My new book about Teddies and fetishes is out…

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Hi all

I am pleased to announce that my new business book, The Heretic’s Guide to Management: The Art of Harnessing Ambiguity is now available in ebook format (The print edition is still a couple of weeks away). Once again I wrote this with Kailash Awati and is a loose sequel to our first book, The Heretics Guide to Best Practices.

Many reviewers liked the writing style of our first book, which combined rigour with humour. This book continues in the same vein, so if you enjoyed the first one we hope you might enjoy this one too. The new book is half the size of the first one, and I would say, less idealistic too. In terms of subject matter, I could probably just say “Ambiguity, Teddy Bears and Fetishes” and leave it at that. I’m sure someone would think that we have moved into erotic fiction Smile

Unfortunately for those looking for some titillation, I’m afraid we did not write a management version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Instead, we aim to help readers understand how ambiguity affects the human behaviour and more importantly how it can be harnessed it in positive ways. We noticed that most management techniques (eg strategic planning, project management or operational budgeting) attempt to reduce ambiguity and provide clarity. Yet in a great irony of modern corporate life, they often end up doing the opposite: increasing ambiguity rather than reducing it.

On the surface, it is easy enough to understand why: organizations are complex entities and it is unreasonable to expect management models, such as those that fit neatly into a 2*2 matrix or a predetermined checklist, to work in the real world. In fact, expecting them to work as advertised is like colouring a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa and expecting that you can recreate Da Vinci’s masterpiece. Ambiguity remains untamed, and reality reimposes itself no matter how alluring the model is…

It turns out that most of us have a deep aversion to situations that involve even a hint of ambiguity. Recent research in neuroscience has revealed the reason for this: ambiguity is processed in the parts of the brain which regulate our emotional responses. As a result, many people associate ambiguity with feelings of anxiety. When kids feel anxious, they turn to transitional objects such as teddy bears or security blankets, providing them with a sense of stability when situations or events seem overwhelming. In this book, we show that as grown-ups we don’t stop using teddy bears – it is just that the teddies we use take a different, more corporate, form. Drawing on research, we discuss how management models, fads and frameworks are actually akin to teddy bears. They provide the same sense of comfort and certainty to corporate managers and minions as real teddies do to distressed kids.

base teddy

Most children usually outgrow their need for teddies as they mature and learn to cope with their childhood fears. However, if development is disrupted or arrested in some way, the transitional object can become a fetish – an object that is held on to with a pathological intensity, simply for the comfort that it offers in the face of ambiguity. The corporate reliance on simplistic solutions for the complex challenges faced is akin to little Johnny believing that everything will be OK provided he clings on to Teddy.

When this happens you, the trick is finding ways to help Johnny overcome his fear of ambiguity (as well as your own).


Ambiguity is a primal force that drives much of our behaviour. It is typically viewed negatively – something to be avoided or to be controlled. The truth, however, is that it is a force that can be used in positive ways too. The Force that gave the Dark Side their power in the Star Wars movies was harnessed by the Jedi in positive ways.This new management book shows you how ambiguity, so common in the corporate world, can be harnessed to achieve outstanding results.

The book should be available via most online outlets.


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A Very Potter Audit – A Best Practices Parable

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Once upon a time there lived a rather round wizard named Hocklart who worked at the FogWorts school of witchcraft and wizardry. Hocklart was a very proud wizard, perhaps the proudest in all of FogWorts. His pride did not stem from being a great wizard or a great teacher; in reality, he was neither of those. In fact Hocklart was never much good at wizardry itself, but he knew a lot of people who were – and therein lay the reason for his pride. For what Hocklart lacked in magic ability, he more than made up for with his attention to detail, love of process and determination to rise to the top. From the day he arrived at FogWorts as one apprentice amongst many, he was the first to realise that the influential wizards liked to unwind on Friday nights with a cold ale at the Three and a Half Broomsticks Inn. Hocklart sacrificed many Friday nights at that pub, shouting rounds of frothy brew to thirsty senior wizards, befriending them all, listening to their stories and building up peerless knowledge of FogWorts organisational politics and juicy gossip.

This organisational knowledge brought just enough influence for Hocklart to climb the corporate ladder ahead of his more magically adept colleagues and presently he was very proud. As far as Hocklart was concerned, he had the most important job in all of FogWorts – Manager of the Department Responsible for the Integrity of Potions (or DRIP for short).

You see, in schools of witchcraft and wizardry, wizards and witches concoct all sorts of potions for all sorts of magical purposes. Potions of course require various ingredients in just the right amount and often prepared in just the right way. Some of these ingredients are highly dangerous and need to be handed with utmost care, while others might be harmless by themselves, but dangerous when mixed with something else or prepared incorrectly. Obviously one has to be careful in such a situation because a mix-up could be potentially life threatening or at the very least, turn you into some sort of rodent or small reptile.

The real reason why Hocklart was proud was because of his DRIP track record. You see, over the last six years, Hocklart had ensured that Fogwarts met all its statutory regulatory requirements as per the International Spell-casters Standards Organisation (ISSO). This included the “ISSO 9000 and a half” series of standards for quality management as well as the “ISSO 14000 and a sprinkle more” series for Environmental Management and Occupational Health and Safety. (Like all schools of witchcraft and wizardry, Fogwarts needed to maintain these standards to keep their license to operate current and in good standing).

When Hocklart became manager of DRIP, he signed himself up for a week-long training course to understand the family of ISSO standards in great detail. Enlightened by this training, he now appreciated the sort of things the ISSO auditors would likely audit FogWorts on. Accordingly, he engaged expensive consultants from an expensive consultancy to develop detailed management plans in accordance with wizardry best practices. To deliver this to the detail that Hocklart required, the consultants conjured a small army of business analysts, enterprise architects, system administrators, coordinators, admin assistants, documenters, quality engineers and asset managers who documented all relevant processes that were considered critical to safety and quality for potions.

Meticulous records were kept of all activities and these were sequestered in a secure filing room which was, among other things, guaranteed to be spell-proof. Hocklart was particularly fond of this secure filing room, with its rows and rows of neatly labelled, colour coded files that lovingly held Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for each potion ingredient. These sheets provided wizards the procedures for handling or working with the ingredients in a safe manner, including information of interest to wizards such as fulmination point, spell potency, extra-magical strength, reversal spells as well as routine data such as boiling point, toxicity, health effects, first aid, reactivity, storage, disposal, protective equipment and spill-handling procedures. All potion ingredients themselves were stored in the laboratory in jars with colour coded lids that represented the level of hazard and spell-potency. Ever the perfectionist, Hocklart ensured that all jars had the labels perfectly aligned, facing the front. The system was truly was a thing of beauty and greatly admired by all and sundry, including past ISSO auditors, who were mesmerised by what they saw (especially the colour coded filing system and the symmetry of the labels of the jars).

And so it came to pass that for six years Hocklart, backup up by his various consultants and sub-contractors, saw off every ISSO auditor who ever came to audit things. All of them left FogWorts mightily impressed, telling awestruck tales of Hocklart’s quality of documentation, attention to detail and beautiful presentation. This made Hocklart feel good inside. He was a good wizard…nay, a great one: no one in the wizard-world had emerged from an ISSO audit unscathed more than twice in a row…

On the seventh year of his term as FogWarts head of DRIP, Hocklart’s seventh audit approached. Although eagerly waiting to impress the new auditor (as he did with all the previous auditors), Hocklart did not want to appear overly prepared, so he tried to look as nonchalant as possible by casually reviewing a draft memo he was working on as the hour approached. Only you and I, and of course Hocklart himself, knew that in the weeks prior to today, Hocklart was at his meticulous best in his preparation. He had reviewed all of the processes and documentation and made sure it was all up to date and watertight. There was no way fault could be found.

Presently, there was a rap on the open door, and in walked the auditor.

“Potter – Chris Potter,” the gentleman introduced himself. “Hocklart I presume?”

Hocklart had never met Potter before so as they shook hands he sized up his opponent. The first thing he noticed was that Potter wasn’t carrying anything – no bag, notebook and not even a copy of the ISSO standards. “Have you been doing this sort of work long?” he enquired.

“Long enough,” came the reply. “Let’s go for a walk…”

“Sure,” replied Hocklart. “Where would you like to go?”

For what seemed like an uncomfortably long time to Hocklart, Potter was silent. Then he replied, “Let’s go and have a look at the lab.”

Ha! Nice try, thought Hocklart as he led the auditor to the potion laboratory. Yesterday I had the lab professionally cleaned with a high potency Kleenit spell and we did a stocktake of the ingredients the week before.

Potter cast his sharp eyes around as they walked (as is common with auditors), but remained silent. Soon enough they arrived at a gleaming, most immaculate lab, with nothing out of place. Without a word, Potter surveyed the scene and walked to the shelves of jars that held the ingredients, complete with colour coded lids and perfectly aligned labels. He picked up one of the red labelled jars that contained Wobberworm mucus – a substance that, while not fatal, was known to cause damage if not handled with care. Holding the jar, he turned to Hocklart.

“You have a Materials Safety Data Sheet for this?”

Hocklart grinned. “Absolutely… would you like to see it?”

Potter did not answer. Instead he continued to examine the jar. After another uncomfortable silence, Potter looked up announcing, “I’ve just got this in my eyes.” His eyes fixed on Hocklart.

Hocklart looked at Potter in confusion. The Wobberworm mucus was certainly not in Potter’s eyes because the jar had not been opened.

“What?” he asked hesitantly.

Potter, eyes unwaveringly locked on Hocklart, remained silent. The silence seemed an eternity to Hocklart. A quick glance at his watch then Potter, holding up the jar in his hand, repeated more slowly, “I’ve just got this in my eyes.”

Hocklart’s heart rate began to rise. What is this guy playing at? He asked himself. Potter, meanwhile, looked at his watch again, looked back at Hocklart and sighed. “It’s been a minute now and my eye’s really starting to hurt. I risk permanent eye damage here… What should you be doing?”

A trickle of sweat rolled down Hocklart’s brow. He had not anticipated this at all.

Potter waited, sighed again and grated, “Where is the Materials Safety Data Sheet with the treatment procedure?”

A cog finally shifted in Hocklart’s mind as he realised what Potter was doing. Whilst he was mightily annoyed that Potter had caught him off guard (he would have to deal with that later), right now however he had to play Potter’s game and win.

“We have a secure room with all of that information,” he replied proudly. “I can’t have any of the other wizards messing with my great filing system, it’s my system…”

“Well,” Potter grated, “let’s get in there. My eye isn’t getting any better standing here.”

Hocklart gestured to a side door. “They are in there.” But as he said it his heart skipped a beat as a sense of dread came over him.

“It’s… “ he stammered then cleared his throat. “It’s locked.”

Potter looked straight into Hocklart with a stare that seemed to pierce his very soul. “Now I’m in agony,” he stated. “Where is the key?”

“I keep it in my office…” he replied.

“Well,” Potter said, “I now have permanent scarring on my eye and have lost partial sight. You better get it pronto…”

Hocklart continued to stare at Potter for a moment in disbelief, before turning and running out of the room as fast as his legs could carry his rotund body.

It is common knowledge that wizards are not known for being renowned athletes, and Hocklart was no exception. Nevertheless, he hurtled down corridors, up stairs and through open plan cubicles as if he was chased by a soulsucker. He steamed into his office, red faced and panting. Sweat poured from his brow as he flung a picture from the wall, revealing a safe. With shaking hands, he entered the combination and got it wrong twice before managing to open the safe door. He grabbed the key, turned and made for the lab as if his life depended on it.

Potter was standing exactly where he was, and said nothing as Hocklart surged into the room and straight to the door. He unlocked the door and burst into the secure room. Recalling the jar had a red lid, Hocklart made a beeline for the shelf of files with red labels, grabbed the one labelled with the letter W for Wobberworm and started to flick through it. To his dismay, there was no sign of a material safety data sheet for Wobberworm mucus.

“It’s…it’s not…it’s not here,” he stuttered weakly.

“Perhaps it was filed under “M” for mucus?” Potter offered.

“Yes that must be it”, cried Hocklart (who at this stage was ready to grasp at anything). He grabbed the file labelled M and flicked through each page. Sadly, once again there was no sign of Mucus or Wobberworm.

“Well,” said Potter looking at his watch again. “I’m now permanently blind in one eye… let’s see if we can save the other one eh? Perhaps there is a mismatch between the jar colour and the file?”

Under normal circumstances, Hocklart would snort in derision at such a suggestion, but with the clock ticking and one eye left to save, it seemed feasible.

“Dammit”, he exclaimed, “Someone must have mixed up the labels.” After all, while Wobberworm mucus was damaging, it was certainly not fatal and therefore did not warrant a red cap on the jar. This is why I can’t trust anyone with my system! he thought, as he grabbed two orange files (one labelled W for Wobberworm and one labelled M for mucus) and opened them side by side so he could scan them at the same time.

Eureka! On the fifth page of the file labelled M, he found the sheet for Wobberworm mucus. Elated, he showed the sheet to Potter, breathing a big sigh of relief. He had saved the other eye after all.

Potter took the sheet and studied it. “It has all the necessary information, is up to date – and the formatting is really nice I must say.” He handed the sheet back to Hocklart. “But your system is broken”

Hocklart was still panting from his sprint to his office and back and as you can imagine, was absolutely infuriated at this. How dare this so-called auditor call his system broken. It had been audited for six years until now, and Potter had pulled a nasty trick on him.

“My system is not broken”, he spat vehemently. “The information was there, it was current and properly maintained. I just forgot my key that’s all. Do you even know how much effort it takes to maintain this system to this level of quality?”

A brief wave of exasperation flickered across Potter’s face.

“You still don’t get it…” he countered. “What was my intent when I told you I spilt Wobberworm mucus in my eye?”

To damn well screw me over, thought Hocklart, before icily replying “I don’t care what your intent was, but it was grossly unfair what you did. You were just out to get me because we have passed ISSO audits for the last six years.”

“No,” replied Potter. “My intent was to see whether you have confused the system with the intent of the system.”

Potter gestured around the room to the files. “This is all great eye candy,” he said, “you have dotted the I’s, and crossed the T’s. In fact this is probably the most comprehensive system of documentation I have ever seen. But the entire purpose of this system is to keep people safe and I just demonstrated that it has failed.“

Hocklart was incredulous. “How can I demonstrate the system works when you deliberately entrapped me?”, he spat in rage.

Potter sighed. “No wizards can predict when they will have an accident you know,” he countered. “Then it wouldn’t be an accident would it? For you, this is all about the system and not about the outcome the system enables. It is all about keeping the paperwork up to date and putting it in the files… I’m sorry Hocklart, but you have lost sight of the fact the system is there to keep people safe. Your organisation is at significant risk and you are blind to that risk. You think you have mitigated it when in fact you have made it worse. For all the time, effort and cost, you have not met the intent of the ISSO standards.“

Hocklart’s left eye started to twitch as he struggled to stop himself from throwing red jars at Potter. “Get out of my sight,” he raged. “I will be reporting your misconduct to my and your superiors this afternoon. I don’t know how you can claim to be an auditor when you were clearly out to entrap me. I will not stand for it and I will see you disciplined for this!”

Potter did not answer. He turned from Hocklart, put the jar of Wobberworm mucus back on the shelf where he had found it and turned to leave.

“For pete’s sake”, Hocklart grated, “the least you could do is face the label to the front like the other jars!”



I wrote this parable after being told the real life version of a audit by a friend of mine… This is very much based on a true story. My Harry Potter obsessed daughter also helped me with some of the finer details. Thanks to Kailash and Mrs Cleverworkarounds for fine tuning…


Paul Culmsee


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On the decay (or remarkable recurrence) of knowledge

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“That’s only 10%…”

One of my mentors who is mentioned in the book I wrote with Kailash (Darryl) is a veteran project manager in the construction and engineering industry. He has been working as a project manager more than 30 years, is a fellow of the Institute of Engineers and marks exams at the local university for those studying a Masters Degree in Project Management. His depth of knowledge and experience is abundantly clear when you start working with him and I have learned more about collaborative project delivery from him than anyone else.

Recently I was talking with him and he said something really interesting. He was telling some stories from the early days of alliancing based project delivery in Australia (alliancing is a highly interesting collaborative project governance approach that we devote a chapter to in our book). He stated that alliancing at its core is the application of good project management practice. Now I know Darryl pretty well and knew what he meant by that, but commented to him that when you say the word “project management practice,” some would associate that statement with (among other things) a well-developed Gantt chart listing activities with names, tasks and times.

His reply was unsurprising: “at best that’s only 1/10th of what project management is really about.”

Clearly Darryl has a much deeper and holistic view of what project management is than many other practitioners I’ve worked with. Darryl argues that those who criticise project management are actually criticising a small subset of the discipline, based on their less than complete view of what the discipline entails. Thus by definition, the remedies they propose are misinformed or solve a problem that has already been solved.

Whether you agree with Darryl or not, there is a pattern here that occurs continually in organisation-land. Fanboys of a particular methodology, framework model or practice (me included) will waste no time dumping on whatever they have grown to dislike and swear that their “new approach” addresses the gaps. Those with a more holistic view like Darryl might argue that crusaders aren’t really inventing anything new and that if a gap exists, it’s a gap in the knowledge of those doing the criticising.

As Ambrose Bierce said, “There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of things we don’t know.”

From project management to systems thinking…

Now with that in mind, here’s a little anecdote. A few weeks back I joined a Design Thinking group on LinkedIn. I had read about Design Thinking during its hype phase a couple of years ago and my immediate thought was “Isn’t this just systems thinking reinvented?” You see, I more or less identify myself as a bit of a pragmatic systems thinker, in that I like to broaden a discussion, but I also actually get shit done. So I was curious to understand how design thinkers see themselves as different from systems thinkers.

I followed several threads on the LinkedIn group as the question had been discussed a few times. Unfortunately, no-one could really put their finger on the difference. Eventually I found a recent paper by Pourdehnad, Wexler and Wilson which went into some detail on the two disciplines and offered some distinctions. I won’t bother you with the content, except to say it was a good read, and left me with the following choices about my understanding of systems and design thinking:

  • That my understanding of systems thinking is wrong and I am in fact a design thinker after all
  • That I am indeed a systems thinker and design thinking is just systems thinking with a pragmatic bent

Of course being a biased human, I naturally believe the latter point is more correct. clip_image002

From systems to #stoos

Like the Snowbird retreat that spawned the agile manifesto, the recent stoos movement has emerged from a group of individuals who came together to discuss problems they perceive in existing management structures and paradigms. Now this would have been an exhilarating and inspiring event to be at – a bunch of diverse people finding emergent new understandings of organisations and how they ought to be run. Much tacit learning would have occurred.

But a problem is that one has to have been there to truly experience it. Any published output from this gathering cannot convey the vibe and learning (the tacit punch) that one would get from experiencing the event in the flesh. This is the effect of codifying knowledge into the written form. Both myself and Kailash were fully cognisant of this when we read the material on the stoos website and knew that for us, some of it would cover old ground. Nevertheless, my instinctive first reaction to what I read was “I bet someone will complain that this is just design thinking reinvented.”

Guess what… a short time later that’s exactly what happened too. Someone tweeted that very assertion! Presumably this opinion was offered by a self-identified design thinker who felt that the stoos crowd was reinventing the wheel that design thinkers had so painstakingly put together. My immediate urge was to be a smartarse and send back a tweet telling this person that design thinking is just pragmatic systems thinking anyway so he was just as guilty as the #stoos crowd. I then realised I might be found guilty of the same thing and someone might inform me of some “deeper knowing” than systems thinking. Nevertheless I couldn’t resist and made a tweet to that effect.

The decay (or remarkable recurrence) of knowledge…

(At this point I discussed this topic with Kailash and have looped him into the conversation)

Both of us see a pattern of a narrow focus or plain misinterpretation of what has come before. As a result, it seems there is a tendency to reinvent the wheel and slap a new label on claiming it to be unique or profound. We wonder therefore, how much of the ideas of new groups or movements are truly new.

Any corpus of knowledge is a bunch of memes – “ideas, behaviours or styles that spread from person to person within a culture.” Indeed, entire disciplines such as project management can be viewed as a bunch of memes that have been codified into a body of knowledge. Some memes are “sticky,” in that they are more readily retained and communicated, while others get left behind. However, stickiness is no guarantee of rightness. Two examples of such memes that we covered in our book are the waterfall methodology and the PERT scheduling technique Though both have murky origins and are of questionable utility, they are considered to be stock standard in the PM world, at least in certain circles. While it would take us too far afield to recount the story here (and we would rather you read our book Smile ) the point is that some techniques are widely taught and used despite being deeply flawed. Clearly the waterfall meme had strong evolutionary characteristics of survival while the story of its rather nuanced beginnings have been lost until recently.

A person indoctrinated in a standard business school curriculum sees real-life situations through the lens of the models (or memes!) he or she is familiar with. To paraphrase a well-known saying – if one is familiar only with a hammer, every problem appears as a nail. Sometime (not often enough!) the wielder of the metaphorical hammer eventually realises that not all problems yield to hammering. In other words, the models they used to inform their actions were incomplete, or even incorrect. They then cast about for something new and thus begin a quest for a new understanding. In the present day world one doesn’t have to search too hard because there are several convenient corpuses of knowledge to choose from. Each supply ready-made models of reality that make more sense than the last and as an added bonus, one can even get a certification to prove that one has studied it.

However, as demonstrated above with the realisation that not all problems yield to hammering, reality can truly be grasped only through experience, not models. It is experience that highlights the difference between the real-world and the simplistic one that is captured in models. Reality consists of complex, messy situations and any attempt to capture reality through concepts and models will always be incomplete. In the light of this it is easy to see why old knowledge is continually rediscovered, albeit in a different form. Since models attempt to grasp the ungraspable, they will all contain many similarities but will also have some differences. The stoos movement, design thinking and systems thinking are rooted in the same reality, so their similarities should not be surprising.

Coming back to Darryl – his view of project management with 30 years experience includes a whole bunch of memes and models, that for whatever reason, tend to be less sticky than the ones we all know so well. Why certain memes are less successful than others in being replicated from person to person is interesting in its own right and has been discussed at length in our book. For now, we’ll just say that those who come up with new labels to reflect their new understandings are paradoxically wise and narrow minded at the same time. They are wise in that they are seeking better models to understand the reality they encounter, but at the same time likely trashing some worthwhile ones too. Reality is multifaceted and cannot be captured in any particular model, so the finders of a new truth should take care that they do not get carried away by their own hyperbole.

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee (with Kailash Awati)

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