Is this really about me? Storytelling and survivor bias

Let us begin this post by telling you a story, to talk about a bias that relates precisely to storytelling, but also to talk about how the risk of a mechanical view of reality can lead us astray.

During the Second World War, a group of researchers in Britain was faced with the problem of how to redesign aircraft so as to minimise their losses. The starting idea was to analyse aircraft that had returned to base, even though they had been hit by enemy shells. On analysing them, the researchers discovered that the bullets had mainly hit the wings and tail, drawing the conclusion that these parts needed to be reinforced because they were more exposed than others.

Fortunately, Abrham Wald, a mathematician who was involved in the project, had an insight before the team started working on the planes: the sample was missing the crucial part, that of the downed planes. By looking at the unreturned aircraft, one could indeed find an interesting lead for the redesign: it was the engine that was the weak part, not the tail or the wings! The crashed aircraft, crucial to understanding the real reasons for the vulnerability, were not present because they were not returned.

Survivor bias is a type of bias that impacts the selection of the sample to be considered as significant when analysing a phenomenon. It occurs when an individual mistakes a visible success subgroup for the entire group. In other words, we forget to consider all the data on those who did not make it.

Survivor's bias, as well as a great lesson on how important it is to form consistent samples when we really want to understand a phenomenon, is a good starting point to listen critically to the various storytellers and gurus who tell us success stories: "how I made my first million" "how I founded the start-up that raised 20 million in funds" "how I invented the revolutionary product" etc. But this storytelling does not allow us to also hear the stories of all the other people who failed to launch their start-up, to get huge funding, to get rich, it does not give us elements to refer to the 'worst practices' as well.

This is not the only limitation of storytelling, there is also another risk we can run when we take the stories told by and about role models from a mechanistic view of reality.

On a Diversity & Inclusion project on gender, for instance, it might seem like a great idea to elevate a woman and tell her story with the intention of motivating others to follow the path laid out. But this exercise risks making us lose sight of the fact that there are specific elements ONLY of this story that are not found in the other stories: what specific conditions in the context in which the person acted, e.g. what organisational culture, but also what internal conditions, what mental patterns she had to overcome. In role modelling there is therefore a risk of not taking into account the fact that investors lend less to women, poorer people etc.

In short, the exercise runs the risk of being inspiring in the moment but, disconnected from the context and the system in which the person acted, of leaving the people listening with the illusion of being able to uncritically decline the story in their own context. To put it another way, by locating the root causes of the success in the individual, we blind ourselves to the contextual and systemic causes, which are often much more structural for the outcome than personal “heroship”. Moreover, in the case of aircraft the resolution of the problem is relatively simple and mechanical: once the survivor's bias is discovered in the sample then one can easily intervene on the real reasons and reinforce the engine part.

But if we take the case of personal or professional success, and for example in the story told the person tells us that they had to learn to trust themselves, to negotiate with sceptical investors, etc., can we really think that once we listen to them then immediate change will be triggered? These factors do indeed take a long time to evolve, and do not follow a simple pattern of insight -> resolution.

To the contrary, transforming one’s own disabling psychodynamic patterns requires more than just knowing we’ve got them; it requires inner work, that doesn’t happen at a click of a finger. In the case of aircraft, we are in a system, albeit one with many variables, that is simple: the intuition that the sample needs to be revised is enough for us to solve the problem. When we apply this bias to the case, for example, of a start-up, we are instead acting in a complex and much less mechanistic system, in which it becomes more difficult, even once we have heard the missing story, that of the and the 'non-survivors', to really trigger complex change.

Are we therefore to conclude that these practices are useless? Absolutely not! On the contrary, it is important to give visibility to these stories and to continue listening to them and telling them. Just as it is important to also tell the stories of failures, of those who did not succeed, did not get funding, did not get their start-up of the ground.

To tell the stories as whole as possible, providing the contextual elements but also making a rational analysis of them to understand what is applicable to our own, and what it teaches us with respect to our context, our resources, what the story we have listened to highlights with respect to our mental models, without thinking we can reproduce it uncritically. Who knows, it may also point to more structural leverage points that need activating before single individuals can truly blossom, however heroic they aspire to be…


Modèles mentaux, racisme subtil et chocolat : une révélation

Mental models, subtle racism and chocolate: a breakthrough

The context is an international and multi-ethnic meeting with some 20 participants, with the aim of reconnecting with the organisational purpose, in order to then be able to set the activities for the coming months and to appoint suitable leadership to accompany the emerging future.

The official language of the meeting is French: it was estimated that all members of the group speak it well enough to be able to follow without problems. Sporadic and spontaneous translation 'as needed' from Portuguese to French is offered, but not vice versa, organised voluntarily among the participants.

The method of animation includes that, at the end of each day of collective work, one-hour evening debriefing sessions are held, with a small group being part of the large one, called the "Coordination Committee". The group's objective is to review the contents and topics that have emerged, but above all to be a place for analysing the large group dynamics that have occurred during the day in order to link them with the dynamics of the broader system, and to draw up coherent work proposals for the following days.

The 'Coordination Committee' is composed of four fixed and two variable components, members of the large group who offer to participate, on a voluntary basis, at the beginning of each day.

One 'fixed' member of the committee, joking about the fact that a lot of chocolate had been consumed the night before during the 'Coordination Committee', and with the intention of encouraging the two volunteers from the large group, jokes "And then there will be a compensating factor, we will eat a lot of chocolate".

One of the members of the large group, a young African girl, Louisa, appears evidently perturbed after this joke and remains silent. The two volunteers are finally found and the day continues by exploring the topic "What leadership is needed to lead in the coming years?". Suddenly Louisa blurts out, in Portuguese "I didn't offer to be on the committee this morning because I realised that the volunteer members would be treated like chocolate and eaten by the group members as a reward".

Several years ago, during a then pioneering work on the emergence of alternative leadership models (at the time it was called "Emergence of Women's Leadership" a title I would no longer use today) that we were carrying out in a large bank, we used the term "alterphagia" to describe one of the collective resistances to change, manifested during the project.

Alterphagia describes the attempt to transform the other by manipulating them, turning them into an object, assimilating them to oneself through "eating" them, thus denying their difference.  For the bank we worked for, alterphagia manifested itself in various attempts to assimilate women into the male stereotype-based leadership model that was dominant at the time.

In the case of the 'chocolate' a staff member makes a joke, having no intention to excluding or insulting. This joke, however, is misunderstood in a particular way, among the many possible misunderstandings, which touches on an organisational dynamic that has been present in the organisation for years, concerning leadership and the feeling, on the part of the people in Africa in particular, that there is a European (and white) thinking head and an operating arm in the South (black) undergoing a process of colonisation. This dynamic means that people in Africa are never considered in the shortlist of candidates to lead the group.

The 'chocolate misunderstanding' allowed the group to make explicit something very difficult to say, in particular the feeling of inferiority felt by some of its members, the perception of exclusion from certain roles, and this not on the basis of skills more or less possessed but on the basis of personal characteristics such as skin colour and geographical origin.

It also allowed the European side, identified as the group's 'coloniser', to reflect on what they had (unconsciously) done, a reflection that, due to a creeping feeling of shame that emerged during the exchanges generated by the analysis of the metaphor, had not yet been done in full.

The space that opened up when we offered the opportunity to stop and explore more fully what had happened allowed for a deep, authentic, moving dialogue about what one part of the group had experienced for years.

After an initial almost violent, minimising reaction, the group opened up to the possibility of enriching the metaphor of 'chocolate', of making other associations than those that had been offered by the staff to go further.

It opened up a moment of deep exploration of mental models, their function, their limits and the consequences they can have on people and performance that allowed for a healthy regeneration, in view of the appointments of the new leadership team.



Ethnic differences: the case of a sensitive conversation

Conversation about ethnic differences is never easy within a group. On the other hand, after the #blacklivesmatter movement, having these kinds of conversations and acting on them has become a necessity and a starting point for creating organisational environments in which fairness and belonging can acquire concrete meaning, beyond declarations of intent and hashtags on social media.

I often observe, in the groups I work for, that when racism experienced by some of the members is mentioned, after an initial moment of awareness, it then becomes very difficult to really continue the conversation and ask oneself what to do concretely. It is as if a kind of embarrassed chill comes into the room.

In my experience what is difficult is on the one hand to talk about one's emotions and experiences on the subject and on the other not to let guilt and shame take all the space in the relationship and make a truly transformative exchange impossible.

This week I found myself more or less in this situation, together with the group I was working with. After many attempts to avoid the topic, the group had finally managed to name a major source of conflict that had remained latent until that moment, "the elephant in the room": the fact that a part of its members, of African-American ethnicity, felt systematically excluded from the decision-making places, their voices forgotten or at least not heard.

I tried several times to raise the issue but each time the group, while recognising that it was important to talk about it and act accordingly, found ways to divert to other topics.

One of the possible causes of this dynamic is what is called “white fragility”, described in the fine book of the same title by Robin DiAngelo: it is the stress experienced by white people, in having these kinds of conversations, in the defensive attitude that is assumed when it comes to talking about racism in the inability to process information received on this subject. 'White fragility' can trigger very strong emotions such as anger, fear, shame.

But also “benaltimisation” when trying to shift the focus to other forms of discrimination, minimisation, when trying to de-emphasise the issue with accusations of exaggeration and over-sensitivity made against the aggrieved party, exactly what was happening in the group I was working with.

I asked myself how to have an open conversation, what barriers were preventing it, and I told myself that perhaps the various attempts to talk about this visceral dynamic in a rational way were not touching the right chords and that the right way to start a deep conversation was with the body.

I proposed to the group, instead of the ritual check in at the beginning of the session, to compose a living statue, using some cues from Social Presencing Theatre together with some psychodrama techniques. I asked a sub-group of volunteers to each play the following characters: the clients, the parent company in Europe, the European people in the group, the African-American members, the leadership group, the European members, Europe, and the South. The rest of the group members acted as spectators.

The volunteers started to move around the space and I asked them, once they felt ready, to form a living sculpture representing the current situation. Once the 'current situation' sculpture was formed, I then asked them to express their emotions and thoughts from this position.

The exercise, which had started with some laughter, continued in total silence. The group seemed deeply involved and the living statue that the members formed was a powerful and clear representation of the ongoing exclusionary dynamic. Then the volunteer members of the sculpture began to express themselves.

The phrase "I feel suffocated, I feel that I have no voice, I wish I could speak and be heard, I wish I could access roles of power, not just listen" with its reference to George Floyd's atrocious death, produced great emotion in the audience. The person playing the leadership group represented the current situation with an arm, placed affectionately (but also paternalistically) on the shoulder of the African-American members.

Once all members had spoken, I asked them to evolve the sculpture to respond to the new purpose the group had given itself for the future, undoing the knots and mental patterns, particularly the in-out group dynamic, that would prevent them from creating an authentic alliance to achieve their goals.

The conclusion of the exercise was a collective elaboration, starting with the question "what has changed in me having witnessed this exercise?" which allowed everyone to express points of view and experiences. Many members of the group were able to express shame, pain, the wounds inflicted by this dynamic of exclusion.

The result was a radical impact on the action plans that had been produced in the previous days, which took into account this collective moment of transformation, in order to reformulate them with the aim of regenerating relationships and in this way regenerating belonging for all. The leadership group that was then formed was finally able to include those who had hitherto been excluded.




About Overview Effect, Bateson levels and learning for the future

As a child, one of my dreams was to go into space. I imagined myself inside a space capsule watching the Earth slowly recede through the porthole and the Moon and planets gradually become more visible. Reading 'Lucky Star and the Moons of Jupiter' helped to make this dream even more detailed. My dream has now become more and more realisable, the first 'tourist' trips into space are beginning (the appropriateness and popularity of these trips with respect to CO2 production could be debated) and for some time now, articles on the so-called 'Overview Effect' have been increasingly coming to my attention. What does Overview Effect mean? The name was invented by Frank White, who first used it in 1987, in his book entitled 'The Overview Effect'.

It is a collection of experiences described by astronauts who went into space, and who described themselves, not so much about the engineering part of their journey, but about the emotions they went through. The astronauts who have travelled after the release of the book were thus able to benefit from a concept to describe the strong and confusing emotions they felt during their journey, particularly when looking at planet Earth from a unique perspective.

A very special point of view, which provokes an experience that we can define as transcendent (a very tangible 'going beyond'), a deep and lasting inner movement as described by the astronauts who experienced it: a mixture of compassion, tenderness, vulnerability, awareness of belonging to a whole.

An unconditional and universal love felt for the Earth, seeing it so distant and fragile, which makes it possible to interpret oneself and the world through this lens after this type of experience. Embedded in the Overview Effect is the profound feeling of belonging, the end of separation from the Earth, the awareness of being producers of the contexts in which we live that Bateson talks about in 'Steps to an Ecology of Mind'.

If I mention it in this post, it is because the photographs that accompany the description of the Overview Effect are a first "madeleine" that reminds me of my childhood dreams; the second "madeleine" for me is the connection I made between the Overview Effect and my dissertation on creativity and learning, and it is this I would like to talk about in the blogpost after this somewhat lengthy introduction.

An important part of my thesis was in fact dedicated to defining what 'learning' means, a topic that fascinated me then and now, to the extent that I have made it the focus of my work. One of the milestones on the subject is undoubtedly Gregory Bateson's theory of 'levels of learning'. Basically, Bateson, building on Whitehead and Russel's Logical Types theories and cybernetic models, formulated a theory of learning that allows learning to be defined on 4 logical levels (very interesting in relation to learning in Bateson, the whole subject of paradoxes but not the subject of our blogpost).

Below are Bateson's levels of learning described in extreme synthesis, with an example that will serve to clarify the link between Bateson's theory and the Overview Effect.


  • Level 0 - involves only a simple response to a stimulus (automatic learning, no reflexivity). This is, for example, the case when very strong stereotypes operate that generate rigid thinking routines that only allow obligatory responses to stimuli, with no possibility of alternatives. For example, take the case of a company that has produced waste and always throws it in the same spot in the sea. There is no other type of response available to them, throwing it in that spot is automatic, the routine of thought (or the mental scheme of the absolute priority of profit) does not allow them to see any alternatives.


  • Level 1 - involves choosing our response to the stimulus from among several alternatives in the same set. In this type of learning, it is therefore possible to change, in the specificity of the response, by correction of choice errors, within a given set of alternatives: the learned response remains appropriate only in that particular context, which must therefore occur the same again. Classical Pavlovian conditioning is an example of this type of learning. In our example of waste, one can decide to throw it in one place in the sea but also throw it in another place, because one realises, for example, that it is cheaper than the first. The different landings on the sea constitute the different alternatives in the set of choices.


  • Level 2 - In learning at this level, we are aware that alternatives may also be found in other sets: learning is thus about the change in learning process 1, a correction of the set of alternatives within which the choice is made. One is thus aware that choices occur within a given system of alternatives and is able to see and change sets of alternatives. So, to return to our production of waste, one can decide to throw it in the sea, but knows that there are other sets of alternatives, such as burning it, burying it, etc. Still it is only the profit principle that guides us.


  • Level 3 - This learning is very rare. It is the learning that occurs through the perception of the system of subsets of alternatives and in which the possibility of changing it is perceived. It occurs by being able to see sets of different contexts in which alternatives exist. In this type of learning 'the self becomes almost irrelevant and is no longer essential to the description of experience'. Insight occurs when we have an experience that puts us in deep contact with our interconnectedness with context, with the Cosmos, with Nature, with the realisation that we are not separate from it but integrated with it and that our choices change our future possibilities.


Learning 3 is rare because it occurs when the cognitive system is profoundly shaken (e.g. in a therapeutic situation or a mystical experience) and, Bateson says, almost bordering on pathological. One possible pathological pathway of learning 3 is precisely psychosis. If we return instead to the 'physiology of learning', and to our case of waste, type 3 learning could occur in a moment of profound awareness of the fact that by producing waste and dumping it in Nature we are actually intervening in our context and modifying it, thus threatening our chances of future survival.

The goal of personal profit is no longer a priority. This kind of learning starts from an important premise, which is to be able to perceive ourselves no longer as detached but in connection and communion with Nature. We can choose, for example,  to stop producing waste by rethinking our production process in a circular form, for example, so that waste becomes an input for another production process.

Two scientists, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, are the authors of a fascinating (but also controversial) theory, the famous 'Gaia hypothesis', according to which the Earth is a single living, breathing being composed of different living beings. According to this hypothesis, interconnectedness is not just a way of perceiving, of learning our contexts, but something more. Reducing complexity and feeling separated from it makes us impervious to empathy and suffering for how we treat Gaia, our planet-living being.

The Overview Effect is an interesting perspective to ask ourselves: how can we regenerate our view of the world? How can we generate the same personal movement that allows astronauts to never be the same again, once they have experienced this Effect? How do we access learning 3 about our human condition on this planet? How, collectively, to gain insight that leads us to radically rethink our production systems and our relationship with the Earth?

Learning 3 has a very strong spiritual component. The astronauts who were interviewed by Frank White spoke of spiritual alignment, of the transcendence of experience. Perhaps one way to feel this wave of love and tenderness towards our common home is to collectively and truly open ourselves to this dimension.

Que votre intention soit simple

Let your intention be simple

These days I have the enormous privilege of co-facilitating a group with a formidable Jesuit priest. We jokingly tell each other that I am in charge of the psychosocial part and he is in charge of spirituality, but we actually form an integrated pair!

The word intention comes from the Latin in tendere, to tend towards, to turn towards. Among the various meanings of the word 'intention' that you can find in any dictionary, there is one that is particularly interesting: in medicine, intention is in fact the act of bringing the edges of a wound closer together to allow healing to take place. This meaning refers to the regeneration of the skin, to the possibility of healing by bringing together what was separated because it had been wounded.

During our work together with the Jesuit father, at a certain point it became necessary for the group to have difficult conversations between some of the members in order to truly act as a collective around a common purpose. And this is where we came to the topic of intention and its clarification.

When I decide, for example, to start a difficult conversation, what is my intention? Is it an intention that really wants to regenerate? And it is this point that the Jesuit father's (and Ignatius of Loyola's) contribution was illuminating.  Before we face these difficult conversations, in fact, a question that can help us explore intention deeply is "Is my intention in having this conversation straight?" and straight means simple, not mixed with others.

Sometimes intentions can be confused, folded (just the opposite of simple, simplex, sem-plectere, folded once). If our intention is really to heal, to mend a wound, it is therefore important to remove what is mixed up with it (narcissistic, manipulative, unfriendly desires towards the other...) and to remain with the 'straight', healthy, pure intention, to which other intentions are not mixed up, which make it strategic, Machiavellian and which feed mistrust and suspicion, making us obtain, instead of the result of healing, mending the wound, exactly the opposite result: wounds that no longer regenerate.

Feedback fallacy

Feedback? No thanks!

Antonio, marketing director of a multinational company, is a firm believer in the practice of 'continuous feedback' that has recently been introduced in the performance management cycle. Antonio thinks that, precisely through feedback, it is possible to develop the soft skills of his employees, not only their technical skills. That is why he never misses an opportunity to have individual interviews to give feedback on their assertiveness, on the empathy shown in relationships, on their ability to read the needs of internal and external customers. These weekly interviews begin with a series of so-called 'improvement' feedback, given on the parts of performance that did not satisfy Antonio, and end with a series of reinforcement feedback, on the parts of performance that were effective. Antonio is certainly a capable and exemplary manager, and the practice of feedback should certainly be encouraged - I think of how many people I have come across in organizations who have no idea what their managers see of their performance. In light of an interesting article, appearing in HBR 2019, by researchers Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall of ADP we can ask ourselves whether this ongoing practice is really beneficial for people's learning.

This blogpost will explore some questions, starting with observed practices and literature on the topic and in particular: does continuous feedback always increase our awareness? Does it always make us grow? Is it always a generator of learning? Providing, in the final part, some practical management ideas.

These questions recall certain beliefs and habits of thought with respect to feedback, derived largely from models inherited from a past in which the level of scientific knowledge had not yet allowed for the interdisciplinary understanding of its effects that we are beginning to have today, thanks also to IRM. I am thinking, for example, of a model I love very much, the famous Jo-Hari Window, created by Joseph Luft and Harrison Ingham, named after the initials of its creators. And how much I have always enjoyed sharing with students and course participants an almost magical story about the fact that 'johari' in Sanskrit means 'he who possesses treasures and jewels' (I think read in a note in Enzo Spaltro's essay 'Subjectivity'). This hidden and mysterious meaning has always seemed to me a magical metaphor for how valuable the activity of giving and receiving feedback is in adding precious pieces to our identity, which we would otherwise have no way of integrating.

But some recent findings, particularly on negative feedback, show us how thinking that we will always achieve a goal of personal and professional growth through feedback can prove deceptive. This is the 'feedback fallacy' explored through different research by Buckingam and Goodall. For example, according to research by their ADP institute on the needs of the Millenial generation, the demand for more attention is confused with the demand for 'more feedback'. In reality, the underlying need would rather be for an audience to be attentive to them, as happens in social networks when people receive stars, hearts, likes.  Thus, when we adopt processes of 'radical transparency' or 'hard feedback' that consist of putting people at the centre of a continuous stream of feedback, negative or positive, we are questionably responding to a current need. In fact, while 'procedural' negative feedback, that of correcting operational errors, helps us to correct ourselves and is always useful, total feedback that describes performance through strengths and weaknesses even on behavioural areas such as assertiveness, risk-taking, overview, empathy, etc. presents the risk of being even harmful and we shall see how.

Buckingam and Goodall in their research identified three mental models, three biases, that guide our use of feedback without being questioned:

  1. The 'source of truth' model according to which the other who observes us, has the more or less objective truth about our performance. In reality, the other has only a partial, fallacious and subjective perception far from absolute truth. If we take, for example, a typical behavioural competence, 'Overview', even if it is declined and described by related behaviours, it is evident that arriving at a precise and measurable perception is practically impossible. This fallacy becomes evident in 360° feedback systems, which, by putting together numerous perceptions, give us the illusion of arriving at a good average approximation. The basic fallacy, however, remains that of thinking that by averaging together perceptions distorted by a set of biases, we can arrive at something precise.
  2. The 'bridging gaps through learning' model. According to this model, there are target competencies for each role and those not possessed must be learned. It has, however, been discovered more recently that neuronal connections are mainly generated where other connections are already present, whereas it becomes more difficult to create new ones. When the brain receives positive feedback, the signal received is that someone appreciates what we are doing and this creates the possibility of generating new connections and learning. Negative feedback, on the other hand, produces the activation of the 'fight or flight' survival mode and the stress generated not only does not produce learning but reduces it. This result is counterintuitive to so many slogans about the need to 'leave one's comfort zone': on the contrary, learning, creativity, productivity are generated within it or with careful accompaniment to cross the 'survival mode' zone, not just by leaving the person with negative feedback.
  3. The third mental model is the 'excellence theory' according to which there is an excellent way to achieve goals. And this assumption is also easily disassembled. There is an excellent way when tasks are repetitive and mechanical, but in complex contexts it becomes difficult to select a single way to excellence. It is even more futile, according to the researchers, to think of arriving at excellence through the correction of failures, which leads, perhaps, to the development of adequate performance, since excellence for different people takes different forms. Removing subjectivity from performance therefore does not lead to an alleged 'objective excellence'.

What to do with the results of these studies? Stop giving corrective feedback?

The answer, supported by research on the effects of 'informational' feedback that is given to correct performance, is definitely 'no': since it is feedback that is given to correct concrete actions, immediately comprehensible to the receiver, we can continue to give it - with all the necessary precautions. A circumstantial feedback, focused on the specific action, as close as possible to the moment when the error was perceived. This type of feedback is perceived as non-threatening, shifting the focus from the negative emotions due to the error made, to the task and the need to perform it correctly. It is therefore useful to provide information that allows the error to be corrected.

Feedback, on the other hand, which aims to correct more complex behaviour, such as relational skills, must be handled more carefully.

In particular, thinking about the three mental models highlighted by research, which produce the 'feedback fallacy' feedback givers can:

- Adopt an attitude of 'humility' and openness to a different story emerging: it is a perception, not the truth, we may not have grasped the full complexity of the action;

- Emphasise strengths. This helps to consolidate learnings within people's comfort zone and reinforce what they do well, particularly if done at a time when we see people's talents being expressed. "Yes that's exactly it!!!" said at the moment when excellence happens works much better than an objective and impersonal description of what should be;

- Starting from the self and not from the other or the other. What we are seeing makes us think about, how we receive it, what emotions and interpretations we give with respect to what is happening and also what we would have done differently; on this the matrix of the generative speaking, which you will find within this blog, can provide useful practical insights for this conversation;

- Helping the person connect the past, the present, the future. Theory U, which is based precisely on this ability, from the present, to be in connection and in continuity with the past and future, may prove to be a really useful frame to avoid "downloading" and instead direct feedback to the future we wish to build together.

- Finally, one possibility, more in the order of diversity management and beyond, of organisational citizenship, is to compose teams with people who bring difference: people who are different in terms of skills, cognitive styles, origin, gender, age, etc., so that we can reinforce the strengths of each and every one and leverage the complementarity of skills rather than making immense efforts to create them where it is most difficult.


Pensare ed agire per sottrazione

What if subtraction helped us to be in touch with purpose? Thinking and acting by subtraction - Part two

So what can we do?

The solution is not to eliminate addition completely, it is not in binary and polarized thinking... what we can do is, every time we think about a problem, remind ourselves that there is also the possibility of taking away. So it is not a question of stopping adding, we have seen how this way of thinking, of solving problems, of interpreting the world is essential. Rather, it is a question, when we are reflecting, for example, on a possible solution, of having the two alternatives equally present, of giving ourselves the possibility of also using subtraction. The more we are connected to purpose, the more this alternative will make sense.

This lecture is a way to help you be more aware, hopefully starting now something will help you, when you are thinking in additive terms, to subtract.

We will see in the next session the links between the deep connection to purpose and the possibility of taking away.

You have been working on purpose for a long time and you know by now that it is the "raison d'être" of the company, its why, the collective purpose that holds you together, but also the connection between the role of each and every one of you and the system. Now try to think of your role not in terms of a series of things to do but in terms of "why does it exist?" and "what contribution does it make to the company purpose". It is interesting to think of your role in these terms, first focusing on the "why" and then on the "how" and the "what", following Simon Sinek's Golden Circle model, and once this is clarified, linking ourselves to the "subtraction" and asking ourselves whether the how and the what only respond to an additional logic, which risks distancing us instead of helping us to focus on the essential. I know that many people may now be thinking "OK well, that's easy to say, but how do you do it?"...I therefore propose to open up some possibilities on how to put this into practice in business life but also in private life, starting from some axes of reflection.

  1. Meetings. There are some traps that can drive us to multiply meetings. Among them: thinking that operational meetings serve as motivational levers, when teams are in a phase of loss of meaning (the meeting that is needed, in these cases, is precisely on the 'why', possibly, certainly not on the 'what' nor on the 'how') or even worse, to test the group's commitment. Or meetings used in a self-referential manner, to fill loneliness.... I think of how many times recently I have heard "the staff must go back to the office" for no particular reason but only so that the hierarchies don't feel too lonely 😉 and in the same field, meetings convened to avoid the so-called "video call amnesia" that strikes us when we delude ourselves of our multitasking capabilities only to realise that if during the video call we have done something else then we don't really know what was decided and why... There is an acronym that renders well another contemporary dynamic that is FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out, the fear of being forgotten if we do not participate and attend everything that happens, which can push us to add meetings, events, business lunches etc. Finally, yet another bias, that of social conformism, which can push us to attend just because others go there...On the decision to subtract or add meetings, in addition to highlighting the value added on purpose, there is a simple tool that can help us to remain anchored and grounded in reality, the tool that I invite you to discover "How much does my meeting cost?" by going to this link and which can help us decide
  2. On subtraction or addition decisions in to-do lists, the idea, which is not new, is to manage one's time better. For those who need sophisticated ideas and tools, I recommend reading the famous "Getting Things Done", otherwise there is this simple matrix that can help us eliminate is not very new, it is a bit vintage indeed, but used well it can be the start to free up space:

Warning. Once you've freed up 20/30% of your days don't fill it up again!!!

  1. A new role in project groups, the subtraction manager. Why not make subtraction explicit, make it embodied, to help each other remember it, out of the additive routine? In project groups, one can then identify the role of "chief subtracting officer" who will have, among his or her objectives, that of reminding group members of the importance of subtracting, asking what to subtract in order to better achieve the objectives, a creative and challenging role that can prevent the project group from getting bogged down in a flood of activities that do not serve the purpose.
  2. Other areas of work subtraction: subtracting priorities (no, not everything is a priority!), subtracting people in copy of an email, subtracting sent emails, subtracting key points and slides from a presentation, subtracting the number of objectives, leaving only what really generates value on purpose, the OKR methodology offers interesting insights...
  3. Some subtraction ideas also outside of work... Subtract things brought on trips (with the airport crisis this way you only bring hand luggage and light!!! ), subtracting trips as we have been forced to learn to do over the last two years, emptying our social networks of relationships that make "noise", subtracting the things we have in our homes.. Marie Kondo teaches us how to empty our cupboards, subtracting space from our living spaces: the bigger the house, the more we tend to fill it, subtracting unnecessary consumption and never before has the focus on subtracting energy consumption been so closely aligned with the contextual conditions... in addition to freeing ourselves individually, we can make a collective contribution to the regeneration of the planet.

We move towards the conclusion of this moment together...summing up in a few points:

  1. It is not a question of no longer using addition but of also being aware of the possibility of subtraction
  2. Being connected and connected to purpose deeply helps us to make choices in one direction or another
  3. But our brain does not help is wired to add; therefore, we need to have tricks that help us subtract
  4. Can you think of anything you feel like subtracting? What can you do as a small step in this regard?

Thank you for your attention!


What if subtraction helped us to be in touch with purpose? - Part one

The following post is an excerpt of a talk that Nexus gave at one of two conferences, held at a large multinational company, on the day that is annually dedicated to a collective reflection on purpose. We will publish it in two parts, corresponding to two blogposts, one, this week,  introductory and one, next week,  dedicated to a more practical reflection with cues for action. 

Some time ago in Nexus we happened to read the book Subtract, written by an American researcher, Leidy Klotz, and the result of a series of observations and research; the book generated in us many reflections, it is as if there had been a before and an after, and these reflections have become transformations both in our work and in our personal lives.

We are telling you about them by linking them to the theme of purpose because, as we shall see, we found the idea of subtraction particularly suitable to celebrate this day and to continue the reflections we started last year around "purpose and regeneration" and "purpose and happiness".

To warm up, I propose a little exercise... try to think about improving a trip, since we are in the pre-holiday period, think about your next trip and how you could improve it... if you don't have to travel, think about how you would improve your house and write the results in the chat room... some said they would like a bigger house, a swimming pool, a trip with more time, more stages... others instead, and they are more or less half, reasoned differently, they said "I would like a house with fewer things" or "I would like to get rid of many objects"... perhaps the title of the conference influenced you a little, but this is good because, as we will see, since the idea of subtracting is not intuitive, it is good that there is something, like a title, that when we make a decision helps us to remember it.

I will now show you this figure and ask you how, with the minimum number of moves, to make it symmetrical:

Here again I see that you are now paying attention and in solving many and many have given themselves the opportunity to think about subtracting the top square, rather than adding squares. You may be surprised to know that of the adults who were involved in the same game, only a small fraction, 12%, came up with the solution 'by subtraction'. The others came up with additive solutions such as this one:

This game is part of a series of activities that were used to test the initial intuition that is the systematic preference for addition, the automatism that makes us think that the solution to a problem lies in addition.

In this seminar we will explore three points together:

  1. Why do we keep adding?
  2. What does purpose have to do with subtraction?
  3. How do we actually subtract?

Leidy Klotz, the researcher and professor at Virginia University who popularized the importance of the concept of 'subtraction' through his book 'Subtract', tells us that one day he was playing with Lego bricks with his son Ezra and that when faced with the problem of 'how to improve a construction', the child spontaneously started to remove bricks, while for him, the father, the natural answer was rather to add Lego pieces. From the surprise, felt by the researcher in this situation, came the intuition that later gave rise to numerous researches, repetitions of the experiment, consolidation of the theory.

But where does it come from, why this compulsion to add? Why do we add to prove we are competent? Why do we keep producing endless checklists for the sake of ticking them off and producing new ones? Why do we keep adding friends on social networks? Why is subtraction not taken into account?

There are several explanations that researchers have hypothesized, partly biological and partly cultural, let us look at some of them together. One hypothesis is that the compulsion to add is linked to other biases, fixed and often unconscious reasoning routines of our brain. For example, the sunk cost, i.e. the bias that makes it difficult to disinvest once we have invested because we perceive the losses and not the possible gains (that bias for which once we have paid the cinema ticket we stay even if we do not like the film, to put it in simple terms).

More generally, loss aversion could be another explanation, along with favouring the status quo over uncertainty due to change. Another, very fascinating, explanation could come from afar, from the evolution of the human species from nomadic to sedentary and, with the conquest of sedentarity and agriculture, from the acquired possibility/need to start accumulating objects, food, etc. in dwellings that became fixed and in urban agglomerations. And in this evolution, the search and accumulation of food becomes crucial for survival and continues to drive us despite modern conditions of relative abundance.

It should not be forgotten, however, that evolution is a balancing act between adding and subtracting, think for example of the ability to work with wood; but also of the very interesting phenomenon that takes place in our brains, which we might familiarly call 'synapse pruning' that allows us to regenerate our brains during the night's rest, eliminating what is not being used so as not to waste energy in its maintenance. And nature teaches us the same thing. In a healthy ecosystem, nature selects and promotes life on the one hand (thus adding) and at the same time promotes death by helping what is no longer needed to die. It is the process called regeneration that we talked about last year in relation to corporate purpose.

So perhaps we can reconnect with subtraction, but we have to make a little effort.

The compulsion to add can in fact cost us dearly: adding work all the time, adding meeting after meeting to a project, adding tasks to the to-do list, adding items in the house, food, cigarettes, social engagements, friends on social networks... The costs that the habit of adding generates are very high.

On an individual level, the stress, the feeling of never having finished, of being out of control, the 'mental load' that makes us wake up at night because we remember something we haven't done, the cluttering of our homes with useless objects... and on a collective level the excessive consumption that is making our planet uninhabitable.

Women in a World of Men: The Transformation of Gender Dynamics through the Recovering of Identities

A few weeks ago, someone wrote to us on Linkedin saying that he had very much appreciated an article of ours, published in 2008 in Organisational & Social Dynamics.

We went to pick it up and decided to republish it on the blog. Sure it has taken a few years and there have been many evolutions. But it was definitely a pioneering article (and work). Some parts of it today, I think, among all, the nuance we had kept around 'nature or culture' today we would certainly write more decisively and consistently from a theoretical point of view.

But there is something that remains very present for us in the work on diversity in organisations, read through the psychodynamic keys of Group Relations, and it is around the theme of the recognition of identities, of the unconscious attempt to flatten them, to smooth them out, the alter-phagia we talk about in the article and the shame that risks, when not recognised, named, managed, to completely block the transformation.


Read te article on Organisational & Social Dynamics


Promoting inclusive leadership from recruitment onwards

Many organisations have been committed for years to promoting a culture of inclusiveness, which guarantees all people equality of treatment, rights and opportunities to belong.  But how can we increase the chances that, from the moment they join the company, new people will be aligned with and contribute to this commitment? This is the question we were asked by the HR department of a multinational company, and in this article we tell you how we answered it.

For some years we have been developing a simple but effective model for promoting and managing inclusive leadership. The model consists of four areas of behaviour, divided into two factors for each area, each factor described in depth by specific indicators of behaviour, to aid practical observation. The model has been developed over years of fieldwork on the topic of DE&I within very different organisations and through years of reading and exploring the subject. It has been mainly used to raise awareness among employees and to accompany the performance management cycle; it is presented as a standard that then requires, of course, to be adapted and contextualised through some specific indicators.

The question in this case, however, did not concern the performance of existing employees, but the possibility of opening a window on the future of possible newcomers, in particular through assessment centre sessions aimed at testing, among other talents, the potential for inclusive leadership. After an initial phase of clarifying the objectives with the client, we created a battery of exercises and observation grids with ad hoc descriptors, which was followed by a day of training and testing of the model with the internal assessors, followed by a test of the materials on a real group of eight engineers during the assesment centre, one of the phases of the recruitment process. The model was unanimously validated, with some adjustments. We collected feedback on the experimentation, readjusted the model (in particular on the need to have more behavioural indicators on the four areas of competence to facilitate the work of the assessor) and offered a training day on the subject to another group of internal assessors (who also tested the model themselves and will be the next to use it) for a final validation.

It is clear that final validation of the model will have to await verification in the field. In particular, after a significant number of utilisations in assesment, it will be necessary to make observations on the actualisation of the potential of the competence, once the newcomers chosen also on the basis of this parameter, will have entered the role. And to go further there would need to be a control group to have a rigorous verification. If you are in a HR position and interested or interested in the trial, let's talk about it 😉!

The project has brought, so far, at least two very interesting "side" results:

    1. The first is that the managers involved did not find themselves in the now classic awareness-raising course on diversity or unconscious bias, but in a situation in which the awareness-raising had the objective of supporting a particular role for them, that of people at the entrance to the organisational frontier, decision-makers on who enters and who does not. It was an opportunity to talk together about the company's cultural models and how far these can affect the choices that are made, which, in turn, impact on performance and also on their own decision-making architecture, on individual and group decisions. In short, it was an opportunity for in-depth training without looking like it, which the people present found exciting.
    2. I was very impressed by the reaction of the young people involved in the assessment. During the part of the work dedicated to the battery of exercises on inclusive leadership, the atmosphere in the group changed radically. Surprisingly, there was more of an atmosphere of dialogue around the fireplace than an assessment centre. Rather than a competition, the participants seemed to be participating in a collaborative group in which the aim was to help each other, give each other feedback and create links. The feedback they gave on the experience was very positive. At a time when it is very difficult to find talent, and with respect to the explicit or implicit demands that the Millennial generation is making of workplaces (consistency, management of diversity, fairness, respect for the work/life balance, the possibility of the most authentic self-expression possible, warmth in ties, etc.), the message that is received in first contacts with the organization is fundamental. A company which is attentive to the dimension of organisational citizenship, of belonging, and which concretely demonstrates this attention from the very first stages of contact will see its reputation enhanced and, perhaps, become a place which the younger generations (and not only) will look to as a place capable of (re)igniting the desire and regenerating a relationship with work which for some years now has generally been losing its attractiveness.