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.

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.

Play Makes Us Human I: A Ludic Theory of Human Nature | Psychology Today

I’m prompted to share this by way of explanation for why I continue to be fascinated by play.

As you know, there are two audiences for my musings, largely alien to each other. That’s why I’m so niche: the Venn diagram overlap is miniscule.

This one is for Ben Taylor in particular, but really it’s for any management type who doesn’t get why this frivolous thing is so important to business.

It’s also for any play type who doesn’t think biggly enough about play.

And for the record, I’m on record, a broken record in both senses, as saying

“Through play we become human”

well before Peter Gray, who I admire (and I don’t say that often).

Curing kids of the notion that they suck at science – Boing Boing

Q: “Can a new computer-assisted teaching program rid us of the cognitive errors that lead to students believing they suck at math or just aren’t cut out to study science?”

A: No.

How would playworkers do it?

Fascinating. School learns to problem-solve kids behaviour collaboratively, rather than punishing it.

Reminds me of a certain play blog, which featured a 12 year old boy swinging a ‘teepee cane’ about, like it was a samurai sword or a lightsabre, which of course it was, despite some control-freak grownup having designated said bamboo cane to be a ‘teepee cane’. It was, as Wittgenstein would have reminded her, a cane and as such it will remain a fungible ‘loose part’, whilst still embodying its essential caneyness. I digress.

“Can I help you?” said the playworker, momentarily forgetting that she wasn’t working in Boots. Not very playwork.

So how would the Way of Playworking tackle the examples raised in this article?

This is the first question to interest me for a long while.

Over to you dear readers….

Climbing the tree: the case for chimpanzee ‘personhood’

I’m serious. Grant chimpanzees human rights, before they all get killed and eaten. ‘Bush meat’ is cannibalism.

The Latin name for our species is Homo sapiens. “Wise man”.How does that grab you, ladies? Rubbish name. Excludes 51% of the frugging species.

And ‘wise man’? You’re having a laugh, mate. Homo ludens? Better. We is good at laughing, telling jokes and stuff. Showing off. Ladies seem to like that. Homo bellicus? The warlike man? That too. As Douglas Adams pointed out, we think we are more intelligent than dolphins because all they do is fuck about in the sea and eat fish, whereas we invented war machines and nuclear bombs. Dolphins think they are more intelligent than humans because all they do is fuck about in the sea and eat fish, whereas humans invented war machines and nuclear bombs.

An actual wise man, IMHO Jack Cohen, suggested that we rename us Pan Narrans, the storytelling ape. Because we share 99% of our DNA with 2 other chimpanzees, the famous chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes, and the critically endangered, polyamourous, feminist, peaceful Bonobo, Pan paniscus, the gracile ape. We are just the third chimpanzee. We stand upright, lost most of our fur, talk and invent stuff. Big hairy deal.

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal by Jared Diamond

(“Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen are the source of the coinage Pan narrans, of which they say
”We are not Homo sapiens, Wise Man. We are the third chimpanzee. What distinguishes us from the ordinary chimpanzee Pan troglodytes and the bonobo chimpanzee Pan paniscus, is something far more subtle than our enormous brain, three times as large as theirs in proportion to body weight. It is what that brain makes possible. And the most significant contribution that our large brain made to our approach to the universe was to endow us with the power of story. We are Pan narrans, the storytelling ape”… “…if you understand the power of story, and learn to detect abuses of it, you might actually deserve the appellation Homo sapiens”

The Science of Discworld II: the Globe, Terry Patchett with Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, Ebury Press 2002 )

I don’t need to remind my management consultant chums of the power of storytelling. Or my politician chums, if I had any.


‘Bush meat’ is cannibalism. Show that we are wise and compassionate, that we deserve the label ‘sapiens’: grant chimpanzees human rights, before they are all  killed and eaten.

Those Planet of the Apes movies don’t help either.