Posts Tagged "unexpected events"

on Aug 25, 2014 in Blog

To my surprise, I’ve realised that the red party balloon under the stairs is now two years old. A bit more actually – it’s 751 days old today. That seems very old for a party balloon. It was blown up for a party during the London 2012 Olympics, and it’s still inflated. This is an unexpected and unintended consequence of a series of small, inconsequential decisions. And that’s often how we get what we get in organisations in terms of patterns of behaviour that we might label as ‘culture’. But once we have a pattern, it has an effect, and it can be hard to change. Here’s why. Take the balloon story. The red balloon is under mystairs by accident, rather than design. But because it IS there, it has an effect. Actually, it probably has several effects. When I open the cupboard and see it, I’m often surprised – I’d forgotten it was there; I’m intrigued – I’m amazed it’s still there; and, oddly, I feel somewhat pleased that it’s still there. It’s probably affected behaviour too, because I haven’t used the green bucket it’s been sat in, and nor, I suspect has anyone else in my household. So, what does this mean for culture change? Your organisation probably has its own metaphorical balloons hidden under the stairs. They may be values shared (e.g. we value expertise), stories told (e.g. we punch above our weight), or ways of doing things that are perpetuated over time (e.g. we talk about action, rather than take action). They may have arisen accidentally; an unintended consequence of a series of small actions taken some while ago, and people’s responses to those actions. You probably don’t even notice the balloons after a while. But, although invisible, they may stimulate a pattern of behaviour, where people just don’t use the green bucket, because there’s a red balloon in it. But after a while no one remembers why there’s a red balloon in it, or whether it’s important to keep. These metaphorical balloons can mean that organisations get stuck repeating the same patterns, without necessarily realising why. For example, ‘we value expertise’ can turn into rigid demarcations of experts which get in the way of...

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on Dec 5, 2013 in Blog

The party balloon in the cupboard under my stairs was blown up on Super Saturday during the London Olympics. It’s now 489 days old, and counting… We threw a party on super Saturday – well it was just Saturday 4th August 2012 until all the GB golds started rolling in. A friend brought round some red, white and blue balloons left over from a Jubilee celebration, so we blew them up. The day after the party, there was one red, one white and one blue balloon left. In celebratory mood, I left them there to brighten up the room. They’ll go down in a few days, I thought. They didn’t. A couple of weeks later, I thought I’d get them out of the way by putting them in the cupboard under the stairs. (No, I’m not sure why either!) They’ll go down in a few days, I thought. They didn’t. Several months later, I found the blue balloon looking deflated where the hoover had been leaning against it. The others will go down soon, I thought. They didn’t. Both the red one and the white still look, well, they still look like party balloons, some 489 days later. Most of the balloons bit the dust during the party. One was popped by a surprised toddler, who promptly burst into tears, and then plucked up the courage to pop another. Many of them took a battering as we punched them in the air on Mo Farah’s 5000m victory. But, surprisingly, three survived for many months, and, even more surprisingly, two of those are still going 489 days later…. What does this tell us? It tells us about long tails and power laws. You might not have heard of these terms, but power law distributions with long tails are common in nature. Basically they tell us that some events are common (e.g. a lot of party balloons have a very short life span – they pop at a party) and some happen more rarely (e.g. a couple of party balloons are still looking like balloons over 15 months later). Most importantly, they show us that unexpected things (‘extreme events’) DO happen. And they’re not as rare or unexpected as you might think....

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