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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.


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.

Are we collaborating?

Chris Hayes

“Collaboration is the process of two or more people or organisations working together to realise shared goals.”

 But what does it take to truly collaborate?

We believe that it takes trust, empathy and balance for a whole team to be effective.  Collaboration needs self-awareness and an understanding of everyone's strengths and weaknesses, so that the achievement is that of the team, not just the individual.

The power of metaphor

julian burton

Creating new metaphors

The metaphors we use in our work help us to connect the  words we use  to the meanings we make of our experience. Metaphor in greek is “to transfer, or connect”. A good metaphor is a bridge of meaning, helping us to understanding one thing, or experience, in terms of another.  Metaphors can  influence, and sometimes limit, how we see and understand the world. Once created they can drop below our radar and become unconscious and habitual, implicit assumptions that influence our thinking and behaviour. When organisations are in crisis mode and under pressure to change, we often hear a cry of "we need to change mindsets!" Generating new metaphors can be one way of opening up new possibilities and give us new ways of seeing things.

I’ve been wondering a lot about the metaphors we use as  O.D. practitioners. For example, the metaphor Self-As-Instrument helps us to conceptualise our agency and impact in service of our clients. It has been an anchor point to help me learn to develop my skills and capabilities as O.D. practitioner. Learning to be more present, self-aware, empathic and better at deep listening when we work with others is central to my effectiveness and the value I bring to organisations.

I'm curious about how this metaphor affects me now. what kind of instrument am I? A spade? And microscope? A calculator? A scalpel?  A dictionary definition of instrument is something like "a mechanical implement for delicate and precise work”. I don’t normally feel like an instrument that does things to other people. My experience of the complexity and richness of face to face interactions gives me a sense that having impact or influence isn’t as simple or controllable as we are led to believe.

What could a new metaphor be? 

For me this metaphor could be reinforcing a transactional rather than a relational attitude; one of “doing-to” rather than “being-with”, which feels much more sensitive when working alongside clients. I get a sense that the underlying assumption of this metaphor defines people as things, and as discrete objects that can be “changed" in some transactional and intentional way, which is another implicit assumption worth shining a light on.

There is also a question for me of this metaphor about what it means to be a "Self". Am I an independent rational Self with control over my will and identity? Or am I inextricably bound up with and entangled with others and the relationships that formed me? It would be really interesting to explore these questions further and inhabit them as a way to help deepen our O.D. skills and capabilities. To inquire into how we see our selves and our effectiveness in more creative and less rational ways could be really useful.

What new metaphors or generative images could we create together to open up new possibilities and come to see ourselves and each other in new and more productive ways? If, as an O.D. practitioner, I shifted my thinking about my role as a “Self-As-Instrument”, what new ways of relating might I start to experience?

Thinking more systemically about new models of care

julian burton



Delta7 Visual Dialogue case study: a creative process that helped an NHS trust board to make sense of their wicked problems and think more systemically about how to deliver new models of care

The biggest challenge today for many leaders involves dealing with very complex, systemic problems and seemingly intractable dilemmas. It can feel overwhelming trying to balance multiple stakeholder groups, financial pressures, demand for quality improvement, raising safety standards and conflicting values, all at the same time. In short, they are confronted with what leadership professor Keith Grint calls a “wicked problem.” These are problems that are messy, have no one solution, occur when there is increasing uncertainty and a pressing need for wider collaboration.

Systemic wicked problems go beyond the capacity of any one person to understand and respond to, and there is often disagreement about the causes of the problems and the best way to tackle them. Wicked problems are also difficult to tackle effectively using traditional thinking i.e. that the best way to solve a problem is to follow an orderly and linear process, working from problem to solution. Resolving wicked problems requires changing the way we think, balancing overly rational approaches, using innovative ways of team working, trying new behaviours, time to step back from the chaos for richer sense-making and more authentic conversations.

To think systemically, beyond our local situation, we all need imagination to understand the other parts and connections of the wider system that we don’t experience directly,  that we may have an impact on and yet may be out of our control.

When lots of factors need to be considered in decision making, visualising the bigger picture, for example, how a local health system interacts with the wider systemic context, can help a leadership team explore how their decisions might impact different parts of the system. A team can then make sense of how things connect and see an overview that clearly shows the complex interrelationships that are  difficult, if not impossible, to represent in words. Gathering a whole team's individual views into one big picture that represents a shraed perspective in a way that can transcend personal differences and bring together their collective thinking.

The client's situation

Recently we worked with an NHS trust exec board who were facing a wicked problem. As well as the business-as-usual agenda items, and the pressure to deliver their new strategy, it was critical that they found a more creative way to explore the different dimensions of a new strategic partnership with two other trusts. This involved exploring new organisational forms and to deliver new models of care. Their awaydays often felt hectic and had many tacitical agenda items to cover. The trust’s OD Director wanted to shift the conversation about difficult strategic decisions and be more systemic in their thinking.

The challenge

The O.D. director stated that.. ”our fundamental challenge was how to look after our own trust and considering our own community needs, while at the same time looking at what is best for the wider patient care system. We need to be answerable to local communities and at same time need to make strategic decisions for whole health system.”

 “The sort of questions the Executive board were asking themselves were: What new organisational form will enable us to deliver better healthcare? How can we deliver systemic change that improves the quality of patient care and reduces costs at the same time?”

 A creative response

The OD director brought in Delta7 to support her to change the conversation with her board using our Visual Dialogue methodology.  A Visual Dialogue is a facilitated conversation that can support leadership teams to have better quality meetings when they are struggling to make sense of complex problems. The conversation was facilitated to focus on their big picture of the “wicked problem” which was created out a a series of 1:1 interviews. We listened carefully to what they said and encouraged them to speak from a personal perspective.

The picture helped to shift the way the team discussed their challenges by showing the complex interdependencies and  relationships between critical factors and how they affect each other to. The facilitator kept the group's attention focused on the picture and what’s most important and created a safe space to test the level of consensus on critical issues. The session encouraged the  team to think and talk more creatively, systemically and long-term, beyond their personal situations and agendas.

The Big Picture of the board’s wicked problem

The Big Picture of the board’s wicked problem

The Client's story of what happened

“Our board members often have their own bit of the system to sort out and prefer to break complex problems down into the smaller parts that they are more comfortable with, that are within their comfort zone. Though that might only result in one piece of the system working well."

 "The Visual Dialogue session shifted the quality of the conversation and using the picture encouraged them to think more systemically about local issues the process changed the level of questions they were asking, and so challenged their thinking to a new level."

"It enabled the board to think and talk more systemically, beyond their own personal points of view and level of thinking, about wider  issues and how these impact each other"

 "It created space for the board to test their level of consensus on partnerships, and go beyond personal values to consider the greater good. They could explore the ethical dilemmas involved and get beneath the commercial and transactional focus of their role, down to a transformational one where they were getting an idea about if they had shared values and talking about values based leadership. Ultimately the session was as much about about building relationships and uncovering personal values as it was about solving operational issues."

 "The quality of the conversation was more strategic, fluid and creative, it stopped them getting into detail too quickly. The Big Picture kept the conversations from getting too operational, too quickly, and forced broader thinking, it kept them strategic. It stopped them deconstructing the “problem” down to something they can control and manage."

"The big picture allowed me to keep them uncomfortable in a non-threatening way.  It kept them in a place of looking at the interdependencies. The big picture showed most of the system, so the  board could see they are facing an intractable problem, which can’t be solved with an action plan, and there is no commercial solution currently. So it encouraged them taking a broader view while keeping it personal - bringing alive the things they have to consider and deliver on"

"The Big Picture was like an interdependence map - you can’t look at one isolated element without seeing connections and consequences. Everything is there in the picture - it showed the complexities of the environment in one place - which papers can’t do. And it helped in understanding the complexity in a way they couldn’t have done reading board papers. It stimulated thinking about potential consequences out side of our normal boundaries as it can be difficult to move out of your own familiar lens/way of understand the world.  The conversation raises consciousness that you can’t take actions in isolation, it stops you thinking that you can acts on things alone. “ If you make a decision here- it makes you think- what’s the impact there”. It stopped disrupted their linear thinking by bringing to life all the complexities involved in running the trust."

 "Having a picture made it easier for people to declare openly that they didn’t understand “that” [pointing at something specific in the picture]"

"The Visual Dialogue session allowed the board to challenge each other and opened up a different conversation and a different space to think in. The Big Picture didn’t provide answers, but it forced systemic thinking.”

 For more information about how we can support your team to think more systemically please contact:, 07790 007 560