Category Archives: People and Systems

Using Clean Language and Retrospective


Clean Change CardsI’m practising using Clean Language techniques on myself, to try to reveal the ways that I understand how I work at my best. Clean Langues is a set of question designed to get personal metaphors that help with our understanding. This video by Caitlin Walker is the best introduction I’ve found.

I asked myself  questions 8 months ago and wrote down the answers. I had the 12 clean language questions on cards in front of me, and scanned them for the next question to ask myself.

I’ll show the answers to these questions,  and I’ll look at the practical steps I’ve taken since then.

Question #1: Listening and Understanding at my best.

What would you like to have happen?

I’d like to listen and understand other people.

Listening and understanding at your best is like what?

When I am listening and understanding at my best it is like sieving information into a large bowl. I need the bowl to keep all the information in and the sieve helps me ensure that no lumpy information gets through. Lumpy information is not clear to me, so I may need to inquire the meaning of what is being said. Listening and understanding means I do not offer solutions and ideas.

Is there anything else about the bowl?

It’s like an empty container, for the persons version of reality to go into, where it will not be affected by my reality.

To do this I need to keep a quiet and open mind, and not try to be judgemental about someones situation or analysis. It is their reality.

And what happens just before you sieve information into the bowl?

I need to make sure I have an empty bowl, and that it is there for the other persons information to go into. I need to get pollutants out of the way, clean the workspace before I start.

And is there anything else about the bowl?

I’d need a lot of them, and somewhere to put them!

Things I’ve done for Listening and Understanding at my best.

I’m learning to apply the techniques from Marshall Rosenbergs Non Violent Communication, to stop making jedgements and empathise with people. This may help with understanding people – getting the sieving right.


Question #2 Learning at my Best

What would you like to have happen?

I’d like to be understand how I learn at my best.

And when you are learning at your best, that’s like what?

What I am learning at my best I need to be either joining the dots of things I already know, or focusing on learning a new thing, that has a boundary around it.

And when you are joining the dots, that’s joining the dots like what?

When joining the dots I feel like knowledge needs to sink in, like a stone dropping into a pond. The stone drops, falls to the bottom, and the water needs to go still, and the stone needs to sink and lie at the bottom for some time. I can put in other stones, but I’ll need to dive down later, find the stone and clean the sediment from it. I can then see the shape, colour and type of the stone and see how it fits in with the other stones I have.

Sometime I can see how a stone may fit in before it goes into the pond, but I’ll still find out new things once it’s been submerged for a while.

And whereabouts is the pond?

It’s at the back of my head.

And what happens just before you dive down later, find the stone and clean sediment from it?

I usually learn something, or talk to someone. I need to interact with other people and ideas to be able to dive down and rediscover things I have learned, clean them off and use them.

Things I’ve done for Learning at my best.

A month after this answer I asked some colleagues at work if they would be interested in working with Clean Language and the Strength Finder personal model by Marchus Buckingham. We’ve met weekly since then, sometimes running clean language question sessions, or discussing out Strengths. There have also been sessions where we apply our understanding to work and personal issues, to better understand and react to situations.

I’ve realised that I actually need someone to help me get the stones out of the pond, and having people is the most I can talk to about this is the most important thing about learning.

As a group we’re had the most sessions discussing how our strengths and models affect how we react to things, and have built models about what goes on in our heads, similar to Steve Peters ‘human/monkey/computer’ model. This all deserves another post.

Question #3 Focusing on work

What would you like to have happen?

I’d like to concentrate and focus on work without being distracted.

And what kind of focus and concentration is that focus and concentration?

It’s like immersion in the task that narrows perspective, but it’s not imposed like blinkers. It is a desirable state that I want to be in. Being in the zone.

Is there anything else about that desirable state, being in the zone?

I am in the zone like a Surgeon, focusing on an operation.

And what happens before you get in that desirable state, being in the zone?

The surgeon needs the right tools laid out, the full patient notes understood and an understanding of what needs to be done.

Preparation is important, like a surgeon prepares their tools, cleans and checks surfaces, removes distractions and understands what a good outcome is.

Like a surgeon I need a toolkit and a checklist to get the operating theatre in a known state before work begins.

And what happens next?

When I have prepared for the operation, I can focus in the zone.

Things I’ve done for Focusing on work

I’ve done quite a bit here. I recently recognised that I do different types of work well and different times of day, and I’ve started to protect and use these. So I try to do something requiring concentration  first thing, and leave brain-dead things for the early afternoon. I’ve also found I get a focus boost after a good session at the gym at work. They should really pay me to got there.

I’ve also started to using David Allens Getting Things Done methodology My brain hated this, but the contextual list and next actions help get the correct surgeons tools laid out in the right place, and makes a good outcome clearer.





Was the #brexit vote democratic?

Screenshot from 2016-07-03 22-18-52Was the recent UK referendum democratic? Everyone had a vote, but a vote reducing a complex situation to a binary choice. There was no option to treat the situation as complex, with good perspectives and arguments on both sides. Commentators acknowledged the messiness, but then re-framed the discussion in a single metric, it’s about ‘sovereignty’ or our “ability to make our own laws”. Whatever the result, the carefully chosen frame was noble and defensible in hindsight.

I think the vote was wrong. Not the result, the entire referendum. Engaging in binary arguments about complex political situations is the domain of ignorance. When we ignore perspective and context, we reduce our democracy, and move our society in a dangerous ugly populist direction.

Nora Bateson says the root of fascism is “this habit studying and making sense of things by taking them apart”. Eventually getting a simple answer blaming someone you’ve separated from yourself.

By even engaging with the binary question we are arguing on terms that agree that there is a separation, that “I” separates from “we”. After the vote, we can’t continue the separation, we should understand the perspectives and context of others, and acknowledge where there are valid arguments. These argument may be at odds with what we believe. That’s fine, in any complex situation there are conflicting valid viewpoints. Anyone who begins to understand a truly complex situation will hold unresolved conflicting ideas in their own mind. Any change has winners and losers.

Europe is connected by global industry, markets and consumption. But we’re also connected by friendship, love, human struggle and a need for dignity and to belong.

We can’t continue being separate. Leave votes aren’t all racist xenophobes, but binary politics is a slope to fascism.

I’ve used a lot of Nora Batesons ideas and words here. I hope that’s OK.

Systems Thinkers need a Posse


obeyAndre the Giant has a posse. Public Enemy have the S1Ws. Radicals throughout history had a crew, an entourage, a crew. The Misfit Economy by Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips details types of people who did things differently, from pirates to gangsters and hackers. And they all had a posse.

It’s hard to stand on your own, against the grain. People carry hammers to knock in any nails that dare to stick up. Sometime this is just a put down, a career blip. Maybe what you say means you can’t walk the streets without watching your back.

Clay and Phillips don’t mention systems thinkers in their book, but they are out there, from a voice in a dysfunctional organisation, to revealing the structural racism inherent in a dysfunctional society.

Some run towards the danger, up for a fight. Others see the danger and wait or give up. Seeing systems can be a hard, lonely place full of compromise and disillusionment. We need friendly people to talk to, who have been there, who can see the patterns that may be too close for us to focus on.

For a group who are arguably all about they way things connect, the systems community are a fractured bunch. Academia values novel research. Just connecting other people works doesn’t carry much weight. What should be a strong backbone of theory is a silo factory. Consultancy is as bad. There are people who attack others work as a way of promoting their own. Of course they need to pay the rent. The problem is structural as much as human.

We need a community, for support when it goes wrong, to build ideas, to talk, laugh and develop. Ideas are free, but alone I’m useless. I need to talk, how else do I know what I think? And sharing means more ideas, not spending my time defending what I have. We need safe spaces to think, grow and change. Safe from attack and ridicule, and safe from being used as a step to make someone feel taller.

What would a systems thinking community value, and how would our current interactions compare to an ideal that we can all theorize about, but we sometimes work to destroy.

Are we too fractured to have an identity?

Why we need Models, and why it’s hard to change them.

  •  It’s 460BC. Your job is a map maker, and your maps show the world to be flat. You’ve a lockup garage of flat earth maps to sell. But you also like astronomy, and understanding the planets.
    • Is a model of a flat earth of any use? Is it good?  It was good enough for me to get to work, and to drive a cart to London.
    • But it’s not good enough for astronomy, you need another model.
  • You hear of the model of the earth as a sphere. Hmm, this fits simple astronomy, but does it make your lockup full of flat earth maps worthless? Which model do you believe? How hard is it to change your mind to a new more complicated model?
    • Is the model good enough? It’s great when thinking on a global scale – like where is Australia relative to where you are.
    • But maybe it’s a bit complicated for driving to London. A flat earth map will be fine for that.
  • From the international space station, is the model of the earth as a sphere good enough?
    • Maybe not. Gravity may be affected by the shape of the earth, and the movement of planets may need more complicated models. But perhaps you don’t need a model of the earth that shows the Himalayas.
  • Is that enough models?
  • What if you are cycling to London? A flat earth map won’t show you the hills, but a spherical model with enough detail is far too much information. You like to avoid hills, so you need another model.

Using the examples above, I think we can learn:

  • We need models. A model is a synonym for an understanding
  • Multiple models of the same thing exist at the same time
  • New models should compliment existing ones
  • We should use the simplest model we can, but no simpler
  • We need awareness of other models
  • Believing in one true model is an Anti-Pattern
  • If you have an interest in a model being true (like a business selling flat earth maps) it could be hard to learn a new model. The greatest resistance against a new, different model may be those who currently benefit from an existing model.
  • All models are wrong, but some are useful. Is the only up-to date model of the earth the earth itself?

This cartoon shows Calvin explaining his simple model to his toy tiger.


This model of how to make toast is sufficient unless:

  • Calvin starts to sell toast in his yard and
    • He may be asked to contribute towards the electricity bill
      • “There is electricity and you have to pay for it?!”
    • He may have to buy his own bread
      • “Can’t I reuse the bread I just put in somehow?!”
    • There is a drought and the price of bread rises
      • “So I’m losing money on everything I sell?!”

Systems Thinkers love models. It’s how we understand the world, and different perspectives and contexts.

We can also see that if you insist on using a simple model, for example one that will fit on a napkin, or can be explained to a 6 year old, then you can only use it in simple situations. More complicated systems need bigger models.

My Strengths vs Your Strengths. Pleased to meet you. Let’s build something amazing.


We all have strengths. Some people are fortunate enough to find their skills and use them in life and work. Or we may never recognise what we’re good at, or find our skills are not required or appreciated. We’re quick to label the behaviour of others as wrong or stupid. We may not understand what they are doing, and why.

How do we recognise each others abilities, and talk about how we can work together? Can we understand which strengths we don’t excel in, and when they’re more useful than our own skills?

How do we recognise that some behaviours are strengths at all? People may be too controlling, too keen on harmony, can avoid facts to concentrate on ambiguity, or seem to enjoy the complications. I annoy people by abandoning plans at the first sign of a better way. Colleagues see my critical views as criticising plans to destroy them,  when I want to test and improve the foundations.

Recently I took the Strength Finder 2.0 online analysis to find my strengths. I found this through one of Tobias Myers posts. Tobias says a lot of great things so I though I’d see what insights came with this.

Out of 32 possible strengths my top 5  fit me pretty well, describing someone systemic, interested in ideas and learning. it also suggested I was a people person, able to understand and design how people can do things better. My number 1 is Strategy. Which means I can figure out a way to make it work too.

The 5 strengths were Strategy, Learner, Individualization, Ideation and Arranger. There are many more details available online and on youtube about these strengths. I’ve also started to create some mind maps of the strengths videos. Available on git. But my strengths are not the point.

For a few weeks after the test moved on, content with having some great new phrases for my linkedin profile. Then I realised this was a sharable understanding of how I work at my best and a way I can understand, appreciate and work with others. Boom.

I have no affiliation with Strengths Finder, the basic test is $15. I prefer open tools and ideas, but this tool seems so powerful, and I’m not sure it would exist otherwise.

I hope to get some colleagues to take the test.

If we can

  • talk about out strengths using a common language
  • understand the wide range of skills people have
  • recognise how we can work together, on purpose,

Then we can build amazing things.