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Supporting organisations to bridge the gap between strategy and action at moments of change, making sense and shaping conversations with Big Pictures.


Enhancing positive human factors; a common thread between K.M. and O.D.?

julian burton

The Henley Forum; Building Connections workshop 27th June  2017

We were at the Henley Forum recently for a workshop on building connections, and got to share some thinking on relational leadership and the importance of relationship building in Organisational Development (O.D.). Two of the other presentations on the day we liked explained how certain human factors constrain knowledge flow and the concept of networking mapping. Factors such as silo mentality, stress, fatigue, politeness, fear, positional power, social norms and emotional risks can often constrain people sharing ideas and knowledge, and this really resonated with our experience doing O.D. with clients. It's interesting to explore the connections between the Knowledge Management(K.M.) and O.D. fields, and what links these two different ways of looking at organisations.


K.M. could look different framed from an O.D. perspective, by thinking about knowledge as a process of knowing or knowledge creation as having conversations, rather than as objects of information to be transferred or stored. Given that enabling positive human factors is critical to effective knowledge sharing, and organisational functioning in general, looking at it from a more human-focused perspective could be fruitful. Shifting metaphors can be a good place to start. Extracting, capturing, retrieving and storing knowledge are good terms for understanding how computers work with information, but are they useful for working productively with the richness of human experience and relationships?

Knowledge sharing can’t always be controlled or contained: it has a life of its own. In the same way, as soon as someone tries to control a conversation, it deadens the interaction and we can lose energy, motivation and sometimes even the will to live! What we know is always changing and evolving.  It can be a messy yet deeply human process. 

Knowledge that is created in, emerges from, flows between and existed in the space between people is something that is easily extracted, particularly if someone is afraid to share something. Knowledge is something that lives in and between us, in the ways we come to know things and how we share what we know is a wonderfully human, natural, spontaneous and unpredictable process. When you are doing a new K.M. project we suggest you broaden it by starting with the daily human realities we work in, and how we experience knowledge sharing, and what factors get in their way. 

Giving more attention to the positive human factors and behaviours that build relationships would enable a more natural and effective flow of knowledge throughout an organisation. We think that by investing more in people and supporting them to learn relational skills you could significantly enhance your investment in the K.M. tools you already have in place.

Discretionary Effort: a DIY Guide

Elinor Rebeiro

A key point of discretionary effort is that by definition it is discretionary. As a leader you can't demand it - you have to earn it. As soon as you set it as a goal you are essentially expecting people to work for free. 

According to Engage for Success "Employee engagement cannot be achieved by a mechanistic approach which tries to extract discretionary effort by manipulating employees’ commitment and emotions. Employees see through such attempts very quickly and can become cynical and disillusioned."

The question becomes why do people sometimes choose to give more of themselves than is asked for in their job description? It is about care and the relationship they have with the people they work for and work with. 

From a management perspective it is clear that the challenges in the world are requiring organisations to respond in a different way; that managers can't succeed without employee discretionary effort. The danger is that as soon as you identify discretionary effort as essential you have to consider what the implications of this are when heard by employees. 

The answer is care and relationships. How we take care of each other, how we relate to those people who we spend more time with than our own families will always impact the level of commitment and care you will receive back. This can be the only motivation -  otherwise the care becomes false and people will see through that very quickly. 

The most amazing example of discretionary effort I have witnessed is within our wonderful (and under cared for) National Health Service. Staff choosing not to go home until they can find a bed for their patients. Preparing food and drinks for them and caring for them in ways that are not asked for or expected. And the reason they do this? Their conscience won't let them do anything else. With the challenges of resourcing and capacity issues facing the NHS it is this quality of care that keeps it functioning. 

My experience

When I first became a manager I was young - a lot younger than some of those I was managing. I had a steep learning curve ahead of me and I failed - a lot - until I realised that I had to earn their respect, trust and care. I tried often to short circuit the process; find a quick way to get people to follow me, manipulate them, guilt them into staying later. I always thanked them for their effort, but that really wasn't enough.

I remember one phrase I used a lot when I was talking about work was 'They don't need to like me. I don't need friends, I need employees that do their job.' I was honestly kidding myself. This was my defence when I had to be tough, but what I realised was that actually they did have to like me and I had to like them, but more than that: we had to care for each other. This was the first time we functioned well as a team, we had each other's backs and we did what needed to be done for each other. I stopped having to think about asking for more because we all gave more where we could and they saw me doing it as well. We were in it together and that's what made it work. My new phrase when I thought about work was 'don't ask others to do something you aren't prepared to do yourself.'

The Comfort Zone Conspiracy

paul stroud

Reactive behaviour ingrained within organisations and the problems it can lead to is a recurring theme in our work. We’ve seen a number of instances where troubled projects are held together by a few heroic workers who use their experience and know-how to fashion workaround solutions, much to the relief and gratitude of their flummoxed colleagues. They save the day. Then do it again the day after that, and soon it becomes the norm.

This approach can be very wasteful but there may be vested interests in maintaining the status quo. Averting regular crises gives the rescuer a sense of recognition and security, as they showcase their talents and demonstrate how essential they are to the team’s success. This is their exclusive comfort zone; the rest of the team prefer to stay in their own ones away from the drama, relieved that someone else is dealing with the mess again.

Neither party has the time or inclination to tackle the root causes, even though the results might benefit everyone.

Can talents be put to better use preventing crises from happening in the first place? What would it take to let go of habitual roles and embrace the possibilities of new ones, to break the comfort zone conspiracy and work more proactively as a team?

A Rich Picture doesn't always give you the Big Picture

Chris Hayes

In our experience there is a common misconception that rich pictures are effective in shifting cultures or behaviours when created to transmit information.

Visualising a strategy and sticking it on a wall or a mouse mat does not lead to people changing the way they work.

We believe that the best way to engage with employees is for Leadership to co-create a Big Picture with them, allow them to make sense of what the change means for them in dialogue and listen to what the have to say.

Change doesn’t come from telling people with a better piece of paper.

Why do some leaders struggle with the idea of self-organisation?

julian burton


I was at an ODNE conversation this Monday and one subject that came up was about what self-organising meant. We reflected that it can be hard to get a grip on what this word means, let alone work out how to advise leaders how they can create its enabling conditions. I have an insatiable curiosity, so consulted the oracle; Wikipedia!

Self-organisation is a process where some form of overall order or coordination arises out of the local interactions between smaller component parts of an initially disordered system. The process of self-organisation can be spontaneous, and it is not necessarily controlled by any auxiliary agent outside of the system.

And the dictionary; the spontaneous appearance of orderly structure and coherent pattern.

So to apply these definitions to the conversation itself that we had that day, self-organisation meant that the relationships and conversations in that very room were organise themselves without any one person being in control, within reason. Within the simplest of liberating structures, the group decides what to do, when to do it and how, without any external direction. No one person dominates the group by closing down others' honest opinions. I don't think we had any conflict that day, but if there were any, I would hope that we would have courageously surfaced it as a source of diversity and not avoided it. And that is the really hard stuff.

Together, without planning, we enabled the sort of spontaneous and improvised conversation in which new, shared meaning was being created and relationships nurtured; i.e. organised coherently. I suggest that the new order, or gestalt that we created felt energising and motivating. We had co-created new, more coherent and satisfying patterns of experience, relationship and knowledge, all in the space of 3 hours! 

So the learning for me is that, when I struggle to understand a highly abstract term such as self-organisation, I need to drop down into my felt experience and sense what are the qualities of conversation I'm living in. If I feel more alive and connected and inspired in that moment, its probably because others are feeling the same. And in the midst of our self-organising, we are typically not aware that we are, our attention being on the content of the conversation.

If you were at the same meeting as me, what did you experience? How does my description land with you? How could we learn together more about self-organisation in the next meeting?

BTW, this painting was first shown at the Art of Complexity exhibition at the LSE in 2003! Thanks Eve for hosting it x

Who are you really doing it for?

paul stroud


Employee engagement initiatives can often be motivated by a desire to increase performance. The hope is that staff will reciprocate the care shown to them and want to commit to going the extra mile. 

However, a desire for increased discretionary effort to improve performance can seem self-serving to staff and undermine any genuine care for their wellbeing. This can result in cynicism and distrust, the expectation of more discretionary effort becoming a contradiction in terms. If a gesture of care and commitment from the leadership is perceived by staff as fake, the impact on trust and goodwill may be quite counterproductive, increasing the likelihood of disengagement that could lead to a lowering of performance. 

So, before starting an engagement or change activity, ask yourself: who are you really doing it for?

ODNE SE region gathering report - HSBC Canary Wharf 13th June 2016

julian burton

We had a great discussion a few weeks ago at HSBC, in Canary Wharf [thanks to Tanya for hosting].

We began by sharing what was on our minds, what we brought to the space. The forthcoming EU vote came up, and how we each had different uncertainties about it. Which now have probably morphed into new ones given all that is happening!

We decided not to have one person hold the space and facilitate, which was really fruitful as by the end we had such informal, creative and stimulating conversations, it seemed to me we'd created an unstructured container that had some of the conditions for emergence, given how relaxed and engaged we seemed to feel. We then acknowledged that we were experiencing, in this meeting, having some breathing space, some time to think, share and connect. This felt to me like the wellspring of energy, creativity and connection so central to keeping our OD practice fresh, alive and moving forward. Someone mentioned that often conversations at work can be flat and lifeless and what we can do to bring energy back into a work meeting.

We shared stories of recent OD practice and experiences at work, and explored a few personal experiences and possible resolutions. We reflected on what was still resonating from the recent ONDE conference. We briefly explored what we each thought “generative image” meant, and how we could find a way to bring this idea to life and actually create ones that could catalyse community forming conversations. This subject could certainly do with a whole day for exploration!

We wondered upon the root causes of OD challenges and successes; is it quality of relationships? 

We thought it often seems to come down to the simple stuff; being together, listening and respecting, practising being present etc. Someone remarked that experiences we have in interactions emerge in the space between us, and neither party can control a two-way conversation.  Gervase Bushe’s concept of Interpersonal Mush [] was mentioned as a useful tool to help us untangle how people make up stories about each other which can get in the way of team performance.

This led to a brief conversation about a central paradox in O.D. On the one had we are individuals with free will, making our own choices acting autonomously from sense of personal identity. And yet on the other hand, if we are co-constructing our experiences together, and if we are socially constructing our realities together, we can seem not to be independent discrete individuals, more like selves-in-relationship. If conversations and human relationships are at the heart of OD work, then how we show up will influence client outcomes. Yet there are  many levels to conversations, and trying to work out cause and effect is nearly impossible. This ended with the idea that depending on how we experience ourselves and each other, we can affect how we treat each other. This would be great to explore further.

Community building was explored: we discussed how we experienced our gathering, and how was it an example of community. We reflected that we were sharing experiences and learning informally. The work of Marshall Ganz was mentioned [he successfully organized the grassroots community campaigns that Obama elected in 2008- a good example of his thinking here []. Peter Block's work on community organizing called the Structure of Belonging was also mentioned. And there were some thoughts about how we could bring these ideas to life and grow our own ODNE community.

The next SE gathering will be on 26th September in central London, drop me a note or give me a call if you would like to join us.

Warm regards

Julian Burton - 077 9000 7560



another way...

Chris Hayes

This is a metaphor that came up recently in one of our projects during an employee input session.  The conversation highlighted their frustration at not having time to stop and consider whether the way they were doing things was necessarily the best.

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn't.”-A.A. Milne

With the pressures of a working environment it can be hard to find time to take stock of how we do things, something that can appear to be counter intuitive. However this ends up trapping us in a vicious cycle where nothing changes despite our full knowledge of the situation.  It can take a deliberate intervention to recognise the value of stopping and reflecting on what's going on.