Category Archives: Myths

Counter-intuition: the key to change?

Like it or not, our brains are biologically structured to process information in two distinct ways (more actually, but we will focus on two here). On one hand we can process huge amounts of routine, familiar information, whilst on the other hand we are also adept at processing novel information.

Having a brain that can quickly process vast amounts of routine information is very helpful; it allows us to work on auto-pilot when we want to think about other things. If we step out from a dark hallway onto a busy, sunlit street, we do not feel overloaded with information. Instead we fit what we see, hear and smell into our mental models (‘paradigms’ in the technical jargon) and filter the information to best understand what is happening and where we are – and we go about our business of the day.

Much as this might be a strength, it can also be a hindrance. Even the predators of human prehistory adapted successful strategies to exploit this weakness. The crouching tiger hidden in the bushes can easily remain unseen to the unsuspecting passer-by until it is too late…

tiger in the bushes
You probably will not see the tiger until it makes a move

Fortunately we are not simply data-processors; the architecture of our brain provides other capabilities. If we perceive something unfamiliar, such as the backfire of a car engine, we notice it. If a carnival procession turns into the street we notice it. We adapt both our expectations and our behaviour. If movement is noticed in the bushes we ready ourselves for fight or flight – let’s hope it is not a tiger!

Learning works on this counter-intuitive level. John Seddon often talks about revealing counter-intuitive truths to open people’s minds to change. Neuroscience describes this as ‘cognitive dissonance’; stopping our mind from processing automatically and setting us up to restructure our thinking.

Charles Jacobs (2009) suggests that change is as much about re-structuring thinking as it is changing things like IT systems, team members, job descriptions, terms and conditions, performance measures or budgets. The latter are all methods which , although familiar ‘instruments of change’, are misunderstood or poorly executed. Furthermore just implementing new ‘stuff’ can be observed by somewhat cynically by employees as either management tinkering or a lame or half-baked compromise. The result is little or no lasting change.

A game-changing approach is more effective. Jacobs’ describes how Mahatma Gandhi chose to meet violence with non-violence, breaking the cycle of escalation and opening a different dialogue for change.

In managing change, we need to take more account of what needs to be done to change people’s minds. According to Jacobs, to “stop the way people are thinking now and create a new way of thinking that will drive the behaviour we need to achieve the future…”


Further Reading:

Deming W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Jacobs, C.J. (2009) Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science, Penguin Group Portfolio, NY

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

Once again – the impact of incremental change

murrayIn the light of previous sporting posts it would seem improper not to refer to Andy Murray’s historic men’s singles tennis victory at Wimbledon – the first by a Briton in 77 years. Can we link his achievements with ‘change and improvement’?

One key element worth reflecting upon is Murray’s level of improvement in the last 12 months since working with new coach Ivan Lendl. This period has seen Murray win Olympic gold and also achieve a first grand slam title at the US Open; an ascencion in the sport which culminated in Sunday’s epic Wimbledon final. Ahead of these breakthrough achievements, Murray’s quote following the 2012 French Open is notable:

“There’s not been one radical change. A lot of it is minor details. But if you pick 10 small things to work on and change, that can turn into a big difference.” Andy Murray

This reminds me of a previous post; British cycling coach Dave Brailsford applies the same philosophy in bringing his team to world-conquering levels of performance. They key is that these cases hold a common belief in learning and continuous improvement – they see significant change as a set of small, relevant (and often testable) improvements – working on the system to improve capability.

Change which is focused on these aspects enables you to influence your success; work on what you CAN influence in the reasonable hope that improvements will overcome the factors over which you have no control (like the weather or how well the other person is playing). More effective thinking like this may help our teams, our services, our performance, our generation of knowledge to become even better.

Covey, S. (1989) 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Shuster, New York, NY.

Deming, W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Juran, J. (1989) Juran on Leadership For Quality, The Free Press, NY


Integrity – wholeness and cohesiveness

Culture change is not something that you 'do' to people
Culture change: not something that you ‘do’ to people – unless you want to risk negative consequences

Dennis Bakke highlights in his book ‘Joy at Work’, the difference between saying to workers, ‘we really care about your welfare because we do,’ and the suggestion, ‘we care about your welfare because that will make you work harder for us’. The former offers a sense of value, the latter is more cynical.

The sentiment of valuing people has natural  appeal – caring about the people who work with us simply makes sense. But at work – what does caring about people really mean?

Many organisations have ‘people programmes’ or ‘culture change’ initiatives. Do these help?

As John Seddon has often said, respect for people is not a point of intervention – it is not something you ‘do’ to people. Deming repeatedly talked about two things concerning people – the need to maintain dignity and self-esteem. Anything that robs people of these two factors is counterproductive (and as Deming also emphasised,  disrespectful).

The culture that appears in any organisation – the behaviours, ways of being, talking and doing – is a symptom of the way things are set up in the organisation (the ‘system’ as Deming would call it). The fall-out from an organisation’s culture (too numerous to discuss here), can be positive or negative.

As an example, a familiar type of negative fall-out might be the lack of career development for women; this could well be a symptom of the way things are set up in an organisation, such as:

  • access to flexible working
  • provision of parental leave
  • plans for recruitment
  •  how people’s ideas for improvement are implemented
  • Whether managers consider career development for staff
  •  how unacceptable behaviours is challenged
  •  how often peer groups have a voice in organisational decision
  •  how career breaks are understood and managed
  • time invested in succession planning
  •  How many women are in senior, influential roles
  • how performance is measured now
  •  how achievement is measured over time

Even this short list clearly extends to things beyond people’s general value for female workers. Furthermore if you just work on people’s value for female workers and yet do nothing about the influences in the system, then nothing will change – it might even make things worse.

So, to be able to manage a team or a wider organisation with integrity, there is a need to deal with the whole system – being purposeful in dealing with change. Otherwise we just end up doing things that have no impact.

The start point is to value people anyway. The work is to improve the organisation (as a system) to deliver its purpose.

Culture change – towards one that is whole and cohesive – will follow.



Bakke, D.W. (2005) Joy at Work: a revolutionary approach to fun on the job, PVG, Seattle, WA.

Deming W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

Metamorphosis: significant change requires energy

My son and I have been monitoring the frogspawn in our garden pond since April. It has been fascinating to see the tadpoles hatch, then grow into monstrous alien-looking aquatic denizens. Suddenly in the last couple of weeks they have started sprouting limbs, then their feet and toes have lengthened becoming mobile. Body shapes change, the tails shorten and a new form develops.

This is interesting stuff, but the biggest talking point in our family has been the observation that the reasonably big, fat tadpoles end up turning into relatively-speaking quite tiny froglets. Why is this?

Clearly the metamorphosis takes energy; the gut system changes the body shape of the animal, but all of the excess (most obviously the tail) has to be reabsorbed to fuel the transformation. The result is a smaller animal – but one which is much more adaptable, capable and resilient – and which, as it moves out of the pond, hunting and feeding, soon outgrows its original tadpole form.

The moral of the tale is, hopefully, obvious – with change, you don’t get something for nothing. If we want change to happen we need to expect an investment – to put something into the change.

Remarkably, however, investment in change does not primarily mean money and resources. Initially, the resources are within us.

What change certainly requires, as in the frog, is an investment by us – a renewal in our thinking
– and that takes EFFORT.

The effort is expressed in establishing new thinking, in questioning ourselves, in being open to new ideas (which stretch our minds or challenge our emotions), and in getting into new habits through practice.

Of course it is always easier to do nothing and sit on the proverbial sofa…

…watching the same problems occur again and again.

Further reading:

Coppin, A. and Barratt, J. (2002) Timeless Management, Palgrave MacMillan, NY



Teamwork is best – or IS IT?

Group working is one of those topics that is awkwardly both straightforward and complex depending upon how you look at it.

Conventional wisdom sets us to assume that more heads are better than one and this maxim is often used as a justification for working in teams. But is it always a helpful perspective? In the spirit of Change Academy, we need to consider alternative views in order to get a more complete picture.

Cindy Vallance recently posted the question “When are many heads better than one?” This is a sensible question to ask when considering group working. As Cindy points out, sometimes teams are created to simply fulfill a structural need; to fill an office space or to organise a number of individuals under the supervision of a manager. These, as Cindy implies, are not good reasons for organising group working.

Tug of war
A set of clones with the same job is not a recipe for a successful team

What do we really know about team performance? And, if we are honest with ourselves, do groups always work better than individuals?

The answer, surely , is no. Have you ever sat on a committee and wondered ‘why are we all here?’?

Let’s take a sporting analogy. Put five excellent runners into a relay team. How well do they perform? In many cases, really well.

However if I think of the British men’s sprint relay team, in four of the last five Olympics they have been disqualified (1996, 2000, 2008, 2012). In 2004 they won the gold. In each Olympic competition the job is the same and, for the British team over this period, several individuals participated in the team more than once . So why is there such a wide difference between good and poor performances? It is sometimes easy to put it down to a mistake; incompetence or lack of attention, but sometimes the truth lies deeper.

The Ringlemann effect suggests that something different can happen in teams. If people’s personal roles are similar they can be disinclined to put everything into their work (this is a subconscious effect causing ‘free-riding’ rather than deliberate loafing). This effect has been shown in cases where a single worker has been put in a team with ‘non workers’ (i.e. people deliberately faking effort, but not actually doing real work). Even in these instances, the ‘real’ worker is often measured as putting in LESS effort than if they were doing the task on their own. In the classic experiment, assuming that men pulling a rope individually perform at 100% of their ability, apparently two-man groups perform at 93% of the average member’s pull, three-man groups at 85%, with eight-man groups pulling with only 49% of the average individual member’s ability.

So what is the solution? Never work in teams? No this would be a bit foolish, there are better questions…

1. Design team work carefully? Yes

2. Ensure a clear sense of purpose? Yes

3. Establish some reasonable measure of performance or achievement? Yes

4. Agree ways of working together, along with a readiness and willingness to improve ? Of course

5. Encourage trust and mutual respect amongst team members? Yes, but make sure that at its foundation is an understanding of 1-4  above.

So, reverting to my previous blog on teamwork, we must focus on our purpose, our goals, understand our differing roles, agree how we work together at a practical level and look to build positive working relationships based on mutuality and trust.

Like anything in life, if we have a team of people, we need to regularly re-consider the purpose of the team. Do we have a team because it adds to achieving the purpose, or is it just because we have always had a team?

Next time you are in a turgid committee meeting, or your project team has ground to a halt, – have a think about how the group could work better…


Further reading:

Beckhard, R. (1972) Optimizing Team Building Effort, J. Contemporary Business.  1:3,  pp.23-32

Ingham, A.G., Levinger, G., Graves, J., & Peckham, V. (1974). The Ringelmann effect: Studies of group size and group performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 10, 371–384.

MacDonald, J. (1998) Calling a Halt to Mindless Change, Amacom, UK





Aspirations are not enough…

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

In my most recent blog I discussed the ambitious vision, purpose and values that those in the Social Sciences Change Academy are working to exemplify, individually and collectively.

But are aspirations sufficient? Of course not. Ideas make us feel good only for the amount of time we are in a room talking about them or only for the amount of time it takes to share an email with yet another good idea.

We could…we should…why don’t we?…

That is not to say we shouldn’t share good ideas. The last thing we should do is stop the flow of creativity that can lead to positive changes. But whose responsibility is it to implement these good ideas? Who are the “we” that we so often reference?

I have written quite a lot about self awareness and personal responsibility in these blogs. I firmly believe that what each of us does is key to our collective success. There is a common expression that there is no “I” in team (in English at least), but every action within every team’s plan needs an “I” to make it happen.

If I have an idea for something that should happen or change it is my responsibility to take the next step to try and make it so.

If it is in an area within my range of responsibility to make happen then ‘the buck stops with me.’ If it is a simple thing I can do on my own then I should just get on with it. If it is more than a one person job and I have people within my immediate frame of reference that I can galvanise, then I need to determine how to get these people on board to agree and to support putting the idea into action.

If my idea is one that is beyond the scope of what I can personally do anything about to make happen but I truly believe in it, I still need to find a way to influence people who can then decide to make it happen.

If it is an idea I really care about, I must not give up.

But successful implementation is one of the most difficult parts of change and a significant reason why change efforts so often fail. So what do we need to do? Here are some simple questions to ask ourselves

What is the outcome I/we want to achieve? (vision)

Why should I/we do it? (purpose and values)

How should I/we go about achieving it?  (implementation plan)

And on the implementation plan…for the team this must include: what will happen, when it will happen, and who will take responsibility to make it happen. The implementation process for each person within the team is the same:  what I will do, when I will do it, and my commitment made real by reliably delivering on what I have promised.

How should I/we track progress? (project management)

How will I/we know if we have succeeded? (evaluation/reflection/adjustment)

So how do we turn aspiration to implementation? It is up to me… It is up to us.



Are we really different beasts?

By Cindy Vallance

In my recent blog about student blogs, I mentioned that one of the key reasons for the existence of the Social Sciences Change Academy is to recognise and do our utmost, as individuals and as a collective group, to demonstrate the power of bringing together the complementary viewpoints, experiences and capabilities of students, professional services staff and academic staff.

By focusing on activities that demonstrate our commonly shared values, we demonstrate our commitment to a vision of an inclusive yet diverse educational community – one in which everyone is treated with dignity, respect and fairness; an environment in which collaboration and innovation can thrive.

This healthy environment will only develop if we get beyond stereotypes of what it means to be a ‘student’ an ‘academic’ or an ‘administrator.’ One practical way to do this is by listening to others; for instance by tuning in through social media to what students are saying. Another way is to consider the words of John Gill, THE editor, from an article in the Association of University Administrators (AUA) magazine. He states:

“The view that administrators and academics are different beasts who will never get on may still be deeply entrenched in some people’s minds, but it cannot be right in the 21st century. Yes, they are different, and yes, academics will never appreciate intrusive or overbearing management, but when it is supporting the institution, supporting research programmes, and – perhaps most important of all from the point of view of professional services staff – supporting students, then I really don’t see how anyone can object…”

I must, of course, add to this quote that professional services staff will also never appreciate conspicuously uninterested or arrogant academic practice, and that similarly, students appreciate none of these negative qualities; qualities which we see demonstrated on a day-to-day basis more than we might like to admit.

It is up to each of us as individuals to question the received wisdom that has led to these divisions separating ‘us’ and ‘them,’ to constantly challenge these unhelpful behaviours and to work to exemplify their opposites.

If we do not, then all we are left with is empty rhetoric about equality and diversity and a weakened belief in the  power of education to change lives in a positive way. And isn’t our belief in the power of education a large part of why we have chosen to be members of a University community in the first place?

Reference: Profile Article: John Gill, THE Editor, AUA Newslink, Issue Number 73.

Why Bother with Blogs? Learning from U of K Students

By Cindy Vallance (Twitter @cdvallance)

Before I went on leave a couple of weeks ago, I promised to come back to the topic of trust. I will do so – because I believe that trust is a key foundational element to consider when accomplishing anything important that involves two or more people.

But today I want to share my thinking about blogs. A blog about blogs? Let me explain.

As part of the Social Sciences Change Academy initiative we agreed we wanted to find ways to communicate and build a dialogue with academic staff, professional services staff and students that went beyond emails, meetings, and standard website updates. My own decision to begin blogging and using twitter as part of Change Academy was informed in large part by the example set by Colum McGuire, Kent Union Vice President (Welfare). Colum wrote a great blog series about student housing last year that received an amazing amount of ‘hits.’ You can find Column’s blogs here:

His blogs kept me engaged and reading, even though I wasn’t looking for a new place to live! They were lively and practical, short and sharp.

Moving along, we have even more excellent student initiated blog posts. Tom Ritchie, Kent Union President, has shared his thoughts about the value of Change Academy here:

And my learning about blog writing hasn’t stopped there.

Another of our Change Academy members, Léo Wilkinson, Kent Union’s Social Sciences Student Representative, posted his first Change Academy blog on 12 May 2012.

Léo’s blog is a thought piece and call to action to continue to increase meaningful student involvement in decision-making.

Also on 12 May, and completely unrelated to Change Academy, is the blog I came across on twitter by Kenny Budd, Kent Union’s Vice President (Activities) about their Kent Union team development event at Medway:

Once again, a phenomenal blog – informal yet professional, personal yet factual, with great images and important messages including his remark:  “When asked if I thought the fact that we will be an all white, male sabbatical team was an issue (on the grounds of representing our diverse membership) my answer was “that it is always going to be an issue but it will only become a problem if we let it.”

So how do we look at the challenges of continuously improving communications between our diverse constituencies here at U of Kent? Is it an issue we can work on solving together or a problem? We all have our own reasons for being here but as a community Kent belongs to all of us. What can we learn from each other?

I learn every day, from students and colleagues, from reading, talking, observing, and thinking. I don’t always agree with those I interact with but I appreciate gaining insights from divergent views. In fact, a wise person once said to me “If two people always agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.”

We are all necessary, we all have valuable contributions to make to our Kent  community. As a first step, bookmark some student blogs, make comments on what you read, follow students on twitter, and see what you can learn.

The importance of Student Representation: overcoming student ‘apathy’

Involving students in the running of the Academic Departments has never been more important, and is in the interest of both staff and students in the new fee ‘régime’.


Other than one of the many parts of the University of Kent’s Code of Practice, student representation is an essential component in the running of the University. As a student representative, time and time again, I hear excuses by staff members trying to justify why they did not ask students what they thought about this or that issue because students: “do not turn up at meetings“, or because they “don’t read or respond to the emails we send them about meetings“, or that they “do not want to get involved” altogether.

But is the presence of students really properly utilised in meetings that themselves are usually staff-focused and chaired by staff? Do students feel that they are on equal grounds in meetings relative to the members of staff present, and are they encouraged to actively participate in meetings? Are the items on the agenda for the meeting explained to student representatives, and do they have any idea of what really is being discussed behind the acronym-packed University jargon? Very rarely.

Regardless where one stands in the debate about whether to consider students as “Customer” or as a “Member of the Academic Community”, it is indisputable that students’ expectations will rise with the recent tripling in tuition fees. The fact is that on whichever side of the argument one stands, involving students is equally important. If students are considered as customers seeking to get the most ‘value-for-money’ out of their degree, then they deserve to have a say in how are taught and for measures to be taken should they not be satisfied. If however one considers students as part of the scholarly community, then like academics, they also have the right to influence how their department is run.

The rights of students aside, it is in the interest of staff members and departments to involve students. First, the student’s perception of how a particular module is being taught is the most useful and accurate way to see whether or not the teaching methods are effective or not. Why wait until the results of the NSS surveys to find out? Second, I am sure many staff members will agree with me that students can bring a much fresher and down to earth viewpoint in meetings, as many of the decisions taken about Learning & Teaching directly affect them. With so many Kent students coming from many different backgrounds, they are the ones who can quite often provide a different insight complementing the perspectives of staff members. Third, meetings where students are present should be more student focused, so that they feel involved and that their contributions are needed. It is not surprising that attendance at meetings of student representatives very often drops after the first few meetings: if students do not understand half of the agenda items and therefore end up not contributing, they do not feel their presence is important -and rightly so! However it is the role of the Chair of the meeting to make sure that all feel involved, and even to prompt the most timid members present to speak.

The vicious circle of student apathy needs to be overcome by Schools. Making meetings more student-focused, actively encouraging involvement, and recognising the dedication and work of student representatives, are the only ways to reverse the vicious circle into a virtuous one. Moving forward, both academic and administrative members of staff should not only be encouraging, but also rewarding student involvement in the running of academic departments. By “encouraging” I do not mean just sending out emails, but also lecturers publicising it at the beginning of lectures and seminars; by “rewarding” I do not mean politely thanking students at the end of the meeting, but giving them official recognition of their involvement and praising their work in recommendation letters for example.


When one looks at the number of societies and sports clubs that are run by students, the thousands of volunteering hours which students are rewarded for each year, and the quantity and range of extra-curricular activities which Kent students get involved with, it is saddening that so many Schools do not do their best to make use of this huge ‘volunteering capital’ which students are willing to invest in worthy causes.

Give students a real chance to get involved and make a difference, make them an essential part of decision-making within departments and you will be surprised by how well they will rise up to the challenge; overcome apathy and place value on participation in civic duties, thus preparing them to be the engaged citizens of tomorrow.


Léo Wilkinson

Social Sciences Faculty Representative

Kent Union

Change and the knowledge iceberg

So, is management by fact a bit simplistic? What about the emotional aspects of work; trust, appreciation, excitement, fear, worry, concern? How can these things be properly addressed. A lot of these things will be more or less important depending on how we see the world. And most people see the world differently to everyone else!

If we want to improve anything it is best to make those improvements from a perspective of understanding – using knowledge. Unfortunately we live in a world of incomplete knowledge and, dare I say it, differing perceptions (we all see things differently). Deming suggests that we work on the basis of a decent theory of knowledge – but what does he mean? I use the iceberg analogy:

* A start point is to understand that there are things that most of us know – obvious, like the peak of an iceberg.

*Next there are the flatter ice floes, which a good ‘spotter’ on a ship might notice bobbing in the waterline. It is important that we know about these and we should get better at spotting them.

* However there is also sub-surface ice (in this analogy) – things not visible to anyone but which we need to delve into or at least give consideration (we have a decent hunch – or ‘belief’ – or ‘theory’ – or experience – that they will be there). Effort is needed either to seek them out or at least think properly about how we might have to deal with them. If we blindly sail through areas were sub-surface ice may be lurking, on the assumption that what we don’t know will not hurt us, we  would be a little foolish.

* There is also stuff that we don’t know … and need never know… it is out of our sphere of influence and we cannot do much to manage it – so don’t worry.

* Deepest of all is the ‘unknown’ – we will never know about it – (so again don’t worry)

In summary we should seek reasonable knowledge when we make decisions; we should not ignore things which are too difficult to understand and we should be honest when we are making assumptions. If we do this, then the outcomes of change, whether good or bad, will be better understood and will help to inform us in the future. If we need to broach sensitive subjects: trust, appreciation, excitement, fear, worry, concern, then a conversation is a good start point.


More reading:

Covey, S. (1989) 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Shuster, New York, NY.

Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.