Photo by Mariia Zakatiura on Unsplash

We’ve just releasesed into the wild the latest episode of our weekly videocast – The Value Exchange.   

Episode 2 – Part 2 – Alignment/Engagement and Action Research sees us complete our recent conversation with special guest and long time work colleague Tony Clarke. In part 2, Tony shares some great insights and thinking around alignment, communication and the importance of taking an Action Research approach to experiment in order for systems to adapt. We need more experiments for sure! 


Youtube video – Episode 2 – Part 2 – Alignment/Engagement and Action Research  (click to watch)

Transcript –  scroll to see text below 

If you want to join the conversation and participate in The Value Exchange, then Get in touch


TRANSCRIPT – Episode 2 – Part 2 – Alignment/Engagement and Action Research

[00:00:15.050] – Annabelle Lambert

Alright, we’re live. Welcome to the next edition of the Value Exchange.

[00:00:20.870] – Rob Pye

If you’ve got Value Exchange as a technique or approach framework, and you’ve got, let’s say, Tony’s unified Theory of everything,

Tony Clarke

If only

Rob Pye

And then we’ve got a bunch of people in the police force, a bunch of people in Barclays Bank, bunch of people from a young person to work charity, we’re working with those kind of organisations all the time. Is there a danger that either Value Exchange or Tony’s Unified Theory of Everything creates very different perspectives? And there’s more homogeneity from the life in the police and the bank and the charity that they can align with one another but they can’t really talk to bankers or they can’t really talk to because is that as big a risk with value exchange and the system thinking, or will system thinking help level to align people better? What are the issues of alignment in these frameworks?

[00:01:33.000] – Tony Clarke

I think the key is it’s creating the mechanism through which people can engage. And I think that’s really important because if you think about it, what we’re really doing when we do any kind of communication or mental models and mapping each other’s perspectives, we’re looking to do it, to act and we should just get on and do stuff because that’s how we learn, that’s how we adapt. We have a thought, we have a way of thinking about something and hopefully through things like the Value Exchange and the interaction it encourages and the context it helps create, we’re likely to have people with potentially very different worldviews, very different perspectives on what’s important, why it’s important. Their mental models are likely to be different. Not necessarily, but likely to be quite different. So creating the context within which they can begin to have those conversations and begin to understand each other’s perspectives, I feel is the only way you can progress to act, to do stuff and then reflect. And within Ethos, we’ve talked about the concept of action research a lot over the years, but I think it’s a fundamental process, it’s fundamental, it’s how everything in nature, in people based systems operates.

[00:02:58.330] – Tony Clarke

We do stuff, we reflect, we refine, we do it again, we reflect, we refine. I mean, that’s the process of adaption. That’s how things change. That’s how things and the degree of change is about the amount of action you choose to take. It can be very small, very limited little steps, but you still reflect and refine. Or it can be an attempt at big things. Generally the bigger the thing you try to change, the less likely it probably is to work because that’s not how adaption tends to operate. It tends to operate on smaller cycles. So we’ve adopted an approach over the years which I think is, I feel is completely the right way to approach big problem solving, which is not to try and do it, bite it off as one chunk, but to try and explore it. And to do that, you have to have that process of initial alignment and value exchange is just not the only mechanism, but one mechanism that helps create a bit of a community sort of context that’s not necessarily it can be, but not necessarily located just within a particular organisation or boundary.

[00:04:13.650] – Annabelle Lambert

I’m reminded Tony and I’ve shared this story before, but the moment for me, and this is many many years ago that this happened, but it was sort of just that ability to give permission to communicate themselves where they are, their frames, whatever term you want to do. When we were working between a space with people who I guess if you must label people, then very much in the activist space, very anti institution, the establishment is bad kind of space, looking to change it, meeting with the MoD, which is very much part of the establishment.

[00:04:59.070] – Rob Pye

And just you’re not going to name individuals?

[00:05:01.810] – Annabelle Lambert

No, of course I’m not going to name anybody, but just the fear, really, in the face of the activist, really, at the moment, we were like, well, we can arrange for you to talk to these people because we’re happy to facilitate that, we think it’s fine. There’s no issue with you talking to these people. Why wouldn’t you want to do that? Because that can solve your problem. And it was like horrific. They didn’t run off scared, but it was almost like, oh, my God, they’d never felt that they had the right or the opportunity to do that. So it was quite powerful in that sense.

[00:05:41.230] – Rob Pye

Annabelle and I were talking earlier today about communication. So you’ve got the frames and the sort of architecture bit, but there’s also this issue of how we level set the communication, particularly within organisational boundaries, between organisational boundaries between individuals and organisations, and the sort of medium, the media we use for that. We’re online on a podcast here. Lots of people want to get together, they want to talk in online communities where we started Ethos years and years ago, there are sort of communities of practice, the informal and formal social network. So is there a balance to be had between what you say and how you say it? And I’ve got a couple of questions you provoked earlier, but what would you say on communication outside the framework of architecture?

[00:06:52.850] – Tony Clarke

Yeah, that’s interesting. I suppose I’d find it difficult to, I mean, for me, in the problem solving context, obviously there’s social and all the rest of it, which is different, but in the problem solving context, fundamentally it’s about reconciling and aligning mental models. That’s a shorthand, but something obviously a little bit more complicated. But the mental models, so that a group of people be in an organisational boundary, across an organisational boundary, a community of practice is a very good example that’s not necessarily bounded in any particular institutional context, but nevertheless, it has form, it has structure, and the communications that occur in there pursuing the particular practise would be all about aligning ideas and perspectives and building knowledge by doing stuff and reflecting on it and changing and growing and building a knowledge. The practice will grow.

[00:07:56.790] – Rob Pye

We were having an interruption, a practical example, having a conversation with the chief exec of a reasonably big charity just before this. And the mental model of some of their beneficiaries might be adults bad, young people, county lines, good, my community of people who are dealing, who are young like me, who realise how difficult it is to be me, and then adults who might be trying to help them. But there might be a really big gap between the mental models operated by, in this case, some young and then some older people, or people from one health service perspective, acute care A and E versus police or prison service or something like that. So you’re starting with some fairly cavernous gaps between our mental models and so you can have a way to communicate, but it’s like, yeah, all my assumptions are true, you just don’t understand what its like being in me.

[00:09:05.230] – Tony Clarke

But that’s probably why I mean, my response to that is always I’ll start with a diagram of some sort, because all I’m doing is chunking, collecting, framing, relating the components that I think are important in that context. And I’ll obviously be reflecting if I’m about to communicate with people whom I know have got a very different worldview to me and a different perspective, or see the situation differently, have different mental models. But I’ll inevitably respond to that in how I would attempt to capture my mental model. I’d put notes on it and I’d adjust it and say, well, perhaps there’s another way of looking at it here. I would do my best to try and mediate and what am I trying to do? I’m trying to create something, an artefact of some sort around which a degree of communication might be possible. Now, I’m not saying it won’t be without its problems, because obviously if I’m challenging some well entrenched assumptions about someone’s worldview, then I’m conscious that one, I may not even understand the difference. That’s one problem that may surface out of that conversation, but even if I’m aware of it, it’s a diplomacy job, isn’t it?

[00:10:27.790] – Tony Clarke

You can’t just trample all over it. You’ve got to be sensitive to that because that’s their worldview, that’s how they see that’s their mental models. None of us have got the answer. The system we’re all talking about is way too complex to be in any shape or form fully modelled. It’s not even feasible. But what we can do is try and understand, get labels for similar components, similar we can choose to chunk things up and split things down and relate things in a way that we all begin to hopefully agree on. And that, at least will help surface assumptions, will help surface differences of her opinion. I’m not saying that’s easy to solve, but if you don’t do that, you can’t solve the problem. You can’t.

[00:11:20.570] – Rob Pye

An example of that is you’re a very visual thinker, so you want to diagram something. And Annabelle is quite slow react. I tend to like.

[00:11:32.060] – Annabelle Lambert


[00:11:34.750] – Rob Pye

I like talking and kind of engaging. Now, some people will be visual, somebody auditory, some people will be written. And what were your models say about the means of communicate asynchronously you’re also somebody that likes to reflect and work alone. How do we take all of those mental? As a team of three people, we’ve worked together for how long? 24 Years

[00:12:04.340] – Annabelle Lambert

yeah 24 years.

[00:12:10.210] – Rob Pye

We’re totally different people and yet somehow we’ve managed to find that bit that complements more than conflicts with one another we’re very different people but how can we respect the different styles of communication? Tony?

[00:12:28.980] – Tony Clarke

Well, I don’t have a problem with that at all. I think I’ll reach for a diagram as my first recourse because I’m just comfortable with that. That’s just me. That’s the way I think. But I’m just as comfortable writing it. I’m just as comfortable. Maybe that’s something I’ve learned over the years. I’ve always wanted to express ideas succinctly. I do believe if you can’t explain something reasonably succinctly then you don’t really have a grasp of it. There are still things around the edges that are not really understood. I mean, that’s the interesting part. I think any medium for instance, I’ll use both. You’ll both know this

[00:13:14.030] – Rob Pye

We’re talking on video here.

[00:13:21.810] – Tony Clarke

I’m completely relaxed. For me, it doesn’t really matter. The channel is less important than the content. I hope, you can be the judges do that as much as me. I hope I can express ideas, system ideas in writing just as well as I can in diagram or just as well as I can do it over a video conference. Others to judge on that. Of course I’m most comfortable drawing a diagram. But like everything else, I think one.

[00:13:54.350] – Rob Pye

Thing you said Tony, when he back from holiday is understanding the language. Now, I know that this means a lot to you.

[00:14:07.310] – Annabelle Lambert

the words don’t matter, but….your epitaph;)

[00:14:14.050] – Tony Clarke

The meaning.

[00:14:17.250] – Rob Pye

I’d like you to unpick that a little bit for us. Let’s talk about language a little bit.

[00:14:23.700] – Tony Clarke

Well, in systems thinking, terminology, having decided on a particular chunking splitting, obviously because you don’t always chunk things up sometimes you split things to make them more explicit. And the relationships that you express between those things and the perspective that you’re doing this all from I think language becomes for me incredibly important. I will be very precise with terminology when I’m communicating but I’m also quite relaxed to hear other people translate those. Quite relaxed. Not completely relaxed, quite relaxed to have people express, replay those ideas back to me using their language. Because how else can I assess whether my mental model is shared or whether I’ve transmitted something to help create a mental model that we have something in common? Now, I know we’re never going to get it 100%, but if I can get to 80%, then I’m increasingly confident that we’re talking about the same thing, we’re in the same ballpark. And that’s why I will often say, I don’t mind how you describe it back to me, I just want to hear you describe it back to me because then it’s back to the feedback loop. I’m getting a reflection back on the model that I think that’s in here.

[00:15:49.200] – Tony Clarke

I’m getting it tested and I’m refining it. I’m very precise about the language because to me that’s very important because I have a grammar. If I’m using a particular style of diagram, then the constraints that the grammar puts on me in doing that style of diagramming I have just found over the years, it forces me to be precise. It works for me, not the only way

[00:16:13.990] – Rob Pye

I thinkthe next set of questions that I’m making up as we go along, which is always the best way is about any particular word. So I kind of like to try on the jacket in terms of a different lexicon, ontology, vocal cavalry, all of that stuff. When Annabelle and I and you started this in ‘99, we went to see a guy called Etienne Wenger in California who wrote a very terse academic book called Communities of Practise where he studied insurance claims processes for how on earth do people stay sane in a hierarchy of processing insurance claims where actually moderately mechanistic. And of course, it was the informal relationships and shared meaning, shared purpose and the whole lexicon that he popularised with Communities of Practice was really, really good. I think wind forward 24 years. I’m exploring the language of ethnography and storytelling within the context of my life, but not just me, but how I’ve grown up and what my community of friends and workers and that are there particular words that you want to share at the moment that are sort of falling in your lexicon of thinking on systems theory that we should note?

[00:17:50.230] – Tony Clarke

I think they’re very contextual. They’re very within a particular context. As we’re unfolding or exploring a particular idea, a particular business idea or whatever, I will get very precise about terms like the obvious ones, the customer, the product, the service, the system. For me, those are kind of labels that because we’re in a business context, we’re mostly talking about either exploring new business opportunities or existing ones or whatever. I will get very precise in my thinking about those things we’ve already talked about. As I reflect those back to you guys, you may come back with slightly different terms. Fine. I’m just interested to hear, are we aligning? Are we getting a consistent way of thinking about these things? So I think it is context dependent, but in a business context it will be things like customer, client. I use those two words for instance, I have a particular, in my lexicon, I would separate those two things you and I, Rob, have often talked about. We think about the customer as being the beneficiary, victim of a process. The client is the person who owns the thing, who’s paying for it, who wants it to happen, who’s got the power to stop it.

[00:19:09.790] – Tony Clarke

They can be and often are the same person, but they’re not always. So that’s just a very tiny example of me unpicking a situation and choosing to chunk and relate things that in common language we wouldn’t bother with, and indeed, in common language I wouldn’t bother with. But in a particular context where it’s important for me to understand the components and how they relate to each other, I will get very precise about language. I will get very precise in my use of that language because that’s me unpicking the mental model, unpicking my view of what’s going on. And don’t be surprised they’re a consistent over context. I’ll use the same terminology.

[00:19:56.030] – Rob Pye

One of the context we’ve explored quite deeply over the years has been the idea of a hub. The hub being a group of organisations that participate for enlightened self interest, for exchange, for community, for whether they’re coming together. And some interesting language has emerged from that, just sort of anecdotally from the sort of flippant value proposition of the hub being more like a supermarket where you might kind of go and kind of collect stuff that loads of other suppliers have kind of come and dumped their stuff in a supermarket and consumers come and buy it. To looking at a hub to have a dominant predator. So a sort of ecological metaphor. There is a big fish that is somehow convening. You might take that to pharmaceuticals where action research for drug innovation. In the context of hubs, it’s not specific because it’s like well, what happened to say? But that is something we’ve explored quite deeply. Any thoughts on the context of these multi stakeholder things?

[00:21:13.910] – Tony Clarke

How long have you got?

[00:21:16.570] – Annabelle Lambert

As long as you want, Tony.

[00:21:18.160] – Tony Clarke

A huge topic. No, the concept for me, and again, this is another thing I will do a lot. I will draw metaphors again, I can’t help it. When an idea like the hub, we started to talk about the idea, I would immediately search for metaphors that I could at least explore. What am I doing? I’m finding a mental model that already exists and I’m using it to test do the ideas work, how does it play? Because no metaphor is going to be right in different contexts, but you can learn stuff. That’s why we use metaphors because they’re a very good way of reflecting a new context. We liken it to something else to explore what’s different, what’s the same. So, for instance, when we originally started talking about hub, my mental model immediately sprang to the club with the clubhouse and the rules and why the club exists and what’s it about. Now, that overlaps quite a lot with the concept of communities of practice, communities of interest. But usually there’s some practice going on in a club. It could be golf, it could be tennis, it could be jigsaws, whatever it is. There’s a group of people who have chosen a set of rules or constitution, and typically there is some mechanism through which they are, in a sense, not held together, but they are, and I hate to use this word governance, because that’s another big topic, but there is a kind of the club provides a governance framework, and someone has to operate that.

[00:22:48.740] – Tony Clarke

Someone has to facilitate that. It could be one of the members, it could be a distinct component, et cetera, et cetera. So, yeah, it’s a big topic, but there’s a lot to unpick in that. But that was my, and I think it still is largely my mental model that I draw on when I’m thinking about that.

[00:23:43.880] – Rob Pye

But until the next one, I think I am going to end the recording now and I’m not sure any final words, Tony, that you want to reflect on?

[00:23:52.620] – Tony Clarke

No, I mean, I’m happy to do this again. Obviously there’s quite a lot we could talk about, I suspect. No worries.

[00:24:00.990] – Rob Pye

And Annabelle, who was hosting this until the dog started barking. Final words?

[00:24:04.620] – Annabelle Lambert

No, I mean, lots to think about. I mean, I want to scrap from the whole lexicon, client and customer, but lots to explore just because they infer behaviour which I really don’t want people to be pursuing anymore. I’m just not into that. I’ve been for years on the basis of like, I don’t want to have clients, I will have people that I work with because we’re trying to solve a problem together. I’m not a slave to a master, but anyway, that’s probably for a very much another conversation. Lots to explore there. Thank you both.

[00:24:42.570] – Rob Pye

Goodbye from us for this one.

[00:24:45.230] – Tony Clarke

Thank you.