tumble weedIn this article, I want to explore one of the most fundamental aspects of our universe – entropy. Entropy can be described in equation form:


But please stay with me, because I am more interested in the everyday understanding of the term, sometimes defined as:

“…a measure of disorder in the universe…”

In physics, the Law of Entropy essentially says that all systems, if left unattended, will run down. Unless new energy is supplied, every organism deteriorates. Things tend towards the lowest energy state – iron rusts, organic material rots, the pile of leaves in the garden (that you have so carefully raked together) redistributes itself widely, offices and homes become more and more untidy… unless energy is committed to maintaining or ‘improving’ the status quo.

So what has this got to do with you? Well, if you look at the concept in a different way, the same law applies to individuals and both personal and professional relationships.

How many of us have friends or colleagues who just seem to have drifted off our ‘live’ circle? Unless we put some effort into the important relationships in our life they will inevitable decay, sometimes terminally.

Likewise, unless I put effort into myself I will end up drifting along being buffeted like that tumbleweed in the old Western films. Albert Schweitzer once wrote that some people “harm their souls… without being exposed to great temptations. They simply let their souls wither, not realising that thoughts which meant a great deal to them in their youth, have turned into meaningless sounds.”

My challenge today is to spend some time thinking about, and then acting upon, how you are going to nourish yourself and those you hold to be important to you. Maybe, as a start, you could construct a relationship map. Relationship mapping is a way of pictorially representing the key elements and issues in your team:

  • Write your name in a circle at the centre of the page
  • Also circle the names of your team members, your boss(es), colleague(s), key external contact(s) and other individuals with whom you have regular contact
    • Put arrows to and from each individually, and indicate:
    • the current strength of the relationship with the thickness of the line
    • the importance (to you and your role) of the relationship with the length of the line
    • what you need from them and what they need from you in brief bullet points next to each arrow
  • You may wish to use other colours/symbols to represent other aspects of the relationship.
  • You might also want to highlight any relationships between the others on the map.


Remember that if YOU want something out of a relationship, then it is up to YOU to do something about it – otherwise it will wither and die.

Who am I?

Who am I?
The search for enlightenment

The simple answer might be ‘Geoff Roberts’, but that is just a name. There are plenty of other Geoff Roberts’ in the world and even plenty of Geoffrey Malcolm Roberts’ – there you go, did you know my middle name or even that I had one? Yes, the name is somehow part of who I am, and I will happily answer to Big G, Big Geoff or in my early schooldays Kangaroo Kid (I could put together a mean long or high jump in primary school).

‘Who am I?’ prompts a somewhat deeper search for identity. A cook, a son, a husband, a stepfather, and brother, a facilitator, a writer and many more to greater or lesser levels of accomplishment. These too are part of who I am, yet really they are things that I do. Yes, the fact that I choose to do (most of) then gives insight but ultimately I may choose not to do any of them and yet I still exist. They are no more me than that name.

Being somewhat antipathetic to religions of any sort I cannot fall back on “A child of God” or whatever label followers adopt. Nor does atheism, especially the radical Richard Dawkins variety, offer much hope; indeed the question itself might be ruled out of order in favour of a more prosaic ‘What am I?’ – a collection of chemicals that somehow randomly came together in the past and found a way to propagate themselves into the future.

So, if not my actions or my beliefs, then am I my thoughts? I hope not. Who can deny at least occasionally having the odd inappropriate thought pop into consciousness, only to be promptly quashed by that internal editor who functions inside our heads? Maybe I am that editor? The usually invisible and occasionally conscious process that guides which thoughts persist into action, which generate ongoing thoughts and which are stopped in their very emergence. This is a guide who steers me towards what has previously been found to be effective, safe etc., which sometimes enables my mind and my body to experiment and which occasionally just says STOP!

This is a moral filter at work – ‘Thou shalt not kill, paedophilia is wrong, respect other people’s property…’ And it is also a practical, life serving one – don’t jump off things without a rope or a parachute, don’t slit your wrists just to experience the feeling of oxygen deprivation…

Of course all of this is learned – babies are fearless, we learn our moral code from our role models and those role models can just as easily be bad as good. What matters to us changes with life experiences.

So, who am I? Surely I am more than a collection of neurons.

Systemic Coaching

Systemic CoachingAt the September EMCC meeting I was part of a small group discussing ‘systemic coaching’. The three of us discussing the topic were really trying to find out what it was all about and this note is my own brief summary of John Whittington’s book “Systemic coaching and constellations” which prompted the enquiry.

The basic proposition is that when coaching an individual the coach needs to explicitly recognise that their client sits within a broader system of relationships and that by coaching the clients we are essentially coaching the system. He goes beyond that to suggest that the coach themselves now becomes part of that system and needs to be hyper-vigilant about their own behaviour and responses.

Extending the idea, he suggests that any individual’s position in the system might be described on the basis of the three criteria – Time, Place and Exchange. Time indicating the actual, or perhaps perceptual, time for which the individual has been part of the system. Place indicating not just the hierarchical position in the system but also the location in the shadow organisation (although he does not talk about shadow organisations specifically – I have interpreted Whittington’s comment on the basis of my understanding of Ed Schein’s concepts). Finally, Exchange relates to what the various players in the system give to and/or take from each other.

His idea of ‘constellations’ is to actively and physically map out these relationships within a system and to have the client explore the implications of changes in those relationships and how those changes might be stimulated. He suggests using physical objects (which of course he can sell you) to represent the players or spatially mapping them on the floor of a room using pieces of paper with individual’s names on them.

The rest of the book goes on to describe a series of case studies and possible approaches to issues or incongruities appearing within the system map.

It is probably worth a read, although for me what I think he was doing with systematising some existing ideas in my current practice. For instance he is fairly explicit in comparing his approach to that of perceptual positions typically associated with NLP. Likewise when he suggests exploring where each individual’s focus of attention is directed, I am reminded of issues to do with personal, team or organisational objectives – not least the implications of that orientation in terms of organisational politics.

It would be interesting to know what other coaches, perhaps particularly those who recognise or use this explicit methodology, have to say.

Straggly lavender

change leadershipThey greeted us as we first drove in. Two stands of straggly lavender, woody from the ground for the first 45 cm and crowned by a barely adequate display of silver grey leaves and fragrant flowers. What had gone wrong? This, here in the south-west of France, is ideal climate for lavender yet these specimens have been allowed (there is a clue) to deteriorate almost beyond repair. With careful and prolonged attention they could be regenerated back to their youthful flush – all they needed was to carefully prune a third of the wood almost to the ground for each of the next three years and to nurture and cultivate them. I was reminded of one of the metaphors I use in my work as a change agent.

I often suggest that change is quite a lot like gardening, indeed the first name I ever had for the work I do was the Freemind Gardening Institute. As a gardener, you acquire a patch of ground (an organisation?) often not knowing the ground conditions and how variable they are (culture?); as you explore you discover a range, sometimes wide and sometimes narrow, of plants (employees?) which may or may not be suited to the conditions in which they are placed (recruitment and retention?) and which may or may not have been looked after properly in the past (training, development, appraisal?). You find that even though this is quite a large garden, there are no instructions for cultivation (business processes?). Or perhaps you wonder why that rambling, weedy-looking almost uncontrolled rambling meadow-like patch in the corner (research and development?) is important, indeed actually vital to the future of the whole garden. And here are you, the new gardener (change agent) who can see things that the previous managers and leaders could not; who can ask questions about the structure and planting that would not have occurred to the previous occupants because they just liked things as they were or had neither the skills nor the energy to change. Your new man can challenge the very assumptions that underpin how you go about your organisational work (“I know that you think you can’t grow rhododendrons in your soil, but did you know that there are now varieties that thrive in neutral and even alkaline soils?”) and by challenging those assumptions can open up new possibilities.

Your gardener knows that sometimes it is necessary to remove dead wood, or even the whole plant, in order to create the space and conditions for new growth. He knows that there are many ways to create a riot of colour, some of which are quicker than others, yet potentially more expensive in the long-term. He knows that sometimes you just have to try things out to see if, or how, they will work (you run pilot programs) and that not all of them will work. He knows that the first flush of spring and the glorious summer (quick wins) will deteriorate into a brown, wet, dark, dreary autumn and winter unless the overall plan includes (new initiatives) autumn colour, winter and early spring bulbs and flowers to carry the enthusiasm through until the next green shoots appear. He knows what to fertilise, with what and when. And he can advise on whether to strip the existing garden to the ground and start again (administration/closure and corporate re-birth).

So, any organisational change is a process that is both subtle and brutal when necessary, that follows a path almost inevitably strewn with failed experiments en route to a final destination that may be somewhat different to that first envisaged, that needs constant and dedicated attention not only to the business processes but to the people who design and run those processes and (I would say this wouldn’t I?) needs an external eye/brain/hand because even the best gardeners are constantly reading about their craft and visiting other gardeners to see what they can learn.lavender

The choice is yours – if you really want those lush green lavender patches flowering every year then you can spend three years renewing the existing plants or a few quid on new plants. Of course, the clever gardener can have both by using his old plants as a source of cuttings that will quickly grow into lush new lavender patches.

(P.S. I would love to come and have a look at your garden, or your organisation. Either give me a ring or e-mail me.)

Giving things up

calvin-hobbes-new-years-resolutionsA couple of days ago my wife called me into the kitchen. She had been rummaging around in one of the cupboards and found some paperwork and one or two other items that she thought were mine, and indeed they were. Not only were their mine but they had been in “Geoff’s Drawer”, situated immediately above the cupboard in which she found them. So full had this drawer becomes that a few items had overflowed and fallen into the cupboard below, only to be discovered some months later when my wife just happened to be rummaging around at the back of the cupboard.

Is your life, your office, your brain a bit like this? So full of stuff and ideas and projects and ‘must dos’ that some of them get overlooked for a very long time. Mine certainly is.

Well this is a time of year when we typically start to think about what we are going to do new or differently next year – those New Year’s resolutions. Whether or not the New Year is a good time to make such resolutions is perhaps the subject of another blog, but assuming that we make them at some time or another there is another aspect to which we might pay attention. What am I going to give up?

It is a bit like that a full drawer, only when I have a good clear out and throw away some stuff  do I really appreciate what is important to retain. Similarly, creating change typically involves stopping doing things as well as starting new things.

So here is a suggestion, when you make your new years resolutions how about making one of them that you will stop doing something, that way you will create space in your brain for whatever it is you want to start doing.

The immovable object and the resistible force

In the second of my pieces on guiding principles for delivering effective change I want to talk, in a tangential way, about one aspect of how to handle resistance.

The one thing that is certain when you embark on a process of change is that you will meet resistance. Perhaps that ought to be two things of which are certain, because the other is that you cannot predict where, from whom or in what form that resistance will appear. But appear it will and you must address it. The point of this particular piece is one way of addressing it – not that  this is only one way, indeed there are several other tools that you will need to use. This tool is particularly useful in the early stages of the change efforts.

So, many moons ago I completed my masters degree in organisational change and my then boss asked me “What was the most significant thing that you have learned in two years of very expensive study?” My answer might seem somewhat glib, let me assure you it wasn’t and isn’t. The answer was “Do what you can, where you can, when you can”. And this is the second of my guiding principles for leading change effectively.

 Do what you can, where you can, when you can

When you get involved in change you will find some people who are really keen (the marketeers would call them early adopters), some who just sit and wait but will follow the crowd once they know which way the crowd is going ( I will call them ‘the herd’)and some who will actively or passively resist. My question to you is “Why would you want to spend time, especially at the beginning of a process, working with resistance when you could be creating change and generating enthusiasm by working with the early adopters?” As you work with early adopters they start to show the direction for the herd and slowly but surely the herd will follow. The contrary scenario is one in which your efforts are frustrated by and your energy sapped by resistors from whom the emerging messages to the herd are negative. All you do by working with resistors in the early stages is tire yourself out, build up more resistance and risk and entrenching yet further resistance in the herd.

So, perhaps my principle to do what you can, where you can, when you can is not so glib after all. I have likened the job of a change agents to lighting a series of small fires in an organisation. Sometimes the fire will take hold and it is those ones, especially in the initial stages, that you pay attention to, giving them whatever support they need to burn effectively whilst not becoming a wildfire. Some of your fires will just burble along, not dying out nor turning into wildfires – these you also support, looking for easy opportunities to help them along and maybe connect to different yet related places that are all part of the overall thrust of what you are trying to achieve. The ones you ignore are the fires that just flicker before dying out. Fire dies because it does not have enough fuel or enough oxygen, or enough people to supply it with fuel or oxygen. So let it die out until such time as you can find enough fuel enough oxygen (enough support and energy) to be able pay it some consistent attention.

To me this Principle –  “Do what you can, where you can, when you can” – is probably the most important principle in leading change. We only ever have a limited resource available so let’s make sure we commit our resource to areas in which we can make a short term difference, after all John P Kotter did talk about realising quick wins.


What stories could you share about how this division of effort, or perhaps lack of it, helped or hindered your change efforts?

There is no such thing as “Best Practice in Change Management”?

“ What is best practice in change management?”

This, and variations on the same theme seem to have appeared as questions in a surprisingly large number of the forums that I inhabit recently. And every time I read the answers with a falling heart.

Respondent A suggests the following six steps, Respondent B has a nine step process, Respondent C has a commercially secret process which they will sell you the several thousand pounds a day and so on… I can rarely resist the temptation, so I weigh in with my answer “There is no such thing as best practice in change management.”


Now I know that this is probably not what the questioner wanted to hear. Typically the questioner will be an enthusiastic, newly appointed change agent or middle manager who believes that you can manage change in the same way as you manage their process for producing widgets or appointing a new member of staff. I fear that most of these people are going to find out the hard way that change is more about leadership than management and that there is no such thing as a best practice process.


Now I am not denying – indeed far from it – that the likes of Kotter have a role to play, for indeed they do. But their role is to inform an emerging process which, if it is to be effective, also needs to be informed by the scale and scope of the change, the current and anticipated future culture of the organisation, the willingness of the participants, the capability of the change leaders and their teams and a host of other factors.

A recent piece by Alastair Dryburgh in Management Today reminded me that, in my experience, successful change rests upon adherence to some core principles rather than processes. His analogy, that if you cannot write an eight step process to guarantee winning a (deterministic) game of chess then how on earth can you write an eight step process to guarantee effective change in the much more complex and chaotic  human and physical environment of a corporation? Really illustrates the point.


The current reality of any organisation I have ever experienced is that they are a mess. Now admittedly some are more of a mess than others, but even the best tend to have a mess of policies that do not necessarily integrate with each other, an even more complex mess of procedures driven by those policies, an even more complicated mess of what actually happens in practice regardless of the procedures and policies and a way of working that has very little to do with the formal organisation charts so beloved of our colleagues in HR.

You don’t have to be involved in an organisation for very long to recognise that how things should work and how things do work are two different concepts. How things do work has typically evolved to get round the problems created by how things should work, and yet how often have I seen consultants trying to work with theory rather than reality? They are doomed to failure. So perhaps this is the first of my principles for leading effective change –

work with the current reality

I guess it is a bit like me setting off for London from where I live. In order for any map to be useful it needs to know where I am starting from. And that fact is not always easy to discover. If, in an attempt to understand the ‘As-Is’, you ask me what my postcode is you might reasonably assume that I live in Bradford. However if you asked me which city I live in I will tell you Leeds. So which map are you going to provide me with? In fact, because of the detail of where I happen to live, you will need to provide me with a much more detailed map than would be provided were I to set out from Leeds or Bradford. And always remember Korzybski’s compelling aphorism “A map is not the territory”.

So, in an attempt to keep this blog to a reasonable length, I will discuss some of my other guiding principles in subsequent entries. Meanwhile, what are the core principles that you use find a leading of facilitating change? I would love to know.

Change – management or what?

Chaneg ahead road sign

I was recently involved in a discussion about whether change can happen in organisations without the use of Change Management.

For me, the challenge of the phrase “Change Management” is an embedded belief that change CAN be managed. Yes, we may be able to manage the installation of some new piece of kit or software but when it comes to wetware that all changes because people are much less predictable (and more likely to bite back) than machinery.

To be sustainable, change needs to happen at the ‘right’ pace for the individuals (whoops, I nearly typed ‘people’) involved – push them too hard and you will end up going backwards to deal with resistance, move too slowly and you will lose followers’ enthusiasm. For this reason, any ‘change plan’ – and the existence of such a plan is implied by use of the term ‘management’ – is bound to fail.

I prefer to look at change as a strategic thrust – “This is probably where we need to get to, we will find out more along the way, do you want to go there, what can you do to help us get there?” Hold a Vision and then move as fast or slow as you can whilst keeping the people with you.

My metaphor is to light fires within the business. Some of the fires will catch, spread and maybe even attract others; some fires will die out and unless these are really critical areas (in which case keep stoking the fire in different ways until it catches) move on and find someone/somewhere more ‘productive.

One key piece of learning for me over the many years I have spent in change is to “do what you can, where you can, when you can”.

Finding that creative spark

creative spark between fingersI spent yesterday morning with a group of colleagues who are members of a Net2 group. The me, this group acts partly as networking but more significantly as an informal personal development network where I can share my expertise, have it challenged and add to it on the basis of the work and presentations that we do in the sessions. After yesterday’s meeting I commented to several people how pleasant it had been to share some time with like-minded individuals who operated in similar spheres and had a degree of intellectual and practical capability that offered me a challenge.

I really enjoy these meetings and found myself reflecting on the paradoxical nature of my attendance. On the one hand I have no doubt whatsoever that there is value in this group of like-minded people. The other hand suggests the value of diversity and the importance of exposing myself to new ideas and new people. So perhaps you to need to pay attention to both aspects of your learning. Perhaps you need to be challenged and challenge yourself within your domain of expertise as well as stimulating your creativity by exposing yourself to ideas and experiences that do not seem to be immediately relevant.

For those of us that operating in an essentially data rational world, it is the second aspect that might be particularly challenging. How might spending an afternoon in an art gallery or reading about the history of the Roman Empire or simply going for a walk along a beach help me design a better road, build a better sewage works or facilitate a meeting more effectively? The whole point is that we do not know. It is a simple fact that I often find interesting ideas popping into my head whilst I am doing these off-topic activities and it is received wisdom in creativity circles that both incubation and diversity of experience are important in generating creative ideas.

I guess another paradoxical aspect of the whole experience was that it boosted both my ego and my humility by helping me realise that not only am I rather capable but I also still have quite a lot to learn.

So, my challenge to you is, and this is perhaps especially relevant if you are in one of those are driven jobs or lifestyles where everything is planned and there is no time for anything new. Find creative ways to meet your peers (professional associations, networking groups etc) and also make time to do something that is out of the ordinary. Do both of these knowing that in some way, perhaps not known beforehand, both of them will add value to your life and help you do a better job.

Do let me know what you do and how it goes.

Hunter or Harvester?

harvester in field
I was having lunch with my great friend Andy Green recently and, after we had discussed the current state of the market for our work and our approaches to filling the larder, he observed “So, you are a harvester not a hunter?”.

I guess that I prefer to cultivate long-term relationships, look after existing customers very well and nurture new leads and ideas. The hunter is always on the lookout for new customers and then chases them hard, bending over backwards to meet their needs. They are both active but the former waits for the customer to need what they offer whereas the latter operates more like those wonderful people in The Rhubarb Triangle who force their product before having to plant it out to recover.

Harvesters need to be aware that they need to sow seeds, water and fertilise them, prune them if necessary in order to be able to take a harvest when the time is right; they need to be aware that only by saving part of this year’s crop can they reap another next year.

Hunters, on the other hand, need to move around to find new prey, to be constantly alert and energetic just in case a prey animal or a predator appears and they have to deal with it.

Time to think – what is your approach to getting what you want? Are you a hunter or a harvester? Does what you are doing serve you well? Will it continue to serve you inj the same way? Can you keep up the pace?