Lessons from The Arrow

Hotel pool
Hotel, El Kantaoui

Terrible events, raising tough issues, make this a bad week for Britain and Europe. But a trawl of the internet churned up insight in an unlikely place, ideas that relate not just to these questions but also to troubling events in my life: specifically, my father’s deathbed request to “forgive me“.

On 26 June 2015, there was an Islamic terror attack at the tourist resort at Port El Kantaoui, about 10 kilometres north of the city of Sousse, Tunisia. Thirty-eight people, at least twenty-five of whom were British, were killed when an armed gunman attacked a hotel. Reports claim that the attacker, Seifeddine Rezgui, was high on cocaine during the massacre and wearing a bomb vest.

Greece’s IMF loan default and probable exit from the EU is but one of the pressing problems confronting Europe at the moment. Another is the deepening Asylum Crisis, linked to elimination of border controls.


Meanwhile, a Google Alert on “moral conflict” turned up a two-part article on The Arrow and philosophy from theconversation.com site.

Barry pays a visit to Oliver Queen in Starling City
The Arrow

The first part, the morality of vigilantism, observed that:

… vigiliantism is a kind of teleocratic thinking. The political philosopher Michael Oakeshott distinguished between two modes of political thinking: nomocratic and teleocratic.

Nomocratic politics is interested in the preservation of the political association itself, as well as using law to enable citizens to choose for themselves what kind of lives they ought to lead. It strongly supports the upholding of impartial systems and ideals (the separation of powers, for instance) and relies on the integrity of that system.

Telocratic politics is characterised by the unification of individual efforts toward a singular, substantive goal. Teleocratic thinking tends toward grand narratives, but risks subsuming real people into a more far-sighted project: the achievement of some state-of-affairs that is the ultimate goal of activity. It prioritises the goal over the structures that aim to protect our society.

What’s that to do with any of this week’s challenges?

Tony Abbott
Tony Abbott’s tangled web

Well, the piece then goes on to say:

So, if the goal is to “stop the boats”, it might seem acceptable to pay money to people smugglers.


Teleocratic thinking is appealing, especially in times of fear and conflict (and that’s why it’s quite common in Australia today).


what makes superheroes – especially vigilantes – so appealing in times of fear, conflict, and terror… Nothing is accepted as beyond the hero’s control, and if a better world is possible, the hero will bring it about.

This resonates with my impression of my father’s superego. He was well aware of the glamour of his role and would remark (though, thankfully, not in his book) that for two years he “slept with a pearl-handled [sic] revolver under his pillow”.

The second part of this article, the morality of killing and violence, cites philosopher and Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes:

Killing someone without splitting oneself from the feelings that the act engenders requires an effort of supreme consciousness that, quite frankly, is beyond most humans.

It’s a hell of a thing to stop a beating heart,” Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle remarks to his young son toward the end of American Sniper.

Was my father asking me to forgive him for killing Abraham Stern?

I leave you to develop the parallels.

Why the EU will fail

Junker and TsiprasJunker and Tsipras

The personal attack on the Greek prime minister, Alex Tsipras, by Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Union’s executive branch, is a stunning example of bad practice in negotiation.

Mr. Juncker displayed the depth of anger in Brussels and elsewhere at Greece’s leftist government, complaining earlier Monday that he felt “betrayed” by Athens and that negotiations were “not a game of liar’s poker.”

It violates Getting to Yes’s first proposition of principled negotiation: separate people from the problem. No wonder parties have failed to reach agreement.


Meanwhile Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany parroted the fallacy at the heart of the matter in her repetition of the phrase:

If the euro fails, Europe fails.

For the misleading notion at the core of the EU is that “politics follows the economics”. In practice – as Britain demonstrated when it dropped out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in the crash of 16 September 1992 ( “Black Wednesday“) – where political will is lacking, the economics fails.

Once again, this is a battleground of ideas and values not just hearts and minds. It is a moral conflict taking place at a point where social worlds collide. Success in that fight lies in improving the quality of the discourse – in making it safe to talk – certainly not in slandering those who don’t share your point of view.

Sooner or later the EU will fail: not because of a Greek exit but because the EU was always built on a lie.

A ship on the beach is a lighthouse to the sea

Beached ship small

Fred Brooks started his book The Mythical Man Month with this Dutch proverb.

Tar Pit

He then used another powerful image – that of prehistoric beasts stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits – to capture the experience of major projects. He explains:

No scene from prehistory is quite so vivid as that of the mortal struggles of great beasts in the tar pits. In the mind’s eye one sees dinosaurs, mammoths, and sabre-toothed tigers struggling against the grip of the tar. The fiercer the struggle, the more entangling the tar, and no beast is so strong or so skilful but that he ultimately sinks.

His focus was large system projects:

Large-system programming has over the past decade been such a tar pit, and many great and powerful beasts have thrashed violently in it. Most have emerged with running systems—few have met goals, schedules, and budgets. Large and small, massive or wiry, team after team has become entangled in the tar. No one thing seems to cause the difficulty—any particular paw can be pulled away. But the accumulation of simultaneous and interacting factors brings slower and slower motion.

He concludes:

Everyone seems to have been surprised by the stickiness of the problem, and it is hard to discern the nature of it. But we must try to understand it if we are to solve it.

But Brooks was dealing in the relatively-cranial world of IT, a less-political context than either the UK’s Network Rail or the Westinghouse Nuclear Power Plant projects that I addressed in my last post. Add politics to the mix and those famous lines of Walter Scott’s Marmion spring to mind:

Oh, what a tangled web we weave.
When first we practise to deceive!

The task of learning how best to use the Web to make it safe to talk only becomes more pressing against the backdrop of President Obama’s actions on whistleblowers:

With his Justice Department having produced three times as many Espionage Act indictments for classified document disclosure as all other administrations combined since the passage of that legislation back in 1917, Obama has opened the door for his successors to continue – and even expand – the assault on national security state whistleblowers who act in the public interest.

To understand just why this is happening we need look no further than 9/11…

…and its unravelling cover up:

Can the “beached ship” of 9/11 become a lighthouse for those who seek to aid emergence of collective intelligence?

Hatching a catastrophe: Network Rail’s £38bn five-year programme

Network Rail

News today that the UK Government has “put the brakes on” Network Rail’s modernisation plan resonates with my experience of major projects. As a project planner myself, I was frequently amazed by disingenuous declarations of surprise whenever a major delay or cost overrun was announced. How stupid do the politicians think the Public are? Of course, such problems will have been known for a long time.

As the great Fred Brooks (author of the seminal The Mythical Man Month) asked:

How does a project get to be a year late?. . . . One day at a time.

Brooks calls this “hatching a catastrophe” (Chapter 14) and he cites Sophocles:

None love the bearer of bad news.

No doubt there were sensible people at Network Rail, warning of the difficulties, who were told to “just shut up, you damn fool”. So problems festered, until it became impossible to conceal them any longer.


A. Canova, “Ercole e lica,” 1802. Hercules hurls to his death the messenger Lycas, who innocently brought the death-garment.

Thus it is now reported that the Great Western project is running a year late and its cost estimate has tripled from £640m to £1.7bn. Is anyone still gullible enough to believe that new estimates for time and cost have a greater likelihood of being achieved?

As the Financial Times points out:

Network Rail has come under increased scrutiny since its £38bn debt was transferred to the government’s balance sheet last year as a result of European Union pressure.


Michael Dugher, shadow transport secretary, accused ministers of sitting on a report last September which had suggested that the projects needed to be delayed. “They have pretended to the public that everything was fine until after the election,” the Labour MP said.

Government fiddling the books and suppressing the facts. Unsafe to talk. Nothing new.

I picked the subject of cost and time overruns of major projects for my MIT Master’s thesis Owning Up or Covering Up: Motivation for Meaningful Project Audit. My depressing finding was that there are few incentives for incisive reviews of the lessons learned from major projects gone wrong. On the contrary, in almost every case, there is huge political pressure for any kind of audit to be a whitewash: that is, to cover up not own up.

Right now, in the UK, we need look no further than the repeated delays to the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War for an example of exactly the same phenomenon happening today. In 2009, David Cameron was quite right to call it an “an establishment stitch-up“… it still is.


The reasons we tend to underestimate the time and cost of our projects are the meat and drink of popular TV shows like Grand Designs and Homes Under the Hammer. The difference is that while small scale building and renovation projects like these tend to overrun by 20 or 30 percent, major projects like Network Rail’s tend to overrun by 200 or 300 percent, or more. You would think that when there is so much at stake project managers would be more thorough and therefore more accurate in their estimates.

My conclusion was that there are three kinds of bias that creep into such estimates, and that technical or “methodological” causes of bias are the least significant.

Methodological bias

Sure, there are methodological reasons we screw up time estimates. Fred Brooks alludes to a key one of these in the title of his book: the” terrible simplification” that time and resources are interchangeable. This might be true of straightforward tasks, but some jobs are indivisible. Two women can’t “do pregnancy” in four and a half months, he points out. Adding more resources to complex tasks actually makes them take longer as people fall over each other, spending more time on necessary interactions to coordinate their activities than in doing the work.


Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The Tower of Babel (Vienna)

Another frequent source of “methodological bias” is misuse of Project Network Analysis. This “model” of the time schedule suggests that the overall duration of a project will be determined by its longest sequence of activities: its “critical path”. While this may be the case for certain kinds of projects, like pipelines and high-rise buildings, the duration of most projects is determined by too many (individually non-critical) activities left too late: a “bow wave effect”.

But a good planner understands such pitfalls and compensates for them by building contingency into their schedule. The next two sources of inaccuracy in project time and cost estimates – managerial and political – are far more insidious and difficult to compensate for.

Managerial bias

Managerial bias occurs wherever project management start to trade “realism” for “reach”. That is, when they start to say things like:

Yes, we know you estimate that the job will take three years but in our experience these types of jobs usually run, say, six month’s late. So we are going to set ourselves a “stretch target” of completion in two-and-a-half years and that way we might actually get it done in three years not three-and-a-half years.

This would be fine if project management always remembered its manipulation of the time estimate. But it is easy to delude ourselves, and all too often two-and-a-half years becomes the new planned completion date and three years (which was always how long the job would take) becomes a six-month delay.


I am willing to bet Network Rail’s planners initial schedules were far more realistic than their managerially-adjusted versions.

Political bias

Finally, the schedules of major projects are warped into pure fantasy by the baleful influence of politicians, “positioning” estimates to “manage stakeholders”. This was brought home to me when I worked for Westinghouse Nuclear Europe in Brussels.


Back then, Nuclear Power Stations took ten to twelve years to build. This was easy to demonstrate because Westinghouse’s Nuclear Steam Supply System projects were fairly standard and key project milestones for more than a hundred such plant were tabulated and updated monthly in the trade press (Nuclear Engineering International).

Nevertheless, “political bias” meant that Westinghouse always quoted their duration as six years. When I asked about this, I was told that it was as long as any client government was prepared to commit for. This might be OK if everyone tacitly conceded the deception. But Westinghouse manufactured its expensive reactor vessels as if this six-year timescale was a reality, delivered them to site and proceeded to charge their clients an arm and a leg in demurrage for the vessel and its skip. A nice little earner for Westinghouse, a rip-off for the client government and its taxpayers.

So what?

In the current Network Rail case, you can be sure that unconscionable corporate interests will have found ways to profit hugely from the cowardice and muddle-headedness of the UK’s politicians.

Yet again, we will not deal with such issues until we make it safe to talk.

Visceral communication

bde2e60b9b40c2d7a826104857bfc016f8e41483Mary King

We are much enjoying the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition this week. Last night Mongolian baritone Amartuvshin Enkhbat reduced the BBC’s otherwise coherent and insightful commentator, Mary King, to floods of tears both at rehearsals and in the final performance. Sometimes music communicates with you viscerally in a way that can’t be put into words, Mary explained. Neuroscientists agree. It’s a powerful reminder that communication is not what we say, but everything we do; it’s the environment we create.


Interviewed beforehand, Amartuvshin said that though he was delighted to be invited to participate in this competition, the occasion was even more important than this to him – as it was an occasion to showcase Mongolian classical music. This extraordinary YouTube video gives us a hint of what he means.

Amartuvshin won the third round. He’s currently our favourite to win the final (which will be broadcast live on Saturday night).

Barnstorming, no shame

Above, one of James’s recent projects for Red Bull. His cinematography is perhaps more remarkable than the stunt itself. He used 27 cameras to film it. In 12 hours, it had over 40 thousand hits and 2,500 likes on YouTube.

Violet with seat belt Meanwhile, his car has just failed its MOT test a second time… because Violet chewed the seat belt. He/she tweeted “I’m going for the hat-trick when they install the new one”… #noshame.

A network of conversations


My last few posts might seem all over the place but they represent different threads in the making-it-safe-to-talk tapestry I seek to weave here.

The Yala (a web-based platform to aid the emergence of collective intelligence) grew out of my own knowledge and experience, part of which was with the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). Social networks treats individual as their nodes; the Yala defines interfaces – places people need to work together to get things done – as nodes. I will use an example from the NHS to illustrate this reframing of a Complex Relationship as a network of interfaces, a network of conversations.

About fifteen years ago, the NHS in one of its endless reorganizations decided to create Combined Trusts to improve the integration of hospital and community care by placing responsibility for both under one Board.


Thus the Board of a typical Combined Trust would oversee health services as diverse as:

  • Learning Disabilities–assessment, treatment, living support teams, mental impairment services, community homes and specialist resources;
  • Mental Health–acute care, primary and secondary psychiatric nursing;
  • Specialist Mental Health–parent and baby day care unit, mentally disordered offenders team, neuropsychiatry, psychotherapy and substance misuse;
  • Older People–acute assessment, community psychiatric nursing teams, day and continuing care, and rehabilitation wards;
  • Children–mental health, disability and psychology services;
  • Psychology–adult mental health, learning disabilities, neuropsychology and older people;
  • Occupational Therapy–therapeutic activity to mitigate the effects of illness on personal and domestic activities of daily living, work and leisure; and,
  • Dental–integrated comprehensive primary dental care to complement existing services provided by local General Dental Practitioners.

Each service could be provided at several sites within one Combined Trust. Adult Mental Health Services, for example, might be available at a couple of hospitals within the geographic area of one Trust (one providing, say, a complex-needs residential home and the other acute assessment and day care). In addition there could be a primary and secondary community psychiatric nursing centre, and a patient and baby unit (for mental health services for women experiencing psychological problems during pregnancy and up to twelve months after the baby is delivered).

A site (a hospital, for example) will provide several different services. A typical hospital in a Combined Trust might offer Older People’s Services, Adult Mental Health, Day Care, Chiropody, Physiotherapy, Speech and Language Therapy and more.

The aim of offering joined-up services to patient is worthy one. But the attempt to manage its integration at such a high level was misguided. To medical practitioners in the field it looked like just another unwelcome dose of managerialism, yet another half-baked move to burden the NHS with layers of remote and irrelevant administration seeking to block and check the real work of doctors, nurses and their support staff. Looking at the problem through the lens of organisation structure merely compounded parochialism and in-fighting between different sites competing for limited funds.

The issues in integrating hospital and community care are significantly different in one service (for example, Older People) than another (say Dental Health). It therefore makes far more sense to frame this Complex Relationship not as one interface (the Combined Trust) but as at least nine interfaces, one for each of the eight major services and one for the Board of Management. Networking these interfaces then provides the opportunity to compare and contrast locally-developed best practice in delivering integrated care.


The World Café see their approach as a network of conversations.

How do my recent posts relate to this NHS example?

The kind of a thing that FIFA is spoke to the unique challenges of managing a complex socio-political human system. The NHS is most certainly one of these beasts.

The wisdom of using experience from all areas of a business cited the current TV documentary series Running the Shop as good examples of managing up from the grassroots not just down from the top. Building on the knowledge and experience of its own people “in the trenches” is the only way the NHS will transfer ownership of the need to improve integration of hospital and outpatient services.

When will I learn? used an engineering analogy (drawn from my Project Network Analysis days) to illustrate the value of redefining the nodes in our network. In this NHS example, focusing on people who need to work together to deliver joined-up care solves the problem of determining which are the relationships (ranging from the formal to the highly informal) that really matter here.

Muddled, boastful and phony used the instant and widespread damnation of George Osborne’s proposal to legislate against future budget deficits to illustrate the folly of trying to preclude certain discussions at an interface. In the language of Jürgen Habermas’s Discourse Ethics, allowing one point of views to predominate to the expense of all others is unethical. In my NHS example, it is a reminder that creating nine interfaces is necessary but not sufficient – we need to make it safe to express dissent at such nodes.

Finally, in The invisible force of a name, I spoke to invisible forces and how we tap into them. Certainly, this is the core of the core of Chinese Philosophers’ ancient wisdom of De (virtue) and Wu-Wei (trying not to try). Imagine the good will and constructive intent that truly valuing the knowledge and experience of NHS support staff and medical practitioners would release.


(only joking)