that I’d lose again and again if I wanted to be able to converse with my son. He and I got relatively matched in our skills and in the ways that we had our decks configured. It became a way that we could connect. (Read Comfortably Uncomfortable for more examples on being comfortable being uncomfortable.)

The truth is that we need struggle as humans. Even in the animal kingdom, there’s a need for discomfort. I mentioned in my post The Psychology of Recognizing and Rewarding Children and my review of The Book of Joy that helping sea turtles find the ocean dooms them, as they need the struggle to establish their orientation system. Baby chicks similarly need to escape their shells themselves or be doomed. In learning, it’s called desirable difficulty. (See How We Learn.) It can even be heroic.

When Joseph Campbell discovered the Hero’s Journey, he wasn’t expecting it. He didn’t expect that the formation of a hero in lore would follow a predictable 12-step pattern. (See The Hero with a Thousand Faces for more.) What’s most interesting about the journey is that we invariably discover the weaknesses of the hero, including the external and internal struggles. Even heroes, it seems, must struggle before they can become who they need to be.

Quiet Leadership says, “A big chunk of the world’s economy is built around reducing discomfort.” That’s a good thing if it’s directed towards our material needs and safety. We’ve learned to prepare and preserve food to reduce the burden of finding and cooking it. However, when the discomfort that we’re avoiding leads to ultimately unhelpful approaches that lead to addiction, we’re creating our own problems. (See Dreamland for more.)

Quiet leaders are not uncomfortable making other people appropriately uncomfortable. If it’s necessary for people to be concerned, upset, or angry, they’re willing to enter that space. It’s not conflict for the sake of conflict but conflict for the sake of everyone’s betterment.

Getting Personal – Changing Thinking

There’s probably nothing more personal than trying to change someone else’s thinking. Our consciousness is how we define ourselves, and changing our thinking therefore changes us… and that’s dangerous territory. When we implement change in organizations, we’re changing people’s behaviors and hopefully their thinking. (See Change the Culture, Change the Game for more.)

If you want to change your thinking, maybe it’s time to read Quiet Leadership.

Book Review-Human Capital

These days it’s relatively common to hear employees described as “human capital.” However, that wasn’t always the case. The term began to become popular in 1964 with the publishing of Human Capital, the work of Gary Becker. Before that, capital was limited to the things that could be accounted for in the accounting system. As it became clearer that not all increases in company performance could be accounted for through the allocation of capital in the form of machines and plants, the return on investing in people became more interesting.

Human Return on Investment

It started as a study to understand the return on investment for college students. Would they recoup their investments in college as they went through their lives and careers? The answer, it turns out, is yes. The short version is that college educations is – on average – expected to return 11-13 percent on the investment. That’s a good return in almost any market.

However, the math behind this simple statement isn’t necessarily easy. The first challenge is that most of the cost of college isn’t the money you pay to the institution. About 74% of the cost of college comes in the form of forgone earnings. If you’re going to college, you’re not working or not working as much, and that has a huge impact on your cash flow, as any college student can attest to. Thus, the problem of calculating return isn’t the greater income received post-college minus the cost of the institution – most of the costs come with time investment.

On the plus side, the greater the education that you have, the less likely you are to become unemployed – and the length of your unemployment is likely to be shorter. So not only do you earn more but your earnings are more stable. That’s great news when safety and security become more important as you begin to raise a family.

Investing in the Family

There are dynamics to investing in education. Families with a larger number of children must, by the nature of dividing assets among children, invest less in each child than smaller families. However, there’s an educational lensing effect that causes families with higher educations to have more financial resources – and fewer children.

Because educated parents tend to have fewer children and higher resources, they tend to spend substantially more on each child’s education than those families that have less resources and more children. This is the educational equivalent of the “to the victor go the spoils” problem with systems. (See Thinking in Systems, Change Masters, and The Rise of Superman.)

It is for that reason that societies need to build counter-balancing loops into the educational system to ensure that everyone has a fair chance. Paul Tough speaks extensively about the college decision in The Years that Matter Most but focuses somewhat more on the connections and relationships than the quality of the educational experience.

Subsidies, Loans, and Scholarships

Student loan default rates are – to quote Becker – “shockingly high.” The importance of government guarantees remains critical to ensure that banks are willing to lend for education. Compared to other loan types, the default rates are substantially higher. It makes no difference that the government has many ways to recover the loan amounts and they are difficult to discharge in a bankruptcy. Structurally, student loans remain risky propositions for the lender.

However, there are also non-loan options, including grants and scholarships, that may apply based on a student’s financial need or their academic or athletic talents. These can offset some, but often not all, of the expenses that a student can expect to face.

From College to Corporation

While it’s a fine answer to say that individuals, students, should invest in their education and that this has a marketed change in the capacity to make money, there’s a challenge that corporations face with education that individuals do not. Individuals always reap the rewards of educational investment. The question is whether corporations can reap the rewards of training employees, since employees can leave.

Don’t Train Them, and They Stay

The original quote is attributed to Henry Ford: “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.” Richard Branson’s approach is, “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough, so they don’t want to.” While Branson separates training them well and treating them well, they’re related. The more people recognize that their personal improvement is important to the organization, the more that they will feel valued and not want to leave.

The heart of the concern for corporations is what happens when the capital – their human capital – walks out the door – for good. This concern has spawned great expenditures in knowledge management with the idea of maintaining the knowledge in the organization even if the employees leave. (See Lost Knowledge and The New Edge in Knowledge.) The classic modeling provided by Becker presumes that employees are being paid less during their training and the amount that the lower pay factors in the investment that the company is making on training. At the time of their graduation, the scales may not be equal but over time, the organization makes back its investment in the employee (owing to lower rate and now greater productivity). When that payback is complete, in theory, the organization raises the employee salary to one more commiserate with the productivity of the employee.

Another consideration for ensuring that the knowledge doesn’t walk out the door is to implement a delayed vesting system for pension or retirement accounts, so that employees are encouraged to stay with the company until they’re fully vested.

Emotional and Physical Health

A different type of investment in employees is to invest in their physical or emotional health. Physical health programs – called wellness programs – are beginning to be more common but are most often implemented to help defray higher healthcare costs. While companies offered physical health benefits prior to this, including on-site gyms and stipends for gym memberships, they were nowhere near as prevalent as they are today.

Emotional – or mental – health is often overlooked. While many larger organizations have employee assistance programs, the statistics indicate that less than 5 or 10% of employees use those benefits. The benefits themselves are also structured as break-fix rather than wholistic care. While some organizations are improving their wellness programs into emotional health, this is still a rarity. We know that up to 80% of our healthcare costs are driven by poor behaviors – often emotionally compensating behaviors – and yet we focus very little time on mental health. (See Change or Die for more on the impact of mental health on physical health.)

The Illiquid Asset

In accounting, illiquid assets are ones which cannot be sold easily. Cash is completely liquid. Stock in a public company is mostly liquid. Stock in a private company is mostly illiquid. A property that no one wants is illiquid.

The problem with the development you put into humans is it’s completely illiquid. You cannot extract the information out of their brains, and we outlawed slavery some time ago. As a result, we must accept that, while we have human capital, it’s different than other kinds of capital. Perhaps the best thing that you can do to invest in your own capital is to read Human Capital.

Book Review-The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook

Sometimes it takes a long time to get to something – like The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. I remember reading The Fifth Discipline decades ago and wondering slowly how to apply what it was talking about. The learning organization is an interesting concept, but what does that mean and how does one do it? My oldest draft blog post is about explaining how to build a learning organization. It’s still in draft, because I’m still not sure I know how to provide clear guidance on what it is or how to convert your organization into it.

The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook moves the ball forward towards understanding learning organizations in a way The Fifth Discipline never did. It’s infinitely more practical, friendly, and accessible. That being said, I know the draft blog post will remain just that: a draft. The image is clearer – but not clear.

The Ubuntu Point of View

In the West, we tend to think of individuals. We tend to think in disconnected ways. Our culture teaches us this. However, there’s another way of thinking. There’s a way of thinking that we’re all connected in visible and invisible ways. The Evolution of Cooperation shows how seemingly unrelated actors in the form of computer programs ultimately started working together and responding to one another. The very nature of nature leads to an understanding of how connected we all are. You don’t have to read physicist David Bohm’s work On Dialogue to appreciate the beauty of how the universe unfolds from an acorn to an oak tree. The connectivity that we all experience is a part of our very ethos. Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind argues that our ability to work together is what has made us the dominant biomass on the planet.

Ubuntu derives from a Zulu saying that literally means, “A person is a person because of other people.” We don’t exist except through our relationships with other people. We recognize the psychological strain of solitary confinement or voluntary hermithood. We must have other people to help us regulate our thoughts and ideas – or even, it seems, to remain a person.

The Five Disciplines

The concept of the learning organization is built upon five pillars. They are:

  • Personal Mastery – The goal of helping everyone reach their fullest potential. From becoming Multipliers to changing our Mindset, it’s about enabling the personal journey to Peak performance.
  • Mental Models – Developing a set of views of the world which are more helpful and more enabling. It’s Gary Klein’s Sources of Power and Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth Revisited. It’s building systems inside our head about how things work and what we can do to change the systems around us to work better.
  • Shared Vision – It’s learning to inspire everyone to that one utopian vision of how things can be and the paths that we need to take to end up in that place. It’s Simon Sinek’s Start with Why and recognizing that we’re all Wired for Story.
  • Team Learning – It’s about leveraging Dialogue to lead to Collaborative Intelligence and finding ways to help everyone learn how to be effective together.
  • Systems Thinking – It’s about Thinking in Systems in ways that allow us to see how something will work before it actually plays out and how to change the system to get better outcomes.

Wicked Problems

Developing a learning organization is a wicked problem in that there’s no stopping rule. (See Dialogue Mapping and The Heretic’s Guide to Management for more on wicked problems.) Learning organizations are always on a lifelong quest for learning. It’s slightly more accurate to say that each member of the learning organization is on a quest for learning – both individually and together.

The argument comes from Reiss’ work about whether learning is the end goal. Reiss was careful to avoid the person who is motivated by learning, claiming that their way was/is the way. (See StrengthsFinder 2.0 for learning and Who Am I? for Reiss’ work.) Trying Not to Try explains that even inside the idea of the one way, there are many paths.

The real goal, or rather need, for organizations today is to develop and retain agility to overcome the changes that inevitably come from the market and from the employees. We have to learn to expect that there will be radical changes, and the way to survive is to find ways of weathering the changes more effectively.

Through the Way Things Appear

The deepest nature of things is often difficult to see. Our biases lead us to believe that things are good or bad based solely on split-second assessments that have nearly no basis. (See Blink.) It’s rare that we challenge our assumptions and investigate the deepest nature of the organization. We look past the sacred cows and blindly walk down the same paths we’ve walked before without questioning how the pieces of the environment fit together.

The problem with this kind of piercing insight is that it’s hard to generate. Klein studied it in fire captains in Sources of Power. Tetlock tried to find the secrets of prediction in Superforecasting. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool tried to find it in Peak. Klein and Ericsson chalked it up to experience, which isn’t very reassuring, nor does it seem to be easily accelerated. Tetlock’s observations were that a broad skill base was important, but even the best predictors weren’t great at everything. (The idea of having broad skills runs counter to Jim Collins’ suggestion to be the hedgehog – who knows one thing – in Good to Great.)

Observationally, no one seems to have cracked the code for creating a generic ability for people to have insights. So, the fieldbook’s call for strategy to be a reflection of the deepest nature falls into the category of true but useless.

There’s an old story/joke. A helicopter pilot is flying as dense fog rolls in, and he becomes disoriented and lost – but he is able to communicate with a man at a window in an office building. The pilot asks, “Where am I?” The man answers, “In a helicopter.” The pilot’s passengers are aghast as he heads directly for the heliport and lands safely. They ask him how he did it. He answers, “I knew I had to be at the Microsoft support building, because the answer I received was true but useless.”

So, while I appreciate the suggestion that strategic planning should be about reflecting, I’m equally concerned that it’s not actionable.


We can’t really see planets around the stars that we see in the sky. They’re not directly detectable, but we can see their influence. Every relationship – gravity being one – causes a reaction on both sides, not just one side or the other. Just as the star pulls the planet around, so, too, does the planet tug on the star. Obviously, the degree of impact is different. A star has much greater mass than a planet, but if the planet has enough mass, we’ll see the star appear to wobble and create a slight Doppler effect. The star will appear to change its light frequency in a very predictable, rhythmic way. It’s a technique that’s been used to find many planets beyond our solar system.

The influence of relationships scales down from planets to quarks. Heisenberg stunned the physics community in 1927 when he claimed that we were changing the world as we measure it. Again, if we’re measuring through changes, those changes will have an opposite effect on the thing being measured. The more we measure, the more we change. In human terms, we are in relationships with others. We change them, and they change us. (See The Power of the Other.)

Ultimately, accepting that we are in relationships with others and those relationships are mutual allows us to be more effective together. Instead of treating others as objects, we treat them in ways that acknowledges our mutual influences.

Maps and Territories

Cartography – map-making – is an interesting art form. It’s about not only what to include but also what to omit. We must, when making mental maps or regular maps, decide what’s important and must be a part of the map and what can be omitted without challenges. Invariably, we get this decision-making process at least a little wrong. We include something that we shouldn’t, or we omit something important in our quest for clean, beautiful designs that turns out to be critical.

This is just fine as long as we don’t confuse our mental maps – our simplifications – for the real thing. It all goes well until we treat or mental maps as exact replicas of the world instead of the approximations and simplifications they are. When we fail to question what we believe based on the maps, we can end up in real trouble.

That’s one of the reasons why the kinds of changes and strategic planning that is so carefully executed often fails to deliver the planned results. We’ve accepted that the simplification, the map, is right and that we need not concerned about reality. The old saying goes that, in theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.

If we’re looking for success in any effort inside of an organization, but particularly change and transformation, we’re much better off to have a compass and a clear direction rather than an explicitly designed map. When we have a guiding purpose and some simple guidelines to keep us on track, we can not only focus on the desired outcome, but each of us can become a problem-solver that is working together with others to reach the objective location.

Short-Term and Long-Term Measures

Richard Hackman explains in Collaborative Intelligence that performance of a team isn’t the best long-term measure. While it’s important to meet minimum performance objectives for the team, the real measure was how the team learned to work together and to be more effective. However, quantifying those long-term metrics isn’t easy. Deep learning – the kind of learning that drives innovation – isn’t easy to measure, and, more importantly, the payoff may not happen for a very long time.

Many organizations have terminated entire teams for lack of short-term performance while failing to realize that they have developed deep learnings that would have paid off dearly for their organization if they had only been more patient to see the benefits. The pendulum of performance had moved too far to the short-term to recognize the long-term benefits that were being forgone.

Admittedly, there’s a challenge to maintaining people if they’re not performing. On the one hand, there’s deep learning that’s hard to measure but intensely valuable – particularly for innovation. (See The Innovator’s DNA.)

Which Came First: Trust or Intimacy?

One of the classic challenges is which came first? In The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, they assert that the lack of trust is not a cause of a lack of intimacy but a symptom of it. I disagree, but in part because they’re presuming a single causal arrow – and in the wrong direction. The relationship between trust and intimacy is reflexive – one leads to the other. When I unwound trust, vulnerability, and intimacy in Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy and Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited, I discovered that it’s small amounts of trust that lead to small amounts of vulnerability, which leads to small amounts of intimacy, which opens the door for greater trust in a positive feedback loop.

One could reverse the direction of the causal arrows, but the starting assumption is wrong. The assumption must then become that you start with intimacy and that you must have it before you can establish trust. The problem with this is that we trust people with whom we have no – or almost no – intimacy.

In the Moment

We tend to see the world consistently. We don’t like inconsistencies and unless we interpret an inconsistency as potential threat, we’re likely to ignore it. We might shrug our shoulders for a moment, but we’ll allow the thought to slip out of our mind quickly. To learn from our world and our organization, we must commit to seeing the world as it is, not as we want it to be.

That is harder than it seems. Every perspective we have, every model we use to simplify the world, creates biases and distortions in our perceptions. The way that we frame the problem shapes the problem, and because it shapes the problem, we’re seeing it as we want rather than the way it is.

The best leaders are able to look at problems from multiple perspectives and from multiple systems, thereby correcting for the distortions like the expert predictors did in Tetlock’s Superforecasting.

Red Pill or Blue Pill

There’s a scene in The Matrix where Morpheus asks Neo whether he wants to take the red pill or the blue pill. To take the red pill is to have our vision of reality disrupted, and the blue pill restores us to blissful ignorance. Perhaps Jay Forrester didn’t know that he’d eventually call system dynamics “the new dismal science” when he first started. Perhaps what we think of as the forerunner of systems thinking didn’t look so different or life altering when he started – but today it is.

Perhaps the most disruptive thing that one learns when they truly embrace systems thinking is that A+B = C… at least most of the time. When you peer into the details, you find chaos theory and Lorenz attractors and times when A+B doesn’t equal C. Sure, most of the time it does, but one time out of a hundred or one time out of a thousand, it doesn’t equal C at all. Systems thinking acknowledges that much of what we believe are just loops with probabilities and those probabilities over time generally dwell in a range… but not always.

It’s a dismal science, because it shakes the foundation of our safety, like Heisenberg’s assertion that we change things in our attempts to measure them. If you’re willing to push forward, you have to acknowledge that the world is much more uncertain and chaotic than any of us were ever led to believe.

Desirable Difficulty

In learning circles, there is a bit of research that is troubling but consistent. Adults won’t learn unless there’s a sufficient level of difficulty. (See The Adult Learner and Efficiency in Learning.) That’s problematic, because one of the other axioms of adult education is to decrease the non-germane cognitive load. In short, make it easy. (See The Art of Explanation.) There is, therefore, a degree of difficulty which is necessary to induce learning. It can neither be too much nor too little, or no learning will occur.

One of the common challenges that we face is that we often attempt to shield our employees (and our children – see The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable) from the natural consequences of their actions. If we compensate for a weakness or recover a fault without any consequence, they’re never able to learn the important lessons that they need to be able to be effective in the future. In other words, they continue making the same mistakes over and over without learning. This is particularly problematic, as the scale of the mistake tends to get larger over time and therefore harder to compensate for. As we’re looking at resolving issues with systems, we need to consider whether we’re hiding problems in ways that will prevent learning – or make bigger messes down the road.

What it Does

It’s not what a vision is that’s important. It’s what it does. It’s not the deliverable of the vision that’s powerful. It’s powerful because how it motivates and aligns people. It’s also powerful because the process of creating it requires a degree of thinking, challenging, and coordinating that changes the way that the management team will work with one another.

Many time people ask for deliverables that they’ll never use, and it frustrates those they ask for it. However, the deliverable is never the thing that the leadership wanted. What they wanted was the thinking that was required to create the deliverable.

Fear is a Lousy Motivator

Fear is perhaps our most powerful motivator, so why then is it such a lousy one? The answer comes in two pieces. First, there’s the volatility. Second, there is the issue of sustaining it.


The problem with fear as a motivator is that it fundamentally operates with the idea that you’ll be able to overpower someone or threaten their livelihood. That comes with the inherent risk that the person or people will believe that overthrowing you – or calling your bluff – is a better answer. It’s also an unpredictable motivator. You may want people to travel in one direction, but the direction that minimizes fear faster is a completely different way. It’s one you didn’t consider, but being forced to live in the space of fear, they did – and they took the quickest and easiest way out.


Fear may be powerful, but it doesn’t have staying power. Let fear drop for a moment, and it stops motivating. Other forms of motivation tend to stay connected and don’t need the kind of constant reinforcement that fear requires. Even when fear is sustained, it’s doing damage to everyone in the process. We know that stress – caused by fear –causes our bodies to release a cascade of chemicals that ultimately result in hypertension and other mortality-inducing conditions. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.)

So, either way you lose with fear. Either you reduce the lifespan of those you’re motivating – or you lose your grip on them, and they escape the fear.

Problems are the Result of the System

The parting thought of the fieldbook is a thought from quality systems. 95% of the errors are caused by the system. They’re not personal defects, faults, or foibles. They’re the result of the design of the system. Thus, if you want to prevent errors or develop a learning organization, it might be time to pick up The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook.

Book Review-The Change Handbook: The Definitive Resource on Today’s Best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems

I was talking about the change models library. My friend mentioned The Change Handbook: The Definitive Resource on Today’s Best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems as an analog to what I was doing. It’s definitely true that there are similarities, but there are differences as well.

The Methods

The book is built around 61 methods of creating change. Some of these methods I’ve seen fully exposed – like Appreciative Inquiry and Real Time Strategic Change. For the others, semi-structured chapters provided a brief summary that would allow me to evaluate whether the technique was an appropriate tool for the changes that I’m supporting. The structured parts gave applications and limitations and did a good job of providing a reference for comparison even if they couldn’t really be placed in a single table for comparison. (The book tries to do this.)

The largest challenge I have with the methods is that, while some appear to be well documented – like open space technologies – others seem like an approach that consulting companies have developed for their own proprietary use. That means that you’ll have to filter the list to those which are well documented or open source.

In Common

What is common about all the methods is that they’re designed to facilitate or elicit. They’re not execution models. That means that they’re all fundamentally weighted towards the front end of the process of change. There aren’t operating or reinforcing models. Though I’m sure the authors would argue that the improving methods are targeted towards improvement of the process, that doesn’t create an operating model.

To be clear, it’s not that selecting a method from the methods covered won’t help after you’ve kicked off the project. They will help you refine and align. They just fall short of an operating model.

The List

The list of approaches covered are as follows:

  • Appreciative Inquiry
  • Collaborative Loops
  • Dialogue and Deliberation
  • Integrated Clarity (See Nonviolent Communication for a basis.)
  • Open Space Technology
  • Technology of Participation
  • Whole Scale Change
  • The World Café
  • Ancient Wisdom Council
  • Appreciative Inquiry Summit
  • Conference Model
  • Consensus
  • Conversation Café
  • Dynamic Facilitation
  • The Genuine Contact Program
  • Human Systems Dynamics
  • Leadership Dojo
  • Open System Theory Evolutions
  • OpenSpace – Online
  • Organization Workshop
  • PeerSpirit Circling
  • Power of Imagination Studio
  • Real Time Strategic Change
  • SimuReal
  • Study Circles
  • Think Like a Genius
  • Web Lab’s Small Group Dialogues
  • Dynamic Planning Charrettes
  • Future Search
  • Scenario Thinking
  • Search Conference
  • Community Summits
  • Large Group Scenario Planning
  • SOAR
  • Strategic Forum
  • Strategic Visioning
  • 21st Century Town Meeting
  • Community Weaving
  • Participative Design Workshop
  • Collaborative Work System Design
  • Whole-Systems Approach
  • Rapid Results
  • Six Sigma
  • Action Learning
  • Action Review Cycle/AAR
  • Balanced Scorecard
  • Civic Engagement
  • The Cycle of Resolution
  • Employee Engagement
  • Gemeinsinn-Werkstatt (Community Spirit)
  • Idealized Design
  • The Practice of Empowerment
  • Values Into Action
  • WorkOut
  • Online Environments
  • Playback Theatre
  • Visual Recording & Graphic Facilitation
  • Drum Café
  • JazzLab
  • Learning Maps
  • Visual Explorer

Primordial Soup

The best way to describe the impression that The Change Handbook leaves me with is that of a primordial soup. The building blocks are all there. They just need to connect and organize. The methods all have value individually and when used together; however, it feels sort as if the organizing order hasn’t been discovered yet.

When, in 1869, Russian chemistry professor Dmitri Mendeleev published his periodic table, the chemistry world finally had the basic framework for what would become the periodic table of the elements. There was an order to the disorder that we found with the elements. (Mendeleev built on the work of several others, and other variants were published at the same time as Mendeleev’s that were substantially similar, so it’s not like one person created the table in a vacuum.)

I think about The Change Handbook in the same way. I’m looking forward to achieving a better framework on which each of these models can hang. Maybe if you read The Change Handbook, you can discover it.

Book Review-Focused, Fast, and Flexible: Creating Agility Advantage in a VUCA World

Finding a way to navigate our ever-changing world is challenging to say the least. We live in unprecedented times of change. We’re facing more competition from across the globe and individual entrepreneurs who are leveraging the latest cloud and artificial intelligence options to compete with organizations of every size. To compete in today’s world, we need something like Focused, Fast, and Flexible: Creating Agility Advantage in a VUCA World.

The Argument for Change

Very few people will argue against an increasing rate of change. Even if we look at it from a content production perspective, we had to scribe everything until Gutenberg’s printing press in 1450. We started building more replicable content with the invention of the typewriter in 1870. By the 1960s, we kicked off a series of innovations decade by decade that transformed the way we communicate: the copier, the computer, the personal computer, the networking of computers, the internet, digital photography, and digital video. High speed internet access has allowed us to be educated at a distance and communicate in ways that could have not been conceived of in our grandparents’ lifetimes.

Every indication is that change is increasing in its intensity, and it’s become relentless, driving everyone to continuous change whether they like it or not. That’s why we need to develop strategies to increase our agility individually and as organizations.


It starts with finding focus. We’re distracted by thousands of advertisements every day. We are drawn to the thoughts that marketers want us to have instead of the relatively self-directed thinking of the past. (See The Hidden Persuaders for more.) For us to be effective in this world of change, we must figure out what is important – and what can be ignored.

When we’re not able to focus – or articulate our focus – people flounder or stop. They freeze because they lack the confidence to move forward. This is how creating a sense of focus allows us to move forward. If you consider that as much as 40 percent of employee work is discretionary, it’s no wonder that we need to ensure they’re focused on the right things.


Iterative cycles are an important part of learning and adapting (see Systems Thinking). The cycles that Focused, Fast, and Flexible recommends are OODA and LOOP. Both originate with Colonel John Boyd, a former Air Force pilot. “OODA” stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. “LOOP” is Locating, Orienting, Operating, Perpetuating. OODA is similar to the model that Deming recommended – Plan, Do, Study, Act (sometimes known as Plan, Do, Check, Act). LOOP is a more traditional change approach with the need to become open to the change, perform the change, and reinforce the change.

Together, these two models drive continuous improvement and anchor improvements in the organization.


Personally and organizationally, happiness is, as Gandhi says, “when you think, what you say, and what you do are all in harmony.” This requires focus in a way that’s consistent over time and clear to everyone involved. The great trick in leadership is balancing the need for direction, focus, vision, and structure with the ability to create an environment that allows individuals to bring their own creativity to the environment.

Reading Focused, Fast, and Flexible may not lead you to your own sense of harmony, but it might just be a good start.

Book Review-The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us

Gorillas aren’t exactly easy to miss. If you saw one, you’d expect to realize it. However, our expectations and reality aren’t always the same. In a famous experiment, Christopher Chabris, Daniel Simons, and their colleagues showed people a video asking them to count the passes between people wearing white shirts on a basketball court. Some people got the counts right and some did not, but that’s not the point. The point was to see how many people would notice the gorilla. Half of the people didn’t. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us is a journey into the place of questioning our assumptions about what we should and should not know.

The Invisible Gorilla

It’s impossible. I couldn’t have missed the gorilla in the video. You must have switched the videos. If there were a gorilla in a video I was watching of people on a basketball court, I’d notice it. These and similar comments were common. Our common sense says that we’ll recognize something that is that different, abnormal, and important. Except half of people didn’t. Not because they were inattentive but precisely because they were being attentive – to something else.

While we believe we can pay attention to everything happening around us, we know that we cannot. There’s simply too much information coming at us for us to fully process and make sense out of it. That’s why we ignore so much of what’s happening around us. Change or Die explains that our reticular activating system (RAS) is responsible for what we pay attention to and what we do not. Incognito provides the other half of the equation by explaining how our brains make up information that’s missing. Basically, we have some small subset of the world around us that we perceive, and we make up the rest.

These combined give us the perception that we’d see the gorilla while simultaneously only taking in a small amount of the information around us.

The Intuitions

The book covers the following intuitions that may deceive us:

  • Attention
  • Memory
  • Confidence
  • Knowledge
  • Cause
  • Potential

Because we believe that we intuitively know how things work, we can be misled into poor decisions. Consider for a moment the legislative push in the United States to eliminate the use of phones in hands while driving a car. Many states are now requiring hands-free technology when using phones. This is despite the fact that research doesn’t show any difference between the results of phones in hands and hands-free conversations.

Intuitively, we believe that hands-free should be no different than speaking with someone in the car with us. However, the research seems to prove that we do treat it differently, because when we enter a period of high attention to driving, we pause the conversation in the car. The passenger knows why we’re pausing the conversation, so we feel justified in doing so. When the other person isn’t in the car, we feel awkward pausing the conversation to focus on the traffic around us.

In this case, and in many others, the intuition doesn’t match the reality we find when we research it.

Evidence to the Contrary

One of the key challenges with our intuition is that it’s based on our experiences. Our intuition pattern matches against the things that we’ve seen and done. Since few of us encounter situations where we’re confronted with evidence of our failure to properly manage multiple tasks – like driving and talking – we assume that we can. After all, if we’ve done it this many times, why can’t we do it once more?

This is the kind of rationale that was prevalent in the 1980s, when, in the United States, we began to crack down on drunk driving. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) started to push for tougher laws, greater awareness, and fewer losses due to drunken driving. People would argue that they’ve driven after a few drinks for years and nothing ever bad happened. That may be true in their case – thus far. Because any kind of accident is such a rare occurrence – thankfully – we get no feedback about how our behaviors are increasing our risk.

The Illusion of Memory

Our memories cannot, as much as we may like to believe it, record and replay events accurately. As was pointed out in Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), every time we go to recall a memory, we subtly change it based on our current understanding. We believe that our memories are precisely accurate recollections of the past because they appear that way to us. However, we are frequently surprised to see how things were different when viewed from an actual recording.

We should realize that we have no way of encoding every experience into our memories with full fidelity. Despite the amazing capacity of the brain, we’d quickly run out of storage. Instead, our brains store key concepts and relationships. We connect nuggets of data so that we can regenerate the situation – rather than recall it.

Our fallacy of memory has convicted too many innocent people. We’ve discovered through DNA analysis that many convicted people were the wrong people, and decades after their arrest they’ve finally been freed through the work to combat the undue weight given to eyewitness testimony in criminal cases.

Change Blindness

Movie gaffs are famous. In one part of a scene, something is present and in the next version of the scene, it’s not. Waffles convert to pancakes. Windows that are shot up are suddenly fixed and things flop from left to right and vice versa. There are specific people whose job it is to ensure that there is continuity in a series of shots for a scene, and even though it’s their only job, things are often missed. The good news is that most of us – due to our illusion of attention – miss these gaffs all together until someone points them out to us.

The truth is that we’re all generally very unlikely to notice small changes. These changes don’t meet our threshold and therefore don’t register. We believe we should remember what happened seconds before… but we don’t.

False Memories

Abuse of any kind is a tragedy. It’s a failure of humanity to protect the weak. Nothing is more tragic than allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated against children. In the zeal to capture all of the perpetrators and to bring them to justice, we accidentally tripped over another problem with our memories – the fact that we can recall false memories.

Perhaps the easiest and most innocuous version of this is when we hear a story from a friend, and we make it our own. We can recall the event with sufficient detail, and therefore we believe it’s ours. While it’s embarrassing, it’s not particularly harmful.

What happens when you intentionally test the limits of false memories, as researchers did when they doctored photos of people as children, placing them in a hot air balloon. The adults knew they’d never ridden in a hot air balloon ride. However, they were asked to imagine themselves in this ride. Come back later and ask them if they’ve ever been in a hot air balloon, and many will say yes and recreate their initial imagination but as fact rather than as a flight of fancy. This strikingly easy research experiment shows how we can land with false memories of things that never happened.

Gary Ramona was accused of repeated sexual abuse of his daughter Holly. The accusation came from memories induced by a therapist under the influence of drugs known only to Holly as “truth serum.” Gary lost his marriage and his high-paying job. Ultimately, he was able to sue the therapist and win in a suit that claims the therapist planted the memories in Holly. It got him a monetary award and the summary dismissal of a civil suit filed by Holly after the fact, but it didn’t repair the damage that had been done.

False memories are dangerous things. It’s tragic – and predictable – that, in most of these cases, there’s no way to verify things one way or the other. When it comes to memories, when there’s no direct evidence, we tend to side with more people’s memories than fewer. When there are only two people involved, we’re stuck.

Fixed Memories

Sometimes we develop memories of events that are “flashbulb memories” – that is, the memory is sealed because of a significant event. These memories, though perceived as more vivid, are not any more accurate than regular memories. They are, however, more firmly anchored. As a result, they can sometimes be more difficult to dislodge.

Even in cases where irrefutable evidence can be produced, people may be unwilling or unable to change their memories about events. Instead of reprocessing their world view given the new information, they reject it because it doesn’t fit their beliefs. (See confirmation bias in Thinking, Fast and Slow.) This is a common challenge with humans leading to divides that can last decades.

The Illusions of Confidence and Knowledge

You’ll accept the testimony of a more confident witness more readily than one who is less confident – even if the objective measure of certainty are the same. We tend to elect officials that seem like they know what they’re doing – even if they do not. When coupled with the Dunning-Kruger effect, this is a very dangerous place to be.

The Dunning-Kruger effect says that those who know the least are over-confident in what they know. Those who are experts err, too – but generally by slightly underestimating what they know. (See How We Know What Isn’t So.) These sorts of errors show up when you ask people whether they’re better leaders than the average. The answers generally come up in the 60-80% range of people believing they’re better leaders than average – which is, of course, statistically impossible.

More Information

Sometimes our perception of knowledge is distorted by the volume of information that we get. We believe, for instance, that we’ll do better with investing if we have more data about how our portfolio is performing. The truth is that it causes us to make changes more quickly and make less money in the long run. Instead of information helping us to make better decisions, we overreact, and we perform poorly. (See The Information Diet for more.)

Audio cable companies used to advertise all sorts of unique features of their cables when audiophiles in a blind test couldn’t tell the difference between the cables and a metal coat hanger. The truth is the illusion of information is all that’s needed to cause us to make decisions.

Infographics have become quite popular. They convey a very small amount of actual information in a graphic and therefore compelling way. (See the book Infographics for more.) When speaking of neurological scans included in neurological articles, the authors refer to it as “brain porn.” Even when the scans don’t convey any additional information, people rate the article as more understandable with the meaningless scans.

The Illusion of Cause

One of the arguably most painful illusions we’ll talk about is the illusion of cause. That’s because of the work of the discredited Andrew Wakefield and his publication (since retracted) in The Lancet that claimed the cause of autism was the MMR vaccine. I’ll spare you the details, but we’re so wired to find simple, singular causes, that it seemed probable. After all, the rise in autism cases tracked the rise in immunization. (However, it also tracked the rise of piracy off the coast of Somalia, but no one thought that was a cause.)

This is one of the greatest negative impacts because, despite Andrew Wakefield having lost his license to practice medicine as a result of the problems with the article, people still vehemently believe that vaccination causes autism and as a result fail to vaccinate their children, leaving them unnecessarily susceptible to disease.

The Illusion of Potential

We’ve probably all heard the claim that we only use 10% of our brains. We’ve heard that we have limitless potential if we just reach out and grab it. The problem is that it’s not true. Steven Kotler in The Rise of Superman studies amazing athletes and shows how they perform at levels well in excess of anything you or I could through training and entering flow. However, their feats of accomplishment are narrow. Being a good basketball player doesn’t make you a good baseball player or vice versa.

More importantly, while we may only be using 10% of our brain at any one time (which is itself a dubious claim), that may be because there’s no way to get enough energy (glucose) to the brain to support everything being turned on at once. Just like the appliances in our house, we can’t turn everything on all at once without blowing a circuit.

This has not stopped people from trying to find easy ways to enhance our potential. Without any study on children, it was proposed that playing Mozart made them smarter. Out of that came a number of products, including Baby Einstein, which sold to Disney for a nice profit. The actual results of testing were a reduction in the verbal fluency of babies – a fact that these companies would love for you to forget.

The truth is that we do all have great potential – but it’s not found in simple quick fixes or radical jumps. Working diligently, as Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool explain in Peak, is a path toward that potential, but it’s neither quick nor easy. It’s intentional, disciplined work over a long period of time. That being said, you may find that reading The Invisible Gorilla can help you avoid a few pitfalls and to reach your potential.

Book Review-The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

What if everything that we did in life was designed to help us avoid the terror of our own death? What if we could explain everything from a framework that presumes everything we do is driven by an unconscious motive to transcend death? That’s what The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life sets out to prove. Extending the work of Ernest Becker, the authors seek to show us how we work towards ways of transcending the death that we all know comes for us one day.


Self-awareness is a gift of the human race. It’s our ability to recognize ourselves and, to at least some degree, self-monitor what is going on with us. However, when it’s coupled with our ability to mentally travel through time to the past, present, and future, we’re left with the stark reality that one day we’ll all die. Whether we experience mortality through the death of a pet or a loved one, there are always reminders that death waits for us all. Our ability to project ourselves into the future confronts us with the reality that the day comes for all of us.

In the 1983 movie Krull, the race of cyclops traded a second eye for the ability to see the future. However, the deal was made with a witch, who tricked them. They can see the future but only one event in the future: their death. Rell, the character we meet in the story, explains that a cyclops can seek to avoid their death but only with the consequence of great pain. This is a vision of the human condition where we’re able to see – or simulate – the future and how we might die, and it’s a terrifying thought for many of us.


Nearly every culture that we’ve ever discovered has a fascination with immortality. Some focus on reincarnation – that is, coming back again as another human or another animal. Others are focused on a soul or a spirit that transcends death and enters an ethereal plane. Whatever the specific approach, in most cultures, there’s some sense of life continuing after death. While this seems to be a bandage on a broken arm, it’s something that we all cling to when we’re personally near death or experience the loss of someone near us.

Immortality may also be sought in other ways. Directly through our progeny (children) and the continuation of our genetic material, or indirectly though our memories living on. If our children are unable to carry us in their memories, we can turn to claiming our 15 minutes of fame and ensuring that the world won’t completely forget about us.

However, both direct and indirect approaches for us to maintain immortality eventually fail. The great pharaohs of Egypt are long since gone and many monuments have been found for which we can find no record of who is buried there. In short, the sands of time eventually erase all marks that we make as humans – no matter how terrifying a thought we find that to be.

Cultural Reactions

Our reality that we cannot escape death leads us to seek comfort and safety in some predictable – but not always productive – ways. When reminded of our mortality – when we’re briefly shaken from our death slumber – we react in ways that confirms our values. Even judges, who are supposed to be impartial, when reminded of their death levied a 9x fine in the case of a person who was soliciting for prostitution. Instead of the normal $50 and time served, they levied an average $455 fine. None of them realized that they had done it because of a simple two question survey that asked them about death. The person wasn’t really a case for them but was a test to see if a brief reminder of mortality would have any impact on their sentencing at all.

As a result, if you want to get people to be more protective of their group – their nation, their religion, their ethnic class – remind them briefly of their mortality and watch as the sentiment for the group increases. We saw this in the United States after the 9/11 attacks, when everyone flew American flags and were committed to protecting their fellow Americans.

There is, however, a downside. As we are increasingly sympathetic to our “in” group, we become less tolerant of the “out” group. Those who aren’t like us, who are different, or who don’t fit our beliefs are more critically judged, shunned, and ostracized.

Not Loss, Just Death

It’s important to note that the clinical research has shown these strong effects for reminders of our mortality only. No other loss seems to trigger the same kinds of reactions. This places our mortality and the threat of death into a totally separate category than any other loss. Because death is final, it seems to get some special weight in our mind and in our reactions. This is true well below our conscious thoughts.


The true danger is in accidentally triggering a death response when we stumble across someone’s core beliefs. When we threaten their core beliefs, we bring the awareness of mortality to the surface. Thus, that’s why we can often see extreme reactions to relatively innocuous seeming ideas.

If those ideas are a part of a person’s core beliefs and they’re disturbed, then the reaction can be quite large. We’ve all encountered “sacred cow” topics with friends and in organizations. These topics are ones we dare not touch because they invariably provoke disproportional responses.

The longer a core belief – a world view – is in place, the more things get built around it ,and as more things get built around the core belief, the more resistant people become to changing it. Instead of it being about one way of thinking, it seems to become an all-encompassing change to their meaning of life.

Self-Esteem Shielding

One of the defense mechanisms we have for warding off the fear of death is our self-esteem. The higher our self-esteem, the less likely we are to feel threatened by death or react to the anticipation of pain. Our belief that we have personal agency seems to give us the perspective that we’ll be able to forestall death indefinitely. Martin Seligman and his colleagues described the power of learned helplessness. The more we believe we have control of our circumstances and situation, the greater our hope and the less likely we are to fall into depression. (See The Hope Circuit for more.)

If we want to temporarily avoid the problems associated with a death reminder, we can take steps to build self-esteem. Simple, positive self-talk may be enough to prevent the effects of being reminded of death. Of course, the more durable our self-esteem, the more resilient we are to the effects of thinking about death.

Eggs and Baskets

If you want to have the kind of durable self-esteem that will act as a persistent buffer against the threat of death, then one tool to use is to diversify your interests. If you’re the master in one domain when you’re confronted with a setback, your self-esteem will take a serious hit. (See Peak if you want to know how to become a master in one domain.) However, with diverse interests, you’ll find that any single setback won’t seem as large and won’t impact your overall self-esteem as much, and you ultimately won’t be as influenced by thoughts of death.

In Range, David Epstein makes the compelling case for the other benefits of having a broad base rather than a deep expertise. In addition to the self-esteem benefits, it may be more valuable to you personally and professionally as well.

Monuments and Death

An interesting set of theories have arisen about death and its relatively large importance to early cultures. Many early cultures had elaborate preparations for and ceremonies associated with death. One can point to the pyramids as an example of the huge effort that was expended to prepare pharaohs for the next life. However, these investments aren’t confined to Egypt; other prominent examples include the terracotta army that was buried with Qin Shi Huang. Clearly death was a big production – certainly for leaders but for everyday folks as well.

When you consider the effort expended towards the preparation for the next life and the reality of very little surplus, it becomes clear that death must have commanded a large portion of early human awareness. You can’t spend the effort on preparing for the next life if the thought of death isn’t critically important.

Some of the theories even propose that our transition from a hunter-gatherer existence to an agricultural existence may have been driven by seeds buried with the dead. This gave rise to plants in those locations and ultimately the idea that one could sustain themselves from farming. Of course, alternative explanations are that our transition to agriculture provided for more free time and surplus resources that made elaborate burials possible. Either way, our growth as a human race has been inextricably woven into our concerns of death.

Proximal and Distal

Our proximal – or conscious – thoughts of death are confronted with efforts to push those thoughts from our mind. Its one of the reasons why, shortly after a death, the spouse encounters profound loneliness, as not only did their spouse leave them but, in many cases, the couple’s friends avoid the survivor to protect themselves from their own feelings of loss.

Once pushed below the surface of understanding, the distal defenses are activated. No longer living in a world of rational thought, they prescribe harsher sentences for criminals, more severely alienate those who challenge our core beliefs, and generally manipulate us in unseen ways towards defending ourselves either literally or figuratively.

Rich and Famous

The more death enters our mind, the more we’re persuaded by the idea of the rich and the famous. Perhaps it’s the belief that they will accomplish immortality in some way that we will not be capable of. Perhaps it’s just the fact that we believe that they’re more confident and therefore more capable of keeping death at bay. Whatever the drivers, we know that we’re more driven by forceful and successful personalities when we’re confronting death. Maybe it’s worth the time to look for your own Worm at the Core to see how it may be shaping your behaviors as well.