Monthly Archives: April 2013

Humans in organisations are still humans

I’ve recently witnessed a few discussions about the differing roles of companies,  organizations, governments and people, which got me thinking.
  • A friend recommended that I watch Dan Pallotta’s TED talk, suggesting that the community has put standards on charities that stop them achieving their potential (most notably, a focus on minimising costs, rather than maximising outcomes and value)
  • A few months ago, on my morning run, I listened to a Planet Money podcast on how the Roman Catholic church should behave like a business.
  • I was watching Zeitgeist Addendum on the weekend, one of several documentaries I’ve seen that portray corporations as inherently evil.
  • I have been getting increasingly tired of the never-ending debate about whether governments or the private sector are best placed to deliver services like health care and education
  • At a more personal level, I’m noticing many people I admire taking charge of their own careers, rather than living for a corporation.  Some still work for a company, just on terms that suit them and their life.  And others are working for themselves (often on multiple projects) or for organisations they care about.

There are a few themes underlying my thoughts on these.  For example, in a future blog post I will explore the relative merits of corporations, charities, organisations and individuals carrying out activities.

In today’s post, however, I’d like to pick up the theme of the importance of the humans in thinking about organisations – which I’ve noticed is often missed in discussions.  It needs to be thought about from a number of perspectives:

Firstly, as individuals, you have to stay human, and accountable to yourself and others for whatever you do. Being part of a company, organisation, or even a religion doesn’t excuse you from your obligations as a human.  For example, it is very easy, when talking to colleagues, or customers/clients, to talk to them impersonally, rather than human to human – watch yourself over the course of a day and see how you do.

Next, organisations shouldn’t forget that their employees/members are human, not try to stop them from being human.  Anything they can do to support their employees staying human, rather than cogs in a machine, will lead to better engagement, more creative outcomes and less dysfunctional behaviour.

And finally, for society, when judging organisational behaviour, look behind the organisation, at the people involved. A corporate misdeed is ultimately a personal misdeed (if not multiple ones). And similarly, an organisation making a real positive difference is ultimately a group of people making a positive difference – the organisation is just how they do it. We’d make better judgements of organisations, and ultimately create better organisations, if we could stop thinking of organisations as being impersonal (or worse, being their own person).

Salman Khan and The One World Schoolhouse

When I’m honest (rather than pretending to be courageous and ‘independent’), I will admit that I love discovering people who think and write along the same lines as I do (preferably more cleverly and clearly).  I find it comforting knowing that the future of a good idea isn’t wholly dependent on me for its success.

I spent much of last weekend devouring the book that I would have loved to have written, ‘The One World Schoolhouse’. Its author, Salman Khan, clearly captured my thoughts on the education system today, and what it could become. It was passionate as well as pragmatic, showing genuine concern for the people involved (children and adults, those that learn, those that teach, and even those whose worlds are improved by educated creativity).

The essence of Khan’s ideas (though he humbly acknowledges that he didn’t invent most of them, nor are they new) is that the education system most people experience was not designed for the world today, let alone tomorrow, which requires creative, self-motivated learners that can apply their knowledge and skills in new ways.

Just a few of the  many examples he offered include:

  • Students should learn concepts independently (using technology or books), so that teacher time can more valuably be used addressing difficulties or helping students apply the concepts.  
  • Concepts should be taught taking advantage of their connections. The idea that subjects like mathematics and physics are separate doesn’t make sense, let alone that probability and statistics can be taught in isolation.  Content taught in view of its wider context is more likely to be remembered on a longer term basis.
  • Students should be allowed to learn at different paces, reflecting their own passions and abilities.  Those that master concepts more quickly should be encouraged to help others learn.
  • Children are naturally motivated learners.  It makes no sense to instil a one-size-fits-all, rote-learning approach that kills engagement in most students, and then insist on more discipline and assessment and less student autonomy because the children aren’t motivated.

The suggestions Khan makes aren’t new, and he mentions some innovative teachers and schools that have been using these methods to some extent for a while.  A few of his suggestions had me remembering how I had benefitted from some experience or other in my schooling.  But it is good to have them shared more widely, particularly if it will help people resist the temptation to demand more discipline, standardisation and homework, ignoring their costs in terms of engagement and creativity.

The book also has excellent proposals for university education and continuing education (for example in the workplace), so I’d recommend it even if you’re less interested in the school system.

Khan isn’t just an eloquent thinker and writer, indeed his ideas in the book are told around the story of his real world contribution: Khan Academy (  This site now has 4,000 video lectures, but more importantly, a framework around them.  Students can see how the topics are connected, can be tested to ensure mastery, and can learn at their own pace.  Students and their parents (and teachers, when used in schools) can monitor progress in a far more meaningful way than with standardised tests.

Several school districts are using Khan Academy in the classroom, and over a million students a month are logging in from around the world.  It isn’t just for children – concepts extend to university level, and it can even be extremely helpful for addressing gaps in your own learning if you’re already in the workforce.  Speaking personally, I dropped out of Statistics 101 after one lecture when I couldn’t understand the idea of an unbiased estimate of standard deviation (the lecturer expected us to just memorise the formulas, which has never been my style).  There is an 8 minute video on Khan Academy that makes the concept intuitive – if only that had been available in 1997!

If you’re interested in learning more, you can watch Khan’s TED talk (he’s an entertaining speaker), but I really can’t recommend enough that you take the time to read ‘The One World Schoolhouse’ (don’t worry, it’s not a long or difficult read!) .

making sense of motives and actions

It seems that wherever we look these days, we can see evidence and accusations of wrong-doing.  I work in the financial sector (some of you no doubt question if anything we do is right!), but I also know that dishonesty, conflict and exploitation occur in all fields of life.

Determining right and wrong isn’t as easy as many people think.  I don’t say that to give people the opportunity to just do whatever they want, or to excuse bad behaviour.  But oversimplifying it and believing everything is clear cut can stop the honest, open-minded thinking process needed to do the right thing.

I believe that to decide whether something is right or wrong, you have to consider the action, the outcome and the motive.  

This view isn’t held by everyone.  In my late teens I believed that all that mattered was what happened, and that we shouldn’t complain if the right thing happened for the wrong reason.

Part of my change of mind was recognising that with we don’t have perfect (or even good) knowledge of whether an outcome is for the best, or will prove to be harmful.  If we have the right intentions, we will seek out better information and improve our actions and outcomes.  If we are set on our actions, then we’ll seek out information to justify those actions.

As well, as I’ve worked with, and watched more people work, I’ve noticed how that those with an intrinsic motivation for the ultimate desired outcome are more creative and effective at achieving the outcome, and find their effort more satisfying (ie less like work).

This view can be difficult to hold.  There are plenty of examples of good that came without good intentions, and I wouldn’t accept bad outcomes just because they are driven by good intentions (but I’m sure well intentioned individual wouldn’t accept bad outcomes either).  An even bigger challenge to my view is that, you never actually know for sure what other people’s motives are – it is hard enough to be sure of our own motives for the things that we do, and they are often mixed.

So I have a few other tips:

  • Always be open-minded about other people’s motives for doing things – they’re unlikely to be as simple as you at first think. 
  • Don’t ignore how other people will interpret your motives.  It may be that you’re hiding some of your motives from yourself.  Or even if your motives are fine, if other people don’t agree with you, it will be a lonely path.
  • Be open-minded about what might result from your actions, it is the best way to avoid realising later that what you did wasn’t the desired outcome.