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Epictetus and CBT in the first century AD

Posted by Andrew Cooper on December 10, 2008

David D Burns, one of the original exponents of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (see various previous posts) once pointed out that the underlying principles of the approach are nothing new.

He mentions the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus who, as you will see from his Wikipedia entry, was born in 55 AD.  Epictetus suggests that ‘suffering arises from trying to control what is uncontrollable, or from neglecting what is within our power.’

CBT is based on the ideas that what we think (our ‘cognitions’) determines how we feel and that we can exercise some control over what we think.  Epictetus said, for example, that “”Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things” and as this book points out, Taoism and Buddhism both regard cognition as a primary force in determining human behaviour.

Epictetus had views on every subject under the Sun.  Here are just a few of them.  One of them is clearly the original of Shakespeare’s famous CBT related quote.

Incidentally, I came across an advert earlier in which IBM claim that they can help to ‘solve business challenges’.  Further evidence that ‘challenges’ are what we used to call ‘problems’, I think.  Before long ‘challenge’ will have the same negative connotations as ‘problem’, so we’ll have to think of something else to call them.  Can’t be ‘issues’ though: that’s already been taken.

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Posted in cbt, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, consultancy, consultantese, psychology, thinking, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

There’s no such thing as a sure thing

Posted by Andrew Cooper on September 19, 2008

A banker

A banker

Of course there isn’t.  We all knew that.  Even the investment bankers who have triggered, as G W Bush put it, some ‘adjustments’ to the world’s financial systems, knew it.  Why, then, did they behave as if there was?

Yet again, it’s all psychology.  Economics plays no part whatsoever.  If they had behaved rationally, they wouldn’t have built an enormous bubble of pretend money using financial instruments that the vast majority of them (including, critically, those at the top of the firms which have failed) didn’t understand.

The situation obviously wasn’t helped by deregulation or rather, self regulation.  (‘Now children, here’s a big box of delicious sweets.  I am going now, but I want you to make sure that none of them are eaten although frankly I’m not that bothered.’)  But at the root of it is good old cogintive dissonance.  If you’re paying yourself a few million (or tens of millions, in some cases) a year you really want to believe that the machine that’s generating all that pretend money is reliable, fault free and will continue to do so, even though deep down you have an uncomfortable feeling that it can’t.  Cognitive dissonance simply says that if you want to believe something you will, despite any evidence that your belief makes no sense whatsoever. 

If you come across a fact or argument that is ‘dissonant’ with your belief, you rationalise it away so that you can hold on to your beliefs.  Beliefs are very much more important to us than facts – they are a vital part of the mental models we use to understand the world around us.  And as I’ve mentioned in posts on cognitive behaviour therapy, you feel how you think.  These guys really did think that they’d mastered the system and it made them feel good.  They certainly didn’t want to think that they were wrong.

But they were, and spectacularly so.  Astonishing, isn’t it, that no one spotted this coming?  Actually, no: It’s not astonishing at all.  Most of those who might have spotted it, and done something about it – notably our governments, which deregulated financial markets in the first place – were subject to cognitive dissonance as well, of course.   They couldn’t afford to admit that they’d allowed far too much deregulation.  And they really did convince themselves that the children would behave, even when faced with a very large box of delicious sweets.  

Virtually everything seems obvious with hindsight.  But we often don’t spot obvious things in advance. There are good reasons for cognitive dissoance being part of our highly evolved mental software: we need well developed mental models to make sense of the world around us.  But these internal models can have dangerous side effects.   As Mark Twain said, we can easily end up ‘believing things that just ain’t true’.

Here’s the BBC’s Robert Peston writing on his blog this morning:

“The breathtaking rises in the price of bank shares this morning are symptomatic of a stock market that is bereft of reason and is being driven almost purely by hysteria and momentum.”

Posted in economic meltdown, economists, psychology, thinking | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

A Consultantese/English Dictionary

Posted by Andrew Cooper on September 16, 2008

A dictionary

A dictionary

Whitehall Webby Jeremy Gould has posted some excellent examples of the awful management jargon which messes up the minds and thinking of managers in organisations, including government departments.  It’s particulary tragic, as I noted in a previous post, to see this going on in Whitehall.

Many years of campaigning against this toxic misuse of language has failed and it seems that we are doomed to live with it forever.  So the best we can do is to attempt to understand what it all means, so far as that is possible.  With this in mind, in 1997 I wrote a Consultantese/English Dictionary.  I updated it a little in 2004 and I’ve just added a PS.

You can download a small PDF of the document here.  Please feel free to pass on a link to this post, or the PDF itself if you prefer, as I’m obviously doing this in an attempt at shameless self promotion.  (Unlike the mega-consultancies, I don’t have a mega advertising budget.)

As you’ll see, the PS is a request for more examples.  Unfortunately there are hundreds, if not thousands, in common use.  Only one of Jeremy’s top 5 actually appears in my dictionary, for example. Perhaps we should turn this into an open source project.  When I have a moment I might set up a wiki.

You would think, wouldn’t you, that organisations would be getting the message about this.  They aren’t. Take a look at this example which I came across only last week, but be warned: you’ll need a strong stomach if you’re going to get past the horrendous first paragraph.

Please ignore the odd typo: I’ll sort them out at, er, some point.  I actually quite like ‘…rather than the latte.’ and might leave it in, just for fun.

Posted in consultancy, consultantese, dictionary, jaron, psychology, thinking | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Councillors, MPs, thinking time and cognitive surplus

Posted by Andrew Cooper on September 13, 2008

Without going into the gory details, a Facebook group set up to save the building you can see here has helped to persuade our local council to turn down a planning application to demolish it and redevelop the site.  This has left a £5m hole in the budget for the brand new £40m school we’re supposed to be getting.  Regular readers will know our son is in his penultimate year at the school in question.

It’s a bit difficult to understand why the council, who are in the lead on the replacement project, turned down the application.  Clearly the Facebook group and a local petition had a massive influence on councillors when they voted, but I’d be surprised if the 700 or so people who objected represented the majority view.  The words ‘foot’ and ‘shoot’ spring to mind.

When I mentioned this to Sam – who has spent much of the last five years being taught in the building in question – he said ‘Why do they want to keep it?  It’s awful.’  I said I thought that nostalgia was probably a big factor as most of the objectors are former, rather than current, students.  Also, of course, there’s the fact that people do like objecting to things: it’s much easier than having to come up with creative solutions.

Over the past few years I’ve worked a lot with local councillors and have been very impressed by them as individuals.  The are passionate, committed to their lcommunities, willing to spend hours and hours in meetings (my idea of purgatory, if not hell, I must say) and generally spend masses of their own time attempting to make life better for local people.

They have much more difficult and demanding job than MPs – backbenchers, at least, don’t have any real responsibility at all, they get a very good salary (and an even better pension and allowances package) and work in the Palace of Westminster with with its wonderful library, restaurants and bars.  I’ve seen MPs up close too and, for those who want it to be, there’s is a cushy life.

The main problem that councillors face is, quite simply, overload.  They just don’t have time to think properly.  Much of what they do is very detailed – dealing with complaints, planning applications, the latest of (many) reports churned out by their officials (or consultants hired by them) on instructions from Whitehall, and so on.  Because they don’t have time to think, they occasionally (and in this case, very expensively: it’s costing £30K a week to keep the new school project on hold while a solution is found to the funding problem) end up in foot-shooting scenarios as a result.

So, how do we fix this?  Yep, it’s the good old cognitive surplus once again.  There’s lots of thinking power sitting around in the community, but at present it often gets used in rather destructive ways like, in my view, the Save Luker campaign.  People have a right to try to stop things they don’t like, but let’s try to make sure that they don’t like them for really good reasons, rather than simply because they don’t like them.

As Prof Shirky has pointed out, social media and modern technology generally can be used in much more productive ways than simply organising petitions.  We can use it to engage people’s brains in thinking creatively.  I’m doing some work locally which is aimed at achieving just that.  More on that story later, but first I have to finish building a website or two.

Posted in cognitive surplus, consultancy, creativity, government, innovation, thinking | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Cognitive surplus – mind mapping

Posted by Andrew Cooper on September 6, 2008

I first came across mind maps in the 1970s at an Open University summer school and have been using them ever since.  According to this article, mind maps were being used back in 13th Century (and perhaps a lot earlier) but the man who is most associated with them these days is Tony Buzan who has published some good books on the subject (and also trade-marked the term ‘mind map’ – perhaps I should trade mark ‘er, but’ and make millions!).

Anyway, most of my mind maps are scribbled in note books: I use them questions for interviews, plans for reports and projects, to do lists, brainstorming and so on. I’ve never been much of a fan of computer based mind map generators and am not impressed by Buzan’s iMindmap product.  However I came across this online mind map generator, which hails from Rumania, last night and it looks very impressive.  Give it a go and see what you think

Posted in cognitive surplus, creativity, innovation, psychology, thinking | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Back and blogging again

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 25, 2008

Well, Dorset was very pleasant indeed as you can see from the photo.  But I’m now back, recharged and blogging again.

View from the farmhouse in which we stayed in deepest Dorset.

View from the farmhouse in which we stayed in deepest Dorset.

While I was away I wrote (as in ‘with a pen, in a notebook’) a short review of Here Comes Everybody (see numerous previous posts) for Newbury Library’s newsletter, Bookworm.  Mrs Mindworks, who works at Newbury Library, suggested this.

I’ve set up another WordPress blog so that I can introduce readers of the newsletter to some of the social media that Shirky mentions, together with some of his reference sources.  You can find the blog via www.cognitivesurplus.net, if you’re interested in finding out more about the book.  I’ll be adding more material and links over the next couple of days.  Incidentally, the review won’t be published in the newsletter until at least next month.

More news re. developments on a number of projects I’m working on, including my retail experiment, will follow later this week.

Posted in cognitive surplus, innovation, psychology, thinking | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Yet another idea for the Whitehall Innovation Hub

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 13, 2008

Based on the responses I’ve been getting via email, I think it’s fair to say that few people think that the government should be spending more than it does already on management consultants.

So, what’s to be done?  Well, how about a dose of wikinomics?  It’s certainly taken off in a big way in the private sector so I think it’s time to try it in the public sector.

How would a wikinomics model of management consultancy work?  I think it would be very straightforward. Government departments would set up wikis describing problems they wanted solved, new systems they’d like set up, Olympic games from which they’d like lessons learned,  and so on.

Anyone – members of the public, experts, academics, freelance consultants, civil servants and so on – could pitch in with ideas for dealing with whatever is published on the wiki.

Some responses might solve the problem then and there (‘I’ve seen that problem before, and this is how it was fixed’ or ‘Here’s one way you could build that new agency that ministers have dreamed up…’ or ‘You’re describing the symptoms and not the problem’) and so on.  In my experience, it’s the thinking that goes on before management consultants are hired that’s often the problem: organisations dig theselves in before they really know exactly what they want to do.  In other cass, it would be necessary to bring in outside help but only after things had been thought through properly.

Worth a try, isn’t it?  Could save millions.  Open source consultancy might be another name for it.  Tapping into that cognitive surplus once again and exploiting the fact that social media reduce transaction costs to virtually nothing.  Think of all that spare thinking capacity that’s currently wasted which could be brought into play.

A barrier to all this is that it might leave ministers with very little to do.  Politicians pretty much agree on what I call the ‘whats’ – we should all be healthier, wealthier, wiser and safer.  So they have to differentiate themselves from one another by coming up with headline grabbing ‘hows’.  In other words, they have to specify what they are going to change before they’ve even thought it through properly. ‘Let’s reduce terrorist attacks by forcing everyone to buy ID cards’ for example ‘the terrorists will never be able to think of a way around that!’.  (I think the ‘what’ for ID cards may have changed since the almost-certainly-disatrous system was proposed.)  If the Daily Mail thinks a particular how is a good thing that’s what we’re going to get.

It’s not politicians fault that they have to tinker randomly with headline grabbing and often ill thought through hows. That’s how the system works: it incentivises tinkering.  If the public were really involved in working out the hows for themselves – via open source consultancy – how on earth would politiicans distinguish themselves from one another?  It’d probably all come down to having good hair.

Incidentally, a poll currently online here asking the question ‘Do you believe there is sufficient IT expertise within government …. to deliver egovernmentand trans-government (sic.) ambitions?’.  The overwhelming response is ‘not bloody likely’, or stats to that effect.  Let’s hope that whoever is responsible for fixing the problem has read the NAO and PAC reports which point out that a good way of bridging the defecit would be not to hire yet more consultants.  It just ups the internal cognitive deficit, as we’ve already agreed.

Posted in cognitive surplus, consultancy, creativity, government, innovation, Network of minds, thinking | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Desert Island Quotes

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 11, 2008

What ten quotes would you take with you to a desert island?

Well it’s been a difficult choice Kirsty, but here they are in no particular order.

Always the more beautiful answer who asks the more beautiful question.e e cummings

“Theories should be as simple as possible, but no simpler”. Albert Einstein’s restatement of Occam’s Razor Although he is often quoted as saying this, his actual words weren’t quite so elegant: see the quote starting “It can scarcely denied that all theory..” on this page.

“Let’s pretend it isn’t and see what happens.” Rabbit’s reply to Winnie the Pooh one morning when Pooh happened along and said “Hello Rabbit, is that you?”

“I think it would be a good idea.” Mahatma Ghandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization during a visit to the UK.  (There’s a wonderful list of Ghandi quotes at wikiquote.)

“For every complex problem, there’s a solution that’s neat, elegant and wrong.” H L Menken (Again, this is an often quoted paraphrase of the original.  But it’s still a good quote.)

“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.” Leonardo da Vinci discussing cognitive dissonance 500 years before the term was coined.

“Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” William Shakespeare, prologue to Henry Vth.  I think that prologue is wonderful – the bard himself (probably, but it doesn’t matter if it isn’t) inviting us to use our imagination.

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.”

Doc Danneka explaining why Yossarian can’t leave the air force on the grounds of claimed insanity in the wonderful strange loop that is Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

“Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”  Winston Churchill, who never read a book about management in his life or hired a single management consultant, demonstrating what leadership is all about in a speech given at Harrow School on 29th October 1941

‘If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother to try to teach them. Instead, give them a tool the use of which will lead them to new ways of thinking.’ Buckminster Fuller

And if I could only take one, Kirsty?  Probably the first one.

A luxury?  Would it be possible to have WordPress together with a supply of laptops and a fast broadband link?  Only if I promised not to use it to communicate with anyone else? Yep, that’s absolutely fine.

Posted in creativity, Network of minds, thinking, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Moving into retail – update

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 5, 2008

Just a few more bits and pieces to put in place and we’ll be at ignition sequence start for my experiment in retail.  Meanwhile, here’s a sneak preview of the cover sheet for the Mindworks Approach Starter Pack which will soon be available to purchase (along with by-the-hour online coaching, a Booster Pack and a surprise Mindworks new offering) via …. well I’ll leave the ‘via’ until I’ve made a final decision on whether to use the particular channel I have in mind.  Watch this space.

Posted in consultancy, creativity, innovation, thinking | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Some thoughts for the Whitehall Innovation Hub

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 5, 2008

Thanks to a post on Simon’s blog (Simon, as you’ll recall from earlier posts, is WordPress’s representative on planet Earth and, like me, a former civil servant though not quite so former as I am) I now know that something called the Whitehall Innovation Hub has been created at the National School of Government (or the Ecole Nationale D’Administration, as I think they’d like to be thought of, having apparently downgraded themselves from a college to a school via various name changes)

Simon’s post was the fifth hit on Google when I searched for this just now – see this – the ranking may have changed since I searched, but the top four hits were from egovmonitor.com, publictechnology.net and Simon.  So Simon, a freelance web consultant who lives just down the road from me, is in the top three organisations to break the news at the place most people will go to find out what’s going on – Google.  That says something.

Anyway, as this blog is entirely about people and their ability to innovate, I feel a public duty to throw my half-pence worth into the debate.  I often ask people what they would do if they were running their organisation (the results are always interesting, particularly if you ask them privately and promise not to tell anyone) so this is what I’d do if I was running the Hub.

  1. Stop doing all the things which stop people innovating. Large organisations are virtually designed to stop people innovating and as the civil service (aka Whitehall) is a very large organisation, it’s full of things that stop people innovating.  There’s a good reason for this: if everyone innovated all the time life would be chaotic: everything would continuously be changing  and no one would know what the heck was going on.  So ignore that first sentence.  But I really would look hard at barriers to innovation and find ways of unblocking them.  It’s not rocket science.
  2. I’d also look hard at Whitehall’s tendency to hire other people to do its thinking.  I’ve banged on enough about the £3bn public sector bill for consultants in one year – £1.8bn of which was in Whitehall – which raised the PAC’s collective eyebrows somewhat.  But it’s simply a fact that if you hire other people to think for you, you aren’t  doing the thinking.  And that stops you from learning.  Innovation is largely about learning, so this is a Bad Thing.  We need civil servants to be innovating themselves, and given the tsunami of money that’s been thrown at consultants, I doubt whether they’ve had much practice recently.  They don’t even get to firefight, and firefighting provides massive potential for learning.  I linked to this management consultant’s blog over the weekend.  She argues that civil servants can’t firefight  so someone has to pay her £1000 a day to do it for them.  Big missed opportunity.
  3. Next (or, more likely, at the same time) I’d talk to some innovators.  I wouldn’t sit in Sunningdale, lovely place though it is, thinking great thoughts about innovation, consulting leading academics, chewing the cud with NESTA, IDeA, the Design Council and the rest (although I’d certainly have a chat with them and ask them to write their advice on one side of A4).  I’d be out and about, finding innovators at all levels in the government machine and videoing them with my Flip camera (did I mention I have a Flip camera?) to find out how they were able to do it.  Then I’d post the interviews to Youtube so that everyone else could find out.  That would be both simple and fun.
  4. The Hub is going to look at incentives, so I’d have to think about that.  I’ve touched on this before.  Really good innovators should have the incentive of earning a lot of money.  That usually works as an incentive.  They could even, as I suggested in an earlier post, earn more than their bosses.  Happens all the time elsewhere.  So I’d look at that idea too. And I do mean innovators and not inventors – see below.
  5. I’d think hard about creating a career civil service again.  This sounds dreadfully old fashioned, but I’d re-read Arie de Geus’s The Living Company to remind myself that it isn’t.  De Gues (a senior manager at Shell for many years, not a guru, consultant or member of a think tank) uses the analogy of companies as organisms to analyse why some companies (unlike most) have particularly long lives.  He even refers to Richard Dawkins (who was excellent on Channel 4 last night, I thought, not least because he pretty much kept away from the whole God thing).  Many of the best companies grow and nurture their own talent, rather than hiring it in.  The logic for doing so, both in terms of cost effectiveness and building the internal capability to manage/innovate is, to my mind, irrefutable.  I think the Public Accounts Committee agrees with me.
  6. I’d get on and do some innovating in my own team. Act as a role model.  I’d run the whole thing online and not have an office.  As I’ve already established on this blog, 99.8% of people don’t have good ideas in offices and the other .2% only say they do to impress their bosses.  I don’t have an office already (unless you count the converted end of my garage, from which I write, and it’s much too pleasant and useful to be called an office) so I’ve got a head start.  I once met a brilliant local government direct services manager who didn’t have an office either.  He spent all his time out and about with customers, suppliers and his people.  On the few occasions he went into HQ he used a spare desk or an empty meeting room. He also had some really good ways of managing: for example, he asked all the people who worked for him in managerial jobs to improve at least one thing they or their teams were doing every month.  That’s innovation and that’s the sort of person I’d want to video with my Flip.  Simple.
  7. I’m going to stop at 1000 words (post posting note: this turned out to be wrong), and WordPress is telling me that that was 902 so I’ll have to be quick.  Above all I’d find ways of tapping into what Clay Shirky calls the ‘cognitive surplus’.  Watch the youtube at this post to find out what he means.  And I don’t just mean the cognitive surplus of civil servants, although they must have some surplus, what with all those consultants doing all the thinking and that. I mean the cognitive surplus of the public – us – the people that civil servants are serving.  Customers can innovate too.  A very good way of tapping into cognitive surplus is to use the same technology that I’m using to communicate these blindingly obvious thoughts, as Mr Shirky also – rather brilliantly, in my view – points out.
  8. Lastly I’d work hard to stop ministers – and Prime Ministers – from meddling and try to persuade them to lead instead.  For reasons I’ll have to mention in another post, this could be problematic.  But imagine if Gordon Brown had made the speech shown here?  If our PM had been President during the Apollo programme he would, every morning at 6.00am, have phoned Von Braun to ask how it was going and to offer his own thoughts on booster separation technology and the design of the LEM.  Enough said.

I’m sure  that all this will have occurred to the seconded academics and Design Council, NESTA and IDeA people etc. who make up the Hub, but at least I’ve got it off my chest.

PS – have just emailed a link to this to Clay Shirky.  If the hubbers get him to talk to them – as I think they should – I think I deserve a cut of his fee, don’t you? :0

Posted in consultancy, creativity, government, innovation, Network of minds, thinking | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Brainies latest!

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 2, 2008

Here’s the latest nomination for the Brainies Awards (see tab above), from Kennet Shopping supremo Mag Williams.  It needs a post of its very own because it comes complete with a picture. Extra points there, and she worked in a brand new invention of her own!  (Note the points aren’t actually worth anything as, unless I change my mind, the winner will be randomly selected.}

“I struggled to come up with an ‘all time’ favourite innovation, there must be so many. Not only that but the best innovations are often the simplest and because they are so simple they get taken for granted and overlooked.

I decided to plump for something that I use a lot and gives me a lot of fun. It also encourages people to make friends with me (even if I don’t want them to!) when they want something created like posters or their mates large head put on a small body of something different.

The innovation I chose was Corel Paint Shop Pro or Adobe Photoshop. I don’t use either to their full extent but I’m self taught and like to think if I had training I’d be pretty good at it.

Apart from the innovation, following on from your bisociation blog Andrew, I think it’s imperative to have a nuclear kettle to go with your nuclear teapot!”

Beat that, Dave Gorman!  Hmm – you know, I think he has chickened out.  Perhaps he couldn’t think of anything.  Time to invite my second celebrity guest nominator and to relegate Mr Gorman to the B list.  My second target has already been mentioned on the blog, incidentally.

Posted in creativity, innovation, thinking, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Hofstadter’s Law

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 2, 2008

Some industrial activity

Some industrial activity

Over at Oliver Burkeman’s always excellent “This column will change your life” column in the Guardian, this week’s piece is about Hofstadter’s Law.  To quote:

“Hofstadter’s law, conceived by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, goes like this: any task you’re planning to complete will always take longer than expected – even when Hofstadter’s law is taken into account.”

Burkeman then goes on to discuss why this might be and what could be done about it.  The Law certainly applies to everything from building Olympics venues to even the most basic repairs to my bike.

The column also discusses the brilliantly named “ready, fire, aim” approach to planning:

“Better yet, where possible, avoid planning altogether. Use the “ready, fire, aim” approach, and correct course as you go along. As the blogger Steve Pavlina points out, the advantage is you quickly start getting real feedback. If you’re starting a new business, say, you won’t have to imagine how customers might respond to your adverts; you’ll know.”

This is exactly what I’m doing with my attempt at moving into retail, after taking Roger Croft’s advice: see below.

Meanwhile, having been playing with WordPress’s tags, I discovered this (anonymous) consultant bemoaning the fact that the government department for which he is working only pays £500.00 a day so the ‘programme’ on which he’s working has to find the rest of his £1000 a day fee.   (No problem with that, obviously, I’m sure that he’s delivering £1000 of value each and every day and, after all, the government does have to hit its target of spending £3bn a year on consultants.)  What I do have a problem with is his description of management consultancy as an ‘industry’.  God help us.   Business or profession perhaps, but ‘industry’?  I don’t think so. When people start referring to estate agency as an ‘industry’ we’ll know that our economy has finally collapsed.

Posted in consultancy, creativity, innovation, planning, thinking | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Stress testing

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 2, 2008

A destruction test

A destruction test

I notice from their website that one of the large consultancy firms offers ‘stress testing’ of policies as one of their services to government.  This is a more circumspect version of the ‘destruction testing’ phrase I often use when talking about the rigorous evaluation of ideas.  (You couldn’t actually say to a client who you’re hoping will give you some of the £3bn spent annually on public sector consultants “We’re going to destruction test your daft ideas”, obviously. although given the not-entirely-joined-up nature of some current policies – e.g. budget support – I wish government departments would do more of this.)

I’ve been engaged in an email discussion with a close relative of mine of my Systems Party idea (see “Power to the People”) in an attempt at some stress testing.  He’s 83 and, without doubt, a WOB (Wise Old Bird).  Here are a couple of responses I’ve sent to his emails.

Dear L,

I  take your points, and this is just a thought experiment, of course, but I don’t think that the debates under my proposed system need to be anything like discussions in pubs, or trials for that matter.

I’m suggesting that one of the main problems with the existing system – at least so far as debates in the House of Commons and in the media are concerned  – is that they are adversarial.  Also, there’s a ridiculous, in my view, obsession with ratings and how popular individuals are with the public.  There’s no obvious correlation between popularity and ability to take part in governing the country.  A politician who handed out £20 notes on street corners would be very popular – in fact Mobutu, when he was President of Zaire – used to do just this.  My friend Tom in Dar es Salaam once worked in what was Zaire and he tells me that Mobutu used to drive around in his limousine throwing bank notes out of the windows.  He was very popular but not entirely effective.

I think it would be possible to arrange debates in such a way that most people could understand what was being presented to them, what kinds of decisions could be taken and what the likely outcomes of these decisions might be.   If the focus was trying to understand problems, and then to get civil servants and others to proposed well reasoned solutions, debate could be constructive rather than destructive.  Of course, Parliamentary Committees already work like this to some extent, although they still seem to revel in tearing apart those who appear before them rather than engaging in intelligent discussion.

All a bit academic, obviously, as the current system doesn’t have built into it the means of achieving any significant change.

Andrew

Dear L,

I think the ‘who’ that gives the presentation is ‘people who know what they are talking about’ and the way they do it is via the internet.

I’ve followed the Wikipedia project for some years, and have contributed some material to it.  For a while it was very patchy, but many of the articles – in fact, all the articles I use – are excellent.  If you want to know what there is to know about democracy for example, there’s a (to my mind) very good article here, complete with a management summary.  Here are articles on fascism and communism.

I use web feeds – which provide a way of checking changes to a web page without having to visit it – to track a few articles that particularly interest me, and to which I refer other people, just to keep an eye on what changes are being made.  I monitor this article, and this one, for example, both of which I know a fair amount about and are certainly very good.  The whole encyclopedia is produced by people around the world with an interest in the various topic areas and ‘policed’ by moderators (often students) who can control edits.  Very occasionally, these days, I’ll edit something and I often get an email within 5 minutes or so to tell me that someone has edited my edit!

To my mind there’s no reason why something similar shouldn’t  be used to present material to my randomly selected MPs for consideration before they are presented with policy options (there would generally be three, I think: do nothing, do something radical, do something incremental).  Each wikipedia page is, incidentally, accompanied by a ‘discussion’ page (see the tabs at the top) on which contributors can discuss the information presented in the relevant article.  Here’s the one for the Wright brothers, for example.

Before voting, the MPs would have to take a test to work out whether they’d understood the analysis.  Anyone who failed would be given help to understand why and then asked to try again before voting.  I think there would probably have to be a rule which said that those who repeatedly failed the test would be fired, but hopefully the massive salary and expenses package would provide some motivation for them to try to do well!

So, I think I’ve answered that question.  Any more?!

Andrew

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