Coffee and Thinking Hits

espresso_coffee2_imgI’ve had this idea for a business. I like different sorts of coffee and get a different effect from the caffeine with them. I can drink some types and be awake for hours, others I get an amazing hit that can be gone quickly. I assume this is something to do with chemistry of how the caffeine works . I’d need a business partner with a clue about this to make a coffee menu for my cafe, based on the effect you want the coffee to have.

I could sell coffee related to the activity you’re planning to do, like an ‘All Nighter Latte’, ‘Totally Wired to “Dad Nap” Espresso’ or ‘Hours Gym Class boost’. I’d just need to store and  roast the coffee beans and make the coffee in the right way to get the effect just right.

If you’re starting a cafe, you can have this idea, just let me have a few “Dad Naps” to say thanks.

Get what you want

We are what we eat, and we’re a little bit of what we drink, and we should maybe know a bit more about the effects of what we’re drinking. It’s the same with ideas. Sometimes we know what effect we want new ideas to have, to affect our mood or challenge us. Sometimes we don’t realise what we’re affected by.

We may be seeking reassurances that things will be OK, or that things are someone else’s fault. Validation for our point of view, and a prediction of a rosy future. Or an inevitable mess. Whatever makes us happy, or fuels or anger.

The is no shortage of people telling us how it’s gonna be, and moving so fast they never stop to face how wrong they were. Newspapers and politicians deal in future certainties, and explaining past complexity. It’s not surprising when that is what people are searching for. It’s what they crave, and it shouldn’t surprise us that it’s given to them.

The menu for this kind of thought contains ‘Blame someone else’, ‘You’re right to be worried’ and ‘Tell me everything is going to be OK.’.

If our current politicians and newspapers didn’t supply certainty, blame, hate and reassurances then politicians and newspapers that did would take their place. It’s how our system functions. The purpose is what it does, and we’re biased to want what often turns out to be bad for us.

What sort of thinking would you like?

So what sort of thinking is on the menu today? How did we get here? Who are we? What do we look like to other people? Are we making the same mistakes again? Why do people totally disagree with us? Could they also be right? What if we are all wrong?

Unlike coffee, we may need to create a demand for this sort of inquiry, and maybe soften the emotional hit it triggers. I can make you a coffee for that.


Workplace Systems Thinking Groups

This post is an overview of a talk by Tim James and Mike Haber at the SCIO open day in Manchester in October 2016. Pauline Roberts kindly made some great notes, and I’m using these notes as the basis of this post, and adding extra information and links.

At the talk in Manchester Mike and Tim gave an overview of some very powerful systems thinking work they have been doing in the workplace. Both have developed Systems Thinking groups in the workplace to share, support and learn from one another. Tim’s group is called Systems Thinkers Anonymous and Mike runs a strengths workshop. Both groups run for 1 hour per week over lunch time. 

The origin of this talk was a SCiO development day. These are days where systems practitioners meet to discuss practical problems they are dealing with. At a recent London Development Day Tim and Mike realised they were both facilitating systems thinking groups at their workplace, and although the groups were very different they had a lot of similarities. Looking at the differences and similarities has been really interesting.

Notes taken from SCiO open day by Tom Hitchman

Notes taken from SCiO open day by Tom Hitchman, @Carbonliteracy


How Mike’s Group Started

Mike started by running the introduction to systems thinking workshop “Draw Toast” with 45 people, and follow up sessions exploring boundaries using football matches as an example helping people start to think systemically. This was an example of using a single systems ideas, boundaries in this case, to investigate a situation. Mike had spoke at SCiO on this previously, and has a set of cards for workshops planned.

After these two sessions Mike asked a small number of colleagues who had attended previous sessions to investigate Clifton Strength’s Finder and Clean Language to see if using both ideas at the same time would be useful.

This group has been meeting weekly for about 10 months, and has moved to discuss more approaches, but in a largely unstructured meetings, using a lean coffee ish format. People bring their own ideas and situations.

Tim’s Group

Tim’s Systems Thinkers Anonymous group developed alongside a blog to engage and help others. The blog at has helped their learning and a wide audience has now been drawn in to share learning and encourage systems practice and systems thinking. Tim’s group is more structured, and looks at systems approaches from Burge Hughes Walsh Training and consultancy.  There is a wide range of approaches and Tim’s blog discusses how the group has applied these to their problems. There is suggested work to do before each session, and a structure to the learning.

Example of rich picture from Tims group

Example of rich picture from Tims group

Tim’s blog is a great narrative of how the group has run, and has some great examples of applied Systems Thinking, including lots of diagramming techniques, Soft Systems Methodology, Rich Pictures, and guests including Jean Boulton talking about complexity


Whilst both groups are about drawing people into systems thinking, one is very structured and one is more organic. This demonstrated the versatility of how systems thinking can be shared at a grass roots level in organisations.

There was a discussion about “safety” of the groups, both as a protection from those who may challenge the legitimacy of the group, and the safe spaces for discussion that were created.

The branding of learning was helpful – both groups use freely available materials that helps give legitimacy and openness to the groups – the materials are available to anyone.


Mike started using Clean Language as a way to model how people feel and  using Strengths Finder to understand how people work, and asked how the two pieces of information can support working relationships. The organic nature of the group allows emergence of topics for discussion that make people look at situations differently. The lack of agenda is its power. They are able to discuss things that would otherwise feel “unsafe” to talk about in the workplace. People are able to explore their own behaviour in a non-judgemental environment. Non Violent Communication was introduced as an amazing framework for doing this. He aims to explore Barry Oshry’s work next but the organic nature of the discussions will allow any topics prevail – whatever what people want to explore.

Tim has observed barriers being brought down and people feel they can talk about systems thinking in a way they never could before.

Tim noted there is a thirst for this kind of group due to the lack of training budgets in the NHS. Going into the systems thinking space is very different for those in the NHS. It is engaging and powerful and helps people look at the problems they are facing.



Do people think outside in or inside out? Are the groups on the outside, inside or are there some linear thinkers who are getting broader? And how this fits with the populations as a whole?

Tim – they have attracted people who would normally be attracted to the group. They have lost one or two but most have stayed.

Mike – similar to Tim, it’s people who are interested, but is quite rigorous calling out woolly thinking. There has been a definite shift towards practical systemic thinking in the group, and good practical examples of the use of the tools in work, and in other relationships.


Are the boundaries open?

Tim has taken in new members lately.

Mike – problems of scale as it is over lunch time. We definitely have a tight group, but are currently using the group to plan a series of three one hour workshops using Barry Oshhrys Power Systems framework.


Are either looking at a time when they can be an overt challenge to the organisation?

Tim- The blog – reflective text, way of engaging with other and also it can create autopoiesis – others could do the same if they wanted to.

Mike explained how people are starting to ask to be taught things about systems thinking there is an appetite for practical systems thinking, but it may need to be grass roots.

What do we get from the groups

What is emerging – fun! They are really enjoying their journey. There is a lot of work to set up a learning group but it is worth it. Whilst it isn’t for everyone most people are keen to support one another. Tim is doing project on public health, another on isolation (particularly for the elderly) and how to do commissioning for outcomes.

Shared ideas for Future Groups


Both groups meet weekly. If someone misses a meeting it’s a week until the next one, and there is a great benefit in running at the same time and day each week.

Content #1

The content of each group is sourced from books, websites and videos, and is open to anyone. There is no secrecy about the tools we’re using. Having a open source of content is important.

Content #2

The content the group discusses should reflect their interests, and if possible their issues.


Both groups we’re initiated by a person interested in a group forming, who was able to get people interested. There may be some work involved, but both groups now meet if the initiator is not there.

Planning /Purpose

Each groups started with a completely different purpose. Tim’s group had a syllabus. Mikes started with one lunchtime meeting to look at a couple of techniques to see if they had merit – like a academic peer review. It continued and looked at other ideas because there was a interest to do so.

Official Support

Neither group has official support or funding. Margaret Wheatleys “Proceed until apprehened” works here. The groups are authentic, and are not suspect to ‘fear of missing out’, or have members who are there because they need to be seen there. A downside is a lack of direct influence. This can also be an advantage, as people can simply behave differently, and explain why afterwards which can be powerful.

Safe Spaces 

The groups are safe spaces where difficult conversations can be held. In the case of Mikes group, the group is quite tight. It would be hard for new members to join due to the shared language and understanding that the group has.

Any new group would need to be mindful of this, although it is not a negative in itself.




Black Mirror: Playtest

downloadBlack Mirror is a Netflix series about the near future – what may happen if some trends go in particular directions. To be believable the writing needs a systemic understanding of how things may emerge and fit together, with story and twists that systemically fit the narrative.

I’m testing my systems analysis.


Initially, Playtest didn’t seem to have many systems to work with. It feels a familiar “what is reality?” question. In the near future we may not be able to tell virtual or augmented realities generated by ourselves from the real thing – and so how do we know when we have left them?

This is a greater dilemma when our fears create the virtual realities. Because we may fear not knowing what reality is, and we may fear loss of an anchor in our lives, a loss of control.  In this episode the main actor knows he’ll be in an augmented reality – having virtual images on top of reality – Pokemon go style. But he never leaves his chair, so is he in reality here, or are things already unreal?

A Hierarchy gives you somewhere to stand 

One way to think about reality is like a hierarchy. Real is at the top, and you can go down levels and come back up again. Back to top, which is definitely real. Having a known hierarchy is reassuring, everything’s all right, and you know where you are. There is somewhere objective to stand.

But systems are within systems. You can keep going out another layer, and this episode doesn’t let us know what level of reality we’re at, though it gives us some clues that we’re not at the top, if there even is a top.  Fear comes from not knowing where real is, realising that everything is subjective. There is nowhere in the universe that stays still for an objective viewpoint.

Journey as a Metaphor

There is a long introduction anchoring what we think as reality at the start. But could reality have already stopped? There was a traumatic event before the episode starts when the lead characters father dies. Going on a journey as he does is a metaphor. On the trip nothing seems to go wrong. Is reality already gone?

He slowly sees his reality go bad – and gets work in a computer games test lab.
It’s here he gets a medical implant, so he hears and sees, but doesn’t feel things that he thinks are on top  of reality, and not really there.

The experiment is to see how much fear he can tolerate, created by his own mind. His physical environment is real, but the frightening things in it, initially spiders and  spooky people are computer generated.

His radio connection to the game controller fails. Which is quite frightening, and is also a psychological fear of loss of someone overseeing you. Like to loss of his Father to Alzheimer’s.

This Reality isn’t reality.

There is then a twist, an unexpected ‘real life’  person turns up and tells him he’s in danger, and then stabs him – and he feels the pain for real. He then starts to hear the voice of the game controller in his ear as the voice in his head – it knows about his family, and how his father had Alzheimer’s and how he is now losing his memories.

We eventually pull back to seeing him in the experiment, having totally lost all of his memories, and not knowing who he is. And we pull back another level of reality. But are we real now? How frightening if we’re not yet real?

Finally he gets home, after a journey where he faces his worst fears, and his mum doesn’t recognise him. Another anchor to reality gone, and we go out another yet level of reality. Back to a familiar scene, but one that is still suspect, and has ties to conversations at other levels.

Onwards on shifting sands.

Despair Squid

An episode of Red Dwarf had a similar beginning. The crew  think that their lives were actually an immersion video game. And they had wasted 4 years playing really badly. They too woke up not remembering who they were (Dwayne Dilbley!), all done by the despair squid.

Black Mirror: White Bear and Nosedive.

downloadSpoiler Alerts! This post is my analysis of two Black Mirror shows, available on Netflix. Written by Charlie Brooker.

Black Mirror is about the near future – what may happen if some trends go in particular directions. To be believable the writing needs a systemic understanding of how things may emerge and fit together, with story and twists that systemically fit the narrative.

I’m testing my analysis skills, writing about the context and bigger picture that we see in the episodes. The analysis here is general. I’d like to look at future episodes using particular systems approaches that are suitable for the situation.

White Bear
Voyeuristic punishment for an evil crime. The perpetrator is punished in the same way, over and over while being watched by members of the public for their enjoyment.
At the end of each punishment day the perpetrator is given a cocktail of drugs, and appears to forget what she has done. She then re-lives the day again not realising what is going on, finally being made aware of her crime in front of an audience there to witness the event.

Apparently she was an accomplice to the torture and killing of a child, and went along with her partner, for reasons not explained.


A plus, ‘+’ on the arrow means that an increase or decrease in one leads to a similar increase or decrease in the other. A minus, ‘-‘ on the arrow means an increase leads to a decrease, and a decrease leads o an increase. I hope this makes sense.

White Bear shows the reoccurring punishment of someone who seemed to have no knowledge of the crime, or who and where she was. Her memory is erased by those punishing her, to make the punishment worse.
This was the purpose of the system, to cause the greatest amount of pain to someone guilty of a crime, and to have a theatre of punishment where people could pay to spectate and be part of the punishment. There was not an end to the punishment, although when it stopped attracting paying customers it may close, or if a more profitable punishment theatre opportunity arose it may be replaced.

If it lost popularity, and there was no one to be punished, then would the entertainment stop? Would hatred of a criminal be whipped up in the media to keep the entertainment going? A fake crime could be created, and actors used so that money can be made?

It wasn’t clear who was profiting financially from the punishment, or how the made sure that they always had a crime that it was profitable to punish? The people attending the punishment were enjoying seeing someone punished.

The woman being punished started each day not knowing who she was. Crimes are often contextual. People can do evil things if they are in the wrong environment, and manipulated with propaganda or controlled. From standing by while bad things happen to people who have been dehumanized by propaganda, to taking part in crimes without committing them (Eichmann) through to planning and committing crimes.

If someones identity is deliberately removed, they do not know who are where they are and have no context for their life, are they the same person who committed the crime? Without the context of their childhood, their experiences, and the influence of other people, someones life take a different path.

Removing someones knowledge about themselves and what they have done seems a cruel punishment designed to inflict pain on the person guilty of the crime, forcing them to relive (via videos and narrative) the situations that led to the crime, were another totally different outcome could have emerged in a different context. They learned of the crime they had committed but not the context that led up to it.

White Bear was a punishment whose occurrence is never-ending, while profitable for the organisation running it, provides continual suffering, with no end in sight.



Nosedive is about living in a society where  human interactions  are rated, as can posted videos and photos. There is  single 1-5 star scale, and each transaction goes towards someones total, from getting good service at a café, to cutting someone up in traffic, to a pleasant but insincere conversation in a lift.

Access to housing, jobs, and services including some medical services is dependent on your rating. There is a single rating for everything reducing the variety of life to a single 1-5 scale. This simplification massively reduces  complexity, and allows for simple judgements, analysis and action. Automation of access to services, events and jobs makes life in many ways quite fair (a conclusion from David Graebers Utopia of Rules).

The program mainly has “good-looking thin people” on it with high ratings and good jobs. People with lower ratings are seen doing more menial jobs. Rating are affected by things like being on the wrong side of a relationship breakup, leading to someone losing their job. – Their ‘friends’ could help their rating, but would risk being down voted by their peers – The interactions seem quite naïve given the Machiavellian power and influence struggles that would become a part of this society.


In this world there is a massive reduction in variety. Judging people by 1 metric. It seems to have made people 1 dimensional in their interactions, with an emphasis on getting good feedback. There are feedback loops here – people who give 5 stars expect to get 5 back and complain if not. There is deeper thought – and it’s acknowledged that everything is about ratings, but this is expressed under duress, so any discussion of this is clearly dangerous.

When people accidentally bump into each other then the person responsible gets down rated to lose points. In reality though blame is not so straightforward. People rarely admit to being wrong while driving for example, so these interactions must be lose / lose for both parties. The developing story is about how someone falls from a high to low rating rapidly by simply being annoyed in an understandable human way.

There are at least 2 types of people in Nosedive, and different types of relationships.

  • There are those who care about ratings and whose relationships are about improving their ratings average. Getting rated highly by a higher individual is a goal, but can reflect badly on the higher rated person, and interactions are all about being rated highly.
  • There are those who don’t care about ratings. We only meet one of these people, who does appear to have a job, and was, once, highly rated.
  • Relationships can be not usually rated – like close friends and siblings. Conversations here can be much more real and deeper, but can still be rated.

There are interesting parts of the show where there are discussions with experts who will help people improve their rating – there is clearly a formulae about the network graph of your interactions, and if you’re rated by service workers, family, or people with lots of connections there are different weights applied. It’s not clear if these experts work for the company who does the ratings, or are independent. Or most likely some hybrid of independent with insider information.

It’s not clear who runs the rating software, or who implements the rules. The rules have a deep influence on how the society runs – what is valued and how conversation flows. I think it’s fair to say that saying you’re not OK, need help, or have done something wrong is not going to be rated well. Yet the society still appears to function. With certain jobs, houses and products only available to highly ranked people want to be rated highly.

Similar systems already exist for Facebook, where algorithms decide who sees your posts. More popular people and posts get more exposure. People often post in a way they hope to be popular, rather than be, say, true or real. And discounts are already available if you like a businesses page, and then  use that business.  Facebook has apologised for experimenting with users emotions already. There are many ways this could be used and misused, however as a human feedback mechanism there is no time for reflection. The feedback may be done quickly by Dr Steve Peters Chimp part off the brain, which is unlikely to react thoughtfully.

Would an alternative system appear? Would there be places where you could interact with people in mean and nasty ways? Would someone sell you this service? (of course they would:-).

Would there be parts of society with no ratings? Would this even be legal? Could you buy ratings, with cash or sex rather than fake niceness?

A real ‘nasty’ exchange does occur in  a police cell at the end of the show, with a cathartic exchange of insults between people with nothing to lose, which, although authentic is still chimp talk.

Comments welcome.

Strengths and Clean Language Workshop write up #2

14066249_515711648626681_8301159928151854476_oWe have a regular group sessions at the University of Nottingham,  in the calendar as ‘Strengths Workshop’. We bring topics and situations to discuss using Clifton Strengths Finder, Clean Language metaphor modelling and Non Violent Communication. We also cover the Viable Systems Model, eastern and western philosophy, cognitive biases, complex adaptive systems and other bits of experience and knowledge we have.  

Tuesday 6th September 2016. Mike, DavidVH, DavidR and Eleonora.

To start today I offer a connection I’ve made that looks like a practical use of philosophy. I show the School of Life Wittgenstein Video, that summarises his work as wanting to help us use language more effectively. There is an especially interesting bit about the ‘games we play with language’.

Wittgenstein examples

When a parent says to a frightened child everything will be OK they can’t know that, they are not playing the “Rational prediction from available facts game”, they are playing the  “words as an instrument of comfort and security game”

“If ones partner says you never help me you are so unreliable” they are not playing a “stating the facts” game, so respond how you got some vegetables yesterday, and put petrol in the car may not work. They are playing the help and reassurance game.

A similar example from Marshall B. Rosenberg’s NVC book would highlight the judgement in the “you never help me” statement, look at the facts and emotions, and then try to understand the needs – again help and reassurance.

Wittgenstein’s (and Marshall’s too maybe) point is that all types of misunderstands occur when we misunderstand which kind of game someone is Involved in.

Rosenberg’s NVC book seems to have lots of examples of the author understanding the games people are playing, and systematically putting the understanding into  ‘observable facts’ feelings, and needs .

In the group David asks about the goal of Non Violent Communication? Is it to avoid issues by doing all the mental work to understand someone who is perhaps not being clear? Will this just encourage bad communication?

We’re unsure that doing the mental heavy lifting for people may foster bad patterns, with people not needing to explain themselves, when they get what they need by triggering the other person to do the work of understanding.

We divert to work and home issues – and suggest a few areas where NVC and clean questions would be helpful.

An example from a recent holiday offered for discussion:

Family on holiday

Mum : I’m feeling a bit peckish.

Dad : OK (Thinking: that’s not really hungry, right)

30 mins later…

Mum: I’m really hungry and the café doesn’t look very good.

Dad: OK. There’s that place down the road we saw yesterday. That’s nearby.

Get to restaurant 10 minutes later, and 20 people just got there in front of us……

Child: It’s Ok, just 20 mins walk to town, we’ll get something there.

Mum : I’m not walking into town. I’ve already walked for over an hour before you were all up.

Dad: We could get the bus if that’s too far.

Mum: You know I hate buses. You didn’t listen to me! You’re all shits……

We asked “what is the game that Mum is playing”. It’s maybe the ‘I’m hungry now, but I don’t want to have to tell you all we need to eat now. But that’s what I’d like. Then ‘did you not hear me the first time’, then – “I’ve told you 2 times already”.

In the group there we discussed  a lot of different cultural and family differences to food. These included

  • not ever saying you’re hungry in certain company (and taking lots of snacks to eat when visiting)
  • “kids always finish what you’re given” / “kids only eating what they choose” in two groups of the same family, with tension and crying at mealtimes when they meet.
  • hangovers from childhood about not always saying you’re hungry  – especially passed down from grandparents who lived though WW2 in Poland and Mainland Europe.

What would a ‘language games’ / NVC analysis say. Can we break down ‘Mum is saying she’s peckish. To say that, she’s hungry enough to mention going for food, but we know she doesn’t ever like to suggest eating, so she’s saying she needs to eat really soon.

We also discussed the sterility of NVC communication. How it’s normal and healthy to be angry, vent a bit and be passionate sometimes. How cathartic it can be, and how suffocating NVC can be.

Misunderstanding Needs at Work

If we put the food conversation into a work perspective, we’re often asked – ”

  • can you squeeze this work in
  • no rush, whenever
  • when you get time

Is this the same as ‘I’m a bit peckish”, and is there a similar short amount of time from “can you just do this work, no rush” to the business version of “You’re all shits!”. Much laughing in the group, a nerve was hit.

So there were a few threads coming together in this workshop.

  • How should we react when we need to do the “mental work” of understanding?
  • Can we use clean questions if we don’t know the person enough to understand the language game they are playing?

Sometimes, just understand peoples needs 

In the food discussion, a immediate  response to “I’m peckish” of “OK, lets get something to eat” – cutting out the unnecessary NVC –  would have been best. No need to explain that you have unpacked their communication.

The passionate response to “you shits” perhaps, “yeah, well you ate the last Weetabix and didn’t pack me enough underwear” may not work so well. If you’re on holiday with someone, do the mental work.

At work though, do you want to set up unhelpful patterns? Would you like people to say what they mean and understand when communication is not working? It sounds a bit odd but “what sort of moment is the moment you want me to do this work in?” is a clean question you may want to ask, or at least have an answer to.

Maybe to be continued, we seemed to cover practical uses of philosophy, NVC and Clean Language quite well this week.





Strengths and Clean Language Workshop write up #1

We have a regular group sessions at the University of Nottingham,  in the calendar as ‘Strengths Workshop’. We bring topics and situations to discuss using Clifton Strengths Finder, Clean Language metaphor modelling and Non Violent Communication. We also cover the Viable Systems Model, eastern and western philosophy, cognitive biases, complex adaptive systems and other bits of experience and knowledge we have.  


Tuesday 30th August  – Just Mike DavidVH and DavidR, Bank Holiday week.

Notes compiled afterwards from memory.

Start with no agenda as usual, so this is messy and emergent, even if you were there…..

We start taking about new hobbies, no handed rock climbing, longboard skating, and get into talking about being happy about not knowing the future. And we’re off.

Is being happy with not knowing based on strengths / personality and worldview? What does the cognitive dissonance feel like to someone who is not happy with complexity and needs to reduce the situation to knowable? Is it possible for right wing Americans to realise an issue “may be more complicated”, or can they only reduce the dissonance when presented with a solution. There are no longer any small c conservatives it seems? On the right there are simple solutions that are received by people looking for solutions, either because of strengths, upbringing or whatever. It makes their brains happy.


What is required to, for example like Boris  Johnson  post Brexit – “it is the governments idea to have a plan – not ours”. Assuming that he is consistent, what does his life experience, his patterns, his understanding and his strengths need to be to not have dissonance? Is this perspective any less correct because we find it had to understand? Knowing this, how would you have dialogue with him?


Reductionism is the spherical cow – how fast will a cow roll downhill if you push it? Assuming gravity and friction to be constant, and a constant gradient, and a spherical cow we can do the maths! Maths and science are given respect that ” it’s more complicated than that” is not. But the things we do to make the maths work loses the complexity.

Clean questions?

Started with “When you cope with complexity it looks like what?”

then “So when you deal with complexity, you are like what?”

Initial metaphors about complexity being like the TV sales area in John Lewis – lots of tvs on different channels, some you can’t see, some you may not know exist. Seeing all the information from “24hr news channels” to “Lion King” and needing to understand it all. – but a description of complexity – and how we need to talk about how to act.


Dealing with complexity is like having a beginner mind – and not being an expert. Being open to what happens.

It’s like a globe, and understanding parts of the globe that stick out. Taking those bits and understanding them.

There are some more questions and answers but we don’t go very deep into clean language questions today.

We then discuss two cases of dealing with complexity.

1) Donald Trump – George Lackoff describes a patriarchal figure – able to talk problems and reduce the complexity and provide simple solutions to people who are used to patterns of patriarchy, and/or have strengths that require them to have an analysis & plan, to be in control. Complexity is dealt with by reduction, and many people are disenfranchised.


2) Do I have agency? Why worry if I cannot change things? Is dealing with complexity inherently good or are there times when it is best to try not to ‘deal with it?’


Examples with Musicians – grade trained musicians often require sheet music to perform. Non grade trained often don’t and can improvise. DavidR plays in a brass band, and recently ended a piece on notes A F G. These are notes that apparently should not work, but do because of the context and build up.

But sheet music reduces the variety/complexity of what you could play. Even so, getting a tune to end on a A F G is hard.

Improvisation is dealing with complexity within the available option, by using what musical niches you know. If you only know AC/DC then any improvisation is going to sound like them. Knowing theory allows you to improvise more, and improvisation is reacting “ooda loop” style to other people.

The more you know, and the better you will be confident to play less. Just a single note fully in context, that may sound wrong out of context could be the ultimate goal. The A-F-G improvised.

Like the complexity metaphor, it’s like having a lot of personal “expert minds” (like musical styles you can play, and knowledge of theory) but engaging beginners mind, and being open to understanding and emergence.

Strengths and Clean Language Workshops article is part of a number of posts about a how I’m learning about tools to understand how I think. It doesn’t really fit into a an easy narrative, because it was an emergent process. Here goes.

Starting off

I learned about Clean Language in course TU811 from the Open University.. I read ‘From Contempt to Curiosity’ by Caitlin Walker, who produced the Clean Language elements of the Open University course. I was still unsure about using Clean Language with others.

A year later I saw a recommendation for Clifton Strengths Finder from Tobias Mayer.

Strengths Finder is a test that asks some questions online and give you your top 5 strengths, and explanations how they are used.

I took the test, read the results and moved on to learning about other things. Sounded cool, and great for understanding my skills, but that was it. This was about the same time as I did some clean language modelling of myself.

Two ways to Model

A few weeks later realised that these two models gave different perspectives on a similar thing. I don’t like understanding something with only one perspective. Two perspectives gets interesting. (see this post by me about needed more than one model). The Strengths Finder model already existed, and we get fitted to it with our top 5 strengths. Clean Language reveals our own models that explain things back to us.

Strengths Finder is not very emergent – categories already exist, but there are 30+ of them and they have good and bad traits, or balconies and basements in their language, so it is quite rich.

The models that emerge for Clean Language really are the individuals models, although group models are possible. They can also develop and change over time, reflecting how a person develops.

The combination is quite powerful.

Starting a group

I’ve spoken about systems at work with colleagues, and there are a number who I think ‘get it’ intuitively – I’ve got individuation as one of my strengthens, so maybe it’s unsurprising I can understand people who see things in a particular way.

(My strengths are Strategic, Ideation, Individualisation, Learner, Arranger. These probably explain a lot about my actions 🙂

I asked the next 8(ish) systems-y colleagues I saw in the staff kitchen if they would join me for a lunch hour to watch some videos and I’d talk about the two approaches. I think they all agreed to come. I have awesome work colleagues. Tomasz later noted I was asking people to do a peer review of the techniques, I may have used the phrase – “Help me see if this is boll$”*! or not…..”.

First Meeting, all positive

We started the first meeting by watching Caitlin Walkers Clean Language TED talk, and a great video kind of about strengths that I included it in this post about strengths .

And the next few weeks we met and talked. A few people dropped out for other commitments, and new people joined. We had a core group of about 6. We all took the Strengths Finder test, and talked about our strengths. We were surprised that what we saw as a weakness was a positive. Others got validation when they we’re really glad they had a particular strength. Ian noted that none of us had any top5 strengths in the “influencing” domain.

I think the biggest impact was had because all the strengths are totally positive. So we could see that our strengths and approaches were not the only ones, and actions of others that we had not understood, was their strengths applied to the problems they had. With their strengths and the problems they had to face their approach made sense. We began to have empathy with people we didn’t necessarily agree with.

We then tentatively and self-consciously tried some clean modelling. Sarah volunteered to talk about working at her best and I led the questions. It worked well, despite our lack of experience, and some non-clean questioning creeping in.

At each weekly session we either decided to do some clean modelling, or talked about insights we’d had, or things we’d thought about and usually ended up tying it back to our metaphor models, strengths or cognitive biased and traps.

We modelled how we work and learned at our best, how we used our strength finder strengths at our best, and for a month or so we modelled how we reacted to challenging situations, when our emotions can take over.

Talking about our monkeys

David introduced us to  Steve Peters model of the brain containing a chimp, a computer and a ‘human’ to begin with. This was of course someone else’s metaphor model, but we worked with it.

I did have some success extending this metaphor. I thought that normally there is a conductor who controls what I say and do. But in challenging situations my brain fogs up, and the ‘monkey’ can run in and start banging the drum without me seeing him in time. So I need to stop my brain fogging, as I can’t stop the monkey once he’s banging the drum.

Although this was not really clean modelling, some simple practical ideas about stopping ‘brain fog’ developed. Not surprisingly, enough sleep, preparation of material (ie facts!), understanding how other approach issues from reverse engineering their strengths from their actions all helped. I could write another post on this, and we  all got a lot from this.


During the sessions I also introduced some ideas from complex adaptive systems theory, and the viable systems model, helped by David in the group who’s also studied at the OU. The group became more competent in talking about work issues, and understanding decisions and outcomes. Often with a sense of “uh-oh” when we saw problems being ‘solved’ with strengths that were, from our perspective, not entirely suited. We referred to this ‘Not Safe for Work’. We’d created a safe space to talk about things that needed to stay in the room.

We’re still meeting every week, struggling to find time to devote to Clean Language modelling, and bringing our learning and experiences to the group.