Idries Shah on Attention

On doing some research into the great Afghan-Scot mystic, Idries Shah, I came across this brilliant piece in his book “Learning How To Learn” 1979 pp85-88:

One of the keys to human behaviour is the attention-factor.

Anyone can verify that many instances, generally supposed to be important or useful human transactions on any subject (social, commercial, etc.,) are in fact disguised attention-situations.

It is contended that if a person does not know what he is doing (in this case that he is basically demanding, extending or exchanging attention) and as a consequence thinks that he is doing something else (contributing to human knowledge, learning, buying, selling, informing, etc.,) he will:

(a) be more inefficient at both the overt and the covert activity;

(b) have less capacity of planning his behaviour and will make mistakes of emotion and intellect because he considers attention to be other than it is.

If this is true, it is most important that individuals realise:

1. That this attention-factor is operating in virtually all transactions;

2. That the apparent motivation of transactions may be other than it really is. And that it is often generated by the need or desire for attention-activity (giving, receiving, exchanging).

3. That attention-activity, like any other demand for food, warmth, etc., when placed under volitional control, must result in increased scope for the human being who would then not be at the mercy of random sources of attention, or even more confused than usual if things do not pan out as they expect.


1. Too much attention can be bad, (inefficient).

2. Too little attention can be bad.

3. Attention may be ‘hostile’ or ‘friendly’ and still fulfil the appetite for attention. This is confused by the moral aspect.

4. When people need a great deal of attention they are vulnerable to the message which too often accompanies the exercise of attention towards them. E.g., someone wanting attention might be able to get it only from some person or organisation which might thereafter exercise (as ‘its price’) an undue influence upon the attention-starved individual’s mind.

5. Present beliefs have often been inculcated at a time and under circumstances connected with attention-demand, and not arrived at by the method attributed to them.

6. Many paradoxical reversals of opinion, or of associates and commitments may be seen as due to the change in a source of attention.

7. People are almost always stimulated by an offer of attention, since most people are frequently attention-deprived. This is one reason why new friends, or circumstances, for instance, may be preferred to old ones.

8. If people could learn to assuage attention-hunger, they would be in a better position than most present cultures allow them, to attend to other things. They could extend the effectiveness of their learning capacity.

9. Among the things which unstarved people (in the sense of attention) could investigate, is the comparative attraction of ideas, individuals, etc., apart from their purely attention-supplying function.

10. The desire for attention starts at an early stage of infancy. It is, of course, at that point linked with feeding and protection. This is not to say that this desire has no further nor future development value. But it can be adapted beyond its ordinary adult usage of mere satisfaction.

11. Even a cursory survey of human communities shows that, while the random eating tendency, possessiveness and other undifferentiated characteristics are very early trained or diverted-weaned-the attention-factor does not get the same treatment. The consequence is that the adult human being, deprived of any method of handling his desire for attention, continues to be confused by it: as it usually remains primitive throughout life.

12. Very numerous individual observations of human transactions have been made. They show that an interchange between two people always has an attention-factor.

13. Observation shows that people’s desires for attention ebb and flow. When in an ebb or flow of attention-desire, the human being not realising that this is his condition, attributes his actions and feelings to other factors, e.g., the hostility or pleasantness of others. He may even say that it is a ‘lucky day’, when his attention needs have been quickly and adequately met. Re-examination of such situations has shown that such experiences are best accounted for by the attention-theory.

14. Objections based upon the supposed pleasure of attention being strongest when it is randomly achieved do not stand up when carefully examined. ‘I prefer to be surprised by attention’ can be paraphrased by saying, ‘I prefer not to know where my next meal is coming from’. It simply underlines a primitive stage of feeling and thinking on this subject.

15. Situations which seem different when viewed from an oversimplified perspective (which is the usual one) are seen to be the same by the application of attention-theory. e.g.: People following an authority-figure may be exercising the desire for attention or the desire to give it. The interchange between people and their authority-figure may be explained by mutual-attention behaviour. Some gain only attention from this interchange.  Some can gain more.

16. Another confusion is caused by the fact that the object of attention may be a person, a cult, an object, an idea, interest, etc. Because the foci of attention can be so diverse, people in general have not yet identified the common factor-the desire for attention.

17. One of the advantages of this theory is that it allows the human mind to link in a coherent and easily-understood way many things which it has always (wrongly) been taught are very different, not susceptible to comparison, etc. This incorrect training has, of course, impaired the possible efficiency in functioning of the brain, though only culturally, not permanently.

18. The inability to feel when attention is extended, and also to encourage or to prevent its being called forth, makes man almost uniquely vulnerable to being influenced, especially in having ideas implanted in his brain, and being indoctrinated.

19. Raising the emotional pitch is the most primitive method of increasing attention towards the instrument which increased the emotion. It is the prelude to, or accompaniment of, almost every form of indoctrination.

20. Traditional philosophical and other teachings have been used to prescribe exercises in the control and focussing of attention. Their value, however, has been to a great measure lost because the individual exercises, prescribed for people in need of exercise, have been written down and repeated as unique truths and practised in a manner, with people and at a rate and under circumstances which, by their very randomness, have not been able to effect any change in the attention-training- This treatment has, however, produced obsession. It continues to do so.

21. Here and there proverbs and other pieces of literary material indicate that there has been at one time a widespread knowledge of attention on the lines now being described. Deprived, however, of context, these indications survive as fossil indicators rather than being a useful guide to attention-exercise for contemporary man.

Attention upon oneself, or upon a teacher, without the exercise of securing what is being offered from beyond the immediate surroundings, is a sort of short-circuit. As Rumi said: ‘Do not look at me, but take what is in my hand’.

Makes you think!


On AV, Bees, the Delphi Method and Other Voting Systems

For those who know me well, they will know I keep bees. Last week I caught the first swarm of the year in a tree in the local town – which was very satisfying. I also have another blog at In one of my posts on that blog last year I noted the amazing way that bees vote for a new home.  This research even has its own site

Funny thing is that in the UK we have to decide between the current so-called “First Past the Post” system and the “Alternative Voting System”.  Pretty bi-polar.  Pretty bonkers.

What would the bees do?  The scouts would look at many and several voting systems and would (depending on the amount of energy exhibited for each system) come back to the 95% in the swarm and dance the story with a waggle.

It is such a strong idea that a guy called Thomas.D. Seeley actually wrote a book about it last year called “Honeybee Democracy”.

Here is extract from a review:

“In the late spring and early summer, as a bee colony becomes overcrowded, a third of the hive stays behind and rears a new queen, while a swarm of thousands departs with the old queen to produce a daughter colony. Seeley describes how these bees evaluate potential nest sites, advertise their discoveries to one another, engage in open deliberation, choose a final site, and navigate together–as a swirling cloud of bees–to their new home. Seeley investigates how evolution has honed the decision-making methods of honeybees over millions of years, and he considers similarities between the ways that bee swarms and primate brains process information. He concludes that what works well for bees can also work well for people: any decision-making group should consist of individuals with shared interests and mutual respect, a leader’s influence should be minimized, debate should be relied upon, diverse solutions should be sought, and the majority should be counted on for a dependable resolution.”

So I vote for a new kind of democracy based on 50 million years of wisdom!  The trouble is, I don’t think such an option will be on the ballot paper in the UK elections this Thursday!   I am still not sure whether AV is a step in the right direction – but it seems to be closer to the system that the bees have developed than the current First-Past-The-Post system.

If the internet age is going to really impact democracy in a useful way, then the Delphi Method is a much closer match with what the bees do than the currently proposed AV system. Here is an extract from Wikipedia:

The Delphi method (pronounced /ˈdɛlfaɪ/ DEL-fy) is a structured communication technique, originally developed as a systematic, interactive forecasting method which relies on a panel of experts.

In the standard version, the experts answer questionnaires in two or more rounds. After each round, a facilitator provides an anonymous summary of the experts’ forecasts from the previous round as well as the reasons they provided for their judgments. Thus, experts are encouraged to revise their earlier answers in light of the replies of other members of their panel. It is believed that during this process the range of the answers will decrease and the group will converge towards the “correct” answer. Finally, the process is stopped after a pre-defined stop criterion (e.g. number of rounds, achievement of consensus, stability of results) and the mean or median scores of the final rounds determine the results.

Other versions, such as the Policy Delphi, have been designed for normative and explorative use, particularly in the area of social policy and public health. In Europe, more recent web-based experiments have used the Delphi method as a communication technique for interactive decision-making and e-democracy.

The outstanding issue for me is how do we reform democracy quickly and effectively to keep pace with the challenges the planet faces?  The bi-polar choice we have been given in the UK elections avoids the issue of how we reshape the Western democratic system to become much better at decision making.  I would vote for the bees or the Delphi system over any First-Past-The-Post or AV system.  But this Thursday we are not being given that choice!  All of your thoughts gratefully received!


The Trouble with Our Education System

A keen fan of the Royal Society of Art’s Animate series, I saw this yesterday and thought it would make a great Thursday Thought:

A great analysis of the problem – but I wonder what readers think the solutions might be? Please add your comments below!


Writer’s Block, Blooks and Going with the Flow

We have all had it. That frustrating blankness that hits you when you want to write something. Those who know me, know that I have been trying to write a book on bees since 1986. I am not sure if this is worthy of an entry in the Guinness Book of Records – but this work of art has been a long time in the womb!

Coincidentally today, I had an extraordinarily energetic meeting brainstorming out a new marketing strategy for a company. We really got “in the flow”. At the end of the meeting I had to take 5 minutes out just to re-tune to normality. One of the people at the meeting started talking about left-brained and right-brained thinking – and pointed me to the work and theories of Gabriele Rico.  Gabrielle has written a book that has sold over 500,000 copies called “Writing the Natural Way”.

On investigating the theories, I was struck by how similar they are to many of the methods I use in my work.  I use Spider Diagrams or Mind Maps a lot to brainstorm-out ideas – and then clump or cluster them into patterns or blocks of ideas – before finally looking for a natural sequence or flow that works well for the problem set in question.  I really liked Gabriele’s names for the two sides of the brain – “Sign Mind” and “Design Mind“.  Sign mind (left hemisphere) thinks linearly, parts-specifically, logically, one step at a time, while the Design mind (right hemisphere) thinks in whole patterns, drawing on images, emotional webs, sensory patterns, as in a memory that suddenly flashes into consciousness as a complex whole.  So similar to the attributes missing in the Organisational Caetextia article I wrote with Mark Richards last year.

So it got me thinking – why don’t I actually use this very effective technique to help me write the book?  And it made me realise that my my work and other activities at home are so time-consuming that the real issue wasn’t so much writers block, but time deficiency!  Although I have already created the chapters, the themes, the plot, I just need to sit down and write.  But I am not a natural writer.  I prefer telling stories aloud.  I prefer drawing pictures.  Anything but writing.  Gabrielle’s theory says I should be using my right brain (or Design Mind) first – and then start writing…

Actually, this problem is really why I started to blog.  Because I thought: if I write regularly in small chunks about things that interest me, then I hope to overcome this writer’s block that I have.  I set up another blog – http:/ – a few years ago.  And it really does seem to work – this blogging thing.  Little and often is better than being blocked and producing nothing at all.

Which means that I don’t currently plan to finish the book – because by the time I have done everything else, I actually don’t want to find the time to write the book.

I would rather work, play and blog; and go with the flow.  For the moment – anyway.  Than write a massive book.  On bees.  That probably few will read.  And certainly not over 500,000!  The rough numbers that read Gabriele’s book!

In fact I called beelore a “blook” – sort of cross of a book and a blog.  So maybe I havn’t got writer’s block…..I have simply replaced it with a new age, Web 2.0 writer’s blook!


Escaping Flatland Thinking

I came across this short excerpt from the great film “What the Bleep Do We Know?” – in which Dr Quantum visits Flatland.  Makes you think!

And if you enjoyed that, you might enjoy this – which will begin to stretch your brain quite a bit:

And if you are still with me, come with me to the tenth dimension!

And if you are still with it, then you must be thinking: “Aren’t there really 11 dimensions?” – well here we are for a final brain stretcher:

And if you have gotten this far, I’ll next meet you in anti-time with Rob Bryanton!


The Tail that Wagged the Dog

Once upon a time in a land not so far away there lived a Queen. The Queen had ruled for many years in a land that had plentiful supplies of food and fuel. She was a good ruler and let life carry on beneath her.

However, in the last 10 years, times had become hard because the Exchequer had not been managed the country’s finances at all well and the country was at war in a foreign land.

In the past year the First Minister had been replaced with the day-to-day matters of state being handled by two brothers – David and Nicholas. They had put their efforts into a new vision for the country called The Big Idea…..but few really understood what the Big Idea was or how it could be made to happen.

One of the most critical matters of state was the control of information and each of the six Barons – each with their own Baronial Halls were constantly battling each other to control the information to the masses. The six barons were:

House of Hunters – led by Baron Jeremy – who was closely related to the Prince of Com and had a good degree of influence in matters of government
House of Living – nominally led by Baroness Liv – but the real power was with her uncle Baron Stone
House of Virgins – led by Baron Branson who had many interests and many females dressed in long red dresses
House of Skydivers – led by Baron Murdoch – who also owned many newspapers and town criers
House of Oxygen – led by some Spanish guy who had no name and lived far away
House of Chatter – led by Baron Dun of Stone – (but no relation to Baron Stone in the House of Living)

The rules under which these six Houses were controlled was led by one of the Queen’s Princes – The Prince Of Com.

Now the Prince of Com actually had very little power over the barons because the Queen was weak and the barons were strong.


continuation of the story suggested by David Brunnen…..

And, moreover, the country was only just recovering from a plague of rational meerkats who had, over the past ten years, destroyed the infrastructure of the country so that anyone intent on building new foundations for the future found that the ground kept collapsing beneath their feet and that no end of short-term fixes could solve the problem.

Then came the day when the Barons battling over control of information to the masses suddenly found that the citizens were not listening or reading because their old copper connections had collapsed and (to make it worse) the libraries had all closed down.  And the Bossy Barons said ‘We are agrieved – the Prince of Com has been delinquent’.

But Baron Hunter said he had a plan to banish the Prince of Com to outer darkness (or at least beyond the visible spectrum) – but only if all the other barons stopped arguing and pledged their loyalty to the Queen and David & Nicholas’s Big Idea.
And the story might have ended happily right there except that one of the Baron’s underlings (from the Isle of  Mob) got wind of this secret agreement and made headlines.
The people revolted – saying ‘What’s the Big Idea?’ and ‘The government is revolting’ and from that day onwards they all went round and round in circles until someone put up his hand and said ‘Excuse me, but I have a very Small Idea’ and they all stopped to listen.
And, for the first time in ages (well, as far as anyone can now remember) the entire country was very very quiet –
Thanks, Chris, for the next contribution:

until one small boy (whose mother should have kept him in doors) said “Why not build a network ourselves?”

All the councilors in Mordor were horrified.

You could hear their squeaks through middle earth, but the little boy persisted, and soon others started to listen, it was like a fairy tale, but soon the people started to realise it was a dream that could come true when he explained how it would work.

He put it in a pdf so everyone could read about it:

Now the Prince of Com and the House of Hunters were keen on this small boy’s ideas, but many of the Baronial Houses were not so sure as they would lose power to these new upstarts. So they started to develop new strategies so that  they could keep control of their lands in the future.

In the meantime, the small boy decided to go into the countryside and talk to many folk in the land about the opportunities that these new ideas presented.  The small boy, whose name was Lux, was accompanied on these travels by his loyal dog, Fico.

Everywhere that Lux went, his dog, Fico, was sure to follow.

Now, as Lux travelled the land, he  discovered many people had  the same problems.  They were all fed up paying taxes to their barons for little in return and many were becoming very interested in  leaving serfdom to become Free Men and Women – if only they could be brave enough to do it.  Some small villages in the borderlands started to declare independence and the Barons became concerned.  The House of Living – which had tremendous powers over many parts of the land was particularly concerned at the declaration of these new “Free Communities” – and the Prince of Com became ever more worried about the eventual outcome that this new way of thinking would bring.

There was deep unrest in the land.

Thanks to Guy Jarvis, for the following addition to this exciting story!

Much was the talk and grumbling in the digitally deprived communities, known as Notspots, for they had neither bit nor bucket.

The first community to break free from the Baron Telecom’s thrall was an ancient place, settled since Roman times and in all likelihood well before.

Abandoned by Baron T, anyways beyond the reach of his digital dog whistle, the good folks of Ashby de la Launde decided that action was required.

The question was what to do and the answer provided by the Wizards of Witham (South) seemed too good to be true:

“There is a 4th utility enterprise looking to invest in the first community ready to dare to reject the old copper gods and turn towards the light”

And thus became and that is another story.

Baron T fretted lobbyingly about choice and adoptability in the hope that the House of Living and Prince of Com might yet lose faith in the pure glass path and return to the coppery legacy of yore.

The stakes were high and the standoff Mexican until Baron T gained a taste for the FiWiPie and learned to share and that is another story too.

Please add your ideas on how the story continues in the comments block below!


Assange, Argyris and Aristotle

At the end of the week where Julian Assange was locked up and everyone has been commenting on the value (or threat) of Wikileaks, I thought I would reflect on what I see is going on here.

Assange is a deep thinker – perhaps even an Autistic Savant.

In researching the subject I came across a quote which summarises what Assange is trying to do with Wikileaks (from piece of writing (via) (via):

“To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not. Firstly we must understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove. Secondly we must develop a way of thinking about this behavior that is strong enough carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity. Finally must use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling, and effective action.”

Julian Assange, “State and Terrorist Conspiracies”

It struck me that Julian Assange’s reasoning above was very similar to some of the ideas of another great thinker of our time – Chris Argyris.

I often use Argyris’ ideas (particularly single loop and double loop learning) in the work that I do – and I know that they have helped many others in creating effective change over the past fifty or so years.

For those who are interested, there is a good summary of Argyris’ work HERE.

Basically, Argyris outlines two two models – Model I (Single Loop Learning Organisation) and Model II (Double Loop Learning Organisation) to highlight the potential for organisational learning:

The governing Values of Model I (Single Loop Learning) are:

Achieve the purpose as the actor (or boss) defines it

Win, do not lose

Suppress negative feelings

Emphasise rationality

Primary Strategies are:

Control environment and task unilaterally

Protect self and others unilaterally

Usually operationalised by:

Unillustrated attributions and evaluations e.g.. “You seem unmotivated”

Advocating courses of action which discourage inquiry e.g.. “Lets not talk about the past, that’s over.”

Treating ones’ own views as obviously correct

Making covert attributions and evaluations

Face-saving moves such as leaving potentially embarrassing facts unstated

Consequences include:

Defensive relationships

Low freedom of choice

Reduced production of valid information

Little public testing of ideas

Most of the larger organisations that I consult with exhibit many, if not most of these Model I  characteristics and I am sure that most governments around the world are not that much different.  It is not unsurprising, therefore, that the current concerns over the latest Wikileaks are clouded in language that is imprecise and have overtones of Julian Assange being a “traitor” as well as the actions of Wikileaks being seen to be threatening to existing command and control establishments.

Aristotle had a similar set of ideas in his ethics.

He differentiated between technical thinking and practical thinking and the similarities with Argyris and Schön are striking…

In the article (Aristotle’s Etihcs) the two types of thinking are described:

“The former (technical thinking) involves following routines and some sort of preset plan – and is both less risky for the individual and the organization, and affords greater control.

The latter (practical thinking) is more creative and reflexive, and involves consideration notions of the good. Reflection here is more fundamental: the basic assumptions behind ideas or policies are confronted… hypotheses are publicly tested… processes are disconfirmable not self-seeking….”

So, in one sense, the Wikileaks drama is acting-out an age-old problem: How can we rise above the inadequacies of what Aristotle called technical thinking within an organisational system and encourage more “practical (or ethical) thinking”.  This is what Argyris called the attributes of Model I organisations and what Assange calls the aspect(s) of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove”.

Aristotle’s view was that the development of “practical wisdom” cannot be acquired solely by learning general rules.  We must also acquire, through practice, those deliberative, emotional, and social skills that enable us to put our general understanding of well-being into practice in ways that are suitable to each occasion.

Interesting.  Try and explain those ideas to someone with autism…

So enough of the analysis.  What makes an effective learning organisation?

Argyris cites the following attributes for a Model II organisation:

The governing values of Model II (Double Loop Learning) include:

Valid information

Free and informed choice

Internal commitment

Strategies include:

Sharing control

Participation in design and implementation of action

Operationalised by:

Attribution and evaluation illustrated with relatively directly observable data

Surfacing conflicting view

Encouraging public testing of evaluations

Consequences should include:

Minimally defensive relationships

High freedom of choice

Increased likelihood of double-loop learning

Which brings us back to Julian Assange and Wikileaks.  It is clear, for me, that Assange’s has developed a reasoned approach to changing the attributes of what might be called Big Government and Big Business.  The main question for me, is, could he be more effective?  Has he created his own Model I organisation to effect the changes he outlines he wants to achieve?  Or is Wikileaks a new model II organisation for journalism that uses the internet to help change the belief  system of the organisations that information is leaked about?

Argyris & Schön (Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1978) Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley) say that change only comes through a collaboration between the change agent or interventionist and the Model 1 organisation.  They suggests moving through six phases of work:

Phase 1 Mapping the problem as clients see it. This includes the factors and relationships that define the problem, and the relationship with the living systems of the organisation.
Phase 2 The internalization of the map by clients. Through inquiry and confrontation the interventionists work with clients to develop a map for which clients can accept responsibility. However, it also needs to be comprehensive.
Phase 3 Test the model. This involves looking at what ‘testable predictions’ can be derived from the map – and looking to practice and history to see if the predictions stand up. If they do not, the map has to be modified.
Phase 4 Invent solutions to the problem and simulate them to explore their possible impact.
Phase 5 Produce the intervention.
Phase 6 Study the impact. This allows for the correction of errors as well as generating knowledge for future designs. If things work well under the conditions specified by the model, then the map is not disconfirmed.


Given that most of the work that I do is, in one way or another, trying to deliver  effective (and collaborative) change, I wonder whether the latest developments in the Wikileaks drama will become the most effective way to use modern internet technology to bring about the changes so vitally needed in this world to challenge the corruption, waste and continuation of so many Model I organisations…..

…….or whether there is another, better, more effective internet-based Type II model which creates a collaboration between the change agents and the Model I organisations to make the change happen more quickly and effectively….

I suppose only time (and more thinking and action) will tell……

Makes you think, anyway!


Why do some organisations drive us totally bonkers?

Most of us can relate to examples of when customer service organisations have driven us completely bonkers: being passed off to another department that does not answer your call and drops you into a black hole; getting through to an Indian call centre that has not a clue how to address your problem; orders placed and fulfilled incorrectly……the list is endless.

With the so-called customer relationship being such a fundamental component to the success of any business, why do companies behave in such a maddening way? The answer may well lie in some interesting new research from psychology. It describes a model that helps to diagnose the roots of certain common mental health problems but can also be extended to help us understand some of the more general dysfunctions that we see within organisations.

The New Psychology of Caetextia (or Context Blindness)

Recent psychological research in the UK has come up with a new model for us to understand better what is going on with people suffering from a range of mental health conditions such as Asbergers’ syndrome, Autism and schizophrenia. In summary, these symptoms are best expressed by the inability of people to switch easily between several foci of attention – and to track them against the history and context that relates to them. This new line of research has been called ‘caetextia’ by the researchers: coming from the two Latin words caecus, (meaning ‘blind’) and contextus, (meaning ‘context’). Further details can be found at

It would appear that organisations can also demonstrate the symptoms of caetextia (or context-blindness). Organisational Caetextia (or OC as we will call it from now on) can help us understand why some organisations exhibit a sort of madness when dealing with their customers and employees – yet give us a clue as to why they remain blind to the significant consequences of acting in such a crazy way.

In cases of caetextia in individuals, the new research has uncovered two types of context blindness – and OC can also be observed in two distinct types of dysfunctional behaviour. Before we look at these two types, though, it is worth looking in more detail at the part of the brain that allows us to process context.

Parallel Processing in the Human Brain

In order for us to have context, we need to be able to see events from different points of view. Recent research into how the brain works has revealed that all mammals have a part of the brain that can process masses of information at the same time – similar to the new ways that we configure parallel processing in computers. This part of the brain developed millions of years ago to guage the risks associated by processing multiple streams of information and unconsciously comparing them to previous experiences. This is something we take for granted today, but millons of years ago it was the key to any mammal’s survival and conserve energy by not reacting to every stimulus that came along.

The research has concluded that this parallel processing part of the brain can become impaired – and this is particularly prevalent in people who demonstrate symptoms on the autistic spectrum. In such cases the brain cannot do the parallel processing necessary to keep separate streams of attention, switching effortlessly between each of them to assess their relevance to what is actually happening in the here-and-now. This form of parallel processing requires the brain to dissociate: in other words to be able to to review what it knows about something that it has come across before, whilst also paying attention to that something in the present. It is no wonder that such people often suffer from learning difficulties!

Two types of Organisational Caetextia (OC)

The research has also uncovered two types of Caetextia: front-of-brain or straight-line thinking blindness and back-of-brain random association blindness. What is interesting is that these types of caetextia can also be applied to organisations and can help us understand why some organisations are so disconnected.

The first type can be called “Process OC”. This is where an organisation processes work in logical straight lines without taking into account the wider organisational implications of doing so. This type of OC is fixated in the front of the brain. Examples might be a call centre agent who does not know which person or department to hand-off someone to and simply puts them into a telephone black hole. Another example might be an agent who says “I am really sorry that this has happened to you, I will get someone to ring you back” – and they never do.

Organisational Caetextia of the process type tends to happen lower-down organisatons (for instance someone in the back-office saying: “that’s not my job, I only process this type of transaction”. Front line workers will often be encouraged to adopt to this type of thinking with phrases such as “You are not paid to think. Just do what I say”. This dysfunctionality is exacerbated by outsourcing arrangements where the supplier organisation fulfills its minimum service level obligations and is very much driven by the mantra “if it is not in the contract, then I can do it, but it will cost you more”.

The second type “Informational OC” tends to be found higher-up in organisations. This type of OC is based in the back of the brain. The symptoms of this type of organisational madness is driven by managers and “leaders” defining a whole world of information they need to run the business that is of very litle value other than to those managers holding their jobs down or playing the politics of the given day. Often the amount of information needed expands without any understanding on the cost associated with gathering it. The information is then dressed up as targets to “motivate” those lower down the organisation to stretch themselves to meet those targets and get a bonus. Vast parts of the organisation chase numbers that have no bearing on the reality of what is actually happening to customers on a day-to-day basis.

In times of stress, the information will often be used to create random associations between the data sets, coming to rapid conclusions to reinforce otherwise illogical assumptions and then finding it rather difficult to justify their decisions after the event. The whole saga of justifying Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq is a good example of this. Organisations also use such pools of information to get rid of people lower down in the organisation who are not “conforming”… even if the data bears no resemblence to reality and the people are doing valuable work with customers.


Successful organisations use back-brain (information = innovation) with front-brain (process = delivery) in a combination that drives continuous improvement. A well-known example of this is Google who allow each employee to spend 20% of their time on their own projects.

In less successful organisations, these two frameworks of OC might be useful in alerting organisations, managers and employees or service workers to the madness that is around them – and perhaps give them a perspective to stop some of the maddening things they are doing to their customers and suppliers at the moment!


More on the basic and ongoing research at Mindfields College (now Human Givens College) at:

The main ideas in this article were first published with Mark Richards (ex:pw consulting) in an article for the CRM evaluation centre.