The Chris Argyris memorial column #23: How to blame less and learn more

“Accountability. We hear a lot about it. It’s a buzzword. Politicians should be accountable for their actions; social workers for the children they are supervising; nurses for their patients. But there’s a catastrophic problem with our concept of accountability.Consider the case of Peter Connelly, better known as Baby P, a child who died at the hands of his mother, her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s brother in 2007. The perpetrators were sentenced to prison. But the media focused its outrage on a different group: mainly his social worker, Maria Ward, and Sharon Shoesmith, director of children’s services. The local council offices were surrounded by a crowd holding placards. In interviews, protesters and politicians demanded their sacking. “They must be held accountable,” it was said.

“Many were convinced that the social work profession would improve its performance in the aftermath of the furore. This is what people think accountability looks like: a muscular response to failure. It is about forcing people to sit up and take responsibility. As one pundit put it: “It will focus minds.”

“Should they have been penalised? Or censured? The industry commissioned an investigator to probe deeper. He found that the two switches were identical and side by side. Under the pressure of a difficult landing, pilots were pressing the wrong switch. It was an error trap, an indication that human error often emerges from deeper systemic factors. The industry responded not by sacking the pilots but by attaching a rubber wheel to the landing-gear switch and a small flap shape to the flaps control. The buttons now had an intuitive meaning, easily identified under pressure. Accidents of this kind disappeared overnight.

This is sometimes called forward accountability: the responsibility to learn lessons so that future people are not harmed by avoidable mistakes.”

via How to blame less and learn more | Matthew Syed | Comment is free | The Guardian.

Easy to Ignore


Profound implications for service design. As if.

Originally posted on It's complicated with my Exe:

Yesterday morning I woke up stupidly early and it was soon clear I wasn’t going to get back to sleep. I thought that if I was up anyway, I might as well head to the office and be productive.

I walked into the city centre, but as I made my way down Old Tiverton Road, approaching the junction with Sidwell Street, I watched three thin figures – two women and a man – make their way on the same route, but pausing at each domestic bin that had been left out to sift through the contents nearest the top.

One woman held on to a high-strength cider can, and the male was clutching a small, tatty teddy bear – I imagine claimed from one of the bins. As they reached an office on the corner, I watched them lever open a wall-mounted cigarette bin, and as the contents fell to the…

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Leadership is a social phenomenon…

What is Leadership? I ask the question, as I believe that most of the time, most people, have difficulty answering this question.

“The difficulty lies in that leadership is a social phenomenon, which appears differently depending on the context. Leadership within a group of fire fighters evacuating a building and dealing with a blaze, will be utterly different to that of a group of academics running a University department. Indeed, precisely what made the fire fighters effective in leadership would make these academics ineffective.

(I make a similar point in my book ‘Navigating Complexity: the essential guide to complexity theory in business and management’ in the chapter called ‘Network and hierarchy’. )

“What if we could define Leadership as the ability to mobilise yourself and others towards a particular focus? How that then shows up will be different in different contexts and different moments in time.

“And how then, do we develop leadership, if it’s different moment by moment and in each different context?

“For me Leadership Development comes down to 4 key elements that” you can read about here:

– See more at:

“You could say we can state the configuration space, since it’s simply a classical, 6N-dimensional phase space.”

This made me smile and then laugh.

“You could say we can state the configuration space, since it’s simply a classical, 6N-dimensional phase space.”

Well, duh.

I often say that. I was in the queue in my corner shop last night and I said it. Always gets a laugh.

“It is important to note how strange this is. In statistical mechanics we start with the famous liter volume of gas, and the molecules are bouncing back and forth, and it takes six numbers to specify the position and momentum of each particle. It’s essential to begin by describing the set of all possible configurations and momenta of the gas, giving you a 6N dimensional phase space. You then divide it up into little 6N dimensional boxes and do statistical mechanics. But you begin by being able to say what the configuration space is. Can we do that for the biosphere?

“I’m going to try two answers. Answer one is No. We don’t know what Darwinian pre adaptations are going to be, which supplies an arrow of time. The same thing is true in the economy; we can’t say ahead of time what technological innovations are going to happen. Nobody was thinking of the Web 300 years ago. The Romans were using things to lob heavy rocks, but they certainly didn’t have the idea of cruise missiles. So I don’t think we can do it for the biosphere either, or for the econosphere.

“You might say that it’s just a classical phase space—leaving quantum mechanics out—and I suppose you can push me. You could say we can state the configuration space, since it’s simply a classical, 6N-dimensional phase space. But we can’t say what the macroscopic variables are, like wings, paramecium detectors, big brains, ears, hearing and flight, and all of the things that have come to exist in the biosphere.

“All of this says to me that my tentative definition of an autonomous agent is a fruitful one, because it’s led to all of these questions. I think I’m opening new scientific doors. The question of how the universe got complex is buried in this question about Maxwell’s demon, for example, and how the biosphere got complex is buried in everything that I’ve said. We don’t have any answers to these questions; I’m not sure how to get answers. This leaves me appalled by my efforts, but the fact that I’m asking what I think are fruitful questions is why I’m happy with what I’m doing.”

This is top quality stand-up, if you are a fan of Sheldon and The Big Bang Theory.

My favorite management guru: Miles Davis

One of the most tiresome cliches you’ll ever hear is that teamwork is like a jazz group improvising. Said by people who know nothing about jazz, or improvising.

Here are some statements about Miles Davis.

He was an absolute bastard to work for. (For example, he stole Dave Holland from The Trio just at the point that they were the most important group ever in British jazz, destroying that group, and had him play the same 6 note riff for a fortnight.)

Every jazz musician dreamt of working with him.

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America is a useful crystal bellwether for us: we will have these battles soon…

If you have children, or care about the future or both, then read this. Here are some extracts from a blog about the need for playtime and the upcoming teachers strike in Seattle. America is a useful crystal bellwether for us: we will have these battles soon…

“The union proposes tripling the amount of recess time for young children, demanding a minimum of 45 minutes a day on the playground (a number that this reporter still finds abusively low). The school district remains staunchly in favor of keeping the kids in their seats, even arguing for longer school days, a cruelty I can hardly stomach.
“I admire and respect teachers like Jesse Hagopian who are willing and able to stand up and lead, and while every teacher I know supports the union in this negotiation, every single one of them will also be heartbroken when schools do not open on time. You see, for most of us, teaching is more a calling than a vocation. Most of us would still do it even if we were paid less. We would do it even if our working conditions were worse. We would show up to teach every day no matter what, because we don’t do it for the money or the prestige or the security — we do it for the children. This is what makes our profession great, of course, but it is also a lever that our opponents use against us which is why we need our unions and our activist leaders. It’s also why we need parents to stick with us, even when it’s inconvenient like it is when teachers strike. Most of us, most of the time, are doing it for your children.
“Whatever happens in the coming days, please know that: they are doing it for your children.”