Reflections 6th March

On My Mind

The Necessity of “Not Doing”

We live in an age of urgency, boundaried by notions of efficiency, short term performance, and tangibility.

We even have programmes and apps on our watches to schedule breaks and remind us to “breathe”. We get in our ten minutes of mindfulness before we leap into the days hectic schedule, focused on deliverables.

I was reminded of it during the week in a Zoom call with people I have come to know well as we explore the idea of New Artisans – what they are, who they are, and why they might be important. In this first phase, we’re working on the right questions to ask, and then in the second phase, we’ll start to find answers. The challenge is creating the space for the questions to emerge of their own accord, rather than forcing them to the surface.

“Always the beautiful answer. Who asks the more beautiful question?


It’s a strangely uncomfortable space, rather like the impatience of waiting in a queue, with a sense of guilt we’re not doing something, or following somebody driving at fifty miles an hour in a sixty limit when we want to be there, wherever there is. It can feel like someone’s spiked the coffee with ADHD.

And all this, despite the fact that I know that space is where the real work gets done. The urgent space can be satisfying, like a caffeine hit, as I strike things off the list, even though mostly they are of little real consequence, rather like tidying my desk. Temporarily satisfying, but doesn’t do anything useful, and I know it will be untidy again later.

The best, and simplest representation of this challenge is that done by Bill Sharpe in his wonderful little book “Three Horizons, The patterning of hope

Statitician George Box said, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” This one I find valuable as a framework.

Horizon one is where most of us spend most of our time, the SMART world full of plans, metrics, measures and standards. Fuel for appraisals and bonuses, and pecking order politics.

Horizon three is delightfully unaccountable – our long term aims, dreams, and ideals. The reason people buy lottery tickets, even though we know they don’t deliver, even if we win. (it seems, no matter how much people win, eighteen months later they are not only back where they were, if not further back.

Horizon two is the uncomfortable space. Close enough to be understood, far enough away to put off until tomorrow, like Climate Change. A place where it’s easier for someone else to do the work, and offer us menu choices.

That makes us fragile. None of us know what’s going to happen in horizon two. It is, I suggest, where consultancy gets dangerous. Consultants are useful as a short cut in horizon one if they have specific knowledge and delivery expertise around something known, but the minute we cross into horizon two, not only are they guessing, they are guessing without liability. If we want their guesswork, that’s fine but it doesn’t change our responsibility. It’s our career, project, business, life and when it comes to horizon two challenges like climate change, artificial intelligence, ecosystem development, it’s our call.

The challenge gets greater as we move from human consultants to digital ones. The more we integrate AI and machine learning into our systems, the more we are delegating critical tasks to an entity programmed by somebody else – like a consultant, who is even more remote from our experienced reality. (I have first hand experience of this as I write this. Ordering a prescription online using the NHS app, which is great when it works, but isn’t when it doesn’t. The system is down, and tells me to order direct from my GP, who, when I contact tell me they have now outsourced to a central provider, who, when I call, does not answer – probably because they are overwhelmed. A wonderful theoretical model failing because of a nasty dose of reality)

Which brings me back to that uncomfortable space. I think there are three levels of response to something that is changing.

First, easiest and most risky is the solution to a symptom, applied by people trained in a process built around a preconceived definition of the problem. Easy, fast, expensive sticking plaster.

Second, harder work, and takes longer, but less fragile and even more expensive is solution focused questions. Getting below the surface from presenting symptom to underlying cause, and satisfying because it involves the comfort of action, but carries the disadvantage of increasing the risk of us becoming wilfully blind. The pre-loaded questions focus on the target, and destroy our peripheral vision.

Third, hardest of all, but most productive is to just observe without the burden of questions. A place of quiet requiring calm, detached observation. As Elspeth Huxley puts it in “Flame Trees of Thika. ” Finding the right question to answer is an art form.

“The best way to find out things, if you come to think of it, is not to ask questions at all. If you fire off a question, it is like firing off a gun; bang it goes, and everything takes flight and runs for shelter. But if you sit quite still and pretend not to be looking, all the little facts will come and peck round your feet, situations will venture forth from thickets and intentions will creep out and sun themselves on a stone; and if you are very patient, you will see and understand a great deal more than a man with a gun.”

We have a culture that keeps us in horizon one, reassures us that horizon three will be wonderful, and mostly outsources horizon two to those with no skin in the game. That’s a recipe for stasis.

Finding ways to do the hard work of not doing what’s easy.

John Boyd had it right. Observe, then Orient, then Decide and Act – and then start over. Our instinct, honed by years of education and training, in to orient efficiently rather than observe dispassionately, which is why calm observation is so very hard for us.

The best way I have found to do it is in small groups of people with different backgrounds and perspectives, who we know well enough to trust. In a business, particulalrly a medium or large one, that’s immensely difficult. Even in the best, politics is present.

One of the best ways we have found to occupy the uncomfortable space is to do it with others whose interest is in you, not your role, or your project, and most definitely not your money. It’s what we do at Originize. It works, and all that is asked of people is that they pay as much attention to others as they pay to you.

Spending time not doing for a while, in good company, pays dividends.

Things I’ve appreciated this week.

Adversarial Collaboration. I’ve become interested in rethinking how we collaborate when we don’t agree about something. This video of Daniel Kahneman discussing the idea of not just thinking fast and slow, but negotiating fast and slow is good food for thought.

Risk. It’s a valid time to be thinking about risk, and I’ve been listening to Stan McChrystal talking about his latest book. A couple of key takeaways – risk it not a probability, it’s effectively a certainty, so it’s the health of our “immune system” that matters, and secondly that risk responsibility is linked to “citizenship” of the community we belong to. I think this is an important book.

Projection. When we create systems in order to make what we do more efficient, the danger is that we see the customer through that lens. This article by Rita McGrath is an excellent example of that happening. Salutary.

Think like an underdog. I try to regularly go to places that don’t attract me, just to see what’s there. I thought this from Investors Business Daily worthwhile. A bit formulaic, but the principles hold.

Critical Thinking. This subject has arisen a lot in the last couple of weeks in discussions on how tools to make us efficient can also make us lazy. This article from the great Farnam St blog is a great read on ways not to become lazy…


In a conversation earlier, I looked up the origin of “consumer” and found its etymology disturbing. Never again will I hear the word in the same way (thanks for the provocation, Andy Adler)

Consumer (n) early 15c., “one who squanders or wastes,” agent noun from consume. In economics, “one who uses up goods or articles, one who destroys the exchangeable value of a commodity by using it” (opposite of producer), from 1745. Consumer goods is attested from 1890

A Closing Quotation

“Patience is not passive, on the contrary, it is concentrated strength.”

Bruce Lee

These are troubled times, with the seeds of better times buried in them.

Go well.

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