Today I handed over the manuscript of my book to the publisher. It now begins its journey through the digestive system of one of the country’s largest business publishing companies, so it’s going to be very exciting to see what happens next.

As with all creative projects, this moment is a bit disconcerting.  For six months I’ve been living with this ‘thing’. Whenever I look at it, I can always see something else that needs adding, subtracting, tweaking, correcting or editing. No sentence ever really feels finished, or ‘finishable’.

But, it won’t get published that way. I trust that what there is meets the purpose, and if not anything close to Hemingway or O’Brian for style, at it will at least be readable.

I had gone over word count. Arthur Quiller-Couch gave writers the advice “murder your darlings”, and I hunted for one or two of my own darlings to eliminate from the text. This is invariably a healthy thing to do.

One of the things I chose was the extract below. By the end of a book, one is susceptible to making grand statements, and this was the grandest on a list of “key lessons” for managers. I rather like it, and I know what I want to say. Probably for that reason alone, it has to go (at least for now).

If you read it and find it eminently sensible and as plain as the nose on your face, then I’m sad to say that the rest of the book may look terribly pedestrian.

If, on the other hand, you read it and find that it self indulgent and oblique, then I’m pleased to say that it’s nothing like the rest of the book. Honest.

“Management is the punctuation of a continuous and complex flow of events

This is not an easy idea to get your head around, but I have found that by the time experienced managers are completing their final capstone project or dissertation in their MBA, this thought suddenly begins to make sense.

We are part of one ecology. Imagine for a moment this whole, inter-connected world happening continuously around you – whether or not you like, and whether or not you know it. At every scale and in every way our living world is getting on with it. Of all those events, we experience only a very tiny fraction – through our senses. We try to study and make sense of this world by looking for patterns. We have created all sorts of ways of categorising, naming, expressing and explaining this complex world. We divide time by days, hours and minutes. We impose beginnings, middles and ends. We divide management into subjects. In every case, our sense making is just a sort of punctuation of the continuous flow of events. The choice of how we do this is always ours.

So the division of business and management into subjects, functions, silos or categories may be necessary, but is arbitrary. There may be better or worse ways of doing it. Our goal as managers should be to find the better ways, but not be trapped by our punctuation.”

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.

Hambleden valley

Hambleden valley

Two-thirds of the way through the MBA starter workshops, and I sometimes wonder how it must look to new programme members to kick-off with such a large dose of introspection and self-awareness (wrapped up in the stress of meeting lots of new people, enfolded in the enormity of a two or three year course of education). There’s so much potential ‘data’ in the room, how much of it is available to them as information? And how much of that information is going to be absorbed? And what do we want them to do with their thoughts (other than i) have them, ii) record them)? Do they see the bigger picture, “connect the dots” as recent one programme member put it, or are things being filed away? These thoughts are prompted by two things.

1. At the end of the packed, hectic starter workshop that has just finished at Henley, attended by 52 managers from four international locations (and, truthfully, from a great many different backgrounds and nationalities), I felt a mix of  fatigue, frustration and anticipation. Fatigue because unlike for some spending the day out “in front” managing a class drains my energy. For some it’s the opposite, but I need to stare at a wall for a while to re-charge. Frustrated because it’s so hard to make the event a proper conversation. We have so much to “get across”, or think we do, that we’re afraid of leaving any gaps, or inviting offers to go off into different directi0ns. PowerPoint doesn’t help, but neither does it excuse. And anticipation because I finally feel like I am working to a Personal Development idea that tells a good story, and that over the life of the MBA is saying something different. The workshop is rewarding partly because I know we don’t have to (in fact, shouldn’t) answer questions. We have time to consider the thing from many angles.

2. On the plane over to Denmark this afternoon I was reading more of Alan Watts “The Book” (Souvenir Press), and I got to the final chapter, which opens with this:

“JUST AS true humor is laughter at oneself, true humanity is knowledge of oneself. Other creatures may love and laugh, talk and think, but it seems to be the special peculiarity of human beings that they reflect: they think about thinking and know that they know. This, like other feedback systems, may lead to vicious circles and confusions if improperly managed, but self-awareness makes human experience resonant. It imparts that simultaneous “echo” to all that we think and feel as the box of a violin reverberates with the sound of the strings. It gives depth and volume to what would otherwise be shallow and flat.

Self-knowledge leads to wonder, and wonder to curiosity and investigation, so that nothing interests people more than people, even if only one’s own person. Every intelligent individual wants to know what makes him tick, and yet is at once fascinated and frustrated by the fact that oneself is the most difficult of all things to know. For the human organism is, apparently, the most complex of all organisms, and while one has the advantage of knowing one’s own organism so intimately— from the inside—there is also the disadvantage of being so close to it that one can never quite get at it. Nothing so eludes conscious inspection as consciousness itself. This is why the root of consciousness has been called, paradoxically, the unconscious. The people we are tempted to call clods and boors are just those who seem to find nothing fascinating in being human; their humanity is incomplete, for it has never astonished them. There is also something incomplete about those who find nothing fascinating in being. You may say that this is a philosopher’s professional prejudice—that people are defective who lack a sense of the metaphysical. But anyone who thinks at all must be a philosopher—a good one or a bad one—because it is impossible to think without premises, without basic (and in this sense, metaphysical) assumptions about what is sensible, what is the good life, what is beauty, and what is pleasure.” (Watts, 1966, pp 139-140)

Curious, but this is pretty much what I had on my mind in the closing session of the workshop on Sunday. Reflection, wonder, curiosity and not knowing.

Post in haste

I’ve been very remiss in posting to the blog, so hardly practicing what I preach in the MBA classroom when it comes to writing, and in particular when it comes to the idea of keeping a journal.  Some hasty thoughts…

In my (rather feeble) defence, I would say that the current spring season of workshops for Henley (here and abroad) has been time and energy-consuming (and supplemented by the chance to work with non-MBA groups, as well). This non-MBA strand includes the Advanced Management Programme, with whom I will have a second crack tomorrow, at the end of their second intensive week. engaging a bunch of senior execs after lunch on a Friday with the idea of reflection is not easy, but it does force me to try and be innovative.

My latest news is the actual publication (for now, online, but next month on paper, too) of my first peer-reviewed journal article!  Yes, now I can now narcissistically search for my own name in the bibliographic databases at Henley (though I’m not sure we take the Journal of Critical Realism…). I’m going to aim for a second submission to a different type of journal before the end of the year.

Other writing lately has included the chance to let loose with the topic of PD in Marketing Magazine, also out next month. This will be the first of six, short monthly columns. And then there is the book…. which is the mammoth in the room, and which will no doubt occupy every waking moment once the MBA starter workshops are properly out of the way. Following that, there is the need to write material for the final (and all new) part of the PD course materials we use at the end of the MBA.

I’ve really enjoyed the last two starters (the next is this Saturday). Each group has been very different. We saw about 13 members of the new Henley-Based intake (of 58) stay on longer to complete their entire workshop input for the year – this is what we call the International Stream – and so I got to see them twice and work with them on their second PD workshop. It was one of the best workshops I’ve been a part of, I think. Full of insights and kept by them at just the right pace to balance heads full of concepts, models and theories with heads full of ideas and self-awareness. Working with a group that size (had a similarly enjoyable workshop with a Finnish group in Helsinki a few days before) allows a certain freedom to deviate from the script and improvise. This weekend there will be nearly 60 in the room, and in April another 70 or so in Johannesburg, and it will be more like ‘showtime’.  The trick, I guess, is for either end of the scale to feel personal and like an education.

The boathouse

The boathouse

photo 4

photo 6

photo 2

Here are a few photos taken today at Greenlands. With the water still to peak here, those downstream toward London are yet to see the worst of their floods.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, "The Dutch Proverbs", 1559

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Dutch Proverbs”, 1559

I’ve been revisiting a book that has been on my shelf now for about 15 years (and fairly well thumbed in that time). It’s by Scott Plous and is called ‘The psychology of judgment and decision-making’.  An interesting read, covering the ways that psychologists have devised to test, experiment and hypothesise about how we perceive, think and come to decisions. It is built around practical and academic examples of the results from cognitive psychology research, so that narrows the presuppositions of its thesis, but the chapter I’ve been reviewing is about ‘behavioral traps’ in decision-making, and I thought it would be of interest to the readers of this blog.  A behavioural, or social, trap is

“a situation in which individuals or groups embark on a promising course of action that later becomes undesirable and difficult to escape from.” (Plous, 1993,  p. 241).

Speaking of behavioural traps (that is, erroneous action), Plous used Cross and Guyer’s (1980) taxonomy of ‘countertraps’, in which sometimes we avoid certain useful behaviours (sins of omission) and ‘traps’, in which sometimes we undertake potentially harmful actions (sins of commission). He then presents 5 types (these are seen as individual thinking traps, as opposed to group traps such as groupthink) which may intertwine or overlap but which have distinct origins:

  1. Time delay traps              as a trap, this would be doing something you see as positive in the short-term  but which will have negative consequences in the future. As a countertrap, this would be avoiding doing something  which in the long-term would have a positive benefit (such as, for example, going to the dentist for a check-up) because it is unpleasant in the short term. Time delay traps are often known about.
  2. Ignorance traps               Here the negative consequences of one’s actions are not known or cannot be easily predicted at the time. Plous here cites the use of DDT in the United States in the 1940s and follows the ‘unforeseen events’ that followed from this, namely the effect on the food chain of the mass use of pesticides. The premises of this behavioural trap are problematic from a systems thinking perspective (see critique below).
  3. Investment traps             Plous includes this kind of trap as an illustration of how people tend to adopt certain behaviours after investments of time or money, or other sunk costs, have already been made. You’ve just spent 10 months of your life and 90% of your budget preparing and planning to launch a brand new product with a feature that no-one else in the market has got. You hear that an unknown competitor, with a superior product that has exactly the same new feature that your product has. Do you abandon your project, or do you push on regardless? Or, let’s say that you’ve paid full price for your MBA tuition. Will you be more committed than someone else in your group who was given a 40% discount? Research, says Plous, tends to show that the higher the investment the more likely there will be commitment to action.
  4. Deterioration traps        similar to investment traps, but when what starts out as what was rewarding at first gradually becomes less and less so, sometimes with disastrous results. The example given by Plous is of heroin use, but one wonders whether the current debate around the growing use of pay-day loan companies in the UK has some common ground with this idea. Whenever we find ourselves with a kind of dependency on the chase for the original “thing”,  when the chase replaces the reward and becomes it, then we are in a deterioration trap.
  5. Collective traps            involving more than just you, a collective trap is where the “pursuit of individual self-interest results in adverse consequences for the collective” (p. 246) and has, according to Plous, been much studied.  The tragedy of the commons is perhaps the most well-known example, though another classic example given is that of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. I have used a variation of this, called Red-Green, with groups in workshops on occasion, though now do so only rarely because it is just so incendiary if you use it only once.

These all present us with a convenient way of slicing the world of behaviours up, and perhaps also of explaining these behaviours also. I can see the first but doubt the latter unless the thinking behind seeing the world as needing to be understood these ways is also under scrutiny.  And there is the real problem. The people who pronounce on what people do, and why, are just as prone to the same biases in their thinking, and just as laden with filters, as their subjects upon whom they experiment. So there is more work to be done, and more reason for all of you to keep an open mind.


Cross, J. G., Guyer, M. J. (1980) Social Traps, University of Michigan Press

Plous, S. (1993) The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, McGraw-Hill

Kidney stones are the closest any man will get to experiencing the pains of bearing a child.

I have as my authority on this a female member of Oxford’s JR Hospital A & E nursing staff, so it’s not just male exaggeration.

This blog post, like the wretched stone that decided to descend in mid November, has been sitting dormant for quite a while and I am publishing it now only because:

1. the memory of writhing around in agony on the floor in the waiting area, writhing around a lot more in the treatment bay in the Accident and Emergency before and after triage and then (mercifully quickly) receiving treatment and palliative medicine – all that has by now faded to a rather pleasant sepia mental image, and yet

2. the polite and professional conduct of the staff at the hospital, and all the processes (reception, handovers, trolley rides, scans, blood tests, examinations, cups of tea and biscuits)  that dealt quickly (though the morphine helped with any sense of time passing) with diagnosis and treatment  – the fact of all this just needs to be broadcast in praise of the people at the sharp end of our health care system.

I’ve never broken a bone, never stayed a night in hospital, never really had a life-threatening illness, but I’m very glad that if any of those things happened we have an organisation, and complex and imperfect it might be, that will without question act immediately to treat me, and treat me no differently to anyone else earning more or less than I do.  So, I think Danny Boyle was quite in order to make celebration of the NHS a part of the Olympic opening ceremony. For what it’s worth, I have experienced misery of the phoney public health system of Hungary (where staff are hardly paid, and treatment is invariably bought with backhanded, back-pocket payment), and it doesn’t compare.

Mind you, I’ll also be very content never to repeat that particular need to be rushed in the back of a car to the hospital…

At Henley, especially during Spring and Autumn, some mornings are more glorious than others, and the light and air combine to leave you feeling thoughtful and uplifted. Below are a few pictures taken on the campus this morning.

Thames 1

Thames 2

Thames 3


And then I wandered a bit further along the bank of the river and found Jack – a fugitive on the run – sitting placidly under a tree, enjoying the morning sun.

I have since found out that Jack, a capybara, escaped first in 2010 from a wildlife park. He has been captured several times and always gets out again. In fact, he is a bit of a celebrity and the subject of local publicity (this report was evidently premature in its news of Jack’s final capture) a familiar visitor to Greenlands.

Jack the escaped capybara, October 30th

Jack the escaped capybara, October 30th

new yorker you are here

“It’s in our DNA…”

This is an expression that is much in circulation these days. So much so, in fact, Private Eye magazine now has a regular feature called ‘DNA Testing’ which has plenty of examples culled from journalism. I figured that it will surely follow that the people who manage organisations and (far more dangerously) the people who write theory about how organisations should be run, will become tempted to follow suit and use the same idea as a logical form of explanation.

And sure enough, in Blackwell’s, which is a fine bookstore in Oxford, I found evidence* of just such a trend in Rhea Duttagupta’s 2012 book “Leadership: It’s in your DNA” (Bloomsbury Press, available – evidently – in many fine bookstores).  By way of mini review, the book appears harmless enough at first glance, and is written using a reflexive, folksy style. I’m sure it is well-intentioned in its central assertion that Leadership can be defined in 10 key ingredients. Be warned, the list consists of a set of concepts which are drawn from a rag-bag of the usual suspects in central casting, such as “Self”, “emotion”, “fear”, “dark side” and “intuition”… you get the idea. There is nothing new here, though.

One first sees that this list is built around an assertion that these elements are innate traits. This is the long-standing pop psychology mantra of “you have all the ingredients for success as a leader inside you”, is a well-worn path to an individualist and reductionist notion of the person. Second,  there is an equally well-worn path to a behaviourist tradition in the realisation of the self in management practice. It is within the paradigm of these grand antecedents that the logic of the metaphor ‘these 10 ingredients = the DNA for Leadership’ is selected. This feels like  a worryingly literal, not to say absurd, suggestion. It’s a shame, really, because using an abductive form of inference could have been a really good way to try to understand this phenomenon we call leadership. The problem is that there are no ‘things’, no nouns, no ‘instinct’, no ‘self’ etc. in our DNA, despite many of us finding this a useful way of processing what we think DNA really does. DNA must operate, if it can be said to operate in an isolated way at all, in a system of relationships. It functions relationally, in dynamic and complex arrangements of contexts, boundaries and thresholds, and not in terms of coded properties which are embedded as traits. It is incorrect, though tempting, to say that DNA contains ‘information’, because information is always a matter of relationship and ratio. A trait-view of genetics, however, fits nicely with a trait-view of human beings. And this, despite the humanism evident in the choice of the 10 ingredients, is what I think Rhea’s book is claiming.

Doubtless anyone using this phrase will be aware that they are employing it as metaphor, but I suspect that paradoxically it is a message of the book that the metaphor be understood literally. It would follow that  all the incredible technical advances in neuroscience and in our understanding of the biological functioning of the brain is also  the explanation of how we think and act. The basis for this claim is flimsy, but not because the examples Rhea uses in the book aren’t any good, or aren’t interesting, or that she lacks conviction. All three of those things are there. The real problem is that this is just, to borrow a phrase from Bateson, ‘shoddy epistemology’. In other words, when the way we think we know things is not in line with the way we know things, the results will end up being catastrophic because our ability to use technology and abuse our intelligence in pursuit of short-term domination of our situation is always unsustainable.


I found my thinking got a bit knotted in writing this, and I’m not sure the main point comes across. So, I’ll re-state what I think it is I’m trying to say:

1. it is a trap to take metaphor literally.

2. Metaphor is the key to understanding how the world actually is (it is just a shame to say it).

3. To confuse the properties of the referents of a metaphor with the metaphor itself is to make a categorical error in thinking.

*A quick review of Amazon books later showed me that the use of this DNA metaphor is spreading… see also Judith Glaser’s “The DNA of Leadership: Leverage Your Instincts To: Communicate-Differentiate-Innovate” (Platinum Press, 2007), or Thomas Harrison’s “Instinct: Tapping Your Entrepreneurial DNA to Achieve Your Business Goals” (Business Plus 2005), or Silverman and Honold’s “Organizational DNA: Diagnosing Your Organization for Increased Effectiveness” (Davies-Black Publishing, 2003)…



I don’t know where Malala Yousafzai will be in the future, nor can I know the context in which as a 14-year old campaigner for education for girls in Pakistan she was the target in a deliberate, ignorant and contemptible assassination attempt, but right now as a clear-thinking and brave 16-year old, she is incredibly important to the idea that education has a purpose, and that education is the only thing that holds any hope to break the unbroken global cycle of economic, ecological and ideological hubris.

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