High-heels, guitars and cultural expectations


Expectations can run deeper than you may at first think, especially if those expectations are based on decades of cultural information/misinformation. This may affect attitudes towards quality or acceptance of new ideas, including industry innovations. If we’re aiming to make changes in an organisation, we should look out for the deep-rooted expectations of what’s acceptable.

It’s about the form


High-heels have been a feature of women’s attire for centuries, especially since the latter half of the last century. They’ve become a focus for discussing what’s acceptable in our society, to the extent of legislation in some countries banning companies from requiring its female workforce to wear heels. But also, from a moral perspective about whether wearing them can ever be required. Setting the moral and legal arguments aside, let’s take a quick look at what’s behind them.

Morris conducted an experiment analysing the attractiveness of female gait with the observers having no idea that the women were or were not wearing heels or even that the people they were observing were men or women. The observed were all women, and they all wore flats and heels. The observers had no idea that they’d see the same person’s gait twice; once with heels, once with flats. The result was that the “video clips of the walks in high heels were judged to be significantly more attractive than those in flats”. So there is an characteristic that we find more attractive and that characteristic reveals itself in our perception of gait which high heels enable.

A follow-up experiment reached a further conclusion, summarised as “by exaggerating the normal female gait, high heels serve to falsely enhance our perception of the wearer’s femininity”

So we end up with a cultural expectation of femininity based on the shoe type. Wear flats and you appear less feminine. Wear heels and you accentuate your femininity. And this is whether or not the heels are the most attractive (not just the effect that they have on the wearer) or which footwear would be the functionally most appropriate attire.

Consider a woman walking towards you. If she’s wearing flats, she’d be considered less attractive than if she were wearing heels. But it’s the same woman with the same attributes, same personality, even the same body, but her form and gait is altered by the use of the heels. It’s an expectation and it’s deeply rooted. I’m not saying that it’s the right thing or that women should wear heels, just noting the cultural expectation.

It’s about the tone


Guitarist have for decades sought the tone of the electric guitar pioneers. Think Beatles-era guitar sounds. Those are the tones that act as a reference for all modern guitar tones. Later, Jimi Hendrix took that tone and added colour to it through distorting amplifiers and effects units. Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath took Hendrix’s tone and detuned it. And so on. You can trace the line back to 1950’s popular tones.

Let’s say I innovate and introduce an exceptional guitar amplifier based on amazing audio technology that can clearly reproduce the guitar tone as it’s produced from the guitar. It would fall flat and no-one would buy it. Guitarists are not interested in the best (if we define best as “accurate” to the sound made by the guitar). The reference from the 1950s was made using inefficient amplifiers, inefficient cables, substandard guitars, low technology in strings and speakers that were appalling by today’s hifi standards. Even the speaker in your tv has a better response that those 1950s speakers. But that’s the tone we recognise as good. It’s so deeply ingrained in our models of what counts as good, that more accurate to the guitar doesn’t mean better. In fact the opposite.

There’s an additional complication in that the tone we hear for the guitar isn’t even that 1950s tone from the guitar amps. That produced tone is manipulated at the mixing desk, with appropriate equalisation to filter out the parts of the tone that we don’t need and especially to filter out the parts of the tone that would conflict with other instruments. So if you listen to the isolated tone that’s been recorded, it’s reedy and thin compared to what you’d expect. But add that isolated track into the rest of the song and your brain fills in the gaps.

So when we hear a guitar in a song, we expect it to have a compromised frequency range compared to what the guitar and amplifier can actually produce. If we heard what it could do, then it would sound odd, very odd indeed.

Similar to the high heels, we’ve built up a cultural expectation over decades of what constitutes good. It doesn’t mean it is good and, similar to heels, in many ways it is worse than what can be achieved. But it’s difficult to argue with deep-rooted expectations and, while we know it is possible to change minds, changing something this ingrained will take a lot of effort, time and patience.


As transformation agents (whether directors, analysts, managers, etc), we often miss the cultural expectations. We could use the Empathy Map Canvas, Lewin’s Force-field Analysis, Prosci’s ADKAR or whatever model your organisation chooses to use. But we should be careful as we use each of them, because sometimes the expectations are that ingrained, it’s difficult to bring them to surface. If you were to ask members of the public to attend a focus group on guitar tone and then worked through what’s prompting the change or resisting it, would the concept of the tone from the 1950s actually feature as an arrow that resists change? I doubt it. It’s invisible to them.

Instead, these hidden expectations create a risk to the change programme in potentially blocking the changes for what initially appear to be non-sensical reasons. That is, until you uncover the expectations which run deeper than you first thought.

Now consider the above examples of high-heels and guitar tone. Imagine trying to motivate just the people in your organisation to accept the better alternative (i.e. flats for function regardless of event or a hifi guitar sound). How difficult do you think that would be? And how does that compare to recent significant changes you’ve had to introduce?

Any comments, get in touch @alanward

Where Organisations Go Wrong

Ladder of citizen participation

A lot happened in 1969. The moon landing, Led Zeppelin was released (the first LZ album), the maiden flight of the Boeing 747, and a paper by Sherry Arnstein.

It’s difficult to say which is the most important of those above, but Arnstein’s paper is probably the least famous.


I frequently speak with directors and project leaders who introduce their voice of the customer initiative as the way that they interact with customers. That’s the way the company understands what customers are saying, what customers want, etc. After some digging since it’s never completely easy to find the one team (often because they operate under a different name, but someone thought Voice of the Customer would be a good title for what they do), I find that the initiative is a survey with some analysis of the results. That’s usually about the scope of the delivery: a survey.

I then usually respond with introducing them to Sherry Arnstein’s paper on The Ladder of Citizen Participation. While the paper focussed on the interaction between public sector organisations and their citizens, it’s equally applicable to private sector companies.


Arstein concisely describes a vertical hierarchy of how public services interact with the citizens and how the organisation harnesses the input of those citizens. The least involved are at the bottom rungs of the ladder and the most involved are at the top. There are 8 rungs, ranging from Manipulation at the bottom up to Citizen Control at the top.

While the rung descriptions are useful, the power of the article is in the further categorisation of all 8 rungs into 3 levels. I find that the terms used in these levels created a quicker response in my clients than the description themselves. The terms highlight the true interaction: Non-participation, Tokenism, Citizen Power. The implication that the first two levels of Non-participation and Tokenism don’t really involve the citizens’ agenda, just using their views to push the organisation’s agenda. So naturally, every client, when faced with the ladder, wants to be higher than they already are. They all fear the top rungs, as giving away power to the customers/service users, but want to pitch somewhere in between where they are now and just under the top one or two rungs.


I normally start at the second rung with an example of how local authorities are adapting to reduced budgets. “We’re going to reduce your bin collection from weekly to fortnightly”. On it’s own that’s just a statement of intent. It fits into therapy when we add “and here are some tips about how you can recycle more so you don’t fill up your black bin too early”. There are better phrases than that (and a lot worse), but the point is that the organisation is helping its customers adapt to the change. Note that the customers haven’t actually had any say in whether it should be weekly or fortnightly.

Consultation is the favourite of many of a public organisation, e.g “we’re thinking of making a change. Here’s are the two options that we’ve already chosen for you to pick from. We’ll hear concerns but the decision is ours.” That’s effectively what the organisation is saying in a consultation. The final decision rests with the organisation. Often the choices are just that, choices of predetermined options, with no potential to create a solution that could work for all parties if it’s not already listed as an option.

Even though consultation is a favourite of public organisations, it’s still tokenism. It’s interesting to see the shift in clients who are perfectly happy with the concept of consultations – since that’s what their organisation has always done – when confronted with the fact that it’s tokenisation. The shift moves them up the ladder to better inclusion of customers.

More forward-thinking councils have customers on strategic boards, acting as an equal member compared to the staff. That’s either Placation or Partnership depending on the level of involvement, the decisions that those boards can make (some with customers on are restricted in their decision scope) and the balance of customers to staff. Once we’re at the Partnership rung, then we’re moving into Citizen Power.

Applying to Your Organisation

Now consider your organisation’s voice of the customer service. How far does it allow a thorough two-way dialogue? Are you only allowing comments of certain types to be heard? What route do you have for those comments to affect your organisation’s strategy?

When you’re next designing a new service or product, or redesigning existing products, do you have customers in the room with you? Do you have customers on the decision-making boards/panels? And what happens if they are not present? Can the board still continue on that day or does it have to postpone since there are customer roles accounted for specifically in the quorum?



A spanish translation:


Is this a bad time to talk?


There are times to make people feel comfortable, to help them feel that the change is achievable. There are also times when we need to remove that comfort and destabilise temporarily, so that they can work towards a solution. We commonly reintroduce comfort, or better still guide the audience towards discovering the own new level of comfort.

On a smaller level, that element of something not being on script can be incredibly useful.


Think of those situations when someone has spoken out of character for the event. They’ve gone off-script and either talked about something not relevant or worse completely inappropriate for the situation. To borrow an example from the television series Frasier, I remember Martin Crane, the retired police officer, opening up a conversation at a dinner party talking about human entrails when asked about the buffet “Isn’t this the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”. The point was that it was the wrong thing to say, it made the rest of the party guests uncomfortable. He didn’t respond on-script as was expected.

Another example we’ve all experienced would be opening by discussing “How are you?” If the person responds with negative comments about their day or health, there’s usually a moment of awkwardness where you’re waiting to see if they come back on script. This is usually regardless of how much you care. Even if you care a lot about the person, it’s still awkward if you had only said “Hi, how are you?” as a typical greeting. If they continue the off-script information, again we get that deeply uncomfortable feeling, much like Martin Crane’s audience. If they return back to on-script, then all is well and you can address any concerns that they had raised.

But we can harness some of that off-script without alienating our audience, without making them uncomfortable.

An Approach from a Former FBI Lead International Kidnapping Negotiator

I came across Chris Voss through his book on negotiation. It’s an amazing book and easily one of the top 10 books I’d recommend to anyone starting out in business change, business analysis, etc. Most of those jobs are about people, not the technical aspects, so if you can interact better with people, then you’ve got a head start on your other analytical/change colleagues. If you haven’t yet read his book on negotiation, then do so. It’s full of useable advice, ranging from small of this type of scale to larger pieces that may change how you regard the practice of negotiation.

When I mentor, I ask how the mentee prefers to learn. Some want the quiet time of a book, others want to listen to podcasts. Increasingly common is the option of learning through videos. The most common overlay on all of them is the wish to learn by doing, shortly after learning the theory.

So I set off to see what videos I could find of Chris Voss online. And there is some formidable content available, ranging from Google presentations, to his interview with Lewis Howes and a significant number of other videos, all of them valuable.

I came across one nugget in the videos that I hadn’t read in the book and it’s it’s amazingly simple.

In his interview, he mentioned that instead of asking “Is this a good time to talk?”, we should ask “Is this a bad time to talk?”. He followed this up with stating that it’s because the person has to think about how they answer and that they’re in the position of agreeing, it’s a bad time and then having to suggest a better time. Whereas if you ask if it’s a good time, they can respond with no and the option to re-engage is with you.

Try it

I’ve tried it and it was a very informative experience. I noticed that my partner in the conversation started to respond (probably to the question that I hadn’t asked “is this a good time to talk?”), then checked himself, paused, thought, then had to rephrase his responds to fit the question. It worked, I’d convinced someone with a full diary to spend 10 minutes unscheduled time with me on the phone at 9am on a Monday morning.

I intend to keep using it in the hope that it doesn’t become the new norm where it loses it’s power of being different.


A couple of relevant videos for you, referred to above and embedded here


Automation of White Collar Jobs and Process Debt



Business Insider published an article on how automation may remove the need for people in white-collar roles.

While the context of the article seems relevant, I found the choice of example to be very odd. Specifically Deliveroo’s creation of 25 redundancies in their ordering process. In fact, I think it more likely that process debt had been accrued and then paid off as part of an improvement programme.

Initial Thoughts

I found it odd because to me that sounds like the original ordering process was horrendously inefficient. Automation was one tool that was used, but I doubt that it was the only tool. Better process design, streamlining and more intelligent analysis of the how the process worked were probably a bigger part of the result than the automation itself. The automation was just one of the enablers.


The reason that I think it’s this way is because of debt, not financial debt, but design debt. In the same way that technical debt exists, so can design debt, architectural debt. I don’t want to coin another phrase since debt works adequately once we recognise that not all debts are purely financial.

The point is that a company can make decisions to react quickly rather than spending time and effort to improve their processes, their technology and, indeed, their finances. Those decisions can move them to a place where they are able to react quicker (by using existing processes, tech, etc rather than having to build updates or change platform completely), but where they also know that time is limited. There are reasons why some companies have put the time and effort into improvement and reasons why other companies choose the quicker solution . In choosing the quicker solution, the company is building up a debt. And like all debts, it has to be repaid. The hope and idea is that the company is profitable enough from its short-term decisions that it can easily afford the debt when it’s called in.

All founders make these decisions. As a relatively young company, it’s likely that Deliveroo made those decisions and at times leaned towards building a presence and market share in lieu of efficiency. Like a garden or like a code-repository, all organisations need maintaining otherwise they become stale, complete with weeds of inefficiency.

When was the last time you actively improved your processes?



Applying Different Categories of Knowledge


Categories of Knowledge
Categories of Knowledge

We should be careful when we judge the effectiveness of others and reflecting on this can in turn help influence us in how we approach change activities. I’ll use this chart (shown in more detail further down) to describe the differences.

First Day Effectiveness

On numerous occasions, I’ve seen people judge others by their effectiveness on the first day at work.

In some cases that may be fairer than others, but let’s take the view of a clinician arriving on a hospital ward for the first time. That nurse may be one of the best nurses ever to have existed, complete with outstanding nursing skills and excellent nursing experience, but they may be judged overly harshly as being ineffective due to not knowing the location of certain items on that particular ward.

It always takes some time to understand how a new environment works, whether that’s where items are stored, who to ask or what policies an organisation has in place compared to other organisations where you’ve worked. If you’re a temporary or bank worker, then you have to face this every time you start somewhere new. Fortunately, the more you change environment, the more adept you become at picking up the nuances of each new environment. But that does not remove the fact that each time is still a new learning experience; it just reduces the time you take to adjust as you begin to spot patterns between different environments.

Take-away Points

There are two points that we should consider:

  1. We should separate out professional knowledge from knowledge about the local environment, including the organisation.
  2. A person can be judged on many different axes of professional knowledge. For instance, a nurse may be an awesome nurse, but would they be a good change professional or a great accountant?

Further Analysis

The chart below depicts the typical range of knowledge seen on change programmes. I’ve treated these as different categories of knowledge and I have chosen to blur the lines between knowledge and skill.

It is rare in most organisations to have sufficient critical mass of people who know the organisation, know how each team works and know how to progress change effectively. People usually fall on one side or the other or there are too few of those that have knowledge on both sides.

So we introduce a change professional, whether a business analyst, change analyst, change manager or other similar role. They are introduced to the local, operational team and the aim is to balance the team’s knowledge of what they do and the organisation with the consultant’s knowledge about how to effect change. Neither would be functional without the other in this scenario.

Categories of Knowledge
Categories of Knowledge

The more time that a consultant spends within a sector the less they’ll need sector advice. The more time that a consultant spends within an organisation, the more they’ll know how to act directly (and this can happen very quickly depending on the style of consultancy involved). However, it’s nearly always the case that the consultant will still need the team to provide local knowledge, no matter how long they spend together.

Further Thoughts on Reversing our Approach

The usual view on a change programme is of allowing the change analyst or consultant to gain the knowledge of how the organisation works from those currently working in the teams.

What advantages could we see if we reversed this concept and instead helped the teams to gain knowledge about change programmes from the consultant?

By this, I’m not thinking of being trained (whether through train-the-trainer concepts) or shadowing, but something more fundamental.

Imagine the benefits to an organisation if every hour of a consultant’s time spent learning about current processes, etc is also followed by an hour of the team learning how to make changes. It would slow down the pace of change initially, but would it decrease change fatigue, would it decrease resistance? Could it also increase success of change and the scale of change achievable?

The Change Stand-off in Innovation

Circular Star Pattern by Anna Anikina
Circular Star Pattern by Anna Anikina

For a long time now, I’ve had the view that we only have so much time to change an organisation before the organisation changes us. I’ve seen it happen with dynamic people that become subdued over time as they encounter obstacle after obstacle, resistance, red-tape and other forms of organisational resistance to change. Maintaining innovation, or rather the ability to innovate and to generate innovation in a client, is key with external consultants.


In reading this article today on Why Outsiders are the Most Innovative People  adapted from work by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, I was reminded why it’s important to introduce a fresh perspective.

I’m independent in that I’m not tied to any company or organisation and I enjoy what that brings to both me and my corporate clients. Yes, I’m prepared to challenge what client staff have accepted as normal over time. It’s the response to that initial challenge of the status quo that gives me an idea of how well the planned change activity will progress, or at least how much commitment we should expect to receive from client staff.

Continue reading “The Change Stand-off in Innovation”