Leandro Herrero – “The best contribution that Neurosciences can make to Management and Leadership is to leave the room”

A while back I reviewed I Know What You’re Thinking: Brain Imaging and Mental Privacy in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, and discussed a couple of studies which illustrate the dangers of what could best be called neuro-fetishism:

In 2010, Dartmouth University neuroscientist Craig Bennett and his colleagues subjected an experimental subject to functional magnetic resonance imaging. The subject was shown ‘a series of photographs with human individuals in social situations with a specified emotional valence, either socially inclusive or socially exclusive’. The subject was asked to determine which emotion the individual in the photographs were experiencing. The subject was found to have engaged in perspective-taking at p<0.001 level of significance. This is perhaps surprising, as the subject was a dead salmon.

In 2007, Colorado State University’s McCabe and Castel published research indicating that undergraduates, presented with brief articles summarising fictional neuroscience research (and which made claims unsupported by the fictional evidence presented) rated articles that were illustrated by brain imaging as more scientifically credible than those illustrated by bar graphs, a topographical map of brain activation, or no image at all. Taken with the Bennett paper, this illustrates one of the perils of neuroimaging research, especially when it enters the wider media; the social credibility is high, despite the methodological challenges.

I am becoming quite addicted to Leandro Herrero’s Daily Thoughts and here is another. One could not accuse Herrero of pulling his punches here:

I have talked a lot in the past about the Neurobabble Fallacy. I know this makes many people uncomfortable. I have friends and family in the Neuro-something business. There is neuro-marketing, neuro-leadership and neuro-lots-of-things. Some of that stuff is legitimate. For example, understanding how cognitive systems react to signals and applying this to advertising. If you want to call that neuro-marketing, so be it. But beyond those prosaic aims, there is a whole industry of neuro-anything that aggressively attempts to legitimize itself by bringing in pop-neurosciences to dinner every day.

In case anyone doubts his credentials:

Do I have any qualifications to have an opinion on these bridges too far? In my previous professional life I was a clinical psychiatrist with special interest in psychopharmacology. I used to teach that stuff in the University. I then did a few years in R&D in pharmaceuticals. I then left those territories to run our Organizational Architecture company, The Chalfont Project. I have some ideas about brains, and some about leadership and organizations. I insist, let both sides have a good cup of tea together, but when the cup of tea is done, go back to work to your separate offices.

It is ironic that otherwise hard-headed sceptics tend to be transfixed by anything “neuro-” – and Leandro Herrero’s trenchant words are just what the world of neurobabble needs. In these days of occasionally blind celebration of trans-, multi- and poly- disciplinary approaches, the “separate offices” one is bracingly counter-cultural…

#OceanOptimism, powerlessness, hope, and change.

The current BBC Wildlife Magazine has a fascinating article by Elin Kelsey, of the Ocean Optimism Project, on how media-fuelled environmental despair and nihilism ends up demoralising people to the degree that positive action seems impossible. She cites much research on the “finite pool of worry” and the paralysing effect of despair, and the power optimism to reverse this trend. The article isn’t available online, but in the post below from my other blog I highlight relevant passages from a Kelsey piece in Smithsonian Magazine on similar themes.

This article is obviously focused on ecology, but is all too true of our healthcare systems. For similar reasons to those Kelsey ascribes to environmentalists who are wary of being overly focused on good news, frontline workers in the health service naturally tend to focus on what is wrong, what is proving impossible, what needs to change. This is necessary, but can become an overwhelming counsel of nihilism, fostering cynicism and very often helping to entrench negative practices.

This is very relevant to the various themes on valuesmorale, “blame culture”, and possibility of positive change within not only the HSE but any healthcare organisation.

Séamus Sweeney

The current issue of BBC Wildlife Magazinehas a fascinating cover story by Elin Kelseyon hope and optimism versus despair in how we think about they environment. Essentially, much media discourse on the environment tends to be gloomy, doom, and generally despairing. Kelsey cites a wide range of research on how this negativity effects how we think about the environment and our beliefs about what can be done – and therefore what is done – to improve things. The full article is not available online. This article from Smithsonian Magazine is briefer, but captures her idea:

Things are far more resilient than I ever imagined. Me, green sea turtles, coral reefs blown to bits by atomic bombs. In a twist of fate that even surprised scientists, Bikini Atoll, site of one of the world’s biggest nuclear explosions, is now a scuba diver’s paradise. Bikini Atoll located in the Pacific’s…

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Hype, The Life Study and trying to do too much

A while back I reviewed Helen Pearson’s, “The Life Project” in the TLS. I had previously blogged on the perils of trying to do too much and mission creep and overload.

From the original draft of the review (published version differed slightly):

Pearson is laudably clear that the story of the birth cohorts is also a study of failure; the failure of the NHS to improve the inequality of health incomes between social classes, the failure of educational reforms and re-reforms to broach the similar academic achievement gap. Indeed, the book culminates in a failure which introduces a darker tone to the story of the birth cohort studies.

Launched in January 2015, the Life Study was supposed to follow 80,000 babies born in 2015 and intended to be a birth cohort for the “Olympic Children.” It had a government patron in David Willetts, who departure from politics in May 2015 perhaps set the stage for its collapse. Overstuffed antenatal clinics and a lack of health visitors meant that the Life Study’s participants would have to self-select. The optimistic scenario has 16,000 women signing up in the first eighteen months; in the first six months, 249 women did. By October 2015, just as Pearson was completing five years of work on this book, the study had officially been abandoned.

Along with the cancellation of the National Institute for Health’s National Children’s Study in December 2014, this made it clear that birth cohorts have been victims of their own success. An understandable tendency to include as much potentially useful information as possible seemed to have created massive, and ultimately unworkable cohorts. The Life Study would have generated vast data sets: “80,000 babies, warehouses of stool samples of placentas, gigabytes of video clips, several hundred thousand questionnaires and much more” (the history of the 1982 study repeated itself, perhaps.) Then there is the recruitment issue. Pregnant women volunteering for the Life Study would “travel to special recruitment centres set up for the study and then spend two hours there, answering questions and giving their samples of urine and blood.” Perhaps the surprise is that 249 pregnant women actually did volunteer for this.

Pearson’s book illustrates how tempting mission creep is. She recounts how birth cohorts went from obscure beginnings to official neglect with perpetual funding issues to suddenly becoming a crown jewel of British research. Indeed, as I observe in the review, while relatively few countries  have emulated the NHS’ structure and funding model, very many have tried to get on the birth cohort train.

This situation of an understandable enthusiasm and sudden fascination has parallels across health services and research. It is particularly a risk in eHealth and connected health, especially as the systems are inherently complex, and there is a great deal of fashionability to using technology more effectively in healthcare. It is one of those mom-and-apple-pie things, a god term, that can shut down critical thinking at times.

Megaprojects are seductive also in an age where the politics of funding research loom large. The big, “transformative” projects can squeeze out the less ambitious, less hype-y, more human-scale approaches. It can be another version of the Big Man theory of leadership.

Whatever we do, it is made up of a collection of tiny, often implicit actions, attitudes, near-reflexes, and is embedded in some kind of system beyond ourselves that is ultimately made up of other people performing and enacting a collection of tiny, often implicit actions, attitudes, and near-reflexes.


Review of “Casebook of Psychosomatic Medicine”, Bourgeois et al, IJPM 2011

The above review from the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine follows on from my review of The Physician As Patient in the same journal. Both books were excellently written, and as time has gone by I appreciate their approach more deeply. As I say in the first paragraph, evidence based medicine and what could be called experience based medicine are often driven into a false dichotomy. Both these books possess wisdom in abundance, and wisdom based medicine is perhaps what we should all be aspiring to practice.  

Leandro Herrero: “A team is not a meeting”


Another wonderful reflection from Leandro Herrero, this time I am being more selective in my quoting…:


One of the most toxic practices in organisational life is equating ‘team’ and ‘team meeting’. You could start a true transformation by simply splitting them as far apart as you can and by switching on the team permanently. In a perfect team, ‘stuff happens’ all the time without the need to meet. Try the disruptive idea ‘Team 365’ to start a small revolution.

In our minds, the idea that teams are something to do with meetings is well embedded. And indeed, teams do meet… But ‘the meeting’ has become synonymous with ‘the team’. Think of the language we often use. If there is an issue or something that requires a decision and this is discussed amongst people who belong to a team, we often hear things such as, “let’s bring it to the team”. In fact, what people mean really is, “let’s bring it to the meeting. Put it on the agenda.” By default, we have progressively concentrated most of the ‘team time’ in ‘meeting time’. The conceptual borders of these two very different things have become blurred. We have created a culture where team equals meetings equals team. And this is disastrous.

As a consequence of the mental model and practice that reads ‘teams = meeting = teams’, the team member merely becomes an event traveller (from a few doors down or another country?). These team travellers bring packaged information, all prepared for the disclosure or discussion at ‘the event’.

Leandro Herrero: “An enlightened top leadership is sometimes a fantastic alibi for a non-enlightened management to do whatever they want”

From Leandro Herrero’s  website, a “Daily Thought” which I am going to take the liberty of quoting in full:

Nothing is more rewarding than having a CEO who says world-changing things in the news, and who produces bold, enlightened and progressive quotes for all admirers to be. That organization is lucky to have one of these. The logic says that all those enlightened statements about trust, empowerment, humanity and purpose, will be percolated down the system, and will inform and shape behaviours in the milfeulle of management layers below.

I take a view, observed many times, that this is wishful thinking. In fact, quite the opposite, I have seen more than once how management below devolves all greatness to the top, happily, whilst ignoring it and playing games in very opposite directions. Having the very good and clever and enlightened people at the top is a relief for them. They don’t have to pretend that they are as well, so they can exercise their ‘practical power’ with more freedom. That enlightened department is covered in the system, and the corporate showcase guaranteed.

The distance between the top and the next layer down may not be great in organizational chart terms, yet the top may not have a clue that there is a behavioural fabric mismatch just a few centimeters down in the organization chat.

I used to think years ago, when I was older, that a front page top notch leader stressing human values provided a safe shelter against inhuman values for his/her organization below. I am not so sure today. In fact, my alarm bell system goes mad when I see too much charismatic, purpose driven, top leadership talk. I simply smell lots of alibis below. And I often find them. After all, there is usually no much room for many Good Cops

Yet, I very much welcome the headline grabbing by powerful business people who stress human values, and purpose, and a quest for a decent world. The alternative would be sad. I don’t want them to stop that. But let’s not fool ourselves about how much of that truly represents their organizations. In many cases it represents them.

I guess it all goes back, again, to the grossly overrated Role Model Power attributed to the leadership of organizations, a relic of traditional thinking, well linked to the Big Man Theory of history. Years of Edelman’s Trust Barometer, never attributing the CEO more than 30% of the trust stock in the organization, have not convinced people that the ‘looking up’ is just a small part of the story. What happens in organizations has a far more powerful ‘looking sideways’ traction: manager to manager, employee to employee. Lots of ritualistic dis-empowering management practices can site very nicely under the umbrella of a high empowerment narrative at the top, and nobody would care much. The top floor music and the music coming from the floor below, and below, are parallel universes.

Traditional management and MBA thinking has told us that if this is the case, the dysfunctionality of the system will force it to break down. My view is the opposite. The system survives nicely under those contradictions. In fact it needs them.


I found this reflection, especially the final three paragraphs, particularly striking. Health care organisations are getting better and better at talking the talk at the highest levels about empowerment and respect and [insert Good Thing here] – but how much that really has an impact on the daily management practices that are the day to day reality of working within that organisation?

I also like the scepticism about Role Model Power of the Big Man (or Woman) on top. Dr Herrero, described on his Twitter as an “organisational architect”, clearly has a healthy view of the reality that underlies much rhetoric. I look forward to the HSE’s Values in Action project which is very much following the lines of his work.