Archive for the ‘Management Learning’ Category

the unpunctuated flow of events

How well do you know your own mind as you apply it to the world around you? You might think that would be pretty easy to answer. Knowing what a mindset is, however, is one of those things that you know if no-one asks you, but will struggle to define if you are asked to explain it.

Last week I was lucky enough to be able to close a day-long meeting organised by the Henley Forum (… for Organisational Learning and Knowledge Strategies, to give it its full name). The audience of about 60 was diverse and practical, drawn from member organisations. The theme of the whole day was “Changing mindsets and behaviours” and my segment was the last hour. I had the title “So why would anyone want to change their mindset?”

Good question, but I realised that I wasn’t going to get far in answering it without knowing what a mindset is. Not just ‘my’ mindset, but ‘a’ mindset.

Let’s start with a dictionary definition:

“Mindset, (n)… the ideas and attitudes with which a person approaches a situation, especially when these are seen as being difficult to alter.”

– Collins English dictionary online

This says first that a mindset is personal, and knowingly or unknowingly it affects how you see, notice and react to the events in the world around you. But notice, too, the tantalising confusion in this definition. Is it your ideas and attitudes that are difficult to alter, or the situation you bring these to? Were it the situation that doesn’t easily budge, a change in your approach would indeed be called for. As such, a change in mindset would be no more than a change in tactics, amounting to pragmatism.

Yet I doubt this is what is meant. I suspect they are saying that it is our ideas and attitudes that are immobile. And that the main reason this is so is because we invest a huge amount of our own individual identity in our outlook. A shift in mindset ought to be a big deal, not tailoring.

In the Henley Forum session I wanted to explore this territory. I started by wondering, aloud, whether there aren’t actually three orientations to the whole question of mindset:

1. Your mindset is a question of perception, interpretation and intent.

I think this covers just about everything people write and read on this topic, and is the closest to the dictionary definition above. In fact, it’s a common sense description of how we characterise and categorise. A modern and very popular case in point is Carol Dweck’s ‘fixed’ versus ‘growth’ mindset (the idea being that these are the choices – either you believe your worldview is the result of fixed traits (perhaps ones you are born with, or ones that don’t change because you believe they don’t), or you think that things can and do change through hard work and belief (faith?). Compare this with the famous  saying attributed somewhat erroneously attributed to Henry Ford in 1947 –  “Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t… you’re probably right.” Actually, this sentiment or a variation of it has been in circulation since Virgil’s the Aenid (or even tucked away in Plato’s cave), and has been a resource for poets, scholars and politicians ever since.

So your mindset is part of you and how you meet the world, and you can choose to slice this in any way you please – that part of it is arbitrary. But does this help? Does getting only into detail of the gubbins in your mindset mean much unless you know what sort of a world enables you to have a mindset in the first place?

2. A mindset is possible through aspects of the world that are not dependent (only) on an individual’s perception. A mindset requires time, biology and a system that can form meaning (i.e. a coherent definition of mind). Without the combination of these three elements there would simply be no possibility for a mindset to mean anything. If there can be no differentiation between worldview at point A to worldview at point B, then there is no system of learning. This is a pre-requisite to the imposition of choices as to typology of mindset (the stuff of popular psychology).

As Gregory Bateson (1973) wrote, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think”. The wrong mindset could be toxic.

3. Therefore, mindset change must be a matter of a broader and more abstract awareness of the factors that give mindset stability. This third orientation is what draws the first two together. What might such an awareness be of? With awareness at both of the levels mentioned above, and with some input here from Siegel (2007), I think we might find the following useful:

a. Non-reaction to inner thoughts. Entering the world of your thoughts is one thing – standing back and observing one’s own internal language as if hearing them as another person might is another matter

b. Acuity of our observation of sensations available to us, plus the absence of pre-judgement of that experience

c. Aware action, preferably spontaneous action (by spontaneous I mean the paradox of managing to surprise even yourself, as the master archer who releases the arrow without saying ‘now’)

d. Our own eloquence and literacy in both 1 and 2 above.  This is one of the functions, I believe, of personal development and the reason I think it important that it is the job of education to be rigorous and precise rather than clear and simple.

My own starting point for this is a presupposition: that the world/universe/life etc. is going on all around (and consciousness that this is so) of its own accord and in and of itself it contains no punctuation. For humans, this presents a problem – we cannot make sense this way, so we punctuate this flow. More about this in a future post…


Bateson, G., (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Chicago University Press

Siegel, D., (2007), The Mindful Brain in Human Development: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-being (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology, Norton

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In the film Lost in Translation, Scarlett Johansen’s character Charlotte is shown travelling by herself on the Shinkansen from Tokyo for a day exploring the temples and gardens of Kyoto, Japan’s ancient and atmospheric former capital city. I’ve always wanted to make the same journey, and now have the opportunity not for a day trip but six nights, and not in a hotel but in a Machiya (a small dwelling house with tatami mats in a densely built up area of the downtown, and not alone as I’m travelling with my wife, Gina.

So, is Kyoto…. different?  For any non-Japanese person visiting Japan, EVERYTHING is different, so this place is no different in that respect. 

But Kyoto does have a different vibe from the various and varied parts of Tokyo that we saw. For one thing, it’s navigable in a way that Tokyo is not. Kyoto is built on grids, encircled by green hills, and with several landmarks to make it easier to know where you are. Much more significantly, it is laid back and calm in a way that perhaps other parts of the country find more of a struggle. We are in a quiet neighbourhood, true, but nowhere does. the city feel hyper (under the surface, of course, it may be) ,…. The locals seem very respectful of your complete inability to know how to behave in a civilised manner. Live and let live (in ignorance, if so wished) personified. 

The temples are impressive, especially the gardens, but it’s the mundane, the side streets, the small shops and the woodland walks (as in the picture) where anything like zen is manifest most strikingly. There is much art and craft here, and every transaction is a complete and full experience.  Even buying a bottle of water is a ceremony that leaves you feeling you have just been a most honoured guest. 

Yes, I could most definitely write a book on personal development here. There is even a route near our house called the Philosopher’s Path!

My haiku….

Kyoto June walk,

pass through woodland in the rain.

Moths meet on the wing

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I really enjoyed this funny TED talk by New Yorker magazine cartoonist and staffer Bob Mankoff. The point he is making, however, that nothing is funny in and of itself, is precise. And true for all acts that are communicative or informational, including, of course, management.

We are often convinced that a decision is, in and of itself, good or bad, right or wrong, clever or stupid, but these labels only apply to the relationship the decision has with and in context. It is this fundamental and espistemological point where we must begin Personal Development, too.

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Inference /ˈɪnf(ə)r(ə)ns/ n.  a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning

Blake's engraving of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - metaphors everywhere!

Blake’s engraving of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – metaphors everywhere!

A lot of inference goes on in management education, but I wonder how much of it is rigorous or even does any good. Here are a few thoughts on this topic.

1. Inductive reasoning

Imagine that you are given a map of an inland territory, part of a larger land mass (maybe a continent) and asked continue drawing the map. If you only use what is already there, you would have to extend by extrapolation to continue the drawing outward. Each time you drew something, sure, you could go and check, and any new data could become part of the further drawing. This is inductive – your test of accuracy is in the form of further observation (trial and error). If you were incapable of learning from this, you would be restricted to the same simple protocols of feedback (that is, you could make corrections to your map but not to your method of map making). Does this mode of inference equal learning how to learn? Not much. Arguably, only in respect to the meta-level skill of getting better at a process of trial and error (i.e. if placed in a different situation that required blind trial and error, your years of map-making like this might have resulted in an increase in speed of your trial and error method). This is often what happens to managers as they acquire skills during their careers.

2. Deductive reasoning

Given the same starting point of having to draw a map from a fragment, you notice that on the partial map there is a river. If you know that water always flows downhill (knowing this doesn’t restrict you to inductive reasoning for map making, though you might not use this knowledge), you could perhaps predict and then draw the likely course of the river into your new map on the basis of other extrapolations. In other words, you draw through a mental process of “if…, then…”.

The accuracy of your map (your prediction, or “then”) is still subject to verification by observation, but is now based on application of a covering rule – it contains a test of a hypothesis. Similarly, you may apply other rules, such as that rivers flow into other rivers and eventually into the sea, and this thought also becomes part of an imaginary map to be tested against experiment. The application of a premise established earlier in time (a priori) and independently of experience is deductive inference. Of course, there is a possibility (sometimes an aim) that a hypothesis is not matched by data. Assuming you can trust the data (i.e. your senses), you now have a route to amendment of either the hypothesis, or of the covering rule that generated the hypothesis. Is this learning to learn? The same argument could be made as for learning in inductive inference, that a you get better at applying deductive hypotheses in other contexts and this is a sort of learning how to learn. Inductive and deductive practices often go hand in hand with in practice and the boundary between them is actually only arbitrary. In either case, learning is correction of error in terms of a specific response from within a given set of alternatives (context learning), and not a correction of error in terms of change in set of choices.

The problem for deductive reasoning is that the ‘then’ is only as sound as the premises informing the ‘if’ premise itself. The best ‘ifs’ are those that express fundamental principles, but this is far from easy in managerial situations. The device, or reasoning, that can make the leap from date to theory is called abductive (sometimes retroductive).

3. Abductive reasoning

Ok, you are equipped with a keen eye for observation and a decent education and you are given the map-making task. How do you proceed? Yes, you could dive in (as many managers think they ought to) and set about solving the problem you’ve been set (whether by trial and error, or by prediction based on rules you have been taught), but neither of these will lead you to higher level learning. Induction is clear and simple and will suffice for a bit. Deduction is clever and structured, and will work as long as the premise holds up. But neither one produces anything novel. Neither is creative. And neither one leads to deeper understanding of the world as it actually is. For that, you need also abduction.

Abduction is deliberately taking the explanation for one set of phenomena and asserting this also as explanation for the data you have. It’s a more complex and artful form of reasoning as it contains a leap, and crucially demands an understanding of a deeper pattern (i.e. a knowledge of what connects otherwise disparate forms).


This may all sound a bit woolly, but for many great scientists, abduction is how they explore new ground. It is guessing, but educated, informed guessing is a good thing. For example, Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman each used such informed guesswork to bridge gaps from data to theory.

I like to characterise abduction as use of the logic of metaphor, and few things have the ability to drive the imagination, or kick-start the generative process of creation, than the bringing together of two unalike things in order to see how they are alike.


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I’m taking a few days, belatedly, in catching up on missing work. One of the things I’ve been putting off is the up-dating and house-keeping necessary for the course materials we use in our MBA Starter workshops.

This three-day event is divided between the PD stuff – which I tend to improvise on as I go – and seven Study Skills sessions. These sessions have been authored, co-authored, delivered and developed by many experienced hands over the last year or two, so we need to learn from the repeated delivery. As luck would have it, I’m the Module Convenor, so it’s my job to tidy things up while still giving colleagues the freedom to deliver the aims of the sessions in their own voice.

I’ve noticed that when you revisit some details they can reveal connections to you that are somehow overlooked the first time round. One such example is the relationship between “concept” (or construct), “framework”, “model” and “theory”. These form an important part of the language of study and assessment at master’s level, so we have always had a session to introduce them.

It occurs to me that there is a sequence in the four:

  • Concept                     Individual items that represent abstract ideas, or mental objects. Our ability to conceptualise is almost limitless. Concepts are sometimes seen as the building blocks of theory.  Concepts are driven by our epistemology (way of knowing).


  • Framework             The arrangement of concepts in a taxonomy or typology (i.e. a classification of parts) where the order does not affect the nature of the taxonomy (PESTLE is a good example). Frameworks have a fairly loose relationship with theory but can be very effective in narrowing down the mass of data and possibilities to manageable chunks. Frameworks are driven by the same epistemology as concepts (after all, a framework is also a concept), but are always at one level of abstraction away from the concepts they contain.


  • Model                        The arrangement of concepts where the order or position does make a difference. Models can show cause and effect, as well as before and after, relationships. The aim of a model is to achieve accurate description of those relationships. Models may be generated by theory, or may be a step on the road (a guess, in other words) to the establishment of theory. MBAs are attracted to models in order to apply other people’s thinking to a given problem in hand (short cuts). Models are driven by expediency.


  • Theory                       The aim of theory is to explain. Theory tries to map data to underlying tautology in such a way that the steps between them could not be in doubt. Most work in science is the search by various means of inference of more complete theory. A better theory is one that explains more than its predecessor. MBAs are not attracted to theory usually until it’s too late! Theory is driven by curiosity.



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For various reasons, one of which is a hole in a PD workshop that I’m currently trying to fill, I’ve been puzzling for a few weeks over the difference between creativity and innovation, and whether in fact there is one, and whether that matters.

I have come to the conclusion that there is and it does, at least as far as management practice is concerned.

Despite our modern management mantra of the only constant being change, what actually happens in most organisations is that despite things changing from time to time, on the whole they rather tend to remain unchanged. Radical change is the exception, not the rule. When there is radical change, in healthy environments its function is help to reach an agreed-upon new period of not-change.  It follows from this that periods of stability are necessary for change to mean anything. And vice versa, of course.

Change created internally just for the sake of stirring things up a bit is never a very satisfying experience and leaders who propose this are never very effective leaders. People, even if they don’t see through the leader-babble, will generally be more content in a status quo than in a time of renewal or upheaval (which is not quite the same as a period of growth). So senior management, leaders, must take responsibility for  the results of proliferating a cult of change and the stress it brings to employees and customers etc.

That said, every organisation does need to respond appropriately to what is happening in its internal and external environment. To do this, it must adapt or at least react to changes in either context. This is a slightly different view of managing change because it suggests that trying to do things differently  (or do new things) is necessary at one level in order to retain equilibrium at another.

Let’s stick with that second, healthy sort of change. Managers sometimes talk about “innovation” and “creativity” in the same breath, as if they were the same thing. At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much difference between them. Both terms refer to something new, some different result, and something other than what exists now. On closer inspection, I’d now like to suggest a few differences, however.


Innovation is, by definition, purposive. That is, innovation is judged to be innovation by an observer.  Innovation starts with a reason and proceeds to a plan. What counts as innovation may not be a matter of creativity at all. More like an answer to a question set by and within the boundaries of the organisational system. A fairly well-controlled experiment, in fact.  Innovation is all about the product, and the relationship between the new thing and what exists now.

Innovation is undoubtedly very important, but will ultimately be counter-productive if what it generates is more rigid than what it replaces. And downright dangerous in the hands of someone who innovates for the sake of innovation.


Creativity is not really purposive, but you can make the argument that it is purposeful. Purposeful means that it is deliberate but is  concerned (during the process) only with what is happening in the process, not with what it is for (the product). Creativity is chaotic, disruptive and unpredictable. It needs some element of the random invited in, otherwise it is not creative. Creativity doesn’t care too much where it is going while it is going there. It can’t, because caring about the end result would be a kind of mediation that would, by default, negate what was creative about the process in the first place.

Creativity is an attitude. The attitude required is that of complete acceptance of whatever happens, and bringing that into the mix to play with it. Creativity might be fun (but not necessarily so – the creative process is a very painful one for many), but must be playful. Innovation can be fun, but is not playful (too much is at stake to be that carefree).

Above all, creativity requires the accepting thinking of “yes, and…”, and not the diversionary thinking of “yes, but…”.

These are just some initial thoughts. The relevance to the Personal Development agenda is a little clearer, though I still haven’t worked out how to unleash creativity in the classroom on the MBA.

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Model for PD at Henley

Those of you reading this who also maintain a Twitter account probably already know that with a little thought and some clever connecting, you can access a whole range of contacts, ideas, knowledge and links related to your interests or career there. If you have included being active on Twitter in the category of ‘Personal Branding’ and make use of it professionally in conjunction with, for example, LinkedIn, then it probably pays for you to spend some time giving irection to the list of those you are following (whilst keeping track of a whole load of wacky topics, celebs and funny tweeters as well).

Twitter, the micro-blogging website where any post is limited to 140 characters in length (in case you’ve been in the back of beyond for the last 5 years) encourages further exploration in two ways. First by you searching for #hash-tag denoted words, and the second by you searching for and then following “@” named users.

I was thinking about the things that interest me on this blog, and I came up with four categories to make some recommendations to check out and perhaps follow. Any text below that is in quotation marks is just the verbatim description from that Tweeter’s description, other comments are my own.

There are way too many resources on Twitter catering to all aspects of the MBA to cover in four, so this would need further expansion in the future, but here are my ideas:

1. @econwhichMBA
“The official Economist account for news and insights for Which MBA”. The Economist has a sales boost in its MBA ranking system, and business schools do their best to be the best in the list.

2. @TopMBA
A useful source of information from the company that organises many MBA fairs and events around the world. Worth looking at their web site.

3. @businessbecause
A networking account for those at all stages of their MBA. A bit “hit and miss” on the content of its tweets, but often with interesting links to articles etc.

4. @sustainableMBA
Just one example, of many possible choices, of an account run by someone with an MBA. Included here because I think the interest in sustainable businesses is vital for the MBA in the future

B. Personal Development
This is a huge category, and difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff (often bland or folksy quotes or endlessly re-churned lists). Avoiding the mundane PD self-help/self-improvement types, here are four possibilities:

5. @_robin_sharma
Interesting take on PD, Robin is a widely read author (I mean that in both senses)

6. @paulocoelho
Writer. Read on.

7. @alanwattsdaily
Not him, obviously, since sadly Alan died in the 1970s, but a way to see his eloquence, Tweet by Tweet

8. @careerealism
“Because every job is temporary”, Career and Job Search Resource

C. Reflective practice, education and management learning

This is quite wide as well, and actually there aren’t too many people dedicated to reflection in learning on Twitter.

9. @edutopia
“Inspiration and information for what works in education” Covers all types of education, so have to pick and choose from their links

10. @presentationzen
Garr Reynolds, author of a book designed (beautifully) to guide people away from awful powerpoint. Worth combining with Nancy Duarte’s “Resonate” and “Slide:ology” books, which all MBAs should own.

11. @sirkenrobinson
He of the classic TED.com presentations…

12. @hansrosling
He of the legendary TED.com presentations…

D. Systems thinking, Gregory Bateson, constellations and related stuff…

Could go anywhere, and include anything…

13. @whittingtonjohn
John is an amazing constellation therapist and professional developer.

14. @norabateson
Gregory’s youngest daughter, film-maker, thinker… director of the film  www.anecologyofmind.com

15. @eckharttolle

Eckhart is, er, actually, he’s a bit hard to define. Not always my style, but worth looking into, so to speak

16. @carolinelucas

Britain’s first ever Green MP!

Happy hunting. If anyone can recommend any sites in any of the categories above that they think worthy of a mention, then add a comment below.

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