Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

holistic communication

The Hybrid Dynamic Model

The Hybrid Dynamic Model is a modern approach to structuring an organisation’s portfolio that allows for multiple ways of working to co-exist from innovation to utility work and for that work to change which processes, cultures and practices it uses over time.

An “Operating Model” describes how an organisation does its business in terms of both its structure and its behaviour – it is the business architecture. An “Operating Model” exists in every organisation, whether it is explicitly written down or simply a collection of processes and practices. The Operating Model includes how strategy flows through planning and delivery, how money is spent and controlled, how governance works, how people are organised, how quality is assured etc. If the Operating Model is inefficient or unable to react well to change, everything else suffers.

Many organisations evolve an Operating Model that fits their stable way of working, allowing for a focus on efficiency and improvement, driving out variation. This approach can work well in periods of stability but makes organisations brittle and unable to react well to change because the only way the organisation knows how to deal with things is to apply its tried and tested approaches. When the environment is less stable, or the variety of work types increases a Hyrbid Dynamic Model is more appropriate.

A useful mechanism for understanding different types of work, and the different approaches that may be applicable to delivering them within a portfolio is the “Commoditization Scale”. The Commoditization Scale describes a range of types of work from innovation (undefined, rare, speculative and high risk) to more commodity/utility (well defined, ubiquitous, and less differentiated with lower risk).

These different types of work require different ways of working, contractual models, technologies, supply chains, cultures, processes etc. More well understood work is more predictable and manageable by its nature, whereas the opposite is true for less well-understood work.

Commoditization scale Commoditization scale inspired by Simon Wardley – CSC Leading Edge Forum

As organisations begin to understand their work in terms of a hybrid model they can then look to actively apply a commoditization pressure where possible moving work across this scale. Because commodity solutions (often bought in) are typically cheaper than in-house development, maintenance and hosting commoditizing work earns a “Commoditization Dividend” which can then be used to reinvest into the Innovation parts of a business.

As mentioned in Build or Buy we generally recommend against building utility or commodity components, systems or product (unless disrupting a service industry) – these kind of products are best bought or provided by open source alternatives (COTS). However in terms of inventing/innovating and specialist products different processes, working practices, teams and cultures may be necessary. Innovation work is typically riskier and speculative than more mainstream specialist products and so will be less tolerant of up front planning. “Failing fast” is particularly important in innovative/inventive work and this type of work is typically very unpredictable. As a result building significant structure (in terms of project, programme and Solution Architecture) around innovation work is unlikely to be productive – this work may also be unconstrained by Enterprise Architecture (and indeed “standard” ways of working).

Unless explicitly necessary we recommend that innovative work is treated as self-organized Product Delivery teams that are directly part of the Portfolio, with no programme structure. This (Small Picture) model is preferred for small, simple projects or organizations generally. Small organizations can often outperform large monolithic organizations due to their lack of process, management and architectural inertia – they are free to innovate. Since the relentless commoditization of technology forces all organizations to innovate to survive we strongly recommend freeing people to innovate in whatever manner they need.

There’s nothing worse for innovation than an ideas process

Similarly, and perhaps counter intuitively, there is also less structure required in the Utility and Commodity areas of the commoditisation scale (because the products built are often well-understood, predictable, related to system integration and frequently COTS). This type of very predictable work often benefits from workflow management techniques such as Lean, Kanban or service management processes.processes and commoditisation

Products that are more Specialist may need a “bigger engineering” approach depending on their scale or risk factors. Many large organizations will adopt more formal processes in this area as they seek to find economies of scale, especially around reuse. However over time reusable platforms and architectures can become a hindrance rather than a help. Technically skilled people will notice this point and are encouraged to Bubble Up their concerns. Organizations with significant effort in more than one of these areas of the scale above tend to gravitate towards a hybrid model with a structure embedded in the Specialist, Commodity or Utility part of the business. Applying the same structures, architectures, processes and working practices across all of these work types can cause problems so a hybrid model is likely to be required for large/complex organizations.

We recommend using a hybrid, dynamic model for organising a large/complex portfolio. Large, complex organisations have significant effort and coverage across the commoditisation scale. Implementation of a hybrid model caters for this variance using unstructured and structured models where necessary. Structure is introduced only by exception when explicitly needed to orchestrate effort across divergent teams and portfolio(s) not as the default approach. Importantly as pieces of work become more understood, or product sets evolve they will likely begin to move on the commoditisation scale and so may need to dynamically change their ways of working.

The Hybrid Dynamic Model allows for significantly different ways of working, within the cohesive governance of the H-Model of Holistic Software Development. Using the hybrid dynamic model organisations can have multiple ways if working, cultures and practices co-existing peacefully within a single enterprise portfolio. Using different ways of working, practices and techniques across the portfolio helps bring together the otherwise extremely different extremes of innovation and research work with predictable project delivery. Other business models, such as Incubation, can also be used to help bridge the gaps between areas such as innovation and mainstream engineering practices.

Hybrid Dynamic Model

Many organisations evolve a PortfolioProgrammeProjectTeam model which is then applied to all work in the portfolio due to its past success at delivering large predictable engineering projects. However, this model is wasteful when complexity is low and can actually inhibit communication and feedback cycles in more speculative work.

Programme and project structures cause layers of separation, which result in emergent transactional behaviour, effort duplication and confusion over roles and responsibilities. As a result programmes should only be used when there is a genuine requirement for co-ordinating multiple projects that must be integrated for a cohesive product family or business capability. In other cases programme structures should be condensed – removing programmes that are simply funding lines; Portfolio Management can and should manage funding lines and stand-alone projects can simply be part of the portfolio.

Reduction in structural complexity will reduce costs, increase flexibility and adaptability while simultaneously improving an organisations ability to react in a rapidly changing environment. Additionally, simplifying structure will reduce the sheer numbers of people involved in project management and definition work, removing unnecessary barriers between delivery teams and their customers.

This kind of hybrid structure is similar to using the Small Picture of HSD for the Commodity Portfolio, the Big Picture for the Specialist Portfolio and the Small Picture again for the Research and Innovation portfolio – naturally sharing the same Strategy and Governance layer.

COTS implementation may be a signficant piece of work by itself. The COTS Implementation article describes a variant of the Big Picture for use with COTS.

A man’s perspective on feminism in the technology industry

I normally avoid posting on controversial things but this is a topic that shouldn’t even be controversial.

The world is full of a marvellous variety of people and they come in all shapes and sizes, with a staggering range of ways of thinking. People are different due to things like gender, race, ability, sexual orientation, cognitive difference and all sorts of other things that affect identity. Importantly people are never just one of these things, real people exist at and between all of the intersections.

In the software industry we often rally behind people based statements such as “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” and yet discrimination and unfairness are rife in the technology industry with “brogrammer culture”, sexist pay situations and the infamous glass ceiling. And yet we talk about being open and inclusive in how we do software in teams? And wonder why there aren’t more women taking technology courses at universities?

Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women. This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment.

Women aren’t less than men. Men aren’t better than women. Instead people are just people, and each individual isn’t just a woman or man, they will be different in many other ways, expressing their identity, individualism and indeed diversity in each of them. There is value in diversity, and as people that can understand recursion we should be able to grasp that concept. The more ways we have of looking at a problem the better our solutions will be.

I believe that everyone should be treated fairly, that equal opportunities should exist for individuals, that if we need to differentiate between people (e.g. in terms of who to hire) that we should do it on merit, on skill, attitude and behaviours not on what makes a person different. I guess that makes me a feminist.

I’m a feminist because I believe in equality. Gender is one axis of difference that is used to discriminate against people and women are generally treated less fairly in the tech industry than men and so that’s why I’m a feminist not an “equallist”. I realise that this is an unpopular stance to take amongst some groups, especially those who are uncomfortable with a man using the word “feminist” but I think those people should take a good long hard look a themselves. If you’re not a feminist, you should probably go and explain why to your mother rather than argue with me about it.

Men, and women, and in-betweens and neithers, all need to stand up for equality, need to challenge unfairness when it raises it’s ugly guise. The amount of times I’ve seen sexist treatment, casual racist and homophobic language in the tech and gaming industry is shocking and it needs to change. Otherwise we can hardly call ourselves civilised. Of course, there are always weird situations where it’s not clear whether something is discriminatory or friendly banter – exploring those situations in an open and honest way, discovering if behaviour, language or tone has crossed a line helps us all understand each other better. Conflict is best avoided through clarity of understanding between people. Ultimately though the meaning of any communication is that which is received, regardless of the intentions. If you accidentally offend someone it’s still you who are offensive, not the victim who needs to grow thicker skin.

As men, we are morally bankrupt if we leave standing up for equality to those who are marginalised and discriminated against. Equality requires us to collectively act.


Resonating social patterns with project processes

People are social complex agents, organising people is a bit like herding cats, however when people are working together collaborating in teams they can achieve amazing things. So why is it that some approaches and teams structures work and others seem to cause problems?

I’ve been thinking about things like nudge theory, servant-leadership, agility in software development, lean business, social business, serious gaming and agile at scale. Most people tend to think that these are all (or mostly) good things, they’re often desired bottom-up in businesses and support “faster, cheaper, better, happier” agendas. All good things that tend to be desirable at every level of a business and yet a lot of my work is about helping individuals, teams and businesses towards this simple agenda using these kind of things because although the goal is simple and the change is desirable, actually doing the change isn’t easy.

All of these things seem to “feel right” to people and are generally desirable and yet they are often at odds with traditional management techniques which tend to compartmentalise people and decompose everything into linear hierarchies.

So why is it that treating people like complex social creatures works better than treating them as simple functional unit? Er… because that’s what they are, people. I’d love to know why people think the opposite can ever work?

I think that the reason that the list of things up there is generally so successful at working towards faster, cheaper, better, happier business is that they are socially resonant. That is, ways of thinking about work such as agile software development are congruent with normal human social behaviour, that’s why they work.

Nudge theory acknowledges that people are lazy and don’t do what you tell them to. Delayed gratification doesn’t motivate most people so put things you want people to do in their way and gently nag them about it. Make it easier to do the right thing, make the wrong thing harder and more formal. The rise of the adult playground is a great example of this. People don’t want to be told what to do, they want their ability and contribution to be valued. Servant-leaders are ideally placed to nudge people, which they can do based on their personal social relationships.

One of the reasons that the agile movement has taken off as well as it has is because it treats people like people, in fact that’s in the agile manifesto! By aligning ways of working to normal human behaviour you are enabling your team to get on and do things intuitively, normally and comfortably.

Photo of east gate of Roman Forum

Photo by Mykola Swarnyk

I’ve been applying this kind of thinking to large scale project structures and that’s led to the Project Forum practice (think Roman Forum rather than phpBB!) which I’ve described as a “middle-out” management structure as it’s not bottom-up or top-down. Instead it’s more like a tribal council bringing together the leaders of other groups to an area where they can all have their voices heard. It’s democratic and social, it doesn’t pretend there isn’t any conflict instead it provides a vehicle to resolve that conflict. This structure resonates with democratic political structures from the tribal council all the way to parliamentary democracy.

In this model, the Project Manager has a pressure from the business to deliver and he gets to impress this upon the other members. Customers with a pressure for quality or short-term goals get to understand why their concerns need balancing with scope and resources. Contributing teams get to have their agendas and issues collaborated on by the wider group and can manage supply and demand of their resources. Wherever there is conflict the way to resolve it is through open honest communication, the Project Forum is that vehicle, providing a sort of open parliament. Yeah, I know it’s not a great name but I’m not good at naming things.

Most cultures have evolved away from autocratic dictators towards representative democracy in one form or another because that’s the way people want to collaborate socially. So why not apply the same model to large projects? Thousands of years of history already tells us it works.

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

Scaled Agility: The Project Forum

This blog is an extract from the Project Forum practice: Holistic Software EngineeringThe Project Forum

When it might be appropriate

  • In situations where multiple competing stakeholder groups with different agendas are required to work together
  • In situations where multiple product groups need to collaborate on a bigger outcome
  • Where there is a conflict in direction, resource management/ownership or scope between collaborating groups
  • System of systems development

What is it?

The Project Forum is an application of agile philosophy to large project structures. Rather than impose a hierarchy of decision making from the Project Manager downwards the Project Forum is a virtual team in the middle of all stakeholders.

The Project Forum is a self-organising democratic group that balances competing voices and concerns, owns high level scope and architecture, runs the high level release train and performs integration activities for the product.

Use of the Project Forum practice does not prevent any communication directly between contributing groups it only provides a vehicle for that conversation when it’s relevant for the wider project.

From Traditional to Agile at ScaleThe Project Forum practice is an example of Agile at Scale combining social business practices, technical software practices and ways of working to make a simple way of doing big complicated bits of work.


Social Business: Because people do the work

People, working together achieve business goals. Processes, plans and organisation charts don’t.

A group of people forming human relationships and interacting is often called a “team” but another equally applicable term is a “social network”. Add a common goal to do some work as opposed to sharing pictures of their latest cooking/pet/kid and you’ve got a bit of social business going on whether it’s recognised or not.

To get work done effectively you need teams to work together effectively and that means enabling the team to form relationships and collaborate together as a social network.  So how do you create an environment that fosters social networks focussed on achieving their goals and interacting with the wider organisation?

The answer to that question is variously termed “Enterprise 2.0” (which I hate), “Social Enterprise” and “Social Business” which is a little ambiguous as it could relate to a business incorporating internal social awareness into it’s ways of working but it also refers to businesses who are aware of their interaction with their external community. Both of these meanings are based on the same awareness, only the direction of attention is different.

Any business can be enhanced by enabling people to work well together through cultural changes, process (ways of working) changes and supporting tooling. Image a world where:

  • You have an idea to improve your business capability, talk to your work mates who are sitting near you about it who help you refine the idea a little
  • You post the idea on a general ideas list within your organisation adding some tags to relate it to general topics
  • Other people in the organisation react to your idea based on finding from a tag feed, an activity stream, their relationship (work or social) with you etc.
  • They comment on your idea adding relevant experience and knowledge
  • Someone else IMs (Instant Messages) you about the idea and adds some useful thoughts
  • The idea has formed into something that sounds like it might be worth the company investing some time in, you promote the idea to a company backlog.

So far none of this feels like “work” and yet a network of people are forming around an idea that improves the business adding their expertise and opinions, collaborating on and for the business.

  • The idea gets given some time to investigate so you create an online project area, inviting the previous contacts to have a look and interact
  • You decide to have a meeting to look at the various ways forward for the idea, two team members are remote so they video conference in
  • You blog the meeting minutes to the project area so other interested people can add useful insights
  • During the lifetime of the project various team members post status updates and blogs about the progress, customers and users interact directly through face to face discussion, virtual discussion threads, vote on requirements etc. while the team continuously radiates progress and quality information in an open transparent fashion.

This part was definitely work but socially aware collaboratively work making use of a range of technologies to enhance the team’s way of working.

This is an example of social business, and one which I’ve had for real with one of my clients. You might already have things like wikis, a blogging platform, micro-blogging, social group areas, project areas etc. in which case integrating them and driving cultural change through soft practices to “allow” individuals to interact in a trusted collaborative environment might be necessary.

Alternatively you might have none of these things, but don’t worry you can get them for close to nothing as there are several excellent open source solutions for each of the technology features mentioned, in fact some open source packages (Social Business Software or SBS) can do most if not all of the above!

What does a self-organising team really mean? Organisation!

The idea of a self-organising team is pretty established in agile software development, as a (post-)agile coach/mentor I sometimes find myself working with teams who are trying to self-organise. Here’s my approach for transitioning a team from being externally organised to becoming autonomous and self-organising.

The first thing to point out is that I believe that the result of a self-organising team practice is an organisation. I don’t know what the the organisation will be ahead of time, that’s what the team work out. What I do (and I think others should do) as an agile mentor/coach is:

  • Bring to the team methods and techniques they can use to self-organise
  • Information of self-organising and how to interact with other teams in an organisation
  • Experience of different structures and behaviours
  • Facilitation and support of the organisation

It’s not my job to organise a team, it’s my job to help them organise themselves.

Being an architect/designer at heart I take a simple approach to this kind of thing and think about it in terms of mission, structure and behaviour.


Team’s need to have a purpose. I believe in team’s seizing autonomy and declaring their purpose, even in a complex bureaucratic organisation. So long as senior management are willing to let people they employ to do a complex technical job actually do a complex technical job then there tends not to be a problem. Unfortunately it sometimes takes enlightened leaders to do this but I’ve seen more and more of them in both the private and public sector. A team needs to know it’s purpose and agree on it.


Structurally there are some nice ways of working out who should be in a team and what their role is. I recommend using competencies rather than roles. Competencies are a description of the skills required to deliver the mission of the team and come in levels ranging from the most basic to the most advanced form of e.g. Tester. Either grab some from a suitable process.

Get the team together and get them to score themselves on the range of competencies required. This achieves a couple of things:

  • Builds mutual understanding between team members of where the various skills lie and what level they’re at leading to mutual respect and avoiding misunderstandings around what people are “meant” to do
  • Establishes whether the team has enough coverage of the required skills for the job, without this knowledge how can a team commit to anything?
Competencies don’t need to be met my an individual, a combination of the individuals involved might meet the required competencies overall and that’s great when they, and the rest of the team, understand how they fit together.
An externally imposed organisation chart does not meet these goals.


Team’s need to know how they’re going to work so they need to understand their functions. As a starter I’d suggest that software development teams have the following functions:

  • Production (delivery of working product)
  • Communication (both internally with customers and with external stakeholders)
  • Decision making
    • Way of Working
    • Buy-in to the mission and direction
    • High level scope
    • Changes to agreed scope

A true agile team does all of these things as it includes all of the people and skills necessary (from devs, testers, users, customers, ops people etc.) to achieve them. The team is the vehicle for doing these things.

Each of these things is the tip of a fairly large iceberg. But the team need to work on understanding their Way of Working to do the production job. The team need to agree how they’ll communicate with each other and externally. Both of these are Ways of Working decisions. All function in a team comes down to decision making. Ways of working, communication techniques, scope management etc. need to be constantly refined which means you need constant decision making within a team.

Even buy-in to the team mission and direction (planning and/or technical) is a decision making process. It often happens implicitly with someone charismatic selling a vision and everyone kind-of nodding but that’s not the only way of doing it.

Different decision types deserve different methods

Just because a team is groovy and agile doesn’t mean that every decision should be fully democratic. For example when doing a customer demo to see if the product is on track it’s not normally open to a general vote on whether the product meets the customer’s needs or not. Usually the customer tells you and you have to put up with it.

I’ve written some blogs before on methods of decision making, methods for selecting a decision making model and some case studies applying all of this. The basic process is:

– identify the different categories of decisions the team needs to make
– identify (using a variation of the Vroom-Jago model) the mechanisms the team will use to make each decision type
– facilitate the decison making process reminding the team of their chosen mechanisms


The output of a self-organising practice is an organisation. Since I believe in honesty and transparency I think that the best way to define and communicate this stuff is in a Team Charter. A Team Charter can simply be:


Some blurb about what the team does – Mission statement

Assertion of rights the team assumes – Autonomy

Who the team is

Who’s in the team, what’s their ability, how do they contribute to the required competencies – Structure

How the team works

A little bit about the practices the team uses. Such as using a continuous flow model, an iterative approach etc. Including the decisions the team makes and how they make them – Decision Making

If you’d like me to help your team self-organise get in touch. Do you have any other ideas on self-organising? Do you use a different approach?

Get your point across using positive statements

This is a simple one but amazingly important: use positive statements.

A positive statement is something like “to sprint you must run fast”. Conversely a negative statement is something like “to sprint you must not run slowly”. The problem with using negative statements is that for them to be processed by the listener the concept being negated (in this case running slowly) has to be represented first by the listener before being negated. Here’s two examples, one about software and the other about addiction. Then I’ll cover the more devious application of the technique before finishing with the positive application.

If you tell someone not to do something first they have to think about doing it, a bit like my purple penguin example in the introduction to this blog series.


Here’s an example from software process training I used to hear regarding RUP phases: “The RUP phases Inception, Elaboration, Construction and Transition are not requirements, design, implementation and deployment…” This was a well intentioned phrase aiming to dispel a common misconception when risk-value lifecycles were first being introduced to classic waterfall minded managers. Unfortunately this sentence actually reinforces the misconception one and maybe two reasons, firstly it’s a negative statement meaning the listener has to make that link in their mind between these phases and the waterfall stages and then negate it. The second reason is that it’s too easy for a tired person on a training course to miss that key “not” word and totally misunderstand the trainer’s intention.

This happened to a colleague of mine who used this sentence and the client’s training manager sitting on the course mis-heard (swore they didn’t when challenged) and never used my colleague’s training services again.


Imagine someone who’s going to give up smoking. Friends with decent intentions may say “Just don’t think about smoking” and yet the end result is that the listener has to think about smoking (linking in all of their anchored states).  In fact there’s a whole industry of negative statements around giving up smoking that are designed to make people think it isn’t an easy thing to do.

My first sentence might sound a little odd. Normally the phrase is “trying to give up smoking” but that’s because the word “try” presupposes failure which is why marketing folks have done their best to ensure it’s the normal way of talking about giving up. Just think of all of those adverts for giving up aids that tell smokers how hard it is. Sneaky.

The Sneaky Side

The problem is that a negative statement sneaks in a sliver of representation that counters the stated meaning. There’s a really insidious side to this when considering negative questions. Negative questions are any question including the word “not” (even in the form of a contraction when it’s even more sneaky) and they are a clever way of embedding pre-suppositions. Here’s an example:

“Don’t you think using positive statements is a good idea?”

Expand it out and it becomes:

“Do not you think using positive statements is a good idea?”

The second form of the question sounds very odd and unnatural. In fact it’ll confuse many people for a moment (excellent pattern interrupt) and yet the first form doesn’t sound so strange, and yet rather oddly people will almost always agree to a statement using a negative contraction. Magicians and mentalists use this trick a lot “Couldn’t you have changed your mind at any point?”, “Haven’t I been reasonably honest about …?”. And of course if the entertainers are doing it you can be sure the sneaky salespeople, callous cold-readers and other such charlatans are doing the same. In fact this particular construct is used especially heavily by cold readers, the effect is multiplied based on the level of rapport at one far end of the see-saw even slight nudge is enough to direct a listener.

If you consider the basic form of the question “Do you think using positive statements is a good idea?” you’ll notice that’s it’s neutral, it doesn’t presuppose an answer in any direction. That’s the difference.

The Positive Side

I’ve written a lot on the ethics of using somewhat sneaky linguistics before so I’ll leave out that discussion again. But there are some great positive ways to use this knowledge. Here’s an example from this very post (+10 internet points if you noticed it earlier)

In the section about addiction I wrote: ” there’s a whole industry of negative statements around giving up smoking that are designed to make people think it isn’t an easy thing to do”. I deliberately used a contracted negative statement that presupposes that it is an easy thing to do. I used a negative statement to cause a positive representation.

Another simple way to use this knowledge is to simply use positive statements. Tell people what you want them to do and think. Avoid telling people what not to think. (er.. two negatives in one sentence what the…?)

This works especially well with children, instead of telling them not do something (such as “stop being noisy”) tell them what to do positively (such as “be quiet”). The first makes the kid think about being noisy, the second makes them think about being quiet. However it must be said that even the most carefully crafted sentence isn’t going to get a little kid to be quiet, but that’s ok they’re meant to be noisy.


So, aren’t you glad you read this?

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

Decision making case studies

I’ve previously blogged on a decision making model that involves understanding the decision making process and then the different ways a group can reach agreement and how to choose which method to use in which situation. This post covers some real case studies from my own experience that apply this model and help discuss some the issues involved.

This post won’t make sense without reading How to reach agreement in a group – autocracy vs. democracy as it contains the decision tree and questions this post refers to.


How to reach agreement in a group – autocracy vs. democracy

In the first part of this blog (A model for making group decisions) I talked about the rational decision making model and how it is the basis of making a decision. Part of that model is gaining agreement amongst a group on an option out of a set of options which becomes the decision. This part is about different ways of gaining agreement and when to use each.

This model is a variant of the Vroom-Jago (1)  contingency model in situational leadership theory first developed in 1973 and then refined in 1988. My take on it changes the language here and there to alter some of the emphasis and changes the decision tree a little.

This model defines a set of decision making models ranging from autocratic to democratic and then helps you choose which is appropriate for different situations.

Decision characteristics

This model applies to decisions involving a group that have an “owner”. The owner is the person who needs the objective decided on. The owner could be the customer, a representative, the group as a whole or the team leader. An important consideration when using this model, as discussed in part 1 is knowing who the owner is and realising that it may well be different for the different decisions the group has to make.

For each type of decision that needs to be made by a group:

  1. Identify the owner
  2. Clarify the objective
  3. Identify the team/group involved

Decision making models

The following decision making models are appropriate for group decisions:

  • Autocratic 1 (A1) – The decision owner makes the decision based on the information available.
  • Autocratic 2 (A2) – The decision owner requests information from the team (not explaining the situation or why they want information) and then makes the decision.
  • Consultative 1 (C1) – The decision owner explains the situation to individual members (socialising and pre-integrating the decision) but does not convene them as a group, then makes the decision.
  • Consultative 2 (C2) – The group discusses the situation and then offers ideas and suggestions. The decision owner then takes the decision.
  • Group 2 (G2) – The whole group makes the decision with the owner acting more as a facilitator. Reaching this discussion can be discussion leading to emergent consensus, planning poker style or explicit voting solutions.

I don’t know why there isn’t a “Group 1″… maybe we should ask Vroom.

Which one to use

These options range from autocratic to democratic. One of the interesting things is that sometimes leaders want to be democratic but don’t really need to be or are not expected to be. This can lead to a conflict in expectation of approach. A leader may wish to be inclusive and democratic but their team may just wish they’d make a decision once in a while!

The alternative also causes conflict where a group expects their opinions to be heard and taken into account but the owner ignores their voices and makes autocratic decisions. This will create distance between the owner/leader and the group/team making the team feel undervalued.

Having understood the decision characteristics and the different decision making models you can then select one by using the following decision tree to identify the most appropriate model.

Each horizontal numerical bar indicates a question for the decision owner. Answer that question as honestly as possible, in terms of how relevant it is to making a good decision then move to the next part of the tree (sometimes skipping a question bar) and see which question you should answer next. Pretty quickly you’ll arrive at a circular blob with the short name of one of the options described above. I’ve written up some case studies to help explain by example.

  1. Are the stakeholders known, available and engaged?
    • Are the people who will be materially affected by the decision identified, are they available to join in the decision making and engaged in the team to assist in making a decision?
  2. Is a high quality decision/solution important?
    • Is this a case where lots of alternate options can be used and it doesn’t really matter which is selected? If so then answer “no”.
  3. As the owner do you have enough information available to make a gooddecision?
    • If the owner is unsure, or wants to involve other opinions then answer “no”
  4. Is the problem well understood and does it have well known standard solutions that apply in this context?
    • Is it’s a standard problem with a standard (or set of standard) solutions that will work in the current context then answer “yes”
  5. Do the members of the team or group have to accept this decision for it to work?
  6. If you (the owner) make the decision yourself will the group accept it?
    • Answer this honestly, being in an organisational structure that means the group should accept it isn’t good enough. This question is about the real, honest dynamic between the owner and the group. This is affected by rapport.
  7. Are the group members aligned with the same motives and goals as you the decision owner?
    • If the other members of the group have a different mission, agenda or motives then answer “no”
  8. Is disagreement likely among group members in reaching a decision?

What if you don’t want to do this model? What if your stakeholders object?

So if you’ve followed the decision tree and it says you should use Autocratic 2 (full autocracy) when you were hoping for Group 2 (full democracy) what should you do? This model is a bit like flipping a coin to decide something. The important thing is not which side of the coin comes up but how that decision makes you feel. If this process highlights to you what you were really hoping for then you’ve learned something. However it’s worth looking at the decision tree and seeing why you ended up where you did, and if other’s in the group would expect the same thing.

To explore this a little I’ve described three real examples here: Decision making case studies – please feel free to add your own. I’ve quickly written:

  • Agile team customer sprint demo and assessment
  • Process Improvement Team way of working decision
  • Process Improvement Team scope agreement

The important part of this process is to make you, your team and your stakeholders consider the types of decisions they need to make, and how they should make different types of decisions. I recommend that as part of a team charter a team describes the types of decision it will make and how it will make them. That gives stakeholders, customers and other teams the opportunity to get involved and question the decision making dynamics if necessary.

Decision making as a team building exercise

During the formation (or reinvention) of a team you can do the following exercise:

  1. Brainstorm the decisions the group makes. Categorise them into a few groups such as:
    • Achieving team buy-in to approach and activities
    • Timebox assessment, regular reflect and adapt
    • Balancing scope, cost, resources, time
  2. For each one establish a good definition of an example decision and it’s owner.
  3. Each team member then puts themselves in the position of the owner (this is even better if the owner is in the room and is included) and privately follows the decision tree answering truly honestly
  4. Each team member then shows the resulting decision making option they’ve chosen
  5. Consensus or conflict is then discussed. Outliers on the scale should be discussed first.

This simple exercise will get the team to understand each others motivations and approaches to problem solving as well as open their eyes to some of this stuff from a different perspective. Finally unknown conflicts in terms of decision making way well emerge where people had different assumptions of group input vs. directive management allowing them to be solved practically before a real personal conflict occurs.

To see how I apply this stuff to self-organising teams see: What does a self-organising team really mean? Organisation!


Try applying this approach to personal relationships and decision making, not all of it will apply but it’s interesting to see where you act collaboratively with a partner vs. when you make an autocratic decision (or expect them to) and what the justification is for such a perspective.  A misunderstanding between assumed decision making models is one of the underlying causes of many personal conflict situations, you can avoid these by understanding them.

Spend some time understanding how and why you make decisions both personally and professionally and you’ll reap some great rewards.

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.


  • Vroom, Victor H.; Yetton, Phillip W. (1973). Leadership and Decision-Making. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Vroom, Victor H.; Jago, Arthur G. (1988). The New Leadership: Managing Participation in Organizations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

A model for making group decisions

I’ve been working with some interesting group structures recently which got me thinking about decision making dynamics. I’ve been using a decision making framework for a while and intend to apply it to some different shaped groups so thought I’d share it.

There are a number of irrational ways of making decisions such as divination, looking at guts or rolling a dice but generally in business we like to make logical rational decisions. However often we don’t really think about how we make decisions, or more importantly how we should make decisions.

The techniques described in this blog are applicable to any situation where a group needs to make a decision, however the language is focussed on business groups/teams.

This blog is in two parts, the first is pretty simple and obvious and covers basic decision making, but it’ll lead on to the more interesting second part about different ways of reaching agreement and when to use each method.

How decisions are made

Rational decisions are made via a fairly simple process, at least in my mind:

Rational Decision Making

1. Objective: We start with an objective or goal, it needs to be clearly understood and have an owner/leader2. Alternative options: we create some alternate solutions.

Idea generation is an interesting topic by itself and lots has been written, but that’s not the topic of this blog.

3. Tentative Solution: We analyse the alternates against some criteria and then choose one to be our tentative solution

Again lots of ways to do this depending on your problem domain

4. Deeper Analysis: We perform deeper analysis on the tentative solution to try and ensure it’ll meet the objective

5. Agreement: We get the group to decide on the solution (see part 2)

6. Communication: We communicate the decision

There’s no point making a decision unless it’s communicated!

Person icon I used in the decision making diagram used as per attributable license from

Different Types of decisions

The first thing to consider is that different types of decisions may need different types of decision making processes, specifically around gaining agreement and analysing options. This seems obvious to me, and is normally obvious to anyone I talk to about it, however when business change people are talking about creating/redefining a group to make some decisions they usually say how they’ll make decisions without differentiating between the types. Unfortunately common sense is often left out of planning.

A decision can’t be made unless it’s understood. To understand why a decision needs making someone, or the representative of some people, needs to have an objective which requires a decision by the group. Again, this seems rather obvious but if you consider it the other way around it means that a group can’t make a decision unless it know who wants the decision and why they want it. Apply that to many traditional management groups/boards,  CCBs, business change projects, process improvement groups etc. and you’ll find it doesn’t always hold. In these cases groups are being dishonest and self-serving.

I don’t mean that you can’t make a decision without the customer present (models for that follow next) but that you can’t make a good decision if you don’t know who the customer is and what their objective is. In the case of speculative development for a market this might seem impossible but that’s what market research is for. So, given that we know how decisions are made, and that we should consider different ways to achieve agreement for different types of decision how can we actually get agreement?

See part 2 for How to reach agreement in a group – autocracy vs. democracy

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

Business Change: Rapport, Congruency and hypnosis

What is rapport?

Have you ever been in a situation with someone where you could finish each other’s sentences? Ever had a friend you could communicate with with just a glance and you always seemed to know what each other were thinking? Have you ever felt than in tune with someone? Ever had people follow your reasoning without really questioning it because of the relationship between you at that moment?

The word “rapport” is used to describe this relationship, people in these situations are said to be in rapport with each other (you don’t pronounce the last “t” because it’s based on a French word). Hard to define but everyone’s experienced something along these lines.

Most people have some experience of rapport at least in their personal lives indeed as it serves an important purpose in forming close friendships and intimate relationships. I think of every relationship as being on a big sliding scale from anti-rapport (total conflict) to full rapport (complete hypnotic trance) and putting this scale on a fulcrum to make a see-saw I can push in each direction. I call this the “See-saw of Rapport” because I’m a sucker for a silly rhyme.


What’s the difference between complicated and complex?

Complicated endeavours are built upon specialist knowledge and can’t be done by most people. They might take a lot of time and skill to do but are ultimately predictable processes. For example, a recursive sorting algorithm in computer programming is complicated, it involves variables, loops and recursion it’s not easy for everyone but it’s very predictable. Building a car engine is complicated.

Complex endeavours are those which have many influencing parts and events whose interactions are not simply predictable. Running a large software project is complex, it has people (who are complex) interacting in unpredictable ways based on events and stimuli we can’t predict. Driving a car is complex.

Complicated is easy if you can get the right skills lined up. Complex is always hard.

One thing that interests me is that humans are good at the complex, or at least we seem to be, after all most of us seem able to hold a conversation with another complex human and interact with communities etc. And yet despite our innate understanding of complexity we’re generally really bad at managing it.


Heuristic methods are those which sacrifice accuracy for the sake of speed. Essentially they’re a practical simple way of getting an answer that’s roughly right rather than a complicated time consuming process to get the perfect answer.

In software they’re used all the time to do (almost) 3d graphics calculations that aren’t exactly what happens in the real world but are close enough, they’re also used wherever a “best guess” is provided by a bit of software. Generally we apply heuristics to complex systems to be able to make timely observations or predications.

One of the problems with managing complex systems such as businesses or software teams is that we sometimes forget their complexity, believe the heuristics as fact, and treat them as if they’re merely complicated.

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

Empowerment vs. Autonomy

A colleague and friend of mine, Caroline Clewlow, recently blogged on “Giving Empowerment or Taking Autonomy” which makes some excellent points. Note sure when the second part will be published, but I’ve already read it and it’s good too (Edit: Part 2 has been posted now). One of the good points contained is

A colleague said that in the simplest terms empowerment is given whereas autonomy is taken

10 internet points if you can guess who the colleague mentioned was, and in terms of the linked vid see here

Anyway, there’s something I thought I’d add to this topic which is some discourse on the element of moral responsibility.

Because an empowered individual or team is given it’s mandate for action from a higher power (i.e. management) the moral responsibility for it’s actions is at best derived from the high power but normally resides with the higher power. An autonomous individual or team however assumes their own moral responsibility. To this is an important distinction that, on top of the points made in Caroline’s blog, makes empowerment and autonomy distinct.

An autonomous team has the right to do what it wants without asking permission, without external limitation to the scope of that right. This is in contrast to an empowered team who are empowered to “do something”  and therefore by implication anything that falls outside of that “something” from the managers interpretation is contentious.

In business change this can be both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing as means the blinkers are taken off and the change team can do whatever is necessary to achieve the business change goals (within ethical constraints) ignoring and presuppositions about how business change can and should function. That sounds pretty good so what’s the downside?

The downside is acting with autonomy is acting without permission. That means acting without management mandate, and therefore without an “organisational push motivation” for the change in question. That’s not an insurmountable problem, a collaborative supporting statement from management can achieve the same thing in a relevant culture.

The best way to achieve buy in by the relevant stakeholders to the moral responsibility of a team and it’s autonomous actions is to ensure that the team includes those stakeholders. In the business change example, this means an autonomous team must have part of the organisational management as part of it’s membership.

For a software team this means that the autonomous team can decide to take whatever action necessary to achieve it’s goals only when the customer is part of the team making those decisions.

Business change teams acting in isolation, or at arms length from organisational management and the practitioner community they serve have the same problem as agile software teams acting without a customer representative. These teams have assumed moral responsibility but no representative conscience to provide balance to the decisions made by the team. If those teams are “empowered” then they’ll have to keep checking what they’re doing with management/customers to make sure they’re still on the right track decreasing efficiency and increasing rework.  If those teams are “autonomous” then they run the risk of creating an ivory tower of zealous self-perpetuating “moral” correctness.

In both Business Change and Software Development contexts I agree that an empowered team is better than a simple instruction following team. I also agree that an autonomous team is a progression along this path from an empowered team however I believe an autonomous team is operating unethically if it does so without true customer/management/practitioner representation.

Achieving an organisational environment that enables autonomous teams means management taking an open collaborative supportive role.

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

Professional mindfulness, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution and the ways of the Jedi


I’ve been hearing a lot about mindfulness in business change circles recently so thought I’d comment. It started when a fellow mentor came to me and asked if I’d heard of “mindfulness” to which I responded somewhat frivolously “as Jedi we are mindful of our thoughts and feelings”.

“Mindfulness” has roots in Buddhism as one of the seven factors of enlightenment and has was then adopted by clinical psychology, especially in “positive psychology” over the last few decades in the way that good ideas are often recycled by new belief systems ;p Recently people involved in people management, professionalism and business change have started using the term somewhat interchangeably with emotional intelligence. Interestingly, all three uses roughly fit in with the Jedi interpretation. From my perspective the definition is a bit fluffy and the current trend is simply a fad but that doesn’t mean there’s not some value behind the chatter.

Psychology today tells us

Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.


I think there’s some value in this idea of separation of emotion from logical thinking in a professional context. Emotion tends to complicate things and needs attention otherwise it can override everything else. In any given situation there is always an emotional context, both on the part of yourself and the others you’re interacting. To me, mindfulness is about understanding your emotional context and their emotional context.

“Mindfulness” has a role in conflict resolution as the first part of resolving conflict is to understand each perspective, you can’t do that if you ignore the emotional context. Rapport between individuals is force multiplied by acknowledged sharing (or perception of sharing for the sneaky) of emotional context so being aware of it is a good thing.

In Practice

So how can we achieve “mindfulness”? Various schools of thought have ideas on that from meditation, “consciousness raising” exercises etc. but I prefer a more simplistic approach to achieve awareness of emotional context. At first this is a bit slow and something you’d do retrospectively but with practice you can get quite quick at it and do it in realtime during a session.

Imagine a moment of communication, especially one with emotion. Ideally consider an event where the result wasn’t what you expected or intended or a moment of conflict.

1. First play back the event from your perspective, focussing on your emotional responses during the event and visualising enough detail to consider the opponents emotional state. Hopefully this will give you some insight into your actions.

2. Second play back the event again from the opposing person’s perspective. Put yourself in their place and try to interpret both their emotional intents and responses to your original communication.  Hopefully this will give you some insight into their actions.

3. Finally, play back the event again from the position of an objective observer. You could imagine a fly on the wall or a psychologist studying the event with a bunch of curious students in tow behind a one way mirror. The point is to examine the event, the communications, actions and responses with emotional detachment to again consider the emotional motives behind what happened.

Doing this little exercise will increase your understanding of the emotional context of any event, especially conflict events. You’ll most likely gain significant insights into your own motivations and actions and those of the other parties. I always do. This exercise helps you achieve mindfulness regarding the event.

I always do this following a moment of conflict whether it be professional or personal, as both are things I try to avoid. These days when I’m in a moment of conflict I find I immediately do a quick comparison of the situation from three perspectives, it takes a fraction of a second but enhances my understanding, and therefore response, to conflict situations significantly. This is an example of “anchoring” from NLP.

Of course if there’s a little too much conflict in a situation a different approach might be necessary!


“Be mindful of your feelings, they betray you”

In my opinion there’s little place for negative emotion in a professional setting. However sometimes business change activities may cause negative emotion of conflict, it’s these situations in which an eye on mindfulness or emotional intelligence can help.

There’s nothing new in “mindfulness”, “emotional intelligence” or (my term for it) “emotional awareness” but as with all of these things, to ignore it is to tie one hand and both legs behind your back before going for a game of tennis.

Remember also that Master Yoda said we should “be mindful of the future”… but not at the expense of the moment.

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

Why do people change their behaviours?

Business change is all about changing people’s behaviours. To understand how to change a business we therefore need to understand how people change. There are three main mechanisms for behavioural change, pain, push and pull. Finally I’ll talk about a balanced approach to creating an environment ripe to change.

Often characterised as “the stick”. Pain based change involves people either feeling some form of discomfort and acknowledging the situation. Obviously people can be in a bad situation but in denial, managing people to acceptance of the truth of their position is a complex skill to which all of the holistic communication techniques apply.

There are a number of dimensions for pain in a business change context. Organisational pain refers to a problem felt by an organisation. Organisational pain is a poor motivator for individuals unless they are exceptionally engage which is why many change programmes actioned by management in response to a perceived organisational pain can fail to get buy in from teams and individuals.

Team pain refers to difficulty faced by a team collectively when trying to function. Often team pain will be manifested by multiple team members raising the same problems in retrospectives or reviews. Team’s will often innovate in process or tooling locally to overcome team pain and apply peer pressure to individuals in the team who don’t personally share the pain. Team pain can and should be harnessed to drive changing behaviours, if it isn’t managed it will have an effect anyway but it’s unlikely to be the effect you want. If an individual is well aligned to the team then team pain will also be individual pain.

Individual pain is a discomfort faced by an individual which can lead to poor morale, resistance to team or organisational actions and people leaving. Individual pain can be an excellent pressure for changing behaviour but I believe it’s unethical to deliberately cause pain in business change activities.

Often individual pain is caused when the team and the individual want to pursue different practices. That is if the individual is not-aligned to the rest of the team there will be both individual pain and team pain. The team is likely to exert pressure on the individual to align to the team, this can be positive but also very negative if the team aren’t careful in their approach. When someone’s in pain, adding more pain to their situation is not an effective way to drive them to change.

Push motivation is the least effective form of motivation to make lasting change in behaviours. Push motivation, also characterised as “the stick” and usually the direct cause of pain in an organisation, team and individual is simply telling people what to do. This can have an immediate effect but it’s often only paying lip-service to the change and will quickly regress when the push directive is removed. A continuous push directive that isn’t aligned to solving individual pain will increase individual pain and make people leave.

Sometimes managers think this is the best approach, and that people should be able to deal with it and JFDI. However if you need to be persuaded of how wrong this approach is consider the following thought experiment:

Let’s suppose that a professional working environment is based on mature relationships between adults. Let’s change the context to an inter-personal relationship between mature adults: you and your spouse/partner/whatever/cat. If you want your partner to change their behaviour (say they don’t line up the food cans so the labels all show perpendicular to the cupboard door or some other OCD request) be it a reasonable or unreasonable request do you think the most effective way to get them to permanently change their behaviour is to just tell them “Do this!” and if they don’t just keep telling them? Most people will consider this a dysfunctional relationship between two mature adults and a bad behaviour on the part of the directive partner. So what’s the difference in a business context? To my mind very little.

This is an example of “reframing“, changing the context to get a different or wider sense of the interaction.

A change in environment or external factors can also create a push motivation.

Pull is the most effective single method of long term behaviour change. This method involves creating a positive motivation for change towards the desired end goal, often categorised as “the carrot” however it’s just as much a minefield as the other motivators. Creating pull motivations is very difficult to get right and done badly can actually just cause pain, or feel like a push to people.

Pull motivations need to be targeted at team and individual level, they can’t be done at organisational level unless everyone is deeply engaged in the organisation (i.e. a small team in a small company that own the company and will directly reap the rewards of it’s success – unless you’re just about to start the next google this isn’t you). Note that offering people financial rewards like bonuses, a classic example of managers trying to motivate behaviour in a direction of their choice is actually demotivating and leads to negative results.

For pull motivation to be effective it needs to be aligned to human behaviour, not traditional managerial behaviour. Areas of potential alignment include:

  • Biological imperatives – things like food, sex, going to the toilet etc. unlikely to be harnessed in (most) businesses
  • Life-cycle progression – things like growing up, getting married, having a mid-life crisis etc. there actually is an alignment possible here in terms of professional maturity. As people spend time in an organisation they want to progress their careers as part of their life-cycle progression. Providing mechanisms for career development aligned to organisational and business change goals provides a pull motivation.
  • Inspiration – which I’ll tackle outside of a bullet point.

Teachers, coaches, preachers, salespeople are always trying to motivate people by inspiring them. People spend countless hours trying to craft messages that will get into people’s heads and inspire them to change their behaviour. The holistic communication blog series is all about understanding the complexities of language that help us form these messages properly and effectively.

Think back on your life and consider when you’ve been inspired… Was it something you read? Saw on tv? Heard someone say? Some will be cynical and say they’ve never been inspired in which case we should ask why they’re doing the job they’re doing. If someone has been content just to fall into situations without ever expressing any desire or interest in choosing a direction they’re likely to be a business change managers best friend due to their lack of free will. It’s easy to mock a lack of inspiration like this but it’s very hard to quantify what will be inspirational

Aligning messages with individuals current direction will reinforce their belief systems and can be seen as inspirational, similarly aligning with their life-cycle progression may be considered inspirational. Establishing rapport and being congruent can help us be inspirational. More on that in a later topic, I’ll update the link here later. If we could bottle “inspiration” we’d make millions or at least sell a lot of self-help books

In business change terms to make effective pull motivations we should strive to inspire the organisation towards changing their behaviours

The balance
Behavioural change is complex, I’ve not even talked about resistance and over-coming it, just the motivations that drive change. To manage change in an organisation means understanding these motivators and, I believe, creating a balance between them so that the environment is fertile for individuals to choose to change in the intended direction. My favourite recipe is:

  • a tiny bit of team pain that makes it just harder for people to stay where they are than change to something else, this should increase slowly over the long term naturally as more of the community move from the old state to the new state as peer pressure increases
  • a tiny bit of push, just enough to let people know that the organisation is giving them permission to change and wants them to, but not a directive
  • a lot of pull
    • alignment of business change to career development so that as people adopt the target behaviours they are improving/progressing their life – gaining seniority and acknowledged value
    • inspiration to draw people towards the target behaviours, the ultimate goal being to make adopting the change so attractive that people will choose to do it and tell all of their peers about doing so

Achieving this recipe is difficult but done correctly we can observe a movement in an organisation, led by the community and engaging the business rather than a change programme imposed on the community by the business.

So if you want to make a change or are in the middle of one currently, express as accurately and inspirationally as you can what you want to change and then consider what motivates that change, for the organisation, teams and individuals. Think about why and how you’ve changed your behaviour in the past to see if you can define the elements that made the change compelling for you.

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

Serious Gaming for education with complex layered metaphors

I’ve written a couple of blogs about metaphors. In Direct, Indirect and complex Metaphors I promised I’d post again on complex layered metaphors so here’s the post.

Complex Layered Metaphors

I consider a complex layered metaphor to be a collection of metaphors contained within another metaphor. Potentially this structure can be recursed so that you end up with with a stack of metaphors containing metaphors. There’s a number of reasons for doing this:

  • it’s fun
  • it provides a vehicle for delivering a lot of direct and indirect messages

Since it’s a little complex by it’s nature I’ll describe it in terms of a concrete example of some work I recently did with one of my clients. We wanted to get a number of messages out about awareness and the nature of the process improvement team in the organisation and services as well as specific messages in terms of the attractiveness of continuous integration, change set based scm (software configuration management), the use of a wide variety of collaborative tools.

To do all this in an innovative and creative way I designed a complex layered metaphor in terms of a Serious Game. The game itself was a treasure trail through a series of physical and intranet/web tool based locations.

Here’s the in-game metaphorical framework design:

Analogy Message(s)
[Top Level, contains everything else] The game is a complicated sequence through a diverse range of information sources and collaborative tools [Process Improvement Team] can make a path through the complexity of internal tools and technologies[Process Improvement Team] enables problem solvers to achieve their goals in innovative ways
The game brings together and links up a number of different areas of knowledge and tools (an information web made of new links)The game is rooted in the intranet which provides an information web of existing links.The game involves a clue that is a spider at the centre of a physical “web” which is actually the roof of a large virtual presentation area, literally a web of information. [Process Improvement Team] brings together disparate systems and knowledge into unified ways of working.There is a wide web of interconnected elements that are needed to complete our tasks.
Generally clues are meaningless out of context (e.g. just numbers, the name of an animal etc.)Information is meaningless without context, a broad understanding of the information architecture is necessary to understand the facts. Silo mentality in functional disciplines is working with information out of context. Cross-functional understanding and working, collaboration, is necessary to achieve goals.
Keep coming back to searching in [Internal Search Engine] for general knowledgeKeep coming back to searching in [Project Tool] for project information Much information is open and discoverable, knowing where and how to look is necessary. This is taught implicitly.
The name of the game [Quest] implies a search with a goal Doing the game is worthwhile and will result in finding something

The set of clues that made the game each led to each other and were themselves metaphors, normally containing metaphor restrictions to apply specific process improvement, service management and tooling messages indirectly. There were of course direct messages peppered throughout as well as well.

This provides three layers of metaphorical messages so far, the clues, the framework and the treasure trail game. On top of all of these was an activity sequence which started with a viral messaging campaign that leaked the information about the game in mysterious fashion. The discovery of the clue sequence, engagement in it’s elements (including 3 sequences held inside a virtual 3D environment like Second Life), and entry into the prize draw for a number of prizes ranging from the silly to the seriously cool.

As a result of the external activity sequence the players interacted with individuals in the Process Improvement Team through a variety of communication channels and even started eliciting help from them on a number of topics. Finally they had to physically come to the prize draw which further raised the profile of the Process Improvement Team and it’s individual members whilst delivering a message that the team was approachable and had answers.

This is just an example of how you can design layered complex metaphorical messaging campaigns. You don’t have to build a game structure for this kind of stuff.

Serious Gaming

Serious Gaming” is used to describe games designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment. Serious games are often used for educational, investigative and promotional purposes.

I’m a big fan of serious games and gamification as games can be excellent motivators. Gamification is the application of game concepts to solve problems and engage audiences/players. For an example of gamification in the wild check out Chore Wars which helps turn boring household chores into a game.

I play a game with myself to increase the hit count of my blog, for no other purpose that to increase the “points” I get 🙂 Indirectly that makes me ensure my blog is discoverable and I exercise good SEO practices to get good google rankings, oh yeah and post stuff that people want to read (I hope).

Learning through play is considered perfectly normal for children and yet is sometimes frowned up with adults.  As mentioned before, a serious game can be an excellent vehicle for metaphorical messaging as it can provide a framework of engagement and activity towards a goal. Make the activity a metaphor (like the quest example above seeking a goal by working through a web of complex tools and collaborative environments being a metaphor for the process improvement team enabling people to solve problems) and you’ve got a ready made layered complex metaphor.

If you want to run something like this here’s the set of game features I used to “gamify” the eductional treasure trail:

  • The treasure trail itself, they’re fun
  • Clues range from simple to complex to challenge players
  • Clues range from simple directions to multi-part referential clues that need piecing together (mini-puzzles)
  • Depending on the path taken through the game some clues can be referenced more than once in different contexts (i.e. the launch blog entry has a set of textual clues to the first location via encoded IP address, contains a red herring reference embedded in decorated characters in the text and also contains the final code embedded in the task). Discovery of hidden information, especially hidden patterns or elegance is psychologically rewarding for humans.
  • There are a number of “red herrings” in the game, adding another mini-game in terms of find them
  • 3D virtual environments imply game activity and lead to fun construction and interaction activity. There was also a rudimentary tic-tac-toe game in-world.
  • Clues are written in stylised humorous game-like language
  • Competition for prizes (open prize draw for all finishers who submit the correct code word, minor silly prizes for fastest and slowest completion, minor prize for funniest feedback comment)
  • The winning of virtual badges by completing the game that people could add to their profile
  • Early viral messaging campaign to make the game seem “subversive” initially

Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, in fact some of the most positive feedback I’ve ever seen, and we estimated we completed several hundred hours of high engagement practitioner training for only 4 days effort (game design and running) + the cost of the prizes.

All work should be like this, creativity should be the norm, not the exception.

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

Holistic Communication: Metaphor Restrictions

Ok, so this sounds complicated from the title but it isn’t that nasty. If you’re unfamiliar with metaphors/analogies you might want to read this short primer first it has all the answers.

It’s basically the attribution of capability or feature to something that can’t possibly have it. Like many of the techniques in this series it’s a minor thing but when you add up a lot of minor things together they can have a dramatic impact. In fact this technique on it’s own can have interesting effects as the processing of the violation (the invalid statement) is a bit like talking to someone’s subconscious, affecting the context of the original message more than the message itself…

It works by putting a “restriction” on a metaphor which doesn’t make sense (sometimes called a “metaphor violation”) which the receiver will naturally apply to the next nearest thing in context – normally the sender. Rather than discuss it academically I’m going to show you some examples and discuss their results. Bear in mind these are subtle effects, people tend to swallow the metaphor restriction at a superficial level but are impacted by the violation in a more subtle fashion.

Negative focus

“The server is a bit temperamental”

Servers aren’t temperamental, they don’t have moods. This sort of thing is often used to describe an unstable service, and everyone knows that but the violation of the metaphor means that the listener will apply the representation of temperamental to the next available thing. Maybe you or the server support team are the temperamental people.

Imagine this one in a training context (feel free to substitute “application” for “compiler”)

“The compiler is confused”

No it’s not, you are and now your delegate is too. Even rubbish applications don’t get confused, they have a logic you just don’t understand it.

“Your organisation doesn’t deal with agility at scale very well”

A particularly dangerous one as superfically it might sound like a reasonable statement to some people, I hear people say this kind of thing all the time. Organisations don’t have a mind, their behaviour is an emergent property based on the individuals in networks that do things. If you say something like this what you’re really saying is either “You don’t deal with agility at scale very well” or “I don’t deal with agility at scale very well”.  Of course if you really mean either of those then have at it. But be aware of the impact of making negative metaphor restrictions.

Positive focus

“If you pay attention do the training material you’ll pick this up really easily”

Training material doesn’t talk, the trainer does. What you’re really saying here is “Listen to me carefully and you’ll learn this”, hopefully you’d not directly say that! This is a marvelous structure as it also includes a positive embedded command 🙂

“The exercise has the answers to this problem”

Exercises don’t have answers, so who does have the answers? Clearly the trainer.

Bonus point if you can spot the positive metaphor restriction in the blurb at the beginning of this post 😉

(Unintended) False attribution

This is an interesting effect as it can be used positively but is far too easy to use deceptively. Consider in a training/mentoring situation you’ve just done a demo/example and you’re getting the class/mentee to do an exercise. You say to someone (who’s a little slower than you at something which in an imbalanced situation like training is normally everyone, if it’s not you shouldn’t be training them):

“You’re really quick at doing this stuff”

People won’t feel quick at something compared to the trainer/mentor so the restriction is on themselves. To deal with the violation they’ll apply the representation to the nearest available example which will be the trainer/mentor. You’re basically saying “Look at me! I’m awesome! I’m so quick and doing this stuff”.

That can be deliberate, certainly technical pre-sales people use this technique and I’ve seen some trainers do it but I consider it unethical. What’s interesting to me is the number of people doing this unintentionally. They think they’re praising the delegate but really they’re praising themselves when there’s a conflict between the statement and the receivers impressions.

Note that this kind of metaphor restriction only has this effect when the receiver is in conflict with the message. If they have been quicker than the other delegates then it’ll reinforce their self belief and demotivate others in the room.

Advanced Use

Although restrictions are normally applied back to the sender, it’s possible to structure layered metaphors to apply a restriction from one level (that doesn’t make sense) to another level (where it does but has then been given as an indirect message).

Let’s consider a sneaky deceptive example, in a hypothetical technical pre-sales session:

“VendorX provide services to rollout this tool, because this tool is brilliant it’ll transform the way you work by intelligently guiding you in how to change and improve, distilling knowledge and experience into practical focused advice. VendorX can be your trusted partner for improvement”

Now I’m going to separate out some bits, this breakdown is a bit simplified as I’m focusing on the metaphor restrictions there’s a few more cunning techniques in there as well:

The object: “…this tool… will transform the way you work by…”

The restriction: “intelligently guiding you in how to change and improve, distilling knowledge and experience into practical focused advice.”

Imagine a tool that could really intelligently guide you, distilling knowledge maybe, but experience? Tools don’t get experience, empirical data maybe but not experience. And focusing advice implies a rather large amount of intelligence to understand the problem and provide the correct advice in the correct context. It’s a grand claim, it might be appropriate for SkyNet but not something you’re going to buy any time soon.

So where does all that grand praise go? Wait… there’s more!

The other object: “VendorX provide services…” and a closing repetition to bring it back to mind “VendorX can be your…”

The other restriction: “…your trusted partner for improvement

As mentioned above organisations have no character only emergent behaviour based on their individuals and networks. In a salesy situation like this the salesperson represents the company VendorX so clearly the message is that the representative should be trusted (ooohhh… sneaky). If a sales person said “Hey! Trust me” *winning smile* they’d probably get sneered at this is a much more indirect way of making the same statement.

And then within that trust imperative context all of that grand praise about “guiding”, “experience”, “distilling knowledge” and “focused advice” is then applied back to the representative.

Of course all of this could backfire if the sales person hasn’t projected the relevant technical credibility which is why this is a technical pre-sales example not a general sales example.

A lot of deceptive cons, brainwashing, cults and sales techniques make use of this stuff.

The point

The point is not to use this stuff deceptively but to be aware of the impact of the things you say and write so you can improve your linguistic habits to avoid unintended side effects.

If you’ve heard sneaky sales metaphor restrictions please add them to the comments below.

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

Holistic Communication: The rights and wrongs of communication channels

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

Defining Communication Channels

Communication is transferring a message via a medium or channel from a sender to a receiver. There may be many receivers or no knowledge of who/how many there are. This post discusses the channels of communication. Stop for a moment and write a list (at least mentally) of the number of communication channels you have in your professional life and who they are communicating with.

I’ll rattle off a few for me:

  1. Direct verbal+physical communication to the people physically co-located with me
  2. Direct verbal only via phone
  3. Direct text only via instant messaging
  4. Direct rich text only via email
  5. Broadcast test via twitter/yammer/micro-blogging platform of choice
  6. Broadcast rich text/media via blog

I could probably go on all day.

Each of these channels has different strengths and weaknesses and so should be used for different purposes and to engage with different groups. There’s an implied purpose in most channels based on their technology, history and technical restrictions which should also be respected as otherwise the receivers can be made to feel quite uncomfortable.

For example, this kind of content which is relatively long, structured, inter-related and not aimed at an individual but broadcast to whoever is interested and chooses to search for it is broadcast on my blog. Links are automatically added to twitter and linkedin for the title but the content isn’t. Imagine instead of using my blog I’d used twitter to tweet this stuff in little 140 char snippets. I think after the first flood of1 5 posts all ending in “…” I’d have about 5 followers left. It’s considered rude and inappropriate. Imagine I’d direct emailed it to you!

Choosing Channels

Now all of this might be a bit obvious when I mention it but how often do you consider what the right channel is for a message you’re trying to deliver? Some of the differences in channels can be a lot more subtle than the example above and can therefore have unintended implications on the result of your message which is the true meaning of your communication.

Choice of channel isn’t just important when initiating communication it’s even more important when responding to communication. It’s just rude to respond to someone in a different channel than they contact you in unless explicitly stated. For example, if someone emails you they’ve chosen a non-immediate text based medium for whatever reason, if you phone them back you’re changing the gear of the interaction, taking away their opportunity to carefully consider their words by applying a time pressure and interrupting them from whatever they were doing.

All Many people have insecurities about communication and can even be neurotic about some channels, especially in highly technical organisations. Sometimes people feel vulnerable on the phone and would rather interact via text/im/email even when relatively close physically. Others find they’re uncomfortable with text based channels and would rather “speak to a real” person. Do you want to make someone uncomfortable when you’re communicating with them? Before the first action or word?

I operate a couple of golden rules:

  • Respond to people on the channel they use to contact you
  • Choose the channel that’ll get the best results by making the receiver comfortable

Obviously switching channel can be a powerful gear change if used correctly, as a pattern interrupt even.  I consider deliberately doing that unethical, so don’t accidentally do it as the effects can be far worse than you’d think.

My opinions on these channels

Here’s my take on some of these from a purely personal perspective. You may well find you have a different interpretation of some of these channels, which is kind of the point of the previous bit.


1. Direct verbal+physical communication to the people physically co-located with me

Good for: Almost all, there’s instant feedback and the ability to use and read non-verbal communication. The best channel to build relationships and rapport as well as dealing with an emotional response from someone else

Bad for: Unplanned emotional confrontation. If you’re angry about something stopping to write it down can help you to make sense of your feelings rather than the immediate lashing out that can happen in verbal channels.The worst channel to deal with negative emotion from yourself.

Notes: You just can’t beat physically talking to someone


2. Direct verbal only via phone

Good for: Remote quick messages that don’t need a recorded history, reinforcing personal relationships, asking quick questions. Important time-sensitive information. Freeform discussion between 2 people.

Bad for: Anything that needs a long term response, action, complex work or analysis. Structured conversation amongst a group. Conference calls are hell people! Anything emotional as you’ve cutting out non-verbal communication, the majority of human interaction.

Notes: Remember a phone call interrupts people, most of the time they’re not waiting for it so you’re imposing your conversation on them and interfering with whatever they were doing.


3. Direct text only via instant messaging

Good for: Remote quick questions, q&a chat rooms

Bad for: Same as the Direct verbal phone one above except that you’re cutting out even more information from the communication by removing tone, speed, phrasing etc. of voice communication.

Notes: Tends to imply a certain informality despite the fact that most corporate IM solutions are recorded. Some IM solutions indicate when someone wants to talk, or is typing. Ones that don’t are just terrible.


4. Direct rich text only via email

Good for: Structured, recorded information. Group think.

Bad for: Anything that requires action, anything emotional.

Notes: The younger people are the less relevant email is, some consider it should be banned. Like all tools it depends on how it’s used. Unfortunately most people use it badly and have an inbox like a blackhole – massive amounts of stuff goes into it but there’s no observable result. Mass emial has a much lower impact than direct email.


5. Broadcast test via twitter/yammer/micro-blogging platform of choice

Good for: Short updates, social connection, short q&a, promotion of other content

Bad for: Long, structured or complex information.

Notes: Frequency of posts needs to match the local cultural norms to avoid flooding. Similarly excessive content promotion is considered spamming.


6. Broadcast rich text/media via blog

Good for: Structured complex information broadcast to a wide audience

Bad for: Information aimed at an individual or small group

Notes: Blogs can have a range of interpretations depending on their history within an organisation. One organisation I worked with considered blogs to “just be opinions and nothing important was communicated on them”. Another published everything from individual opinions to HR policy and corporate communications on their internal blog system.



As always I’m interested in your opinions. Do you have anything to addon the good and bad points of various channels. Any pet hates?

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

Linguistics of business change: Holistic communication, ethics and morals


I’m planning to write a blog series on the language involved in business change. I’m not sure where it’s going to go yet which is why a series of blogs seems like a good idea rather than trying to fit it all in one post, or structuring it too much! To that end I’ll post all of this stuff under the “holistic communication” category to make it easier to find amongst all of the other things I post about.

Linguistics is the scientific study of human language so I’ll be covering a fair amount on grammar and sentence structure but my aim is to not make it too academic but practical and useful.  I’m also planning on covering some non-verbal stuff since what I’m really interested in is “holistic communication”.

I first came across the term “holistic communication” in an essay on nursing care by Kim Antolo a few years back when I started researching this topic. Communication in this context is the transfer of messages from one person to another person. Holism refers to treating the whole of a system not just an constituent parts. Therefore holistic communication is applying systems thinking to inter-personal communication.

I’ve studied psychology, linguistics, behavioural science, neuro-linguistic programming, magic (think card tricks rather than crystals and naked dancing), mentalism, hypnosis, cognitive science and business change so this blog series is likely to be a bit of a mixed bag of stuff.

Why is this important?

Communication is the transfer of a message from a sender via a channel to a (number of) receiver(s). The meaning of any communication is the result generated in the head of the receiver(s) not the intended message. Communication and collaboration are critical to our success as individuals, teams, companies and societies and yet often the result of intended communication is not what the sender originally intended. Improving our communication skills can literally improve our lives and everyone else’s lives.

When we communicate we’re trying to move a representation of something from our heads to someone else’s heads. There’s a lot of ways we can do this ranging from words, pictures, actions etc. Thinking about each of these carefully and how to use them together as a holistic communication approach enables us to ensure that the received message really does match our intention making us better communicators.

I think that holistic communication is the kung fu of business change.

Ethics and morality

Being effective at getting a message from our heads to other people’s heads involves changing other people’s representation of an idea, being really good at it is sometimes called being: inspiring, convincing, compelling, persuasive, seductive, hypnotic, manipulative. Some of these words have positive connotations and others negative and that’s kind of my point.

Being really good at holistic communication gives great power, and as Spiderman’s uncle would tell you “with great power comes great responsibility”. Carefully crafting a message provides the ability to put a representation of a concept in someone’s head changing their perception of reality. Sometimes that message doesn’t superficially look like the intended result making it deceptive or deceitful. Another two negative words and this is why my introductory post is going to talk about ethics and morality.

Ethics and morality are related but different. Ethics define system wide standards of behaviour whereas morals are a more personal distinction between right or wrong. Therefore in terms of business change and holistic communication we need to consider professional ethics and our personal morality.

In terms of professional ethics I think that in the agile coaching/process improvement/business change consultancy space that the hippocratic oath taken in the medical profession isn’t far off. Basically my personal morality is fairly happy with “do no harm”, the whole point of consultants is to help people.

So the focus of my application of the various concepts, structures and techniques I’m going to be covering is not how to deceive people into doing what we want but how to understand and structure our communication to get the best results and to learn how to avoid unintended negative consequences. I  believe there’s a moral imperative to learn how to communicate properly, not for the purposes of gross manipulation but to increase the impact of our messages in a positive way.

But what are the best results?

I said above that holistic communication is about understanding and structuring our communication to achieve the best results, which begs the question “best for whom”? This is why professional ethics and personal morality are important. In business change there can be a conflict between the needs of the business, the needs of the change project, the needs of the change agents and the needs of the individuals. Balancing all of these with an emphasis on “do no harm” is what I consider the “best results”.

Um… Is this hypnosis?

Both of the following are true:

  • No, there’s no such thing as hypnosis.
  • Yes, all communication is hypnosis.


As I post topics in this series I’ll add them to the topics list here and reference them all back to this post. You’re welcome to suggest topics and knowledge in the comments, if I know something about the topic I’ll add it, if not I’ll just say so and maybe you can add some content. Keep coming back as new posts will be added to this table of contents all the time 🙂

This blog series is designed to be read quite quickly with a lot of indirect metaphorical messaging and implied meaning so rather than consider each point analytically you will get more out of it by letting it sink into your subconscious as you internalise the various techniques. The last thing you want in a conversation is to spend 5 minutes analysing each sentence instead of speaking!

The practical bit

Don’t believe in all this stuff? How about a little thought experiment? Clear your mind, chill out, image a big blank whiteboard, sit back and try not to think of purple penguins.

Impossible right? I constructed a couple of words that ensure that you represent a purple penguin in your head. Probably on a whiteboard in a meeting room you’re familiar with. To negate a concept you first have to represent it. This is a trivial example, but an important concept which I’ll come back to in a later post.

The Kung Fu of Software Engineering

I’ve been studying both kung fu and software engineering for many years. I’ve come to realise that they are very similar and that kung fu is a pretty good metaphor for software engineering.

Done right it looks easy, but it’s not

When you watch kung fu in movies, or martial arts in general it makes sense logically, it looks sensible. Attackers punch in one direction and defenders block in another. Sometimes there are tricks and special moves but an observer can see the logic in them, and they are feasible if clever – they are complicated, not complex. However when you actually try and do these moves you find it’s not so simple. It’s not easy to react the right way under pressure when you’ve not done it before. You need to learn muscle memory, improve your fitness, work on your reactions and internalise sometimes counter-intuitive techniques. When you really do it well you use very little energy to do something that looks easy and it becomes easy but other people can’t get it just by watching you.

Both software engineering and kung fu are deceptively difficult, with hidden complexities and complex emergent behaviour. I think it was Grady Booch who said (although I couldn’t find the quote so any mistake is mine) “Software development has, is and always will be, inherently complex”.

Complexity built from simple small techniques

In many kung fu styles you learn basic small movements in repetition, often called “form” in martial arts, Sil Nim Tao (generally referred to as Siu Nim Tao in Wing Chun kung fu, the RUP of kung fu) is translated as “little idea form”. Learning this form we learn all of the basic movements and stances that set up the body positions required to get the mechanical advantage in a given situation. Each individual movement tends to be very, very simple.

This kind of information and learning is analogous to the basic software engineering knowledge that we give people. We teach them how to write in a language, idioms, patterns, standard architectures, frameworks, build technologies, iterative patterns etc.

However knowing which techniques apply in which situations, which play well with others and how to put them all together is another level of expertise based on experience. Teaching someone the basics does not make them a master. Software engineering, like kung fu is something you should never stop practising and learning.

It gets more complex when you add more people

Defending yourself from one attacker is a whole different ball game than defending yourself from two attackers. Defending yourself from a group of attackers breaks down the whole mixed metaphor of ballgames, sports and anything else in the vicinity. The complexity of the action increases significantly as you add more people, it’s not just a linear relationship. As more and more people are involved there are emergent behaviours that can’t be predicted from the beginning.

This is true of any activity that multiple people take part in, especially complex activities. In kung fu it means you have multiple attacks, more energy in your attackers which means once you’re tired you’re in trouble. In software it means you have multiple people doing things at the same time with subtly or radically different ideas on what should be done and the best way to do it.

The only ways to reduce this complexity in software engineering are to go up or down. We can either abstract away from the complexity moving to higher level technologies where possible (sacrificing fine control typically) although such abstraction tends to bring it’s own complexities or we can dive down and educate the team (in the broadest sense) on the complexities to try and reach a common understanding.

No plan survives contact with the enemy

Trying to plan in detail all of the possible interactions of a kung fu fight, even against a known assailant is about as pointless as trying to plan all of the details of a software project. There is too much uncertainty, too much complexity and too much emergent behaviour. Above all there is too much change. In both kung fu and software engineering we need to remain agile and responsive to change. Change in the environment, the different things being thrown at us and our own actions.

There’s no magical solution

We’re not in the Matrix, we can’t download kung fu skills into our heads in seconds. Or software engineering skills. These things take years to learn, will be slightly different for every individual as they tailor the standard wisdom to their particular individual skills and style.

There’s a lot to learn. Personally I sometimes work as a software development coach helping people structure and plan their work from a business, planning and architecture perspective mixing in  SCM & build techniques, tooling, requirements management, agile and iterative project management, portfolio and business management. In many ways these kind of things, and others similar to them, can be thought of as different styles of martial art. Just because you’re good at one of them doesn’t mean that you’re good at another, or the next new one that comes along. Of course a certain aptitude helps, and knowledge of one certainly makes others easier to learn but “experts in everything” are few are far between.

We can’t all be Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Jet Li but we get a choice about where we are on the spectrum between being a master and an armchair expert sitting on the sofa watching others do it.


I believe that there’s an exact art and subtle science to both martial arts and software engineering. We need to practice these skills, we need to be continually learning and improving. We need to learn from other styles and experienced practitioners.

“Kung Fu” is actually translated to “achievement through great effort”

If you’re in the Cheltenham, UK area come and do some kung fu with me at Chi Wai Black Belt Academy.

I’ll leave you to make your own Chuck Norris software jokes…

Direct, Indirect and complex metaphors


An extract from some blurb I wrote elsewhere:

A metaphor is the use of words diverging from their normal meaning to provide an image or story to represent something else. Metaphors are used in education:

  • to express complex meanings in simple ways
  • to provide a representation of a more abstract notion
  • to add dramatic effect

Some linguists and philosophers have even argued that metaphors may actually be people’s primary mode of operation (1) and that the metaphors we use to conceptualize abstract concepts influence the way we understand them. The importance of metaphors and analogies into our thought processes is a field of study in cognitive science (2).

I find this pretty interesting since I work in a field of abstraction layered upon abstraction so I thought I’d expand on it here. I indeed cognitive metaphors are used everywhere in computer science, business change, education and normal human interaction. I think that our understanding of things is often through analogy and metaphorical representation and since our representation is our understanding metaphorical teaching can be a powerful way to communicate a message.

There are two distinct methods of metaphorical teaching that I use, simple metaphors and indirect metaphors.

Simple metaphors:

When teaching object orientation theory and practice I’ve always started by talking about Plato who apart from having a fabulous beard discussed the idea of Forms. Forms are (at least in my interpretation) the essential essence of a thing (3). If you look at a bunch of chairs they may have very different structures but you can identify them all as a chair. They’re all reflections of some idealised version of a chair. I shall call this idealised form “Chair”.

You can probably see where I’m going this… I’m building an analogy between physical objects and abstract concepts in computer science – a metaphor. I’m also simplifying the complex by chopping out lots of tedious detail to make a few silly jokes about ancient philosophy. I can then extend it to talk about types, attributes, operations, relationships etc.

I normally shift the metaphor to pens, whiteboard pens in particular since that’s what I’m normally holding when going on about this stuff. Anyway, no one cares about object orientation anymore! Actually I don’t think that’s true at all, I think it’s just not special anymore, the development community at large just “gets it” and has grown up past the point that it’s a special thing, it’s just part of the foundation now.

To create a simple metaphor you start with the message create an analogy and then discuss the analogy. These sort of analogies should be pretty obvious and often followed with the core message.

Indirect metaphors

Sometimes there are messages you want to get across to people that they may not directly want to hear for personal/political/other reasons, or messages you might not want to give directly due to a similar set of reasons. In these cases an indirect metaphor might be more useful.  Indirect metaphors are often used in business change to overcome initial resistance to change by aligning the change with a behaviour that the audience already sees as positive.

To create an indirect metaphor you do the same as a simple metaphor, you create an analogy and then discuss it, however it’s like to the core message is less obvious and often the core message is never directly communicated.

For example, I once used to teach an iterative software development course that had an element of serious gaming (3). In the course we had people programming Lego Mindstorms robots with a simple task (avoid boundary and keep wandering about) amongst other things.

Obviously there was a simple metaphor about the robot and it’s software being a business product etc. However there was also an indirect metaphor, in playing the game the teams always found it quite difficult and always had difficulty developing what  was (on paper) a trivial algorithm using visual building blocks in a language and IDE designed for young kids. I liked this indirect metaphor that software development is intrinsically creative and difficult. My hope was that project managers discovered a new-found appreciation for their clever developers doing clever things 🙂

Complex Layered metaphors

This is a bit more complicated… I tend to call a collection of recursed indirect and direct metaphors a complex layered metaphor. More on this in Serious Gaming for education with complex layered metaphors.

See also: Metaphor restrictions


  1. Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York : Basic Books see also Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York : Basic Books.
  2. Mark Turner, Gilles Fauconnier (2002) The Way We Think. Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books
  3. Kahn, Charles H. (2004). “The Framework”. Plato and the socratic dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. Cambridge University Press
  4. Prensky, M, (2004) Digital Game-Based Learning McGraw-Hill

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.