Broken Bollards: Piecing Together The Picture

Five Years

It’s all of five years since I wrote A Bigger Block of Concrete (PDF).

In it I described the organisational learning and systemic insights I’d gleaned from the closure to vehicles of a road near my home and the subsequent, ongoing damage to the wooden bollards that block the way. I had stumbled inelegantly through several misguided theories, before eventually realising what was truly going on, the root cause, and a possible long-term fix that would work better than simply re-seating the bollards in bigger and bigger blocks of concrete, as my local council was doing.


After writing my article and sharing it with the people at the council, my suggested solution was partially implemented. Some bollards were repositioned; so that vehicles hit the curb first and had a chance to avoid knocking the bollards out of the ground. But not all of them were moved, and those that were not continue to be damaged, as you can see. In fact, if I’m honest, even some of the re-sited bollards get damaged. So there’s plenty of room for improvement in my solution.

Another turn around the PDSA cycle anyone?

Not Learning Still

And that’s why I’m writing about the bollards again. Two things have been on my mind, whenever I see them.

First, I note that no new efforts have been made by the council to come up with an effective solution to the bollards problem. It’s my impression that the gaps between ‘fixes’ is longer than ever, no doubt because of financial constraints. Nowadays they waste money less frequently, but they still waste it nevertheless. For whenever they return, they put the bollards back in the same place with a bigger block of concrete, rather than experiment with alternative positions or other possibilities. Whatever the state of the economy and the financial situation, I am forced to conclude that nobody’s learning still. The losses continue to mount.

It’s Not About Bollards

Which brings me to my second reason for bringing this up again; my story is not about broken bollards. They are a symptom. It’s a story about systems, seeing the whole picture and designing for the ‘use system’, and about organisational learning, in this instance, developing the capability to recognise failure and turn it off.

I have told my story to different audiences, and been told tales by those who have passed my article on to others, and it won’t surprise you to hear that many people who hear about this road closure get what I’m on about. But not everyone. Some clearly think I’m banging on about trivialities. As I overheard one manager explain to his colleague, during the break at a CIPFA event at which I had spoken, ‘No doubt it’s not a priority for them at the current time.’ He meant the managers at my council who are responsible for this kind of thing. For them, an issue like this isn’t the most pressing one they face.  They have bigger problems.

And that’s clearly right, it’s not a priority. All the years that I’ve watched successive repairs fail and more money disappear down the pan, not to mention the other losses I mention in the article, it’s impossible to conclude anything else. Seeing the whole picture, getting out of the office when that’s what it takes, recognising failure, working together across specialisms and teams to identify root causes, experimenting with solutions, continually improving, continually learning, and designing better for next time. It’s quite clear that none of this is a priority for these particular managers at my local council.

Mind you, that’s not what the guy at the CIPFA event was saying. He meant broken street furniture isn’t a priority. But then I guess he thought I was just talking bollards. He was wrong.

I first read Barry Oshry’s book, Seeing Systems, many years ago now. I was still a relatively young manager and found myself going through the depths of what I now call an ‘it shouldn’t be that way’ phase.

Shouldn’t Be That Way

At that time, almost everything anybody did around me seemed without merit. None of it made sense. We did the same dumb things year after year, experienced the same problems, and simply redoubled our efforts in response; as if energy and commitment was the only permissable response. It felt awful. And whilst many of my colleagues could be friendly, it was quite clear that turf-wars and behaving badly was considered the best way to navigate managerial waters and make a career. Open dialogue and inquiry leading to greater mutual understanding and recognition of new possibilities was virtually non-existent.

It took Barry Oshry’s book, among others, to affirm what my daily experience led me to suspect was just naive wishful thinking. Namely that, actually, it needn’t be that way at all. So much of what was going on around me, the poor performance, bad behaviour, and ongoing failure to learn was not how it had to be. There are better, healthier alternatives for organisations and those labouring within them.

Suffice to say, this ‘it needn’t be that way’ phase is a far healthier and productive place to find oneself in.

Problem Colleague

Back then, however, as I worked my way through those dark times, I came close to becoming a problem person in my organisation. A village idiot. Someone lacking all common sense. Someone who clearly doesn’t get it. This was the time when I first met Charlotte, with whom I now run NET2.

We both worked in the same organisation and found ourselves parts of a working group charged with leading the development of a new multi-agency, city-wide strategy. In the group, I frequently found myself asking difficult questions and picking away at the logic of suggestions. I was trying, to the best of my ability, to focus people on questions of purpose; not just what should we do, but why precisely. I fear that I wasn’t all that good at it and my clumsy efforts were viewed very negatively. Certainly, years later, when our paths crossed again, one of the first things Charlotte said to me was, ‘I get it now, what you were doing. At the time, I just thought you were being awkward.’ Indeed.

And here’s the thing, even during my worst moments, I never wanted to be awkward. No matter how angry and dissillusioned I felt, I wanted to do the right thing and, naturally, do it well. I’m sure everyone else felt pretty much the same way. It’s just that I didn’t agree with them on what the right thing would be. That’s why, when I read Seeing Systems, Oshry’s insights made real sense.

One story in particular has stayed with me. You’ll see why.

Immigrant Martha Has a Breakdown

In Chapter 48, Oshry describes an incident from a residential workshop, called the Power Lab. A group of people, Immigrants, at the bottom of the hierarchy in the simulation exercise, were discussing the sequence of events in the run up to one of their number, Martha, having a very public emotional meltdown then becoming ‘apathetic, listless and depressed’. Skilfully, with artful facilitation, members of the group were taken through an analysis, step by step, of each decision they had collectively made in relation to the issue that ultimately left Martha in such a bad place. Decision by decision, members of the group were invited to say where they had stood, what they had thought was the best course of action and how strongly they had felt that way. Time after time the group had been pretty much evenly split, with varying degrees of strength of opinion. Certainly, no one person was isolated in their viewpoint. Until, all of a sudden, at Decision 8, it became clear that everyone except Martha had wanted to pursue one particular path; cooperation with those at the top of the hierarchy. That had been the end for Martha. She’d totally disagreed. And from that point on she’d been out of step. She’d tried to make her points, but no one was listening anymore. It wasn’t long before she’d blown up, then withdrawn.

Oshry describes how this process of systematic reflection and the sequence of events it revealed unleashed ‘an explosion of energy’ in the room. Martha came back to life. The outcome of all those decisions hadn’t changed. She’d still lost. ‘All that had happened,’ Oshry writes, ‘was “seeing”. But what a difference this “seeing” made.’ Everyone who had watched the deliberations, not only the Immigrants, experienced a similar shift in their energy. Something had happened that happens all too infrequently. It was, as Oshry puts it:

A “mutant moment” that illuminates a new possibility in which each of us “swimmers” sees the Swim itself and how the nature of the Swim has shaped our consciousness.”

And as one of her colleagues noted, one of her fiercest critics as events had unfolded, any single one of them could have ended up in Martha’s shoes. Experienced as, and openly labelled, a problem. For me, reading it all those years ago, in the midst of my workplace struggles, this story made a huge impression. I longed for such a ‘mutant moment’. Sadly, it was not to be.

Learning to See

Now, many years later, I’m looking forward to taking part later this month in Oshry’s Organisation Workshop, run by John Watters, here in my home city of York. (Find out more here, if you’re interested.) I wonder what possiblities it will reveal for all involved. And I look forward to taking the lessons and applying them out in the world to usher in more mutant moments that unlock understanding and energy in equal measure. Because, no matter how bad it gets, I know for sure, it needn’t be that way.

[You can read extracts from the relevant chapter in Seeing Systems here including, on pages 169-171, the process Oshry used to unlock the “seeing” he describes.]


All I did was swap the contents. How hard could it be to get used to a change like that?

It’s well over a month since I moved the contents of the cutlery drawer at home. The old one had suffered years of wear and tear and didn’t slide too well, so it made sense to shift the burden to the next drawer along. Get a few more years out of the kitchen units. Save some money.

Horrors. Time and again we mistakenly open the old drawer, cursing as we realise all over again that it’s not in that one anymore. It’s changed. How frustrating. We feel stupid, as our brains singularly fail to learn the new way.

And even though everyone in my family understands and accepts the logic behind my, oh so rational, improvement, it is bemoaned universally. They would happily go back to the old, familiar way. No matter the consequences. It wasn’t that bad, they tell me. It was good enough and we can cope with the eventual repair or renewal costs.

Tough nut to crack, the force of habit. And I only changed the cutlery drawer.

I was clearing out and came across a piece of paper on which I had scrawled these questions. I can’t remember why. It doesn’t really matter. I thought I’d share them here because I’d love to hear any answers. Better still, do they bring other questions to mind…

  • Who designed the system?
  • Why does the prevailing style of management prevail?
  • Where do assumptions come from?
  • Why did Peter Senge write the Fifth Discipline?
  • How do you recognise a learning organisation?
  • What’s the difference between continual improvement and innovation?
  • Analysing customer demand into a system teaches what matters in their eyes, what ‘value’ looks like and what’s likely ‘waste’, but what to do when there is no demand to study?
  • How do you know that you’re working on the whole system?
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