Drift - enterprise entropy and how to reverse it

There's a very good chance that you're doing the wrong job. I don't mean to imply that you're doing a bad job but I do think there's a good chance that you could be performing better if you were in a different role. It's also likely that your team mates are in a similar position and that the team itself is poorly aligned with the goals of the business. Also the business itself is probably not properly aligned with the market.

I can make all these bold predictions because of the existence of something we call Drift.

Drift is enterprise entropy, a naturally occurring phenomenon that causes well designed, orderly systems, to tend towards disorder over time. I'll explain the mechanism and then we can get to thinking about the solution.

Once upon a time

When a person is hired he or she is assumed to align with the role which, in turn, is assumed to align with the business. In reality we know that this isn't actually the case since the hiring process is riddled with ambiguity and uncertainty. We all write CVs to paint a specific picture of ourselves for prospective employers and prospective employers all present roles in the most attractive way in order to get more high quality candidates. It's like dating in a way; not actively dishonest but certainly not the full, unvarnished truth. And the role itself is rarely designed bespoke to deal with a specific challenge but rather to fit into a organisational structure which, as we will see later, is likely to not perfectly align with the reality of the business.

But let's just for a moment imagine that we have something close to perfect alignment between the person, the role, and the business.

The one constant is change

One thing we can all rely on is that nothing and nobody stays the same. From moment to moment we are all in a constant state of change. People grow older, learn new skills, forget old ones, alter their beliefs and attitudes, find that they are more or less motivated by different types of incentive, and undergo major lifestyle shifts such as getting married, having children, falling ill, or losing a close friend or family member.

It would be extraordinary if, whilst undergoing these changes, a person doesn't alter their relationship with their work. This is the first part of Drift.

Whilst on paper the role may appear to stay the same, the truth is that new technology, changes in the team, new bosses, and shifting cultural expectations will cause the role to Drift over time. Sometimes this happens quickly. Sometimes it happens slowly. But it absolutely does happen.

Finally the business itself will undergo changes, similar to the role, but at a higher level. New competitors may enter the market, consumer behaviours may change, legislation, leadership, partners, economic circumstances, and all manner of larger factors will cause the business itself to undergo Drift.

What would you say the chances are that these three Drifts all match up? I'd say the chances of that are as close to zero as to make it a practical impossibility.

This is what we mean when we talk about Enterprise Entropy. No matter how well designed and selected the system is at the moment you set the system running, you can be sure that over time Drift is taking place.


The result of this Drift is obvious: disconnection.

We like to talk about individual greatness, collective brilliance, and organisational flow because these three elements are the building blocks of amazing businesses and amazing lives. But when we feel disconnected none of these things can exist.

When a person is disconnected from their role they can't be great because greatness depends on a true, honest expression of who you are. When disconnected a person feels stress and anxiety as they attempt ever harder to be the person that the role requires or, if the pain becomes too great, they check out and simply go through the motions. Not good for the person and not good for anyone else.

For a team to be brilliant they need to build and bounce, become in the moment as one mind. But a team suffering disconnection can't do that. Since everyone is wearing a mask nobody can feel that they really know one another. At a deep level we feel this and it causes us to enter into a defensive stance. We begin to grasp what we have more closely, sharing less information, seeking more recognition, and becoming controlling of those around us; policing unexpected and unusual behaviour and limiting individual flare.

For an organisation to flow information and clarity are key. When the people, the teams, and the roles become disconnected from the needs of the business everyone is incentivised to reduce the flow of information precisely because it could lead to more change. Change becomes the enemy and the rational person presses back against it with the only tools they have. In this case, the capacity to withhold.

Reversing entropy

Physics fans amongst you might have noticed that I left out an important part of the definition of entropy which is that it takes place within a closed system. If there is a correcting factor nudging things back towards order then we don't see entropy. A great example of this is evolution which shows a system tending towards order. In the context of an organisation this correcting nudge is information.

Unfortunately our organisations are built such that dishonesty is rife. Why? Fear.

Take the person who feels he or she is no longer properly aligned with the role they have been employed to do. Would it be a safe move for that person to inform their boss about such a situation? Of course not. Anyone telling their boss something like that is taking a huge risk with little realistic chance of gaining anything from doing so. Teams, similarly, are designed around individual attainment. Your team mates aren't really team mates. They're competition. It isn't in your best interests to see them do well since it is with them that you must compete for pay rises and promotions. And the business itself may talk a lot about caring for people and being a "family" but the truth is that employees are expendable.

So Drift happens because people can't be honest and people can't be honest because they are afraid.

Removing fear

It follows that the only way to prevent Drift is to create a culture of honesty and the only way to create a culture of honesty is to remove the sources of fear. Do you even know what your employees are afraid of? Really?

I can't tell you the answer for you but I can offer some thoughts as a starting point.

Begin with honest employment. There is no such thing as a permanent job. When you hire someone let them know that you want this to be the place where they can do their best work. Ask them again and again, as time passes, if they still believe this is where they can do their best work and, if they no longer feel that is the case, either work with them to make it so, or work with them to find somewhere else. As an employer make a commitment to ensuring that, when your employee leaves, he or she does so with your support. No matter the circumstances. It took two of you to get into this relationship and the employer is by far the more powerful partner. So stand up and do the right thing when the relationship comes to an end.

Drop individualism and phoney meritocracy. Nobody achieves anything alone. Make this your mantra. No, you are not self made. No, you are not independent. No, you did not come up with this idea or that product in a vacuum. Yes, luck played a major part in your successes and your failures. When you look at your teams, do you see teams? Or do you see individuals? Because if you see the latter then you are missing out on everything collective brilliance has to offer. Stop appraising people on individual achievement - there is no such thing. And end the culture of blame. It's almost never the fault of any one person.

Release your hostages. When your business changes, as it will, be honest about what it means and make it a priority to enable your people to choose, proactively choose, if they wish to be a part of that change. That means offering them the support they need to own their learning and performance journey rather than feeling buffeted by the winds of change. Given the chance to proactively pivot in the direction the business is going in, or find a new path elsewhere, people will stop resisting change and begin to trust in their own ability to survive and thrive come what may.

Control or flow? You can't have both

If you want an organisation that flows full of individuals who are great and teams who are brilliant then you need to let go of the idea of control. Control destroys the flow of information and without the flow of information none of what you want can happen. But, I hear you ask, how do you get what you need without control?

I would humbly suggest you begin by allowing your people to own their future.

We no longer live in a knowledge economy. We are no longer knowledge workers. We are in a learning economy and our value is defined by our ability to learn and perform amidst the ever changing landscape of our work. The scandal is that we have done a woeful job of equipping people with the ability to own their learning and performance. If you asked your staff, right now, what they would do in order to improve their performance by 10% in ten days, what do you think they would tell you? Do you think they would even have an answer? The truth is that most would not.

The fearless workplace

Given this fact, is it any wonder we’re afraid? That we have a culture of learned helplessness and dependency?

But what if we could fix this? Given the ability to adapt, to learn and perform as needed when changes come, people would have no reason to be afraid and you wouldn't need control to get the best out of your employees. Your people would be free to provide you with what you need and do their best work, and if what you need changes they would be free to change too, or move on and allow someone else to give you what you need. This is precisely how you work with your suppliers and customers, so why not your employees?

There is a solution to this challenge. The future belongs to those who find it.

Micro Vexes

You've probably heard of the idea of micro aggressions: small, almost imperceptible acts that signal to people that they are not welcome or that they are disliked. Examples include not inviting someone to a team lunch "by accident" or not bothering to learn how to correctly pronounce someone's name. They're small, persistent, and can really take their tole on people. But, crucially, they're so small that it often feels like any action taken to prevent them is disproportionate.

You can see how this comes to be. So, someone fails to pronounce your name properly. Imagine how hard it must be to go to your supervisor or line manager and say:

"Excuse me, Allan, I know you're very busy but Janine keeps calling me Pardeep but my name is actually Hardeep. Yes, I know it's very similar but I... no I think she's doing it on purpose. Well actually I don't think I'm being over sensitive at all."

So these micro aggressions just continue causing stress and anxiety and, like the loose stitch in a piece of clothing, go undealt with just long enough for everything to unravel.

The thing is, it isn't just humans who can do this kind of damage to one another. In our work at Sabre Tooth Panda we've found that very often the machines we work in are filled with tiny inconveniences, what we call micro vexes, that have pretty much the same impact.

Take something very small like a process that has a single duplicated step in it. Something that takes only a few seconds every time to complete. Maybe a certain detail needs to be input in two different places because, when the process was first designed, someone missed a memo.

This process might take no more than a few seconds longer to complete each time because of this unfortunate micro vex, and maybe over the course of a year that adds up to a couple of hours for an employee. Not something, on the face of it, that's worth fixing. The cost of fixing it would never be repaid if we're looking simply at hours saved.

But that's just the external cost, the added time and workload that we can see and count on a spreadsheet. Much like a micro aggression this micro vex seems too small to bother with. But from the standpoint of the experience of the human this small thing is like having his name mispronounced again and again. It's a slow puncture in his productivity inner tube. Over time, it deflates him.

Inside the human mind small things can take on great significance. We know this instinctively and we use it both to regulate our own wellbeing (go on, lower your shoulders and take three deep breaths) and to antagonise others (see micro aggressions) as well as many others things. A label inside a shirt that's scratchy, a damaged piece of packaging when we receive a birthday gift, a small pause when you ask someone what they think of your haircut. In our minds these small things become big. And so they become distractions, stressors, and ultimately prevent us from performing at our best.

Which, if you think about it the right way, offers us a fairly hefty opportunity.

It follows that if micro vexes can cause disproportionate harm to our performance then eliminating micro vexes can bring about disproportionate improvements.

We know, for example, that good lighting can improve focus, that well chosen fonts can increase recall of written information, and that being thanked more often can raise wellbeing at work. And those are simply the generic small but actually big things that businesses often fail to do. But what about your specific ones? What would it cost to find out what micro vexations your employees are silently or not so silently dealing with and to begin to eliminate or alleviate some of them?

When you think of an organisation as a machine for working in then it seems obvious that these small things should be dealt with. The humans, as users of this machine, should expect it to be designed to fit their needs.

How's your relationship with creativity?

A core idea that underpins so much of what we do at Sabre Tooth Panda is the difference between things that are hard and things that are complicated. Some are one, not the other. Some are both. And so many of the mistakes we see come down to failing to distinguish between the two.

Let me give you an example.

For most people getting fit and losing weight is not complicated at all. You eat less, exercise more, drink plenty of water and try to sleep eight hours a night. That's pretty much it.

Yet, in 2016, 26% of UK adults were classified as obese. 63% were overweight.

Access to healthy food and information about how to purchase, cook, and eat it has never been easier. You can get healthy meal plans for free online. Vegetables are cheap. Chicken breasts and tinned tuna are inexpensive.

So what exactly is the problem here?

Some things are Hard Not Complicated

Weight loss is what we call a Hard Not Complicated problem. It takes minimal knowledge but huge amounts of effort to make the lifestyle changes needed to lose weight and to maintain that weight loss. You live in an environment that wants you to constantly eat, eat, eat, and offers you unhealthy foods that are designed to bypass your rational decision making process.

But this is just the start of the problem. Where things get really crazy is when humans do what humans do and try to get clever.

Humans are clever, lazy apes

Now, humans are clever, lazy apes. The history of humanity is the history of finding clever ways to reduce how hard we have to work. It's complicated to train and keep horses but travelling long distances takes a lot less effort if you can ride. It's complicated to live in big groups with all the social dynamics and politics that comes with that. But it does make life a lot easier when you can co-operate and share resources. Huge, global supply chains are complicated like you wouldn't believe but, well, you get the idea.

What I'm saying is that humans are good at being clever in order to avoid hard work. And that's great. But there are some things that just don't seem to yield to that approach. Weight loss is one. Instead of just cutting out the junk food and taking the stairs we go and search Amazon for the latest weight loss plan that promises miraculous results with minimal effort so long as you follow an extensive set of complicated rules. We try to substitute hard work for a complicated system.

You can see other examples of Hard Not Complicated problems all over the place from learning to drive to parenting. You can probably think of a few examples from your own life when, no matter how clever you try to be, the effort required remains stubbornly high.

Creativity is Hard Not Complicated

We tend not to get involved in diet plans, driving lessons, or parenting classes, but one Hard Not Complicated problem we do deal with a lot is creativity.

Like losing weight, creativity is one of those things that many of us want to get better at. There are many books and endless items of online content offering creative processes and tools that, should you learn them, claim to be the Paleo diet of creative problem solving. But, just like complicated diet plans, these tools and processes almost always fail for a range of reasons that I am more than happy to go into at length but that would be another blog entirely.

For our purposes it is enough to know that, just like eating well, being creative isn't about what you know, it's about something far trickier. It's what we call your relationship with creativity.

Being creative isn’t about what you know

Creativity isn't a set of tools or even a singular skill. Creativity is a way to relate to the world. We like to tell people that we aren't here to help them to be creative but rather to _be_ creatively. We're not looking to manufacture walking, talking creativity text books. What we want to see are people who, when faced with a creative challenge, respond habitually with curiosity, playfulness, strong positions loosely held, a willingness to take risks and learn, not run, from painful mistakes.

That's what we mean by having a strong relationship with creativity. Like any other strong relationship it should be defined by trust, familiarity, understanding, and openness to change. Yes, you can use tools and processes but without that underlying relationship these tools and processes are a crutch, masking the weakness. You'll feel this and it will undermine you.

Creative tools, like other tools, can only enhance what is already there. No matter how expensive your running shoes, you can't run a marathon without getting into shape.

I hope, by now, I've convinced you to shift your mindset. Creativity isn't about what you know. It isn't about following a process. It's a relationship. If so then you're probably wondering what exactly you can do about it. Luckily, there are many ways to begin rebuilding your relationship with creativity.

Starting to rebuild your relationship with creativity is easy

Firstly, recognise that the world you live in has shaped your relationship with creativity. You live in a world that wants you to converge, to be "correct" and to do so quickly. Thinking is not encouraged. Thinking differently is actively discouraged. You have so much more to lose if you venture a new, unexpected idea, than you have to gain. Just as living next door to a bakery can make you fat, living in this world can play havoc with your relationship with creativity.

With this in mind become aware of the forces around you that are discouraging creative thinking. Notice them, recognise the limits they place on you and consider them not as blockers but as creative constraints. If having ideas in meetings is too dangerous then you'll need to find another way to introduce creativity into your work. If suggesting new things out of the blue triggers fear and defensiveness, cultivate subtle ways to coax people along.

The promise of creativity is that there is always another way

The promise of creativity is that there is always another way. To someone with a great relationship with creativity there is no such thing as a situation, circumstance, job, or activity that yields no space for creativity. There is always another way. Remember that, test it, and keep going until you believe it.

Next, remember that all relationships need quality time. You can't expect to have a strong relationship with creativity if you never spend any time with your creative side. So find activities and environments that offer you this quality time with creativity.

Sabre Tooth Panda runs No Wrong Answers: the hypothetical pub quiz which is designed for exactly that purpose. It's date night for you and your creative side. You get to play with ideas, go as weird or as dark as you like, say whatever comes to your mind, and notice that not only does the sky not fall on you but that your creative liberation offers liberation to others.

But that's far from the only option.

Look for hobbies and activities that spark curiosity in you, especially ones that are far, far away from your professional life, and try them out. Read books and listen to music from other cultures, travel, experiment with new ideas and see how they feel. Try things on as if trying on a new jacket.

This is a journey of learning about you. So anything that offers you a chance to see something new in yourself is a great lesson just waiting to be learned.

On top of this it's worthwhile doing an audit of your current relationship with creativity and finding ways to deal with any specific weaknesses you find there. For example, if when faced with a creative challenge you feel fear, then you should find ways to cultivate understanding. That fear is there to keep you safe. Don't try to conquer it. Lean into it and see if you can find out where it comes from.

Perhaps you find the act of staying open to new things, avoiding premature closing, drains you. Maybe you feel bored and want to quickly move on. If so then try to work on your awareness. See if you can practice looking at things more closely until you find that even simple things can be endlessly interesting. Life drawing is a great exercise for this. Once you realise that a human hand is a subject that you could study for a hundred hours you might begin to feel more open to staying open. You'll know that there's more to find if only you can stay curious.

It’s not so serious, even, or especially, when the pressure is on

Lastly, although this is by no means an exhaustive list, see if you're taking it all too seriously.

Creativity is intelligence at play, so it follows that playfulness is a key element of any creative endeavour. And this brings us right back to the issue of environment. We feel that we must be serious, especially in our work lives. This tendency is exacerbated when the pressure is on which is, tragically, when creativity is needed the most.

If you bring too much heaviness into the process, if you feel burdened by what you know and how you must behave, then the childlike spontaneity that is your birthright is stifled. This cannot be allowed to stand because the world needs your little spark of madness.

This is the end of the blog, not the end of the journey

At Sabre Tooth Panda we try to avoid providing simple "take home messages" because what we do not want is to leave you feeling like the learning is done. So please, if you have found any value in this, don't allow yourself to feel a sense of completion.

You are, at this moment, standing at the foot of a great mountain. You don't have to climb it but it is there and the views are amazing.

A Machine for Working in

What do you think your employees would say if you asked them why they work in your business?

Be honest, what would they say? How many would talk about the benefits you offer? How many might recount the semi random way that they came to apply for a job in your business because someone they know knew a man who knew a woman who said that you needed someone? What percentage do you think would have no answer at all? Would, in fact, have no idea of what an answer could be other than... well, you pay me?

If you like you could go and ask. I'd love to hear what people say. But for now I'll share with you what I think the answer really should be. What it should be for everyone who chooses to work inside a business. Any business.

The history of humanity has been the history of technology. It's almost impossible to imagine humans without it and entirely impossible to imagine it without humans. First with simple tools and later with sophisticated machines, we have found ways to augment ourselves. Thanks to these machines humans can outpace the fastest land animals, dive deeper than a blue whale, fly at supersonic speeds and survive in the vacuum of space. With machines, built to enhance us, we have become literally superhuman.

This is so absolutely natural, so common place, that we hardly remark on it. It's just the normal order of things. We build machines that enhance humans. That's what we do. That's what it means to be us.

Of course, the concept of a machine can be broader than what we tend to think of. Very recently I was reminded of a quote by the architect, Le Corbusier, who said:

"A house is a machine for living in. Baths, sun, hot-water, cold-water, warmth at will, conservation of food, hygiene, beauty in the sense of good proportion. An armchair is a machine for sitting in and so on."

A house, like other machines, enhances the humans who use it. I could live in a field or a cave, but as humans we have designed machines that make living far, far easier.

With this expanded concept in mind, and with the single purpose of human enhancement as the reason for the existence of machines, I noticed an odd, troubling outlier. If humans build machines to enhance themselves, why is it that our organisations so often make us feel less than superhuman?

"The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office."

- Robert Frost

If a house is a machine for living in and an armchair is a machine for sitting in, an organisation must be a machine for working in. Which brings me to the answer I'd want to hear from anyone working for me if I were to ask them why they work in my business.

I'd want them to say: "I work here because this business, this machine, makes me better at what I do. When I come to work I feel stronger, faster, more powerful. This machine works for me."

You know the image that comes to mind? Iron Man. When Tony Stark steps into the Iron Man suit the machine responds to him, each piece snapping into place like mechanical poetry, all culminating in the helmet smoothly gliding down to cover that signature goatee. He looks up, eyes glowing with power. It's on.

That is how I want people to feel when they arrive at their place of work;. that the machine they choose to work inside enhances them, makes them more than they could be outside.

Sadly many people don't feel that way. The one machine that isn't built to enhance humans seems to be the one we spend most of waking hours inside. A machine that we don't use so much as get used by.

I know that this is an abstract concept but it's worth a moment's pause because if the machine is using the people then something has gone wrong in the relationship between humans and machines. When we create job roles and organisational processes we're too often designing for the needs of the machine and we expect the humans to fit themselves to those needs, not the other way around.

Before you know it the entire system is built with the machine in mind. So all that's left is a sense that even if this machine isn't making me more powerful, I kinda have to work here because, well, that's what you do. This isn't a partnership, it's a hostage situation! People who feel they have no choice but to work for someone, and it may as well be you, are dependent, trapped. This isn't what an employer wants.

What's more, it won't last.

Increasingly humans can access powerful tools outside of organisations. Increasingly we are doing so. Once upon a time to access information, computers, other people, and so on, we would either have to be insanely wealthy or join an organisation to tap into its resources. Now we don't. Now we can do this, often more easily, outside of the machine.

When working inside an organisation becomes a choice rather than a necessity the first people to leave are the most talented, most ambitious, and most important to the survival of the machine itself. Institutional knowledge is forgotten, cultural linchpins pulled out, and crisis is not far behind.

It doesn't have to be this way.

"A computer is a bicycle for the mind."

- Steve Jobs

What if we switched things around? What if we designed the machine as a tool for the humans who work inside of it? What if your organisation was like a bicycle for your work?

When looked at this way the role of the organisation becomes beautifully clear; to be a machine for working in that, like the Iron Man suit or the rocket ship, submarine, or sports car, gives its humans superpowers. No longer designed to use people but to be used by them. To enhance them. And your job, as the owner of that machine, is to upgrade it, over and over again, so that those who work inside of it, the users of that machine, find that they really would never want to work anywhere else.

I don't see this as optional. The future of human work is creative, personal, based around classically human skills. That’s because the stuff that isn't essentially human won't be done by humans anymore. In this world, in the human future, compliance and box ticking won't be enough. True engagement in the form of a partnership between humans who want to do great work and the organisations that can enhance them will be the norm.

Don’t wait. This work will take time. Give yourself that time. Begin to reimagine relationship between humans and the machines they work inside. And be ready for the future.

"It's like that circle thing!"

When I think about why I do what I do, I can go on a wild ride around various philosophical perspectives, the global purpose of my work, the mission. When asked I could bang on for hours about the need to reshape the world to make it a place fit for humans where flourishing is more important than producing. But I could just as easily quote one little girl.

Getting on for two years ago now I ran a workshop for a group of children in collaboration with my good friend Shayla Maddox and Trestle, an educational theatre company (with whom I offer some rather challenging products, if you're on the lookout for a way to freak out the executives). We did something called Perfect Circles which draws on, literally and figuratively, the ancient Buddhist practice of drawing Ensō.

An Ensō is a circle drawn in a single, unbroken stroke. The idea, and this is a gross oversimplification I'm sure, is to capture a moment in time in the form of this circle. How the brush and ink and paper interact, the steadiness, smoothness, stiffness, or shakiness of the arm and hand; this Ensō will be unique. A self portrait of a kind.

To Western sensibilities these circles will be pretty but, at the same time, imperfect. Which is, of course, part of the point.

We asked the children to draw their Ensō and then to talk about them. What did they think of their imperfect circles? Predictably everyone focused on the bits where the crayon went wobbly, how the ends didn't quite meet up, how one part or other was too flat or too round.

Then we asked the children to forget about these being circles and instead just look at them as shapes. What do they make you think of? What do those so called imperfections call to mind? What do they inspire?

After some time reflecting, as we watched the children begin to shift from disappointment at their imperfect Ensō, to curiosity and finally to the point that they could see something in their circle calling to them, we asked them to pick up their crayons and markers and draw what their circle was showing them. Inside it. Around it. To use those imperfections as inspirations.

By the end we had a dozen or so wonderful, expressive pictures such that only children seem capable of. And then we talked a little about how those imperfections turned out to be something great. All of this, from start to finish, was simply a way to reframe imperfections, to cast them not as something to avoid, a hopeless task, but something to embrace and build on.

This all took place a few days before the children were to take part in a day of theatrical performances. We wanted them to take this learning with them so that they might not fear mistakes and, when mistakes happened, they might not feel bad about them. I can't say for certain how much they remembered or internalised, but I can say this. One little girl got it.

I know because I heard from one of the teachers who worked with them on their performances about how one child failed to turn up! Suddenly the remaining children had to think how they could go ahead without a principal cast member. And, in that moment, from the mouths of babes as they say, one little girl said "it's like that circle thing!".

Five little words that I'll always remember. So small but so significant. My why.

Why we cheat and the Performance Paradigm


This week I played a simple improvisational game with two separate groups. The game is called Disassociations and the rules are simple; one player says a word and the other player has to say a word that is entirely unconnected with the first word.

For example, I might say clock and then you might say sandwich.

If the first player thinks he or she can see a strong connection between the two words then they can challenge and win a point. The challenge is judged by a third party. If no connection is seen or no challenge is made then it is now back to player one who must think of an unconnected word, and so on.

But the specifics of the game aren’t important. What I want to talk about today is how, on both occasions, players cheated. Or, more to the point, why they cheated.

This game is pretty easy to cheat. In this instance cheating is more akin to hacking the game than doing anything more active. It’s the improvisational equivalent of sticking the egg to your spoon. If you do it right, the only person who can tell you’re doing it is you. What happened, fairly quickly, was that players started thinking of words ahead of time, not waiting for the word they had to respond to. This trick would mean that it would take a great coincidence for the word to be connected in some strong way.

I noticed this cheating on both occasions in part because I had done the exact same thing when I first played the game with my wife. I cheated even though, at that moment, the entire point was to test out the game!

So the first thing I should point out is that I am in no way judging the players who cheated. In fact, cheating in this game displays both creative thinking and a strong desire to win, neither of which are essentially bad.

But, of course, as a training exercise this game loses all its value when you cheat in this way. So why did so many people do it?

I run training courses for various companies and one strong theme I have noticed is the desire to incorporate competitive elements into the training. Competitions, prizes, and ranking of teams and individuals based on how they performed during the course seem to be very popular. I have always felt an instinctive dislike for this idea and pushed back against it with various levels of success. But until now I haven’t been able to properly put my finger on exactly why I don’t like this competitive element.

I’ve pointed out that it can lead to negative feelings among those who are seen to have performed less well than others, that the stress and tension of competition can make it harder to learn, and so on. But now I see that the problem is the concept of performance itself, what I call the Performance Paradigm.

The Performance Paradigm is a concept of how the world is, how we are expected to behave, and how we are being viewed. If we relate to life as a performance then some behaviours naturally flow from that relationship. If life is a performance then:

- I am being judged

- If it cannot be seen and measured then it doesn’t matter

- If someone else is doing better than me then I am failing

- Failure of any kind of bad

- Sharing incomplete ideas is giving away competitive advantage

- Personal insights and growth have no direct value

There are many more ideas that flow from the Performance Paradigm but I would like to focus on that last one because, for me, its the most important.

If we see training as existing within the Performance Paradigm then we are focused externally, looking outwards at how our actions are perceived by others, prioritising what is visible over what is invisible. If this is the case we cannot be focused internally, seeking deeper insights into ourselves.

My method, using play, coaching, and mindfulness to drive self directed change is dependent on shifting people away from this external view and towards the internal. In my way of working what is visible on the outside is not important in the slightest. What matters is your internal process, your personal insights and the growth that can arise from them. So it follows that I have to do everything I can to remove this Performance Paradigm from my training courses and replace it with a paradigm based on exploration, practice, experimentation, and self knowledge.

We live in a culture that cares deeply about performance. We learn from an early age that doing it right gets rewarded while mistakes get punished. And this may be why we quickly drop things we believe ourselves to not be “good at”. All toddlers paint, sculpt, act, dance, sing, play whatever sport appeals to them, and very few consider their performance in any given activity before they choose to partake. I think that’s because they haven’t yet learned to value their experience only in terms of some quasi-objective external judgement of quality.

How many useful practices have you withdrawn from because you have decided you aren’t good at them? If you used to paint but stopped because your paintings weren’t good, have you stopped to think about how that practice of painting may have been massively useful to you in ways that had nothing to do with the quality of the resultant image?

On the other side, how often have you judged someone else for doing something that they aren’t good at? I offer this question without meaning to attack you because I do this myself - and I have less excuse than anyone considering what I do for a living. Have you ever laughed at someone’s armature poetry or mocked someone for their mediocre dancing? If so, this is the Performance Paradigm at work, limiting others just as it limits you.

The Performance Paradigm is so overwhelmingly powerful that it causes us to avoid activities that may be good for us in order to not be seen to do anything we aren’t good at, and to cheat in training because we have learned to value the appearance of high performance over real learning. It’s obvious that this is not a state of affairs we can allow to continue.

Whether at work or in your personal life I would urge you to look at and consider your language and your actions and ask if you are applying the Performance Paradigm inappropriately, and in ways that may be limiting to yourself and to others. As they say in improv - everything is an offer. Be open to them.


Grrrr. Talent.

OK, so this is going to be one of those nitpicking ones that maybe you won't think is that big of a deal but, damnit, language matters.

I'm about 20 weeks away from becoming a farther and one of the things I have promised myself I will never do to my child is call him or her "talented". Why? Well, think about what talent is.

Definitions of talent vary but pretty much all of them come down to this: a natural ability or aptitude, especially without being taught. A synonym for talented is gifted.

Now, I don't have any problem with accepting that a large part of what makes a person successful is down to luck. In fact I think the world would be a better place if we accepted this and acted with a little more humility. But that isn't what we think when we call someone talented. When we call someone talented we are praising them for what they are, not what they choose or how they act. We are valuing people for their luck rather than their judgement.

Talent is what you get for free. It's the hand you're dealt. But how you play the game is up to you. Yet we insist on focusing on the part that's just dumb luck. In fact, this goes along with our obsession with naturally talented types and child prodigies. The heroic narrative of the man (usually it's a man) born to greatness, chosen by fate.

Fuck fate.

And I say this as a man who was once a child whom many would call talented. I was a smart kid. And, honestly, I don't think it did me much good. Had I been a less smart kid I might have learned a little more grittiness, maybe I'd have more of it now. If I had to choose between having a super smart kid who glides through school and a kid who has to struggle a bit to get the grades, I'd choose the latter. Because learning how to struggle and choosing to do so is part of what makes someone capable of great things.

Many of my clients work in Talent Development and I have puzzled for a while about what we should call this instead. English doesn't seem to have a word that means earned abilities that would fit into this phrase. Skill Development seems to specific; most would read it as developing a specific skill rather than developing skill in general. Capacity Development? Sounds like you're building an extension on the office.

If you can think of a word, then I would love to hear it. But in the meantime, when you find yourself wanting to talk about talent, pause and instead talk about what you're really talking about. Talk about the struggle, the thousands of hours of work, the gritty, never say die attitude that matters way more than talent.

And praise your kids for what they do, not just for what they happen to be good at.

Design Thinking with Snakes and Ladders

There's a proper case study in the works for this and a couple of my other TCS workshops so I won't go on too long about it, but I just couldn't wait to share my thoughts on Design Thinking with Snakes and Ladders. 

Snakes and Ladders designed for someone who's all about the aesthetics. 

Snakes and Ladders designed for someone who's all about the aesthetics. 

I love play and games. They form the centre of all of my best work. And there are many reasons why this is so. But one of the elements of what makes up a game is the relative simplicity of it. You can analyse and break down a game easily and then muck about with it to see what changes. Above we have a game of Snakes and Ladders wherein the fundamental play elements have remained the same but the board has been reimagined to appeal to someone who wishes to own a beautiful object. 


Snakes and Ladders for brainiacs. 

Snakes and Ladders for brainiacs. 

Alternatively we can alter some of the operational rules of the game to make it appeal to people who want a mental challenge. 

What matters here is not the game itself but understanding two things: 

  1. Design has to speak about intention - who you are serving is key.
  2. You can alter some elements of a design without needing to alter them all. 

Consider this one. 

Bigger isn't just bigger. It's a different play experience. 

Bigger isn't just bigger. It's a different play experience. 

In this version, while there are added elements of the physical challenges on the Do or Die squares, the biggest change to the experience doesn't require any fundamentally new ideas - it's just doing the same thing but larger. 

From this we can see that we can keep the fundamental elements of a game the same and just alter the operational and cultural rules and in doing we change the play experience without having to change the logic of the activity. 

If all this seems a little esoteric then consider this: it isn't only play and games which we can do this to. We just have to see that in life everything is made up of constitutive or fundamental rules, operational or interactive rules, and cultural or explicit rules. 

Once you're thinking this way you can start to redesign anything with a discreet focus on different parts of the system. This is especially useful when thinking about digital experiences where you can really package up and separate out the different layers. 

Plans are in place to recreate this workshop with TCS with some tasty little upgrades along the way. If you're interested to know more, pop me over an email to aran@sabretoothpanda.com. 

Through the Crappy Valley: Doubling Down on Dumb

Consider this little factoid.

@qikipedia: After WWII, the US thought about dropping enormous condoms labelled ‘Medium’ onto the Soviet Union.

It seems that after WWII the USA believed, if only briefly, that we could demoralise the Soviets by making them believe that American men were hung like donkeys. A fascinating thought. But maybe your reaction to this idea is more derision than delight.

The usual reactions to this kind of thing will range from chuckling at the boys club nonsense to perhaps some irritation that the serious world of combat and war was sullied by such silliness. But what I see is one of the best tactics for navigating the Crappy Valley.


The Crappy Valley is that place just after you run out of ordinary, obvious ideas. You've plateaued and no new ideas are coming. And then you begin the descent. Inexperienced idea explorers will turn back, seeing only a barren land ahead. But those who've travelled this path before will tell you that beyond the Crappy Valley lies the Peak of Awesome; the place of truly great ideas.

The problem is the Crappy Valley. You can't just stroll through it. It's a place that tests us all and many of us become so lost that turning back is our only hope. But not the chaps (it must have been chaps) who came up with the massive johnnies.

There are a number of techniques for getting through the Crappy Valley but one of the most fun is simply having fun or Doubling Down on Dumb as I like to call it. The Crappy Valley messes with your sense of direction, making it hard to know where good ideas are hiding. So why worry about having good ideas?

Dumb ideas are, in the Crappy Valley, like flares that illuminate the path ahead. Celebrate them. Revel in them. Be silly. Be funny. Be dumb.

For more on how to navigate the Crappy Valley, get in touch.